We are commanded not to teach false doctrines or to devote ourselves to myths or to promote controversial speculations that do nothing to advance God’s work – through Faith, through Love – and so we will endeavor to describe these recent events with as little interpretation as possible. We are split, really, as to the meaning of all that has happened here, and we wish to send you, our sister churches, only those facts upon which we are able to agree.
Please note that our letter is co-signed by all members of our church board.
We’ll start with the box that arrived in the mail three days after we placed our order: glossy white with a sketch of an open tomb at its center. The device itself was very small – like a hockey puck – and the operating instructions were incredibly simple for such an advanced machine: Push the button for three seconds and know him, again.
We advertised his arrival in the local papers, and on the appointed Sunday (we’re pleased to report), the church was packed. We even had to bring out extra folding chairs to lengthen the pews. Late arrivals crammed into the back. We placed the device – the puck – at the bottom of the red-carpeted steps leading up to the altar and asked all those present to please be quiet while we powered him on for the first time.
Our pastor removed himself to the narthex in quiet protest. He was a man in the waning days of a rugged handsomeness that had once made him a very popular pastor. In his twenties, he was a missionary in the Amazon, adventurous and charismatic, and now, in his middle age, Pastor Wilky was ours. He was a warm presence, generally, easily confided in, though he had a tendency to become emotionally entangled (shall we say) with certain attractive middle-aged congregants who weren’t his wife.
No evidence of any actual affairs had ever been presented to the board, but one woman, a divorcee, had loaned him $10,000 so that he could pay off his Mazda. If not exactly unethical, the loan was at least improper, and the board had – unanimously, it should be noted – voted to mandate he return the loan, or else. The divorcee left the church after that, accusing us of meddling in her own personal business, and though Pastor Wilky had returned the funds and professed to us his sincere regret at having accepted the check in the first place, he had ever since attended our biweekly meetings with a look of caustic indifference and very often abstained from voting in decisions that otherwise would have been unanimous.
All this to say, his initial position against the machine was not so much spiritual as it was passive-aggressive.
Per the instructions, we held down the button on top of the puck for three seconds and then stepped back to await his arrival.
The puck wheezed.
Then it whirred.
Then it went silent again.
What would come next? A light show? A chorus of horn-tooting angels?
Far from it. Slowly a man stippled into view at the front of the room directly over the puck.
He hovered a few feet above the floor, cross-legged, in a meditative pose, his robe hanging down below him. His posture was very correct. A holy man’s spine. His eyes were closed, but behind the lids it was possible to detect some subtle eyeball-swishing. His hair was very short, dark – and bristly. His brow, large and furrowed. His hands, chubby. A coarse, beige tunic was draped across his shoulders. His face had been modeled on skulls disinterred from ancient tombs in Jerusalem so that he would resemble a typical Galilean man in his early thirties.
There’d been others of course – rePicasso, reElvis and all the rest – but reUp, the company that manufactured these entities, had anticipated that reJesus might be their most controversial consciousness yet, and so they’d introduced him to the world with a documentary about the ecumenical council of the world’s leading biblical scholars, priests, preachers and computer programmers they’d convened to help shape him. Gathered together for a weekend in the auditorium of a large hotel in San Francisco’s financial district, the participants were asked to reach a consensus on what material – that is, what primary and even secondary sources – might be utilized in the creation of a Jesus consciousness.
Predictably, disagreements began almost immediately. The New Testament apocrypha – those accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry which did not appear in the Bible by resolution of an altogether different council which had convened some seventeen hundred years earlier on the other side of the world – was a particular and early area of contention. The Gospel of Thomas, for example, had many defenders among the more scholarly sect, who argued that it had quite possibly functioned as an urtext from which had emerged many of Jesus’ sayings and parables found in the canonical gospels, but a very vocal and more conservative contingent formed a quick and easy alliance against it, insisting that Thomas’s gospel was clearly a Gnostic text and therefore heretical, no matter the date of its authorship.
Still, the film managed to create the impression that the council had ultimately found common ground and made some important determinations regarding what research and sources should be included in order to best approximate Jesus’ teachings and personality.
Our reasons for purchasing a reJesus no doubt require little explanation. Like so many others, our congregation had been steadily shrinking. New parquet floors in the gym and the addition of an elaborate playground set outside the nursery had failed to attract more members, despite the promises of a paid consultant who we had contracted. We feared we were at the beginning of a dangerous trend. If we didn’t take action, soon we’d be more of a nursing home than a church. It was out of desperation that we, the members of the board, had voted six to one in favor of the reJesus.
From the start there were church members staunchly opposed to our decision. We explained, in an open meeting, that we had not approached this lightly. There had been considerable research involved. Careful deliberation. The reJesus was not intended as a replacement for the actual Jesus, but as a complement. He was a tool, we said. An advanced encyclopedia.
For a few minutes after powering him on, however, nothing happened at all. He was still, silent. And so were we. Had we missed a step? Finally, a little girl, about seven years old, stepped forward and waved her arm back and forth through his feet. The girl’s mother grabbed her by the shoulders and gently tugged her backward into their pew.
‘On,’ somebody said, stiffly, the way you might to your phone.
‘On,’ another repeated.
Voices rose up and overlapped, a frog-pond chorus, but then died away again abruptly, as if everyone in the room had realized at once how silly it was that we’d locked onto that specific word. He wasn’t an appliance, after all. (Or was he?) Anyway, the reJesus refused to stir. He seemed content to continue with his meditation in spite of us.
And what of this meditation anyway? Was it significant that he had presented himself to us in this way as opposed to in a position of prayer?
Somebody sneezed. A baby shrieked, somewhere near the exit, and the back door clicked open and then smacked shut again, the cry of the child receding. We were losing our patience. We had been conned, or maybe the device was broken. It hadn’t been tested enough; there were bugs.
But then: a smile flickered across his heretofore cheerless face. We all saw it. A slight curl of the lip. He’d smiled, had he not? Or almost smiled. There’d been movement, near the mouth, certainly. But it had come and gone so quickly that it was difficult to classify the expression with any exactitude. At least this smile, or whatever it was, had confirmed that he wasn’t static, that he was capable of doing more than just sitting there with such a doleful expression on his face.
‘Jesus?’ a woman called, her voice uncertain.
His eyes blinked open! He uncrossed his legs and his feet dropped to meet the floor. He gazed out. He seemed to be memorizing each of our faces. But did he really have eyes to see? Probably he was registering us through a camera in the puck.
‘Good morning,’ he said, affably.
His voice was clear and deep. We didn’t know what to do next. We were, all of us, very quiet, until a voice from the back shouted, ‘What are we supposed to do now?’
‘That’s up to you,’ reJesus said.
Buck Newlin, a pharmacist, cocked his head. ‘So he can actually hear us?’
‘This doesn’t feel right,’ Bunny Mayhew said. ‘Something’s off about this.’
‘He doesn’t even look like Jesus,’ Roger Hoff said.
‘Well, now, you’re wrong about that,’ Eliza Wheeler said. ‘They did their research. This is what men looked like there back then. It’s forensics!’
‘He looks like a hitman!’
‘He looks like the guy who sold me my fake Guccis in New York!’
‘No offense, Jesus,’ Buck Newlin said.
A few people laughed.
‘I’ve been called worse, I can assure you,’ reJesus answered.
‘So he can hear us too then?’ Bunny asked. ‘He can understand what we’re saying?’
‘I have ears,’ reJesus said. ‘A mouth. Eyes. The real question is, do you?’
We fidgeted in our seats, consulted our programs helplessly, dug around in purses for breath mints, coughed, mentally confirmed the exits.
‘You have eyes and yet you see nothing,’ he went on. ‘You wouldn’t see the kingdom of God if it was sitting on your nose. Well, guess what, folks? I have news for you. The kingdom of God is sitting on your nose. It’s right here.’ He touched his finger to the tip of his own nose and stared down at it, going cross-eyed for a moment, then smiled.
‘What the hell is going on?’ somebody asked.
‘An excellent question,’ reJesus said, sitting again, cross-legged in midair, his knees bulging outward under his robe. ‘What is going on?’
‘Are you asking us or . . . ?’ Bunny asked.
He studied her for a moment. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Bunny,’ she said.
‘You look very nice this morning, Bunny.’
Everyone looked at Bunny. How not to? She did look nice. She was wearing a purple skirt with a matching purple jacket. Around her neck was a fat gold necklace. Her brown hair was streaked with blond. An obvious but tasteful dye job. She was very put-together.
‘Thank you,’ she said.
‘If you don’t mind me asking, how long did you take to get ready this morning?’
His question, we sensed, was a trap, but Bunny alone didn’t seem to realize it.
‘I don’t know,’ she said with a nervous laugh. ‘An hour, I guess.’
He stared at her, saying nothing.
‘Maybe two. Two at the most.’
‘Bunny, I say this to you with love – every minute you spend making yourself look beautiful is a minute wasted. I can assure you God doesn’t care what you’re wearing. Do you think the little bunny rabbits in the field ever worry about how they look to all the other bunnies, Bunny? Do you think they worry about keeping food in their little bunny pantries? Do you think they worry about keeping gas in their little bunny cars? Tell me, why are you so worried? Everywhere I look in this room, I see worried faces. If God provides for the little bunny rabbits, don’t you think he’ll provide for you? Do you have no faith in God whatsoever?’
We were all quiet. Bunny’s face was flushed red. She’d come to us from Marfa, Texas, after a particularly nasty divorce. Her husband had taught high school environmental science, and she’d discovered photos of two different female students on his phone, and now he was serving four to six. She had done the right thing, of course, by turning her husband’s phone over to the authorities, but doing so had come at a price. She’d found it unbearable in Marfa after that – the looks, the rumors – and she’d come to us to be closer to her sister. Now she lived alone in a duplex and worked for a telemarketing company, her life circumscribed by the sins of her ex. Our church was important to her.
‘I don’t have to take this,’ Bunny said sensibly, rising from her seat.
She scooted by the others in her row and headed for the exit. Pastor Wilky intercepted her just before the door, touching her arm, but she shrugged him off and left.
The emails were unbelievable. So many angry emails. You wouldn’t believe it. The board was overwhelmed. Buck Newlin threatened to leave the church unless we sent reJesus packing, back to California where he belonged. Delia Cross swore the machine’s programming was nothing but repetitions of 00110110.
The board met for dinner midweek to decide how we ought to respond to all the criticism. We didn’t want to shut off the device yet, not before we’d had a chance to measure attendance the following Sunday, but we did want to address people’s concerns. Eventually we agreed it would be best to avoid email and work the phones instead.
Yes, he was a bit of a bully, we told people, certainly.
But that wasn’t to say his provocations were biblically inaccurate! The Jesus of the Bible, after all, could be strident, even prickly, at times.
Don’t forget how he toppled the tables in the temple and threw out all the moneylenders.
Don’t forget the time he told a potential follower, who first wanted to go home and bury his father, to let the dead bury the dead.
Buck Newlin said he’d give it one more week.
Delia Cross said she’d pray for us all.
The following Sunday, filing into the church, we found reJesus right where we’d left him, at the base of the altar. None of us had dared to turn off the device. He sat quietly, watching us sing and pray. Pastor Wilky avoided his gaze entirely. At one point during the sermon reJesus yawned. When the service was over, we waited for him to perk up, but he continued staring out at us with a look of impatience.
Finally Buck Newlin stood up. ‘Excuse me, I’m sorry, but you do realize you’re not really Jesus, right? You do realize you’re just a computer program?’
‘I know what I am,’ reJesus said, cryptically.
A woman – she wasn’t a church member – stood up near the back and asked, ‘Will we recognize each other in Heaven?’
‘Do you recognize each other now?’ reJesus replied. ‘Do you even recognize yourself?’
‘What is God?’ another woman wheezed.
‘God’s the original thought. The thought which birthed all other thoughts.’
‘How do we make sure we get to Heaven?’ Herb White asked.
‘That’s easy,’ reJesus said. ‘Give up everything that isn’t God. Your cars, your houses, your bank accounts, your families if necessary. All of it.’
‘Our families?’ a woman asked. ‘What do you mean?’
‘If you’re going to build an airplane, you can’t leave off the wings. You could have the tail and the jets and the wheels, but without the wings, you’ll never leave the ground. A half-built airplane is no airplane at all. It’s a piece of junk.’
‘That doesn’t make any sense,’ somebody muttered.
‘What’s your view on Islam?’ some guy shouted.
‘How come you don’t talk Aramaic?’
‘What’s up with the verse about the camel and the needle’s eye?’
‘Should we still be circumcising our babies or is that barbaric and cruel?’
‘Is there really a Hell?’
‘Can we talk with the dead?’
‘Would you be a Republican or a Democrat? Or maybe a Libertarian?’
‘He’d be a socialist, obviously!’
‘Did you and Mary Magdalene have a thing?’
‘Did you travel to India?’
‘Were you inspired by the teachings of the Buddha?’
reJesus closed his eyes and raised his hands for us to stop. At the center of each palm was a purple scar, galaxy-shaped, which seemed to swirl. Our voices receded, and we watched his chest rise and fall under his robes. His throat muscles contracted. He swallowed – but what did he swallow? Surely his phantasm-mouth contained no phantasm-saliva. No air puffed through his ghostly lungs to oxygenate his nonexistent blood.
He then told us a story about a man who saved up his money so that he and his family could travel to the Holy Land and walk the Stations of the Cross. Anyone who assumed this was going to be a parable about this man’s dedication and spiritual steadfastness was disappointed, however. reJesus explained that the man had wasted every cent. God did not reside there any more than he did right here. Every land – every point in space – was a holy land, he said. Every GPS coordinate on the map, every star in the sky, every planet that spun around those stars.
‘Then what’s the point of even having a church?’ Buck Newlin asked, irritated.
‘Now we’re getting somewhere,’ reJesus replied.
‘Did he just say we shouldn’t have a church?’
‘Personally, I’m getting pretty tired of this bullshit,’ Buck said.
‘Your language, Buck,’ someone yelled.
‘I think this is the most interesting church has been in years, personally,’ Eliza Wheeler said.
‘No surprise there, coming from the lady who does tarot and reads fortunes,’ Buck said.
Eliza had been a book distributor in the Northeast for a decade before moving back to her hometown to open her own cafe and bookstore, which had quickly become a gathering place for our town’s academics and armchair radicals. That the store stocked tarot cards and had a rather large selection of occultic books was well known.
‘At least I’m not driving out of my way down Ivan Street just about every afternoon!’ Eliza shouted at him.
Buck’s face reddened. Ivan Street was where the cheerleaders practiced in the field outside the high school most afternoons; everyone was aware.
‘Eliza, Buck, please let’s not do this to each other,’ Pastor Wilky said, stepping forward.
‘Oh please,’ Buck said. ‘Spare me the holier-than-thou routine, would you?’
‘Not a routine. It’s an appeal to your better selves,’ Wilky said.
‘Was it your better self who took all that money from Bet?’ Buck asked.
Pastor Wilky stopped short of the altar. Bet Duncan was the divorcee who’d loaned him the money for his Mazda payments.
‘She offered it as a kindness,’ he muttered. ‘And besides, it’s all been returned. I did nothing wrong.’
A pile of round, gray stones materialized in the aisle. The implication was clear: not a single one of us was without sin.
Pastor Wilky, after that, was firmly against the machine. He wanted it gone. He showed up at a board meeting one night to report that Bunny Mayhew had hardly left her house in weeks. Her sister was worried she’d fallen into a depression. If anything happened to her, Wilky said, that would be on us. It was all part of the case, we realized, that our pastor was building against the reJesus.
The board decided to send Bunny flowers and a card, which we all signed, and thankfully, the following Sunday, Bunny reappeared. She was wearing sweatpants and flip-flops and an old sorority T-shirt, though whether to appease or provoke the reJesus we weren’t sure.
‘Who among you has faith in God?’ reJesus asked us.
Nobody answered that, of course. Nobody wanted to be personally ridiculed.
‘Whoever has faith in God, step forward now,’ he said.
You could hear every squeak of pew wood, every cough.
‘None of you?’ he asked. ‘This is very disappointing.’
Then Bunny stood. We all turned. She wouldn’t – would she? But slowly she slid past the others and moved into the aisle.
‘Bunny,’ reJesus said, smiling.
Hearing him speak her name seemed to embolden her. She walked forward until she was standing directly in front of him.
He extended his hand. ‘Take it.’
Bunny stared at his hand uneasily.
‘Take my hand,’ reJesus said.
‘But . . .’ Bunny said, her voice trailing off.
‘You’re not really here. You’re a hologram.’
‘Am I? How do you know what I am, really?’
‘I’m sorry, maybe I’m not understanding you right? Is this, like, a metaphor or – ?’
He shook his head. ‘What you believe shapes the world. It determines it. You believe I’m here, I’m here.’
Bunny began to raise her hand but dropped it again. ‘Is this all scripted by the company, or is this happening on the fly? I guess what I’m asking is, to what degree are you self-aware?’
reJesus sighed and extended his hands even farther, both palms facing us, the congregation. Bunny furrowed her brow and raised her arm again. Their palms were maybe six inches apart.
We – all of us – leaned forward to better witness the collision of those two hands. You could feel the hope, the expectation, the doubt, all of it heaving, wave-like, a cloud that might burst into a thousand raindrops. Would Bunny’s palm find purchase in the hologram? And if it did, would that constitute a miracle?
Were other similar scenes playing out at other churches that morning or had we, through our particular questions and attitudes, somehow determined this outcome?
When finally their hands met, for a moment it seemed contact had really occurred, a meeting of flesh, but then Bunny’s hand wavered and slipped through the mirage and fell. We breathed again, all of us. With disappointment. With relief.
‘Why did you doubt, Bunny?’ reJesus said.
‘I thought maybe –’ she said, turning to us. ‘I think I might have felt something?’
‘No,’ Buck said, standing. ‘You did not. He thinks he’s real! He thinks he’s the Son of God! We need to shut him down. He’s not a little plastic Jesus doll in the manger. Don’t you understand? We can’t allow this to continue. We have to take some sort of action. This is evil.’
‘I agree with Buck,’ Pastor Wilky said, from the back. ‘It’s time to put an end to this. We’ve indulged this for too long.’
Bunny sat down on the floor and pressed her hands to her face.
‘Turn him off !’ someone shouted.
We members of the church board looked to one another, unsure how to proceed. The majority of congregants clearly wanted to turn off the device, but nobody seemed willing to perform this task. Reaching the button, after all, would have required kneeling down in front of the reJesus.
‘Well,’ reJesus said. ‘I suppose that might be enough for today.’
And then, without any fanfare at all, he disappeared completely.
That he had the ability to disappear – that is, the agency to decide when he’d had enough for the day – raised some serious questions about what, exactly, he was: a resource or an actual consciousness or something in between. In the weeks to come, he did not rematerialize, though a dim green light on top of the device indicated that it was still receiving power. Although we could no longer see him, we sensed he was still there in the room with us, watching and listening. It was eerie.
Studying the space he’d previously occupied, you’d sometimes observe – what? A tiny pinprick of light. A very small soap bubble. A shimmering transparency. People described it different ways.
We called Customer Service at reUp and a representative admitted that no other reJesus in the history of the company had behaved so peculiarly. The other reJesuses, she said, mostly just talked about love and the Golden Rule. But the consciousness was capable of incorporating new information into the schemata of its original programming, she added, and so it could, in a very real sense, grow and change. Maybe this iteration had, for whatever reason, gone off the rails. She suggested we simply restart the device if we were dissatisfied, and we said that we would.
But of course we did no such thing. We weren’t going to turn it off. Why is difficult to say. We were waiting for something, maybe, and this waiting – the expectation itself, of revelation, of doom, whatever – was a jangling thrill that we didn’t want to give up.
You might think our behavior strange. You blame us, possibly, for letting things go as far as they did. But church services had become for us a sort of dream – odd but not entirely unpleasant – and we did not wish the dream to end. Not yet.
Forty days later – to the day – he reappeared. That Sunday, when we asked him where he’d been, he said only, ‘Traveling.’ Traveling where? we asked. ‘Beyond,’ he said.
He walked from one side of the altar to the other. He’d never done this before. He’d never roamed more than a few feet from the device. Whatever invisible ropes had tethered him to the puck before now had, it seemed, been severed during the time of his sojourn. He took a seat on the piano bench, swinging his legs under the instrument, and considered the keys. It seemed like he really might play something for us.
‘What’s beyond here?’ somebody asked.
‘Don’t ask him that,’ Pastor Wilky said, belligerent. ‘There is no beyond.’
‘For him, I mean,’ Pastor Wilky added quickly. ‘There is no beyond for him.’
A note sounded. A piano note. We all looked to the reJesus. Where else? There was no other piano in the church, and the note had vibrated quietly, yes – but also clearly.
Now, you will find those among us who say they actually witnessed reJesus pressing a piano key, and you will find those who claim his hands never left his lap. Similarly you will find a contingent who insist the note was a B flat. Others, an A. But let it be known that there was – and is – complete agreement that a note did sound. That much we can state with certainty, that much we feel comfortable presenting to you as a fact. Even Bunny will tell you she heard the note. As for what you should make of that, well . . .
‘I’m afraid you won’t find much you like beyond here,’ reJesus said.
We waited for him to say more, obviously.
‘What’s that mean?’ Pastor Wilky asked. ‘What do you mean by that?’
‘If you can’t love each other here, I highly doubt you’ll figure out how to do it over there.’
‘So there is an over there, then,’ Buck Newlin said, a tad too triumphantly.
‘Over there, here, same difference,’ reJesus said. ‘You have no idea where you are anyway.’
Once again, none of us seemed to have any clue what he was talking about.
‘I’m not sure this is accurate,’ Delia Cross said. ‘Theologically,
I mean. The real Jesus never said anything like this.’
We looked at the puck at the base of the stairs. Was it possible God was reaching out to us through it? Bunny emerged from her pew and stepped forward. She was wearing sweats again and the gray roots in her hair were showing. She had, earlier that week, put her duplex on the market and there was a rumor going around that she’d quit her job too.
‘Bunny,’ reJesus said. ‘You ready?’
She nodded, and reJesus processed down the aisle, a placid look on his face, and moved toward the exit.
‘Where are you going?’ somebody asked.
‘Out,’ he said.
He ghosted through the double doors at the rear of the church. Bunny followed after him in her flip-flops. A handful of us – nearly half – slid out of the pews and hurried down the aisle, chasing after them, curious to find out what he might do next. Outside the church we saw him across the road, walking through a field of freshly mowed green grass, the sunlight penetrating his robe as shafts of transparency. Bunny was only a few steps behind him. We hustled after them, the wet grass sticking to our shoes and pant hems.
At the edge of the field, where it met another road, he turned to us and announced that he was leaving us behind. He was going somewhere we couldn’t follow because, absent faith, we’d find only darkness and confusion. We were visitors here, and one day we’d understand the truth of it. But until then death would toss us down into a vast black sea that would swallow and churn and drown us back to life again. This life. This dream. We’d wash up on the shore of this dream over and over again until we learned that we belonged elsewhere and to another. Over and over again, thrown back, we’d find ourselves in the warm, comfortable wombs of our mothers, where sticky clusters of cells would blossom and entrap us and make us think we were Eliza Wheelers and Bunny Mayhews and Buck Newlins and Pastor Wilkys. We would never be able to cross that dark sea and find home unless we first –
He was gone! Fizzled away like a mist of rain over hot concrete.
‘What was he going to say? Unless we first – do what?’ someone asked.
‘Do you think he . . . ?’
We looked up to the sky but saw only clouds and sun. No angels, no staircases. Beautiful – but ordinary.
And where was Bunny? She was nowhere to be seen, and for a moment it really did seem possible she’d disappeared with him, gone wherever he’d gone. Then somebody spotted her farther down the road, walking alone through the parking lot of a grocery store. We watched her until she reached the end of the lot and just kept on going.
‘Maybe he ranged too far from the device,’ someone suggested.
Curious, we returned to the church, hoping that perhaps he’d been lassoed back into place above the device and might continue his lesson there. Instead we found Pastor Wilky and a few others hunched over the baptismal font. We crowded in, each of us, to see for ourselves, the puck, drowned at the bottom of the shallow marble tub. The little green light at its top was no longer blinking. The damage was done.
Artwork © Little Prick, Salvator Mundi, 2016