I haven’t any real idea who or what or how—or even when!—Jesus Christ was. And is. And will be. As odd as I’m sure it sounds, I’m not terribly interested in changing that situation. I suspect that, in large part, my ignorance and feeling of content concerning that ignorance are more a side effect than anything else, a side effect of the Pauline commitments that were created, nurtured, and cemented in me through my obsessive work on the Book of Mormon. The Christ to whom I have declared undying fidelity, of whom I consistently testify, concerning whom I couldn’t feel love more deeply—that Christ—is the one who died and rose again, who worked out a concrete, material immanent critique of death he then committed in theological form to Saint Paul, who came to Lehi’s children with pierced hands he used almost exclusively to turn the pages of Isaiah, Micah, Malachi, and who knows what other Hebrew texts.
The Gospels? They’re interesting, as all scripture is. But do they teach me about Christ? To be a bit frank—a bit too frank: not really. I find in the Gospels somewhere between four and a dozen different views of who Jesus was, about the implications of his having walked among us, and I find all those views compelling. I let—I try to let—them shape the way I think and act. But I don’t know that they shape me much more than any other books of scripture. I’ve never seen any terribly compelling reason to privilege the Gospels. They’re beautiful. And they’re true. But the Christ who has delivered me from death is seldom, almost never, on display in the Gospels. Or rather, he’s constantly on display there, but more in the structures of the narratives, the brilliance of the reworked Old Testament texts, and the theological implications of the occasional teachings and sermons than in the person or immediate doings of the Jesus whose story is told there.
My Christ is the Christ of the Book of Mormon—not of Third Nephi alone, but of the Book of Mormon as a whole. The Christ who is glimpsed simply as “the Messiah” for the first part of First Nephi and who seems to be little more than an apocalyptic figure on the horizon of history; the Christ who suddenly emerges as a clear figure in Nephi’s vision, but more as the divine figure behind the history of the covenant than anything else; the Christ who is then taken to be a kind of vague horizon of belief while the details of Isaiah’s views on a God-directed history have to be worked out; the Christ who Jacob then takes over, at seemingly strategic points in and beyond Nephi’s writings, as the center of an enormous plot to change the nature of the flesh and so to allow for the possibility of doing good; the Christ who is forgotten, more or less, for several centuries while everyone is busy fighting; the Christ who comes back into Nephite consciousness with the fanfare that accompanies the angel’s words to Benjamin, subsequently conveyed to the people, according to which Christ is a king with the task of sorting out the possibility of justice in judgment; the Christ who, as the center of a community of preachers and preached-to’s, becomes the horizon of all Isaianic prophecy in the hands of Abinadi; the Christ whom Alma then made a part of an all-too-political revolution by forming a non-statist community on the fringes of an oppressive society; the Christ in whom a whole people could then put their blind trust when a whole army came knocking at the doors of their paradisiacal Zion; the Christ in whose name a whole repentant people could be baptized when they left the sad history of war and bondage in the land of Nephi to come back to the land of Zarahemla; the Christ whose church then led to the complete collapse of the Nephite monarchy and led to a still-more-problematic governmental organization that nonetheless allowed for a certain freedom of religion; the Christ who sent an angel to Alma’s son and set him up to do the most remarkable circuit preaching in history, leaving behind the sermons of Alma 5, Alma 7, and Alma 12-13; the Christ that for whatever mysterious reasons kept Alma from stretching his hand out to stop the suffering of so many women and children in Ammonihah; the Christ a Lamanite servant woman, Abish, believed in and so effected the turning point in Lamanite history while her fellow-servant Ammon lay in a swoon; the Christ to whom an old, reprobate Lamanite king promised to give all his sins; the Christ in whom Alma and the sons of Ammon were still brothers when they met after fourteen years of work; the Christ denied by a short-sighted Korihor and then preached by a far-sighted Alma; the Christ who, as the Word, could be compared to a seed in the most beautiful of scriptural metaphors; the Christ who served as the ideological plug for a Nephite generation attempting to feel good about the lives they were taking in defense of their way of life; the Christ in whom two thousand largely clueless put their trust as they gave themselves to the most horrific of pursuits; the Christ to whom a wayward Corianton returned; the Christ who was forgotten as the Gadianton robbers spread the gospel of prosperity and wealth through the Nephites, launching the era of Nephite and Lamanite progressivism; the Christ who let his voice be heard by so many Lamanites as they sought to abuse two Nephite prophets, turning the tide of a very long history of Nephite spiritual supremacy; the Christ who helped a lonely prophet out of false accusations only to make him still lonelier before giving him the keys of the kingdom; the Christ who spoke to a Lamanite prophet who then dared to occupy Zarahemla with a message of remarkable severity; the Christ who was born just in time to keep the struggling believers in the New World from being massacred by a society gone mad; the Christ in whose name a too-emotional display was offered after the Gadianton robbers were destroyed for a time; the Christ whose death was connected with the most destructive geological upheavals and the death of far, far too many Nephites and Lamanites; the Christ who was willing to speak to those suffering in the wake of such destruction in pleading terms, hoping for the possibility of general redemption; the Christ who then came and healed so many thousands of Lehi’s children while providing them with the tokens of the sacrament and the key to the scriptures; the Christ who was recognized as king for two centuries about which we know almost nothing; the Christ who was forgotten thereafter while everything in Nephite society fell apart; the Christ in whom faith, hope, and charity are to be placed; the Christ who was almost unknown to the Jaredites, but whom the brother of Jared saw in startling materiality; the Christ in whom we can be perfect, whose grace is sufficient, who asks us to ponder on the mercy of the history of the world before confessing to God that we know the Book of Mormon is true—that Christ is the Christ I worship.
In a word, I worship neither the Christ of faith nor the Jesus of history, but the Christ of history, of a history we can’t recover archaeologically, the Pauline Christ of the Nephites and Lamanites, the Christ who needs no narrative apologies because we ought to be spending our time apologizing to him for all we do with and in his name.
Now, what has all this to do with Ostler’s chapter 13? Not that much, perhaps. This is more confession than anything else—confession of which Christ needs to be explained by theological reflection, on my account. Ostler’s discussion of “conventional” Christology is alienating, but less because they get the philosophical details wrong, and more because they’re simply not looking in the right place. What can they say about that Christ?
More importantly, what can we say about him? We’ve said far too little, whether by way of theological reflection or simply by way of genuine praise. Perhaps we can get to work. I’m eager to see what work Ostler himself has done in this regard in chapter 14 . . . .