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Jay Parini Appeals to both Intellect and Imagination
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."