‘Reading Jesus’ takes writer on a search for answers

By Rich Barlow
Globe Correspondent / January 18, 2010

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The question mark, not the cross, is the dominant symbol in Mary Gordon’s new book about Jesus. A Barnard English professor and acclaimed novelist and memoirist, Gordon went back to read the four Gospels as a “person of hopeful faith.’’ Like the inquisitively brightest kid in the class, her hand shot up to ask a question, and another, and another, and another.

The result is a book well worth reading. Her questions are challenges to orthodox conventions about faith and the man Christians deem the son of God.

On many questions, Gordon admits she’s stumped or leaves the matter hanging without answer. Those who haven’t read the Gospels, or have only heard snippets read in church on weekends, will puzzle with her over her insightful inquiries. Dogmatists may object that she skirts the institutional church’s take on these questions, and in some places, it’s a fair objection. But only those afraid to venture outside the realm of received ideas will deny the legitimacy of her questions; the fact is that for many people, orthodox answers often aren’t slam-dunk persuasive.

Gordon’s most provocative musings go to the heart of who Jesus was and what he said. How could the divine son of God bungle the timing of the coming of God’s kingdom on earth? (“Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place,’’ Jesus says in Mark’s Gospel, suggesting incorrectly that the change was very near.) How could he be so cruel as to allow Lazarus to die just so that he could then raise him from the dead, as he says in John’s Gospel, “for the sake of the crowd’’? Or to deliberately befuddle those who haven’t been given “the secret of the kingdom of God’’ with parables that they won’t understand?

That last appeal by Jesus to those aware of the “secret’’ has been interpreted by some to justify an institutional priesthood to translate Jesus’ teachings for the uninitiated, writes Gordon. Even so, “Jesus’s impulse purposely to confound - in order that some might not repent and be saved - seems at best adolescently churlish, at worst punitively sadistic.’’

Yet for all these problems, there is much she loves about Jesus’ words. The behavior he prescribes in Matthew’s Gospel - turn the other cheek, do not look lustfully at a woman and thereby commit adultery - may be an impossible call to perfection, but to attempt less “means doing a great deal less than what the great among us have done.’’ She reveres the Beatitudes, the commands to forgiveness and concern for the needy, conveyed in unforgettable stories like the woman caught in adultery, at the point of being stoned, saved by Jesus’ reminder that he who is without sin . . .

Gordon’s metaphors can be dilatory house guests, overstaying their welcome. It’s catchy and humble to imagine herself “on a turbulent plane ride, flying in the dark’’ with this book. But as she describes the refreshment cart, chats with the plane passengers, and details the flight attendant’s uniform (down to the stiletto heels), the metaphor begins to feel old and stale. Yet by and large, she writes hauntingly.

Weighing the loveliness, literary and ethical, of the Gospels against the Christian anti-Semitism they inspired, she asks, “What kind of scale can be used to measure the beauty, the inspiration that these words have provided, against the weight of the bodies of the millions of dead whose destruction they have justified?’’

Wondering whether the text could be deconsecrated, she muses that reading it then “would be to understand that, in loving it, we turn the pages leaving behind us bloody fingerprints, the blood of murdered Jews seeping into the lines that make up our individual fingerprints. . . . We must always read these words with a broken heart.’’

Rich Barlow can be reached at

READING JESUS: A Writer’s Encounter With the Gospels
By Mary Gordon
Pantheon, 240 pp., $24.95