WE ARE NEARING another Indendence Day, for which much of the credit goes to Thomas Jefferson, a progenitor of modern American democracy. A bit farther away is another occasion worth noting. This November 11 marks one hundred years since the birth of Kurt Vonnegut, a progenitor of postmodern American literature.
It’s a good time to consider what one man had to do with the other. They are linked by, of all things, admiration for Jesus Christ, even though neither was a Christian in the commonly understood sense of the term.
Besides being fans of Jesus, both America’s third president and the acclaimed novelist, humorist, and humanist shared a desire to improve certain Christian faith-based material that, they felt, needed to be fixed.
Vonnegut revised the liturgy-based words of a popular musical piece by Andrew Lloyd Webber. But that wasn’t all. Through his famous alter ego, Vonnegut, like Jefferson so long ago, once dared to tackle the New Testament itself.
Jefferson was a deist. This was common among the Founders. Deists believed in God as a clockmaker who created the world and then left it to unwind on its own. Heavily influenced by the Enlightenment, they commonly rejected the divine nature of Jesus.
Jefferson left physical evidence of his skepticism. During and after his presidency, he cut and pasted his own version of the Gospels in four languages, removing Jesus’ miracles and other supernatural occurrences while retaining his moral teachings.
In an 1803 letter to his friend Benjamin Rush, a more conventional Christian who at the time was Treasurer of the United States Mint, Jefferson was clear about his perception of Jesus as a human being who was not the Son of God.
To the corruptions of Christianity, I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.
What did Jefferson extract from the New Testament? “In general…passages that reflect violence, magic or the allegedly divine empowerment of ordinary humans” were excised, according to the American Humanist Association’s modern reprinting of the so-called Jefferson Bible. Jesus’ mother was not a virgin. He performed no miracles. When he died, he stayed dead.
A couple centuries later, Vonnegut’s public comments about Jefferson were more concerned with America and the true nature of its founding than with deism and Jesus. For decades, however, Vonnegut similarly presented Jesus as a living historical figure whose teachings ought to be followed.
Why did Vonnegut bother?
He was from a long line of German Freethinkers, after all. Vonnegut wrote that he “had been raised by interesting and moral people who, like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, were nonetheless skeptics about what preachers said was going on.”
Freethinkers’ skepticism often led to atheism. That did not change for Vonnegut despite the wartime experiences he struggled to write about for nearly a quarter-century until his breakthrough novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, was published in 1969.
“They say there are no atheists in foxholes,” he told an interviewer in 1976. “I was certainly one, and it was a comfort to me.”
And yet, more than once, the 1992 Humanist of the Year was compelled to amend a faithful message that he felt was not, if you will, Christian enough. What might seem to be a contradiction can be viewed instead as an insistence that kind deeds are paramount, whether they result from religious faith or not.
As much as he was a freethinker—an atheist in a foxhole—Vonnegut in his public writings and comments was more than anything a self-described “Christ-worshiping agnostic” who was “ enchanted by the Sermon on the Mount.”
You know the Sermon on the Mount, don’t you? It’s Christ’s monologue about what’s in store for the lowliest of human beings. Sometimes these declarations are called the Beatitudes. They begin in the Book of Matthew with “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus promises eternal happiness for the persecuted. There’s good news for those who despair quietly (“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”) and those who crave justice (“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled”). Peacemakers, the pure in heart, the merciful—all will be recognized in the afterlife.
They’ll be recognized, that is, if they’re faithful: “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake . . . for great is your reward in heaven.” These words undoubtedly have given comfort to countless Christians.
But it wasn’t piety that attracted Vonnegut to the passage. It was its glorification of human behavior at its most selfless.
“If it weren’t for the message of mercy and pity in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, I wouldn’t want to be a human being,” Vonnegut wrote. “I would just as soon be a rattlesnake.”
Such praise is not a detour from the path that Vonnegut’s ancestors walked. One of his most prominent predecessors, his great-grandfather Clemens Vonnegut, put it like this: “If what Jesus said was good, what can it matter whether he was God or not?”
That places the message over the messenger. You might not believe in the savior—most humanists don’t—but you can believe in his doctrine of kindness. Maybe the only hope for humanity is if we do believe it.
“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind,” one of the most oft-cited quotes from Vonnegut, is what his damaged, humanitarian character Eliot Rosewater plans to tell a pair of newborn twins he has been asked to baptize.
Vonnegut’s point is that in the Beatitudes believers and nonbelievers can find useful advice about how to act. Urging Christians to live up to the merciful words of Jesus, he even indirectly addresses matters of church vs. state so important to many humanists.
For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.
“Blessed are the merciful” posted in a courtroom? “Blessed are the peacemakers” in the Pentagon? Give me a break!
Significantly, the Sermon on the Mount survived Jefferson’s razor. Did his biblical edits make Jefferson a Christ-worshiping agnostic? An accurate characterization would be more nuanced, but it’s safe to say his and Vonnegut’s views of Jesus are similar.
Where Jefferson literally cut out troubling and conflicting Bible passages about Jesus, Vonnegut ignored them.
These include Jesus promising harsh judgment on people who did not repent despite his miracles (Matthew 11:20-24), saying he has “not come to bring peace but a sword” (Matthew 10:34), and warning that with him around “father will be divided against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother” (Luke 12:53). In much of John 8 and elsewhere, Jesus haughtily uses circular reasoning to equate himself with God Almighty and demands that others follow, know, and believe him and live according to his teaching rather than urge his followers to exhibit kindness for its own sake.
It’s no wonder Vonnegut did not dwell upon such accounts of a figure who believes he is at least God’s representative on Earth, if not God himself. And beyond the four Gospels, the epistles of Paul, John, and others occasionally depict Jesus as more unworldly, more demanding that the man Vonnegut celebrated.
When Jesus’ message seemed to stray from kindness and mercy, Vonnegut or a fictional surrogate chalked up the difference to a misstatement or a joke.
One fiery warning from Jesus is dismissed as a sign of temporary insanity. The verse is in Matthew 25, which previews what Jesus will say on Judgment Day.
His favored sheep, those who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and otherwise helped “the least of these [his] brethren,” are told they will inherit the Kingdom of God. But, according to Matthew, at the end of days Jesus will tell those who ignored such unfortunates, “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
In Vonnegut’s Jailbird, the fictional born-again hatchet man and Watergate criminal Emil Larkin (obviously based on the real-life Chuck Colson), quotes that passage while attempting to save narrator Walter Starbuck from hell. Starbuck comes up with an explanation.
These words appalled me then, and they appall me now. They are surely the inspiration for the notorious cruelty of Christians.
“Jesus may have said that,” I told Larkin, “but it is so unlike most of what else He said that I have to conclude that He was slightly crazy that day.”
Elsewhere, Vonnegut addressed a controversial comment by Jesus in John, chapter 12—“For the poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always”—by concluding that it’s a mistranslation lacking the ironic intent that makes Jesus’ actual statement, Vonnegut imagines, “a very nice American frontier joke.”
It might seem hypocritical for Vonnegut to accept that Jesus was gentle and merciful yet not that he was truly holy. But even among the faithful, only the most devoted literalists believe everything in the Bible. Instead, like Vonnegut, Christians take what they need from the New Testament
Religion for many fills a spiritual requirement. Faith can compel marvelous deeds, can help someone push through relentless adversity. Where would Martin Luther King, Jr., have been without it? And where would America be without King?
While Jefferson physically altered Christian scripture, Vonnegut performed a different sort of revision of text that, although not considered as sacred as the Bible, was not the sort of thing that Christians tampered with: The pope-approved sixteenth century Mass.
At the 1985 world premiere of Requiem, British composer Lloyd Webber’s soaring composition for the Mass, Vonnegut was in the audience at St. Thomas Church in New York. The four-century-old lyrics were sung in Latin, but the program booklet included an English translation. Vonnegut found the words “sadistic and masochistic,” as they were “promising a Paradise indistinguishable from the Spanish Inquisition.”
After the show, he went home and wrote new lyrics, addressing not the Lord but the Cosmos. Where the groveling old text says,
A day of wrath, that day,
it will dissolve the world into glowing ashes,
as attested by David together with the Sibyl…
My prayers are not worthy;
but Thou, of Thy goodness, deal generously with me,
that I burn not in the everlasting fire.
Vonnegut’s Mass instead says
A day of wrath, that day:
We shall dissolve the world into glowing ashes,
as attested by our weapons for wars
in the names of gods unknowable. . . .
My prayers are unheard,
but Thy sublime indifference will ensure
that I burn not in some everlasting fire.
Vonnegut found people to translate his requiem into Latin, write new music, and stage it three years after he’d seen Lloyd Webber’s.
Both requiems refer to the “everlasting fire.” Theologians debate whether hell is a state of earthly estrangement from God or a realm for souls beyond the physical world. Vonnegut’s references to hell generally agree with mainstream opinion that it’s a place for bad people after death. He implies as much when he defines himself as a humanist: “I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead.”
His character Kilgore Trout, the hack science fiction writer and Vonnegut alter ego, has a similar take when he tells a gullible woman that if she does “more bad things instead of good things, that’s too bad for you, because you’ll burn forever and ever.”
Again, you have to wonder what the existence of such a place says about the Creator of the Universe.
Incidentally, in Breakfast of Champions we’re told that Trout graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School, which that novel’s narrator says “was named after a slave owner who was also one of the world’s greatest theoreticians on the subject of human liberty.”
It was typical of Vonnegut to refer to slavery whenever he mentioned Jefferson. Prior to Breakfast of Champions’ publication, Vonnegut said this in a 1972 speech: “Now, nearly two hundred years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, written by a man who owned human slaves, I think we understand that our politicians and millionaires can do very little for us, except to take our money.”
Jefferson’s duality represents America’s. Vonnegut knew that the freedom and opportunity promised by this nation’s constitution were frequently betrayed by the actions of its people. The omniscient Breakfast of Champions narrator, who adopts the tone of a grade-school primer, innocently reaches what seems to be the only reasonable conclusion from history: Rather than being the year that North America was “discovered,” 1492 actually was when “sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill” millions of people already living there.
The sea pirates were white. The people who were already on the continent when the pirates arrived were copper-colored. When slavery was introduced onto the continent, the slaves were black.
Color was everything.
Although he was not one of the sea pirates, Jefferson benefited from the way colors were perceived in his day. If the United States was founded as a Christian nation—as some claim—then the Founders have a lot of explaining to do about their ideas of democracy and Christianity.
Vonnegut’s fiction and nonfiction frequently bring up Jesus and Christianity largely because he wrote for fellow Americans. He hardly mentioned other belief systems. He knew that in America the wide readership he sought was far more familiar with the story of Jesus than with that of any other religious figure. And he found much to like about it.
In America, it’s easy to form a large clump of people who know something about Christianity, since there has always been so much talk about Christianity around. It wouldn’t be easy to get a large clump of Zoroastrians, for instance. But there are very big clumps of Christianity…I admire Christianity more than anything—Christianity as symbolized by gentle people sharing a common bowl.
Early and late in his long career, Vonnegut on occasion wrote reverantly about the baby Jesus. His playlet that appeared in a 1962 issue of Better Homes and Gardens would be perfectly acceptable as a Sunday school performance. Even well after his fame had assured that he could pursue only the projects he wanted to, Vonnegut in 1980 collaborated with illustrator Ivan Chermayeff on Sun Moon Star, a children’s book he wrote from the perspective of the infant Jesus as he is born.
So Vonnegut was comfortable dealing with the divinity of Jesus, as were some of the people closest to him. Realizing how important faith was to them must have been a good lesson in religious civility.
My great war buddy Bernard V. O’Hare, now dead, lost his faith as a Roman Catholic during World War Two. I didn’t like that. I thought that was too much to lose.
.…I knew Bernie had lost something important and honorable.
Again, I did not like that, did not like it because I liked him so much.
Vonnegut’s first wife, Jane, born a Quaker but throughout her life a seeker, “died believing in the Trinity and Heaven and Hell and all the rest of it,” he wrote. “I’m so glad. Why? Because I loved her.”
He commented to an audience of Unitarians in 1980 that one of his daughters had become a Christian. “She now has her human dignity regularly confirmed by the friendly nods of a congregation. I am glad that she is not so lonely anymore. This is more than all right with me.”
Vonnegut was not always on board with his loved ones’ searches for meaning. An example is a trip to see Hindu spiritual leader Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
The Maharishi had developed and trademarked the Transcendental Meditation technique. He took his instructions on global tours beginning in 1958, and ten years later his popularity was boosted when the Beatles and other celebrities visited him in Rishikesh, India. He was alternately revered by followers and dismissed as an opportunistic salesman.
Among his claims was that TM and levitation and so forth would bring self-fulfillment and, if done by enough people, help achieve world peace. Vonnegut expressed skepticism as he and his wife and their oldest daughter caught the Maharishi’s act in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
One result of that January 1968 encounter was an essay Vonnegut published in Esquire. He did not consider the Maharishi a fake, but he felt the alleged holy man sounded “like a General Electric engineer” in responding to a reporter’s question about the plight of Americans seeking civil rights. They ought to try harder and meditate so they’ll perform better in the job market, His Holiness seemed to be saying.
What bothered Vonnegut more during a crowded press conference were the Maharishi’s comments about Jesus. They were unenlightened, Vonnegut felt. The Maharishi called Jesus’ emphasis on faith “an absurdity” and prefaced his remarks with “From what people have told me about him,” indicating he had never cracked open one of the countless Bibles he must have found in hotel rooms all over. “Some searching mind,” Vonnegut wrote.
I went outside the hotel after that, liking Jesus better than I had ever liked Him before. I wanted to see a crucifix, so I could say to it, “You know why You’re up there? It’s Your own fault. You should have practiced Transcendental Meditation, which is easy as pie. You would also have been a better carpenter.”
So Vonnegut the atheist imagined chatting with an approachable Christ, whom he felt he understood better than did the robed guru who was drawing huge, worshipful crowds. The Maharishi would know Jesus better by reading the same Christian scripture that Vonnegut had read, words that communicated “what Jesus said, exactly.”
Those words persuaded Vonnegut that even an unsupernatural Jesus was an excellent and relevant ethical guide. Vonnegut explained this in a 1990 letter to someone who asked about his “religious persuasion.”
Jesus is particularly stimulating to me, since he noticed what I can’t help noticing, that life is so hard most people are losers or feel like losers, so that a skill essential to most of us, if we are to retain some shred of dignity, is to show grace in defeat. That to me is the lesson he taught while up on the cross, whether he was God or not. And he was neither the first nor the last human being, if that is what he was, to teach that while in unbelievable agony.
As for the teaching of formal Christianity, I am all for it…What I can’t stand are sermons which say that to believe in the divinity of Jesus is a way to win.
Jesus is for nonwinners, in Vonnegut’s estimation. Christianity, he told a group of Unitarian Universalists in Rochester, New York, in June 1986, “was nothing but a poor people’s religion, a servant’s religion, a slave’s religion, a woman’s religion, a child’s religion, and would have remained such if it hadn’t stopped taking the Sermon on the Mount seriously and joined forces with the vain and rich and violent.”
If you think that sounds political, you are not mistaken. Vonnegut’s interpretation of Jesus’ message has much in common with a certain left-leaning philosophy of government.
“Socialism” is no more an evil word than “Christianity.” Socialism no more prescribed Joseph Stalin and his secret police and shuttered churches than Christianity prescribed the Spanish Inquisition. Christianity and socialism alike, in fact, prescribe a society dedicated to the proposition that all men, women, and children are created equal and shall not starve.
Vonnegut wrote fondly about Eugene V. Debs, a fellow Hoosier who was a legitimate Socialist Party voice in the American political landscape, capturing six percent of the popular vote for president in 1912. Debs had a line that Vonnegut liked to quote because he found it Christlike: “While there is a lower class I am in it; while there is a criminal element I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
When reciting that quote in speeches, Vonnegut felt he had to point out that Debs was being serious. It is, he said, “a sign of these times that such a moving echo of the Sermon on the Mount can be perceived as outdated, wholly discredited horsecrap.
“Which it is not.”
There is an important point about Jesus being a common man who still is worthy of deep admiration.
Vonnegut told the Unitarians in 1980 that he was writing for his Christian daughters “a passion play…which leaves God out entirely, but which manages to be spiritual anyway.” In the last scene of the never-published piece, Vonnegut said, people gathering at the foot of the cross on which Jesus is being crucified express their sorrow, talking and singing to him, distraught about his suffering.
A passerby says they must be wailing about the Son of their God. But one of the people at the cross tells him, “Oh no, sir. If he were the Son of our God, he would not need us. It is because he is a common human being exactly like us that we are here—doing, as common people must, what little we can.”
In a way, Vonnegut had already published his passion play. It was another contribution from the character Kilgore Trout. Among a few synopses of Trout novels in Slaughterhouse-Five is a passage that exhibits Jeffersonian Christianity. It exalts Jesus—or at least his teachings—while purposefully stripping away his divinity.
Trout’s Gospel from Outer Space is about an alien who visits Earth and studies Christianity to find out “why Christians found it so easy to be cruel.” In part, the alien concludes, the problem is “slipshod storytelling in the New Testament.”
It was supposed to teach mercy, the alien assumed. But readers of the Gospels knew that Jesus was the Son of God, so when he was imprisoned and tortured they thought, “Oh boy—they sure picked the wrong guy to lynch that time!” The message seemed to be about having connections and exacting revenge.
So the alien gave the people of Earth a new crucifixion story. Jesus is a regular person with no connections, a nobody who says “all the lovely and puzzling things he said in the other Gospels.” He too is nailed to a cross for public display, and the reader is led to believe nobody will care and so nobody will face any penalty.
Just when Jesus is about to die, however, God intercedes with a crash of thunder and lightning. He adopts the nobody as his son and tells everybody that “from this moment on, He will punish horribly anybody who torments a bum who has no connections!”
Exhibiting kindness, whether for its own sake or to avoid God’s wrath, is essential behavior for the betterment of our species. Advocating for kindness is as much an element of Vonnegut’s writing as his playful, irreverent sense of humor and his absurdist science fiction.
Fifteen years after his death, he still has devoted fans. Many of them credit him with opening their eyes to the realities of the world. They find him a kindred soul. They call him funny and wise and truthful.
While knowing Vonnegut was a man of his time, these readers consider much of what he said and wrote to be timeless.
He was not a chief architect of American democracy like Jefferson. In his lifetime, though, Vonnegut had, you might say, a more ethical understanding of skin color and a fuller appreciation of freedom. His Christ-worshiping agnosticism was more humanistic, more humane, more Christian than what the Christ-preferring deist Jefferson envisioned.
Vonnegut would have turned one hundred years old this November 11. You’ll note that that also is what we call Veterans Day. Vonnegut, though a proud ex-member of the military himself, wished the holiday had kept its original name: Armistice Day. In fact, he called the latter “sacred.”
Rather than participants in war, he would honor the end of war. He wanted to wage peace.
“I would assume that some kids have become pacifists because of me.,” Vonnegut wrote in 1995. “Actually, I’m not even sure what my message as a novelist is. But I would like to infect people with humane ideas before they’re able to defend themselves.”