Sunday, 20 March 2011

Lives of Jesus 8: Philip Yancey

At last, at the end of this little series of reviews, we get to a writer evangelicals can feel safe with.  Not too safe, though!

Philip Yancey is more a journalist and writer than a serious scholar, although he's no fool.  He's a popular writer of books on spiritual issues - Where is God When it Hurts about the problem of pain, What's So Amazing About Grace? about...yes, you guessed it, and so on.  His books can be found in great numbers in conservative Christian bookshops.  He has an easy, popular writing style, free of jargon, but he reads widely and deeply and brings insights from a diverse and often surprising range of sources. 

The Jesus I Never Knew was published in 1995, around the same time as Marcus Borg's Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time and Robert Funk's Honest to Jesus, in the midst of the ferment caused by the work of The Jesus Seminar.  You'd hardly know it.  None of the controversy is mentioned, and a brief (out of context) quote from John Dominic Crossan is the closest Yancey comes to admitting he's heard any of it.  This can't be because he didn't know - Yancey does leave his house fairly regularly - so perhaps he just didn't think it was helpful to his audience to discuss it.

Yet there are some interesting parallels with both Borg and Funk.  Like Funk, he is strongly aware of the gap in the creeds between Jesus' birth and death, and wants to fill it.  Like Borg, he starts out by describing the way Jesus was portrayed in his Sunday School classes and later at his seminary.  Hence, in his childhood he pictured Jesus as a kind of friendly, comforting uncle and a bit later like "a Star Trek Vulcan: he remained calm, cool and collected as he strode like a robot among excitable human beings on spaceship earth".  Later, going through Bible College, he developed an image of a "cosmic Jesus" hovering above the world like a powerful super-being.

However, his response to these challenges could hardly be more different.  For a start, he affirms his full agreement with the creeds.  There will be no major theological departure here.  He also appears to implicitly accept the inerrancy of the Bible, and so there is no sense in which he tries to sift the text of the Gospels to determine the historical Jesus behind them.  For Yancey there is no difference between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. 

Yet he has to do something to rebuild his image of Jesus and learn to understand him as a real human being.  He reports how, in researching his book, he spent time in the libraries of three seminaries of different theological persuasions, familiarising himself with the voluminous literature about Jesus and feeling overwhelmed and even further from a living picture of Jesus at the end.  Instead, what caused the breakthrough for him was seeing Jesus on film, through the eyes of a wide variety of 20th century film-makers.  These films, he said, brought Jesus to life for him, and he used them as the basis for an extended series of classes on Jesus at his local church which eventually developed into The Jesus I Never Knew.

I have to confess that I found this book disappointing when I read it the first time.  Re-reading it now, I still feel the same - but I can also see its value.  So let me first tell you why I don't like it, and then what I think redeems it.

I hope, he says, as far as is possible, to look at Jesus' life "from below", as a spectator, one of the many who followed him around.  If I were a Japanese film-maker, given $50m and no script but the Gospels' text, what kind of film would I make? 

Later on he says: I have placed myself on the edges of the crowd in Jesus' day, as a sincere seeker captivated by the rabbi but reluctant to commit to him.

Sadly, this is precisely what he has not done.  First of all, his prior acceptance of the creeds makes it clear that he is not "reluctant to commit to him".  He is fully and deeply committed, not only to the Rabbi, but to the Son of God of later Christian theology.  The very title of his chapter on Jesus' birth - The Visited Planet - gives the game away.  Despite Yancey's best efforts we are still in cosmic territory here, God coming from wherever he lives to pay a visit to his creation. 

Second, he has not really placed himself in the crowd around Jesus.  In turning away from the historical scholarship on the life and times of Jesus, he has abandoned any serious effort to understand or depict what Jesus meant for the people of his time.  Instead, we have a timeless Jesus, largely divorced from his own historical context and speaking directly to us in our time. 

Hence, for instance, he struggles with the meaning of the Beatitudes and concludes that what Jesus means is this:

...the poor, the hungry, the mourners and the oppressed truly are blessed...because of an innate advantage they hold over those more comfortable and self-sufficient.  People who are rich, successful and beautiful may well go through life relying on their natural gifts.  People who lack such natural advantages, hence underqualified for success in the kingdom of this world, just might turn to God in their time of need. 

There may be some kind of truth in this, but it certainly wasn't what Jesus was saying!

Instead, Yancey has placed himself in a different kind of crowd.  A few in this crowd are figures from close to Jesus' day, like the author of the Book of Revelation.  However, most are from modern times, starting with John Milton and his incredible cosmic poetry from the 17th century, and growing thick with novelists, poets, cultural commentators, film-makers and even the occasional bible scholar from the 19th and 20th centuries.  At each point in his portrayal he brings in the insights of some noted thinker or creator as a way of arriving at a meaning for the text or event.  He sees the Sermon on the Mount through the eyes of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Gandhi.  He pictures the wedding in Cana through the medium of the wedding scene in Fiddler on the Roof.  And so it goes on.  The centrality of film portrayals to his analysis is the biggest giveaway - he is firmly entrenched in seeing Jesus through 20th century eyes. 

This is what disappointed me.  Compared to the immersion in first century Judaism of the many other Lives of Jesus, this account seemed to cut Jesus off from his roots and set him adrift in our own time.  It seemed to me that despite his best intentions, Yancey had failed to really grapple with Jesus as an historical figure, as a real person living in Palestine in 30 AD.  This book is not what it claims to be.

Yet its weakness is also its strength.  If you put aside what it claims to be and assess it for what it actually is, it clearly has something to say to us.  In trying to get beyond the Jesus of his upbringing, Yancey has searched widely in the diverse cultures of our time.  Not only has he gone beyond Evangelical sources, he has sometimes stepped beyond the boundaries of Christianity completely.  He is not afraid to see the Sermon on the Mount through the eyes of the Hindu Gandhi.  He allows his relationships with modern American Jews to colour and deepen his appreciation of Jesus as a Jewish man.  He allows Italian film-maker Pier Paolo Pasolini, "an outspoken homosexual and Marxist", to open his eyes to Jesus' humanity through the film The Gospel According to St Matthew.  And the list goes on.  And on.

In the process, he paints a picture of Jesus as, certainly, a divine figure, even a cosmic one, but also a figure of humility, compassion, courage and self-sacrificing love.  It is not really an "historical Jesus", and in fact Yancey has little interest in such a figure.  If anything, this is an "imaginative Life of Jesus" of the kind that recurs at intervals in Schweitzer's account, and of which Barbara Thiering and Phillip Pullman are more typical modern examples.  Of course Yancey is at the opposite end of the spectrum to Thiering and Pullman - he is uncompromisingly orthodox and evangelical, building from the foundation of the creeds and the Bible as sacred text.  Nonetheless, this is a Jesus of the modern imagination, a Jesus who can speak to people in the 21st Century in their own voice and meet their very pressing current needs with love, compassion and grace.


Luke Isham said...

NT Wright would just as safe, maybe even more so than Yancy! (Thinking of Yancy's critique of 'church'.)

A good series, your a good observer of intent. However I'm still scratching my head over a few your book choices.

Jon said...

Wright's a lot more complex than Yancey but probably safer for a theologian as he's more scholarly. Yancey's interpretation could potentially come from anywhere! But in the end Wright seems to me much more likely to turn orthodoxy on its head.

There is a certain randomness to the choice of books. Some just fell into my hands. Which ones did you find the most baffling?