Thursday, July 17, 2014

Teacher, Guide, Companion Ten Years Later

Ten years ago Teacher,Guide, Companion:  rediscovering Jesus ina secular age came out.  It was my first book, and my first collaboration with the good folks at Skinner House Books.  It seems like a wonderful opportunity to look back at what I thought then and what I'd say now if I were to write it again.  There is a marvelous story about Ralph Waldo Emerson.  In his later life he was sometimes was asked to give readings of one or another of his earlier essays.  It is said that as he did so he would occasionally look up and say, "I no longer believe this."  He would then return to his reading.  As I prepared to reconsider Teacher, Guide, Companion I was hoping I wouldn’t have to say "I no longer believe this" too often.

The good news is – I didn’t.  Thanks in very large part to Ms. Mary Benard, Senior Editor at Skinner House, it’s a very readable book.  The prose is clean, and the ideas flow smoothly.  The structure I used for this "rediscovery" came from a passage in the Gospel of Mark.  Jesus is remembered as asking his disciples, "Who do the people say that I am?"  After his friends answer with what they’ve heard people say, he asks the more pointed question, "But who do you say that I am?"  

Teacher, Guide, Companion follows the same general pattern – beginning with what others have said about Jesus, then sharing my own perspective, and then offering suggestions for the reader’s own explorations.   I don’t think I’d change that.  One of the good things about the book is that it is so readable – I was able to re-read it over the course of one evening.  That does, however, mean that there is a lot that could have been included that wasn’t.  And that’s one of the things that I might change were I to write it again – or create an expanded edition.

The section on the historical Jesus could easily be expanded.  Details could be added to the section looking at what we learn from the study of pre-industrial agrarian societies in general, and the Judeo-Roman world at the time of Jesus in particular.  This work is mentioned, yet there could be more details about what has been learned.  Similarly, there is only a passing reference to the existence of – and questions about – a handful of references to Jesus outside of the New Testament, and there has been done some wonderful work attempting to reconstruct the earliest Christian communities.  Both of these would be worth including.  And the discoveries of Biblical archaeology wasn’t mentioned at all!

So, too, could the chapter on the images of Jesus conveyed in the five Gospels could also stand some expansion.  There are details in the Gospel stories that, if included, would have more fully illuminated each of the author’s depictions and would have helped create even greater contrast among them.  And while it was an intentional choice to limit consideration to Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, and Thomas, it would be interesting to take a look at what messages the authors of the other Gospels we have discovered – the so-called apocryphal gospels – had intended to convey.

Missing entirely is any consideration of how Jesus has been viewed (and experienced) throughout history.  This could involve looking at historic figures – Saint Francis of Assisi, say, or Mohandas Ghandi – and examining the way(s) they related to Jesus.  Or it could consider the ways Jesus has been seen in different times and different places.  Many books have been written about the ways Jesus has been depicted in art – both visual and literary – and a work like Edward Blum’s The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America looks not just at how Jesus has been depicted but how that depiction can have very real-world consequences.  (James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree is similarly eye opening.)  The insights of Liberationist and Feminist Christian traditions is missing as well.

Several scholar/theologians were introduced in the chapter about the historical Jesus – Marcus Borg, Stephen J. Patterson,  John Dominic Crossan, John Spong – yet each has, by now, written about their own personal encounter/experience with Jesus, and these are just as important as their more academic works.  And when I wrote Teacher, Guide, Companion I had not yet discovered the works of Brian McLaren, Richard Rohr, or Ilia Delio, to name just a few.

The chapter on my own personal perspectives could be expanded to include more about how experiences and view have been influenced by my particular situation as someone who was raised Presbyterian and Methodist, studied and practiced Zen Buddhism for nearly two decades, and now is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister.  More of my wrestling with what this exploration and rediscovery means to me  – which, I will confess, has continued fairly unabated since writing the book – might also be worth including.
And then there’s the section on how the reader might conduct her or his own exploration more fruitfully.  I could imagine including what for want of a better word I’ll call “testimonials” – brief stories from readers about how their searching has unfolded.  These could provide not only more details about the various imaginative techniques that are described but also offer some encouragement and inspiration to readers.

I have to say – I have heard some truly wonderful things over the past decade from people who’ve read this book.   I am grateful to each and every person who has written to me to share what Teacher, Guide, Companion has meant to them, as well as to all the clergy and laity who have seen fit to offer workshops and book study opportunities in their congregations.  If you have questions or comments you would like to share, or suggestions for ways to continue and expand on the conversation this book started, please don’t hesitate to be in touch.

Pax tecum,

Print this post


Dave Dawson said...

I read it not long after it came out. I had been reading Spong and started reading Borg not long before I read your book. I found it so clear and a great companion for the books I had been reading. I was especially blessed to attend the UU Christian Fellowship Revival in Worcester, Mass where you gave a talk about it. I could never have imagined you'd end up the Senior Minister at TJMC not long after we moved away but was so excited for the church. You are a "good match." Hope to have a chance to get together some time. Lots to talk about.

Mark Worth said...

I, too, read your book not long after it was published, enjoyed it, and was glad that a UU was writing a book about Jesus. I had been reading Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Robert W. Funk, John Shelby Spong, N.T. Wright, Juan Luis Segundo, etc. I had started with Marcello Cravari's "Life of Jesus," (Paperback in English, 1967)and Geza Vermes "Jesus the Jew," (1973). At the time your book came out I thought it was good, and wanted a little more. If you did an expanded edition, I would appreciate that.