RAY SUAREZ: The book is "A Serious Way of Wondering: The ethics of Jesus imagined." The author the award winning writer Reynolds Price, the James B. Duke Professor of English at Duke University. In the book, Price examines three major ethical issues not addressed in the gospels: Suicide, homosexuality, and the plight of women in a male-dominated culture. Professor Price, I guess biblical literalists would find what you've done to be a little bit on the side of audacious.
REYNOLDS PRICE: I think they would, yes.
RAY SUAREZ: So why did you feel that story telling needed to fill this breach in what a lot of people find to be a fairly complete and seamless ethical teaching?
REYNOLDS PRICE: Well, the main reason is because Jesus does not speak directly to any one of those three various grave dilemmas; at least two of which, homosexuality and the plight of women, still torment the contemporary Christian church.
RAY SUAREZ: Indeed. An overheated publicist might have called your book "ripped from today eases headlines." But how do you go about then speaking where in the gospels Jesus himself does not?
REYNOLDS PRICE: Well, I make it extremely clear that I don't claim that any one of my three stories is in any sense canonical. I don't claim this is what Jesus actually thought on any of these subjects, though I tried very seriously to think my way into the ethics of Jesus and really to imagine what Jesus in his own time and place, not transferred to our time and place, might have made of these tormenting problems.
RAY SUAREZ: So what? You take the other traditional and written evidence that exists and try to extrapolate from that how this teacher would have responded to these moral crises?
REYNOLDS PRICE: That's exactly it, yeah. I've been reading about Jesus and the whole Mediterranean world of the first century since I was a very young boy. And I think I know a good deal about it. And I have a great many friends, especially here at Duke University, who know more than I do about certain aspects of the very huge subject. And I avail myself of every resource I can get my hands on.
RAY SUAREZ: So, let's talk about the particulars then; the role of women. How does Jesus address the woman in your story?
REYNOLDS PRICE: I took the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery, which is generally placed in the Gospel of John. It floats around a little bit. We are not entirely certain where it belongs; if it does belong in canonical scriptures - it certainly seems to be a very old Jesus story.
And you may recall at the very end of that story, after he has sort of flummoxed the man standing around with stones presumably in their hand, Jesus said let him without sin cast the first stone and they all sort of glumly drop their stones and walk away, having been stumped. Jesus turns to the woman and says neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more. And the story ends there in the New Testament.
It occurred to me to wonder what the woman might say next. And so my woman says what I think is a perfectly natural thing. She says "go where?" It certainly instantly raises the question of where a woman in such a society, where women were enormously pressed down by virtually all aspects of the culture, where she could have gone once her husband has presumably condemned and abandoned her. Her entire community has. Where this is woman going to go? So they spend a few pages talking about that terrible business.
RAY SUAREZ: And Jesus, though the story comes down through two millennia of his mercy and compassion for her, does He have a good answer for her when she asks go where?
REYNOLDS PRICE: I don't want to tell the whole story because I want some people to read the book. But she -- I'd say she gives him a very interesting set of propositions to think about, yes.
RAY SUAREZ: Now in the case of suicide and homosexuality, you have arisen Jesus encountering the same man, his friend Judas.
REYNOLDS PRICE: His friend Judas who had, in whatever way betrayed him on the night he was arrested. There is a fascinating passage in the letter of Paul to the Corinthians, the 15th chapter. And he gives what really is the oldest list of the resurrection appearances of Jesus. And he says he appeared to the 12, to the 12 disciples. Well we're told in the Gospel of Matthew and in the Book of Acts that Judas died fairly soon presumably after Jesus did. One of them says he committed suicide. The other says that his entrails burst out and he died thereupon.
I chose to think that Judas was still one of the twelve, and that Jesus made resurrection appearances to Judas. Now, in the two stories, the story in which Judas says to the risen Jesus that he betrayed him because he was in love with him and found no way to fulfill that love. That's one kind of Judas. And then in the Judas whom Jesus encounters literally while he is in the act of getting ready to hang himself, it's another kind of Judas. But fiction does that anyway. It imagines different kinds of characters doing different things.
RAY SUAREZ: Now you've called Jesus of Nazareth the single most influential character in history. Is your work in this particular book an effort to keep him right in the middle of the arguments of 2003; to make sure he's right there with us 2,000 years later?
REYNOLDS PRICE: It would be very hard to get him out of the center of things even if I, myself, happen to want to, and I don't. He means enormously different things to enormously different kinds of human beings. But Christianity is far and away the most prevalent religion on the planet; most members of the human race when questioned if they belong to a particular religion do say Christianity. So I, who have been very interested in this enormously important figure for so long, surely I've tried to bring forward what I think the single most urgent fact about him for us now; which is his ethics -- what he told us was right and what was wrong.
RAY SUAREZ: Yet you call yourself an outlaw Christian.
REYNOLDS PRICE: I'm an outlaw Christian.
RAY SUAREZ: What does that mean?
REYNOLDS PRICE: In all sorts of senses. I'm an outlaw Christian in the first sense that I don't belong to a particular church. I was reared in a Protestant church and I really stopped going to church when I was about 21, 22 years old, and realized that I had been in the church all my life and had never heard one single word said against racism. That was in the mid-1950s. And that was, in fact, the truth.
Since then, as I've watched the church and wished it well certainly, I've watched it essentially fail to deal adequately with the main moral issues of our times. First of all racism; the status of women in worship and in the human community, now homosexuality, which is a situation that affects a great many human beings; and a number of other failures that I could recount.
RAY SUAREZ: The book is "A Serious Way of Wondering, the Ethics of Jesus Imagined." Reynolds Price, good to talk to you.
REYNOLDS PRICE: Thank you very much.