In his latest book, "Living Jesus, Learning the Heart of the Gospel," Johnson sets aside the armor of the combatant, seeking instead to nurture not only an alternative view of Jesus, but a spirituality rooted in that vision. But the polemical fire that marked Johnson's earlier work is hardly missing.
Johnson begins by exploring the mystery of the resurrection, arguing that the choice that faces the reader is between a dead Jesus and one who is alive. "When we think someone is alive," Johnson observes, "we have a completely different set of expectations. People who are alive are still capable of doing new things and saying new things," he writes. "The dead, on the other hand, stay still. Their deeds are ended; their words are complete; their power --- however impressive it may once have been --- is gone."
From the very beginning, Johnson argues, life in the Christian community was galvanized by the conviction that Jesus was resurrected and alive. The quest for the historical Jesus by definition believes the church is mistaken. The only choices, Johnson insists, are the dead Jesus resurrected by scholars, or the living Jesus resurrected by God.
If you choose the Jesus resurrected by God, you encounter one who was bodily resurrected, but whose living presence is not constrained by the limitations of normal life. Jesus, Johnson observes, is embodied in the texts that speak of him; in the sacraments that recall his death and resurrection; in the lives of the saints; and the "little ones" of the earth. Through these embodiments of the living Jesus, we do not so much "know" Jesus, as "learn" Jesus.
With that basic concept in hand, Johnson explores the four Gospels, eschewing modern critical approaches. "For most Christians," he writes, "approaching Jesus is not a matter of bypassing these compositions or correcting them in order to reach an elusive figure of the past whom the New Testament writers have fundamentally distorted. Because Jesus is present to Christians right now--as living Lord--they see the New Testament not as the record of a historical figure from the past but as an enriching revelation of the nature of the Messiah."
In reading the Gospels this way, we engage the Holy Spirit in a "continuous and complex" process of spiritual growth that will not yield "a simple and univocal Jesus" who conforms to the beliefs of any individual or any group. But there are patterns. Central to the Christian identity is the willingness to suffer and to serve as an act of love. In this way we become "saints from whom others also might learn Jesus."
The points Johnson makes are subtle, and readers may be frustrated by the intricacies of mythic language and the complexity of Johnson's reading of the Bible. Johnson's attitude toward legitimate historical inquiry, too, is still at times polemical and dismissive: nurturing spiritual growth often requires that the armor and battle-ax aside. But in debating the nature of the resurrection and the shape of Christian spirituality, Johnson represents an important point of view, and makes this book well worth reading.
reviewed by Fred Schmidt