Reading Jesus: Mary Gordon's New Gospels Book

The novelist and literary critic Mary Gordon loves the story of the prodigal son, for she is a Catholic in her bones. The story, from the Gospels, is of a father's extravagant love for his proud and dissolute boy, a child so moronic that he spends all his money and lives among swine. Finally returning home, he arrives, dirty and broke, and his father throws him a party. The standard Christian interpretation is that the love of God is like the love of this father for this son: excessive and unconditional.

Gordon has been thinking about something else: the plight of the prodigal son's brother, the one who stayed home with his father and did his job, day after day, dutifully and without reward. "And what has he earned for his good behavior?" writes Gordon in her new book, Reading Jesus. "Not even a goat. Certainly not a party. His father has betrayed him, and he responds to the father with what is usually the child's first ethical statement, 'It's not fair.' "

Gordon's publisher, Random House, calls Reading Jesus a religion book, and it is: a series of meditations on the Gospels by an American Catholic who is progressive and intellectual. But really, it's a book about writing. What Gordon loves about the Gospels is not the pat lessons of Sunday school. She loves what a writer loves: paradoxes and inconsistencies, moments of high drama and plot twists. She especially loves the character of Jesus: ascetic, radical, perfectionist—the childish, arrogant, demanding boy. (The magical healer curses a fig tree to death because he's hungry and it has no fruit.) The story of the prodigal son is a parable about the bounty of God's love. But it's also a story that has the message of much great fiction: life is not fair.

Gordon was moved to write Reading Jesus, she says, in response to the rise of fundamentalism. No one of the thousands of people writing on religion today had sufficiently satisfied her need to understand fundamentalism's appeal. The secularists were too flippant, too dismissive of real belief; the scholars, too dispassionate. I met Gordon for lunch in Manhattan and she explained: "I wondered, what appetite is fundamentalism feeding? It has to be a real appetite or it wouldn't be so successful." Fundamentalism, she realized, is "feeding an emotional hunger."

And so she thought she would share with the world the ways in which the Gospels fed her own emotional hunger. "If you're genuinely interested in how to relieve suffering, in how to live more fully, you have to be in a place of grief," she said. "Just because the questions are unanswerable doesn't mean they aren't worth asking." She endeavored to look at the Gospels with her novelist's eye, alive to their tragic and brutal aspects—their anti-Semitism, for example—and she aimed to write about her view of the Gospels without skirting the hard stuff.

But first she had to read them. As a lifelong practicing Catholic, Gordon had never sat down and read the Gospels front to back, in order, the way she would read a story. She heard them, piecemeal, from the pulpit; she knew some stories better than others. So for two years she read the Gospels—in various translations—over and over, until she was fluent in their idiosyncrasies. Then she wrote about them in two parts: the stories she liked best, or found most instructive or inspirational; and the stories she found most problematic. The resulting book has the form and the feeling of a devotional volume. Short sections of Scripture are followed by her own meditations, often memories and reflections from her childhood and the ways in which the stories have changed shape and meaning as she's grown older.

This book does not have a natural audience. Fans of traditional devotionals will find it too quirky. But Gordon hopes that other progressive Catholics—disillusioned as she is with their institutional church, but retaining a deep sense of Catholic identity—will find themselves at home in its pages. She also hopes the book will be read among progressive and intellectual Jews who have never read the Gospels. She knows this is a tricky proposition. As the University of North Carolina religion professor Jonathan Boyarin explained to me, "not believing in the Messiah-hood of Jesus has for centuries been ingrained as the central point that separates Jews from Christians. And that's precisely the 'good news' that for almost 2,000 years, as Jews generally perceive it, Christians have been trying to stuff down their throats."

Gordon, from her perch at the nexus of the intellectual and religious worlds, makes a convincing argument for the importance of the Gospels story. Believe what you want about the miracles and the resurrection (she finds a way to be at piece with the supernatural claims) and what Boyarin calls "the Messiah-hood." Look at the anti-Semitism in the face, and at the maddening perfectionism of Jesus. These are literary problems, historical problems, problems for believers and nonbelievers alike. Gordon suggests "deconsecrating" the most anti-Semitic sections of the Gospels, literally excising from them their sacredness. "Reading the deconsecrated text would be to understand that, in loving it, we turn the pages leaving behind us bloody fingerprints, the blood of murdered Jews seeping into the lines that make up our individual fingerprints … The pages are stained with blood." Like the best fiction, the truth of the Gospels story is bigger than the sum of its parts.