If you’ve endured the bohemian existential farce Jesus Christ Superstar, you may recall the title song’s ostensibly rhetorical question: “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, who are you? What have you sacrificed?” While Superstar wallows in campy skepticism, at least it voices a desire written on every human heart: the yearning to encounter Christ.
Finding a comprehensible primer in Christology usually results in a dry recitation of dogma à la the manualists or a cafeteria-style reduction disguised as an impassioned interpretation — say, “the wisdom Jesus” or “the real Jesus of history.”
Filling this gap is the compact yet comprehensive new volume Jesus 101 by John L. Gresham, theology professor at Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis. Gresham begins with common questions — such as “Why didn’t Jesus write a book?” — answering them with distinctly Catholic character by drawing richly on Scripture, Tradition and magisterial documents. The second chapter, in which Gresham examines the names and titles ascribed to Jesus in Scripture, is worth the whole book, for its scholarly elucidation of how such differing ideas of God were consummated and surpassed by Jesus’ entrance into history. Further chapters illumine the events of Christ’s life, the early heresies and councils about him, and how he entrusts his life’s mission to the Church.
Calm yet confident, Gresham confronts in each chapter contemporary questions facing Christology, including the all-too-prevalent quest for the “historical Jesus.” With concise poise, Gresham exhibits how these questers’ own assumptions lead to fractured theology that emphasizes discontinuity, elitism and interchangeability — some of the darkest hallmarks of Gnosticism.
Catholicism, Gresham counters, offers the beauty of continuity and concord among the person of Christ who enters and transforms history, the liturgy, apostolic witness, and the unfolding of grace through the sanctification of time.
For not only does Jesus fulfill the prophecies of the seed of Abraham, the new Moses and the Davidic Messiah, Gresham argues, but he embodies, too, the high priest of Melchizedek, Isaiah’s suffering servant and Daniel’s Son of Man. As much as early believers and even enemies wanted Jesus to be limited to “their” Christ, Jesus breathes the Spirit into all these typologies. Gresham goes further: Jesus fulfilled the Scriptures in surprising, unexpected ways, going beyond what human reason could imagine, especially in his near-immediate, bodily resurrection.
Catholics will smile with nostalgia when they recognize this “both/and” approach, and they will marvel at how reasonable Gresham makes the paradox of faith appear. For instance, speaking of how Christ is present in so many degrees in the Mass, Gresham reminds us that we, too, do not stand fixed in time and place: “Risen from the dead, Jesus now offers to each and every person the opportunity to share in this event by which we are saved from death and raised to new life. It is primarily through the liturgy, by participating in the sacraments and prayer of the Church, that we become contemporaries of Jesus.”
Near the end of the book, Gresham provides a diagram of the Christological truths and their “out of bounds” heresies. Such visual aids are indispensable for teachers and students alike; I’d like to see more of them. A scriptural index, too, would have been welcome.
These are quibbles, however, compared to what Gresham accomplishes: a pellucid, enlivening introduction to the Son of the living God. Encountering Christ, we can dispel our superstar doubts and declare: You are who you say you are.
Register correspondent Stephen Mirarchi, Ph.D., writes from Tampa.
God and Man
by John L. Gresham
Liguori Publications, 2010
144 pages, $15.99
To order: Liguori.org