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The Never-Ending Story


During Lent my wife and I read aloud together from various materials, mostly a new book called Jesus: A Biography from a Believer (Viking, 2010) by popular historian Paul Johnson. At times we got a little behind and we missed a couple of nights, but together we went deeper into the Jesus story. After a busy day in our separate work worlds, it was good to regroup in this way, staying on the same page.

Biographies of Jesus are common now, but it never occurred to anyone to write one before the 18th century. Until then, the four Gospels themselves sufficed to tell the story. But the 1700s saw new interest in historical scrutiny of the biblical texts. Scholars launched a quest for the historical Jesus, the “ real” Jesus behind the gospel narratives. The “ life of Jesus” genre arose. Skeptics, doubting the Bible's reliability, presumed to rewrite Jesus' history stripped of miracles and Resurrection. (Thomas Jefferson wrote one.)

Since then, whether written by respectful believers or brash unbelievers, lives of Jesus have flourished, though what we usually get is a Christ who reflects the values of the author – a hippie Jesus, a CEO Messiah, a wandering-rabbi Redeemer, a humanist Son of Man, a marketing-genius Jesus, pro-war or anti-war Savior, a gnostic Lamb of God, or an apocalyptic one.

Johnson's book doesn't deviate from the gospel story. (It is sometimes too much a gospel summary). But it's companionable, offering affectionate touches and political context.

The writer sees Jesus as the Son of God who was also a genial poet who loved to be with people. Jesus embodied divine truth to a 1st-century world that is not so different from ours: a multi-religious population that saw itself as civilized, but was also restless, unthinking and unnerved by the political violence of its day.

The reason for reading a book like this is to become alert to the power of Jesus' story from a fresh angle. But Johnson keeps the Gospels clearly at center stage: “ The Gospels are designed to be read and reread. The oftener we do, the greater our delight in them, the deeper our understanding, and the more we grasp their realism. They are the truth.”

The point is not to change Jesus' image into our own but to be changed by it. My wife and I will keep reading, bringing the story closer to home, through Easter and beyond.

Ray Waddle is a columnist, author and the editor of Reflections magazine, published by Yale Divinity School.

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