"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Bill Mills on Encountering Jesus in the Gospels

My friend, the prolific pastoral theologian and Orthodox priest Bill Mills, whom I interviewed last summer, and whose website is here, has a new book out:  Encountering Jesus in the Gospels (Orthodox Research Institute, 2012), xii+119pp.

I was asked to read it before publication, and said of it (as you'll see on the back cover) that it is a short, simple, wonderfully accessible book that skillfully cuts through the fog of the Jesus wars and helps readers discover for themselves the richly diverse answers provided in the gospels to Jesus' own question: Who do you say that I am?

I was able to interview Fr. Bill about this latest publication, and here are his thoughts:

AD: Tell us why you wrote this book. 

Well, with all my books I tried to bring the Gospels to life for people. I think most people want to learn more about Jesus, his message, and the Gospels but they don’t know where to start. I mean, a lot of people don’t read anything these days except for e-mail, a few blogs maybe--and as for the Bible? Well, let's put it this way: it's rare to find someone who reads the Bible regularly--or at least that has been my experience. And those who do read the Bible often get stuck when they come across different words, images, or metaphors that they find when reading. I try to “translate” the Gospel into everyday language, drawing upon stories, images, and words that we use everyday.

AD: Which parts of the gospel portrayals of Jesus do you think most people today overlook? 

All of them! Those of us in the Eastern Church (both Byzantine Catholic and Eastern Orthodox) are stuck with Jesus the miracle-worker. I mean, nearly every Sunday we have a miracle story read to us. If one ONLY heard the Sunday gospel lessons one would think that Jesus was a magician. There are other wonderful stories and narratives in the Gospels that are not read on Sunday, and that’s a shame really. That is why I encourage people to read the entire Gospel collection in order to have a well-rounded understanding of Jesus.

AD: What is your favorite image or story of Jesus in the gospels? Which do you find most disturbing? 

I always loved the raising of Lazarus narrative in John’s Gospel. Now before I go on you’re going to say but you just said that there are too many miracle stories! What I find lovely about this particular narrative is that it really shows Jesus’ humanity. When he finds out that his friend Lazarus is dead, John tells us that Jesus weeps, He cries. I find this so powerful. Also the fact that this lesson is read one week prior to Holy Saturday and Pascha is moving as well, a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own death and resurrection. I am, further, amazed that Jesus stays an extra day in Bethany before coming to see Lazarus: He makes Lazarus’ family wait. I mean, really, if I did that to a parishioner, I’d be fired!

AD: Many books today purport to tell us that the "real" Jesus was obscured by the early Church or distorted by the gospels. What do you make of such claims? 

Well, this is a long story. In short a lot of this has to do with the search for the “historical Jesus” started mostly in the late 19th century and well into the 20th century when scholars and historians tried to find or search for the historical person behind the text. Shelves and shelves of books fill libraries arguing for who the “real” or “historical Jesus” was. My answer: the only Jesus we have is the Jesus in the text; there is no Jesus outside of the text of the New Testament, or of the Bible for that matter. One can speculate and reflect on what it meant to be a Jewish male in the first century, a prophet, so to speak, but the search for a historical person named Jesus or Yeshua is fruitless. A lot of authors make a lot of money on this though. I guess I’m in the wrong profession maybe! Just stick with the Jesus in the Bible and you won’t go wrong with that.

AD: Such books often insist that the "real" Jesus can only be discovered in apocryphal or deutero-canonical texts--the gospel of Judas, say, or other such texts. Why do you trust the canonical gospels, and what would you say to those who might doubt the authenticity or veracity or reliability of them? 

Firstly, the Gospels were canonized or accepted by the Great Church (Christendom in general). The other texts--e.g., the gospel of Judas, the gospel of Mary Magdalene, etc.--were always hotly contested and debated and were never accepted into the canon. Now, canonical books such as the Apocalypse (Revelation) and the Epistle to the Hebrews were also debated but they were eventually received and canonized, however late. The gospel of Judas and others are interesting reading for the narrative effect but since most laity don’t have time to read, I’d encourage them to read the four Gospels before reading those others.

AD: Assuming that most Eastern Christians probably get their primary exposure to the gospels in church, do you think the Byzantine liturgical cycle gives people enough exposure to the gospels, or do we need to consider some changes here? 

As I said earlier the Sunday gospel lessons repeat themselves year after year in an annual cycle. Now if people read the daily readings they’d get more of the New Testament. I really admire the three-year lectionary used in many mainline Christian Churches where the gospel lessons change from year to year. That makes preaching a bit easier too. I mean every year I have to preach twice on Jesus and the pigs: once in early summer and then again in early autumn. Talk about challenging! Through the years, though, I manage to incorporate into my homilies other gospel lessons and other passages from the New Testament and also from the Old Testament too.

On that latter issue, I would like to see the Old Testament readings restored to regular use in the Byzantine tradition. I am not a liturgical expert by any means but I do know that at one time Old Testament lessons were prescribed, namely those from the prophets. Now that would really be a great thing for pastors. The prophetic readings have fed and nourished me as a pastor; I read through them regularly throughout the year and it would be good to have them read publicly on Sunday. So you’d have a reading from the prophets; a reading from Paul or from the Pauline corpus; and then a gospel reading. But as you know change comes at a glacial pace for those of us in the East!

AD: Which English translation(s) of the Scriptures do you most often use? 

I use a variety. Typically I’ll read through the gospel reading for a Sunday beginning with the RSV and then look at the same reading in the NIV for any nuances. (My NIV is a study Bible which has an abundance of notes and Old Testament references.) Then I’ll look maybe at the KJV and finally The Message.

I found The Message a few years ago and fell in love with it. The Message is a modern English translation created by Eugene Peterson which took over a decade. Peterson is a well-known pastor in the Presbyterian Church and he started to do a translation just for his parish Bible study and for small group devotional reading. Anyway, his publisher urged him to keep on going and he did. It took a long time to do it. The thing I like about The Message is that it is both a fresh modern English translation of the text but also faithful to the original Greek. It’s more than just leaving out the “thee’s and thou’s” but the entire sentence reads like a novel or front headlines from the newspaper. I really like it very much. (Back in the 70’s there was a similar translation called Today’s Message for Modern Man which was originally meant to be used in prison ministry I think, but The Message is a much better translation and is a bit deeper.) I actually would encourage people to buy a copy of The Message: they’ll be amazed at how well it reads.

AD: What course of action would you recommend to, say, a new Christian who really wants to understand Jesus and to begin reading the gospels, but does not know how or where to begin? 

Start with Mark. It’s the shortest of the Gospels with only 16 chapters. Read it once quickly to get the overall message and then read it over again slowly, maybe pausing every so often. Then after Mark go to the other gospels too. I’d also encourage the person to join a parish Bible study if there is one.

AD: It's often said that every age turns Jesus, at least a little bit, into an image of itself. Do you see signs of that today in North American culture? 

Oh what a big question. I guess today what is very strong in our culture is the “wealth gospel” that is heard a lot in community churches and by TV evangelists; that Jesus wants us to be wealthy and healthy--and do you know why? So you can give more money to those TV evangelists who drive Rolls Royce’s and have big mansions! But this has always been a problem: just look at Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. Every generation wants to turn Jesus into their own image and likeness.

AD: In ch. 2 you begin by noting that most of us today live urban or suburban lives quite different from the agrarian and pastoral life common at the time of Jesus. Do you think that some of the gospel imagery--Jesus as shepherd, or vine-dresser, or lamb--might be hard for people to appreciate today?

Yes and no. I think if pastors can explain these images, perhaps even incorporating or including contemporary images that the laity might understand, people will get the message. Pastors need to trust our laity that they do have a mind and they’re not stupid either!

AD: It's a common cliché today to say "Jesus: Yes! Church: No!" How do you as a pastor respond to such slogans? 

Such a temptation! This is a loaded question too. With the first part we have to always be reminded, especially pastors and clergy, that our faith and trust is in Jesus Christ. Yes we are also members of one another in what we call the Church but sometimes we can confuse the externalities of the institutional Church with that of Jesus, which are supposed to have the same aim and goal: salvation. But as you might know that isn’t always the case. There is a famous quote by St. Augustine-- and I don’t know exactly where it is in his writings but he says--“The Church is a whore but she’s also your mother.” That, of course, is right from the prophetic writings; that Israel is whoring around with false gods and idol worship (see Hosea and Amos for example) while Yahweh is running around trying to get Israel back; he is a devoted bridegroom. The Church is the Body of Christ and sometimes the body gets sick and needs help, but we are always members of this community. That is what being a Christian is all about, members of one another, hopefully striving towards the same end too: salvation in Christ Jesus.

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