The New Yorker on Jesus Christ: Messiah as “Dharma Bum” and Crucified Apocalyptist

Adam Gopnik, writer of renown at The New Yorker, has just penned one of the more engrossing cultural pieces on the person and mystery of Jesus Christ that I personally have seen in a good long while.  Entitled “What Did Jesus Do?”, it is rich, rewarding, frustrating, deeply erroneous and a must-read for those who wish to interact with modern intellectual perspective on Jesus.

Because the piece is so weighty, I am going to quote many portions of it.  If you don’t care to read all of this, that makes sense.  But if you are interested in learning a bit more about how a prominent public intellectual thinks about the God-man, read on.  Again, this didn’t run in the Christian Century, but in The New Yorker.

Gopnik looks first at how historical criticism what Jesus said:

They believe it because it seems so unlikely, so at odds with the idea that Jesus always played the star in his own show: why would anyone have said it if it weren’t true? This curious criterion governs historical criticism of Gospel texts: the more improbable or “difficult” an episode or remark is, the likelier it is to be a true record, on the assumption that you would edit out all the weird stuff if you could, and keep it in only because the tradition is so strong that it can’t plausibly be excluded. If Jesus says something nice, then someone is probably saying it for him; if he says something nasty, then probably he really did.

Here’s Gopnik’s basic approach to Christianity:

The intractable complexities of fact produce the inevitable ambiguities of faith. The more one knows, the less one knows.

The author wonders what exactly it was that made Jesus’ teaching distinctive:

What the amateur reader wants, given the thickets of uncertainty that surround the garden, is not what the passionate polemicists want—not so much a verdict on whether Jesus was nasty or nice as a sense of what, if anything, was new in his preaching. Was the cult that changed the world a product of Paul’s evangelism and imperial circumstance and the military embrace of one miracle-mystery cult among many such around? Or was there really something new, something unheard of, that can help explain the scale of what happened later? Did the rise of Christendom take place because historical plates were moving, with a poor martyred prophet caught between, or did one small pebble of parable and preaching start the avalanche that ended the antique world?

Here’s how the present-day academy approaches the Gospels:

Ever since serious scholarly study of the Gospels began, in the nineteenth century, its moods have ranged from the frankly skeptical—including a “mythicist” position that the story is entirely made up—to the credulous, with some archeologists still holding that it is all pretty reliable, and tombs and traces can be found if you study the texts hard enough. The current scholarly tone is, judging from the new books, realist but pessimistic.

Gopnik blatantly informs us of the supposed fabrications of Scripture:

The odd absences in Mark are matched by the unreal presences in the other Gospels. The beautiful Nativity story in Luke, for instance, in which a Roman census forces the Holy Family to go back to its ancestral city of Bethlehem, is an obvious invention, since there was no Empire-wide census at that moment, and no sane Roman bureaucrat would have dreamed of ordering people back to be counted in cities that their families had left hundreds of years before. The author of Luke, whoever he might have been, invented Bethlehem in order to put Jesus in David’s city.

The following is noteworthy; Gopnik gives us his character sketch of Jesus (really, read the whole thing):

Even if we make allowances for Mark’s cryptic tracery, the human traits of his Jesus are evident: intelligence, short temper, and an ironic, duelling wit. What seems new about Jesus is not his piety or divine detachment but the humanity of his irritability and impatience. He’s no Buddha. He gets annoyed at the stupidity of his followers, their inability to grasp an obvious point. “Do you have eyes but fail to see?” he asks the hapless disciples….He’s verbally spry and even a little shifty. He likes defiant, enigmatic paradoxes and pregnant parables that never quite close, perhaps by design. A story about a vineyard whose ungrateful husbandmen keep killing the servants sent to them is an anti-establishment, even an anti-clerical story, but it isn’t so obvious as to get him in trouble. The suspicious priests keep trying to catch him out in a declaration of anti-Roman sentiment: Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar or not, they ask—that is, do you recognize Roman authority or don’t you? He has a penny brought out, sees the picture of the emperor on it, and, shrugging, says to give to the state everything that rightly belongs to the state. The brilliance of that famous crack is that Jesus turns the question back on the questioner, in mock-innocence. Why, you give the king the king’s things and God God’s. Of course, this leaves open the real question: what is Caesar’s and what is God’s? It’s a tautology designed to evade self-incrimination.

The author examines the morality of Jesus (I found this engrossing as well):

Jesus’ morality has a brash, sidewise indifference to conventional ideas of goodness. His pet style blends the epigrammatic with the enigmatic. When he makes that complaint about the prophet having no honor in his own home town, or says exasperatedly that there is no point in lighting a candle unless you intend to put it in a candlestick, his voice carries a disdain for the props of piety that still feels startling. And so with the tale of the boy who wastes his inheritance but gets a feast from his father, while his dutiful brother doesn’t; or the one about the weeping whore who is worthier than her good, prim onlookers; or about the passionate Mary who is better than her hardworking sister Martha. There is a wild gaiety about Jesus’ moral teachings that still leaps off the page.

Gopnik arrestingly traces Jesus’ approach to life and people:

Jesus isn’t a hedonist or an epicurean, but he clearly isn’t an ascetic, either: he feeds the multitudes rather than instructing them how to go without. He’s interested in saving people living normal lives, buying and selling what they can, rather than in retreating into the company of those who have already arrived at a moral conclusion about themselves.

The author turns his attention to the nature of God:

In Mark, Jesus’ divinity unfolds without quite making sense intellectually, and without ever needing to. It has the hypnotic flow of dramatic movement. The story is one of self-discovery: he doesn’t know who he is and then he begins to think he does and then he doubts and in pain and glory he dies and is known. The story works. But, as a proposition under scrutiny, it makes intolerable demands on logic. If Jesus is truly one with God, in what sense could he suffer doubt, fear, exasperation, pain, horror, and so on? So we get the Jesus rendered in the Book of John, who doesn’t. But if he doesn’t suffer doubt, fear, exasperation, pain, and horror, in what sense is his death a sacrifice rather than just a theatrical enactment? A lamb whose throat is not cut and does not bleed is not really much of an offering.

Gopnik comments on the “twoness” of Christianity:

If one thing seems clear from all the scholarship, though, it’s that Paul’s divine Christ came first, and Jesus the wise rabbi came later. This fixed, steady twoness at the heart of the Christian story can’t be wished away by liberal hope any more than it could be resolved by theological hair-splitting. Its intractability is part of the intoxication of belief. It can be amputated, mystically married, revealed as a fraud, or worshipped as the greatest of mysteries. The two go on, and their twoness is what distinguishes the faith and gives it its discursive dynamism. All faiths have fights, but, as MacCulloch shows at intricate, thousand-page length, few have so many super-subtle shadings of dogma: wine or blood, flesh or wafer, one God in three spirits or three Gods in one; a song of children, stables, psalms, parables, and peacemakers, on the one hand, a threnody of suffering, nails, wild dogs, and damnation and risen God, on the other. The two spin around each other throughout history—the remote Pantocrator of Byzantium giving way to the suffering man of the Renaissance, and on and on.

Gopnik offers some words on the cross that will be of interest to participants in the ongoing dialogue about the center of the gospel:

Beyond the words, we still hear that cry. The Passion is still the point. In Mark, Jesus’ arrest and execution feels persuasively less preordained and willed than accidental and horrific. Jesus seems to have an intimation of the circumstance he has found himself in—leading a rebellion against Rome that is not really a rebellion, yet doesn’t really leave any possibility of retreat—and some corner of his soul wants no part of it: “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take away this cup from me.”

The author concludes the piece on a very interesting note, suggesting that though scholars disagree strongly on the identity and significance of Christ, there does seem to be something resonant in His message:

The argument is the reality, and the absence of certainty the certainty. Authority and fear can circumscribe the argument, or congeal it, but can’t end it. In the beginning was the word: in the beginning, and in the middle, and right there at the close, Word without end, Amen. The impulse of orthodoxy has always been to suppress the wrangling as a sign of weakness; the impulse of more modern theology is to embrace it as a sign of life. The deeper question is whether the uncertainty at the center mimics the plurality of possibilities essential to liberal debate, as the more open-minded theologians like to believe, or is an antique mystery in a story open only as the tomb is open, with a mystery left inside, never to be entirely explored or explained. With so many words over so long a time, perhaps passersby can still hear tones inaudible to the more passionate participants. Somebody seems to have hoped so, once.

********************

Clearly, there is a lot to chew on here.  Those of us who are evangelical Christians might well be tempted to pass on a piece like this, writing it off as some unbeliever’s personal take on Jesus.  In one sense, this is true, and I am fundamentally in major disagreement with Gopnik.  In fact, we have essential disagreement on the most important reality in all of life.

On the other hand, it is not necessarily the case that we can’t pick up any insights from unbelievers.  I think we can.  Throughout the piece, mixed in with faulty conclusions and unhelpful generalizations (the Bible’s message, I would contend, is not nearly as mysterious and open-ended as Gopnik emphasizes), are some very rewarding ideas.  It’s valuable to read about the Bible–and Jesus, and the gospel–from the perspective of someone who does not share your theology.  Sometimes they see things that we can’t see.  Thus we should read them, and profit from them where we can.

There is a great deal to work through in this piece.   I think Gopnik has some helpful words on the teaching style, the personality, of Jesus. To put it plainly, Jesus is enigmatic.  He says surprising things.  He sometimes goes the opposite direction from what we would think.  He reformulates existing conceptions of Jesus.

In addition, Gopnik is surely right about the passion of Christ being at the center of Christianity.  This is surely true.  His words on that point bear re-reading, because even as professing Christians disagree on the centrality of the crucifixion, an urbane New Yorker with no professed affinity for substitutionary atonement sees the cross as the centerpiece of the Bible.

Gopnik has another great insight on the nature of Jesus’ mission.  The following could have been written by an evangelical theologian: “He’s interested in saving people living normal lives, buying and selling what they can, rather than in retreating into the company of those who have already arrived at a moral conclusion about themselves.”  This is surely right.

In the end, it seems to me that Gopnik gets a good deal right–sometimes movingly so–but also gets a good deal wrong (including central and essential matters).  He buys into critical scholarship on Jesus, even as he seems to realize that there is something ethereal, something majestic about the God-man.  He asks whether Jesus merely popped up at the right moment in history (and thus we find the significance of His person), yet he closes his piece by noting that there may still “tones” that can be heard from the testimony about Jesus.

Gopnik is seeing something, but only as best as one can see without faith.  In reality, Jesus’ mission and message were not enigmatic.  They were not open-ended.  Jesus was not a “dharma bum”, some kind of first-century postmodern essayist, but very wisdom itself.  He was an apocalyptist, but He was also the apocalypse.  He not only spoke of the need to get right with God, but became the very means by which sinners are made right with God.

In the end, I was startled to find a modern intellectual, writing for America’s most avant-garde publication, affirm that the cross “is still the point.”  On this point, Gopnik is right, and profoundly so.  The cross is the point.  Jesus is the messiah.  Salvation is in Him.  He was a great teacher, if a strange one; His legacy is disputed; and yet, as is plainly seen, the pages of Scripture offer, over and over again, from diverse regions and times, the message that God has provided salvation for every man in the form of the Messiah.  Gopnik does not know how right he is.

  • http://www.chedspellman.com Ched

    Thanks for your take on Gopnik’s article.

    I look forward to reading it.

  • Spencer

    Hi Owen,
    I read Gopnik’s piece in the New Yorker and googled it to find how people were responding. This is how I came across your site and this post.

    I am not an evangelical Christian, and I was interested to hear how someone that was would respond to his ideas. I personally grew up believing in Jesus as the son of God, but now I’m challenging the beliefs I have always accepted, to see where I stand as an adult.

    In the three paragraphs that you spend suggesting places where Gopnik was wrong, I didn’t find one point that really resonated. And I was disappointed because I want to know your perspective. I know your post was short and likely directed towards people who share your faith, I would love for you or someone else to expand on some of these ideas and explain them to someone who isn’t necessarily convinced that Jesus died for our sins. I still don’t understand how an idea as metaphorical as this one appears to be–how could one person who lived 2,000 years ago die for something happening today?–can propel forward such an enormous community.

    But I am genuinely interested in learning, and I thought this Gopnik piece and the online discussion that follows is as good a place as any to start.

  • http://comcast.com Lee O’Connor

    It is too bad that believers cannot think ‘out of the box’. There is no historical, empirical, secular evidence of the existence of the s0-called Christ. His profile was invented by Paul as a communal survival tactic against an oppressive social order in the form both of the Roman government and the restrictive purity codes of the sacrosanct Temple society. A ‘Mystical Messiah’ great idea at the time, but only an idea!

  • owenstrachan

    Thanks for comments, all. Thought-provoking.

    Spencer, please write me at hctu [at] tiu.edu. I would love to talk more with you about this, and I’m sorry I haven’t contacted you before this.

    Lee, I think your criteria for proof are a little jaded and, frankly, wrong. There is proof of Jesus’ existence. Though of course there’s nothing physical existing before our eyes right now that proves His being, so to speak. Along those lines, there’s nothing proving anything from the past. The past fundamentally requires faith, if you get my drift.

    Josephus’s testimony is a good place to start, as would be historical artifacts attesting to Christ’s existence. The best place, of course, is Holy Scripture, which one needs faith to believe.


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