Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters : May-June Selection

Over the past several months, the Catholic Book Club at America has considered recently published works about Jesus. In March, we read Christ Actually by James Carroll. The book inspired a great deal of discussion, much of which debated whether or not Mr. Carroll was a legitimate commentator on the life of Christ and the Catholic appropriation of revelation. By the series of comments and threads of debate, it is quite clear that religious men and women today take rather seriously their understanding of Jesus Christ. Readers are ready to argue passionately for the Christ that they have assented to or discovered or met in prayer and scripture. Their faith centers upon Christ as well as the texts and witness that reveal Christ’s life to the world. But, in the back of their minds—in the back of every thoughtful believer’s mind, in the back of my mind—a question remains: Who was Jesus, actually? Is what is said about him and written about him actually the case? Such a question is essential to faith. Such a question nourishes and enriches faith. Such a question is open to receiving the testimony of the community that is the church as well as the academic community that scours and sifts and digs through every extant artifact of the first century AD in order to understand, more fully, more historically, more faithfully—perhaps, more simply—Jesus Christ.

In his own attempt at getting to the heart of who Jesus was and is, N. T. Wright employs the adverb “simply” in the title of his work, Simply Jesus, which preceded Carroll’s book by three years. If Wright were to recast his title in Carroll’s template, Wright’s book would probably carry the title, Christ Carefully or Christ Subtly. Wright’s account represents a more accessible version of his three volume—now four—academic consideration of Jesus Christ, revelation and the early Christian church. The four volume series entitled “Christian Origins and the Question of God” critically analyzes the Christian and Jewish texts that mark the foundation of the Christian community, the historical context of the first century AD, and how modern scholars think about the texts and the historical data garnered in the last two centuries. Like a good Lonerganian, Wright is concerned with questions, and he reasons that the question—whether or not Jesus was who the texts and early church said he was—may be a far too blunt, unreflective question. Perhaps, it is a question that even reduces Jesus to something far less than who he himself claimed to be. Here is Wright’s assessment of such reductionism:

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Many Christians, hearing of someone doing “historical research” on Jesus, begin to worry that what will emerge is a smaller, less significant Jesus than they hoped to find. Plenty of books offer just that: a cut-down-to-size Jesus, Jesus as a great moral teacher or religious leader, a great man but nothing more.  Christians now routinely recognize this reductionism and resist it.  But I have increasingly come to believe that we should be worried for the quite opposite reason. Jesus – the Jesus we might discover if we really looked!—is larger, more disturbing, more urgent that we—than the church!—had ever imagined. We have successfully managed to hide behind other questions (admittedly important ones) and to avoid the huge, world-shaking challenge of Jesus’s central claim and achievement. It is we, the churches, who have been the real reductionists. We have reduced the kingdom of God to private piety, the victory of the cross to comfort for the conscience, and Easter itself to a happy escapist ending after a sad, dark tale. Piety, conscience, and ultimate happiness are important, but not nearly as important as Jesus himself (4-5).

These are provocative words. Provocative also is Wright’s image of a perfect storm that converges whenever one publicly considers Christ. Winds of skepticism and conservatism are intensified by a scholarly surge in historical analysis. Amidst this swirl of antagonistic worldviews, Wright urges patient, reasonable inquiry into Jesus. Wright’s inquiry proceeds from three questions: What was Jesus’ historical context like? Who was Jesus’ God? and, What did Jesus’ behavior mean? Wright comes to the conclusion that Jesus’ behavior—what he actually did in his cross and resurrection—“rescues human beings in order that through them he may rule his world in the new way he always intended” (216). 

Wright presents Jesus scripturally, historically, humanly. Wright’s portrait is not a simplification of the questions surrounding Christ or the answers that flow from such inquiry. Simply Jesus represents an attempt at analyzing how we ask questions about Jesus and what sources we uphold as authoritative. I urge the members of the Catholic Book Club to consider Wright’s book. I assure you that your faith will be heartened and your questions sharpened.

I offer three questions for discussion:

1.     Are there any questions regarding the life of Jesus Christ that haunt or puzzle or pester you? What are they?

2.     What in Wright’s presentation of Jesus—simply—consoles you or frustrates you or inspires you to further inquiry and deepening of faith?

3.     How has you understanding of Jesus Christ evolved during your adult life?  

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Janean Stallman
3 years 2 months ago
First of all, I thought it was interesting that Kevin began his review with a comparison of Wright's book with Carroll's, "Christ Actually." Personally, I found Carroll's book far more engaging to read, as he details the historical background of the first century Roman Wars and the conditions under which the Jews were living during that time. For me, he was academically a much stronger writer. Although, I felt Carroll never really clarified his ideas for who Jesus was for a secular age, which is a point that has already been discussed here at great length. Wright also reviews historical material, but his focus seems more on comparing Jesus's mission to that of Moses leading the Israelites out of bondage. My notes include, "Jesus saw his mission as the fulfillment of the Jewish prophets' predictions," and that "Jesus believed his death was necessary to bring about the kingdom, but that he left it to the church and the people of God, his followers, to complete the job." I was frustrated by Wright's continued remarks that Jesus is the Ruler of the World. As much as I believe in my own heart that God is in charge of my life, I am appalled at what is going on in our world. Wright's book, rather than deepening my faith, led me to question the role of Christianity in today's world affairs. How much of an impact are we making in bringing about the Kingdom of God. We have to do more than just declare Jesus is Lord, we have to do something meaningful. Sometimes, I think these theologians are living in a world of spiritual la la land. They aren't writing for the person on the street and they don't see the reality of life. I guess this is why I love Pope Francis so much because he is not afraid to speak the truth and tell us how to really life the Christian life. It's all good to talk about Jewish mysticism and ancient scriptures, but that's not going to change the way the world is going. In "Jesus: The Ruler of the World," Wright says, "And if we are not just to speak of it, but to be part of it--to be among the humans who are enlisted in God's project--then we need to understand the framework within which it all makes sense (217)." My note was "It can't be this hard to understand!" Jesus did not go into grand dissertations on the Jewish prophets. He did quote scripture, but still his teaching was simple and accessible for the ordinary man. Wright has a tendency to make suggest that understanding our faith is an esoteric discipline that only the learned can know. All in all, the book didn't give me any new inspiration. If I had read it before Carroll's book, it might have functioned as a step along the way, but as it was, it was a bit of a let down.
Steven Reynolds
3 years 2 months ago
I would give an overall more favorable review. NT Wright is one of the world's leading biblical scholars and Anglican clergy so capable of participating both in academic circles and at a pastoral level. He is a prolific writer for both academic and popular audiences. This work contains a rich load of material on the historical content of Jesus, especially on Second Temple Judaism and the Roman Empire. Wright is a much more credible source than James Carroll in treading some of the same ground. Based on an earlier comment, the book might have benefit from perhaps starting with some of its later chapters (to more fully set the stage) before diving into the history. He also perhaps puts out too many books. Wright in many of his works has a consistent theme - as Kevin notes above criticizing much of current Christianity (and Wright's favorite target of American Protestants) as focusing on personal piety and escape from the world. Wright clearly sees Jesus as challenging us to be a part of the world, helping to build the kingdom. A more inspiring work by Wright, also for popular audience, on this theme may be his earlier Surprised by Hope (2008). To the questions - 1. How Jesus' self-awareness developed has always interested me. If fully human then he must have developed intellectually and emotionally, as we all have. Wright's material here on how Jesus recognized his mission in text and themes of Jewish prophetic writings and the Psalms is terrific and very helpful in thinking about this question. 2. Wright always challenges with the emphasis on what we should be doing here on earth. Of course, reading the Gospels does as well and that is really Wright's point. 3. I think it is the movement from getting Jesus as "fully divine" to better understanding Jesus "fully human" with age and maturity.
Janean Stallman
3 years 2 months ago
The book that really brings the "fully human" Jesus into light is Fr. James Martin's book, "Jesus, A Pilgrimage." I'm sure that James Carroll's book is just as credible as Wright's book. His book is well documented with pages of scholarly notes and indexed. N.T. Wright has none of this. One piece of "new material" for me was N.T. Wright's discussion of the books of the Old Testament that Jesus might have, and probably did, draw on for his preaching: Isaiah, Daniel, and Zechariah. This insight makes these OT books more interesting and valuable to study. But, as a whole, I found "Simply Jesus" and N.T. Wright's other books on Jesus less engaging than other authors' works on the same topic.
Janean Stallman
3 years ago
Kevin, could you suggest some books for a study of the bible--New Testament probably. This past spring, I led a class on Fr. Martin's book, "Jesus, A Pilgrimage" which was very well received. Now, the group would like to do a something with bible study. I would appreciate some suggestions. Thank you, Janean

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