Book Review: ‘Jesus,’ by Jay Parini.


Book Review: ‘Jesus,’ by Jay Parini.

Either the New Testament Gospels are true or they are collections of precious fables. There is no third option. 


Dec. 23, 2013 7:24 p.m. ET
One of the wonderful qualities of the New Testament’s four Gospels is that they force you either to embrace or reject them. You can study the Gospels as “literature” if you like, but their logic subverts any attempt to treat them as you would treat other literary texts. “Hamlet” may reach dizzying heights of sublimity and repay a lifetime of study, but it doesn’t ask for radical changes in your thought and behavior and has no power to compel them.

Three centuries of critical New Testament scholarship haven’t changed this. The Quest for the Historical Jesus, an attempt to interpret the canonical Gospel texts without reference to supernatural explanations, began with German scholarship in the 18th century, gradually took hold of universities and divinity schools elsewhere in Europe and America during the 19th century, and exploded in popularity during the latter half of the 20th century. Hundreds, probably thousands, of books purporting to explain the identity and intentions of Jesus of Nazareth have been published since the “quest” began in the 1770s; and yet, despite scholars’ confident pronouncements about how Jesus went from political revolutionary or peaceable philosopher to Eternal Son of God, the Gospels’ claims about him are neither more nor less plausible than they were before.

Skeptical or “critical” New Testament scholarship begins with the assumption that the Gospels’ claims about Jesus’ miracles and divinity must be false. The denial of the supernatural isn’t a conclusion but a prior commitment. Fair enough, but it’s not obvious how these accounts came about if they were fictions. Their authors certainly didn’t believe they were fictions: Again and again they offer precise details, almost as if to encourage their original readers to verify the stories. In Mark 10, for example, Jesus didn’t simply restore sight to a blind man. He restored the sight of ” Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, ” and it happened in Jericho.

Or take the matter of “Markan priority.” If the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) are collections of widely circulated myths about Jesus rather than first- or second-hand accounts, Matthew and Luke must have used the far shorter Mark as the principal source for parallel stories found in all three Synoptic Gospels. But if that’s true—and virtually all critical New Testament scholars hold that view—why do Luke and Matthew frequently use identical phrasing that Mark doesn’t use?

The point here isn’t that the Gospels must be true. It is that the Gospels offer no easy way to explain away their content. They therefore demand one of two choices. Either they relay things that Jesus actually said and did, in which case he really is who the New Testament claims he is, or they are haphazard collections of deliberately fabricated stories about a man who may have said some extraordinary things in first-century Judea but who has no more claim on your attention than Socrates.

Jesus: The Human Face of God

By Jay Parini
(New Harvest, 170 pages, $20)

C.S. Lewis, among others, made a similar argument about Jesus’ self-descriptions: “Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.” And while that argument has often been dismissed on the grounds that it assumes all the Gospels’ quotations of Jesus to be authentic, its logic applies with equal or greater force to the four Gospel texts themselves. Either they are true or they are collections of precious fables. There is no third option. They cannot be somehow factually false but metaphorically true—the human mind rightly rejects that kind of reasoning as highfalutin cant.

This point is powerfully made by Jay Parini’s “Jesus,” although Mr. Parini didn’t intend to make that point at all.

Instead of “demythologizing” Jesus, to use the German scholar Rudolf Bultmann’s term, Mr. Parini sets out to “remythologize” him by reviving the sense of sacredness and “mythos” stripped from the Gospel narratives by prior scholarship. “The work of reading here . . . ,” explains Mr. Parini—a well-regarded critic and biographer—”is one of . . . finding its symbolic contours while not discounting the genuine heft of the literal tale.” Perhaps sensing a lack of clarity, he continues the explanation in an endnote: “I’m not so much contradicting Bultmann’s idea of demythologization as putting the emphasis more firmly on the balance between literal and figurative readings, while stressing the fictive aspect: the shaping spirit of the gospel narratives.”

You’re never quite sure what Mr. Parini thinks. The book is structured along the lines of the Gospels themselves—birth, ministry, triumphal entry into Jerusalem, passion, crucifixion, resurrection—as if Mr. Parini accepts the essential veracity of the story they tell. Frequently he relays supernatural events as if they happened: the transfiguration, the temptations in the desert. But then he falls back on naturalistic explanations of the miracles: “I have no doubt that faith can boost one’s immune system and that its emotional balm has healing effects.” Again, the author frequently relays Jesus’ words as if their authenticity were undisputed, but then calls Herod’s slaughter of male children “mythical” and supposes Jesus’ birthplace was Nazareth rather than Bethlehem, as Matthew and Luke have it.

Mr. Parini is more sure of what he doesn’t believe than what he does believe. What he doesn’t believe, as he says on six or seven occasions, is anything associated with “fundamentalism.” But he seems to have only the loosest grasp of the term’s meaning: The Princeton theologians Benjamin Warfield and Charles Hodge weren’t fundamentalists, as Mr. Parini breezily claims, and fundamentalists themselves wouldn’t insist, as he says they do, that faith in Jesus is mere mental assent to a literal resurrection.

But the real trouble with Mr. Parini’s stance isn’t so much its incoherence as its banality. It’s the same with all attempts to make religion palatable to the learned. Rather than accepting its authority or ditching it altogether, the urge is to weaken its demands and make its doctrines vague or optional. The result is usually an agreeable but boring philosophy that anyone can adopt and no one would die for. “The Way of Jesus . . . ,” Mr. Parini writes, “involves self-denial, a sense of losing oneself in order to find oneself, moving through the inevitable pain of life with good cheer, accepting gracefully the burdens that fall on our shoulders and the tasks that lie before us. This is true discipleship.”

If that’s all Jesus came here to tell us, it’s hard to see what all the fuss was about.


The Incarnation is the thawing of our wintry world

The Incarnation is the thawing of our wintry world

Narnia: In , Lewis made a world in which it was “always winter but never Christmas”
Kobal Collection
  • Narnia: In , Lewis made a world in which it was “always winter but never Christmas” Kobal Collection
Alister McGrath
Updated 1 minute ago

The incarnation tries to put into words the astonishing idea that God entered our dark and wintry world, to bring us to a better place

Christmas marks the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the central figure of the Christian faith. But why remember such an event? There seems to be a disconnection between the singular life of Jesus of Nazareth and the universal relevance of God. What has someone who lived long, long ago got to do with us today? Or with God?

That was the question that troubled C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) in 1931. After a period as an atheist, Lewis had recently returned to belief in God. God, he concluded, offered a way of making sense of the world and of human experience, which appealed to both his reason and imagination. But Jesus of Nazareth did not seem to fit into this scheme of things. He seemed superfluous. Why did belief in God have anything to do with him?

It’s a question that many asked before Lewis, and continue to ask today. Fifty years after his death in 1963, Lewis’s answer remains important. After a long conversation with his colleague J. R. R. Tolkien in September 1931, Lewis began to realise that Christianity was not primarily a set of ideas about God and the world. It was about a story — a “grand narrative”, which both captured the imagination, and opened up new ways of thinking. The Creeds arose from reflection on this true and trustworthy story, which centred and focused on Jesus of Nazareth. When rightly understood, the imaginatively compelling story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth was about God entering the world, in order to redeem it.

Lewis explored this theme in a remarkable sermon that he preached in a London church during the Second World War. He had learnt how to dive in 1930. Although he initially saw this simply as an enjoyable, exhilarating experience, Lewis began to realise its potential as an analogy for what he was coming to see as a core theme of the Christian faith — the incarnation.

Lewis invited his audience to imagine a diver plunging into the water to retrieve a precious object. As he goes deeper, the water changes from “warm and sunlit” to “pitch black” and “freezing”. Then, his “lungs almost bursting”, he goes down into the “mud and slime”, before finally heading back up to the surface, triumphantly bearing the lost object. God “descended into his own universe, and rose again, bringing human nature up with him”.

For Lewis, the doctrine of the incarnation shows us that God dived into our world, and came up again, bearing the redeemed creation. The exertion, even danger, faced by the diver is a mark of the value of what has fallen through deep water into the mud. Lewis invites us to think of a diving God, who plunges into a dark and distant world, to bring us home to where we really belong, and really matter.

Our culture loosely speaks of “celebrating Christmas”, yet too easily misses its real point. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lewis spoke of a world in which it was “always winter but never Christmas”. The incarnation tries to put into words the astonishing idea that God entered our dark and wintry world, to bring us to a better place. Instead of passively accepting a hopeless end, we are invited to celebrate an endless hope.

The Christian church recalls this great theme every year at Christmas. Its liturgy and carols set out a powerful vision of a God who enters the world in humility, which is embraced by the imagination as much as it is analysed by reason. In marking the 50th anniversary of Lewis’s death, we might well reflect on his emphasis on the “imaginative embrace” of faith. The theme of the incarnation is impoverished if it is reduced to a mere piece of cold and clinical theological logic.

The haunting Christmas story can resonate with our deepest intuitions about life, above all, our sense that there is something immensely important beyond the borders of our experience. It has the capacity to change utterly the way in which we see ourselves, the world, and God. Lewis would urge us to trust the deepest intuitions of our hearts, and see where they lead us.

Alister McGrath is Professor of Theology, Ministry and Education at King’s College London, and author of C. S. Lewis — A Life (Hodder & Stoughton, 2013, £9.99)


Article rescued from bonfire reveals the beliefs behind Narnia

Tilda Swinton in a film adaptation of C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia
Kobal Collection
  • Tilda Swinton in a film adaptation of C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia Kobal Collection
Jack Malvern Arts Correspondent
Published at 12:01AM, November 22 2013

C. S. Lewis’s ruminations on God and truth in an essay that was rescued from a bonfire will be published for the first time as part of commemorations of the 50th anniversary of his death.

The author of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe set out his thoughts in 1931 in an article that was probably intended for The Criterion, a literary magazine edited by T. S. Eliot. The essay will be published for the first time on Monday by Cambridge University Press as part of a collection of work.

Warren Lewis, the author’s brother, had planned to add the work to the bonfire of papers he made after the author died in 1963, but it was rescued at the last minute.

Walter Hooper, 82, the author’s secretary, recalled that when he arrived at Lewis’s house in January 1964 the bonfire had been burning for three days. “Warren was moving to a smaller place, so he began burning up the family papers,” he said. “He loved his brother dearly, but he wasn’t interested in anything except things of a family nature.”

Mr Hooper asked to take away 50 notebooks, he said. “I think I probably took away the largest share of things, but we don’t know what was lost. One of Lewis’s friends thought that he had written a sequel to Surprised by Joy, his autobiography, but if he did it must have been lost in the fire.”

The untitled essay, which attacks the ideas of the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce, will be published under the heading Image and Imagination. Mr Hooper said that it provided an insight into Lewis’s philosophical beliefs, which influenced works such as his Narnia series.

“What you see is the Lewis who had read philosophy at Oxford University. He could think very clearly, as a philosopher could, and he could put things very logically. He says, ‘Reason is the organ of truth. Imagination is the organ of meaning’.”

Lewis believed that imagination must have meaning because human minds were fashioned by God,  Mr Hooper said. “Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien both said the only one who could be the primary mover is God. We can only be sub-creatures.”

Mr Hooper met Lewis in the summer of 1963,and began to work as his secretary. “I stayed there about three months and then went to America to resign my job and come back, but he died while I was away, on the same day that President Kennedy was killed.”

He became Lewis’s literary executor, publishing all of his correspondence.

“There have been times when I’ve thought, oh Jack [Lewis’s nickname], I’ve spent more time editing your letters than you spent writing them,” he said.