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One of the most influential people in the world during the past two thousand years may be surprising to some people. He is the center of controversy after controversy; nations have risen and fallen because of his name. Year after year, men and women are persecuted and killed because of their devotion to a man who walked this earth before any of them can even trace their ancestry, Jesus Christ. One might say that Joe Christmas, William Faulkner's unforgettable version of a rebel without a cause, is the complete opposite of Jesus. Yet the main character of Faulkner's 1932 book "Light in August" is not that different from God's Son. There are many similarities and differences between Jesus Christ and Joe Christmas.
A major difference between Joe Christmas and Jesus is the character of each man. Joe Christmas has been walking along a path filled with debauchery since a very tender age. When he is five years old, he is caught eating toothpaste in a closet while two employees at the orphanage where he lives make love. While this is not his fault, he is still indirectly punished for it, by being sent away to live with the McEachern's. His adopted parents are strict Presbyterians, and Joe literally has the Bible beaten into him by his stern stepfather. By the time he is a teenager, he cannot stand being forced to have religion, so he frequently sneaks away from his adoptive family's house in the middle of the night. One fateful night, he goes to go to a dance with a prostitute, and ends up killing his stepfather, who has chased him to the school where the dance is being held. From then on, Joe is his own person, going wherever the wind takes him. Jesus, on the other hand, has been holy and perfect since the day He was born. He is the "son of the Most High God." (Luke 8:28, NIV) He has never done anything that is not morally right, or let himself be blown around by life's breezes. Faulkner probably made this change because he understood a lot about human nature. He knows that someone perfect would be incapable of committing murder. It is difficult to believe that Jesus would murder anyone, be it his adopted father Joseph or even someone who threatened to kill him first.
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A similarity between the two men is the father figures in their life. As was mentioned before, Jesus is God's Son, but His earthly father figure was Joseph of Nazareth. It is the same with Joe Christmas. He doesn't know anything about his real father, but he does have the male influence of Mr. McEachern, who legally adopts Joe from the orphanage, making him as much of his son as he can. "'He will eat my bread and he will observe my religion,' said [McEachern.] 'Why should he not bear my name?'" (p. 136).
This brings up another difference between the two men, which is their knowledge of their heritage. Until a few days before his death, Joe Christmas has no idea who his real parents are. He knows hardly anything about his family history, except that he has negro blood in him; he is a nomad with a muddled past. This ignorance of his origin causes Joe to have an incorrect understanding of the world, at least when he finally leaves the McEachern's. His stepfather will not have hardly anything to do with the outside world, and he doesn't think that Joe needs to have an understanding of the "heathens" that inhabit the earth. Joe is also bitter and resentful towards his adopted family, and does all that he can to discredit their authority in his life. Because of the fact that even if McEachern tried to teach him anything about the world, his son wouldn't listen, Joe is very naive when he sets out on his own. However, this naivete is also what guides him on his path. Joe is a drifter, someone who doesn't know where he's going, and doesn't particularly care. This distinguishes Joe from Jesus. Jesus knows exactly who His Father is, and is deeply attuned to His Father's wishes. In Luke chapter 22 verse 41 (italics: mine), just hours before he is crucified, Jesus prays, "Father, if You are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but Yours be done." Jesus was willing to sacrifice who He was so that His Father could be glorified. Because God created the world (Genesis 1:1, NIV), Jesus also had an intimate understanding of the world. He knew why people did things, and He knew exactly where His path would lead him. God was there from the beginning to guide Jesus' steps, and make sure that He was ready for the journey He was about to take.
The deaths of Joe Christmas and Jesus Christ were similar in some ways, but they were also very different. One thing that separates Jesus from Joe is the way they greeted death. When Joe finally realized that the end was near, he still made one last desperate attempt to be free. He broke free of the crowd in Jefferson and then ran for his life. Even when the local law enforcement set hound dogs on him, Joe still managed to survive for several days. He probably knew deep down that it was hopeless, but he still took the risk. Jesus, on the other hand, didn't fight fate. He knew that He had to die, and except for once asking God if there was another way (see Luke 22:41, above), He went along with one of the most excruciating deaths imaginable.
One more way that Jesus and Joe Christmas are the same is the way that they are viewed by the people surrounding them. In the beginning of the book when Joe Christmas first comes to Jefferson, he is a mystery, a person for men to wonder about at the local planing mill. Joe Christmas gives few insights into his personal life for the men to gossip about; even then, the men find plenty to talk about. Nobody knows about Joe's relationship with Joanna Burden, and his friendship with Joe Brown seems to have many ups and downs. Jesus also is viewed as someone to divulge secrets about; the priests and teachers in the temple spend most of their time after His arrival wondering what to do with Him. His only true friends are the 12 Disciples, and even they betray Him in the end.
It's easy to compare and contrast these two men, Joe and Jesus. While Joe Christmas was not exactly the same as the man who performed many miracles, the similarities between them are almost eerie in their accuracy. Jesus has left a lasting impact upon the Earth, and Joe Christmas is sure to leave a big impression on the reader of Light in August.
Faulkner, William. "Light in August." Modern College Library Editions. McGraw Hill, 1968.
The New International Version Study Bible.