"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Pithy Question

The Gospels are pithy, why expand them? is Rupert Shortt's objection to Walter Wangerin's Jesus: A Novel (Zondervan) in Times Lit Supplement of 3/17/06. "None . . . is a biography of Jesus, still less a neutral report. . . . The four evangelists all fashioned their sources [sic] with great ingenuity to substantiate prior convictions about Christ's divine mission. Their writing was pithy, as well as skilful. Mark's text, the shortest, omits almost everything considered inessential to the message of salvation."

"Christ himself is all brilliance or defiance" here, says Shortt, TLS religion editor and formerly asst. ed. of The Tablet, the British Catholic weekly. "In brief, the message lacks nuance." If this novel is aimed at non-believers, asks Shortt, the "tautness" of the Gospels themselves are more likely to convince them. To paraphrase Shortt's argument, if the risen Lazarus can appear to sinners without effect -- Luke 16:19-31: "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead," Abraham told Dives, the rich man in hell -- why would "adding fat" to the original "well-chiseled body" of Scripture, as Shortt puts it, convince them?

Shortt approaches the Gospels as a work of art, or at least finely honed craft. I applaud this and understand expanding a text, as in Wangerin's book, as spelling out its meaning. An expansion says more than the original, and obviously there's room for that. Wangerin, a prolific writer on such matters, seems excellently qualified to do that. But it's tricky nonetheless.

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