r m p




Iron John the Baptist

Not too many days ago I watched part of a religious TV show about Saint Joseph, a.k.a. Joseph of Nazareth, the father, step-father, or foster-father of Jesus depending on your theological orientation. The participants were engaging in a veritable orgy of obsequious doting on Saint Joseph, required to do so by his position on the official calendar of saints. In such cases, where religious duty, defined by dogma, compels one to wax eloquent on a subject about which there is nothing to say, it is always remark able what people will wind up saying. 

One panelist cooed on about how in our society, with its decay of family patterns, it is especially important to hold up Saint Joseph as a role model for fathers. Utter nonsense! If there was ever an "absentee father," it was the good saint. When Jesus returns to Nazareth in Mark chapter 6, the locals do a quick nose count of his relatives, listing his mother, four brothers, and an unspecified numbers of sisters. But no Joe. Was he dead by this time? 

In fact we know nothing at all about Joseph of Nazareth. If we look to extra-canonical legends about Joseph, the situation is even worse: in the various Infancy Gospels of the second and third centuries, Jesus is pictured as a kind of miracle-working Dennis the Menace, Joseph as a bumbling buffoon much resembling the dad character on the typical network sitcom. For example, Joseph is unable to figure out how to get all the legs of a chair to come out the same length, but Jesus strolls into the carpenter shop and miraculously lengthens them. That's m'boy!

 If any New Testament character qualifies as the father-figure for Jesus, it is surely John the Baptist. Evidence from John's gospel implies that Jesus for a time considered himself a disciple of the Baptist before he broke away to form his own movement. And according to the other gospels Jesus never had aught but the highest praise for John, even calling him the greatest man in history (Matthew 11:11)! 

Admittedly we know scarcely more about John the Baptist than about Saint Joseph, but the significance of John as a father-figure is not limited to the historical question. Its real significance emerges in the dimension of myth and archetype. 

And here I must invoke the recent book, now much read, Iron John by poet Robert Bly. Bly expounds an ancient legend found in Grimm's Fairy Tales, but probably far more ancient. It treats of the need, deep-seated in the male psyche, for male initiation before one can enter upon true manhood. The work of anthropologists and comparative mythology scholars like Victor Turner, Arnold van Gennep, Joseph Campbell, and Mircea Eliade would rein force Bly's claim that from the beginning boys did not success fully navigate the passage into mature manhood without being initiated by older men into ritual and vocational competence. Having  a first, biological father wasn't enough; a lad needed a second father, a mentor, to initiate him. This mentor (or as Bly also calls him, a "male mother") might be an uncle, a tribal elder, or the village shaman (healer, priest, seer, mediator, "medicine man," "witch doctor"). 

In the legend of Iron John, the initiator is the title character, and he is a striking mythical type: the Wild Man or Green Man familiar from rural English folklore but as old as Enkidu in the pre-biblical Gilgamesh Epic. 

In the story a wandering adventurer penetrates a mysterious quarter of the forest from which no one has returned alive. The king has often sent armed parties to explore the region, but none is heard from again. But the adventurer discovers that Iron John, a titan of a man covered head to foot with rust-colored fur, lives beneath the surface of a lake from which he emerges to snag the unwary. The king's men proceed to drain the lake and capture Iron John. He is caged and put on show in the courtyard. There the king's son sees him. 

One day the boy's golden ball chances to roll into the cage. Iron John offers to return it if only the young prince will free him. But to do this the prince must needs steal the key from where it reposes beneath the pillow of his mother the queen. At length he does and accompanies Iron John into the forest. His giant companion turns out to be quite civil, as well as a powerful benefactor who comes to his aid at crucial points throughout the prince's subsequent life. 

After passing through many adventures in the course of which he proves his own manhood, the prince beholds Iron John again, only this time the wild man's hirsute covering is gone, and Iron John is revealed as a great golden king radiant with sun-like splendor. He had been the victim of a magical curse which doomed him to a bestial existence until he should aid a young prince to fulfill his own destiny. 

Bly interprets the story pretty much a la Jung. The Wild Man is the primordial maleness which must find expression in all men, without which they will be but gray, faceless puppets of society, mere echoes of the authentic existence they are born for. This maleness is neither chauvinism nor machismo, but rather strength, fairness, rejoicing in duty, decisiveness and courage. 

(Incidentally, Bly admits that there are equally important female mysteries with requisite rites to enter into them, but as a male he does not presume to expound them. He leaves that to women. So do I.) 

The Wild Man is there in all men, but it is submerged. We fear it and leave it buried, for we fear it will run amok like the unbridled Id. But that only happens when a man receives no initiation and the inner Wild Man bursts forth untutored. Urban street gangs are the perfect example here. These young hellions have no male initiators, but they have plenty of Wild Man energy. It is a dangerous recipe. By contrast, the neurotic, introspective anti-hero that so preoccupied the intellectual imagination in the sixties can be seen as the result of the Wild Man never having emerged in any form at all. 

To claim one's genuine manhood, Bly says, men must steal away from the apron strings of their queen-mothers and take to the road with an initiator (figuratively, but perhaps literally, too, as in the book ­Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance­). A man must trust himself to a male mentor: a coach, a dissertation advisor, a job supervisor, or a spiritual director, who will take him under his wing as an apprentice. And eventually the Wild Man within, the volatile creative force that contains the secret gift of the real you, will be seen to bear the image of the Sun King, a divine ego-ideal of maturity. 

In Jungian terms, we might say the Wild Man is the Ego, while the Sun King is the Self. One must let the Ego emerge, embarrassing and uncomfortable as it may be, or one will come to nothing. But one will remain arrogant and immature unless one allows the Self to emerge, a persona with wider dimensions and broader, more generous horizons. 

Bly says this whole scenario (to which there is much, much more; read the book) is not particularly Christian, though neither is it anti-Christian. It is more basic, a deep psychic truth common to human males as a species. 

But I wonder if in fact we do not have a genuine biblical parallel in the story of Jesus and John the Baptist. Consider the bearing of the Baptist after all. He appears in the wilderness, a locust-eater clad in a hair shirt. Fortuitously, he is even named John! And this hairy wild man is even found in the water! If Iron John lurked in the lake, John the Baptist wades in the Jordan. 

A king, Herod Antipas, sends troops to apprehend him, just as a king sent men to capture Iron John. In the Iron John myth the role of the initiator begins at this point, once the king's son meets Iron John, whereas in the gospel John's initiator role precedes the arrest. Jesus is initiated by baptism in the Jordan while John is still at liberty. But it is only after the arrest of John that Jesus launches his own movement, carrying on the work taught him by his mentor John the Baptist. And just as the prince in the story invokes Iron John's aid from time to time, so does Jesus frequently cite the example of the Baptist to authenticate his own actions (Matthew 11:7 ff; 17:9-13; 21:23-27).

Does John the Baptist ever graduate from Wild Man to Sun King? His pupil Jesus does (see the Transfiguration story and the Resurrection subsequently, in some versions of which his countenance shines like the sun). But the Baptist himself did, too, as his disciples eventually concluded that he, too, had risen from the dead (Mark 6:14) and was the Light of the World (Bultmann suggests the Logos hymn of John 1 was borrowed from the sect of the Baptist and originally referred to John as "the Light that enlightens every man"). 

There is another, an older biblical Iron John analogue, that of the Baptist's prototype the Prophet Elijah. John even borrows from Elijah the costume of the camel's hair tunic. In the Hebrew text Elijah is called "a hairy man," and the great biblical scholar Ignaz Goldziher (Mythology Among the Hebrews) pointed out that this description often denotes the symbolic identity of a character as a personification of the sun, the hair standing for the sun's rays. Long-tressed Samson (whose name is simply the Hebrew for "sun") is an even clearer case of this.  Elijah finishes out his earthly course, as you know, by ascending into the heavens aboard a fiery chariot! Now if that isn't a dead giveaway, I don't know what is! He is the noontide sun.

So Elijah is both hairy Wild Man and glorious Sun King. He fits other aspects of the Iron John pattern as well. He is eventually arrested by the troops of the king (2 Kings 1:9-15), and here the story is even closer to Iron John's, for the first two parties of troops dispatched do not come back: Elijah roasts them with the solar fires at his command! And Elijah is an initiator! Just as the Baptist initiated Jesus who went on to continue and magnify his mentor's work, so did Elijah initiate Elisha, who carries on his master's work after Elijah's departure, with a double share of the latter's miracle-working spirit! 

So I think Bly is mistaken: the Iron John archetype is to be found in the Bible, in both Testaments, and in fact if there is anything to his analysis of it, then he has provided an important new hermeneutical key to understanding and applying these passages. Perhaps the churches ought to think about building into their Confirmation and adolescent Baptism rites a new (really very old) dimension of adult initiation. The biblical resources are there for it. And if we did, we might wind up with a form of Christianity less immature, less timid, than the one we now endure.

Robert M. Price



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