Jay Parini on Intellectual Bios, the Story of Jesus, and the Fabric of Language

Sermon on the Mount. Currier & Ives, 1866 lithograph. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Sermon on the Mount. Currier & Ives, 1866 lithograph. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

At last January’s Key West Literary Seminary, I was surprised to learn that Jay Parini, one of the most erudite and prolific even among the conference’s highly accomplished speakers, breaks to play basketball three times a week at noon. Seeing writers of high esteem up close, as real people, is one of the most gratifying aspects of participating in such an intimate, small-scale conference. (The subtropical weather of Key West is a nice winter perk, too.)

Sure, Parini's vast body of work includes the biographical novel about Leo Tolstoy upon which the Academy Award-nominated film The Last Station was based, and he translated many of the Biblical passages contained in his latest biography, Jesus: The Human Face of God, directly from the Greek. But there’s something very accessible about his thoughtful work as a poet, novelist, biographer, and literary critic, and it’s that quality that makes him the perfect debut author for Icons, Amazon Publishing’s new series of short biographies edited by James Atlas, veteran publisher and former editor of the Penguin Lives series.

Ball in hand or not, Parini holds court wherever he goes. That magnetism as it appears in written form has prompted Harvey Cox, one of the preeminent theologians in the United States and a longtime Harvard Divinity School professor, to describe Jesus as "an exquisite book" comprising "readable and engaging prose."

Since 1982, Parini, a Pennsylvania native and father of three sons, has taught at Middlebury College in Vermont, where he lives with his wife. On the morning of his book’s launch party last week, he joined us by phone from New York City to discuss his more than half-century immersion in the teachings of Jesus, and his pleasure in bringing a fresh interpretation of that life to the world.

Signature: Can you tell us how this book came about?

Jay Parini: I’m very old friends with James Atlas, the editor of this series, Icons. He asked me which influential figure I’d like to do, and I said, "Jesus." I think he almost fell off his seat in the restaurant in New York [laughs]. He was thinking of Sophia Tolstoy, and I was thinking Jesus.

SIG: The book makes it clear that the study of Jesus and his teachings has been a lifelong passion for you. Can you describe your relationship with the subject?

JP: There was no way you could start from scratch and do this kind of a book. It takes forty-five years of reading and thinking. My father was a Baptist preacher, and he used to read the King James Bible to me every single morning. He made me memorize it and repeat verses at night before I went to sleep. By the time I went to college, I knew the major passages of the Bible pretty much by heart

So it’s not like it was new material for me. Then I studied theology in college, and when I was getting a Ph.D. in literature, I took courses in New Testament studies and studied Greek versions of the Gospels. I’ve continued by teaching courses in religion and literature, and poetry and spirituality, off and on for thirty-eight years. One of the first courses I ever taught at Dartmouth was on the Bible as literature. I keep on this material. I’ve read the relevant books on Jesus -- the historical works on him and the major theological texts. It's been a private interest of mine for a very long time.  

SIG: How did you come to your approach of “remythologizing” his life, as you describe it?

JP: This material doesn't fit into the category of a standard biography. There’s really no scientifically verifiable textual tradition for this guy. The earliest Christian writings are from decades after his death. If you're to go on historical writings of the moment, there are only two or three slight mentions of Jesus by [ancient historians like] Suetonius, Tacitus, and Josephus. That would not give you more than a paragraph, so you're relying on archaeological evidence and on the canonical New Testament, which is the letters of Paul, mainly, and the four Gospels. Then you have ancillary materials, like the twenty or so Gnostic Gospels that we now have. That's really what you've got to go on.

But this is a great story. It's a mythos, a story with meaning. Energy and imagination enters the world through mythic stories. There is a mythic opening through which this mass of energy has poured for twenty centuries, and I wanted to understand the contours of the opening. The Jesus story is massive, and, to me, very crucial. The essential teachings of Jesus are the master class in ethics for the world. I say that Jesus was a religious genius. He was perfectly positioned there on the Silk Road in this magical place, Palestine, where he would get all of the ideas about the body and the soul coming from Plato and the Greeks from one side. Ever since Alexander's invasion of Palestine, Greek philosophy poured into the Middle East.

And then from the other side, he would have had merchants coming from Persia, and possibly as far away as India and China, bringing him the winds of Eastern mysticism, like the idea of karma, which he then translates into the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the merciful, for God shall be merciful to them” -- that kind of thing. My book is hugely about how Jesus is able to synthesize East and West.

SIG: There’s a transporting immediacy to the book’s texture and sense of place. How did you achieve that?

JP: I've traveled with my ears and eyes open for many years in the Middle East. I spent a lot of time there and know it pretty well.

SIG: Can you describe your previous biographical work?

JP: In a sense, my first book -- Theodore Roethke, an American Romantic -- was an intellectual biography. Then I did straight biographies of Steinbeck, Frost, and Faulkner. So this is my fifth biography, in a sense. I've also written biographical novels about Tolstoy, Walter Benjamin, and Herman Melville.

SIG: What distinguishes an “intellectual biography” from a more conventional life story?

JP: In an intellectual biography, you’re tracing the development of ideas and the context of a life, rather than saying, "He was born here, then went to the bathroom and did his laundry." In that kind of moment-by-moment biography -- like I did of Steinbeck, Frost, and Faulkner -- you're trying to analyze their family and everything. But with the Roethke book, I was mainly trying to follow his ideas through the poetry.

SIG: How did all of that experience with biography influence your writing of Jesus?

JP: I know how to shape a life. I know what elements of storytelling have to be called on to make it interesting. Especially if you're doing a mythos, which is just the Greek word for story, you need to be a storyteller to be a good biographer.

SIG: Are you steeped in Greek myth, as well?

JP: Oh, yeah. Greek and Roman myth are second nature to me.

SIG: You translated many Biblical passages in Jesus directly from Greek -- is that right?

JP: Yes, most passages quoted from the New Testament are my own translation. I didn’t want to mess with the Sermon on the Mount. I like the King James version because I'm used to it, and so is everybody else.

SIG: How has all of this time you've spent shaping the lives of others affected your own personal narrative or self-conception?

JP: I love telling stories…I'm a bit of a raconteur. Language is where I live. I think the Jesus story exists in a fabric of language, and I'm just nipping and tucking the fabric in my own way, cutting it from cloth that's already there. I'm trying to rescue Christianity, to some degree, from the hardened language of nineteenth-century atonement theology. That's really what's going on in this book beneath the surface. I'm trying to get at a new, fresh way of thinking about salvation as enlightenment, and repentance as simply going beyond the human mind into the larger mind of the spirit.

When I retranslate the word metanoia, it means going beyond the mind. It doesn't mean “repent” in my view of the Greek word.  And soteria is not "salvation," but enlightenment, or reconciliation with God or creation. So I take a much more Eastern view of theology here. Eastern Christian, as well as Eastern Buddhist Indian. I present a very different and radical Jesus. I think the emphasis on his teachings has been lost. The Sermon on the Mount is the core of the New Testament, and I'm trying to hit that drum a little bit loud.