Generous Orthodoxy  




Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Nice Jesus vs. nasty Jesus

The May 24, 2010 New Yorker features a new article by Adam Gopnik, a regular contributor to the magazine. His title is “What Did Jesus Do? Reading and Unreading the Gospels.” The piece is structured as a commentary on several new books—Diarmid MacCullough’s blockbuster Christianity: the First Three Thousand Years, Bart Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted, L. Michael White’s Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite, Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, and various others including Philip Jenkins’ Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1500 Years. (What there should be a war on, in my opinion, is a war on subtitles.)

Gopnik is an accomplished, learned writer, often thoughtful and always interesting. This article, however, is glib, slick, and perverse. It could be read as a once-for-all example of incomprehension when biblical issues are interpreted by someone who doesn’t understand faith. It is not necessary to be a Christian believer in order to understand faith. Perry Miller, the American historian, and the literary critics Northrop Frye, James Wood, and Frank Kermode are good examples of unbelievers who understand, respect, and have something useful to say about Christian faith and the Bible. Without realizing the import of what he is saying, Gopnik casually writes that Kermode, in The Genesis of Secrecy, “is less historical than interpretive” in his reading of Mark’s gospel. Indeed. As for Northrop Frye, for four months in 2008 I walked past the building named for him at the University of Toronto and felt thankful each time for his book about the Bible, The Great Code.

Gopnik thinks he’s making groundbreaking new discoveries. Perhaps the tone is borrowed from the books he’s been reading, like those of John Dominic Crossan, which purport to uncover something revolutionary when they are actually, and tiresomely, repeating the same points so often made about the “wise rabbi” and/or “Jewish peasant” who has been inflated into Son of God by his suggestible followers. Haven’t we heard this enough already? Are there really people out there who don’t know about this supposedly astonishing “discovery” that the picture of Jesus in the New Testament can be split into “nice Jewish boy” and “scary punitive God”? that John’s gospel gives a very different picture of Jesus than the Synoptics? that people for centuries have urged us to embrace the Jesus whom they construe as a moral teacher and discard the Jesus who seems to think the end of the world is near? Apparently there are many such people, and they seem to have an endless appetite for books rehearsing the supposed split between the “nice Jesus” of whom they approve and the “nasty Jesus” who offends them. And, of course, in their view it’s all the fault of the Apostle Paul.

There are so many mistakes here. Most of them are attributable to the fact that Gopnik & Co. don't seem to be aware that the supposed dichotomy between the "Jesus of the Gospels" and the "Christ of Paul" has been thoroughly studied by the best minds in the church, from the patristic era on to the present day. This isn't some new insight before which we should stand amazed. The intellectual content of the church's Christology can stand up under the scrutiny of any number of scoffers. And on the level of Jesus' "moral teaching," if it comes to that, the radical nature of his proclamation of the Kingdom of God is domesticated beyond recognition when Jesus is recast as a “wise philosophical teacher.”

Let us not be deceived, however: the point of view that Gopnik is recommending has taken over in the mainline churches. Gopnik writes, “The uncertainty at the center [of the Biblical testimony] mimics the plurality of possibilities central to liberal debate, as the more open-minded theologians like to believe.” This “uncertainty” is what the Jesus Seminar and its relatives have bequeathed to the well-meaning left wing of the church.

In a better world we would all take off a year and read Karl Barth, as well as Shakespeare, George Herbert, Graham Greene, and Flannery O’Connor—and by all means the Anchor Bible commentary of Joel Marcus (both volumes now available in paperback) on the Gospel of Mark. Sir Frank Kermode would approve.