by Paul Johnson
Ever felt uncomfortable discussing religion in a mixed-faith setting because you don’t feel you’ve really “kept up” with matters of faith?
Paul Johnson’s brief (226 pages) easy-reading story of Jesus — subtitled “A Biography from a Believer” — will get you up to speed with some facts Catholics should know. It will also remind you what Christianity values and why you value your faith life. Johnson is an unabashed cheerleader for the faith, and he writes early on that he wants to share “the joy and nourishment” of following Jesus’ footsteps and pondering his words.
Although I’ve read a lot of religious material, reading “Jesus” gave me a much better mental picture of the era in which he walked this earth, helping me place his life in the time of not just Julius Caesar but Ovid, Livy and Seneca, the Romans whose writing has put life in the Roman Empire into our hands.
But I’d hesitate before giving Johnson my complete trust as a biographer or historian, and I think he’d find that perfectly acceptable.
Meet a new Jesus
In my notes I kept jotting down “first I’ve heard of that,” which did make me suspicious that some of Johnson’s “biography” might be suspect. For example, he writes that Mary was a source for Luke’s gospel, that Jesus’ baptism was witnessed by a large crowd, that one task of the apostles was to “protect” Jesus, and that Jesus’ “few days of rest were spent fishing.”
What these might very well be called would be “guesses.” Johnson says they are “mere deductive supposition.” When he describes Jesus’ appearance and the way he held himself, I’d call that analysis without basis of fact. Yes, Jesus did teach at meal time, but did he “love” to?
But whether or not Jesus could recite Homer and Virgil is less important than the aura of Jesus that I think readers will get about the subject of this “biography.” You’ll meet a new Jesus here, one you’ve likely never thought about in the same way.
Johnson offers us a pleasant, colloquial way of absorbing Jesus’ teachings in somewhat of a condensed version of the gospels, and he follows up by explaining why Jesus taught those lessons.
Don’t miss the homilies
The most useful section of the book may be Johnson’s explanation of why Jesus came and what Johnson charges might be a “New Ten Commandments” Jesus taught. You can see the list below, but it’s Johnson’s writes a page or more about each, and every one could serve as a homily worth hearing.
Johnson calls Jesus’ teachings a moral and social framework that have been invaluable to our world, and, if this book were this section alone it would be enough to inspire every Christian to re-commit themselves to following Jesus’ more closely. Here’s the best part:
“Human progress has proved an illusion as often as not. In many ways our society is no better organized and led than in those weary days two m ago when men like Herod and Pilate ruled. Insofar as we have improved — in the way we look after the poor, the sick, the infirm, the powerless; in our treatment of children; in moral education and training; in penology and the redressing of grievances; in the effort to spread material welfare and to encourage people to show kindness to one another and help their neighbors in difficult times — these improvements have come about because we have had the sense, the sensibility, the intelligence, and the pertinacity to follow where Jesus led. If goodness has a place in our twenty-first century world, it is because Jesus, by his worlds and actions, showed us how to put it there. No other man in history has had this effect over so long a time, over the whole of the earth’s surface, and over such a range of issues.”
If that’s not enough evidence to believe in God, I don’t know what would be. — bz
“Jesus’ New Ten Commandments”
1. Each of us must develop a true personality. We have a duty to be aware of our existence as an act of God’s creation
2. Accept and abide by, universality. Each soul is unique, but each is part of humanity.
3. Respect the fact that we are all equal in God’s eyes.
4. Love is a must in human relationships, at all times and in every situation.
5. We are to show mercy just as God shows mercy to us.
6. Keep balanced; don’t be an extremist.
7. Cultivate an open mind.
8. The pursuit of truth, unabridged, simple and pure, unstained by passion, is the most valuable of human activities.
9. Use power carefully, and pay due respect to the powerless.
10. Show courage.