Books: March-April 2004

March 31, 2004

 

A Serious Way of Wondering:  The Ethics of Jesus ImaginedA Serious Way of Wondering:
The Ethics of Jesus Imagined
By Reynolds Price '55. Scribner, 2003.
147 pages. $23.


Leaders of this magazine need no introduction to the author, so long and so congenial has been his association with Duke as a student and long time professor, and so well established is his reputation as an award-winning belletrist. Among his many works are some that express the posture declared in the first line of this book: "Though I am not a churchgoer, for more than sixty years I've read widely in the life and teachings of Jesus; and since at least the age of nine, I've considered myself a Christian." Price's approach to Jesus, then, is personal and even passionate, but it is also unconstrained by any specific tradition apart from the one he has constructed from wide and eclectic reading on his subject.

His writings on Jesus emerge from his cultural location (he is, after all, a Southern Writer), intense life-experience (more alluded to here than described), and years of teaching a seminar at Duke on the Gospels of Mark and John. Lectures at Harvard's Memorial Church and at the National Cathedral in Washington form the basis of this slender volume. To these presentations have been added a preface, "numerous passages of reflection and unorthodox theology," some recommendations for further reading, and, as lagniappe, two poems.

The book begins with position-taking with respect to the historical Jesus. Price first offers a reasonable epitome of the plot of the Gospel, drawn from the canonical narratives, and then a set of "discordant voices" concerning the historical accuracy of this portrayal. He turns next to Jesus' message. In "A Question More Likely than it Looks," he uses the popular slogan, "What Would Jesus Do," as a way of thinking about Jesus as moral exemplar. In "The Core of His Ethic and Ways to Employ It," he discusses what he--with many others, to be sure--regards as Jesus' central demand, the love of God and the love of neighbor.

Building on these preliminary musings, which, though sober and responsible enough are neither innovative nor particularly incisive--as so many others who claim to have read widely in New Testament scholarship, Price cherry-picks opinions without serious engagement with the critical issues--he offers three fictional "speculations" that are freshly constructed and that form the frame of his "serious way of wondering."

The first speculation imagines a scene between "Jesus and a homosexual man." The man is Judas, and the encounter takes place after Jesus' resurrection. The second scene also involves Judas: "Jesus and a suicide" depicts a meeting between Jesus and his betrayer after the resurrection. The third speculation is placed within Jesus' ministry and continues the canonical account found in John 8:1-3: "Jesus and a desolate woman" recounts the conversation following Jesus' dismissal of the adulterous woman's accusers.

These fictional scenes are so brief and allusive that it is difficult to know quite what to make of them. They certainly do not appear in any obvious way to be advancing an argument concerning the law of love as the heart of Jesus' ethic. Perhaps because he is essentially a creator of fiction who is occasionally surprised at his own characters, Price seems himself unsure of the point of his creations. "In self-defense of my own patent fictions, I can at least point out that the risen Jesus offers Judas no endorsement of Judas' yearning for a passionate bond between them; that the risen Jesus' readiness to help the desolate Judas hang himself is quicker than I might have hoped for; and his dialogue with the woman caught in adultery lances an abscess of solitary dread in the earthly Jesus that I hadn't foreseen his revealing to anyone before his last night."

In the final sections of the book--"An Outlaw Christian" and "The Law of Grace: Grace All Ways"--Price offers his own constructive improvement to Jesus' ethic in terms more normative than his fictional evocations. He finds the human Jesus insufficiently evolved because he combines the command to love with terrifying threats of punishment for evildoers. Price prefers a consistent compassion and thinks that one effect of the resurrection might have been that Jesus' vision might have grown to one closer to Price's own. He offers three propositions as a more satisfying summation of Jesus' ethic: "Love your neighbor as yourself; feed my sheep; and do not resist an evil person." Jesus' command to love God, he notes, is implicit in all three of these moral directives.

While such a purely compassionate image of Jesus certainly has its appeal, the reader must nevertheless wonder what Price might have done with other possible scenarios: Jesus with the Racist Man, for example, or Jesus with the Child-Molesting Pastor, or Jesus and the Oppressing Landowner. Would either the earthly or the risen Jesus have shown nothing but compassion in such conversations? Price's fantasy Jesus lacks any prophetic edge and is reduced to an ineffectual if somewhat comforting presence to the troubled but sensitive individual--come to think of it, that's exactly the Jesus most Christians seem to prefer. Price might find himself more at home in a middle-class Methodist church than he thinks.

Admirers of Price's prose will undoubtedly enjoy the easy and amiable style of this long essay, and those fascinated by his life will perhaps discover things about him they had not known before. As for the way Price imagines the ethics of Jesus, it may be a way of wondering, but it is not, ultimately, really serious.


On the Sweet Spot: Stalking the Effortless PresentOn the Sweet Spot: Stalking the Effortless Present
By Richard Keefe.
Simon and Schuster, 2003.
272 pages. $25.


When you're in The Zone, those who've been there say, the baseball looks as big as a basketball. The basket seems so wide, you can't possibly miss. Golf balls remain the size of hail, but they fly straight and true. There's a lake of stew and of whiskey, too/You can paddle all around 'em in a big canoe/In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

No, really. In this inquisitive and useful book, Richard Keefe gives a guided tour of The Zone (which, incidentally, he discovered years ago at a golf driving range above a New Jersey landfill). Keefe, who is Duke's director of sport psychology, offers lessons and insights that, happily, aren't restricted to college athletes or weekend warriors who hone their swings atop a giant mound of toxic waste. Keefe calls it the "effortless present," a mysterious place where the mantra is now-here-this. Whether you realize it or not, you've been there, too. When you find yourself typing without looking at the keys or reading a magazine without thinking about the individual letters, you're at least in the suburbs of The Zone. Getting there is literally like riding a bike. If only it were that simple.

Athletes know how difficult it is to reach a state of mind and body in which action and reaction seem to happen automatically. "Stay within yourself," they say. But how? Just thinking about it can ruin the flow of a free throw (ask Shaq about that) or turn a sweet swing sour (hola, Alfonso Soriano).

That day on the landfill, Keefe relates, he felt as if those perfect 250-yard drives were hitting themselves. It was a blissful sensation, and of course it didn't last. Soon he was back to his old ways, doubting his abilities and cursing himself for his mistakes. The moment nagged at him, though, throughout his studies in psychology and his years of practice. He wondered: Are there directions to The Zone?

It's not exactly MapQuest, but physiology provides plenty of clues. According to a brain-imaging study Keefe cites, professional piano players don't actually think about tickling the ivories. When, say, "Professor" Roy Bittan, pianist for the E Street Band, sits down to play "Jungleland," the neurons are firing in his motor cortex or cerebellum, sectors associated with mechanical motion rather than consciousness. If you could do a similar study of J.J. Redick on a good night, the results might be the same.

What's more, according to Keefe, simply imagining yourself doing something can light up the areas of the brain you'll need to actually do what you have in mind. This "visualization" is a kind of mental practice that many athletes use to get themselves into The Zone. You may have heard about the pro golfer who "plays" the round, shot by shot, in his head before approaching the first tee, or the pitcher who considers his strategy for each hitter, inning by inning, hours before he steps onto the mound. By doing so, he's warming up his neural pathways before he warms up his arm, increasing the likelihood that he'll wind up in the effortless present.

This is one of several tools you can use to navigate your own way there, no matter what your goal. Routines, repetition, and the relaxation and focus provided by meditation are also high on Keefe's list. "This is how the adage 'practice makes perfect' really works," he writes. "The more you do something, the more the brain changes to devote its energy to that function."

How about those stray negative thoughts that always seem to get in the way? Keefe advises athletes not to fear them but to focus on them and then let them go, calmly switching mental channels until a more positive image comes into focus. The brain, in his view, is an instrument that, properly tuned, can transcend place, pressure, or arm-waving Cameron Crazies (no wonder there's a gigantic blurb on the cover from Dean Smith).

The whole concept of sports psychology can get pretty muddy and off-putting. Keefe does bog down at times in psychobabble. But his self-deprecating tone is relentlessly appealing, and the mad dash he takes through the history of humanity, sports, and his own life helps keep the narrative moving. Plus, you have to appreciate any writer who can manage to paraphrase Nelson Mandela and the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti in the same paragraph, without coming off as pretentious.

On the Sweet Spot hooks you early; it's full of hope and wonder to the end. But don't stop there. The acknowledgments at the back of the book contain a shocker that's worthy of Edmund Morris--kind of a Dutch treat. It's an odd but somehow fitting way to end the travelogue of a place that does, yet does not, exist.