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A Serious Way of Wondering

A Serious Way of Wondering

by Reynolds Price

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When renowned novelist and poet Reynolds Price, one of Christianity's most eloquent outlaws, was invited to deliver the annual Peabody Lecture at Harvard University Memorial Church in 2001, he chose to explore a subject of fierce debate and timeless relevance: the ethics of Jesus.

In two succeeding lectures at the National Cathedral and at Auburn


When renowned novelist and poet Reynolds Price, one of Christianity's most eloquent outlaws, was invited to deliver the annual Peabody Lecture at Harvard University Memorial Church in 2001, he chose to explore a subject of fierce debate and timeless relevance: the ethics of Jesus.

In two succeeding lectures at the National Cathedral and at Auburn Seminary, Price continued to explore the apparently contradictory ethics that Jesus articulates in the Gospels; and in a controversial act of artistic license, Price reimagined the historical Jesus. In A Serious Way of Wondering, Price expands these lectures to present Jesus with three problems of burning moral concern -- suicide, homosexuality, and the plight of women in male-dominated cultures and faiths. A sweeping view of the inescapable implications of Jesus' merciful life and all-embracing thought -- and of the benefits of enlarging our notions of humanity, community, and equality -- A Serious Way of Wondering is a significant contribution to Price's penetrating works of religious inquiry.

Editorial Reviews

The Los Angeles Times
… this is an insightful work combining thoughtful erudition with Price's obvious love for the Gospel stories and his expansive artistic abilities, resulting in a text designed to help readers see anew Jesus of Nazareth. — Bernadette Murphy
The Washington Post
Trying to get at the essence of Jesus's ethic, Price boils down his teachings to three essential aphorisms: Love your neighbor as yourself, Feed my sheep, and Do not resist an evil person. (That last is the line just before his better-known instruction to turn the other cheek.) He then imagines three scenes in which a biblical character poses a problem to Jesus, and the Lord, sometimes haltingly and sometimes with seeming obfuscation, responds. — Lauren F. Winner
Publishers Weekly
Ever since A Palpable God was published 25 years ago, novelist Price has been reimagining biblical stories and bringing them to new life in our time. With graceful, lyrical prose and a masterfully probing imagination, Price turns his eye here to the ethics of Jesus. What captures Price's attention most are those ethical questions that modern society confronts daily but that Jesus never addresses. Thus, in three brilliant and moving apocryphal gospel stories, Price's Jesus engages in conversations about homosexuality, suicide and the plight of women in male-dominated societies. Since Jesus did not talk at all about either homosexuality or suicide during his life, Price imagines the resurrected Jesus discussing these issues with a disciple in whose life they may have figured largely-Judas. When the risen Jesus appears to Judas in a cave where Judas is hiding and contemplating suicide, Judas declares that he loved Jesus completely from the first day. Jesus replies that Judas's erotic love for him must be transformed into a love for everything equally. In the apocryphal story on suicide, Judas encounters the risen Jesus as Judas is trying to hang himself. Unable to tie the rope properly and hoist himself, Judas asks Jesus to help him, if he pardons Judas, and Jesus does so. Elegant and passionate, Price's provocative parables provide no simple answers to the saccharine question "What would Jesus do?" Rather, they compel us to imagine creatively our engagements with Jesus' teachings and the impact of those teachings on our lives. (June) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Though neither a churchgoer nor a trained theologian, Price has spent his life pondering teachings of Jesus both in theological works (Three Gospels) and in works of fiction and poetry (Kate Vaiden; Noble Norfleet). He is not afraid to stretch the limits of traditional theology, although, at the same time, he wonders how one can doubt the reality of the Resurrection. Expanded from three invited lectures, including the 2001 Peabody Lecture at Harvard, Price (English, Duke Univ.) reimagines the ethics of Jesus through three "imagined narratives," as he calls them, in which Jesus responds to three people: a homosexual, a suicide (Judas in both cases), and a woman who challenges traditional feminine roles. These are preceded by a very personal reflection on Jesus as a teacher of ethics. Price's theology could be called unorthodox Protestant and so will not be accepted by those who would be made uncomfortable by his view, but the book offers some serious thought for those who want to consider, along with Price, Jesus' possible response to three ethical challenges that do not appear in the Gospels. Recommended for general collections.-Augustine J. Curley, Newark Abbey, NJ Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A profoundly engaging essay in Christology, honoring Jesus’ humane divinity and divine humanity. Essayist and novelist Price (Noble Norfleet, 2002, etc.) has been a civilian, non-churchgoing student of theology for most of his 70 years, and he has little use for the semiliterate What Would Jesus Do and the archliterate Jesus Seminar variants of exegesis afoot today. In their place he proposes a mostly commonsensical view of Jesus, though one that requires a leap of faith all the same: namely, acceptance as fact that Jesus really did rise from the dead. "No moment of history has been the bone of more contention," he writes. "Who, though, questions that Socrates of Athens taught in a quizzical manner; that Alexander the Great was eventually an alcoholic or that the Emperor Caligula was barking mad? For which of those items do we have firmer historical evidence than for Jesus’ potential survival--in some uniquely perceptible form--of death?" It’s possible not to make this leap and still enjoy the portrait of Jesus, and of Jesus’ ethical views, for, as Price offers it, it is a loving and altogether generous one. Writing apocryphally, in the biblical sense, Price suggests, for example, that Jesus would never have dreamed of condemning homosexuality per se; instead, only those "who cause these little ones who believe to stumble"--that is, child molesters--are singled out for the fire-and-brimstone (or, rather, saltwater and millstone) treatment. For Price, Jesus’ central ethic can be distilled to this: "God loves us; we must love one another." And, though he discerns some contradictions in the teachings, and perhaps a few misreadings of God’s big plan (whence Jesus’ plaintive final words),Price finds no false notes whatever in Christ’s open-armed behavior toward the people he encountered in his short lifetime--behavior that your run-of-the-mill fundamentalist would likely not care to emulate, or even endorse. A revisionist view, to be sure, full of big questions and persuasive answers. A worthy companion to Elaine Pagels’s Beyond Belief (p. 290) and other recent proposals of a kinder, gentler Christianity.

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Though I'm not a churchgoer, for more than sixty years I've read widely in the life and teachings of Jesus; and since at least the age of nine, I've thought of myself as a Christian. This book comes ultimately from those beginnings, but it has a more immediate cause. An explanation will permit me a brief good memory.

As I approach my seventieth birthday, I revert with a special frequency to scenes from early summers (fall and winter have often been grim). One of the best of those stretches was a time I spent at Harvard University when I was twenty-one. In 1954, for two months between my junior and senior years at Duke, I lived through both summer terms on the first floor of Stoughton Hall in the Yard; and I took swift and bracingly rigorous courses in modern American fiction and Victorian poetry (I also audited courses in French Impressionism and European Nationalism). Cambridge, like the other port cities of east-coast America, is a humid swamp from June into late September; but as a North Carolina native, born long before air-conditioning crazed my genetic thermostat, I was impervious and relished attending each morning's lectures, then returning to a well-baked dormitory room, stripping to my shorts, crashing on a sodden bed and reading for unbroken blissful hours -- more bookish-hours-per-day than I've navigated before or since. Though I'd consumed books from the first grade onward, at the age of full adulthood I was suddenly like a starved man whose only available food was words and who was steadily happy to consume them as vital, if intoxicating, fuel. My will to be a writer, which I'd shakily announced from the age of sixteen, fined its point to a durable hardness then and there (the fact that I noted Horatio Alger as a former occupant of Stoughton Hall was a cheerful help).

So I felt a pleasing arc begin to form when, forty-six years later, the Reverend Peter Gomes asked me to deliver the next annual Francis Greenwood Peabody Lecture at Harvard's Memorial Church. I was soon interested to learn that Peabody (1847-1936) had served as a Unitarian minister before returning to Harvard, his alma mater, where he distinguished himself for introducing the study of social ethics and ultimately a Department of Social Ethics (his course was known to students as "Peabo's drainage, drunkenness, and divorce"). It seemed appropriate therefore to give the next Peabody Lecture, to what I assumed would be a largely undergraduate audience, on a subject that had long concerned me -- the ethics of Jesus of Nazareth.

I was planning to teach, soon again, a seminar which I've taught for a number of years at Duke University -- a study of the Gospels of Mark and John -- and since the final paper in that course requires each student to write an apocryphal gospel and since I'd only recently written, at the suggestion of Time magazine, a group of apocryphal scenes from the life of Jesus, I decided to conclude my lecture with a further narrative exploration of a moment in which Jesus is confronted by an enduringly significant ethical dilemma which the four Gospels never bring before him. I'd after all spent a great part of my life as a writer of fictional and autobiographical narratives; and I knew that the act of telling a story, especially a story invented as one tells it, can sometimes become a moral discovery or (as any child knows) a private vision that approaches revelation in intensity and personal usefulness.

In Cambridge then in April 2001, I was received generously by the Reverend Gomes, his Associate Minister the Reverend Dorothy Austin and the staff of the Memorial Church; and I spoke in that resonant sanctuary on a Saturday morning before an audience which included both a gratifying number of students -- considering the day and the hour -- and the Church's imposing Board of Visitors. The fictional story with which I concluded is the first of the three stories included here. It not only concerned a dilemma of personal importance to me, its dilemma was -- and still is -- one which troubles millions and continues to torment the institutions of Christianity today. In my narrative, Jesus is confronted with homosexuality when, risen from the tomb on Easter morning, he searches for and finds Judas Iscariot, the disciple who'd handed him over to his enemies and assured his agonized death. All that remains for the burnt-out Judas to reveal is a passionate love for Jesus, a love which -- foiled, he claims -- led him to betray the teacher he'd followed so longingly.

Five months after my visit to Cambridge, on 26 September 2001 -- two weeks after some three thousand human lives were destroyed in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and on an airplane in Pennsylvania -- I kept a commitment to speak at the National Cathedral in Washington. In the heart of that vast cavern, at a time when every famous American building seemed a dangerous place -- a living organism of almost hopeless fragility -- I began to speak at an evening hour which marked the commencement of Yom Kippur. As I began by noting that loaded coincidence -- and remarking how earnestly we as Americans (Jew and Gentile and whoever else) needed not only to acknowledge our grief for the recent tragedy but also for the wrongs committed by our nation against others -- I realized that the thousand people who sat before me were hardly present, on a weeknight, to hear me but were responding to a need to gather in sacred space. I went on to give them a further developed version of my sense of Jesus' ethics (including, in the circumstances, a renewed conviction of his pacifism). And I added a second fictional scene in which Jesus encounters another crisis he never meets in the Gospels -- suicide, a perpetual urgency in virtually all societies. The traitor Judas is determined to kill himself, and the risen Jesus is beside him in his intention.

Since that night, and the discussion which followed with an understandably intense audience and the Cathedral's kind and challenging staff, I've gone on expanding my study of a subject which I take to be perennially important. For a version which I presented as the Rudin Lecture in November 2002 at a place which has been especially welcoming on several occasions -- Auburn Seminary in New York -- I added a third fictional encounter in which Jesus meets, alone, a woman who not only presents him with questions which the Gospels don't offer but likewise confronts his sense of himself in an especially daunting way. What, in a world which controls women so strenuously, is an adulterous and rejected wife and mother to do for the remainder of her life?

In the form published here, I've added numerous passages of reflection, and unorthodox theology, for which I wouldn't want any of my prior hosts, or the audiences who engaged me in probing discussion, to be held responsible. Anyone who's read Three Gospels and the subsequent Letter to a Man in the Fire will know of my long interest in the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth -- his legacy to the world and the legacy which he seized so avidly from the history, faith and scriptures of his people. Those readers will also know that I'm not a priest, a clergyman of any sort or a trained theologian. Yet I'd assure any reader that, though I'm of course subject to errors, accidents and failures of intelligence, I've worked to deal gravely here with such grave matters.

Since I could hardly expect many professional scholars of the New Testament to attend those lectures; and since I hoped then -- as I hope now -- to reach the widest possible number of listeners and readers, I've offered more explanation than scholars would require and perhaps less than some readers may want. For the latter, I've provided occasional footnotes; and I've included a short list of recommended reading. Throughout, I've tried to indicate moments which I suspect of being new or inescapably radical.

Though I've translated the Gospels of Mark and John from the Greek and published them in Three Gospels (the third is my own), all quotations from scripture are given here in the Updated New American Standard Version. While I regret that the American Standard follows the eighteenth-century habit of capitalizing nouns and pronouns referring to God and Jesus (a practice foreign to the Hebrew and Greek originals) and while it over-punctuates texts whose originals bear no punctuation whatever, it remains the most nearly literal translation of the whole Bible that's presently both available and easily readable. Literal translation can sometimes present the reader with difficulties of understanding; but it can almost automatically -- as in the King James Version -- reveal the astonishing eloquence of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek originals. I have not reproduced the New American's scrupulous, but visually confusing, practice of italicizing occasional (and often quite unnecessary) words added to clarrify a phrase of the Greek.

Finally, a list of the friends and colleagues whose wisdom and scholarship -- going back to my childhood -- lie behind my interest in these matters would be longer than the text itself. Seven friends have been of special recent help -- Stephen Katz, Jonathan Uslaner, Ryan Sample, Jeffrey Anderson, Susan Moldow, and two eminent colleagues at Duke University: D. Moody Smith and David Aers. They deserve no blame for my errors and have saved me from more than one.

R. P.

Copyright © 2003 by Reynolds Price

Meet the Author

Reynolds Price (1933-2011) was born in Macon, North Carolina. Educated at Duke University and, as a Rhodes Scholar, at Merton College, Oxford University, he taught at Duke beginning in 1958 and was the James B. Duke Professor of English at the time of his death. His first short stories, and many later ones, are published in his Collected Stories. A Long and Happy Life was published in 1962 and won the William Faulkner Award for a best first novel. Kate Vaiden was published in 1986 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Good Priest's Son in 2005 was his fourteenth novel. Among his thirty-seven volumes are further collections of fiction, poetry, plays, essays, and translations. Price is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and his work has been translated into seventeen languages.

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