Writer Jay Parini considers how people experience God through the story of Jesus

December 25, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
A writer rather than a religious scholar, Jay Parini has written a new book, "Jesus: The Human Face of God," that explores how Jesus not only created a world religion but changed history. Jeffrey Brown talks to Parini about his different take on the story of Jesus.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Finally, on this Christmas Day, a different take on the story of Jesus.

Jeffrey Brown has our book conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Who was Jesus? How have his words and deeds resonated from his time to ours? A new book examines such questions not from the perspective off a religious scholar but of a writer, poet and teacher of literature. “Jesus: The Human Face of God” is the first in a new series titled “Icons” of short biographies on figures who changed history.

Author Jay Parini is professor of English and creative writing at Middlebury College. Among his previous works are the novel “The Last Station” and a biography of Robert Frost.

And welcome to you.

JAY PARINI, “Jesus: The Human Face of God”: Good to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: I want to use that starting point, that you are not a religious scholar.

JAY PARINI: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re approaching this as a writer. So, what did you think that you wanted to or could bring this life of Jesus?

JAY PARINI: Well, I was hoping, as a poet and novelist, I could bring some energy to the narrative.

This is a great story. And I use the word all through the work mythos, the Greek word for myth. And I say that a myth is a story which has particular energy, mythic resonance. I always say that a myth is a tear in the fabric of reality, through which all of this spiritual energy pours.

And I’m trying in this book to trace the outline of that tear and say, OK, Jesus, who was this guy?

JEFFREY BROWN: When you say myth, you mean not in the common message — the common parlance right?

JAY PARINI: People usually say, oh, you think Jesus is a myth.

Not true. But, actually, a myth is a story that is not just not true, but it’s a story that is especially true. And I think the myth of Jesus is especially true.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you tell us out the outset that Jesus was a — quote — “a religious genius.” That’s what you say.

JAY PARINI: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: What does that mean?

(CROSSTALK)

JAY PARINI: Well, what I mean by — and I’m glad you brought that up.

I say Jesus was a religious genius. But here is a Mediterranean peasant, obviously, I think, an incredible mind. He is born in a very interesting place, right on the Silk Road, which goes from Hellenistic Greece, tracks along to Persia, China, and India.

And so Jesus is able to — it’s a very lively time, too, 1st century A.D. So, Jesus is able to pull in ideas of the body and the soul from Plato, ideas of karma from Buddhism and the East. And he’s able to synthesize all of this and create a world religion, even though I do say in the book he wasn’t trying to start a religion. That wasn’t his purpose.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you say synthesize — so, give me an example of the synthesis that you — would have come from West and East.

JAY PARINI: Well, for instance, I just think the idea of body and soul as being how we’re put together is very much a Hellenistic idea, Plato.

But the idea of karma — and it’s a complicated idea, but the main thing is that blessed — say, blessed are the merciful, for God will show them mercy. And I think in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew’s 5, 6 and 7, Jesus is really laying forward a beautiful, a perfect system of ethics.

And, you know, blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy. And then those six antitheses, things like, in the old days they said, if you hurt somebody, hurt them back, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. But Jesus says, no, wait a minute. I say, if somebody slaps you, turn the other cheek.

Then he says, I will even go further. If somebody — I want you to love your enemies. Do good to those that — them that hate you. He says, if somebody asks for your shirt, wants your tie, say, I want your tie, Jeff, you have to say, Jay, have my whole jacket.

(LAUGHTER)

JAY PARINI: That’s Christianity. And it’s a — Christianity is not a set of — it’s not a set of boxes that you intellectually give assent to, I believe X, Y and Z. No. That’s not it. It’s a way of being in the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: You — you said earlier that you — you didn’t see Jesus as someone who imagined or wanted — set out to start a new religion.

You also don’t see him — and I mention this because of the book this year that got a lot of attention, “Zealot” by Reza Aslan, that portrayed him more as a political firebrand.

You don’t see that Jesus?

JAY PARINI: That Jesus doesn’t exist.

Jesus said, those who live by the sword die by the sword. He was teaching peacefulness. Jesus wasn’t founding a religion or a political movement. He believed in — I keep using the phrase and kind of was happy when I stumbled on it, the gradually realizing kingdom of God. And when one of the…

JEFFREY BROWN: Which means what?

JAY PARINI: Well, someone says to him, where is this kingdom? Is it here? Is it there? And Jesus says, the kingdom of God is within you.

And I think that one of the words I stress in this book is that word that Jesus, the character of Jesus in the Gospel uses 22 times, the Greek word metanoia, meta as in metaphysics, to go beyond physics, noia — you’re a Greek scholar — the mind.

And so what Jesus is saying here, metanoia, if you allow yourself to go beyond this physical mind and enter into the larger spirit of God, you will experience salvation, or the word salvation in Greek, soteria, it’s such a beautiful word, but it really means enlightenment, peace, reconciliation.

And this is the kingdom of God. It’s the gradually realizing kingdom of eternity. And eternity is here and now and always.

JEFFREY BROWN: This idea that you said about the myth, bringing the myth. You — in fact, you say that you’re writing in opposition to many tendencies in contrary scholarship and practice, you — to de-mythologize Jesus. You want re-mythologize Jesus.

JAY PARINI: Yes, as — this is a biography, yes, but it’s not historical, in the sense we don’t — we’re not really working with the kind of usual data we would have for writing a life of, say, George Washington or a life of JFK.

This is a mythical story. And what we’re going on is the experience of God that people have through Jesus Christ. And so I’m — it’s, you know, a book about this marvelous experience of this teaching and experience of how, through understanding this story, we have a way that we can follow.

JEFFREY BROWN: But I was — I mean, I was curious how that also — what that means for our reading and understanding of the miracles of the supernatural aspect as well, because it, in a sense…

JAY PARINI: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: … happened.

JAY PARINI: Well, yes.

I mean, I believe in the supernatural here. And someone asked me, well, how do you deal with the resurrection? You’re an intelligent man. You’re a professor at Middlebury College. You’re a rational person. And I talk about the resurrection by saying, look, this is not the great resuscitation. This is a transformation that goes way beyond anything that the human mind can understand.

And it strikes me as important that, when Jesus comes back in the stories from the dead, nobody recognizes him. He is walking — Mary Magdalene is in the — with — goes into the tomb to — she is so sad because her best friend, Jesus, has been crucified.

Someone talks to her. She thinks it’s the gardener. And he says, Mary? She looks and she says rabboni in — in his native Aramaic. Even when Jesus goes to visits Nathaniel and the others, and Andrew and John, who are — have taken to fishing again after the crucifixion, they’re out there casting for fish, not getting any. Jesus says, try the other side of the boat.

And they do. And they catch all these fish. They come to shore. They still don’t recognize him. It’s Peter who goes, wait a minute, you’re Jesus, aren’t you?

So, I think the point here is made over and over again that the resurrection is way beyond human understanding, that life and death are very complicated matters. I think the membrane — I say that the membrane between life and death is perilously thin. And I do think the story of Jesus, this great mythical story, can have transforming value in our lives.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will continue this discussion online.

But, for now, “Jesus: The Human Face of God” — Jay Parini, thanks so much.

JAY PARINI: Thank you, Jeff.