Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A Jesus Beyond Politics

~from Newsweek by George Weigel

“Everything” in Christianity, the Pope writes, depends on building an “intimate friendship with Jesus.” That was true in first-century Galilee; it is just as true in the twenty-first century. But twenty-first century believers have a problem that their forebears didn’t face: the many issues posed by modern methods of reading ancient texts. Now, after two centuries of reading the Bible according to the historical-critical method-“dissecting” the biblical text, as the fictional Abraham Gordon might put it-many Christians are “in danger of clutching at thin air” in seeking this friendship with their Lord. Or so the Pope worries.

And not without good reason. Caricatures notwithstanding, Benedict XVI is no reactive anti-modern. He readily and gratefully acknowledges that, thanks to historical-critical scholarship, we know much more, today, about the different literary genres of the Bible; about the ways in which a Gospel writer’s intent affected his portrait of Jesus; about the theological struggles within early Christianity that shaped a particular Christian community’s memory of its Lord. The difficulty is that, amidst all the knowledge gained in the biblical dissecting room, the Jesus of the Gospels has tended to disappear, to be replaced by a given scholar’s reconstruction from the bits and pieces left on the dissecting room floor. And that makes “intimate friendship with Jesus” much more difficult, not just for scholars, but for everyone.

Joseph Ratzinger was a world-class theologian long before he became the Roman Curia’s official defender of Catholic doctrine, and then the pope. In Jesus of Nazareth, Ratzinger reveals the core of his personality as he invites his readers into the classroom of a master teacher--one who has absorbed the best that modern biblical scholarship has to offer and has yet emerged from that encounter with his faith intact and enriched. At the outset, Ratzinger asks us to join him and to “trust the Gospels,” to read them both critically and with love. Both attitudes are necessary, he suggests, if twenty-first century readers are to understand how each Gospel writer (and the Christian community from which and to which he wrote) explains the Church’s Easter faith: the conviction that “Jesus really did explode all existing cate gories and [can] only be understood in the light of the mystery of God.”

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