Earlier this week, I wrote a post about an interview I had with Phyllis Tickle about her forthcoming book “The Words of Jesus,” in which she strips the Gospels and the Book of Acts of narration and context to leave the words of Jesus. Just the words of Jesus. As I said in my previous post, I think the book will be a great source for prayers for prayer beads. The interview, published in Publishers Weekly‘s online newsletter Religion BookLine, was, of necessity, quite short. So I wanted to include the full interview here.
KIMBERLY: What do you gain by separating the words of Jesus from the rest of the Gospels?
PHYLLIS: When you take away the narrative and the contextual pacing you get power – rata-tat-tat. It is almost like being in front of a machine gun. David Neff [editor of Christianity Today] speaks of it as being enraging. It’s the pacing that is really hits you first. The more subtle thing that it takes a little while to perceive is that you’ve got an intellectual overlay especially since the Reformation or the Enlightenment. Even though you are not conscious of it, there is this layer of “I am reading the words of Jesus in the book of John, therefore I am reading a summation of what Jesus said 70 years after the fact.” Or, “I am reading Luke, oh he’s the gentile, so I am reading the gentile take on what Jesus said.” You filter. And when you get rid of the author, you have removed the filter. The third thing that fascinated me is that nobody really knows all that Jesus said. We are never going to know because nobody was standing there with video or audio equipment. And so much of what is said must have been in his body gesture or intonation. But when you do this, you quadrulate or triangulate – here is this speech that occurs in three different gospels – you realize the core of it is exposed much more cleanly because whatever else he said, this is what hung in three minds [of the writers of the Gospels].
There is a focus group established at the Episcopal cathedral in Memphis that went through the manuscript and anger was one of the first things that surfaced for them. They kept saying, “He [Jesus] couldn’t have said that. I never read that before.” That’s the power of it. It took them back to the original translations and they were, “My God, he did say this.” Some of them admitted they didn’t like him very much because he ceases to be the caring shepherd and he becomes something very dramatic, something startling different from what we think he was. Whether you like him or not you understand why the crowd followed him. What this man is saying is so radical and so clean and clear it is really a shock. It just rocked me. All the emotions the focus group went through I went through too. I said, “This cannot be.”
K: What do you lose?
P: You do lose the guru. You would never confuse this man with Mahatma Ghandi or the Prophet [Muhammad]. You lose any sense of the guru and you lose any sense of the sweet child, holy, meek and mild. You lose the stereotypes. This man is God incarnate. He claims it, he speaks it. It is as if Sinai is moving among us, speaking its own Torah with no Moses. It is Sinai on legs.
K: What did this process teach you about Jesus?
P: I came to hear him first instead of visualizing him. Another one of the preconceptions we bring – one of the problems with Roman and Protestant Christianity is we have been willing to visaulize and pictorialize the divinity. It distorts [the divinity], no question. If you come to this as a Roman Catholic or a Protestant, you have in your head a visual image of Jesus – whatever it is, you’ve got one. You come to the words through a picture. Now there is no picture. The voice is so overwhelming that it shatters all the pictures. The heard Jesus is inside you, not something outside you. I say in the reflections it is a great deal like being inside a room instead of outside it and seeing through a window what is going on in there. The second thing is his personality – that he is this persona that is stark and, well, godly. He is not some wandering carpenter who went for a new job. All of that is gone. What you’ve got is what probably made the children of Israel cringe and say don’t let us see this. Also, he says I have not come to destroy the law but to fulfill the law. He is an actualist, a biblical actualist, not a literalist. He condemns that. And he is not a metaphorist. He says this thing is what this thing is – period. It is the holiness in it, it is the soul in it that is its actuality and you cannot confine it. He says, it is here and I am it. The claiming of it is so much more dramatic this way. Also, there were some intellectual surprises – he didn’t say much about healing – only about 22 sayings. He is almost terse about it. It is all in the narrative – Luke says he heals 5,000 and never a recorded word.
I went to the last focus group in December as their guest, and they were laughing about not liking Jesus for a while and asked me if I had gone through the same thing. I had a period where my reaction was, I don’t like him. And then I realized that is an irrelevant question – and they all laughed at me. I don’t have to like him – this is God. It is a question you don’t have to ask, and it is almost irreverent. Like is something you do with a thing, one of them said, the implication being that Jesus had been a thing prior to this, something you manipulate. This Jesus won’t manipulate. Therefore like is an inapplicable verb.
K: How do you hope a reader will use this book?
P: Very slowly. That is what the focus group discovered. It is fine to read through the thing, a page or two at a time, otherwise you won’t be able to take it in. It overwhelms you. There is a need to read one or two [pages] and put it back down. I hope they will read it with some sense of amazement. But slowly. I just got an email this morning from one of the members of the focus group who are meeting again tonight and he said he could hardly wait to get back in the group because the group was so comforting and it was so discomforting to read it alone. David Crumm [a columnist with the Detroit Free Press] the other day was doing an interview and he said what he hoped Jossey-Bass would do next is take out the reflections part and just publish the sayings of Jesus. He said what this really is is a new New Testament and I think he is probably right. I had not thought of it that way. It is a scripture. You can be stripped naked of all the preconceptions and the conditions that you have come to the scriptures dressed in or robed in or anaesthetized in and meet here stark naked what your God is.
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