A Serious Way of Wonderingby Reynolds Price
In two succeeding lectures at the National Cathedral and at Auburn/b>
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.
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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.
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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