Review: Jesus: A New Understanding of God’s Son (Orbis, 2012)

[1] Joseph Girzone first came to the public’s attention as the writer of simple, allegorical novels about a modern day itinerant carpenter named Joshua living in upstate New York. The books always reminded me of two television shows from the same era: Highway to Heaven and Touched by an Angel. The difference is the main character is Jesus in modern incarnation instead of an angel on a mission to earth. Girzone’s Joshua was a combination gentle friend to all and mysterious, mystical presence whose touch healed and whose presence seemed continually graced by inexplicable coincidence and miracle. It is not surprising that the Jesus presented in this book bears a striking resemblance to Joshua the carpenter. After his novels became popular, with sales in the millions, Girzone created the Joshua Foundation, “an organization dedicated to making Jesus better known throughout the world” (back cover). This book is a part of that effort.

Jesus[2] It is not an academic book. There is no bibliography, and very few sources other than the Gospels themselves are noted in the text. In that sense it is exactly what Girzone says it is in the preface, “. . . an attempt to enter into Jesus’ mind and heart as he lived those scenes. While these reflections are formatted into chapters, they were originally delivered as a series of talks on Jesus’ life” (p.viii). What may have been insightful and exciting as reflections and public lectures has not translated well into good writing. The book is often plodding and digressive at the same time, frequently going off on anecdotal rabbit trails that are intended to illumine but mostly serve to confuse. Girzone has failed to recognize that a style that communicates well in person is not often a style that communicates well on the page and vice versa. There are many things of value in this book. It is unfortunate that they are so difficult to find because of the format and the writing.

[3] I am not certain what audience would find Girzone’s understanding of the life and teachings of Jesus “new.” I suspect it would be people who have been treated to a lifetime of high Christology with very little reading, teaching or preaching on the humanity of Jesus. What Girzone lays out here is a very traditional Jesus, with angel voices and the virgin birth, the miracles and healings, the death and resurrection firmly in place. He also treats extensively of Jesus as a man, combining basic descriptions of life in first century Palestine with speculative and pious imaginings about what Jesus and others must have felt or thought. While I understand that such attempts to “enter into” the life of a Biblical character are a vital part of many people’s devotional life and are rooted in The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, I find such musings, indiscriminately placed in the text and treated as fact, to be disconcerting. A secondary problem is what John Reumann, late New Testament professor at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, called a “homogenized Jesus” (personal notes on a public lecture in Columbia, SC). Girzone runs the gospels together in one long, chronological narrative, failing to distinguish between the different theologies and understandings of Jesus put forth by the four evangelists. This is not terribly surprising since one of his previous books was titled Jesus, His Life and Teachings: As Recorded by His Friends Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (Doubleday, New York, 2000.) It is hard to tell if he is unaware of the textual issues involved (admittedly difficult to imagine) or simply chooses to ignore them in order to get on with the story and his interpretation.

[4] On the positive side, Girzone is at his best when he turns from the pious speculations and defenses of traditional doctrine and begins talking about two very different things. 1) He has a gift for simple, descriptive prose that can give the reader a “you were there” experience while reading and thinking about a Biblical text. His discussions of everyday life and people in the time of Jesus are strikingly plain and straight forward, painting a word picture that stays with you. 2) He has a pastor’s touch and is good at thinking and talking about the spiritual and personal life implications of a particular story or incident in the life of Jesus. In the terms of old- fashioned Protestant homiletics, he has a gift for devotional application.

[5] This is a book whose best use probably is in the preparation stage of teaching or preaching on the gospels. It should not be read before working seriously with the biblical text and consulting the commentaries, but it could be helpful in providing some new insights or illustrative material. It is not a book that I would use as a text for an adult study on the life of Jesus, nor would I recommend it to people to read on their own. There are many better options, four of which immediately come to mind.

[6] Looking for Jesus (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY. 1998) by Texas novelist, teacher and seminary graduate Virginia Stem Owens. Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel (Harper, San Francisco, 1999) by Candler School of Theology New Testament Professor and former Benedictine monk Luke Timothy Johnson. Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters (Harperone, New York, 2011) by N.T. Wright, Professor at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and former Bishop of Durham, England. And last and probably best for an adult class The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (Harper, San Francisco, 2000) by the aforementioned N.T. Wright and Marcus Borg, professor of religion at Oregon State University.