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BOOK REVIEW

A Life on the Front Lines of 'the Jesus Wars'

A LONG WAY FROM TIPPERARY: A Memoir; By John Dominic Crossan; HarperSanFrancisco; $23, 216 pages

August 05, 2000|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"This is what I have learned between Ireland and America, monastery and university, priesthood and marriage," writes John Dominic Crossan at a characteristically confessional moment in his memoir, "A Long Way From Tipperary." "I have learned that God is more radical than we can ever imagine, that a divine utopia on this Earth is more subversive than we can ever accept, and that Pilate acted for all of us when he executed Jesus."

Over a long and distinguished career, Crossan has discharged his self-imposed duties as a public intellectual with a series of fresh takes on the life of Jesus, including "The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant" and "Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography." As a co-founder of the Jesus Seminar, a colloquium of New Testament scholars, and a talking head on TV documentaries, he has served on the front line of what he calls "the Jesus wars." Now he sums up his life and work in a memoir that is charged with bracing candor, sharp humor and an Irish bard's gift for the well-told tale.

Crossan aspired to the priesthood while still an adolescent, but he wanted to be a missionary, not a parish priest, a fact that holds a clue to his own wanderlust and intellectual derring-do.

"Not piety but adventure was what fired my imagination at 15 years of age," he explains. "What impressed me was that monastic life meant challenge, that foreign mission meant adventure, and that God clearly had the best game in town, the most exciting game around."

At 16, he started his novitiate in the Catholic order known as the Servites. "My room was no more austere in the monastery than in boarding school," he recalls, "and the food was very definitely much better." But Crossan's intellectual curiosity was always too lively for the monastic life; once he was ordered to recite two rosaries for answering a bit too sharply when the father prior questioned why he read "radical magazines like America and Commonweal." He left the priesthood in 1969 but remained a Catholic, persisting in his life's work as a New Testament scholar.

What drove Crossan out of the priesthood was his desire to marry and his refusal to conform his scholarship to the church's authority: "I did not want my research to be controlled either positively or negatively by its agenda." He still believes, however, that "religion is a fundamental necessity of the human spirit," he writes, and he even proposes a way to solve his problem with what he readily calls "the church I love."

"The pope convenes all the bishops of the entire world . . . in a solemn public ceremony in St. Peter's Basilica," he imagines, "and they all implore God to take back the gift of infallibility and grant them instead the gift of accuracy."

At the core of Crossan's scholarship is his restless search for the flesh-and-blood Jesus underlying the transcendental figure depicted in the Gospels. He concedes that it is a provocative enterprise--"Stories are dangerous stuff," he writes--but he insists on distinguishing between stories about Jesus that are "literally true" and stories that are "metaphorically true" without valuing one above the other. Indeed, parables matter as much to him as does history or biography: "It is by them we live and for them we die," he writes. "They are only metaphors as around us is only air."

Crossan's work has always been courageous and, for that reason, controversial. "The only integrity that scholars have is to say honestly what they have learned and to say clearly what they have discovered," goes his own catechism. "They should not trim their reports to what a leader expects." Indeed, controversy continues to dog Crossan in odd and unsettling ways. When he consulted a doctor about a vasectomy, for example, he found himself under interrogation.

"How can you as a Catholic theologian undergo a vasectomy?" the doctor asked.

"Because," Crossan replied, "I am a bad Catholic but a good theologian, and that makes a vast difference."

To his credit, Crossan does not shrink from confronting his critics, and he fearlessly (if sometimes ironically) quotes some of the nastier reviews that his books have received. But he insists that his work serves a higher purpose by challenging us to ask ourselves the toughest questions about what we know and what we think we know. Clearly, Crossan is a man on a mission, even if it is a scholarly rather than sacred one, and he actively seeks out venues where he can witness to his own understanding of truth.

"A public intellectual in religion is an endangered species from the past and an uninvented species in the present," Crossan writes of himself. "They live publicly and openly where reason intersects with revelation and history intersects with faith."

*

Jonathan Kirsch is the author of "Moses: A Life" and "King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel."

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