The Common Good
January-February 1997

The Gospel Passion

by Rose Marie Berger | January-February 1997

Reynolds Price's story of good news.

One night in the summer of 1985, I was stretched out in a banged up old rowboat listening to the branches of eucalyptus trees nudge each other in the breeze, and resting in that sweet rocking motion made by night wind on water. Just past midnight the stars began to wink out. Quickly I was caught in the midst of a full-fledged squall. The shore was close so I wasn't in danger, but the speed and ferocity of the storm are something I will never forget. I'll also never forget that it happened on the Sea of Galilee.

There have been times in my life when the Holy Writ passed down to me these last 2,000 years suddenly gets the dust blown out of it and comes frighteningly to life—sometimes in a situation like the one above and sometimes on the S2 bus headed home from work. Those moments are steps in my journey of conversion, and send me running back to scripture to see if the words I remember there are really true.

In Reynolds Price's Three Gospels I met a kindred soul. In the preface he writes, "Reading the gospels, in whatever language or era, is the same perilous and incessantly demanding transaction that we conduct by the moment with our nearest kin and loved ones. What do you mean? How have I failed you? What do you demand of me?" Social customs and worldviews aside, an elemental spark in the human dialogue lives on in the scriptures. Price has spent most of his life celebrating and investigating that spark.

Simply put, Three Gospels is Price's "close and thoroughly plain translations of the two entirely original gospels—Mark and John, with prefatory essays—and a modern gospel written [by Price] on the basis of the classic ancient four, other early documents pertaining to Jesus, reading widely in the recently revived attempts by scholars to provide a minimally reliable history of Jesus' life and work." In Price we have both rigorous academic and passionate poet bringing all his skill and art to bear on the most significant texts the world has ever known.

When exploring "new" translations of the old familiars, I usually take a most un-intellectual approach. I flip to some of my favorite passages to see if the new translation provides the same chilling thrill. One example from Mark's gospel is the reaction of the family and servants when Jesus says "Talitha koum" to Jairus' daughter. My favorite King James version says, "and they were astonished with a great astonishment"; the New Revised Standard says, "they were overcome with amazement"; Reynolds Price's version is, "and at once they were astonished with great wildness." I get goosebumps when I read it.

PRICE'S WORK ON the gospel of John is equally stunning, although the real revelations come in the prefatory notes. Here Price unveils the power of John bar Zebedee. "If two thousand years of pious handling had not dimmed both John's story and its demand, his gospel would still be seen as the burning outrage it continues to be, a work of madness or blinding revelation....Does John's gospel bring us a life-transforming truth; or is it one gifted lunatic's tale of another lunatic, wilder than he?"

Price writes that he could not fully understand the gospel of John in his youth. He says it's an "old man's book" written at the end of John's life, full of reflections on the long strange trip his life had been. Price probes the depths and shallows of an old man's memories.

The third "gospel" comes from an assignment Price gives in his New Testament class at Duke University. Using the four canonical gospels and other reliable texts of the time, students write a version of the life of Jesus.

Many students choose to write it from the point of view of the women in the narrative. A little snippet from Price's completion of his own assignment, "An Honest Account of a Memorable Life," is as follows: "At the end of the meal, Mary came forward with a pound of expensive perfumed ointment. She wiped Jesus' feet with it and dried them with her hair. The splendid odor filled the whole house....Judas was plainly indignant....But Jesus said 'You'll have the poor with you always but not me. Let Mary be. She'll keep the remainder to sweeten my corpse.' No one but Jesus smiled."

In "Our Life at the Foot of the Mountain: Sojourners Community's Statement of Faith," it is written, "If people of faith are to stay true to the mission of Christ in the world, we must be in constant dialogue with the Word of God. We must place the Word in the most intimate and tender center of our lives. We must always touch the face of God before we stretch out our hands to the work of the world, and we must reach back to God again and again. In this way is the passionate, consuming imagination of God borne forward." Price's Three Gospels gives song to that "constant dialogue."

Review of Three Gospels. By Reynolds Price. Scribner, 1996.

ROSE MARIE BERGER is a former Sojourners intern who now directs Sojourners Internship Program. In addition, she is a pastor of Sojourners Community in Washington, D.C., and a part-time groundskeeper.

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