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Not your Sunday-school Jesus

June 05, 2010|By DAVID YOUNT / Scripps Howard News Service

When the magazine Vanity Fair asked comedian Bill Maher to name his favorite hero of fiction for its June issue, he replied "Jesus of Nazareth."

Maher's is a minority view. The 2010 New York Times Almanac notes that over 2 billion living Christians in 260 countries not only believe Jesus to be real but to be alive.

Still, believers are not credulous.

Even the most fervent of them acknowledge that there is something enigmatic about Jesus. In this they share some of the confusion that his own apostles suffered during his ministry. How to explain Jesus' silences and cloaking his teaching as parables? How to balance his anger with his compassion? Was he the Son of God or Son of Man -- or both?

In the May 24 issue of The New Yorker, staff writer Adam Gopnik reviews a series of new books that present a revisionist Jesus, who is not the one taught in Sunday school.

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Granted, practicing Christians do not look forward to studying the latest attempts to reduce Jesus of Nazareth to a small-time country preacher. Unfortunately, religious skepticism is considered smart and sophisticated in our world.

In his essay, "What Did Jesus Do?," Gopnik grinds no axes but reveals an inquiring mind. Like me, he received a review copy of Diarmaid MacCulloch's massive new book, "Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years" (Viking; $45), pronouncing it "scholarly, realist but pessimistic."

Of religious belief, Gopnik concludes, "The intractable complexities of fact produce the inevitable ambiguities of faith. The more one knows, the less one knows." I'm afraid that were this the common experience of religious scholars, seminarians would be destined to suffer a loss of faith before being ordained ministers and priests.

The Jesus depicted in Mark's gospel, according to Gopnik, reveals his human traits: "intelligence, short temper and an ironic dueling wit." He adds: "What seems new about Jesus is not his piety or divine detachment but the humanity of his irritability and patience.

"He's no Buddha. He gets annoyed at the stupidity of his followers, their inability to grasp an obvious point. 'Do you have eyes but fail to see?' he demands of his hapless disciples."

Any fresh reading of the Gospels presents us with a Jesus of many dimensions. In his book, "The Eternal Man," G.K. Chesterton, raised from childhood to regard Jesus as a cardboard caricature, found himself shocked as an adult to discover that the real Jesus in the Gospels was "an extraordinary being with lips of thunder and acts of lurid decision, flinging down tables, casting out devils, passing with the wild secrecy of the wind from mountain isolation to a sort of dreadful demagogy; a being who often acted like an angry god -- and always like a god."

Ultimately, Jesus is a mystery to us, because there has never been another person like him in whom humanity and divinity coexisted in peace.

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