When Jesus Came to Harvard, by Harvey Cox (LentBook #8)

When Jesus Came to Harvard is subtitled Making Moral Choices Today. The book is based around Cox’s experience of teaching an extremely popular seminar on Jesus and moral choices at Harvard University for several years. He poses the question: How can the life and teachings of Jesus guide people in making moral choices in today’s world, when we face questions and dilemmas that didn’t exist in Bible times? He suggests that Jesus offers timeless principles that he and his students explored in the seminar and which can be applied today.

The book then takes episodes from Jesus’ life and examples from His teaching chapter by chapter in chronological order and explores each, with references to what Cox taught in class and how his students responded to this aspect of the Jesus story. He has some interesting insights into how to talk about Jesus in a multi-cultural classroom with a variety of religious backgrounds represented, and his class certainly sounds like it would have been fun and thought-provoking.

But –here’s the thing — he really doesn’t answer the question he set out to ask. Many of the reflections on Jesus’ life and teaching don’t actually shed much light on how those Bible passages can be applied to help us make moral decisions. For example, Cox talks about the parables as being sort of like Zen koans — open-ended stories without clear “lessons,” designed to jolt us out of our familiar paradigms and help us think about things from a different perspective. Yet he doesn’t clearly connect this to the issue of morality or how we make moral choices. In the ended, I thought his course (and by extension his book) though an interesting look at Jesus, was probably not that much different in scope from the standard “Life and Teachings of Jesus” class — without any special insight to offer on how studying Jesus helps us confront the moral issues of the twenty-first century world. Good book, well worth a read, but I’m not entirely sure it does what it says on the tin.

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