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Reading Jesus: A Writer's Encounter with the Gospels Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 27, 2009
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In the introduction to this remarkable book, Mary Gordon is riding in a taxi as the driver listens to a religious broadcast, and she reflects that, though a lifelong Christian, she is at odds with many others who identify themselves as Christians. In an effort to understand whether or not she had âinvented a Jesus to fulfill my own wishes,â she determined to read the Gospels as literature and to study Jesus as a character. What results is a vibrantly fresh and personal journey through the Gospels, as Gordon plumbs the mysteries surrounding one of history's most central figures.
In this impassioned and eye-opening book, Gordon takes us through all the fundamental storiesâthe Prodigal Son, the Temptation in the Desert, the parable of Lazarus, the Agony in the Gardenâpondering the intense strangeness of a deity in human form, the unresolved more ambiguities, the problem posed to her as an enlightened reader by the miracle of the Resurrection. What she rediscoversâand reinterprets with her signature candor, intelligence, and straightforwardnessâis a rich store of overlapping, sometimes conflicting teachings that feel both familiar and tantalizingly elusive.
It is this unsolvable conundrum that rests at the heart of Reading Jesus and with which Gordon keeps us in thrall on every page.
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A lapsed (it seems) Catholic, Gordon, novelist and lover of words, decided one day to read and reread the four Gospels, in different translations. This book is the fruit of that reading; each chapter is a reflection on passages that either move or trouble her the most.
In the first part, Gordon reflects on the passages from the Gospel that are closest to her heart. Here, Gordon is at her best, incisive, keen, thoroughly spiritual. She reveals the human Christ she knows and has rediscovered in this exercise. I was edified and at times moved almost to tears with her reflections.
The second part is more intellectual. Gordon confronts those passages she finds most jarring and upsetting: the ones which paint a Jesus (not to mention, a Church) who seems less easy to follow, and maybe even less easy to love.
Gordon closes the book with a reflection on what for Catholics, is the most profound mystery of all: the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ.
This book is an act of honesty and generosity. I imagine the book will be fruitful for all Christians who understand what it means to struggle with their faith.
So what about Reading Jesus? I come to it as a Methodist who thinks it is unlikely that God really exists, but who believes that Jesus is absolutely essential and who defines for me who I am (however imperfectly, however ambiguously). Prof. Gordon understands that conundrum better than anyone I have read. She understands that Jesus is the essence of our 'faith' even as our faith is past the edge. She expresses what it means to say "Blessed are the poor in spirit" better than anyone I have read.
Is it a perfect volume? Of course not. No one (not even John Wesley) knows what perfection is, nor would they recognize it if they saw it. But Reading Jesus: A Writer's Encounter with the Gospels is a must read for anyone who has thought of 'following Jesus,' or who has wondered why anyone would even give it a thought. You are much the poorer if you do not read it.
And I remained, though knowing naught,
Transcending knowledge with my thought.
St. John of the Cross
Mary Gordon is a rare enough bird: a well-known writer, critic, intellectual, lecturer, college professor, Manhattanite, feminist, who also happens to be a lifelong observant Roman Catholic. (I admit I'm not one of her ideal readers) A few years ago, she heard a protestant preacher ranting on a taxicab radio & decided to read & study all four Gospels, in canonical order, in various translations, & see what kind of reaction she had. The result is a book resisting categorization - memoir, spiritual meditation, literary criticism. It most feels like a collection of exploratory homilies for herself, & the kind of prose book poets dream of writing.
Catholics of Gordon's generation were not much encouraged to read the Bible. Even Methodist Sunday School kids like myself read it haphazardly. Like Gordon, I also was filled with composite New Testament stories loaded with details not found in the Bible, & our teachers avoided particularly strange, contradictory, troublesome passages & encounters whenever they could. It's interesting to see her try to sort out those stories , confront miracles, & deal with the paradoxes. She attempts to maintain some intellectual distance, but memories & associations cut through.
The book is in three parts, each chapter in a part beginning with the same passage as recounted in different Gospels & versions. The table contents itself is a poem.
One strength of Catholicism I've always admired is its acceptance of mystery, of the unexplainable. Oh, there's a long & venerable history of brilliant theologians trying to explain, but there's a parallel history of mysticism & a tradition of practical observance - you don't have to understand. Catholics have more wiggle room than they are generally given credit for by conservative protestants, for whom everything must be just so.
Part III - The Seven Last Words And The Last Words, is, for me, the least enlightening. Gordon wiggles, shrugs, & fully exposes the Cafeteria Catholic we already know she is. Too much unexplainable mystery. She cannot accept that Jesus could be the only incarnation of God. But Jesus is the one she grew up worshipping, & still does - if skeptically.
Part II - The Problem Of Jesus: Reading Through Anger, Confusion, Disappointment, Loss, deals with various problems, paradoxes, & contradictions that create differences of attitude, doctrine, & ethics among Christians, although I'm vastly simplifying it. "The Problem Of Asceticism: Do We Want To Live Like This?" "The Problem Of Perfection: Could We Live The Way He Says Even If We Wanted To?" An excellent, brief chapter on "The problem of the Jews." Some passages Christians have good reason to wish could be wished away, written for their time & intended audience they have contributed no good ever since. They are artifacts.
Part I - These Fragments I Have Shored Against My Ruin, is the best. Here we find Mary & Martha - for whom Gordon shows a special affinity. Also the demonic man living among the tombs, Jesus converses with his demon[s], casts them into a herd of pigs, which run off a cliff. Mainstream protestants are uncomfortable with the idea of demonic possession; these days I suppose nearly everyone is. There is the brief appearance of a man in the Garden of Gethsemane, cloaked only in linen, who goes running naked into the night. Who is he? Why is he there? Everyone looks away from the naked man. A petulant Jesus withers a fig tree for not bearing fruit out of season, a harsh judgment on a living thing with no free will doing what it's supposed to do.
Unlike Garry Wills in his books ( Why I Am a Catholic ), at no point in Reading Jesus does Gordon sound like she'd be more comfortable as a protestant. I think she'd be a Catholic or nothing in particular. However Gordon managed to accommodate herself to institutional Roman Catholicism, she did long ago & it's unlikely she loses sleep mulling over the history of the popes. Her Catholicism, like that of most active Catholics you & I know, is observed mainly in the heart, home, & parish, & is a practice, not a "denomination." What she does want is her own Jesus, with all the uncertainties, questions, puzzles, impossible demands, & miraculous occurrences. The Jesus who is both fully God & fully human. She doesn't want the sure thing, step-right-up Gospels blaring from the taxicab radio; the Gospels where all pieces fit because they're whacked into place with a mallet; the preacher pretending to have no doubts about the meaning of the Gospels, or, even worse, the preacher with no doubts. A lovely, thoughtful book for thoughtful, educated readers.