Critical review for;
Johnson, Luke Timothy. Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999. 210 pp.
In this work on the person and work of Jesus, Johnson asserts that Jesus is alive and that we are able to know him as a living being and not as a dead historical figure. The picture presented here is that we believe in Christ’s resurrection and come to know Him through the Bible and His own revelation of Himself to us as a living person. Johnson takes away the Historical method of figuring out who Jesus is and ultimately rejects this method as a workable and/or reasonable way of knowing who Jesus is, for we cannot discover Him in history, but we come to know Him through faith and life. To argue that Jesus is a dead person in history is to eliminate the possibility of truly knowing him, but Johnson, presuming that everyone agrees on Jesus’ resurrection, proposes that we can know/learn Jesus in a number of ways. The second major theme in the book is the commentary on the four Gospels that shows the diversity of the writers who are painting four different portraits of the same person, yet they all show clearly the Christ. “How fascinating it is when we are able to ‘see’ and ‘recognize’ the same subject in several portraits even when the depictions are, in detail after detail, so different as to be untransferable from one painting to another” (126).
The author Luke Timothy Johnson is a great scholar and writer who has a unique background as a Benedictine monk. He is a “professor of the New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University. A Roman Catholic, Johnson was a Benedictine monk and priest before becoming a biblical scholar. He is the author of several scholarly books [The Real Jesus, The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why it Matters, and The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation] and has written for Commonwealth and Christian Century.” (www.harpercollins.com/authors/4960/Luke_Timothy_Johnson/index.aspx)
Through this study, Johnson attempts to answer the question, “Is there a place between a historicism that wants to keep Jesus locked in the past and a mysticism that threatens to vaporize the particularity of Jesus altogether?” (ix). Johnson tries to find this place in two ways. First, he looks that the truth that is in Jesus, through tradition, revelation, community, Paul’s writings, and by examining the process by which we learn Jesus. Notice we do not learn about Jesus, but we learn Jesus. This shows Johnson’s strong opposition of the scholarly attempt to find the “historical Jesus” and his desire for us to learn Jesus as the living one. Second, he examines Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels, and shows the wide diversity of portrayals in the gospel accounts with Luke and Matthew being the most similar, and John and Mark as the most different from the others. These commentaries are easily understood and are simple to follow as Johnson develops this theme of diversity and unity.
To begin, we must see that to be a Christian is to acknowledge that Jesus is alive, and because He is alive “His story continues” (pg. 5). Nevertheless, there are some who would approach Jesus just as any other historical figure, like Napoleon or George Washington. However, Johnson’s point remains clear, that Jesus is living and He is knowable, not in a locked historical form, but in a living and personal way. We thus learn Jesus from our traditions because “Jesus is most fully and consistently learned within the context of the believing community, because the risen Lord identifies himself with this community” (pg. 23). Therefore, we learn Jesus through our creeds, rituals, and the Scriptures; moreover, we learn from the disciples/saints, the teaching authority of the Church, through worship, and through children. There is however, a method to this process, and as far as Johnson is concerned “We are concerned with a process rather than a product” (pg. 57). Therefore, we truly find the heart of Jesus when we learn from him as we would anyone else who is alive and active in our life. There are certain characteristics that define this process, like suffering, silent meditation, attentiveness, an attitude of trust, and the reality of the Spirit who helps us in the process.
Finally, we see that the disciples were just as much involved in this process after Jesus’ resurrection and later ascension, as they were during Jesus’ time on earth. We see this process beautifully explained in the Gospels, as the writers were not so much concerned with the historical Jesus as they were with the risen Lord, or as Johnson says
“the evangelists were not ‘eyewitnesses’ who walked about with Jesus and observed him over a long period of time and then sought to depict him in story. The evangelists were Christians who constructed their narratives out of memories about Jesus passed on through the process of oral tradition in the churches over a period of some thirty to forty years after the death of Jesus.” (pg. 126-127)
Proper evaluation of the purpose of the book leads us to find that Johnson is pretty well consistent with the goal that he proposes in the preface. His ultimate goal is to show us the risen Lord and help us in the process of knowing him. His twofold approach makes it easy to see his logic in writing, and therefore we see his plan to show us how to know Jesus, and then elaborate on how each of the gospel writers knew Jesus. His presentation is clear and thoughtful and all of his points seem to be well developed, though sometimes it seems like he is rambling. Nevertheless, I cannot really pin down is intended audience. While it seems like this might a good book to share with a non-believer, the biblical depth and technical language might prove to be awkward and cumbersome. It appears however, that this is written as a reactionary book to the historical scholars possibly even within his own tradition. Yet, I was very surprised by how open he was in his interpretation and explanation. I really didn’t get the sense that he was Catholic until he actually said that he was. Nevertheless, it seems that this book is best suited for students who are having trouble balancing the history of the Bible with the knowledge of the resurrected Lord.
Johnson’s subject and aim are definitely important to us as we encounter people who will want to challenge us on our faith, and question our understanding of who Jesus is. Personally, I was glad to read this because I thought that the chapters on learning Jesus and the process associated with that process were very clear and easy to remember if questioned by someone as to how I came to know Christ. Though I personally have not had such criticism, I do believe that when these questions come this book will be a good resource to point back to for understanding.
Johnson here does indeed stand for a position and defends his faith very well. He gives very good points to support his belief, and provides a pretty good, though lengthy commentary on the Gospels. His position is stated in the first chapter, and indeed the whole chapter is a discussion on his position, and he then uses the rest of the book to describe better this living Jesus.
The Living Jesus book is a good resource for anyone who wants to know how to really know Jesus as a living person who is active in people’s lives and not locked in the past, but alive in the present. Any reader would probably benefit from reading this book, though I would think that the main emphasis is in the academic world, and therefore this might not be the most appropriate Sunday school text. My impression from his book is the Johnson is writing almost evangelically to historical scholars and letting them know that there is a big difference between studying a historical figure and learning Jesus.
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