Stephen Mitchell: The Gospel According to Jesus. HarperPerennial. 312 pp.
Well-known translator Stephen Mitchell has added another title to the burgeoning literature of revisionist interpretations of Jesus. The book is entitled The Gospel According to Jesus, and in what follows I will show that it should rather be called The Gospel According to Stephen Mitchell. The need for such a name change will come as no surprise to most readers. One might expect as much from titles as transparent as the one on the top of this book.
Mitchell follows the now familiar pattern. Purporting to present the core of Jesus' teachings, he begins by expunging from the Gospel accounts all those passages deemed inauthentic. Once the offending passages have been excised, Mitchell offers us the remaining parables and sayings in the cadre of a scaled-down "Gospel" similar in structure and movement to the Synoptic Gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke. Mitchell's new Gospel is a translation and harmonization performed by himself of all that he judges to be authentic in the three original Synoptics. The resultant new biography of Jesus--the supposed "Gospel according to Jesus"--is then burdened with the author's extensive commentary and notes, which together make for an excellent portrait of Mitchell's careful efforts to bend every recorded word of Jesus to his own purposes and deny everything that doesn't quite fit. This, as well, is just as one might expect.
Mitchell's presumption to judge both Jesus' life and the correctness of his teachings is at times overbearing, at times embarrassing. Through it all the reader must be grateful that Mitchell at least includes Jesus in the enlightened circle he himself frequents. Mitchell's sure hand in judging the texts of the world's spiritual traditions--both East and West, both North and South--comes from his own great learning and spiritual wisdom--a wisdom he evidently absorbed through his many years familiarity with the Great Masters of the Transcendent Eastern Schools of Universal Harmonic Truth: i.e., the Zen Masters, the Taoists, the Buddhists.
But Stephen Mitchell is not just any old flake. He's not just out to show that Jesus and the Taoists teach "the same thing." It will be noticed that the "Spiritual Master" Jesus that emerges from this book has much in common with the Jesus presented by John D. Crossan and his colleagues in the Jesus Seminar. This is not a coincidence, as Mitchell has made obvious use of the work of the "historical Jesus" movement in his attempts to determine which passages of the Gospels are authentic. So there is scholarship and not just tendentious scissors work behind his selection of passages.
Regardless of the scholarly influence, there are still important differences between the scholars' Jesus and Mitchell's. Whereas the pared down Jesus of J.D. Crossan is a (granted, rather quite interesting) peasant revolutionary of first-century Palestine, the pared down Jesus of Stephen Mitchell is an enlightened spiritual Master in a Zen Buddhist mode. For Mitchell, then, Jesus is important not because he can become the subject of careful anthropological and textual guesswork--as is the case with the detective Crossan--but rather because he can be made to echo the "Perennial Philosophy" better represented by Zen and Taoism. Jesus, Mitchell implies, is a Master nearly as great as Lao-Tze or Ramana Maharshi.
The book is ultimately a tiresome affair. Everywhere in the notes one finds Mitchell offering lines from Lao-Tze or tales from Zen anthologies as "the best commentary" on this or that saying of Jesus. If Jesus' doctrine of the Kingdom of Heaven can be interpreted in terms of Taoist detachment, then we must conclude that both traditions are getting at the same thing. This is the burden of Mitchell's international spiritual porridge. We must not let all the unfortunate later doctrines of the merely Christian churches get in our way of appreciating this great Guru Jesus. Late discovery, after all, is better than none.
Anyone with a sense of history should be able to see the problem with Mitchell's approach. Regardless of our uncertainties concerning the details of Jesus' life, it is clear that he was not born into the same cultural milieu that gave rise to Chuang-Tze or Lao-Tze. The constant references to traditions like Taoism when interpreting Jesus' words are thus as irrelevant as references to Pink Floyd lyrics would be. (Actually even less relevant perhaps, since the members of the rock band at least made their music in a post-Christian society.) Jesus of Nazareth grew up in a community that worshipped the God of Israel, not abstract naturalistic notions of the Way. To say that the Chinese "Tao" is the same thing as the Hebrew "YHWH" is to splish and splash in the shallowest waters of New Age pop reductivism. Congratulations, Mr. Mitchell.
That Jesus knew the Prophets, that he knew the stories of the Hebrew Bible as well as the Mosaic Law--this is evident to anyone who reads the Gospels. Jesus' life and teachings fulfill that Hebrew tradition and complete it by founding a new dispensation, one moreover that was prophesied before his coming. In attempting to tell us of his "authentic" Jesus, Mitchell studiously ignores the concrete context of Jesus' life, preferring instead to wash away all "unnecessary doctrine" in a sea of platitudes woven from strands of pop psychology, Zen minimalism and Buddhist One-an-ism.
Mitchell includes as an appendix to his work a collection of assessments of Jesus made by various historical figures: Jefferson, Shaw, Spinoza, Gandhi, Emerson. Most of these quotes are meant to buttress Mitchell's credentials as an unbeliever: namely, they almost universally echo his own assertions that Jesus was a great spiritual teacher, but that the Gospels contained in the New Testament are not to be trusted. Thus Christian readers must not think that Stephen Mitchell is alone in his disparagement of the Bible. There are, he implies, other great men who stand with him. As if Christian readers hadn't noticed the presence of revisionist skepticism before.
Written in an easy, offhand manner, by turns mawkish and politically correct, Mitchell's book is just right for post-Christian Americans who have enough energy to read a little between their favorite talk shows. For those interested in Jesus, however, there are much better books around, starting with the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
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