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The Ethics of Jesus Imagined

by Reynolds Price

Pub Date: June 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-7432-3008-6
Publisher: Scribner

A profoundly engaging essay in Christology, honoring Jesus’ humane divinity and divine humanity.

Essayist and novelist Price (Noble Norfleet, 2002, etc.) has been a civilian, non-churchgoing student of theology for most of his 70 years, and he has little use for the semiliterate What Would Jesus Do and the archliterate Jesus Seminar variants of exegesis afoot today. In their place he proposes a mostly commonsensical view of Jesus, though one that requires a leap of faith all the same: namely, acceptance as fact that Jesus really did rise from the dead. “No moment of history has been the bone of more contention,” he writes. “Who, though, questions that Socrates of Athens taught in a quizzical manner; that Alexander the Great was eventually an alcoholic or that the Emperor Caligula was barking mad? For which of those items do we have firmer historical evidence than for Jesus’ potential survival—in some uniquely perceptible form—of death?” It’s possible not to make this leap and still enjoy the portrait of Jesus, and of Jesus’ ethical views, for, as Price offers it, it is a loving and altogether generous one. Writing apocryphally, in the biblical sense, Price suggests, for example, that Jesus would never have dreamed of condemning homosexuality per se; instead, only those “who cause these little ones who believe to stumble”—that is, child molesters—are singled out for the fire-and-brimstone (or, rather, saltwater and millstone) treatment. For Price, Jesus’ central ethic can be distilled to this: “God loves us; we must love one another.” And, though he discerns some contradictions in the teachings, and perhaps a few misreadings of God’s big plan (whence Jesus’ plaintive final words), Price finds no false notes whatever in Christ’s open-armed behavior toward the people he encountered in his short lifetime—behavior that your run-of-the-mill fundamentalist would likely not care to emulate, or even endorse.

A revisionist view, to be sure, full of big questions and persuasive answers. A worthy companion to Elaine Pagels’s Beyond Belief (p. 290) and other recent proposals of a kinder, gentler Christianity.