Volume > Issue > Briefly: October 1996

October 1996

The Real Jesus

By Luke Timothy Johnson

Publisher: HarperCollins

Pages: 182

Price: $22

Review Author: Pat O'Connell

Over the past decade, certain biblical scholars calling themselves the “Jesus Seminar” have attracted considerable notoriety for their efforts to “recover” a historically accurate picture of who Jesus of Nazareth was, and what He said and did. Adopting a stance of radical skepticism about the reliability of the canonical Gospels, they “discover” a Jesus who bears little resemblance to the Lord in whom Christians put their faith.

Here two distinguished Scripture scholars examine the work of the Jesus Seminar. In The Real Jesus Catholic theologian Luke Johnson provides a devastating critique not only of the results of the Jesus Seminar’s deliberations, but of the presuppositions and methodology employed by those who claim to have discovered the “real” Jesus. Ben Witherington, writing from the Wesleyan tradition, takes a more academic approach in The Jesus Quest, which also exposes the shortcomings of the Jesus Seminar. While neither book is primarily intended for a scholarly audience, both are based on solid scholarship.

While Johnson provides a masterly overview of the Jesus Seminar’s strategy of courting, and receiving, maximum media exposure, and carefully analyzes the procedures and outcomes of their meetings, as well as the work of such Seminar participants as John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, his objections are not limited to superficial press coverage or problematic scholarship. For Johnson the whole enterprise of trying to approach the identity of Jesus with a narrowly “historical” agenda is fundamentally misguided. Not only are the available sources limited, but no historical reconstruction can ever determine the validity of the claims of Christianity.

Witherington also recognizes that the full meaning of Jesus cannot be discovered by historical study, that “the historical Jesus and the Jesus that can be reconstructed by the historical-critical method are not one and the same.” He finds the “Jesus by committee” of the Jesus Seminar unpersuasive, a “better candidate for a late-night visit with David Letterman or Jay Leno” than for crucifixion. Though sympathetic to the social justice implications of Jesus’ teachings, Witherington is suspicious of those who discern a politically correct Jesus on the basis of a highly selective use of sources, such as Crossan, Richard Horsley, and Elizabeth Fiorenza.

The Jesus Quest

By The Jesus Quest

Publisher: InterVarsity

Pages: 304

Price: $19.95

Review Author: Christopher T. Dodson

This last Easter season, several popular newsmagazines devoted their cover story to the debate over whether the Resurrection of Christ actually occurred. “Experts” told us that the Resurrection is not historical, but a story expressing the collective hopes of those searching for meaning after the loss of their teacher. The Resurrection is only one tenet of Christianity under attack: The Virgin Birth, Christ’s miracles, and even the Incarnation are viewed with skepticism. Perhaps we should not be surprised when we read that many Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence of the Eucharist.

In Lost in the Cosmos, Walker Percy reminds us that for the Modern Mind there is a spectrum of preposterousness in Judaism and Christianity. Judaism is seen as preposterous because it claims God exists, God created man, man suffered from a fall, and God entered into a covenant with one group of people. Protestant Christianity is seen as even more preposterous because it claims that this God became man, was killed to save us, rose from the dead, and that salvation involves believing in this event. Percy then notes that Catholic Christianity is seen as even more preposterous because not only does it believe all of the above, but also that the man-God “founded a church, appointed as its first head a likable but pusillanimous person,…gave him and his successors the power to loose and to bind, required of his followers that they eat his body and blood in order to have life in them, empowered his priests to change bread and wine into his body and blood, and vowed to protect this institution until the end of time.”

One of the “preposterous” claims of Christianity is the belief that after the man-God died, he descended into Hell. In fact, it sometimes seems that this Mystery of Holy Saturday is forgotten by believers. Regis Martin attempts to bring the significance of Christ’s death and descent into Hell to light by a series of reflections in which he draws from images in books, poems, films, and plays. Eventually, the reader is asked to face just what it was that Christ endured — the sense of complete hopelessness and abandonment, even abandonment by God, that humanity sometimes suffers. Because of this descent into “the Hell of human hopelessness,” says Martin, redemption is possible and meaning is given to the hellish and hopeless predicaments of man, such as the Holocaust.

Unfortunately, Martin’s book is burdened with quotes and references to other works. At times it appears as though Martin could not express in his own words the profundity of his subject and desperately threw in every example from literature, art, theology, and any other source he could find that might shed light on the matter. (The footnotes alone make up one-third of the book.)

Another weakness of the book is Martin’s attempt to give meaning to the Holocaust by reminding the reader of the significance of Holy Saturday. While Martin conveys the suffering and sense of hopelessness of the Holocaust and the suffering and sense of hopelessness in Christ’s death, the two subjects are never adequately joined to accomplish Martin’s purpose. Upon reflection, however, one wonders whether the task could have been accomplished. Perhaps it is a matter too deep to adequately express in words.

The Suffering of Love: Christ's Descent into the Hell of Human Hopelessness

By Regis Martin

Publisher: St. Bede's Publications

Pages: 173

Price: $14.95

Review Author: Jeffrey Wills

If you subscribed to the Stanley Hauerwas Book Club, you would probably receive at least a book a year by this prolific theologian and ethicist. His In Good Company is a collection of essays. Its partner is a book by Arne Rasmusson which sees Hauerwas as the way out of the impasse of “political theology,” as exemplified by Jürgen Moltmann’s thought.

These two books from Notre Dame with interlocking titles on “The Church as Polis” are certainly a pair — but their relationship is somewhat surprising. You’d think Hauerwas’s essays are the basis for Rasmusson’s book, but in fact we are told that Rasmusson’s work led Hauerwas to collect his book of essays, which brings together his ecclesiological ponderings. And it must be admitted that the Swede has done the American a great service. In a way that seems more systematic and thorough than his protagonist, Rasmusson defines and refines Hauerwas’s writings on what he calls “theological politics,” the examination of society from an unapologetically ecclesial base.

Rasmusson’s discussion is deep and academic. On the other hand, the Hauerwas volume suffers from the usual fault of collected writings: It is somewhat diffuse and accidental. But in the end, although Rasmusson’s may be the worthier and more important book, Hauerwas is the current star of the show and probably the one readers will turn to first.

Who is Stanley Hauerwas? By record, he received a doctorate from Yale, taught for two years at Augustana College and then 14 years at Notre Dame, and is now Professor of Ethics at Duke Divinity School. By his own account, he is a high-church Mennonite, a Radical Reformation theologian, an ecclesial cannibal, and a Methodist who thinks of Methodism as a free-church, evangelical Catholicism. It does not take long to sense the importance of ecclesiological names and games for Hauerwas, who increasingly believes that one of the most important questions you can ask a theologian is, “Where do you go to church?”

Hauerwas, as Rasmusson admits, may rank behind the Mennonite John Howard Yoder as the most important theologian of his class, but he holds a prominent place at the moment for his engagement with so many different Christian traditions. If we were to name this moment (with apologies to Neuhaus’s The Catholic Moment), we might say that the end of the millennium brings us to “The Ecclesiological Moment.” Since Vatican II in particular, ecumenism has been a buzz word. Long divisions need long healings, and at present Hauerwas is a good guide to the “getting to know you” stage. Anyone with an unecumenical background will learn from the varying discussions of Yoder, McClendon, Gustafson, Lindbeck, Florovsky, and John Paul II together. Hence, the title In Good Company : Hauerwas is someone who keeps company with various traditions, thinkers, and ecclesial communities.

But it would misrepresent these essays to call them a book on big ideas, like his previous works on pacifism, virtue, Scripture, or marginalized Christianity. It is true that casuistry, the Trinity, and the papal social encyclicals get a certain attention, but in general the volume’s appeal is its lighter autobiographical element. Writing in a casual and personal style, this Texas storyteller reissues individual talks and sermons from Anabaptist, Catholic, or Methodist contexts. Hauerwas is ecumenical in the deep sense, as he writes both for and from the church at large, but not ecumenical in a happy, vague way. He is attracted to both Catholicism and Anabaptism because they have managed to keep some special practices in place. The ethicist starts from practices, but without traditions and distinctive communities there is no maintenance system for virtues. So he wants to keep those distinctions: He wants Catholics to be the best Catholics they can be and Mennonites to be model Mennonites.

There is something broadening but also facile about his brave new world. Consider this classic Hauerwasism: “The differences created by the Reformation…are now simply no longer interesting…but it is exactly because such differences now do so little work that they have become so important.” Is this an example of paradox or parody? I am not sure, but it typifies his eagerness to open questions rather than solve problems.

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