An insightful illumination of the life and significance of its subject, but this is more of a compact summary than a spark for fresh discussion.
As a prolific poet, novelist and English professor, Parini (The Passages of H.M., 2010, etc.) doesn’t have much of a theological ax to grind, though neither fundamentalists nor atheists are likely to find themselves in accord with his stated attempt to find “balance between the literal and the figurative, giving full weight to the concrete meaning while relishing the mythic contours of the story.” This volume launches the publisher’s Icons series and might best be classified as interpretive biography, aimed at the lay reader rather than the scholar, yet summarizing the scholarship and shifting currents of thought that have led to such diverse and divergent beliefs on who Jesus was and what he meant. The context within which the author places him suggests that he was a literate man, a devout but reform-minded Jew, well-aware of the spirit that shaped Buddhism and the teachings and work of other prophets, at a time when miracles were more commonly accepted. “Jesus never meant to found a formal church with rituals and organized practices, to ordain priests, or to issue doctrinaire statements that formed a rigid program for salvation,” writes Parini. “Other than ‘follow me,’ his only commandment was ‘to love one another as I have loved you.’ ” He also “had little interest in damning anyone, and he certainly had no concept of hell as a place for perpetual torment.” Yet the author does not discredit the possibilities of miracles or resurrection, the divinity that makes Jesus more than a radical teacher. Those who believe that the essence of Jesus’ message involves “a change of heart” and “a shift into a larger consciousness, a life-enhancing awareness of the mind of God” will find a view of Christianity that embraces the mystery.
This “big tent” version of Christianity proceeds from a generosity of spirit rather than didactic argument.