By John Dominic Crossan
HarperCollins, 246 pp.
One can understand the irresistible impulse behind the title of this book, about a Tipperary native who becomes a Catholic monk, leaves the priesthood, gets married, and then performs "open heart surgery" on Christian tradition. But the fact is, if the road has been long for John Dominic Crossan, it hasn't been especially hard. Crossan has led the life of a scholar, and save for his brief vocational crisis in the late 1960s, when he decided to leave the priesthood, it's been a comfortable and rewarding one.
Even the decision to leave the priesthood did not involve a dramatic conflict with religious power-brokers. Though he had a run-in with the archbishop after publicly criticizing the Catholic Church's teachings against contraception, in the end no formal charges were filed against him. He admits he was treated well by his superiors in the Servite order and that he was generally happy to obey their commands.
And why not? They were usually sending him off to study or teach at some interesting site in Europe or the U.S.--not a bad life for a scholar. Crossan recalls that for a boy from rural Ireland, the church offered the easiest route to a life of adventure--and that expectation turned out to be true, at least for the first 20 years.
At the center of Crossan's life, fortunately, is the life of Jesus, and whether or not one finds Crossan's portrait of Jesus convincing, it is a lyrical and at times inspiring account.
It is a portrait that has reached a wide audience of those who are interested in Jesus but wary of the church and Christian tradition. Crossan jettisons the supernatural elements of the Gospel stories (including the virgin birth, miracles, and resurrection) and contends that many of the sayings attributed to Jesus were actually supplied by the early church. The real Jesus, he announces, was not a divine messiah but a peasant revolutionary who preached and exemplified a nonviolent, egalitarian way of life. Jesus' significance lies in his indifference to social status and his subversion of social, political, and religious power-brokers.
Crossan say his own effort to follow Jesus now takes place outside the precincts of the church. His main job, as he sees it, is to describe Jesus' way of life accurately. Crossan's earnestness in this effort may surprise those accustomed to viewing Crossan the way he is often portrayed in the media--as a debunker of the faith. As Crossan sees it, divine truth still shines through the Gospels--if read rightly. For example, the feeding of the 5,000 is a demonstration not of Jesus' miraculous power but of God's desire that food be distributed equitably. (The key line is Jesus' directive to the disciples, who wish the hungry crowd would go away: "You give them something to eat.") As for the resurrection, it symbolizes the belief that Jesus' compassionate way of life is endorsed by God, even though it was repressed and destroyed by earthly rulers. More literal and traditional readings of the miraculous are, for Crossan, not so much untrue as unimportant. So if you think Jesus really walked on water, Crossan only says: "How nice for Jesus."