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Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011
Special to The Japan Times
I was thrilled when, around Easter this year, I received an email from a leading American publishing house.
"We've been reading your column in The Japan Times and would be very open to your submitting a story for an anthology of religious pieces we are publishing in 2012."
I jumped at the chance. A blessing out of the blue, it seemed. So, I toiled away for some weeks and sent them my resulting story about Jesus showing up one day on a street corner in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Days of trepidation passed as I waited for the judgment on my story. Then an email arrived from Burt Rumdock, a man revered — and rightfully so — as "the holiest of holies" in the pantheon of U.S. publishing.
"We absolutely adore your story, 'American Jesus,' and definitely want to include it in our new anthology. But the editors and I feel that a few minor changes are called for. I hope you will take these to heart and resubmit your story to us."
The email had an attached Word file bearing two suggestions. I am used to getting advice from editors and was quite happy to give them what they wanted.
"You have your American Jesus saying, 'If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.' We've run this one past our VP, Chick Deaney, and he has asked that you delete this particular saying, as it might upset our friends in the Pentagon. Our company motto is: 'An author who disregards the sentiments of influential readers is a dead duck.' "
The second request was that I take these words out of the mouth of my Jesus: "Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you."
"As 2012 is an election year in this country," wrote Mr. Rumdock, "we can't have a character of such impeccable moral qualifications as Jesus alienating his base."
I gladly took out the offending quotations and emailed "American Jesus" back again to the States. A period of purgatorial anxiety ensued. Who knows but this story might get a Pulitzer Prize — or at least a 15-second mention on the Oprah Winfrey Network!
Finally, I received another email from Mr. Rumdock.
"Great stuff. We love it. But the company treasurer, Timothy Frightener, asked that you delete the quote, 'Ask and it will be given to you.' He says that this turns Jesus into a closet socialist and he suggests you either wipe it or substitute, 'There's no such thing as a free lunch' in its place."
And there was one more suggestion in the email: "Your character, Jesus of Corpus Christi, says, 'If any man will sue you and take away your coat, let him also have your cloak.' Our legal counselor, Derrick Bolder, worries that this will upset people in the American Bar Association, where litigation is the Holy Grail of commiseration. Kindly delete and resend manuscript."
Well, I had been asked in the past to cut certain parts of a piece of fiction, so I deleted the two offending phrases and emailed back the now significantly shorter short story. Days of intense angst ensued, but dreams of me sitting on a sofa with Lindsay Lohan and Lady Gaga on one of those late-night talk shows kept me going.
On the seventh day of torment, I received this email from Burt Rumdock: "Amazing! We love the story even more now. We just have two more suggestions, and if you accede to these we are almost sure to include your story in our upcoming anthology."
He suggested that I refrain from having my main character say, "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven."
Apparently, they ran this past their business manager, Guy Wall, who said, "Either he axes the whole quote or puts in a proviso that exempts executive bonuses."
The other suggestion was that I ought not to allow my Jesus to say, "I'm the one who made it possible for you to have direct contact with God. You don't need a middleman."
It seems that the publisher's CFO (Chief Faith Officer), Father Yo-Yo Blair, fired off this memo: "That would kill off our chances of getting that crucial nod from the American Council of Christian Churches."
So yet again I trimmed the story and sent it back to America. It departed my "out" file in one shake of a neutrino. After all, the story was now a paragraph long.
Panicked dreams plagued me as I saw my chances of being called "One of Time Magazine's 1,000 Most Influential Authors of 2012" going up in a puff of Vatican-roof smoke. Then, another email arrived from publishing lord Burt Rumdock. My hand shook like a palm frond in the wind, and my neck poured with a torrent of sweat as I clicked my mouse on the mail.
This is what it said: "Miraculous! Out of this world! We are now more than ever smitten with your story, and if you go along with the following minor revisions, you will be included in the new anthology, surrounded on its pages by the gods of contemporary religious writing."
These were the minor revisions: "Your Jesus says, 'First take the plank out of your own eye and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.' Well, to tell you the truth, no one on our editorial board thought that they had planks in their eyes. Head of our Diplomatic Sensitivity Committee, Rev. Clinton Hillsong, said, 'It's sermonizing like this that sets American policy in the Middle East back by decades.' "
The second requested revision concerned my hero running into the Dallas branch of the Bank of America and screaming, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you!"
"We regret to inform you," wrote the almighty Mr. Rumdock, "that no Jesus of ours would risk being refused a home loan through such rash behavior."
When I deleted those two sections of my story, it was only one line in length. Frankly, it was hard to see Oprah or Time waxing lyrical (or any other way) over a piece of fiction with only one period in it. I was, however, prepared to resubmit my story — until I read the last line of the email . . .
"Finally, we are prepared to include your story in our new all-American anthology of religious pieces if you make just one more little change. That concerns the title. All of the people working here felt that your title, 'American Jesus,' was inappropriate for the American market. Your so-called American Jesus struck us neither as American, nor as Jesusesque, a term we like to bandy about here. If you accede to changing the title and deleting the first and only sentence of your story, we will be ecstatic enough to publish it in our new anthology."
In a PS he added three little words of encouragement, or something: "Keep the faith!"
Well, I am happy to report to you, dear reader, that I cut the one and only sentence left in my story, changed its title and resubmitted it to that leading American publishing house.
Like a bolt from the blue, back came an email bearing the joyous tiding that my great work had passed the board unanimously.
Look for me in your magazines and on your television screens next year, as author of the title, "The Greatest Story Never Told."
Get ready, my friends, to shout to the high heavens in shock and awe: "He's back! Pass the ammunition! He's back!"