The Never-Ending Story
By RAY WADDLE
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 “
Jesus behind the gospel narratives. The “
genre arose. Skeptics, doubting the Bible's reliability, presumed to
rewrite Jesus' history stripped of miracles and Resurrection. (Thomas Jefferson
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.