What Jesus Really Means

Writing a book on Jesus showed me how polarized the opinions of him are. But for me, Jesus represents a third way—a symbolic example with the power to change lives.

Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters

Try writing a book on Jesus and see responses you’ll get. My short book, Jesus: The Human Face of God, appeared about a month ago, and I’ve been deluged with emails and letters, in quantity and passion of a kind that never followed from my earlier books on, say, Tolstoy or Walter Benjamin or Robert Frost. Let’s just say that readers often have their own very personal take on Jesus, and they’re looking for books that reinforce their idea of what it means to follow him.

One morning recently I woke up and, as usual, looked at my iPhone. Two nearly adjacent emails more or less summed up main kinds of responses I’ve had. One began with the salutation: “Dear Satan.” Another one started: “Dear Santa.” Until that moment, I’d never thought about how close these name are: a mere shift of a letter.

For those who think I’m Satan, or perhaps some lesser version of "the adversary" (which is what the name means in Hebrew), my book presents a challenge to their faith. I don’t take a literal view of the matter in many cases, suggesting that Jesus was probably not the product of virgin and God. The whole Christmas story was probably a later addition to the gospel narratives, presented only by the authors of Matthew and Luke. Mark and John seem never to have heard of the manger in Bethlehem, the Massacre of the Innocents, the hovering star, the three wise men, and so forth. Nor did the earliest Christian writings, the letters of Paul, make any mention of the birth of Jesus or his family circumstances. Paul, in fact, showed little interest in the life of Jesus. For the most part, the Christmas story, and the virgin birth, emerged from a passage in Isaiah 7, wherein the prophet assured the king of Judah that a child would be born (from a young woman, not a virgin) who would be called Emmanuel, “God dwells within.” It’s a lovely and important story, with theological meaning, yet it doesn’t withstand historical scrutiny.

But there is a mindset in the Christian community, largely found among conservative Christians, that regards the matter as black and white. The gospel narratives are literally true, or they’re crazy, even dangerous. C.S. Lewis famously embraced this notion: “Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.” In this view, there could be no third way.

I reject this as sheer nonsense by Lewis and those like him, who think it’s sheer fantasy to imagine that the gospels have anything deeply important to teach us without being absolutely “true.”

And then there is the “Dear Santa” crowd, who can’t tolerate the notion that anything in the gospels is useful as it’s so fantastic, such an insult to human intelligence. One stranger wrote to me: “You think Jesus came back from the dead? Give me a break! It’s a one-way street. You die. That’s it. Get over it.”

I’d guess that the majority of Americans today fall into the rationalistic camp—even those who go to church now and then. They bear a secret contempt for anything that smacks of the supernatural.

What I’m trying to argue, as passionately as I can, is that the Jesus story isn’t worth dying for, it’s worth living for. Jesus presents a third way, a way of being in the worth that embraces the Sermon on the Mount, with its challenge to violence and greed. The ethic of reciprocity lies at its center: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Jesus offered a “new covenant,” arguing that the old way—“an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”—was finished. Now you must turn the other cheek, doing good to those who hate you. You must celebrate the peacemakers, the poor at heart, the meek. It’s a way of being in the world that embraces karma: be merciful, and God will show you mercy.

I argue Jesus offered a perfect example of God’s spirit in operation in the world. His life offered a pattern that said, implicitly: here’s how to do it. Even his death on the cross and the resurrection mean a great deal in symbolic terms.

I argue that the resurrection was not the Great Resuscitation. It was a total transformation. I just don’t accept the black-and-white thinking that goes along with needing to regard the gospels are literally true. These sacred stories offer a form of mythical thinking that is not only true but especially true. “The kingdom of God is within you,” Jesus said, when asked where it lay. He offered an example of transformation, and the fact that nobody recognized Jesus (at least at first) after the resurrection tells us something important: one should not expect that “eternal life” will look like anything you can imagine in these temporal lives.

I regard Jesus, like the Buddha, as a figure with the power to shape our lives. For me, the way of Jesus means daily focus, trying (through the hard work of “prayer, observance, disciple, thought and action,” my favorite line from T.S. Eliot’s “The Dry Salvages”) to salvage from the usual distractions and indirections of our lives some clear purpose. This is true salvation—from the Greek word soteria, which also means “enlightenment” and “peace.”