Jesus: The Human Face of God

Jay Parini's book on AmazonNames always hurt more than sticks and stones. Such terms as nullification, trinity, capitalism, salvation, liberal and evolution are only words in the same way that live charges are only devices.  Jay Parini quietly explains that the Greek word for an experience of transforming awareness was mistranslated “repentance” by St. Jerome, causing painful consequences for centuries afterward. A gifted biographer, Parini has written books on Faulkner, Tolstoi, Melville, and Frost. A gifted linguist, teacher and poet, he has also published many volumes of poetry while teaching at Middlebury College. With a biographer’s grasp of sources and a poet’s appreciation of words, he has written a biography of Jesus. In this work, for him to get both the story and the words right is more than scholarship; it is a work of faith. He explains that he seeks to re-mythologize the story of Jesus. In The Art of Subtraction (2005),

Parini wrote:

                    I’m back this afternoon, in autumn,
                    sitting where I used to,
                    trying, once again, to clear my head,
                    subtract the last things I don’t need,
                    get down to only
                    what cannot be shaken loose or said.  (p. 76)

Clearly, the story of Jesus is one of the things which cannot be shaken loose. The subtitle, The Human Face of God, suggests that this is the face of God within human apprehension. We can speculate on a polyhedral model of deity with infinite facets and names. We can construct doctrines, christologies, credos, and theologies. We can turn Jesus’s teaching into a checklist for salvation. This is not what Parini means by re-mythologizing Jesus. On his view, both the abstractions of liberal theology and the certainties of literalists can distort Jesus’s vision of  a life-transforming, mind-enlarging awareness—what Jesus called the kingdom of God. This kingdom is gradually realized through what Elwyn Tilden, author of Toward Understanding Jesus (1956) called a life-time practice of “life-fostering concern.” Parini admits to have been on a lifelong “project of trying to understand Jesus and to take his example purposefully in my own life.” (p. xvii) His search, however, does not narrow down to factual truths. It widens to greater awareness:

The work of reading here . . . is one of remythologizing the story, finding its symbolic contours while not discounting the genuine heft of the literal tale.   (p.126)

As Karen Armstrong showed the transformative influence of ideas current in the earlier “axis time” when the world religions originated, so Parini shows the confluence of traditional and Essene Jewish thought, Hellenistic ideas and Near-Eastern influences in Jesus’s understanding. Concerning Jesus’s insight into his own role, he quotes Ralph W. Emerson:

. . . He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, ‘I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me.”  (p. xx)

In retelling the story of Jesus’s self-revelation and subsequent ministry, Parini does not attempt to harmonize the ancient stories. He re-tunes them. Rationalizations of discrepancies between the gospel accounts are as unnecessary as a rationalization of the differences between the Magnificats of Vivaldi and Bach. The evangelists wrote at different times for different audiences, but as also with most of the noncanonical writers, their aim was to express the nature of the new life which Jesus revealed.  Parini’s story is both scholarly and unimpeded by scholarship, a well-grounded academic work and a personal meditation, and a philosophical inquiry and an ethical challenge. In sharp images he deftly re-creates the first century Palestinian  countryside where Jews, Greeks, Indians, Ethiopians, Persians, and Romans  traded languages, goods, and ideas along the Silk Road to Samarkand. Encounters between conquerors and conquered, traders and customers, craftsmen and technicians, thinkers and believers of different faiths led inevitably to cultural reassessments. Northern Indians sculpted Buddha in Greek dress. Syncretism and egalitarianism appeared in traditional religions. Egypt, Rome, and Greece all had stories of a virgin conceiving a child of God, a divine boy precociously teaching his elders, a hero enduring desert ordeals and thereafter doing miracles and being sacrificed for the people, as the sun is sacrificed to darkness every sunset. But while the legendary virgin birth of a ruler like Augustus was told to validate power, the story of Jesus’s birth was told to show that Jesus came first to the poor and lowly in spirit. Those who experienced suffering, oppression, and poverty would more readily understand the Kingdom of God than religious and political elites.

Parini’s story of Jesus merges historical, religious, artistic and personal commentaries on the divine path. Along the way, he invites us to consider the reflections and expressions of others like Tolstoi, Henri Nouwen, Pierre Abelard, Wallace Stevens, Elaine Pagels, Paul Tillich, J.S. Bach, T.S. Eliot, Rembrandt, and R.S. Thomas. It is a pleasure to follow this sure-footed guide on the journey to Jerusalem. Alert to the many and disparate interpretations of the story, he skillfully selects just the information needed to find one’s way without missing the spectacle of the pilgrims coming with caravans to the city or the crunch of gravel on the path in Gethsemane. The gospel writers were not news reporters, he reminds us, but had access to first hand accounts and writings, popular legends, and the theology of St. Paul. Early practices and controversies also inform their varied literary approaches and contents. Most of the fragmented story in the gospel text is seen in a blur, as if through windows of a speeding train.  His sources throughout are scrupulously cited. Even the end-notes make fascinating reading. A Christian reader may value most his pithy resolutions of puzzles such as how Jesus could say that a rich person was as likely to avoid hell as a camel to go through the eye of a needle (p. 141), why Jesus was buried in haste, why Judas received thirty pieces of silver, how Pentecost was linked to a story in Numbers, why Daniel might be considered the first book of the New Testament, and why Jesus was unrecognizable after the resurrection. On the last case, he comments:

Recognition takes time, becoming in fact a process of uncovering, what I often refer to in this book as the gradually realizing kingdom: an awareness that grows deeper and more complex, more thrilling, as it evolves.  (p. 123)

Indeed, although at pains to provide readers with the best plausible explanations for interpretations of the events in Jesus’s life, Parini continually emphasizes that getting the explanations right is not the same as taking the mythos of Jesus to heart:

. . . the gospels give us very different details of this event, creating a more complex picture when taken as a whole than when read as individual accounts.  (p. 113)

Parini welcomes this complexity. Every perspective and discrepancy in the text is an opportunity for meditation. The kingdom is gradually realized, in his image, like a photograph in a developing bath. The soul seated in the ground of being, like the pivot in Confucianism, or the enlightened one in Buddhism, can be at peace in flux and complexity because Jesus:

. . has come to bring “peace” to his followers . . and to create “eternal life,” which is a deep experience of God—what the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, in The Courage to Be, called the “God beyond God” that forms our “ground of being”—an idea of God that has, over many decades, struck me as useful, as it shifts away from a physical image of God as “somebody” who is somehow “up” there in heaven, employing a metaphor of depth and amplitude. In truth, God cannot be reduced to any spatial metaphor. (p. 96)

Every metaphor is a path; the choice of metaphors is therefore a serious—even dangerous—matter for a religion, business, nation, or an individual, as Parini reminds us, speaking of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who:

          .  .  . understood Christianity as not simply a set of doctrines, a list of “beliefs” that one must check off in order to be “saved.” That wasn’t Christianity at all. As Bonhoeffer writes, Jesus made it clear from the start “that his word is not an abstract doctrine . . . but the re-creation of man. (p. 152)

 This book, in the final analysis, is a work of scholarship and sincere and great devotion, ably making readers participants in the story and its message of the mythos of Jesus:

The message of God’s love in operation in the world trumps everything and must be regarded as the necessary extension of the idea of rebirth, the social basis for true spiritual enlightenment. Nowhere more so than here does it matter that we find a proper balance between the literal and the figurative, giving full weight to the concrete meaning while relishing the mythic contours of the story.

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