American Writer Monthly 11/4/02
CHASING GHOSTS & OTHER STRANGE TRIPS WITH JC
Staff Writer: Beverly Reeves
It has been a long break between journals for the rogue journalist-cum chronicler of the bizarre, James Campion, whose 1996 debut, Deep Tank Jersey burst onto the underground publishing scene with the force of a violent shore gale. His follow-up compendium, the fearlessly vitriolic, Fear No Art hilariously reviewed subsequent years of living off the fat of a solid debut, but failed to make the noise of the wildly sordid and entertaining, Deep Tank Jersey. Now comes Trailing Jesus, an enigmatic and highly emotional journal penned along the Israeli desert with ghostly dreams and driven by the spirit of one of the most revered, controversial and influential personalities to ever grace the pages of any tome.
So where does a Gonzo hack with a rabid cyber following and two books of relative frivolity get off tackling Jesus Christ? And not even with a smirk, mind you. After all, it’s been a few years since the world was engrossed in millennium madness with its apocalyptic overtones, and according to Campion’s people, the original manuscript was mostly in the can by late 1997, so this could hardly have been a New Age religious backlash from the events of 9/11. So, again, where does Trailing Jesus hail, if not from the mind of one of the most brazen new authors to break molds only to be bound by new labels and break them once again?
Why not go to the source, who was summarily given the head’s-up that we took his latest work with a modicum of trepidation, considering the annoying levels of irreverence and outrage jammed into his first two efforts, not to mention the litany of abuse dolled out in his weekly syndicated column, Reality Check. We caught up with jc at the beginning of his promotional junket for Trailing Jesus. In fact, we are told, this is the man’s first interview since the book went to print. It is due out Christmas of 2002.
Are you religious?
Seriously. From what we’ve seen of the early review segments of Trailing Jesus, this is pretty heady stuff for a mere Gonzo lark, and it certainly doesn’t read like a lark.
Correct. It is not a lark. Much like Deep Tank Jersey, it is a journey. But unlike the four month trek depicted in Deep Tank, it lasted for 33 years. I feel comfortable in saying it still lasts, and I expect it to last for the remainder of my life. But the book covers the thoughts of a man I hardly know anymore.
You’re talking about yourself?
How is that so?
Would you recognize the person you were seven years ago?
Well that brings us to why it took you six years to complete Trailing Jesus when Deep Tank Jersey was a similar effort and took only ten months to write. Both possess your fast-paced journal style, but entirely different approaches.
Completely different state of mind and subject matter. That might be a painfully obvious and irreverent way to put it, because, of course, the subject of Jesus Christ would rank a tad higher on the scale than a New Jersey club band, but that’s not why I say it was a longer ride. The difference is in the perspective. In my first book, I plunged myself into the journey. This one is the journey emanating from myself.
So it was a revelatory experience.
Yes, very much so, and it took me some time to formulate the thought processes of thinking in one way about my surroundings and how I fit into them and coming to grips with the emotional, intellectual and philosophical revolution of spirit it took to place my journey into the context of this book.
How do you mean “revolution of spirit”?
Recently a friend told me it was impossible to express what I aimed to express in this book with words. He said I was insane for even making an outline, much less spending some six years paining over the thing. But, you see, that in itself was a journey.
In a much smaller way, I experienced something of what the Buddha discusses in his “awakening”. Again, in a slightly less historical and more intellectual way, much more like what the late-great Alan Watts presented in his lectures. I had this gradual understanding, but instead of a peaceful emergence, it was a violent change of heart, a revolution in itself. It makes sense really in the context of the my subject matter, because Jesus of Nazareth was a revolutionary in every sense of the word. His peace movement was born of violent personal change, something he demanded from his tribe. It’s reviewed in his philosophy and in his actions. That kind of understanding blows you way initially. It has to.
The book is both personal revelation and biting Biblical commentary, is it not?
I promised myself on this one not to berate any conclusions based on this project. It should speak for itself, so if that’s how you see it, sure. I’m kind of glad that my notoriety is not as great as it might be at the time of this book’s release, because those who know my work will probably prejudge it. I know all about that kind of preconceived notions. “Wow! Campion’s going to piss off some people with this subject!” I think that’s what publishers and agents wanted for it too.
But you admit there is a great deal of controversial deptictions in this book.
Yes there is, but it should not be the focal point. This is not a biting commentary on the subject matter. It’s more of a personal experience through the subject, not unlike what I explored with Deep Tank Jersey. Although that book has spawned a fan base solely on its irreverence and humorous overtones, I still think it a heartfelt tribute to the idea of making music for a living and surviving in the atmosphere that kind of commitment engenders. I guess you can apply that kind of dedicated synopsis to my Holy Land experience and the resulting voice of this book.
Having said that, when considering the subject, the book is anything but tame. But, again, that in itself is a microcosm of the subject’s legacy as well.
Having read Deep Tank Jersey many years ago now, and having just read the galleys for Trailing Jesus the most striking similarity for me is the personal honesty of the author’s pure feelings of his surroundings. Is that a fair assessment of your goals with this particular story?
I’m sure everyone can relate to maturing into their own personal philosophies. Sometimes we don’t see it coming and sometimes we force it to surface. I didn’t recognize many of the feelings I was going through at the time and how that influenced my telling of this story, but I can tell you the search was planned, and the resulting story, all true. I think the people and places I encountered during my time in Israel bring that out more or less.
The book is like any journal on any trip, but it becomes far more intriguing when you consider what it is I was searching for throughout its telling. Israel does something to the psyche that is hard to explain. I hope I did the experience justice by simply trying to impart it.
I read somewhere that you needed for the reader of Deep Tank Jersey to understand the motivatation of the author. Why he would throw himself into the fray with no preconceptions. Is that what this latest trip was for you?
Yes, I’d say that’s right on the money. I really just wanted to know what was the purpose, the need for most of us to believe in a structure to the universe, God and all of that, when the blatant evidence all around speaks volumes against it. And not through some boring study, but to dive in head first and challenge my faith in humankind, my preconceived thoughts about the mystical elements of life. Yes, and I suppose being a Catholic kid from the Bronx and being inundated with images and stories of how Jesus Christ fits into the scheme of that has something to do with my motivation, but again, I shouldn’t try and explain the book too much. To tell you the truth, I’ve forgotten much of it. I need to read it from the beginning myself.
You’ve forgotten it?
Sure. It was so subconscious, most of it. I can’t stress enough that if you plan to go to a place like Jerusalem, you probably shouldn’t be in the introspective state of mind I was in at the time. It makes for good writing material, but tends to screw with your head a bit. I mean, I’ve recovered, but not entirely. Despite writing the book, it still seems like some kind of reoccurring dream state. Christ, I sound like Huxley’s Mescaline connection, but I can’t lie. It was pretty disturbing.
Now to the book itself. Isn’t there a fine line between a bold statement with this subject and total pretentious blather?
Again, I would tend to agree if that is what your vision has brought to the book. I must stand by my words, however. They’re all I’ve got really. I plan to do plenty of these interviews, but in the end, I’ve got to stand by the book as a statement unto itself.
In the end, before beginning to write it, I could take no more of this haunting, this incredible reverberation of thought and vision in my skull. It had to come out. I think the trip to Israel certainly inspired it, but I began to unleash these emotions because the book is far less intellectual thought than raw emotion for me. If nothing else, I think the book is about conviction, regardless of what side you’re on, evil or good. Excuse me, what side you subscribe to, since you really can’t escape either.
Man, does that sound pretentious, or what? It’s hard not to come off as pedantic, but what can you do? This is a difficult subject to tackle. I guess if I gave it five minutes thought, instead of diving head first, I might have skipped the thing all together.
From what I gather you spent your time in Israel coming to grips with these visions and thoughts?
Yes. The spring of ’96 to be exact.
There is a great deal of self-evaluation in this book. Was that part of the “trail” left by Jesus Christ?
For me, yes. I suppose the same could be said for anyone of influence. I see pieces of that in all my revolutionary heroes. I just finished reading a brilliant book by professors, Ronald Collins and David Skover called The Trials of Lenny Bruce that echoed similar sentiments expressed in my book by Jesus of Nazareth. And I’m not referring to the obvious Jewish persecution either. I’m talking again about conviction. For me, Jesus of Nazareth ran the belief system as far as it goes. A lot of people love the “live fast/die young” romanticism of pikers who think they’ve bent the envelope in the past decades of media hype and celebrity worship. That’s bullshit compared to taking something, anything, to the absolute breaking point and then beyond.
So, is it fair to say that the Jesus Christ found in your book is primarily a social icon as opposed to a religious one?
Again, I don’t mean to belittle religious icons here, but I’m talking about Jesus of Nazareth, the historical, the actual Jewish artisan, not what it all became after his execution. The movement, the Jesus movement, being alive and well somewhere under all those centuries of muck; that is what I’m getting at.
I guess what I mean to say here in its most crass and bare bones terminology is forget the divine aspect of a Jesus Christ and marvel at the remarkable faith of a Jesus of Nazareth. Therein lies the strong conviction, the utter conviction of the persecuted first-century peasant with the dream.
Try and understand the balls it takes to defend your philosophy to the end, the bitter end, as it were. Then, my guess is you can see the purpose of any journey to discover your truth.
The truth as you see it. The truth as it applies to your specific conviction. To me, that is the greatest faith, the faith in one’s self. And I’m not talking about ego, but the true self you hide to kind of get through life. That “person” alone could begin to break down the barriers of hate and self-loathing that leads to all this shared pain of ours.
I know that sounds nuts. It is no wonder then that they kill people like Jesus of Nazareth.
So then Jesus Christ had his own truth separate to that of the religious one based on it?
Despite the fact that Israel has two thousand years of garbage piled on it, you can still smell the air of rebellion in the original Christian movement. Forget that; the original Jesus movement, which had little to nothing to do with the subsequent Christian movement. That is true of the Israelite movement. That is true for the Islamic movement. When you go to these places, even now, you can smell it. You can really feel it.
From the parts that I’ve read, I did get that feeling.
You wrestle with definitions of God in Trailing Jesus.
Well, who doesn’t? But for the most part that is how you can deconstruct the fanatic, the contrarian, the irrational philosopher in a Jesus of Nazareth. Dehumanizing the lunatic. Yeah, we’ve certainly perfected the art of specializing or blaming the messenger and ignoring the message. What you do is dilute the message by demonizing or heradling the messenger. You call the messenger devil or angel. Satan or God. Special or evil. Label the mystery. Slap terms on everything and it becomes easier to squeeze them into our preconceptions. Then you can deconstruct them or reconstruct them to fit your needs, philosophical, political or social.
You see, for my money, you can’t find a more misunderstood human on record then Jesus of Nazareth. And that is not merely a controversial religious statement. I can debate that in the arena of social concerns, politics, pop culture icons, lunatics, artists, whomever you’d like to bring up in whatever idiom. And here is where the God answer comes in. The duality of this mess called existence comes from change, evolution and danger. Yes, wrestling with God is part of it. But it is only a part. A big part in the story is a guy who needed for you to understand that key aspect of the equation, the battle for existence within one single human soul.
I think there is a mistake of readers to delve into these books and expect an answer. Having not read the whole book, I assume you do not provide even your own humble answer.
I think it’s in there somewhere, yeah. I mean conclusions are arbitrary. Anybody can come up with any philosophy that might stick. Religion is based on theorem never proven. Faith is a tough nut to crack. I suppose being killed for your faith is something along the lines of trailing the icon, but that’s not where I’ve chosen to go with this book.
Also, it’s important to point out that the main reason I refuse to embrace conclusions in these interviews is to allow the reader, not me, not you, not any magazine or radio show, to come to their own conclusions about their place in this struggle for existence. And I’m not saying my book is lending a hand with that. It’s really only one man’s story, but one I would hope people can begin to dissect within their own journey.
Having said that, you do make conclusions on basic ambiguities in the Jesus story, or the story of Christianity as a whole. Something as simple as Jesus being a stone mason in your book, as opposed to being universally accepted as a carpenter, all the way to the Immaculate Conception, something in which you reduce to Greek myth.
Wrong on the latter point. I only present what has become the scholarly approach. I have yet to come to conclusions of metaphysical claims. That is definitely not the point of the book. I think Biblical concepts such as the Immaculate Conception are distractions from the message of the original Jesus movement. It was meaningless to them, so it is meaningless to me. There is no conclusion in this book on the Immaculate Conception’s veracity or its dogmatic hyperbole, just its relation to the man, Jesus of Nazareth and his times and its effect on his community. Everything else is religious window-dressing, which is fine if you do not let it distract you from your truth.
My conclusion is that something like the Immaculate Conception is distracting. It really isn’t important to understanding the Jesus movement as it pertains to the first century Jewish peasant or the 21st century reader. Just because the Gospel writers, specifically Luke, felt the need to claim someone was born of a virgin or whether that was misinterpreted by a church created out of Greek and Roman ideals of gods and goddesses is not the focal point of the book. Of course, it must be broached, but it is a minor sidelight to the bigger picture as I see it. That’s all based on the bullshit European obsession with birthright and origin and hardly important to the message or the life defined. And I feel pretty secure in saying that Jesus couldn’t have cared less about it, and so, neither does the author.
Now, in the case of the mason vs. the carpenter thing, all we know is that Jesus of Nazareth was the son of an artisan, who might have practiced the craft as well. Some schools of thought believe the English translation of “carpenter” from Aramaic to Hebrew to Greek was off. Again, not pertinent, really, to the grand scheme of things here.
Having said that, chances are that working with stone in first-century Palestine would have been more prevalent than woodwork, which was nearly absent to the destitute classes Jesus hailed from. I chose mason. I see Jesus as a stone mason. The most important aspect of his profession or what his family did to earn a living was only important in that unlike today, any first century artisan was pathetically low on the societal ladder. This helped to formulate his social philosophy about the poor and destitute, but I don’t think his former occupation matters much beyond that. It’s tantamount to arguing that Hitler’s painting career formulated his politics. Although I wouldn’t doubt some historians have cited it.
Also available at Amazon
|Also available at Amazon||Also available at Amazon|
|Also available at Amazon||Also available at Amazon|
How long did it take you to research all the Biblical historicity of Jesus?
I would say the better part of twelve years now. I find it to be more of a hobby than anything else. Sort of a labor of love. I’ve probably read four to five books on Jesus a year for that span of time, including every possible version of the New Testament and original Jewish translations of the Torah and the Old Testament a dozen or so times.
In the end, that stuff really doesn’t matter either. This is not a fact and find book. I suppose many learned people in the genre will attack some portion of the thing. Again, it is a book about emotional instincts based on human nature, and as such lends itself to speculation. I’ve more or less fashioned a sketch based on history and in the process get to wondering exactly why the hell should I even care about the heritage of a philosophy, especially a skewed philosophy of “loving one’s enemy”? More importantly, why should, or did, anyone with any sense of survival want to base a religion on “love your enemy”? And, in the end, no one did, did they?
Really think about the beauty of that statement, “love your enemy”; the utter madness of it. Get down to the crux of that, mister. That will screw with your head for a decade or so.
Would you say this book is anti-religious?
I would say the book’s subject was anti-religious.
Would you consider that statement blasphemy?
Yes, of course. I believe if you check the record blasphemy is the main reason Jesus of Nazareth was executed. He went down for that first and foremost. A good deal of people survived sedition and insurrection around that time. Not many, but some. If Jesus was such a threat to Rome, why weren’t the apostles or the crazies who followed him massacred along with him, like, say, Spartacus’ troops?
Nah, Jesus went down for saying he was God and religion was bullshit. “He says he’s God? Let’s get rid of him immediately before he poisons anyone else with that lunacy.” It’s rather elementary addition by subtraction.
How much of the gospels would you consider anti-Semitic.
Most of it.
Let’s just say its anti-cultural, not against any particular race. In a sense, Jewish Christians, or Jews who stood by the murder of Jesus and their immediate ancestors had a beef with the rest of Judaism. Of course, this is innocent disagreement until interpreted as hate-speak by the predictably myopic rationale of human nature. We need to find enemies. It keeps us warm and fuzzy. Makes us feel important. And that is part of the larger scale of misinterpretation of Jesus of Nazareth of which I spoke earlier. That whole church mess is literally the antithesis of the Jesus movement. It’s really sad.
Jesus fought the establishment of the religion of his time. So basing a new religion on this figure is ludicrous at best, but as dissected in my book, what else do mourners have left to do but build on the memory of the fallen? I cannot blame the early Christians or those Jews carrying on the memory of their slain leader fashioning rituals or penning confrontational literature. I blame the supposed clear-thinking readers of these documents thousands of years later for choosing, and let that read choosing, to interpret that Jews or the Jewish culture was somehow responsible for the death of Jesus of Nazareth.
That is asinine thinking, as stupid today as our limited thoughts about race or gender or anything that is born of fear, insecurity or ignorance In fact, it is doubtless that human nature itself, and battles for power, tradition and superstition that come of it, were responsible for murdering Jesus of Nazareth. The church culture and the politically charged pecking order of a caste system snuffed him out as sure as I’m sitting here saying it.
Again, the irony of this Jesus story worth dissecting is that human nature killed a man trying to change human nature. As we all know, in every generation and every culture, it’s a rough gig.
Back to your trip before we close, you were in Israel during that nation’s first ever open election.
Correct, and it is an interesting sidelight to my trip. It is, as we all know from the news, an extremely volatile political country, stemming from culture and religious wars. I saw the best and worst of that when I was there and it would have been insane not to tell of it.
Since this is such a difficult subject to debate or even discuss at times, and certainly a tough one to do an interview based on a book I have only read excerpts from, I’ll give you the last word. I would just like to know what you feel the most compelling aspect of Trailing Jesus is.
I would say it’s honesty about my fragile humanity, especially a twentieth century man and a former Catholic, and a fighter, I hope, of the good fight. I think it’s the most brutally honest thing I’ve written, and yeah, it could be misconstrued as pretentious or didactic, but it was not my attention. I think, I hope, the reader sees themselves in the work.
As I say in the Author’s Note at the beginning of the thing, I really am a fan of Jesus. I am a fan of the undying faith he had in his convictions and the courage to choose peace and forgiveness over self-preservation. Somehow I believe all this religious posturing and rabid moral and cultural judgments in his name have tried like hell to dim that most stunning statement. But it’s still there, in black and white. Read it in the words, not my words, but his. Not my theories, but his. It’s hard to face, but if you are going to have faith in a philosophy and its author, please get to the core of it, warts, blemishes, scars and all.
And I want to be clear that Jesus of Nazareth was not the first, nor was he the last to espouse these theories. Some lived well into old age like the Buddha and some were cut down in their youth like Martin Luther King and Gandhi. The most amazing aspect of the Jesus story though, and how it pertains to human history, is its reverence, its lasting influence on western culture and the miraculous stories born of this incredibly complexed man.
Finally, I guess, I hope in some way by sharing my humbling experience it might spark something new and inspiring in the reader as well. I really do.
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