Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Existential Jesus

I’ve just finished reading a book called The Existential Jesus by John Carroll. It’s an existentialist interpretation of the Gospel of Mark, and it’s pretty much heresy from start to finish. Some of its assertions are plucked from thin air – when Carroll claims that Jesus’ closing of the Gethsemane prayer with the words “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours” is not a submission to God’s will but a meaningless formula appended out of habit, it is tempting to respond, with post-Wikipedia cynicism, “Citation needed” – and its individualist approach to Christ’s teachings often melts them into airy-fairy New Age spiritual gloop.

However, The Existential Jesus does two things rather well. One is applying the concept of midrash to the New Testament (which is something I find incredibly exciting, and which could well prove a road toward reconciling reception theory and hermeneutic realism). The other is portraying Christ’s humanity.

It is all too easy to forget that Jesus was a human being. Yes, we sing each Christmas of the little lord Jesus asleep on the hay; yes, we parrot glib churchspeak like “fully God and fully man”; but I for one tend to focus on his role as savior and messiah. Pace my favorite gospel, I meditate on the mystery: the Word, the truth, the light. At this point in my life, though, I find it all too easy to relate to the idea of a Jesus my age – a young man, living a perfectly ordinary life, who didn’t yet know all the answers, and perhaps wasn’t yet sure of his own identity and purpose on this earth.

Another book I’ve just finished is Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation, which has also been branded as heresy. It’s a novelization of the life of Christ, and it packs a bold Christological punch from the very first chapter, which depicts Jesus the carpenter’s son being jeered and vilified for building the cross on which a prophet-rebel is crucified. Kazantzakis’ Jesus has always been tormented by a sense of God’s presence, but it is only slowly and torturously that he works his way toward an understanding of his destiny.

Kazantzakis was (on and off) a practicing Christian, Carroll is not, but in this sense their works make interesting companion pieces. Both portray a Jesus who does not spring forth fully formed, knowing himself and his part from the off; both portray him as fully human, with the cloudy understanding that entails, seeing through a glass darkly and seeking his higher calling without a straightforward knowledge and understanding to guide him. It’s a compelling, revolutionary portrayal for us today, who have always known Jesus’ full story. I don’t know if it’s heresy to envision Jesus struggling to discover his identity and his destiny, but it thoroughly humanizes this figure who was, after all, thoroughly human – and it’s an enormous comfort, two millennia on, for an unemployed twenty-something unsure of her purpose on earth.

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