Jesus and the pattern of history. New book traces cultural impact of his image and example

Jesus Through the Centuries, by Jaroslav Pelikan. New Haven: Yale University Press. 270 pp. $19.95. Jaroslav Pelikan is a complicated, erudite, and passionate man. Recipient of the 1985 Haskins Medal by the Medieval Academy of America, Mr. Pelikan is also the editor of several volumes of the works of Martin Luther and the author of a multi-volume tome, ``The Christian Tradition.'' His new book, ``Jesus Through the Centuries,'' is a thoroughly engaging apologia for his considered opinion that Jesus matters as much today as ever. Perhaps more.

As a historian, Pelikan documents the image of Jesus in culture; as a Christian, he is compelled by the example of the Son of God. The book beats with a big heart. Arranged chronologically, the material in the book covers the astonishingly broad range of cultural functions played by Jesus since his birth in a village called Bethlehem on the western edge of the Judean wilderness.

``Cultural function'' should not suggest that Pelikan is a relativist, that his Jesus is all things to all people. On the contrary, Jesus, as discussed in this book, is a constant in history. For at least two millenniums, says Pelikan, Jesus has been what Alfred North Whitehead would call one of those ``fundamental assumptions which adherents of all the variant systems within the epoch unconsciously presuppose.'' Indeed, there is much reason to think of the Jesus of the cross and resurrection as the ve ry pattern of meaning in history.

Pelikan's method builds on several kinds of historiography developed in our times: among them, Arthur Lovejoy's history of ideas, as well as the most recent cultural history. But Jesus is far more than an idea. As Pelikan points out, qi Lovejoy's method was not flexible enough to discover the unity in the various conceptions of Jesus. Nor is Jesus simply the artifact of a historical community. Pelikan's ``Jesus'' gives the lie to the historical relativists by discovering for us the always rediscoverable uniqueness of Jesus, as evidenced in this century, for example, by quiet and growing trust in primitive Christian healing.

Pelikan's method is for our time what Erasmus's Greek philology was for his: state of the art. Which is a good thing, for the little book packs a punch and will no doubt be controversial, although its overall aim, and effect, is healing. As a discussion of the most powerful image of the true unity of mankind, an image that gathers up the whole career of the Son of Man -- manger, cross, resurrection, ascension -- ``Jesus through the Centuries'' should have the effect of an astringent balm on a peo ple troubled by sectarian strife.

Pelikan starts by pointing out that had the good Christians who took part -- in one way or another -- in the genocide of the Jews recalled that Jesus was first known as rabbi and prophet, they would have been more alert to the evil of the day.

Rabbi and prophet yielded to Messias, Christ, Anointed One. In a characteristically forceful and memorable passage, Pelikan writes: ``It was not merely in the name of a great teacher, not even in the name of the greatest teacher who ever lived, that Justinian built Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and Johann Sebastian Bach composed the `Mass in B-Minor.' There are no cathedrals in honor of Socrates.'' Each of Pelikan's 17 densely argued -- and nicely illustrated -- chapters helps explain why Jesus has ha d such a profound influence in history.

And of course the story of Jesus has historical implications that still illumine our struggle to understand history. What is the design of history? Does it have one? Early Christians waited for his second coming. Some Christians still do.

The resurrection of Jesus suggests another possibility, and it may be more than witty to say that the only end of history is the end of his story. In one's own repetition of the pattern of suffering and resurrection, in one's yielding to the demands of the Beatitudes, in one's efforts to be a disciple, one comes to know oneself. Certainly, the profoundly satisfying completeness of his career lies behind the potency of the image of Jesus and its powerful role in our search for meaning and ide ntity.

Perhaps the most refreshing argument in this very refreshing book is one Pelikan makes early in his chapter on ``The Son of Man.'' He points out that before philosophers and theologians like Augustine could understand the human predicament, they had to understand Jesus as the Son of God, the Logos. More pithily, the thesis is ``that the dimensions of the human predicament become fully clear only in the light of its redemption.''

The revolutionary nature of Pelikan's thesis will not be lost on anyone who has tried to grasp the apparent greatness of modern works of literature and art, works which, though of undoubted sincerity and technical achievement, yield little more than ambiguous or symbolic confirmation of notions as simple and incomplete as ``Life is meaningless. Action is meaningless. Truth is a function of belief and will,'' and so on. The dreariness of the frequently self-satisfied modern view is appalling.

If, as Pelikan argues with such energy, eloquence, and goodwill, the human condition makes sense only in light of the Word, the publication of ``Jesus through the Centuries marks the end of a long, and extravagant, abuse of human reason -- at least for those who have the humility and good sense to read it. Pelikan's little book, like his big books, can't be ignored by those whose profession requires of them to check their id'ees fixes against the toughest available tests.

Pelikan's pages on Augustine make his case for the uniqueness and universality of Jesus brilliantly and unforgettably: ``reasoning backward from the cure to the diagnosis,'' Augustine discovered that the idea of original sin was ``not only a way of speaking about the misery of humanity, but a means of recognizing and praising the uniqueness of Jesus.'' And, he concludes, ``[Augustine] found the knowledge of the grace of Christ unintelligible without the knowledge of original sin, but he also saw t hat the knowledge of original sin was unbearable without a knowledge of the grace of Christ.'' Some self-styled fundamentalists feel an education in Christ begins with ``belief in hell.'' They should read Pelikan.

The book ends by noting the paradox that the decline of organized religion in our time has not been paralleled by a decline in the influence of Jesus. Quite the contrary. His image -- indeed, his example -- is much on our minds. Jesus has survived the death of God which was announced, after Hegel and Nietzsche, by the liberal theologians of our times.

The ultimate effect of Pelikan's gracious little masterpiece on this situation, which is becoming increasingly contentious, should, I think, give new meaning to the old image of Jesus as the Prince of Peace.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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