When renowned novelist and poet Reynolds Price, one of Christianity's most eloquent outlaws, was invited to deliver the annual Peabody Lecture at Harvard University Memorial Church in 2001, he chose to explore a subject of fierce debate and timeless relevance: the ethics of Jesus.
In two succeeding lectures at the National Cathedral and at Auburn Seminary, Price continued to explore the apparently contradictory ethics that Jesus articulates in the Gospels; and in a controversial act of artistic license, Price reimagined the historical Jesus. In A Serious Way of Wondering, Price expands these lectures to present Jesus with three problems of burning moral concern -- suicide, homosexuality, and the plight of women in male-dominated cultures and faiths. A sweeping view of the inescapable implications of Jesus' merciful life and all-embracing thought -- and of the benefits of enlarging our notions of humanity, community, and equality -- A Serious Way of Wondering is a significant contribution to Price's penetrating works of religious inquiry.
Ever since A Palpable God was published 25 years ago, novelist Price has been reimagining biblical stories and bringing them to new life in our time. With graceful, lyrical prose and a masterfully probing imagination, Price turns his eye here to the ethics of Jesus. What captures Price's attention most are those ethical questions that modern society confronts daily but that Jesus never addresses. Thus, in three brilliant and moving apocryphal gospel stories, Price's Jesus engages in conversations about homosexuality, suicide and the plight of women in male-dominated societies. Since Jesus did not talk at all about either homosexuality or suicide during his life, Price imagines the resurrected Jesus discussing these issues with a disciple in whose life they may have figured largely-Judas. When the risen Jesus appears to Judas in a cave where Judas is hiding and contemplating suicide, Judas declares that he loved Jesus completely from the first day. Jesus replies that Judas's erotic love for him must be transformed into a love for everything equally. In the apocryphal story on suicide, Judas encounters the risen Jesus as Judas is trying to hang himself. Unable to tie the rope properly and hoist himself, Judas asks Jesus to help him, if he pardons Judas, and Jesus does so. Elegant and passionate, Price's provocative parables provide no simple answers to the saccharine question "What would Jesus do?" Rather, they compel us to imagine creatively our engagements with Jesus' teachings and the impact of those teachings on our lives.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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May 18, 2003
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Excerpt from A Serious Way of Wondering by Reynolds Price
Though I'm not a churchgoer, for more than sixty years I've read widely in the life and teachings of Jesus; and since at least the age of nine, I've thought of myself as a Christian. This book comes ultimately from those beginnings, but it has a more immediate cause. An explanation will permit me a brief good memory.
As I approach my seventieth birthday, I revert with a special frequency to scenes from early summers (fall and winter have often been grim). One of the best of those stretches was a time I spent at Harvard University when I was twenty-one. In 1954, for two months between my junior and senior years at Duke, I lived through both summer terms on the first floor of Stoughton Hall in the Yard; and I took swift and bracingly rigorous courses in modern American fiction and Victorian poetry (I also audited courses in French Impressionism and European Nationalism). Cambridge, like the other port cities of east-coast America, is a humid swamp from June into late September; but as a North Carolina native, born long before air-conditioning crazed my genetic thermostat, I was impervious and relished attending each morning's lectures, then returning to a well-baked dormitory room, stripping to my shorts, crashing on a sodden bed and reading for unbroken blissful hours -- more bookish-hours-per-day than I've navigated before or since. Though I'd consumed books from the first grade onward, at the age of full adulthood I was suddenly like a starved man whose only available food was words and who was steadily happy to consume them as vital, if intoxicating, fuel. My will to be a writer, which I'd shakily announced from the age of sixteen, fined its point to a durable hardness then and there (the fact that I noted Horatio Alger as a former occupant of Stoughton Hall was a cheerful help).
So I felt a pleasing arc begin to form when, forty-six years later, the Reverend Peter Gomes asked me to deliver the next annual Francis Greenwood Peabody Lecture at Harvard's Memorial Church. I was soon interested to learn that Peabody (1847-1936) had served as a Unitarian minister before returning to Harvard, his alma mater, where he distinguished himself for introducing the study of social ethics and ultimately a Department of Social Ethics (his course was known to students as "Peabo's drainage, drunkenness, and divorce"). It seemed appropriate therefore to give the next Peabody Lecture, to what I assumed would be a largely undergraduate audience, on a subject that had long concerned me -- the ethics of Jesus of Nazareth.
I was planning to teach, soon again, a seminar which I've taught for a number of years at Duke University -- a study of the Gospels of Mark and John -- and since the final paper in that course requires each student to write an apocryphal gospel and since I'd only recently written, at the suggestion of Time magazine, a group of apocryphal scenes from the life of Jesus, I decided to conclude my lecture with a further narrative exploration of a moment in which Jesus is confronted by an enduringly significant ethical dilemma which the four Gospels never bring before him. I'd after all spent a great part of my life as a writer of fictional and autobiographical narratives; and I knew that the act of telling a story, especially a story invented as one tells it, can sometimes become a moral discovery or (as any child knows) a private vision that approaches revelation in intensity and personal usefulness.
In Cambridge then in April 2001, I was received generously by the Reverend Gomes, his Associate Minister the Reverend Dorothy Austin and the staff of the Memorial Church; and I spoke in that resonant sanctuary on a Saturday morning before an audience which included both a gratifying number of students -- considering the day and the hour -- and the Church's imposing Board of Visitors. The fictional story with which I concluded is the first of the three stories included here. It not only concerned a dilemma of personal importance to me, its dilemma was -- and still is -- one which troubles millions and continues to torment the institutions of Christianity today. In my narrative, Jesus is confronted with homosexuality when, risen from the tomb on Easter morning, he searches for and finds Judas Iscariot, the disciple who'd handed him over to his enemies and assured his agonized death. All that remains for the burnt-out Judas to reveal is a passionate love for Jesus, a love which -- foiled, he claims -- led him to betray the teacher he'd followed so longingly.