Book Review: Jesus: A Gospel, by Henri Nouwen

Henri Nouwen, Jesus: A Gospel, Orbis Books, 2013, £16.99 available from Alban Books)

Christians and other spiritual seekers familiar with the work of the late Henri Nouwen will welcome this new book. It is a compilation of Gospel reflections drawn from more than twenty of his books and writings. The compiling was done by Michael O’Laughlin who was Nouwen’s teaching assistant during his years at Harvard University.

Nouwen writes that the whole message of the Gospel is to become like Jesus. He invites us to read again the Gospels with eyes clear of the blurriness caused by centuries of dog- matism. Christianity has disappeared from many areas of our culture due to its inability to communicate with, speak the language of, our now post-Christendom world view. The historical and doctrinal detritus which has accumulated over the centuries has obscured the figure of Jesus and has deprived the Church of its Gospel-inspired passion and energy. The Jesus Christ of our churches is a plaster idol imprisoned by a clerical mindset incapable of rethinking and rediscovering the core of who he was, nor the kernel of what he stood for. Yet Jesus is the most revered person of the last 2000 years of human history.

 

Nouwen emphasises that the spiritual movement motivated by Jesus is downward, towards self-emptying, death to self and the poor. We instinctively want to move upward. Following the lead of Jesus will bring us into areas we would rather not explore. Yet, despite the public nature of Jesus’ mission, what most concerns Nouwen is what is going on in the depths of Jesus, his experience of God, the Spirit’s impact, his interior prayer. These are aspects of the depth and interior of Jesus’ story. As followers we want our story to somehow assimilate to the story of Jesus.    

 The call of Jesus is a call to friendship. That is where we live our story: in an ongoing relationship which grows and deepens in intimacy, in honesty, in compassion and truth. The christian life is starkly simple: to follow Jesus. The success of Nouwen’s book lies in his ability to help us rediscover, through the murk of ‘churchianity’, the Jesus of our story.

This book is not just a book to be read. It is a book to accompany periods of prayer. It has ample margins if one wants to add comments or insights. It is also mightily enhanced by several drawings of the life of Christ by Rembrandt. They add a certain poignancy to the text by their simplicity and starkness. Finally, there are an Index of biblical passages referred to, and footnotes to point to the sources the compiler has used.

Frank Regan