Reading Jesus: A Writer’s Encounter with the Gospels, by Mary Gordon

I stumbled across this book quite by accident, but the idea of a novelist approaching the Gospels and reading them from a writer’s point of view intrigued me, and I like what I’ve read of Mary Gordon’s writing, so this was a natural fit. Gordon comes to the gospels from a very different perspective than I do: she is a believer, but one who is quite comfortalbe seeing the Scriptures as a human product rather than the inspired word of God. She loves the stories of Jesus that she has carried with her from childhood, but admits that a Catholic upbringing in the era she grew up in did not provide her with an exhaustive or detailed knowledge of Scripture, so in some cases she is looking at the stories with fresh eyes.

Although there were no earth-shattering discoveries here for me, I did like the way Gordon approaches the Biblical text, often without the preconceptions and baggage that I find myself bringing to it. She’s not afraid to grapple head-on with some of the more difficult parts, either. I came to this book in the middle of a year-long read-the-entire-Bible project which has often left me feeling overwhelmed and confused, feeling like the Gospels are the one refuge where I can find a picture of God that I can cope with. So it was challenging for me to be reminded that the gospels, too, have parts in them that many readers find difficult to cope with (her chapter on Jesus cursing the fig tree reminded me fondly of my internet friend Cathy who used to wrangle over that one on a discussion board where we met long ago — it had never occurred to me that someone could be so bothered by the fate of a fig tree!).

The other challenging thing, for readers with an evangelical background like myself, is that in picking up and dusting off these difficult texts, examining them from all angles, Mary Gordon does not feel the obligation to provide tidy answers that many of us are used to. Sometimes she just says, in essence: “This statement by Jesus is difficult and unpalatable,” and leaves it there. And of course, she’s not setting herself up as a spiritual teacher, just an explorer, so she’s under no obligation to explain away or reconcile what doesn’t seem to fit. For someone like me who often struggles with what I find in Scripture, sometimes it’s enlightening just to read someone else’s struggles, without expecting to find answers.

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