Thursday, July 26, 2012

JESUS: A LIFE by A. N. Wilson (1992)

This may be the most readable and as well as the most learned book about Jesus, Paul and Christianity that you are likely to lay your hands on.

Without even trying,  Jesus destroyed the world of classical antiquity and wrenched subsequent history into not one but many radical new directions. If you are interested in history you should grab this book and read it cover to cover. It won't change your life but it will, without a doubt, change the way you think about Christianity as Paul more or less invented it, thereby partially taming the anarchic energy loosed upon the world by Jesus's deceptively simple, witty, ironic parables. (Though Wilson doesn't actually say so, he makes it pretty clear that  the 'parabolic' style that stamps almost everything that Jesus says was a new literary invention: no one in the ancient classical world had ever talked that way.)

I think I can best convey something of the tone and content of Wilson's book by quoting some of its concluding pages:

Most of the history of Christendom may be seen as a series of extraordinary accidents, but it is not purely accidental that Jesus could so easily be adopted and transformed into the Gentile God that he became. It is precisely because he refused to define himself that he was so vulnerable to the assaults of theologians and fantasists. 'Who do men say I am?' He asked the question, but did not tell them what sort of answer they should have given.

Something with which Western minds have found it almost impossible to come to terms is the unsystematic nature of Jesus's thought. Since Jesus existed within an accepted religious framework, and was not setting out to found a new religion, still less to found a philosophical school, there is no need to search among his recorded sayings for a coherent metaphysic. He spoke in parables partly with the deliberate aim of  baffling and disturbing his hearers, that hearing they might not understand. He did not wish to deliver them with a finished pattern which they could follow. The pattern was something which, if it existed, they must make for themselves. Most Christian schemes of thought have arisen from a passion to take some group of recorded sayings in the Gospels and to force them to their logical conclusion. The whole of Calvinism, for example, may be deduced from the parable of the women looking for the lost coin. If, as Calvin did, you imagine that this story is a piece of theology, then certain terrible deductions can be made from it. The Almighty is the woman, and the human soul is the coin. It follows that all human impulses toward the divine are worthless, since the initiative, in the process of salvation, must always come not from man but from above. We cannot work for our salvation; we must wait for it. It therefore follows that only those who have been called or elected to glory may be saved—with the cruel concomitant that those who are not so called must be elected to everlasting damnation. [Including unbaptized infants.]. . . .

Who can not believe Tolstoy when he says that oath-taking is forbidden in the Gospel; that the kingdom is within us, and not of this world; that the true followers of Jesus can therefore never wish to take part in civil systems, and never seek political solutions to the problems which beset society? And yet Jesus, who told his followers to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, is never recorded as recommended a Tolstoyan policy of civil disobedience against Rome of the sort which inspired Gandhi to defy, and ultimately to overthrow, the British Raj in India.

The truth is that Jesus remains too disturbing a figure ever to be left to himself. Christianity in all its multifarious manifestations, Orthodox and heterodox, has been a repeated attempt to make sense of him, to cut him down to size. The extent to which no saying or story of Jesus can, in fact, be taken to its logical conclusion without being contradicted by some other saying or fact is perhaps less a symptom of how imperfectly the Gospels record him than how oblique and how terrifying a figure he actually was in history. Terrifying because he really does undermine everything. He appeals to disruptive imaginations
such as Tolstoy and Blake, but even they, in seeking to make his disruptiveness their own, systematize or enclose him. It cannot be done. 'Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.' He will not tell us. . . A patient and conscientious reading of the Gospels will always destroy any explanation which we devise. It if makes sense it is wrong. That is the only reliable rule-of-thumb which we can use when testing the innumerable interpretations of Jesus's being and his place in human history.

If it makes sense it is wrong— in some important ways. (Or, as Wallace Stevens says in one of his poems, "The squirming facts evade the squamous mind.") How many other theories—logical, theological, philosophical, political, cosmological etc.—can you think of that would survive this rule of thumb? No matter how sophisticated your theory, it is bound to encounter facts that cannot be explained or evaded. History is littered with the wreckage of busted doctrines and theories. Even this one?


  1. Jesus pretty much banned divorce--a ban ignored by Protestants and evaded by the Catholic Church, which grants annulments. Here are his words:
    Matthew 5:31-32
    31 It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce. 32 But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
    He also introduced the idea of eternal damnation, which is not found anywhere in the Old Testament.

  2. Mr. Jochnowitz wants to blame Jesus for the idea of eternal damnation, based on remarks that occur in Mark 3 and, so far as I know, nowhere else. Since Mark, like the rest of the synoptic gospels was heavily influenced by Paul, we should be careful about what ideas we attribute to Jesus—who also says somewhere that he has no desire to change anything in the Law.