Reading jesus: A writer’s Encounter with the Gospels

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Article Reviews Scripture and Theology
By Mary Gordon (Pantheon, 2009)

What if one of the great Catholic storytellers in America decided to wander through the New Testament in search not of wisdom or epiphany, but of story? Wouldn't it be entertaining to accompany her as she weighs these ancient reports against each other, explores the narrative engineering, delves the eerie and mysterious power that has somehow survived 19 centuries with the capacity to shock and startle unquenched?

"These words are the basis and the foundation of my religious life," Mary Gordon writes of the stories she has heard for half a century but not read with open heart and piercing mind-until now. And deeply interesting the voyage is, too, as she looks at Jesus the storyteller (and what a creative parablist), the comparative strengths and weaknesses of the gospel authors (what they leave out is often riveting), the "flexibility and porosity" and sheer paradox of scripture ("Turn the other cheek"; "I come not to bring peace but a sword"), and the remarkable number of fascinating side stories-the man whose cloak is yanked off in the garden, for example, he who sprints away naked and nameless into history.

Reading Jesus is occasionally more riff than revelation, and it suffers the inherent inconsistency of collections of short pieces, but again and again Gordon makes the gospels and their characters real in ways that are immensely refreshing. Why does Jesus weep so over Lazarus? Why does he curse and wither a fig tree in a fit of pique? What is the deep mysterious human genius of a man who was also God, a divinity who was a young man, dusty and testy and confusing?

In so many ways we take for granted the stories that are all we have left of Jesus in this world; to have a writer of this caliber and honesty and spirit dive headlong into those same stories is a real gift. Would that more of the best American Catholic novelists and essayists poked into scripture with their storycatcher-sensitivities set to stun.