What the Passersby Hear

In the current issue of The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik has a stimulating essay on a rag-tag array of books that are more or less about Jesus. Because Gopnik is such a close and intelligent reader, the essay strikes me as more interesting for its insights into his own sensibilities than those of the authors he mentions.Here is one of his musings:

If one thing seems clear from all the scholarship, though, its that Pauls divine Christ came first, and Jesus the wise rabbi came later. This fixed, steady twoness at the heart of the Christian story cant be wished away by liberal hope any more than it could be resolved by theological hair-splitting. Its intractability is part of the intoxication of belief. It can be amputated, mystically married, revealed as a fraud, or worshipped as the greatest of mysteries. The two go on, and their twoness is what distinguishes the faith and gives it its discursive dynamism. All faiths have fights, but ... few have so many super-subtle shadings of dogma: wine or blood, flesh or wafer, one God in three spirits or three Gods in one; a song of children, stables, psalms, parables, and peacemakers, on the one hand, a threnody of suffering, nails, wild dogs, and damnation and risen God, on the other. The two spin around each other throughout historythe remote Pantocrator of Byzantium giving way to the suffering man of the Renaissance, and on and on.

Though in this quote Paul seems to prevail, Gopnik generally shows, I think, a temperamental partiality for the Gospel of Mark. He writes:

In Mark ... the two miraculous engines that push the story forward at the start and pull it toward Heaven at the endthe Virgin Birth and the Resurrectionmake no appearance at all. The story begins with Jesus adult baptism, with no hint of a special circumstance at his birth, and there is actually some grumbling by Jesus about his family (Only in his home town, among his relatives and in his own house, is a prophet without honor, he complains); it ends with a cry of desolation as he is executedand then an enigmatic and empty tomb. (Its left to the Roman centurion to recognize him as the Son of God after he is dead, while the verses in Mark that show him risen were apparently added later.)

He himself ends the essay somewhat provocatively and -- enigmatically:

The argument is the reality, and the absence of certainty the certainty. Authority and fear can circumscribe the argument, or congeal it, but cant end it. In the beginning was the word: in the beginning, and in the middle, and right there at the close, Word without end, Amen. The impulse of orthodoxy has always been to suppress the wrangling as a sign of weakness; the impulse of more modern theology is to embrace it as a sign of life. The deeper question is whether the uncertainty at the center mimics the plurality of possibilities essential to liberal debate, as the more open-minded theologians like to believe, or is an antique mystery in a story open only as the tomb is open, with a mystery left inside, never to be entirely explored or explained. With so many words over so long a time, perhaps passersby can still hear tones inaudible to the more passionate participants. Somebody seems to have hoped so, once.

However, even in Mark, a Word is spoken that seems to have escaped the hearing of the passersby. The tomb is, of course, empty; but those entering the tomb do hear: "Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him as he told you" (Mk 16:6&7). With that "Word without end" begins the Good News -- and the hope.

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.

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