Jesus: His Life and Teaching
by Joseph Girzone
Doubelday, 186 pages

I always cry when I watch the TV show "Touched by an Angel." A broken man contemplates suicide or a Chinese mother searches for her lost son, and just when they hit bottom, an angel appears--a soothing angel who explains with a knowing smile that God is all grace and love and that he is with them, now. When the special-effects coordinator flips on the aural glow--light telling us that the angel is revealing him- or herself, I start bawling.

I cry, but I don't regularly watch the show. These angels reveal how we want God to work, not how he works. As much as I enjoy a good cry, I can't help but feel that the writers of "Touched by an Angel" are manipulating something within me that should not be trifled with. I have this same feeling when I read Joseph Girzone's Joshua books.

Stepping down from being an active Catholic priest in 1981 due to health reasons, Girzone discovered a second vocation: writing light, popular religious novels with a contemporary Jesus character. In each volume Joshua appears on the scene, lives simply and humbly, in his eyes "a look of intense compassion," "his walk suggested a free spirit" without "a care in the world." Even in prayer "he was a beautiful sight, kneeling erect, with strong, delicate hands loosely folded, and his face relaxed and calm." He wears "khaki pants, with a brown pullover shirt and sandals. He was of medium height, slim, with attractive features and wavy chestnut hair." You've probably seen him in the Banana Republic catalogue--the Messiah collection.

Whatever the original four Gospels leave out, Girzone fills in. We know what Joshua is thinking and feeling, what he looks like, what he sounds like, and exactly what he wants: peace, love, inclusion. And let us not settle for even an appearance of failure like at the cross. Joshua tackles the big problems, such as ecumenism ("Joshua," 1983), the Irish and Mideast stalemates ("Joshua and the Children," 1989; "Joshua in the Holyland," 1992), and, in one book, overcomes poverty, racism and AIDS ("Joshua and the City," 1995). Last year we saw a greatest-hits version ("The Homecoming") where Joshua revisits his friends from the earlier books.

Girzone's ah-shucks Messiah is so likeable and so popular, in fact, that people are being tempted to trade in the real Jesus for Joshua. And this, I suspect, is what is bothering Joseph Girzone. How else can we explain Girzone's latest book, "Jesus: His Life and Teachings As Recorded by His Friends Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John." If the latter four names sound familiar to you, then so will the book. Girzone has taken the four Gospels and stitched them together chronologically--and that's all. No chestnut hair or khakis, just plain Jesus, with stories in a slightly different order than the version you will find in your pew and without those pesky little numbers getting in the way.

The idea of combining the four Gospels into one book is not new. Tatian of Assyria produced a harmony of the Gospels, called the Diatessaron, in the second century, and others have followed suit on and off through the millennia. It is an old and obvious idea. The three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) overlap significantly but each has distinctive events and emphases, and John goes his own way almost entirely. This raises the question, "Which one of the four stories is the most accurate?" Harmonies were put together to show that there is no ultimate contradiction between the Gospels; they are different ways of telling the one Story.

While harmonies of the Gospels are ancient and obvious, they have never caught on. One reason is that they are hard to read. I own Carl Sandburg's autobiography of Abraham Lincoln as well as Gore Vidal's novel of Lincoln. Imagine stitching Sandburg and Vidal together. The result would not be an enhancement on Lincoln's story but an unreadable schizophrenic interpretation of the sixteenth president. The same problem arises with the Gospels.

The Gospels are literary works and should not be treated as mere collections of historical facts. Matthew was written to Jews arguing that Jesus was the Messiah and the fulfillment of the Law. Mark wrote to Romans about the suffering servant of God in a spare, stark style. Luke spent a lot of ink explaining the religious and social context of the Son of Man for Gentile readers. John introduced the mystical and wisdom emphases of Jesus with long monologues from the "Son of God." Put them all together and you get spare, mystical, detailed stories of the suffering Son of Man/God for Jews, Romans, and other Gentiles. It's not pretty.

But for those who have imbibed deeply of Joshua, "Jesus" still provides a corrective. Not that Jesus never sounds like Joshua. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus admonishes, "So do not worry, and do not say 'What are we to eat?' or 'What are we to drink?' or 'What are we to wear?' . . . Set your hearts on the kingdom first, and all these things will be added to you besides." That is pure Joshua. But Jesus also says this: "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I in him." As a result of this sermon, "Many of his disciples returned to their former way of life, and no longer accompanied him." That would never happen to Joshua.

Joshua is our Messiah, the one we want, the one we can understand. He can entertain, and he can even inspire. But in "Jesus," for the first time Girzone gives us revelation. And lo, it will be the poorest seller of them all.

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