Sunday, October 23, 2011

is nick hornby writing about jubilee?

I argue that David, the husband of Nick Hornby’s protagonist Ann in How to be Good, is acting out a private, individual jubilee. I don’t know that Hornby is doing this purposefully, that he wrote David’s actions to be a comment on the Christian idea of jubilee. At best it is an interesting coincidence. Firstly, it’s important that David himself would deny that he’s doing anything Christian:

…I don’t think that David has become a Christian, although it is hard to fathom precisely what he has become. Asking him directly doesn’t really clarify things. The evening after we got the letter…Tom [their son] asks—mournfully but rather percipiently, I thought—whether we are all going to have to start going to church.

“Church?” says David—but gently, not with the explosion of anger and disdain that would have accompanied that word in any context just a few weeks ago. “Of course not. Why? Do you want to go to church?”

“No. Course not.”…Tom says. “Just, I thought, that’s what we have to do now.”

“Why now?”

“Because we give things away. That’s what they do in church, isn’t it?”

“Not as far as I know.”

Later, alone, Ann points out to David, “You do give off the air of someone who has undergone a religious conversion.”

“Well, I haven’t.”

“You haven’t become a Christian?”


And while Ann can’t put her finger on exactly what it is David’s become, she agrees that it isn’t a Christian.

But Tom’s connection between “we give things away” and “people who go to church” is important. This is the idea behind Jesus’ idea of jubilee, particularly in the parable iterated in Luke 16:1-13. The corrupt manager there, once he is found out, decides to remit to his debtors the actual sums they owe by wiping out the graft added for his share. He does this, not to escape judgment, as his master has already taken his position from him, but to be welcomed afterward into their homes, so he may rely on their largess and friendship. Jesus’ explains that “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much…[If] you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters…You cannot serve God and wealth” (Luke 16:10-13).

John Yoder’s definition of biblical jubilee in The Politics of Jesus—leaving the soil fallow; remission of debts; liberation of slaves; and the return of family property to individuals—while not corresponding exactly either with David’s behavior is near enough to suggest that we can read his actions as a genuine attempt to do jubilee on a personal level.

For instance, David’s newspaper column and novel, both of which he has decided to scrap because he’s simply not angry anymore, although to which he might someday return (perhaps writing columns as “The Least-Angriest Man in Holloway”), are fields of endeavor that lie fallow. While David doesn’t have debts to remit, per se, or slaves to liberate, he does in a sense attempt to do something similar by finding rooms for local homeless kids. In that sense he’s doing both: he attempts to cancel out those who are indebted to him by selflessly taking on the work of matching up homeless and those with extra rooms, and he attempts also to ease the burden on those homeless—liberate them from slavery, as it were—by doing the same. Finally, of course, his misbegotten attempts to give away the family’s roast dinner and Tom’s computer can be seen, if not as returning property to their original owners, then as ways of redistributing his family’s wealth.

I’d argue that, while David is not participating in biblical jubilee—that “redistribution of capital…accomplished every fifty years by faithfulness to the righteous will of God and in the expectation of the kingdom” according to Yoder—he is participating in the spirit of what Jesus calls for in his parable of the widow who “out of her poverty has put in [the temple treasury] all she had to live on” (Luke 21:1-4)—that is, as Yoder writes, “a jubilee ordinance which was to be put into practice here and now, once…, as a ‘refreshment,’ prefiguring the ‘reestablishment of all things.’” Yoder is justified in his conclusion that “Many bloody revolutions would have been avoided if the Christian church had shown herself more respectful than Israel was of the jubilee dispositions contained in the law of Moses.”

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