Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Second Book of Christmas: "Jesus Through the Centuries"

Twelve Books that show how Christmas changed the world.

On the second day of Christmas, our True Love gave the world: a new and transformative human model.

"Jesus Through the Centuries," Jaroslav Pelikan (For book 1, click here.) 

This is not a devotional work, it is an insightful and valuable slice of intellectual history. Pelikan is a Christian, but distances himself from his subjects. The combination of sympathy and critical distance may help the reader begin his own conversation with the persons described. Of course, Pelikan bites off more than he can chew. How can there be room in one readable, coherent and reasonably short book for Augustine and Blake, Renan and Ricci, Constantine and Gandhi? But Pelikan pulls it off pretty well, summarizing the history with interesting anecdotes, and making reasonable comments. Not all of which I think are correct, though.

"It is not sameness but kaleidescope variety that is its most conspicuous feature." Pelikan includes a great deal of evidence for both. Early Christians attempted to translate Jesus as "logos" to relate to Greek thinking. Modern Christians in India and China undertook a similar task of describing Jesus as the fulfillment of the deepest truths in those great cultures. (Work I have studied for many years.)
I gave the book five stars on Amazon, because it is brilliant, fascinating and informative. Nevertheless, Pelikan's position sometimes seems to soak up a bit of the subjectivm he chronicles.

It is important to distinguish between images that are arbitrary, and those that depend on a reality that can be referred to. One could write a book called "The Moon through the Centuries." But that would be a different kind of book from "Martians through the Centuries," because in the first case, we just need to look up to correct our impressions. Pelikan does not take sufficient account of the fact that getting to know Jesus is more like looking at the moon than speculating about Martians. Kaleidescope is a mosaic of splintered reflections. But the image whom these reflections reflected, like the moon, is still before us, in the gospels. Pelikan tells us we are "dependant" on "oral tradition" that was "eventually deposited" in the gospels, but in fact they were written within the lifetimes of the first Christians. Rather than "tradition," they could have relied on memory.

Pelikan does not distinguish between birds that settle in the nest as they find it, and birds that steal twigs to built their own. He weakly justifies the fantastic subjectivism that goes into revisionist historical Jesus studies. Pelikan is a conscientious objector from the argument over what really happened. In a preface to a recent edition he admits, a bit coyly, that he doesn't buy the arguments of the "historical Jesus" crowd. Well and good: but this excellent book might be even better if the fascinating and fruitful subjectivism he chronicles were balanced with an occasional reminder that in the end, portraits are not about those who take the picture, but him whose portrait is taken.

Still, a deserved classic, and a wonderful way to begin looking at the influence Jesus has had from Antiquity on. I recommend this book not because it makes the full argument that the series as a whole will give, but because in it, one may catch a overall outline of Jesus in his variagated reflections in human culture, and grasp the general significance of Christmas for the world. 

Other books in the series will focus on the influence Jesus has had on particular peoples, and that take a less subjective approach, so I'll leave more book recommendations for later. 

Book 3.  

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