This 1975 book is essentially a beautiful 191-page essay by Malcolm Muggeridge, giving us his take on the Gospels. Now, when you think about it, those four mini-biographies of Jesus are together the most important 80,000 written words (the length of a quite short novel) we humans have, and of course Muggeridge is one of the most entertaining and insightful writers of the past century, in addition to being one of the most prominent Christian intellectuals. So you’d expect a treat here — and you get one. The London Times called the book “Muggeridge’s masterpiece, the greatest achievement of his life as a writer.” And, regarding the unsurpassed importance of the Gospels, Muggeridge himself observes (165), “[M]any, many books about what Jesus did have veritably been written, though the world still manages to contain them — just — and many more no doubt will be written; but taken together, they are only like the basketsful gathered up after the five thousand had been fed. The basic provender, the five barley loaves and two fishes, are, and ever will remain, the Gospels themselves.”
The three parts to the book correspond to the divisions commonly made in the Gospel narratives, namely pre-ministry events; Jesus’ ministry up until His final visit to Jerusalem (this part ends with a moving discussion of “What does loving God mean?” (132-34)); and His last ministry there and subsequent betrayal, arrest, trial, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and post-Resurrection appearances. The book includes about fifty religious art reproductions, with a Gospel verse (in the King James Version) as the caption.
Muggeridge dedicates the book to Alec Vidler, an Anglo-Catholic priest who was his close friend and coauthor with him of another book based on a television series (favorably reviewed on this blogsite here). There is no index and no headings.
Muggeridge takes plenty of shots at today’s world, especially its Marxism (the book was written when the Cold War was hot) and secularism (which has gotten only worse). In the latter regard, it is amusing and appropriate that he capitalizes “Media,” as if it were a pagan god. Regarding the former, I hasten to add that he is happy to criticize the Right as well as the Left; for that matter, while the book’s epigraph quotes St. Augustine (“I write this book for love of your love”), he is happy to mock him at one point (62). He even mocks television documentaries (156). He makes lots of literary allusions, including much from Cervantes, clearly loves Mother Theresa and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and reminds me of Chesterton in his use of humorous and paradoxical turns of phrase.
I love this paragraph (71), which is illustrative:
Yet even if it is true that, despite the assurance given to Peter, the gates of Hell have prevailed, or at any rate are now swinging on ecumenical hinges, that is only a lost battle. The war goes on; and suddenly, in the most unlikely theater of all, a Solzhenitsyn raises his voice, while in the dismal slums of Calcutta a Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity go about Jesus’ work of love with incomparable dedication. When I think of them, as I have seen them at their work and at their devotions, I want to put away all the books, tear up all the scribbled notes. There are no more doubts or dilemmas; everything is perfectly clear. What commentary or exposition, however eloquent, lucid, perceptive, inspired even, can equal in eludication and illumination the effect of these dedicated lives? What mind has conceived a discourse, or tongue spoken it, which conveys even to a minute degree the light they shine before men? I was hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me — the words come alive, as no study or meditation could possibly make them, in the fulfillment in the most literal sense of Jesus’ behest to see in the suffering face of humanity his suffering face, and in their broken bodies, his. The religion Jesus gave the world is an experience, not a body of ideas or principles. It is in being lived that it lives, as it is in loving that the love which it discloses at the heart of all creation becomes manifest. It belongs to the world of a Cervantes rather than that of a Wittgenstein; to Rabelais and Tolstoy rather than to Bultmann and Barth. It is for fools like Poor Tom rather than for his Doppelgänger, the Earl of Kent.
Here’s a typical example of Muggeridge’s wit and wisdom in tying past to present (176), the context here being the crowd crying for Jesus’ crucifixion:
Such mobs are a constant element in history, and are easily manipulated — in this case, by the Sanhedrin. They can be as readily induced to shout for the death of a martyr as for the glorification of a tyrant, and, harnessed to a consensus, can easily seem to speak for everyone. A contemporary version is the studio audience. To see the floor-manager at work warming one up, to be ready to cheer or laugh or groan or hiss as and when required, is to be at the very heart of the contemporary power process. The procedure is applicable to all systems of government, democratic, oligarchic, authoritarian, paternalistic, hierarchical or monarchical.
Along the same lines (129):
Jesus himself, even in his obscurity, dreaded the gathering of crowds, and where possible avoided them. Everything in Christianity that matters is from individual to individual; collectivities belong to the Devil, and so easily respond to his persuasion. The Devil is a demagogue and sloganeer; Jesus was, and is, concerned with individual souls, with the Living Word. What he gives us is truth carried on the wings of love, not slogans carried on the thrust of power.
And this: Jesus is “the anti-demagogue, the lord of silence and suffering” (145).
Given the name of this blogsite — a bow to two of my favorite Christian writers — I should note that Muggeridge apparently likes them, too. He quotes approvingly C.S. Lewis’s famous trilemma argument (61-62), and quotes Pascal as well, citing his wager in the book’s penultimate paragraph (191). Muggeridge constructs a similar trilemma of his own, by the way (165):
The only possible explanations of Jesus’ state of mind at this time [i.e., when contemplating His imminent death at Gethsemane] are, either that he was completely mad, and possessed of a megalomaniac death-wish; or that he was a crazy charlatan caught in the toils of his own deception; or that, as the Gospels say, he was veritably Incarnate God, and had to die in accordance with the prophecies in order that thenceforth men might be reborn into a new spiritual existence, experiencing on earth God’s everlasting kingdom of love, whence they had come and whither they were going.
There were a couple of other passages that brought Lewis to mind. He and others (notably Peter Kreeft, who has written a whole book on this, discussed here) have made this Sehnsucht point (77-78): “As the existence of hunger presupposes the existence of bread, and the existence of a fiddle that of music, so the longing for God and awareness of God which characterizes all these mystical experiences presupposes His existence.” Muggeridge goes on to celebrate “How precious these experiences are!” — how in them “everything seems clearly related to everything else” and that “[t]he joy in the consciousness of this harmony is the greatest ever vouchsafed to us in this world ….” Also like Lewis, Muggeridge cites the power of the phrase “it was night” in John 13:30 (154).
I’ll end the comparison by noting that Muggeridge writes more poetically but less precisely than C.S. Lewis, and of course that both are superb literary craftsmen — which makes all the more endearing Muggeridge’s modest characterization of himself as a “scribbler” (155).
Muggeridge is obviously deeply familiar with the Gospels. Consider this paragraph (43):
As for the company Jesus kept — it consisted of all sorts and conditions of people, from the rich and important (Nicodemus, Zacchaeus, the Centurion whose favorite servant Jesus healed) to the poor and the outcast. No deductions can be made, therefore, of the sort of company he preferred — if, indeed, he had a preference. He shunned no one, had time to spare for everyone, because his mission was to all mankind. Similarly, there is no indication in the Gospels of any tastes or fancies he might have had; his dedication to his task of spreading the good news that the coming of the Kingdom of God was no longer a remote expectation, but a present reality, was total — the more so because he knew that the time at his disposal was short and would soon run out. We have no notion even of what Jesus looked like; there is not even an apocryphal description of him, as there is of St. Paul. The Gospels convey no impression of how he spoke, the timbre of his voice, whether he used gestures and was given to declamation, though in their reports of what he said the style of his utterances is unmistakeable. This was sharp, incisive, pungent, often ironic and never rhetorical. He was clearly very observant, both of nature and of men; very aware of how society worked, of the forces of cupidity and aggressiveness which shaped human behavior. Hence his great gift for vivid imagery, and for telling a story; his parables are little masterpieces of narration, and, like the best of Tolstoy’s short stories (“What Men Live By,” for instance), easily comprehensible at all levels of understanding. As a communicator pure and simple, I should say that Jesus was supremely effective — this quite apart from his special role and mission in the world.
He has a terrific discussion of why, as a journalist, he finds the Gospel text authentic (40-41):
… [T]he absence from the Gospels of material relating to Jesus’ early years may be taken as an intimation of their authenticity. If they had been faked with a view to supporting the doctrines and superstitions of the early Church, why not include fabricated anecdotes designed to show how Jesus’ sense of having a special destiny in the world, and a special son-father relationship with God, was manifest even in childhood? Such anecdotes, as any professional gossip-writer or hagiographer knows, are easy to invent and always go down well; in popular biographical writing about the heroes of our time they abound, as, indeed, in the early Christian apocryphal gospels. They are easily invented, rarely denied, and give pleasure to all. One of the things that has struck me about the New Testament Gospels altogether is how very easy it would have been to sub-edit them so as to eliminate the contradictions, inconsistencies and occasional apparent absurdities which have so delighted agnostics and whose exegesis has so exercised commentators. I really believe that, given a free hand and some expert help, I could have done the job myself in quite a short time, producing a consistent story with nothing in it for critics to cavil at or skeptics to ridicule. That this was not done when the first definitive texts were prepared — it would have been so easy then — suggests strongly to me that the writers of the Gospels believed they were recording Jesus’ very words and deeds as handed down by eyewitnesses. They felt themselves to be in some special way Jesus’ amanuensis rather than his chronicler, and therefore precluded from trying to work out and rearrange their material in order to make it more cogent and palatable; still more from altering it for the doctrinal convenience of the early Church.
One thing is clear to an old journalist who has done his fair share of putting garbled or “awkward” copy into shape — if the Gospels are a fake, then the hands that did the faking were quite exceptionally inexpert and careless. All I can say myself, who am no scholar, and as unconcerned about the textual and other conundrums to which theologians and Biblical scholars so earnestly and diligently address themselves as about Shakespeare’s mistaken assumption that Bohemia had a coastline, is that, on closer acquaintance with the Gospels, my sense of their beauty and sublimity has grown ever greater. Likewise, my conviction that they are, in the truest and most literal sense of the word, inspired, in their portrayal of the central character, Jesus — the words he spoke, the life he lived, the death he died and the deathlessness he exemplified. In this connection, I find it reassuring that J.B. Phillips should, after his long, arduous labors at preparing his own version of the New Testament, have reached a similar conclusion, as he movingly testifies in his book The Ring of Truth.
But, as the paragraphs just quoted also suggest, Muggeridge does not treat the Gospel accounts as inerrant. His attitude toward Scriptural text is unorthodox, or at least unfundamental. Here’s the most jaw-dropping sentence in the book (183): “It may equally be doubted whether, if television cameras had happened to be set up at the entrance to the tomb in which Jesus was laid, they would have recorded the removal of the stone which sealed the tomb, or the emergence from it of the risen Jesus.” And then a few pages later he suggests a theory whereby the empty tomb might be explained as just common grave-robbing (187). Yet, thankfully, the book ends with this paragraph (191, italics in original):
That the Resurrection happened, and that in consequence of it Jesus’ followers who had scattered drew together again, resolved to go about their master’s business, seems to me indubitably true. Likewise Jesus’ claims to be the Light of the World and His related promise that through Him we may be reborn into new men, liberated from servitude to the ego and our appetites into the glorious liberty of the children of God. Compared with these tremendous certainties, dubieties about the precise circumstances of Jesus’ birth, ministry, death on the Cross and continuing presence in the world, seem sterile and unprofitable. Either Jesus never was or he still is. As a typical product of these confused times, with a skeptical mind and a sensual disposition, diffidently and unworthily, but with the utmost sincerity, I assert that he still is. If the story of Jesus ended on Golgotha, it would indeed be of a Man Who Died, but as two thousand years later the Man’s promise that where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them manifestly still holds, it is actually the story of a Man Who Lives.
Likewise, I don’t agree with all of Muggeridge’s parable interpretations, for example, and in my humble opinion his discussion of whether Jesus might well be considered in some sense insane (91-92) is unhelpful and he has some dubious theology (see, e.g., 189). But it is all worth reading!
A couple of additional notes:
- This book was written before Muggeridge’s conversion to Catholicism (he discusses his status as a non-communicant at 153-54), which took place seven years later.
- Muggeridge likes Bible scholars William Barclay and C.H. Dodd (74). On the other hand: Alluding to his book’s title, Muggeridge pens his most brutal sentence (128, after describing D.H. Lawrence’s book about Jesus, The Man Who Died), namely, “A more ludicrous and complete misunderstanding of the New Testament story — whose whole point is that Jesus is the Man Who Lives — can scarcely be imagined, and one can only say of it, as Dr. Johnson said of Cymbeline, that ‘to remark the folly of the fiction … were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility.'”