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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Mint-on-sunday/  And Jesus Christ was a sailor

And Jesus Christ was a sailor

That the Bible has survived in multiple iterations has to do with the 'Theory of Optimal Fragmentation'. It holds lessons for individuals, businesses and governments

It is that time of the year when Christians celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Photo: HTPremium
It is that time of the year when Christians celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Photo: HT

It is entirely coincidental that this is the season of Lent, leading to Easter Sunday. I am taking time out to re-read The Gospel according to Jesus Christ by the Nobel Prize winning writer Jose Saramago, listen to Suzanne by Leonard Cohen on loop, and am just done with poring over an essay on How to Get Rich by Jared Diamond, a biologist, ecologist, anthropologist and an author.

On the face of it, there is nothing to bind these seemingly disparate things: a season that brings all Christians in prayer together with a book, a song, and an essay. But bear with me.

Diamond’s essay was first delivered as a talk. Diamond expends much time on an idea described as the Theory of Optimal Fragmentation.

It is a complex idea with much history and evidence to back it up, and I sum it up as so: When something gets too big, it must be fragmented into smaller units for it to survive. In much the same way, if something is too fragmented, it must be consolidated into a more cohesive and larger unit so that it may survive.

This theory, Diamond argues, holds true for individuals, organizations, governments, countries, and ecosystems. The talk is peppered with examples, both historical and contemporary, from biology to business—all of which make for a very compelling read. When individuals get too rich, their wealth must be tempered. When organizations grow too large, their size curbed. And when governments get too big, their urge to control opposed. If systems aren’t put in place to do it, nature will. As a corollary, he postulates, the reverse is true as well. That anything too small will not survive. The poor are condemned to stay destitute. Small businesses to die. Tiny countries to be trampled upon. Systems must be framed such that they can reach an optimal size to survive the long run. Else nature will destroy it.

In trying to absorb the significance of the essay and examine it for whatever it may be worth, it was time to step out, get fresh air, and think it through.

But like I said earlier, it is that time of the year as well when Christians celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It was inevitable then that my mind would wonder: what may he have been like. Why do people swear by him? Why do so many theories and stories exist about him? So much so, that even among those who believe in him, there is no agreement on what may he have been like, and what is it that he may have actually said. Who is the real Jesus Christ?

Christians of different kinds exist, and the interpretations of the Bibles they live by offer differing perspectives on what is the Christian way. For instance, there are Catholics, Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Anglicans, and many other branches, all of whom claim their allegiance lies with Jesus Christ and the Bible. How did it get to be this way?

While the existence of these schisms is one among the many reasons I don’t go to church—or subscribe to any religion for that matter, it does nothing to take away though from my fascination with Jesus Christ, the man. This fascination, I suspect, has much to do with that how a layperson like me, untutored in the religious texts, struggled to cope with the complexity and contradictions of the several ‘Jesus narratives’.

Why, for instance, does this character get this kind of attention from people of all kinds? How does one explain some of the most enduring literature of our times that has been drawn from his personality?

That is one among the many reasons why The Gospel according to Jesus Christ comes to mind right away. It takes a while to wrap one’s head around this ferocious account of Jesus as imagined by Saramago. The Jesus, the author imagines in this fictional account, is a human with flaws, passions and doubts. He is confused and abandoned by none other than the God in whom he has placed his trust. This is the kind of Jesus I can relate to.

This personality though runs contrary to what is the popular narrative. It sounds eminently believable though, the book is unputdownable, and the Jesus described there, when stripped of all divinity, is somebody whom an ordinary soul can empathize with.

That is also why when Leonard Cohen starts to sing Suzanne, it is very difficult to stop listening. There is no inkling of what lies ahead as the song starts to spell its lyrics out in his deep baritone.

Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river

You can hear the boats go by, you can spend the night forever

And you know that she’s half-crazy but that’s why you want to be there

And she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China

With lines like these, it is inevitable then, the head begins to imagine the woman you are in love with and want to be lost with, forever. And then, out of nowhere, something else altogether jumps out. Such as these lines:

And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water

And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower

And he knew for certain only drowning men could see him

He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them

But he himself was broken, long before the sky would open

Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone

What are we to make of Cohen’s interpretation? Is Suzanne a metaphor for all things temporal and ephemeral? And is Jesus’ voice one of resistance that emanates from a soul exasperated that his words cannot percolate into the heads of ordinary mortals?

Or did Cohen intend it that way to drive home, in no uncertain terms, that good and evil are only a matter of perspective?

It is a theme that appears in Jose Saramago’s literature as well even as he describes Mary Magdalene, the woman who loves Jesus staring despondently upon the cross, where her beloved is crucified, between two thieves. Even in his agony though, a crucified Jesus, while waiting for the inevitable death to come over, passes verdict on what he thinks of the thieves crucified to his right and left: that one is good and the other is evil.

The commentators voice in the Saramago’s narrative, describes this as Jesus’ failing, and the voice of someone who “….failed to understand that there is no difference between one and the other, or, if there is any difference, it is something else, for Good and Evil do not exist in themselves, each is simply the absence of the other".

And it was during a long walk earlier in the day in the wee hours of the morning that some thoughts that could trace its roots to Jared Diamond’s assertions started to merge into these ruminations.

Is it possible, a voice in the head asked, that the narrative around Jesus Christ had gotten too big to contain Jesus the man? Had Jesus gotten too big for the religion that is Christianity? While the religion that is Christianity is bound by the narrative that is Jesus Christ, is it possible that if the voice of Jesus Christ the man has to survive in the long run, the walls of Christianity must be broken down into multiple churches.

In a parallel universe, if an example from Jared Diamond’s studies is to be taken at face value, then the Chinese ought to have been the world’s original colonizers—not the Europeans. History has it that between 1405 to 1432, the Chinese had gotten so good at ship-making that they could send seven ocean-going fleets comprising hundreds of ships each to hunt for what may lie around the world. Each fleet had at least 20,000 men each. The Chinese Empire though was a monolithic one and ruled by one emperor. In 1432, a new emperor decreed that expending money on ship-building was futile. After that, China turned inward.

As opposed to that, the Europeans were a fragmented bunch. It took Christopher Columbus seven attempts before the Spanish royalty agreed to fund three small ships. It led to the discovery of America, an explosion in interest, and 11 countries from Europe got into the race to discover and conquer America, an other parts of the world. Europe was “optimally fragmented".

The “monopolist" China lost out and the “optimally fragmented" Europe gained in the longer run. There were loud voices that argued if it be made a larger block, it could counter the force that the US had gotten to be and China was emerging to become. The outcome of all these voices was the European Union (EU). That the EU has practically fragmented now is being explained because the bloc was too big and a heterogeneous one at that. What shape China stays in remains to be seen. Much of India’s role has to be looked at from this perspective, Jared Diamond argues.

The hypothesis has more nuances and my submission here is a very simplified one.

The larger point in the current context is that, if Diamond’s assertion be true, then basis much evidence that the anthropologist and biologist has on his side, for Christianity to survive for as long as it has, it had to fragment. It could not have survived as a monopoly. It followed a course that nature dictated just so it may survive. To follow this course, it had to create narratives of all kinds so that it may appeal to the most numbers of people.

My understanding is that the narrative of Jesus as a sailor, is one that appeals to most people. This, because sailors, at least as popular perception goes, are of a very different breed. As metaphors go again, they are seekers who traverse the seas and have it in them to ignore the lure of “Suzanne".

Seekers by their very nature gain much experience over the years on their many journeys across over the waters. It is inevitable then that people pray to those who have walked the waters before, more fervently so when they start to “drown". They write songs in honour of sailors who have been there and done that before them.

And all good sailors know, all good songs, are like good narratives. It morphs over time. To the afflicted, it offers much comfort. To others, it may sound like a darned good yarn. Anthropologists, poets, artists, and writers know that. History has taught them when the time is right to spin a yarn, when to profit from it, and above all else, that to achieve epiphany, they must wait, such that the conditions are right and everything is optimally fragmented.

Charles Assisi is co-founder at Founding Fuel Publishing. His Twitter handle is @c_assisi

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Published: 01 Apr 2018, 01:14 AM IST
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