Monday, January 4, 2010

“Reading Jesus”

I’ve just read “Reading Jesus” by Mary Gordon. It’s a readable, odd book. She’s obviously familiar with biblical scholarship, but because she values the Gospels as narratives and wants to read them as she imagines an ordinary reader might, she brings very little of that scholarship to her interpretations of the Gospel stories she chooses to write about. She wants them to be encountered as stories without, for the most part, considering the history of their composition. For example, she always writes about similar passages starting with Matthew and then going on through Mark, Luke, and John. She never points out that most scholars think the Mark was the basis for Matthew and Luke. She even writes at one point that Mark borrowed a passage from Matthew, even though Matthew was composed 10 to 15 years after Mark. Also, she seems to put all the sayings of Jesus on an equal footing without regard for which might be early and perhaps attributable to Jesus himself and which might be later and most likely the product of the communities that were struggling with conditions after the time of Jesus. She does discuss Raymond Brown’s work on the Gospel of John, because this Gospel lends itself most easily to anti-Semitic interpretation, and she struggles with the way these stories should be viewed today.
She seems to will herself to be naïve, as if she were still seven years old. Indeed much of the book is devoted to how she heard the stories when she was a child. She doesn’t bring much adult critical thinking to the stories, nor does she try to enter into post-critical naïveté, as she might when attending a play. However, she’s very good at pointing out that many of the stories upend our conventional notions of justice, as in the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). Or how some of the stories seem cruel and inexplicable, as in the withering of the fig tree (Matthew 21:18-22; Mark 11:12-14, 20-25). And she points out, in a series of chapters, the many problems encountered in reading the Gospels: miracles, asceticism, perfectionism, apocalypticism, contradictions, conundrums, paradoxes, the anti-Judaism, and the issues around the possible divinity of Jesus. However, many of these problems are the result of her non-historical reading of the stories, which gives every story equal credence without regard to the historical circumstances of their composition.
I finished the book thinking that it is a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of reading the Bible without a historical perspective. This intensifies all the problems she identifies. I think that if Gordon had read Don Cupitt’s “Jesus & Philosophy,” (See my blog post on this at: it might have helped her distinguish earlier Jesus sayings from later ones. If we do this, the outlines of a more coherent message might be attributed to Jesus.


Bill W. said...

Dear Peter,

Reading your blog carries me back to New Testament 101. That was 58 years ago. I; have added on other interests since then. Particularly how it relates to me and to my world. In my most recent sermon - which I will NOT repeat now - I dealt with changes occurring in myself and in national awareness. There was a time when we saw a clear distinction between us as good guys, and other people as bad guys. Horse operas are an example. And patriotism. Both have evolved into an awareness that others are not the only bad guys. For example, Ellie and I heard a Xmas concert recently by the US Army band and chorus. Imagine my surprise when they performed "Let there be peace on earth". 65 years ago I would have expected them to do "Praise the Lord, and Pass the Ammunition." Also the percentage of Americans opposing the Afghan war for a variety of reasons shows we have evolved beyond the theme of "my country, right or wrong." In some ways, we are growing up. We, too, need to repent.

Pete M said...

Dear Bill,
Thanks for your email. I guess one of the points I was making in my post was that Mary Gordon could have benefited from a course like New Testament 101. She either didn’t take such a course or ignored its implications. That’s too bad for naïve people who read her book.
About national awareness: Are we becoming more aware of our blundering, destructive actions or do we, still, think that we can do anything with anybody who gets in our way? You point to a change in the repertory of the US Army band and chorus, more wishes for peace, less blood and guts, as a hopeful sign. Maybe yes; maybe no. However, as you point out, many are uneasy about our push into Afghanistan. Even Obama seems unhappy to be there. The whole U.S. government seems in a trance that it cannot break out of in regard to Afghanistan. Why can’t we just say enough and leave?
I recommend to you the movie, “Avatar,” as another sign that we know, but won’t admit, that force serves no purpose other than destruction. Not many reviewers have mentioned that the movie is a parable about America’s reliance on force to get what we think we want. The villains are members of a private American company, much like Blackwater, who are charged with getting an important mineral from under the tree sacred to the people, the Navi, living in ecological harmony on their distant planet. The Blackwater types, although ordered by their superiors to try and get the Navi to cooperate, are only happy when shooting, bombing, and incinerating them. The Americans in the movie act just as we acted in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan: death and destruction are the American way. We are like the 14 year old boys the movie aims for: in love with our power. For those viewers who are not 14 year old boys, the movie says that force is not the answer. Our force has failed so often now, you’d think we would have gotten the message. Don’t hold your breath.

Hershey J. said...

Peter, thanks for your comprehensive review of READING JESUS by Mary Gordon. It will save me from wasting my time reading the book.
I commend to you Bart Ehrman, .JESUS, INTERRUPTED: REVEALING THE HIDDEN CONTRADICTIONS IN THE BIBLE (AND WHY WE DON'T KNOW ABOUT THEM)--HarperOne, 2009. Bart uses historical-critical scholarship, thus avoiding the faults in Mary Gordon's work.
Fascinating to me is Bart's account of his own pilgrimage as a Bible student: beginning as a biblical literalist, studying at Moody Bible Institute, going to Princeton Theological Seminary, going all the way to a Ph.D., giving up his fundamentalism and becoming an historical-critical scholar, and finally becoming an agnostic, thus abandoning theism. His story fascinates me, because I have gone through the same steps minus study at a place like Moody and not going all the way to a Ph.D. in Biblical studies (my Ph.D. is in English). I was reared by my parents as a biblical literalist, believing in the inerrancy of the Bible; I went to PTS, earning a B.D.; I have adopted the historical-critical study of the Bible; and I am now a Humanist, having given up theistic belief.

Pete M said...

Dear Hershey,
Thank you very much for your email. I am moved by your struggle with your literalist background and your movement to a more congenial position. Although I was religious as a young adolescent, I never was a literalist. I think that’s why I see religion as an experience coming from my feelings, because, at least since adolescence, feelings have always been central in my life. I think also this is why I like Cupitt’s idea of emotivism: religion is an expression of our emotions, our feelings toward others. This is the concept he develops in “Jesus & Philosophy”: Jesus was in tune with and accepted the feelings of others. In contrast, we so often turn away from others because we can’t accept their feelings. We are caught in ressentiment, reactive or negative emotions that separate us from others.
I tried to read Ehrman’s book on James, but found it impenetrable. Maybe I’ll have better luck with “Jesus Interrupted.”
Thanks again for your comments. Happy New Year!

Ann E. said...

Hi Peter,
This is good, and a good reminder that this is how most people view the Gospels. And is the way most fundamentalists want everyone to read the Gospels. We do have our work cut out for us

Pete M said...

Hi Ann,
Thanks for your email. Yes, that's why I found the book so curious. She's a very sophisticated writer, you'd think she would be more discerning.

Franklyn said...

Since life is not a movie (although it sometimes seems to be) and since people of the same chronological age are of all different emotional ages, one must deal with day to day living in an objective way and to evaluate others realistically. Children can be delightful and loveable but also can be impulsive, destructive, quick to anger and do not always "play nicely". So it is with those adults who are really children. And just as children cannot always be reasoned with, but sometimes must be restrained and appropriately punished so it is with their adult counterparts. The difficult part is determining the type of restraint and punishment and insuring it is helpful and not vindictive.

Pete M said...

Hi Franklyn,
I assume you're refering to my comments about "Avatar."

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