Thursday, February 18, 2010

Dinner with a Perfect Stranger

Dinner with a Perfect Stranger: An Invitation Worth Considering
© 2005 David Gregory
100 pages


 When  Nick Cominsky received a personalized dinner invitation from Jesus of Nazareth, self-proclaimed Deity Extraordinaire, he was more than a little dubious. Obviously, his friends have concocted yet another wild joke. Since springing their trap is more interesting than helping his wife tend to their 20-month old, Nick drops in by the appropriate Italian restaurant on his way home to see what his friends have planned for him. The reservation is valid, but Nick is surprised: he is met not by the robed hippie he might expect from a joke, but by a disappointly conformist fellow in a stylish blue suit.

"Nick Cominksy," he said. "Hi. Jesus."
In retrospect, a thousand comebacks were possible -- "Jesus H. Christ! So good to finally meet you!" ...."Are twelve of our party missing?"...."I didn't know they buried you in a suit."
The absurdity of the scene, though, stunned me into silence. What do you say to that?

Although startled by the man's matter-of-fact demeanor, Nick decides to humor him. The longer their initial conversation goes on, however, the more uncomfortable Nick becomes. "Jesus" makes no attempt to convince Nick that he is in fact Yeshua bar Joseph of Nazareth. He does no miracles, yet stands by his claim. He is as gentle and unassuming as the "prince of peace" might be. Intrigued, Nick agrees to humor the man further: he'll suspend his disbelief and they'll work from there. In return for a dinner of conversation, "Jesus" will tell Nick who set up the evening in the first place.

What develops from here on out is a thinly veiled author tract. The storied setup lingers for a while longer, but slowly and surely Nick becomes a character in a Chick tract. The tract begins as Jesus and Nick discuss religion as a means of making sense of life. Jesus delivers a spiel on various religions in turn -- Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. Armed with memories from a comparative religion class, Nick holds his own briefly before being subdued into silence by the fact that his debating partner has come to the table much more prepared than he. Jesus -- by which I mean author David Gregory -- makes a distinction between something working and something being true. In his eyes,  if something is not completely true, it will cease to function at some point. His approach to analyzing other religions is whole-cloth: there's no chance of dividing effective practices (meditation or yoga, say) from  the religious context that they are associated with.

Gregory -- speaking through Jesus -- develops the conversation in such a way that religions other than Christianity are proven to be unteneable. Religion itself is untenable, for --  Gregory-Jesus says -- there is no path to God. Humanity is damned. Its own efforts to reunite with God are pointless, for there is no way to earn the forgiveness of God. It can only be accepted, and that by accepting the fact that Jesus -- God -- took on the price of humanity's  sin.  Nick has no reply: his Chickification has increased at a steady pace throughout the book,  his character become a thoughtful-looking strawman. He is saved only from 2-D damnation by the fact that he hasn't quite converted by book's end.

I was somewhat disappointed in the book. I read it knowing that it was a work of Christian evangelicalism, and the strength of its opening portions was encouraging. What started as an interesting exercise in apologetics -- and thus for me, counter-apologetics -- quickly became rather shallow. Gregory does do a good job of making Christianity appear to be superficially cohesive, and I would have loved a book that continued to challenge me by giving that facade depth of substance and thus a strong case. Instead, Nick becomes a sock puppet and Jesus/Gregory looks weak for taking advatange of the situation: the author is reduced so far as to bring out the old "Lord, Lunatic, or Liar" tack. The book will probably be well-received by Christians, and I can imagine it working on a Nick-like  person who's not prepared for its arguments. Nonchristians  who are prepared might profit by reading the book, if only to give their brains a brief workout. I enjoyed it at the beginning -- it's a pity the conversation became one-sided so quickly.

As an end-note: this book may have worked better with Paul as the inviter. He is, after all, the inventor of the Christian narrative as we know it : he's the man you can thank for making the doctrine of original sin a cornerstone of Christianity. Bible-Jesus never really elaborated on what "believing in me" meant, beyond renouncing worldly goods, following the Torah, and committing to a kind of agape love.

2 comments:

  1. Your religious past offers you a much better standing where this book is concerned. For me, it was just a clever idea, though not a new one. I agree that it starts out strong, with Nick being such a skeptic. I wish he'd stayed so, rather than giving up so easily. Other than the general sentiments being expressed are nearly opposite what I believe personally, I would have had more appreciation had it been more intelligently written.

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  2. Jesus starts out interesting, but then he just starts bringing out tired cliches that would only work on a mentally unready potential mark or a Chick tract character.

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