The Terror of the Obvious

There is a painting on my wall that fascinates me.

That is partly because it is beautiful, partly because of the story it tells. It is a large Dutch oil of 1658 by Hendrik van Vliet, better known for his church interiors, and it shows two men solemnly seated at a dark table lit only by a candle—the one speaking from a book under his left hand, the other about to reply. The most probable view is that the first man is Nicodemus who, according to St. John's gospel, came to Jesus by night. The second man, in that case, whose shadow crosses the wall to touch him, is Jesus.

Nicodemus has been the type of the literal man for two millennia, which is why, being literal myself, the story fascinates me. He is saying that one can only be born once, and he is about to be told that one can be born of the flesh and of the spirit: twice-born, in fact. One day he will help bury his master. In Renaissance English the adjective nicodemical is fairly common, meaning excessively literal; and there is even one recorded use of the verb to nicodemize, in 1624, meaning to misinterpret by failing to note that something is metaphorically meant.

In academia, at least, there are not many Nicodemuses now, and few enough in any literary age. Fame has not brought him honor. Though a learned man and a member of the Sanhedrin, he was never a hero, and his famous objection in the third chapter of St. John, like his...

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