Recently, I’ve spent quite a bit of time with Charles Dickens’s least-read work: The Life of Our Lord. It is a slim volume that re-tells the story of Jesus, drawing much of its language directly from the gospels. As I wrote in my post last month, despite Dickens’s textual fidelity, his Jesus is utterly unlike the one in the Bible simply because he edits out any troubling, difficult or complicated passages, thereby reducing Jesus to a glowing figure in white robes. I could go into the narrative theory as to why Dickens’s Jesus is such a boring failure but I’ll spare you, dear reader, those tedious details and get to the point: the reason Dickens’s Jesus is so flat, so boring as a character is because readers have no point of connection with him, no point for sympathy or identification with him in his unchanging goodness. In all his holy perfection, Dickens’s Jesus is an alien creature.
Dickens’s failure has made me wonder, what is it that makes a narrative portrayal of Jesus successful? Why do some Jesuses come jumping off the page while others are flat icons into static ideals? One thing I’ve noticed so far is that many of the vibrant, intriguing Jesuses come in the stories of other people—in other words, Jesus is more interesting when we hear about him second-hand than when we read about him directly. Think about it: Dostoyevski’s famous “Grand Inquisitor” has Jesus sitting silent through the entire episode, with his character becoming increasingly compelling with each word the Inquisitor utters; we see Jesus through the Inquisitor. Or in The Shack (not necessarily a great book but a recent and popular one), we see Jesus through Mack’s sort of dream-vision. Or, in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (a bit of a stretch, but I’m going for works we all might know, as opposed to Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet), we see Aslan through the children’s eyes. It is as if we can’t quite look straight at Jesus but have to look at him “slant,” as Emily Dickinson puts it, sideways, through the eyes of another character whose perceptions we trust. Through a sort of literary evangelism, our sympathy with one character gives us eyes to see Jesus.
More importantly, this appears to be the way that we see Jesus best in real life, too. Rodney Stark has argued that the reason Christianity spread in the first centuries is two-fold. The first is that Christians had higher birth and survival rates than other groups in the first century, because of their views on contraception, adoption, and caring for the sick (which led to higher survival rates when the plague would sweep through town). The second, linked reason is because Christians cared for their non-believing neighbors during disasters like plague outbreaks. As a result, people who were not previously interested in Jesus came to find Christian faith compelling. In other words, Christianity spreads when people see Jesus’ teachings being lived out in the lives of their friends, families, and neighbors. (And by Jesus‘ teachings, I mean teachings along the lines of “I’m going to risk my life for you by nursing you through the plague,” not “I’m going to listen condescendingly to your pitiful problems and then give you some very moralistic advice over lunch about drinking less and reading the Bible more.”)
In the end, arguments over evolution, the reliability of the biblical text and its proper interpretation, the problem of evil and the like are not what keep us from faith or bring us to faith. We see Jesus through the lives of his followers. We come to Jesus because of and through the faith of others.