Saturday, May 26, 2007

Benedict's Jesus

I have stopped all other pleasure reading to concentrate on the theological masterpiece of the decade. This post is intended to give you a glimpse of what will be remembered as one of the most important works of the twenty first century. The book in question is so straightforward one could read it through in a weekend; and yet it is so profound that one will want to savor every paragraph.

Reading Pope Benedict's Jesus of Nazareth is a most humbling experience. After reading the foreword, I realized that all my theological and intellectual posturing is mere hubris compared to the thought of this truly great mind. After reading the introduction, I was certain that I must have squandered my entire academic life in the face of such precise theological prose. After reading the first chapter, I began to wonder if I had ever really read the Scriptures or encountered Jesus Christ before. In this post I will focus solely on the Foreword.

One would assume the book to be a huge theological tome of sophisticated argumentation. Benedict is arguably one of the greatest minds of the last century having an intellect capable of dissecting the premises and fallacies of even the most challenging treatises. Yet, this is the same Benedict whose only Encyclical to date is Deus Caritas Est, one of the most readable and uplifting affirmations of the Christian message since John Chrysostom.

It has been said that people came to see John Paul the Great but they come to listen to Benedict. He is a teacher; not in the stodgy sense of dry academia, rather as one who passionately believes in his subject, who has respect and love for his students, and who has the gift to explain his subject so that every listener goes away refreshed, enlightened and enriched in their humanity. This is the Benedict speaking in Jesus of Nazareth.

In the foreword, the Holy Father states his intentions to present a reflection on Jesus to counter the dominant historical-critical scholarship of the last century. He notes truthfully and simply that these approaches "have produced a common result: the impression that we have very little certain knowledge of Jesus and that only at a later stage did faith in his divinity shape the image we have of him." (p. xii) Benedict, on the other hand, offers a perspective that "sees Jesus in light of his communion with the Father, which is the true center of his personality; without it, we cannot understand him at all, and it is from this center that he makes himself present to us still today." (p. xiv) He will not jettison the historical-critical method; he will utilize it while recognizing that "it does not exhaust the interpretive task for someone who sees the biblical writings as a single corpus of Holy Scriptures inspired by God." (p. xvi) It is a tool; an important tool, but only a tool.

Benedict proposes a "canonical exegesis" which views the individual books of the Scriptures as part of a whole. This uniative approach recognizes "that any human utterance of a certain weight contains more than the author may have been immediately aware of at the time." (p. xix) In this context we see the reality of inspiration, the power of the word to speak in a living dynamic context. The Scriptures have a life that confronts us and transfigures us when we approach them from the perspective of faith. It is God who speaks through the Scriptures with a voice as real as the voices of the writers of its individual books. Thus, Benedict asserts, "I trust the Gospels." (p. xxi)

I believe that this Jesus - the Jesus of the Gospels - is a historically plausible and convincing figure. Unless there had been something extraordinary in what happened, unless the person and words of Jesus radially surpassed the hopes and expectations of the time, there is no way to explain why he was crucified or why he made such an impact. (p. xxii)
Jesus is precisely who he claims to be, the Son of God taught by the Church, the Saviour. This faith and trust in Jesus as proclaimed in the Scriptures does not require a rejection of historical-critical scholarship. Rather, this theological tool can serve to enhance our appreciation of the Scriptures and the Jesus who is revealed in their pages. It is in this context that Jesus of Nazareth is written.

And it gets better with every page.

I wonder how the New York Times will take it when this book becomes the number one best seller of the summer (and yes, I know there's a Harry Potter book coming out).

Wait for it!

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