Listening For God
Stephen Mitchell first gained a measure of popular attention in 1991 owing to the controversy over his book The Gospel According to Jesus, an ambitious and deceptively contentious translation of and commentary on what Mitchell deemed the "authentic" teachings of Jesus. It scandalized fundamentalists and academics alike--by stripping away many New Testament passages (which Mitchell, following numerous Biblical scholars, ascribed to later authors), and by placing the figure of Jesus in the tradition of great eastern teachers.
By that time, Mitchell had already published 14 books, most of them translations of poetry (chiefly Rilke) and of major religious texts (The Book of Job, the Tao Te Ching). An eclectic and well-read Buddhist, he's been called one of the greatest translators of his generation, but that aspect of his work has always been the means to an end for Mitchell. The animating force behind most of his books is a voracious curiosity about the common threads connecting the world's great spiritual traditions. His latest book, Genesis, is yet another new Biblical translation, which arose from his participation in a Bill Moyers PBS series. Last week I spoke to him on the phone at his Sonoma, California, home.
City Pages: Why and how did you become a translator in the first place?
Stephen Mitchell: Well, it's a long story, but I'll tell you the outlines of it. When I was 22, I was at Yale graduate school, and my first love affair ended quite painfully. I couldn't find a way to come to terms with the pain in my heart. I found myself over the next year or so gravitating to the Book of Job with a magnetic intensity. I felt that there was some deep spiritual experience at the core of the Voice from the Whirlwind's answer to Job--that there was something absolutely genuine about that that I was hungry to understand. I felt that somehow if I could understand what kind of answer the Voice from the Whirlwind had given Job, then I would have a way of dealing with the pain in my own heart.
And so that led me to immerse myself in it in English and then to learn Hebrew so that I could get even closer to it. And eventually, once I was committed to the project, I discovered that I'd have to learn textual scholarship and a few other Near Eastern languages and a whole slew of things that I had no idea I'd have to do. But I was already committed to the project. And so this continued for six years, at the end of which I had gotten very close to a music that satisfied me a lot. The aesthetic part of the project was to recreate the music of the Hebrew verse in English, which had never been done.
But the answer still was a mystery to me, and at the end of six years--this was already 1973--I realized that I wasn't going to get it from words on the page, even the most magnificent and profound words, and that I would have to seek the answer in the flesh. And so I began to study Hindi, and I was going to go to India and try to get a teacher. And on the way, I bumped into a Zen master, and I saw the answer in his eyes. A year later, after a year of incredibly intense practice, I found myself in the center of that whirlwind.
This is all part of a much longer story, but actually it was--it didn't have to do with wanting to be a translator, but being hungry for that spiritual experience at the core of Job, and I felt that if I didn't understand, I was just going to strangle. It was that intense.
CP: You write at one point in the introduction to Genesis that the stories "have much to teach us about the soul but little to teach us about what the soul longs for." Can you elaborate on that distinction?
Mitchell: I could have said nothing to teach us about what the soul longs for, and that would have been fair, I think. Although there's a hint of it in the Joseph story. These stories are not about God. They're about conflict and suffering and the muck and trouble of the soul in its growth.
I have a friend who's a Zen teacher and writing a book about a distinction that I think maybe [psychologist James] Hillman makes, between soul and spirit. It's a useful distinction: The spirit is that part of us that longs for wisdom and light and whose path is upward. The soul is that part of us which wants to get immersed in mud and conflict and pain as a way of transforming itself. As a kind of grounding in the things of this world and human relations. It's not a monkish part of us. It's a very gutsy part. In terms of that distinction, these are really soul stories. The only hint that we get of spirit is in the kind of transformation that Joseph undergoes, which is through the darkness, through the pit and the mud and the suffering of slavery, toward and into a kind of character who is transparent in the end: transparent in the sense of letting the light of God shine through him, and forgiving terrible acts on the part of his brother. That's some of what's at issue anyway.
CP: You give a very different reading to the garden story--as a metaphor for the development of one's psyche through the course of a lifetime. It struck me how much less punitive that is than the traditional reading.
Mitchell: This story presses everybody's buttons. Not everybody's, but of the people that I have read to, many, many people have found it a very difficult and troubling story. When I've read it, even to a group made up mostly of Buddhists, you can feel the energy in the air. You could cut it with a knife. Especially the women have flames coming out of their ears when they hear it. Because, as it's written and as it's been traditionally interpreted, it's a story about male blame of women for all the misery of humanity. This is not even speaking of the original sin interpretation of Augustine, which was taken as the interpretation by the church.
It's something that as a culture, I think, we are mature enough now to get past. And once you look beneath the surface of what the writer obviously intended--and he intended his God character to be the one we are in sympathy with, and the serpent to be a naughty or a nasty character, and he intended Eve to be blamed--but being a great writer, he was in touch with some much deeper element in the human psyche, and in spite of whatever his intentions might be, the story itself has an intelligence that leads us to look at it in a different way, a deeper way. And it becomes much more interesting, I think.
So when you read this fresh, as I hope people will do, you can see all these curious elements. The God character, who's a kindly character even if a little bumbling, plants the forbidden tree right in the middle of the garden, creates the serpent, a very persuasive, talkative animal, and creates the character as a serpent in the first place. He must have been, even unconsciously, aware that there's this relationship between a serpent and wisdom, that a serpent sheds its skin and is reborn in that sense. In itself, it leads away from the standard interpretation.
And also, one thing I mentioned in the introduction is that the God character doesn't tell the truth and the serpent character tells the truth about, you know, as soon as you eat this fruit you will die. That's a verse that theologians have been trying to explain away for probably 1500 years. But it's clearly out there as the literal text. All of these elements, it seems to me, lead us to look more deeply and to see it as something else on the level of the soul.
In the tradition that I've been trained in as an adult, Zen Buddhism, and in many of the other great spiritual traditions, there's no difference between psychology and theology. When you get to the deep places of the soul, you discover that those distinctions aren't there. As a matter of fact, there's nothing there. It's a great freedom. You can't even talk about the soul at a certain depth, or about God, because those are very imprecise, reified words that talk about them as if they're nouns, and they're not at all nouns. The world of nouns and verbs is something we live in at a certain gross level of reality, and distinctions--especially those kinds of distinctions--aren't valid.
But even more important than the blurring or the disappearance of those kinds of distinctions is the disappearance of a certain kind of moralistic distinction--the distinction between good and bad, and up and down. I talk about that at some length in the introduction. One of the things that deeply moved me and impressed me about the great writers of Genesis--J, and the Joseph author--was their open-heartedness and their inclusiveness. The fact that there were not heroes and villains in these great stories, as there are throughout most of the Bible and the gospels, too. You have that very limited mind at work throughout the Bible and the New Testament, where the world is split into Us and Them. God's people and the unchosen. In the gospels certainly as much as in the Hebrew Bible, even though people tend to think of the mind that wrote the gospels as a very loving mind, it's not so in my opinion. The Pharisees are always lurking in the background like Victorian villains, twirling their mustaches. And then in John, you have the Jews as the children of Satan. It's a very hate-filled, dualistic mind.
But that's not so in the greatest stories of Genesis. The unchosen or defeated characters are given just as much voice, just as much loving attention, as the "good" characters. I talk about Cain and Esau, and there are extremely moving moments when the unchosen characters express themselves: Bless me. Bless me too, father. Such a deeply, deeply moving moment. And the largeness of mind it takes to portray the brother who has not got the blessing being much more open-hearted than the chosen brother--that's astonishing of the writer to do. This mind is a rare thing in sacred scriptures of the West. And very precious too, I think. CP
Stephen Mitchell is appearing at Borders Bookshop (3001 Hennepin Ave., Mpls.; 825-0336) on Thursday, September 19, at 7:30.
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