In my experience, students are less daunted by or opposed to the asking of really difficult questions when those questions are seen to be posed or raised by the Bible itself, rather than seeming like “attacks” from those who might be hostile to the Bible or their faith.
And so when the character of Norm raises even such difficult questions as whether Jesus said certain things attributed to him in the Gospels, whether the Gospel authors ever composed material that has to be categorized as fiction, and whether Jesus was mistaken about the end of the world, the reader has been listening in on Norm’s thought process, and knows that he is asking such questions because he believes that they are necessary questions raised by the evidence, and is exploring them from a perspective that is rooted in faith.
In the process, a number of details appear that I found particularly insightful. For instance, Norm thinks about how his “friends at church would concede that Jesus had physical limitations…but probably not mental ones” (p.180). As I thought about this, I was struck as never before by the underlying assumption that our mental activity – our thinking, knowledge, personality and so on – is the “real us,” while the body is dispensable. This isn’t an assumption that Biblical authors would necessarily have shared, nor is it plausible in our time, when the very terminology of “mental” is inherently associated with the brain (Paul and other Biblical authors assumed it was rather the heart) and thus with biology. Why should physical constraints be acceptable as part of the definition of what makes someone a genuine human being, but mental ones not?
In the process, Norm’s thoughts turn to the Left Behind series of books, and how one of the solutions to the problem of Jesus’ apocalyptic expectations – the suggestion that his language referred only to the destruction of Jerusalem – would mess up the premillennial dispensationalist system reflected in those books – and be bad for book sales.
In his travels, Norm asks difficult questions not only about the Bible and history, but other subjects as well. He meets people who have engaged in violence on behalf of their communities, and cannot help but consider some of the tensions in the outlook of those communities. One poignant moment is the seeming contradiction between a Jewish settler’s T-shirt, which says “Never Again” referring to the Holocaust, and graffiti on a nearby wall which says “Gas The Arabs” (p.248). Norm also encounters an individual involved in the illicit antiquities trade. And so the Bible is considered not only in terms of its possible relation to history and the past, but also its connection with present-day communities, and the ways in which archaeology and pseudo-archaeology can impact our understanding of the Bible as well (p.260).
Educators know that students learn more effectively when they do not merely read and think but talk about what they have been reading and thinking. In A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jesus, we are privy to the e-mails, casual conversations, and inner dialogues of the main character Norm, as he wrestles with the nature of history and our historical knowledge, topics like miracles, and much else. And as Norm finds himself reaching relatively few hard and fast conclusions, readers are left to draw their own conclusions and make up their own minds. I expect to use this book in teaching about the historical Jesus, and in taking students to Israel, as a book that will help them, challenge them, and give them essential food for thought as they themselves “read the Gospels on the ground.”
I highly recommend this book, and am grateful to have been given the opportunity to participate in this blog tour. If you have not done so yet, there is still time as of my posting this for you to participate in the book giveaway connected with the blog tour!