A Book Review
Rev Robert McClelland is a retired Presbyterian minister and although I have never been to his church I met him while my wife and I were exhibiting at an art show in St. Louis, Missouri. McClelland is also an artist who is very accomplished with watercolor. He was exhibiting across from us and in the course of the weekend I struck up a conversation with him and discovered we have some things in common. Most important to him was my interest in theology. On two different occasions I had long conversations with him.
Here are a couple observation I have about Rev McClelland that will make the discussion of his book more relevant. The first is revealed in the title. “Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up...”. This line comes from a TV game show that featured a panel of four celebrities whose object is the correctly identification of a mystery guest. The climax of each episode was when the host would say, “Will the real (fill in a name) please stand up”. The show's hay-day was 1956 to 1968 although it was in sporadic syndication for several more years.
The reference to the show reveals something about McClelland. It refers to a time when America was at the zenith of its power. A time when the big bright Protestant church on Main Street was the center of public ethics, morality, and political behavior. A mid-century left center Liberalism stood for the reasonable role of big government and was a bulwark against the extremism of national socialism and communism. The Church assumed the role of mediator between God, individuals, and institutions helping steer a middle road course that promoted stability.
Of course today that world is nearly gone. The Church is still on Main Street but it is now a fortress on the fringes because the town center has moved. Snarling party bosses snap at the faithful driving them this way and then that way as the political and social winds change directions. The clergy struggles to maintain their flock as the hounds of secularism try to drag believers into apathy and scientific atheism. Liberalism has been co-opted by the neo-Marxist Left and old fashion Liberals are caught in a downdraft of situational ethics; the establishment Church wrestling with their own dogma.
McClelland still has a memory of the past and has seen the changes wash over society while trying to cling to the vision of the shining Church on the town square. But he knows that is no longer a viable model. It is evaporating like spilled gasoline on the driveway.
Art and Remembering
The second thing about the author that helps fill out his background is that he is an artist. His watercolors are executed in an American impressionist style. He says they are just little paintings of landscapes or children. Yet they are more complicated than that. When we examine his choice of subject matter and placement of elements we can see there is a deeper meaning in his representations.
Like the post-Reformation Vanitas painters Frans Snyder or Harmen Stennwyck artist Robert McClelland secretes symbolism from his work that is not easily identified by the public except in unconscious cues. The Vanitas artist would include symbolic objects to convey religious messages about the transience of earthly life or other Christian themes. When I asked him about his predilections he would say something like “Well I don't know about that...” then edges the conversation in another direction without issuing a denial.
This is typical of the Protestant worldview which is uncomfortable with art particularly the unconscious, the symbolic, and the spooky. There is a penchant for avoiding this area of the mind and a wise old pastor knows not to stray outside the boundaries or face scrutiny. However when I brought up the subject he seemed quite delighted at the prospect of someone noticing his clandestine operations.
He will paint the image of a boy leaning on a fence gazing off in the distance. A vast question hangs over the painting as the boy ponders the barriers put in front of him. In the painting “Evensong” that I have used as an illustration the image has several meanings. Two sheep seem to mill aimlessly around a stone wall, one in light one in shadow. A leafless tree stands on one side of them, light gushing through an opening in the wall on the other side. The background is generic. The old Christian symbol of the Good Shepherd comes to mind. Two sheep being tended by Christ. But here the sheep are alone, Christ the shepherd is missing. The barren tree is the medieval symbol of death and the opening in the wall a symbol of life and resurrection. This landscape puts me in mind of von Ruisdael among others.
When confronted with my interpretation, McClelland says it is just a landscape of Scotland and then says “Well....” his voice trails off. I told him that I thought his unconscious mind was oozing all over the painting. He wouldn't deny it. This is a key element of his work both in painting and in writing. He is exhibiting the Jungian phenomena of allowing the unconscious mind to enter the dialog he is having with the rest of the world. What I have called an appeal to vestigial reality to manifest from the lyrical mind.
Writing on the Canvas
McClelland's propensity for hidden meaning spills over into his writing. It makes the composition lively and thought provoking. At times he may be giving us conflicting views in order to make a point invoking cognitive dissonance as a tool. There are also genuine sparks of genius mixed in the text.
The subtitle of the book “A Skeptical Believer's Guide to the Reality of Christ” comes into play in the first part of the book. He tries to put the skeptic and non-believer's opinion superimposed over his own views. This device in some cases seems to be a bit under cooked.
He writes about the Virgin Birth giving us several questionable historical rumors that seem to disprove it. Then he sums up that the circumstances concerning the birth of Jesus are really irrelevant. It is the Resurrection that is important. I see his point but think he does not shade in the contrast with enough vigor to make the tension go anywhere.
The same can be said for his explanation for the conflicting views expressed in the first books of the New Testament. Here he does a better job of being the simultaneous skeptic and believer. Nonetheless, we could get confused when he brings up arcane topics like the interpolation (deliberate changes or distortions) in Mark where an ending to the Gospel is inserted by an unseen hand. When asked about this he explained that he and other scholars believes the Gospel ended with Mark 8 and later an extension was inserted thereby protecting the early disciples from Roman persecution under Emperor Nero. Rev McClelland says, “...their destiny does not lie in Nero's hands but in Christ's hands.” The issue of interpolation is left open. However, his treatment of the departures between the four Gospels and Paul's contribution are generally helpful and less controversial.
His insights into the interactions of Jesus and his disciples are vivid and useable. Ultimately we have ordinary people like ourselves trying to explain an event that has no precedent in history. The appearance of Christ is a huge flash of light from out of nowhere and mortal men and women are struggling to make sense of it.
In chapter four McClelland attempts to recast the Old Testament (OT). He uses a number of literary devices in this effort. He continues to imagine that he is putting skepticism and belief into a third party who is the audience for his speculations. Then he overlays the use of a new fable to retell the story of the Old Testament in contemporary terms.
The new story takes material from the Old Testament and spins a dream-like tale of how God (a vain artist) created the Universe including Mankind and gets it wrong and becomes angry and wrathful then redeemed himself and us through reconciliation. It is an ambitious storyline to say the least.
The recast of the OT story has an eerie resemblance to the pre-Nicene (early Christian) Valentinus story that is analogous with the OT. In this Christian storyline a self absorbed Sophia believes that her Wisdom alone can create a new world. When Sophia discovers creation is more difficult than she supposes her frustrated anger promotes a disciple, Laldabaoth, to rule over her botched creation. Laldabaoth's inherits Sophia's wrath and confusion (achamoth) which he uses as the Law. Ultimately the Most High God must step in and send a redeemer, Christos, to bring balance back to our world and offer Mankind a way out of Sophia's error.
Sophia is Wisdom without the compassion and in effect Laldabaoth is the God of the OT. I would not have put McClelland together with the Valentinian story if it were not for on page 35 he references the Gospel of Thomas, another early Christian work associated with the ideas of Valentinus and the so-called Gnostics. While reading the book I wondered if this is another example of McClelland's unconscious mind at work attempting to expand Protestant thinking. After reading the book I asked him about Thomas and he told me, “I studied the (Nag Hammadi) literature at Harvard and teach courses on it. In many ways I am trying in the book to accommodate some of the contributions which the Gnostics have to make to the Church's understanding of the Faith.”
In chapter five he transitions into the heart of the book that emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit and the celebration of Pentecost. Two elements that are often curbed in Christian thinking. McClelland is really asking some fundamental questions about the future of Christendom. He may be proposing a reorientation of thinking from Faith and Works to Grace and Knowing. Knowledge of the Holy Spirit in our life will lead to a deeper understanding of God's Grace. The rest of Christ's plan will naturally flow from there.
The Open Door
L A Marzulli has said if you take all the mysticism, supernatural, and para-normal out of the Bible you are left with genealogy and a few battle scenes. This is hyperbole but he has a valid point. McClelland's emphasis on the Holy Spirit as the mysticism of direct Knowing may be solid Christian pneumatology but unwanted advice to the Church establishment.
In the book, A New Model of the Universe, originally published (1917) in Russian by Christian mystic Peter Demianovich Ouspensky, the author writes that artists have a special and valid form of knowing that is distinct from other forms of understanding but just as valid. I think this applies to Rev McClelland. He sketches in some speculative theology here, colors a little doctrinal reform over there, and maybe a few strokes of gnosticism in the background thus turning a simple watercolor landscape into a challenging symbolist painting. This sets his writing apart from the average lighthearted retired pastor book.
In our search for the “the Real Jesus” McClelland guides us in and out of a dreamscape where Scripture is infused with the Nag Hammadi books and his desire to make it resonate with us on a new level. It has the mysterious feel of a gnostic apocryphon. Sometimes I think he is talking to his peers in the clergy, however, that didn't bother me. All in all it is a worthwhile read.
Illustration above: "Evensong", 18" x 24", watercolor on paper, Robert McClelland. (reproduced with permission)
Illustration above: "Evensong", 18" x 24", watercolor on paper, Robert McClelland. (reproduced with permission)
About the author: Rev. McClelland is an ordained Presbyterian pastor (retired) who is the author of some 20 books. He has studied theology in Chicago, Edinburgh, Harvard, and earned a doctorate at San Francisco Theological Seminary. He and his wife reside in the St. Louis, Missouri area.
D S Reif