Friday, June 12, 2015

Book Review: When Jesus Came to Harvard: Making Moral Choices Today


For 15 years, author Harvey Cox designed and taught a course intended to make Jesus relevant to Harvard students. That course became so popular that classes had to move to a theater setting. His premise: Jesus was a rabbi and needs to be understood against the backdrop of Jewish law and the day's religious practices; however Jesus’ life and message continues to be relevant.

According to Cox, Jesus style of teaching was similar to that of other rabbis. They responded to questions with anecdotes or with other questions designed to make people think. People are generally more motivated by storytelling than by stated principles, hence Jesus emphasis on parables.

I did not agree with Cox’s position on some biblical points. He de-emphasizes the virgin birth, preferring to stress “the divine fatherhood.” He justifies his approach by saying the virgin birth is difficult for modern students to grasp. He takes some of Jesus’ stories as meant for his time, rather than to be taken literally. He asserts Jesus’ temptation is really about which leadership style he will chose. I did not understand that connection.

But I learned a great deal reading this thought-provoking book. For instance, Cox states that the Sermon on the Mount is meant to guide people living in community under the reign of God. He points out analogies Jesus makes, such as calling followers “light of the world,” which Cox sees as a calculated mockery of Rome, since Cicero described Rome as “the light of the whole world.” Cox views Palm Sunday as a political move—a display of nonviolent rebellion, since it involved a public entry into the seat of established authority.

Cox has little time for dispensational theology, such as that described in the Left Behind series. He devotes a chapter to Jesus’ words from the cross, “For they know not what they do,” and ponders the complexity behind the phrase.

For some years, Cox wrote, he did not teach about the resurrection of Christ because he wasn’t sure of his own opinion. But he finally sees it as God’s victory of life over death, good over evil. He admits uncertainty about his view of the Second Coming and considers whether it might mean simply an appearing of one who has been here all along.

The book is a worthwhile read because it challenges you to think through what you believe. Where do you agree with the author? Where do you disagree? His conversations with students and their reactions to his teaching shed light on the mindset of people today. As Cox relates world events such as the torture of Jesus to the torture of prisoners today, students (and readers) grapple with moral issues.

Cox’s discussion sessions pushed students to articulate positions and examine convictions. By discussing everything from medical procedures to ecology, from genetics to death and dying, from conflict to medical procedures, Cox challenges readers to do likewise. Notes and an index conclude the book.


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