Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Adam Gopnik On That Jesus Character, Who Ever He is.

The remote and spiritual Christ Pantocrator of Byzantine art, from the Cathedral at Monreale, Sicily, 12th century.

The suffering human Christ of Renaissance art, by Albrecht Durer, 16th century

The personal, accessible, historical, and Jewish Jesus of the Protestant Christian, Rembrandt, 17th century

The Christ of our own day and our own conflicts in a new cosmopolitan world, Christa by Edwina Sandys, 1975

Adam Gopnik has a long and fascinating essay on Jesus, the mysterious historical character, and about all the various roles created for Him by both faith and doubt, by His worshippers and His detractors. As usual with Adam Gopnik, it is very well written. For those who are looking for a clear mandate to believe or not, this essay is not for you. You will find it maddeningly even handed in its consideration of believers (like WH Auden), and unbelievers (like Thomas Jefferson).

Gopnik, like a lot of writers from outside the Christian faith, appreciates the originality and the revolutionary character of Jesus' teachings; for example, their radical egalitarianism by the standards of the ancient world, and by our own standards (I would also add His radical pacifism). I've always found it striking that so many Christians (conservative and liberal) downplay the originality of Jesus' teaching. I've always heard the line that His message is little different from that of the great rabbinic sages of the time like Hillel or Gamaliel. For many Christians, what matters are not Jesus' teachings, but His death and resurrection. And yet, Jewish and secular authors insist otherwise. Hannah Arendt always insisted upon the radical originality of Jesus' command to forgive the sins of others. Arendt pointed out that in the ancient world, only the gods and their chosen representatives, priests and kings, could forgive sins. Arendt says that Jesus put that divine power into the hands of ordinary people. Gopnik points out how Muslims appreciate Jesus' radical teachings and claims, and even find them offensive at times. Karen Armstrong points out in her writings that there were many early Muslim sages who very much admired Jesus' teachings while rejecting His claims for Himself.

Gopnik points out the wildly varying images of Christ within the Christian faith, from kind sage, to radical outsider, to charismatic liberator, to mysterious cosmic man, to vengeful world-hating apocalyptic fanatic. Gopnik says that those dramatically varying characters are all there in the one person described in the Gospels. He also notes that so much of the Gospel narratives are about failure and disappointed expectation, especially in the Passion narratives. Jesus declared to His disciples that they will not taste death before they see the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven. That did not happen. It still hasn't happened. So much of the conflict within 2000 years of Christianity is over those frustrated expectations and over those wildly conflicting personas in that one person described very differently in each of the four Gospels. He also points out the uniqueness of the Christian claims about Jesus, how different they are from the Classical concept of a demi-god like Hercules, and how different they are from Hindu teachings about the Godhead, the gods, and their many avatars.

He concludes with the idea that belief in the post modern era chooses to embrace the abiding conflicts, mysteries, and doubts about Jesus instead of trying to resolve them.


Unknown said...

The art gives a sense of where the faith is - mystical, harsh, or realistic...interesting.

JCF said...

The remote and spiritual Christ Pantocrator of Byzantine art, from the Cathedral at Monreale, Sicily, 12th century.

Remote? Only in the sense that, for Po' Lil' Me, Sicily is remote to me [Sicily is one of my Dream Vacations doncha know, EXACTLY for my beloved Byzantine art! :-)]

I'm awfully busy moving, but reading the Gopnik article is on my to-do list...

Counterlight said...


You know I'm not going to stop trying to expand the horizons of Episcopal clerics and seminarians whose visual tastes seem to be permanently stuck in 9th century Constantinople.

When you get around to it, read the Gopnik article. I can't guarantee that you'll like it, but you might find it very interesting.

Karl Bruno Gatti said...

I have been studying the historical Jesus for 25 years, but when it came time for me to write about him I produced a work of fiction. My book is called Tales of the Master and is the memoir of the apostle Thomas of all that Jesus taught and did the three years they were together. I based my account on the four Gospels and the Gospel of Thomas. Thomas is an interesting character in himself in that no disciple of Jesus traveled farther in spreading the word. Thomas set up christian communities in Syria, Iraq, Iran, and finally in India where Thomasine Christianity still exists to this day. My book is broken up into 144 vignettes and comes to some380 pages. In it one will find the teachings of Jesus and not of Paul. Thomas rejects Paul as an outsider who taught a bizarre message that had nothing to do with what he heard and saw Jesus actually preach and do. The book is available through and I appreciate the chance to tell your readers about it. Karl Bruno Gatti

JCF said...

Byzantine art is like a sonnet, Counterlight. A rigid form . . . but remarkable freedom within it, to ever Do Something New. :-)


I found the Gopnik article pretty dry. The basic point is (surprise!) people---and the Historical Jesus questers are, believe it or not, people ;-/ ---ALWAYS find the Jesus they're looking for (as opposed to someone else's!).

Counterlight said...

Byzantine art is like a sonnet, but it is NOT the only religious art form out there, just as the sonnet form is but one among many from epic to free verse.

The Religious Pícaro said...

I've never seen that Durer before; thank you for posting it.