For nearly 20 years, Christian theologian Harvey Cox has taught a popular course titled "Jesus and the Moral Life" to Harvard undergraduates aged 17-22. We have waited patiently for him to write about his experiences, sharing his ideas about the life of the Galilean rabbi whose words and deeds are recounted in the four Gospels. Cox, the author of The Secular City, The Feast of Fools, The Seduction of the Spirit, Fire from Heaven, and Common Prayer, doesn't disappoint us. In this thought-provoking and soul-stirring volume, he relates the stories of Jesus and stories about him to some of the most nettlesome ethical and moral conundrums of our times including genetics, money, intergenerational conflict, medical procedures, race, ecology, torture, violence and nonviolence, leadership styles, and death and dying. Cox remains the compleat theologian able to move in and out of different religious traditions without losing touch with his Christian roots. He lets light in from all directions. He brings to this multileveled consideration of Jesus and the multilingual contemporary scene an informed sensitivity, sharpened discrimination, and an ethically awakened conscience.
While teaching his course, Cox discovered that Jesus is not the sole possession of the Christian community. Many Jewish students recognized him as a fellow Jew whose views were often in sync with the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. Buddhists thought of him as a bodhissatva, one who gave of himself for the benefit of others. Muslims shared that the man from Nazareth is one of the prophets reverenced in the Qur'an. Many students were familiar with the depiction of Jesus as a rock star in Webber and Rice's musical Jesus Christ Superstar, the clown in the play Godspell, and the husband of Mary Magdalene in The Da Vinci Code.
But as Cox began to talk about various incidents in the Bible the temptations in the desert and the start of his ministry as a rabbi in his hometown many students struggled to relate Jesus' words and actions in the past to the complex and thorny issues of their present lives. For instance, they found the directive "Do not be anxious about tomorrow" hard to swallow. In a culture where concern about the future is constant and date books or Palm Pilots are a necessity, the ideal of living gratefully in the present moment struck them as a moral choice they could not make.
Cox discusses many of the 60 parables of Jesus and emphasizes their capacity to shock and dash our expectations. These stories allude to the inbreaking kingdom of God and the changes that are part and parcel of it. The author challenges us to see traditional Biblical stories with fresh eyes. We especially appreciated his creative takes on the visit of the wise men, the massacre of the innocents, the flight of Jesus' family into exile in Egypt, the healing stories, Palm Sunday, and the Resurrection. The secret of understanding the relevance of Jesus to contemporary issues, Cox states, is to use our imaginations to enter the situation he is discussing and empathize with those he describes, similar to the way the Jews have used the Midrash and Catholics have used the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. These approaches yield a lively and salutary alternative understanding to the just-the-facts obsession of our society.
Cox's in-depth treatment of the Sermon on the Mount is one of the book's high points as he challenges students to consider making moral choices in light of Jesus' preferential treatment of the poor, his understanding of peace, and his love of enemies. Cox also has some piercing ideas about the study of the historical Jesus, the immensely popular Left Behind series, impersonality as "one of our gravest moral dilemmas," and why Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison stands as "one of the most buoyant and life-affirming documents in all Christian literature." You will find yourself returning again and again to When Jesus Came to Harvard to re-explore its treasures and epiphanies. It is one of the best books of the year and a gift you will want to share with your spiritual companions.