Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Reading Jesus

Reading Jesus: A Writer’s Encounter with the Gospels
Mary Gordon (2009, Anchor Books)

It would hardly seem that we needed another book about the Bible: hundreds, of one sort or another, must be published every year. Mary Gordon’s Reading Jesus is relatively modest in scope and ambition, but Gordon’s voice is lucid, and her point of view strikes me as trustworthy. She is marking out a path between the cut-and-paste Enlightenment gospel of Thomas Jefferson, who excised all that was miraculous in search of a perfect system of ethics, and the hellfire-and-brimstone certainties of contemporary Evangelical preachers.

She shows a fitting respect for the impulses that drive those preachers and their followers. “I am striving for a tone and diction that neither shouts nor threatens, a diction that neither promises falsely, nor underestimates the power of fear, or supposes that, with right thinking, it can be brought under control. Above all, I have no interest in making a doctrinal point, no desire to convert.” If her readers are interested in reading, that will be sufficient.

She confines her attention to the Gospels because, as a writer, she is more interested in narrative than the theological contentions of the Epistles; and because, as a Christian, she takes the life of Jesus to be the most compelling narrative. Calling the figure of Jesus elusive, ungraspable, yet irresistible, she selects stories that show just how inexplicable he is.

She is not weighing in as a scholar of religious or scriptural matters, but as a student and teacher of literature. She uses five English translations, discriminating among them by their power in English, rather than by any consideration of other translation issues. I think she’s justified in focusing instead on the experience that readers and listeners are having as they encounter these stories, “if only because most of the people in the world who have read the Bible have not had access to this scholarship.”

And what do you have, if you have only the texts? Stories of a strangeness that invites wrestling, at least. Contradictions, paradoxes, outrageous claims. Considering that these narratives were composed a generation or more after the events they describe, and were not solidly canonized for another three centuries, how did some of these details persist? Gordon inquires about details like the fig tree Jesus withers in a fit of pique (Matthew and Mark), or the young man who runs away without his clothes in the fourteenth chapter of Mark.

Inquiry at this level, of course, leaves us with more questions than answers. Gordon’s questions are passionate and honest, and, as I see it, they get to the heart of the difficulties, contradictions, and stumbling blocks we find all through the Gospels. Facing these, wrestling with them, she arrives at a place not of Truth, but of possibility.

I’m glad to go there with her. Thanks be to God.

March 2011