on 10 December 2013
"As ever, it depends on which verses in the Bible you happen to quote, building a theology on those select references, ignoring any verses that contradict your vision."
"One of the great theologians of the twentieth century, Rudolf Bultmann, famously said in 1935: "I do indeed think that we can know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus.""
Who Was Jesus, Anyway? By Jay Parini December 1st 20136:45 AM [...]
This kind of thing is not new. Parini is very much a product of his time in his literary post-modernism, but his 'quest for the real Jesus' is nothing new at all. The whole 'real Jesus' project was discredited by Albert Schweitzer who realised that all such endeavours end up with an idealised view of the author, not of Jesus; in other words, this quest is a mirror in which the naïve simply see themselves, and try to tell others that they have seen something else. If Parini was a theologian he would have quickly realised that naivety of such a quest. Burton Mack, another admirer of Bultmann, did something very similar when writing his book about Q. Parini then reads his favourite verses as per the quote above, and ignores the rest. Quite properly, such an action is hermeneutically questionable and Parini's tone suggests that he disapproves, but does he not realise how grossly he does the same thing? Or is he so unlearned in Scripture as not to realise how much he is ignoring? The mixture of naivety and erudition beguiles the simple. Those unaware are persuaded by the learned quotes that the author has something new or profound to say; in truth it is empty and derivative, a glossy wrapper over a morsel of junk food. If I wanted an opinion of Steinbeck as an American author I think Parini might be a good place to start; less so if wanting to know Jesus. It is serious difference; it makes little difference to the soul whether one knows Steinbeck or not; but whether one knows Jesus or not can be the difference between life and death; life in all its fullness and death eternally. This is blind guide, who like Bultmann, knows nothing of the Life or Person of Jesus.
His explanation of metanoia (repentance)is fumbling and trite; his own explanation, that his translations of New Testament text are his, based upon an interlinear show though; his knowledge of Greek is shaky, and whilst an interlinear is a useful crib for the less fluent, it cannot replace mastery of the language for correct understanding. It is humble admission, but telling in that he thinks that an opinion based upon a crib can supplant real textual understanding; this betrays further his naivety in this work.
In Parini's conclusion;
"In my view, he was a kind of religious genius born in a fertile place and time: on the Silk Road, when Hellenistic ideas about body and soul had begun to take root in the Middle East, and when the winds of eastern mysticism--with the idea of karma, for instance--blew in from Persia and farther afield. Jesus grasped these concepts, and weaved them into his teaching, overturning traditional Jewish assumptions though building on some of them as well."
He reveals an extraordinary conceit; in the end, he really does think he knows best; better than all others, great and small, learned and unlearned, from antiquity to the present day, who have simply believed in Jesus.
on 19 February 2015
Jay Parini is one of those great writers who is never less than fascinating, no matter what subject he is discussing. He can be analyzing the work of Robert Frost, William Faulkner, and John Steinbeck, or talking about books that shaped America, or imagining what Herman Melville was really like, or simply telling anecdotes about Gore Vidal and Anthony Quinn, and, whatever the focus, he is always able to captivate and enlighten. In his latest biography, Jesus: the Human Face of God, Parini explores the life and “afterlife” of Jesus of Nazareth—who he was and what he meant to those who encountered him, as well as considering the social and political implications of his teachings and behavior. The result is a very satisfying, articulate, and unpretentious examination of Jesus, and a perfect opener for the new “Icon” biography series.
on 30 December 2013
I must begin by simply saying that this is a wonderful book that I am enjoying. Indeed, I am so impressed with it, that I have bought a number of copies to give as gifts to creative writing authors, to theological scholars, and to those who are devoted students of the Bible. There may be some areas in which I would differ with Jay Parini, and I will address these later in this review. However, nothing should diminish my enthusiasm for this book, or in anyway, cause me to be reluctant to recommend the book to any reader, whether or not a devoted believer and student of the Bible.
I met Professor Parini a number of years ago on a flight from Washington, D.C. to London, where we were seatmates on this overnight flight. We conversed most of the night, which, in itself, suggests that we had something interesting to discuss. He, a long-time professor of creating writing and English, a published writer, and highly educated scholar, at Middlebury College in Vermont, a first ranked classical liberal arts college, and one who as he wrote, [g]rowing up in the home of a former Roman Catholic turned Baptist minister, I often sat through hot summer evenings in tabernacle meetings of a kind familiar to anyone who has watched Billy Graham on television." I, a lawyer and long-time judge in Washington, D. C., raised on the mission field by missionary parents who were openly evangelical, and may have even been thought of as fundamentalist as that word is often derisively used today, and also as one who sat in many Billy Graham crusades and watched them on television. So, while we may agree on much of what he has written, our personal histories and experiences with God might lead to some different beliefs, or perspectives on what Parini writes here. Yet, on that flight long ago we found our interests merging in unexpected places. I am not sure what I thought at that time of his theological interests or where he stood on the continuum of Christian thought, or that we even discussed religious matters very much.
There is a saying that Americans read books, and that the British read authors. And, I suppose there is some truth to this. However, as I read Jesus: The Human Face of God, I found myself interacting more with Parini than with the actual text of what was on the page. His background in creative writing and as an English professor at an excellent college came through in his writing style, and his language and images kindled my imagination in ways most of the scholarly literature about Jesus have not. But what impressed me about what was on the page was that, although it reflected considerable research and thought beyond the simple reading of the Gospels, Parini let the Gospel writing stand as authoritative in the midst of the extra-Biblical sources to which he often referred, and at times, said that he had no reason to doubt what was written in the Gospels. I liked that.
What is often missing in the Church today is a balanced view of Jesus as both human and divine, too often with little or no attention given to his human character. Oh, it is true that we read the stories of his life, ministry, and miracles in ancient Palestine, but what is often missing is the context in which this all takes place. Too often in the books and papers we read there is lacking any real sense of who Jesus is and how his world might have informed so much of his life and ministry.
In this book, Parini leads us through a view of Jesus's life and ministry in Palestine over 2000 years ago. As one reviewer wrote, Parini "walks a tightrope of sorts- one that takes him deftly across the thorny issues of historicity and theology that tripped up many thinkers and theologians, and have torn apart countless churches." How well he has done that should be the subject of many good discussions.
Nevertheless, as I started to read this book, I was reminded of something C. S. Lewis wrote in The Discarded Image, and discussed by my friend, Alister McGrath in his Biography of Lewis, C. S. Lewis - A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet.
We see here the literary expression of a fundamentally theological idea - namely, that there is a certain way of seeing reality that brings it into the sharpest focus, illuminating shadows and allowing its inner unity to be seen. For Lewis, is a "realising imagination" - a way of seeing or "picturing" reality that is faithful to the way things actually are.
What Lewis describes in Surprised by Joy is not the process of simple deduction, but is more a process of crystallization by which all things that were previously disconnected and unrelated, are now seen as falling into a greater scheme of things.
So, Parini begins our journey writing:
"I recently stood at sunrise on a hill overlooking Jerusalem, with goat bells tinkling in the middle distance. The Mount of Olives loomed in a rising mist, the air tinged with odor of cypress, not unlike the smell of sage with a twist of lemon. It occurred to me that for thousands of years this prospect had remained more or less unchanged. This bleached landscape was a place where generations of merchants and caravans traveled along the Silk Road in search of wealth and adventure, where foreign armies came and went, where religious passions met, sometimes mingled, often clashed in near apocalypse. The walled city itself was a palimpsest, with many erasures and overwritten passages; it speaks of stratified cultures, layer upon layer; pagan, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and many iterations of each. It has always, indeed, been a site of placement and displacement, sacred to someone, a major crossroads between East and West, an incendiary point on any map of the world.
* * *
"A few points we can assume: Jesus was no illiterate carpenter without access to the marketplace of ideas. Living on the Silk Road, a trading thoroughfare between East and West, he would have encountered Hellenistic notions of the soul's immortality that poured in from the West, from Greece and Rome, and felt the heady winds of mysticism blowing from Persia, and the East."
As Parini traces the life of Jesus, His ministry, His crucifixion, and His resurrection, these word pictures enlighten the imagination without doing any damage to reason. We see details that we might never have seen before. His writing surrounding the circumstances of the birth of Jesus bring us a clearer picture than we find in certain traditions and often celebrate superficially at Christmas. Throughout his writing, Parini explains and reconciles things often seen as conflicts in the Synoptic Gospels. Parini's description of the hidden years of Jesus' life and His childhood appearance with the Temple elders when His parents, Mary and Joseph, left him behind in Jerusalem is filled with detail and his writing prompts our imaginations to soar as we see these events in our minds.
Where we might part is our understanding of the miracles of Jesus. In his Preface, Parini seems to deflect what he refers to as the "superstitious parts of the Jesus story," namely the supernatural aspects of His life. Then he says, "This Jesus stands in contrast to the Jesus of evangelical Protestantism, where he becomes the Savior, the single door way to heaven, the only route to eternal life, the way to ward off the flames of hell." He goes on to say that the idea of conversion as simply believing in the Lord Jesus Christ as we read in Acts 16:31 is a simple idea that tends to oversimplify Jesus' message and His "good news" which is both reductive and dangerous. This is what Parini characterizes as an instant magic line one crosses to acquire salvation rather than "entering into the gradually realizing kingdom of God, a process of daily transformation. However, Parini's further discussion on this point gives me less concern with his initial theological statement. Since this is a biography of the human Jesus, there is little to address His divinity, which I think should have warranted some discussion other that Parini's description of Jesus' baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist.
Nevertheless, I have read his book with great interest and have found nothing to reflect the seeming skepticism suggested by these statements in his Preface. His description of the crucifixion and resurrection are consistent with orthodox teaching. Indeed, his description of the resurrection is detailed, analytical, and beautiful as he draws our imaginations to follow the story. And he concludes with the profound statement that life and death are mysterious at best, and that the membrane between the living and the dead is a porous one. But the Scriptures say that "Jesus rose from the dead." "I see no reason to doubt this."
on 30 December 2013
An author's magnum opus often appears as a tome of grand proportions, though a few smaller theological works of the twentieth century, like I and Thou by Martin Buber, Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterson, The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, come to mind in that category. Jay Parini has previously penned a couple dozen significant books, but his 2013 Jesus, the Human Face of God, is, in my opinion, one of the few gem / classic / magnum opus works in its genre so far in the twenty first century.
Its simple style is disarming, but Jesus has several profound and salient features. Where Rudolf Bultmann first applied form criticism to the New Testament in 1921 with his "demythologizing" of the gospel, nearly a hundred years later Parini persuasively begins a process of re-mythologizing which may be just as significant for our future.
There is almost a William Barclay feel to the material, with a post- Joseph Campbell ambiance, in which both historical details and "myths" are rooted in profound spiritual meanings that preachers will use in a most positive manner and lay readers will enjoy with a gratitude borne of weariness with nearly a century of exposés revealing what we do not have to believe.
For example, in this Christmas season I was delighted to share with others the manner in which Parini successfully re-mythologizes the virgin birth story without bothering to enter into controversy about science or history. He then goes into an almost off-handed tour de force relating the holy family's flight into Egypt to the Egyptian sojourn of Israel and Hosea's prophecy that the messiah would come "out of Egypt," presenting the meaning and purpose of the story in depth while again leaving the question of historicity to the perspective of individual readers or listeners.
Parini illustrates why many details, historic, mythic or both, are included in scripture, showing them to be so much more than mere quaint cultural accretions, as understood by the Jesus Seminar and others of the last century. The liberal fringe may find him too interested in mining every jot and tittle of scripture for its treasure, and the conservative fringe may wish he would restrict everything to a more literal interpretation (what Oscar Wilde calls "the degrading of truths into facts"), but Parini's Jesus may be what many among the vast majority of Christians in our time have been waiting for.
The book has only hints of interfaith perspective, and it lacks the feminist critique so necessary in our time, but its warmth and naked humanity almost compensates for both. In demythologizing the gospel Bultmann reduces the truth to the kernel contained in the myth, stripped down to its essentials. Parini re-mythologizes in a way that allows the kernel grow and bear fruit, "increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold." Yet he does so without the weight of dogma so burdensome to so many in our time.
on 30 December 2013
In college I enjoyed taking classes with amazing Biblical scholars who walked us through Old and New Testament Texts, scholarly readings, translation/transmission issues and history. The problem with tackling "Jesus the Man" is that you have the "religious" tradition pitted sometimes against the "scholarly" tradition. Mr. Parini is a brave man to dive right in and give us an incredibly readable account/summary/personal take on the major events in the life of Jesus. He mix and matches his own personal ideology with his own translations, thoughts and poetic/literary free associations in this very readable account which would serve either as a great introduction to both Jesus and the gospels or a crash refresher course on the key elements of Jesus' life. I enjoyed Parini's literary tie ins and his willingness to admit he's not a biblical scholar yet unafraid to voice his own thoughts or humanize Jesus and what he might have seen/thought/smelled/tasted/experienced. I don't doubt that some readers will find some of his comments offensive or heretical, but how can anyone write about Jesus without incurring the wrath of someone. I'm inspired to pick up the New Testament and reread Matthew, Mark, Luke and John thanks to Parini's insightful reading and I thank Parini for writing a text that inspires additional reading, study and reflection.
on 15 January 2014
This book, short as it is, presents its reader with a challenge - to lay aside our preconceptions about what we think we know about Jesus which for most people will be easier said than done. Many minds reading this book will be open as a trap, waiting to spring shut around views they disagree with - especially, perhaps, those who feel they `know' Jesus personally in their lives. And that would be a great shame.
The truth is that none of us in the West can approach the subject of Jesus' life without preconceptions, a fact which Parini acknowledges in his opening chapter when he tells us openly what his own Christian background is: he can no more escape this than the reader can escape whichever Christian tradition they were raised in. Despite this, however, the real merit of the book lies in its objectivity in dealing with the Gospel narratives and in the sense of spirituality which it develops at its conclusion.
I read this book during the Christmas season, and thought I knew the sequence of Christmas story: the birth in the stable, the shepherd visiting, then the three Wise Men... It came as a shock to be reminded that this chronology does not exist in any of the Gospels, but is a construct of religious tradition to harmonise the very different accounts of the nativity in the evangelists' separate accounts: no mention of shepherds in Matthew, or of Wise Men in Luke; no mention of either in Mark. Parini's approach of going back to the Gospels with clear eyes is refreshing, and opened my mind to re-examine what I thought I knew.
Parini is not a theologian, but a storyteller, a poet and a biographer, and this latter determines his approach, examining his sources carefully. He is aware that each of his prime sources - the evangelists - present their subject in different ways, depending on message they wish to convey: Matthew's emphasis on Jesus's Jewish ancestry presents him as a specifically Jewish Messiah; John sees him as a theological construct - The Word - from the outset. Parini's scholarship leads us through this book, subtle and challenging throughout. His range of reference to poets as often as theologians (he is after all a professor of English Literature) ensures a freshness, reminding us of how the influence of Jesus's story has resonated with great writers through the ages.
The book's principal achievement, however, lies in recognising the importance of myth in the story of Jesus's life. I can already hear the cry of fundamentalists who will insist that every word of the gospels is historically true, despite the many mutual contradictions, but Parini reminds that there are many kinds of truth, and the that the truth of myth is every bit as valid as the truth of historical fact. Indeed, this is a book that Mr Gradgrind would hate, as it reminds us just how tenuous, and ultimately limiting, our insistence on the validity of `facts' alone can be.
Perhaps any biography tells us as much about the biographer as his subject: if this is the case, then we should be grateful for Jay Parini's humanity and wisdom. Anyone with an open mind can learn a great deal from this book - so long as they are prepared to open their minds to it.
on 31 December 2013
Names 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),
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.
--Richard L. Rose [...]
on 30 December 2013
Noted poet, novelist and biographer Jay Parini brings his considerable literary skills and a lifetime of contemplation and scholarship to the well known story of Jesus of Nazareth. He succeeds brilliantly in capturing the essence of one of history's great teachers and religious leaders in a slim, elegantly written and highly readable volume.
Unlike other books, which seek to "humanize" the historical Jesus by stripping away or denying any hint of his divinity, Parini, himself a believer, seeks to "re-mythologize" the Christ story. He strikes a careful balance between placing Jesus in his historical setting in the heated political atmosphere of first century Palestine and interpreting his radical words and deeds in the religious and philosophical contexts in which his disciples and early followers would have understood them. In this he is particularly assisted by his familiarity with the Greek in which much of the New Testament was originally written.
Although I have studied The Bible and read widely in Christian literature and thought I knew the story of Jesus inside out, I found several of the nuggets that Parini digs out to be extremely insightful and illuminating, leading me to consider well known concepts and teachings in a new light. To me the highlight of the book is Parini's discussion of the Sermon on the Mount, which I found both moving and highly motivating.
Parini wears his scholarship lightly, and the book is beautifully written (as one would expect from an acclaimed poet and novelist) and reads easily. Although meant to be read straight through, the short chapters encourage and reward dipping in and out, setting aside the book to contemplate a particularly insightful passage, and re-reading.
Believers, non-believers and those in between (as I am) should find this book accessible and finely balanced. At no point does Parini try to impose his own views; rather, he suggests various ways of considering the well known words and deeds of Jesus' life and ministry and their continuing impact through history. His approach is ecumenical and eclectic, drawing upon millennia of religious art, music and poetry; Church Fathers, modern theologians, and non-canonical writings; as well as mystics and wise men from a variety of religious traditions, Christian and non-Christian. Indeed, the bibliography itself is worth the purchase price alone.
A volume of this length cannot claim to be definitive--no book on the subject of Jesus could hope to be--but Parini has produced an outstanding guide to the life of one of the most enigmatic and important persons in world history, introducing a breath of fresh air to a well known story, and that is a commendable and impressive feat. His "Jesus" should be read with the same care, thoughtfulness, imagination and largeness of spirit with which it was written.
on 30 December 2013
I purchased this book with an eye towards evaluating it as a potential gift for the religiously-inclined in my family. I was already familiar with Parini's high reputation as a biographer, novelist, and poet. After reading Jesus: The Human Face of God, I am going to purchase a few copies for those folks.
Here's why. First, while this volume may be slim, it is bursting with insight and good sense. It is less a biography of Jesus than a sort of "walk with Jesus," through his ideals, presence, and controversies. Thanks to Parini's zestful writing, the controversial issues are presented in a manner that is enticing to theological neophytes yet also conversant with the deeper concerns involved. As we go along this journey, from the context of the times and Jesus's birth to the crucifixion and resurrection, ending with a smart chapter on "The Afterlife of Jesus," we learn much in terms of facts but more feel that our self-knowledge, our own spiritual concerns are being gently poked and prodded. There is a humanity in Parini's Jesus that speaks loudly. For Parini (whose own wide-ranging and unusual religious upbringing is fascinating) is proud to be a follower of Jesus. But to follow is insufficient for Parini Jesus is about love, specifically, "to love one another as I have loved you." No easy matter but an ideal to strive for, as Parini makes clear.
Readers will be especially impressed with Parini's discussion of the Beatitudes and the Antitheses, where he places various comments in historical and religious context. He is invariably fair-minded on controversial issues - ranging from the Virgin birth to the raising of Lazarus. He wears his deep learning lightly but confidently. This helps the book to move along at a graceful pace. To drive home points, Parini sometimes summons poets and other thinkers for an apt comment. I particularly enjoyed how he flavored a discussion of forgiveness with the fictional musings of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye.
If you are looking to learn more about Jesus, the mythology around him, and his deeper meaning for the past and present, then I am confident that you will be perfectly served by this volume.
on 29 December 2013
Jay Parini's Jesus: The Human Face of God is not a strict biography so much as it is a meditation on the meaning of Jesus' life and legacy. Parini makes much of the historical and geographical particulars of the world in which Jesus cultivated his message and way of life, but it would be a mistake to confuse this book for a rigidly academic or "de-mythologizing" account of Christ. Nor is it a theological or dogmatic tract. Rather, Parini deploys his skills as a poet, biographer, and longtime teacher to work toward an understanding of Jesus that allows for both the miraculous and the mundane. That is, Parini is concerned not with differentiating between "man" and "myth," but rather with exploring the intent and import of Jesus' teachings and the aspirations and challenges they pose for all of us.
As a scholar of Greek, Parini reconsiders terms like metanoia and soteria that are typically translated as "repentance" and "salvation." Parini argues for broader definitions that suggest "an invitation to spaciousness and awakening," or what he later calls "the gradually realizing kingdom of God." As a good poet must, Parini attempts to take us back to the origins of Jesus' language and thought, to remind us of the freshness, beauty, and radical nature of words that over the past twenty centuries have hardened into doctrines that are often taken for granted without being fully realized within their readers.
Parini's biography of Jesus is admittedly a partial - and a deeply personal - one. As Parini freely discloses, "my focus will remain on my own understanding of the meaning of the life of Christ - provisional as this must necessarily be." At roughly 150 pages, the biography is hardly exhaustive. But that seems to be precisely Parini's point: it is impossible to exhaust the life and legacy of Jesus, nor should we want to exhaust it. Again, Parini's refrain of "the gradually realizing kingdom of God" comes to mind. What is refreshing about this book - what makes it both human and humanizing - is its broad invitation to join in a discussion and contemplation of Christ.