New biography to present a less ‘zealous’ Jesus

August 26, 2013
Jay Parini's "Jesus" (Amazon) will be the first in a new series of biographies called "Icons." starting in December.
Jay Parini’s “Jesus” (Amazon) will be the first in a new series of biographies called “Icons,” starting in December.

Last month, a clueless interview on a FoxNews webcast made Reza Aslan‘s biography of Jesus, a sensational bestseller. This month, comes word of a less zealous take on the man from Galilee.

Jay Parini’s “Jesus: The Human Face of God” will be published in December as the first in a new series of trim biographies called “Icons” from Amazon Publishing. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos has agreed to purchase The Washington Post in a deal expected to close this year.)

Parini is a poet and novelist who’s also written well-regarded biographies of Robert Frost, William Faulkner and John Steinbeck. They’re important figures, for sure, but place them in a bad light, and nobody will threaten your life. That’s not the case with the central figure of Christianity.

“I wondered if I might be crazy to take on such a big subject,” Parini said via e-mail from his home in Weybridge, Vermont. “My major concern, of course, was the obviously sensitive nature of the subject. Billions of people have put Jesus at the center of their lives. Who was I to write about him, not even being a clergyman or religious scholar? Then again, in my research for what I thought would be a novel about Jesus, I discovered that it was difficult to find a short, well-informed ‘life’ that told the story in a straightforward manner with due respect to the subject and some degree of scholarly weight. In a sense, I wrote the book about Jesus that I wanted to read.”

At the very least, he won’t suffer the kind of silly criticism that Aslan endured from FoxNews for not being a Christian. Parini’s father was a Baptist minister. He grew up in a home infused with the Old and New Testaments, and he’s been a church-going Episcopalian throughout his adult life.

“I think that the practice of religion allows one to discover emotional and psychological truth of a kind not available in the secular world,” he says. “I have a mystical bent, and I pursue daily meditations that follow the liturgical calendar — what are called the ‘daily offices’ of the church. I am no literalist, but I have a strong sense of the value of Christian teachings and Christian practice, and I hope this informs my book on Jesus.”

While expressing admiration for Aslan as a writer, Parini takes issue with Aslan’s thesis in “Zealot” that Jesus was a “politically conscious Jewish revolutionary” who advocated overthrowing the Roman Empire.

“The core of the Jesus message is what has made him relevant for twenty centuries,” Paraini says. “That message — embodied in the Sermon on the Mount — is one of passive resistance to violence. Turn the other cheek. It’s the essence of Christianity. One has to cherry pick a few odd remarks by Jesus, then read them out of context while ignoring the vast bulk of the Gospels to think Jesus was a zealot, and then — if he were — would anyone care about yet another violent rebel from Galilee, most of whom are now forgotten?”

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth," by Reza Aslan (Random House).
“Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” by Reza Aslan (Random House).

“Aslan’s Jesus is not mine,” he says. “I draw on the four Gospels and some of the Gnostic Gospels as well as centuries of Biblical scholarship to offer a clear, simple picture of Jesus as a great ethical teacher and a religious genius, a man born on the Silk Road and able to draw on Western ideas about body and soul and eastern ideas of karma and spirituality to create a major new synthesis — although always rooted in Judaism. My view is that Jesus never thought he would create a new religion. He offered, instead, his own modifications and extensions (and radical re-interpretations) of Judaic ideas.”

“Icons” editor James Atlas has known Parini for more than 40 years. When he asked Parini to contribute to the upcoming series, Atlas assumed he’d choose a literary figure like those he’s written about before. But he says that his old friend surprised him: “It emerged in the course of our discussions that while Jay and I had been communing all these years about writers, he had been having a separate conversation on a higher level with this mysterious and compelling figure whose every word was literature.”

Books in the “Icons” series will be released about every two months. The next nine titles are:

“Stalin: The Kremlin Mountaineer,” by Paul Johnson.

“Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open,” by Phoebe Hoban.

“J.D. Salinger: A Disciple’s Quest,” by Thomas Beller.

“Poe,” by Paul Collins.

“Van Gogh,” by Julian Bell.

“Hemingway,” by Mark Kurlansky.

“David Lynch,” by Dennis Lim.

“Hannah Arendt,” by Anne Heller.

“Hitchcock,” by Michael Wood.

@RonCharles

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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