For many centuries the Catholic Church kept the Gospels from the eyes of the ordinary believer. If you couldn’t read Latin you were dependent on the oral tradition, the paintings on the church walls, and the preaching of the local parish priest. Putting the Bible in the hands of the people, or at least of those who could read, was a concern of the sixteenth-century Reformers. So, where Catholicism held sway, to translate the Bible into the language of the people was a crime—one that William Tyndale, among many others, paid for with his life. The church seems to have suspected that, unmediated by the teaching authority of the bishops, the Word of God would do more harm than good.
Even today Catholics are famously less familiar with the texts of Scripture than are their Protestant counterparts. Twentieth-century papal and conciliar teaching, supported by theology and biblical scholarship, has encouraged the reading of Scripture, while the liturgical renewal initiated by Vatican II has meant that a churchgoing Catholic now hears much more of the Bible than she or he would have in preconciliar days. And yet it remains safe to say that sustained encounter with Scripture is the exception, not the rule, among Catholic believers.
Mary Gordon’s thoughtful new book Reading Jesus might incline some leaders of the Catholic Church to wonder anew about the dangers of too much access to Scripture. Gordon has doubts about divinity: “I don’t know quite what I mean when I say the word ‘God,’” she writes. And though she is unwilling to give up the idea that “Jesus is God incarnate,” she cannot accept that God “has or can inhabit a human life only once.” She adds that “the importance of the Resurrection is not whether it literally happened but that it insists on the primacy of love over death.... For me, the meaning of the Resurrection is the possibility of possibility.” Not a few bishops might think the magisterium could set her straight about a thing or two.
Gordon’s views are, of course, representative of lots of today’s Christians and have a curious if tangential relationship to what is often labeled “cafeteria Catholicism.” Where the average cafeteria Catholic (liberal or conservative) chooses impulsively and even capriciously from the bounty on the table, Gordon’s choices emerge, if we are to believe her introduction, from a careful perusal of the entire menu. She recalls hearing a representative of the Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship on a taxicab radio, which prompted the realization that she had constructed her own Jesus out of the shards of the texts with which she was acquainted. She turned to the whole text to answer the question: “Do I really know what the Gospels are about, or have I invented a Jesus to fulfill my own wishes?” But if, like Gordon, we read the whole text and then worry over its less immediately plausible elements, it may be that we are still guilty of favoring a gospel within the gospel, or at the very least of letting only that Jesus show through who seems accessible to the hermeneutical preferences of our own age.
Subtitled A Writer’s Encounter with the Gospels, the book is divided into three sections. It begins with a series of meditations on some of Gordon’s most cherished Gospel passages; then turns to reflections on problematic aspects of the Gospels, like the miracle stories, apocalyptic expectations, and anti-Semitism; and concludes with a moving consideration of the seven “last words” from the Cross and some brief but significant thoughts on the Resurrection. The first part is full of homiletic insight, the second replete with postmodern angst, the third quite beautiful in its claim to faith—even the somewhat attenuated faith of our present age. But the whole is, in the end, less than the sum of its parts. While there is insight and authenticity in abundance, the thread is hard to follow and the thesis is elusive.
There are only a couple of ways to approach the Gospels successfully. One is to be armed with the most sophisticated exegetical apparatus, and Gordon has rightly rejected this avenue. The other is simply to let the text wash over us, to encounter the plain text in a kind of second naiveté that has left behind both childishness and the professional suspicion of the exegete. What we need is what the historian David Emmons has called “a hermeneutic of affection,” a willing surrender to the charms of the story. This seems to be what Gordon intends, at least in the first and third sections of the book. But the second part, which addresses Gordon’s questions as a modern reader of the Gospels, breaks the rhythm, often coming close to the kind of rationalist reduction of the text Thomas Jefferson attempted with his “Bible.”
It might be that for all the insights and genuine openness to the text that Gordon evinces, the best lesson she has for us is the perils of “a little knowledge.” A plain and simple reader takes the Gospels at face value and—as Gordon points out more than once—simply skips over what isn’t relevant. There are very few Christians plucking out their eyes because they have been occasions of sin. A Scripture scholar, at the other extreme, places everything in a precise literary and cultural context in which, perhaps paradoxically, s/he ends up reading with the same equanimity as that of the “simple Christian.” The rest of us, who eschew the scholarship while retaining our critical faculties, may too easily end up with an awkward assortment of genuine feeling, valuable insight, and unhistorical querying of an ancient text.
Questions like Gordon’s are legitimate and inevitable for contemporary readers. But few of us possess the scholarly skills to deal with them, and the teaching church seems sadly bereft of sophisticated catechesis that could assuage our doubts and, yes, nourish our faith. In laying out the challenges of faith for a gifted and imaginative Christian, then, Gordon is extraordinarily helpful. But—making the perhaps understandable mistake of someone who is first and last a writer—she gets off on the wrong foot in the introduction with the twice-repeated misperception that Jesus is “someone who is known to us primarily through a text.” On the contrary, the text was and is the witness to the continuing faith of the communion of saints in the one whom they have encountered as a person, in prayer and in life. For all the reasons Gordon lists and many others, the text is wonderful and challenging and troubling at the same time, and cannot of its own accord convince. This may be why most believers are not troubled by Gospel words that are jarring or even scandalous to our modern ears. Their faith in the living Jesus ensures that they do not allow him to be held captive by mere words. And this may in the end be the reason the Catholic tradition insists on the importance of living Tradition. This and only this liberates Jesus from the time-conditioned character of the text, even the text of the Gospels.