Two Different Books Provide Two Different Views

June is here, and it’s one of the best times to catch up on reading while relaxing or on vacation. Since religion is a booming field in book publishing these days, here are two widely differing attempts to explain Christianity. These books might appeal to you as the days get longer and  lazier.

The first is “Honest to Jesus: Jesus for a New Millennium” by Robert W. Funk (Harper San Francisco, 1966), a well-known scholar of the Bible and founder of the Jesus Seminar. The Jesus Seminar is an annual gathering of scholars who attempt to establish which events recorded in the New Testament actually occurred.

Funk shares with readers the following controversial principles behind his investigation:

n “I am more interested in what Jesus thought about God’s domain than I am in what Peter … and Paul … thought about Jesus.”

n “Jesus caught a glimpse of what the world is really like when you look at it with God’s eyes. He endeavored to pass that glimpse along in disturbing short stories (parables) … But he did not spell out what he meant.”

n “The New Testament conceals the real Jesus as frequently as it reveals him.”

In chapter two Funk sets out his task. He suggests that “Christianity as we know it did not originate with Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was not the first Christian.” Funk wants to distinguish “the religion of Jesus from the religion about Jesus.”

Then follows a careful explanation of the problems inherent when attempting to study a book – in which he means the Bible in this case – written millennia ago in several foreign languages. He suggests it is a mistake to concentrate on only the historically accepted books; we should also study the many other ancient accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus, even if they weren’t adopted as scripture by the early church. For example, the Gnostic gospels have been in the news lately because of the recent release of the movie “The Da Vinci Code.”

For committed, orthodox Christians, “Honest to Jesus: Jesus for a New Millennium” might seem like heresy – denying the biblical truths passed down through centuries.  But people who would like a new, different perspective on Jesus might find this book an interesting and thoughtful approach to a significant topic.

Contrasting to Funk’s modernism is a title put out by John Wiley and Sons, publisher of a popular book series attempting to explain difficult things to ordinary readers.  Originally focused on  computers and technology, the titles have now ranged far afield to include “Christianity for Dummies” (2004). 

Author Richard Wagner – a committed, evangelical Christian – says his purpose is to tell “people who are curious about Christianity … exactly what it means to be a Christian.” Despite Wagner’s attempts at objectivity, many Christians might disagree with some of his interpretations.

The first three parts of the book are fairly conventional basic explanations of Christian history and doctrine: the problem of sin, God’s gift of grace and the historical development of denominations. 

In part four, which discusses Christian living in a postmodern world, Wagner discusses issues facing Christians today – such as war, evolution, abortion and capital punishment. His perspective is “biblical Christianity,” but he doesn’t acknowledge there are other understandings of the role of the Bible that have led other Christians to very different conclusions.

“Christianity for Dummies” is a useful reference work. It ends with a section that highlights Christian holidays, explores Christian figures who have been important in history, and concludes with a glossary providing definitions of “Christian jargon” such as “prayer warrior,” “resurrection” and “speaking in tongues.”

Chuck Flagg teaches English at Mt. Madonna High School. Write to him at P.O. Box 22365, Gilroy, Calif. 95021.