BOOK REVIEW: The Gospel According to H. L. Hix

REVIEW of THE GOSPEL According to H. L. Hix

Reading The Gospel, According to H. L. Hix is a profoundly personal experience. Much will depend on whether the reader is Christian, and what kind of Christian, or someone to whom Jesus is not a central figure in their culture and belief.

Hix draws on an array of extra-biblical sources to provide context and a new perspective on the life of Jesus, resulting in a disorienting and sometimes heretical tale. The parables, miracles, characters, and historical facts are familiar, but details from sources outside the Bible will challenge the conclusions or opinions drawn from them.

Anyone who has spent a Christmas in Jerusalem knows that what we celebrate as Christmas bears no resemblance to the Jerusalem and Bethlehem that famous art works and our classic Christmas carols depict. Similarly, today’s Jesus is all things to all people. He crosses the Jordan River to campground, wilts on the cross, or is the rousing spirit of the Hallelujah Chorus. The sparseness of fact in the Bible allows each worshipper, artist, or scholar to fill in the empty spaces. The New Testament itself is a compilation of writings chosen many centuries after Jesus’s crucifixion, and the familiar King James version is just that, a version.

Hix sacrifices flowing poetic line to make intellectual points. When Martha tells Jesus that her brother Lazarus has died, she says, “Boss, if you’d been here, my brother wouldn’t have died,” and Jesus says, “Your brother will stand back up” which lacks the sonority of “Your brother will rise again.” “I am the resurrection and the life,” is translated, “I am the standing up and the life,” a more ordinary interpretation.  Lord is translated as boss; heaven is in the skies, and there are several words of which the meaning remains unclear to this reader, two of them being breath and visitant.

Under even the most concrete words such as oak or table, there are layers of meaning. The Greek word kirios was translated in King James’s time as lord, a word having connotations of nobility that don’t exist today. Hix’s chosen translation boss carries its own freight; for example, a black man calling a white man boss would carry a weighty extra layer of meaning in today’s America. To further complicate things, Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written, so there’s another linguistic puzzle: Aramaic to Greek to Old English to Modern English. Certain linguistic assumptions are required, and Hix has done his best to bring the reader close to the original meaning. Looking to modern Aramaic, still spoken in the Middle East, does not help much because the language is even farther removed from Jesus’s language than Chaucer’s language is from modern English.

Hix’s most jarring linguistic innovation is treating Jesus as inter-gender. He contends that a holy, even godlike, figure such as Jesus is meant to be a universal icon and whoever you are, however you identify, the words and acts of Jesus apply to you. He uses the pronouns xe, xer, xers, xon instead of son, also fother and mather. The intellectual argument is evident—Jesus rejected the boundaries that confined cultural thinking, even the boundary between life and death, still, my sensibilities were jangled. Every time I saw xe instead of he, I had to think twice, and that is the point.

The New Testament provides a skeletal outline of Jesus’s life, but leaves out critical information.  Jesus’s radical compassion becomes more understandable, for example, after learning that his  father, Joseph, was known for his charitable works and universal good will, and his mother, Mary, was born holy and performed miracles even as a child. No surprise that the person they raised turned out as he did. The details of Mary’s arrival in Joseph’s household reveal the culture they were living in.

Mary, Joseph, the Wise Men, the healings, the promise of salvation, the Beatitudes, and so on, are garnished with other stories which give far wider context. Mr. Hix is not afraid to introduce versions of the Jesus story that are unfriendly to the canon. Jesus was born in a cave, not a manger (though what the heck is a manger? Have you ever seen one?) The Wise Men arrived when Jesus was two years old. Our version of Jesus is like the game of Telephone, where the story is elaborated upon, condensed, and interpreted as it goes around the table, and this story went around the table for a few centuries before it coalesced into the Bible.

Jesus is not presented as the sweet, half-smiling character so familiar in Western art. He’s rough, with a volatile temper. At one point, Jesus “was walking through town and a boy running by bumped against xer shoulder.  Irritated, Jesus said to him, You won’t run on this street anymore. Immediately, the child dropped dead.”  The people in the town where he killed the child tell him to get the hell out of there, and Jesus responds by blinding them. This dude doesn’t fool around. He shouts at people, hits them, confronts, and offends them.

Jesus is unsparing, saying, “I have come from above to provoke…” To his potential disciples (Hix calls them apprentices or envoys), he says “Unless you lose the world, you will not find the realm,” forbidding them to return to their families, even to bury their dead, instructing them to keep nothing, not even a walking stick.” Buddhist teachings also instruct that all suffering is caused by attachment, thus all human and material ties must be jettisoned. Like mendicant Buddhist monks, Jesus’s apprentices are instructed to depend on the goodness of ordinary citizens for their food.

He makes promises. “Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me. I will become that person, and the hidden things will be revealed to that person.” Unless such a heady promise were attached to an uncompromising, blunt command to leave all attachments behind, it might be flaccid, but this Jesus is far from weak. Yes, you can have all the good stuff, but you bloody well better be ready to deal with the consequences of having it. He demands obedience.

Sometimes small details convey a sweeping meaning. Jesus goes to Capernaum and a huge crowd gathers. Four people arrive carrying a paralyzed man on a stretcher and when they are unable to get through the crowd, “they took to the roof, creating an opening through which they let the stretcher down.” A familiar healing story takes on piquant extra meaning with that detail. Seeing such fanaticism on the part of Jesus’s followers, it’s no wonder that Herod and the Pharisees were worried.

Every page reveals a Jesus who does not win by humility, but by blunt honesty, muscular (even physical) confrontation, and uncompromising confidence. The magic is there: water to wine, death to life, sickness to health, so Hix’s version does not sidestep the necessity of faith. Faith in the word is the only way to eternal life—Christian doctrine is consistent.

Jesus is also a skillful manager. He delegates, sending his envoys, into communities before he arrives, warming up the crowd. He also asks them to spread the word in places where he cannot or doesn’t want to go. He says, “When they persecute you in this city, migrate to that.” Run toward the danger.

This Jesus is exciting, galvanizing, real. He may love the wrongdoer but if that person doesn’t get off his ass and change his ways, Jesus will leave him in the dust. “Don’t think I’ve come to bring peace to the earth; I have come to bring not peace but a sword…. One who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy…  Death and life are offered everyone; the one they want, they choose.” Tough love.

Did you know that Jesus had a sense of humor? In response to a complaint that he’s not paying his taxes, Jesus tells his apprentices to “go to the sea, and toss in a hook. In the mouth of the first fish you catch, you’ll find a coin; take it to them as the tax for you and me.” Haha.

The first section of the book, Jesus’s birth and family, contains new information,. The  meaty part of the book contains enhanced versions of the familiar healings, parables, and history. The final section, the fleshed-out story of Jesus’s predicted death, of his grief, apostasy, and power has suspense and pathos. As the story progresses, he becomes more blunt and demanding—believe in me or forego everlasting life. Period. He speaks in koans, confusing opposites. The scene of Lazarus emerging from his grave is a dramatic ghost story. “The dead man came out, his feet and hands wound with rags and his face covered with a cloth”—a Frankenstein-like image.

The tale intensifies as Jesus again and again eludes arrest, while knowing he will soon be killed. Martin Luther King’s speech predicted his death, too, and re-hearing his speech the night before he died adds the same kind of pathos and power to his suffering.

As his pursuers come ever closer, Jesus and his followers sing and dance, assume disguises, and move to a new place every day, but their courage flags, their unity dissipates, and Jesus is captured, tried, tortured, and crucified. Most Westerners know that story, but here we get to know Judas, Peter, Pilate, and Mary better. The story becomes more relevant to the modern world; we know people like them.

The details confirming that Jesus was Jewish are sprinkled throughout. Dietary laws, observing the Sabbath, the prophesies of the Old Testament, and so on, provide the common ground upon which the people around Jesus meet.

Reaction to this book will tailor itself to the upbringing and beliefs of each reader, but it is unlikely that any reader, whether Christian or not, will remain unchanged after reading it.

The magic—healings, mind reading, foretelling of the future—remains a mystery to be digested by each reader. There are many contradictions of the modern version of Christianity. Male and female are of equal value, Jesus drinks wine (raised a Christian Scientist, this fact again struck me, as Christian Science demands abstinence from liquor while otherwise following the words of Jesus), loses his temper, has siblings, mentions gender dysphoria, and trashes the authorities (with the exception of the fother). A person of faith will probably already have made peace with these contradictions; for all others, it doesn’t make any more difference than whether they believe them any more than if they believe Scylla and Charybdis or the monster in Beowulf were real. However the story is parsed on a religious level, the charisma, intelligence, humor, courage, and power of Hix’s Jesus is unforgettable.