From The Washington Post:
What an act of faith for novelist Mary Gordon to imagine that her new book, “Reading Jesus,” has a prayer. She admits upfront that she's not a Bible scholar; in fact, she had “never actually read the full Gospel” until she began this audacious plan to record and publish her reflections on Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. She fears scriptural scholars will find her approach “naive to the point of irresponsibility,” and she knows that conservative evangelicals who regard the Gospels as the literal expression of God's truth will scoff at the musings of this damnably liberal, feminist intellectual. But off she goes anyhow, girded only by her considerable intelligence and disarming sincerity, determined to look squarely at the Gospels, how she reads them and how she maintains what she calls her “hopeful faith.” “I am trying for a tone that is personal and self-questioning,” she says, “a tone and diction that neither shouts nor threatens. . . . Above all, I have no interest in making a doctrinal point, no desire to convert.”
She's not always the devil's advocate, but such pugnacious statements electrify her book. After all, this isn't Christopher Hitchens burping up an objection that any first-year theology student could dispel without breaking a communion wafer. Although Gordon is a confirmed believer, she admits, “There are at least as many good reasons for being appalled by Jesus as there are for being drawn to him.” She wants to read the Gospels while acknowledging her own bafflement, her own sense of disappointment and betrayal. What of those “embarrassing,” “cringe-inducing” miracles that make Jesus sound like some TV charlatan? How can Christians tolerate Jesus's rejection of his family, his lack of respect for the dead? Or the moral despair inspired by his demand that his followers be perfect? And aren't Jesus's efforts to confound his listeners a sign that he's “adolescently churlish, at worst punitively sadistic”?
All those difficult challenges lead up to a brief but stinging examination of anti-Semitism in the Gospels. Laid out here in the starkest terms is the real torment any Christian must confront. How much misery must a text cause, she makes us wonder, before we no longer can consider it sacred? As a well-trained literary critic, Gordon is interested in how we read, how we form meaning from these stories “through a glass, darkly.” And she wittily points out that orthodoxy isn't the only colored lens between the text and us. Most adult Christians, she notes, come to the New Testament contaminated with all kinds of vague, wildly misleading impressions from childhood, when the words were “inscribed on the soft wax of our consciousness.” Reading from the King James Version about Jesus healing the multitude of “divers diseases,” I remember being surprised that so many ancient people had the bends.
Gordon admits that she's constantly tempted by the example of Thomas Jefferson, who took scissors to the New Testament and simply cut out those parts that weren't in harmony with his Enlightenment rationality. But she won't let herself stoop to such violent bowdlerizing. She's drawn to the ambiguities; she agonizes over the contradictions rather than ignoring them. “I am committed to the questions,” she says in closing, “unsusceptible to final answers.” If you're looking for revelation, look elsewhere, but if it's enlightenment you're after, Gordon is a thoughtful and stirring guide.