Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Jesus Story: Review

Now that NaNoWriMo is over, my schedule seems to be settling down a bit. (More on that another time.) I’ve taken care of a couple long-delayed projects, but there is one book I’ve put off reviewing longer than I should have—The Jesus Story, by Dr. William H. Marty.
Cover Art
Part of the delay happened because I got the book early last month, looked at it, and groaned. My first glance picked up an entire section of Dick-ran-after-Spot-type sentences, and I was reluctant to venture further into the book.
Eventually, though, I sat down with the book again and found it was an easy read. For a book which subtitles itself "Everything That Happens in the New Testament in Plain English," The Jesus Story lives up to that promise fairly well. The idea of compiling the Gospels isn't unique—plenty of other writers and scholars have written similar books—but The Jesus Story makes it easy to read through the four Gospels plus Acts (in an abridged form) in the course of a few hours. That, to keep things simple, is what this book is and what it does.

For me, that is also The Jesus Story’s major advantage—I’ve looked at my reading rate and realized I should be able to read through one of the Gospels in an afternoon. It should, but somehow the idea of reading one Gospel, much less four, straight through always seems daunting. Having one relatively thin book in hand makes the reading almost a breeze.

In exchange for compressing the story, The Jesus Story has to keep things fairly simple. It's a bonus, making the reading simple as well, but also a minor downfall. As the Apostle John notes, heaven and earth could not contain the entire story of Jesus’s life. That makes it extra hard to fit even the events recorded in the Gospels into 150 pages of normal-sized print without going short-hand.

Add in the fact that Marty tries to translate some ideas for modern readers, and the book gets a little inconsistent. The result is not strictly “dumbing things down,” but it does leave something lacking in the writing and narrative depth.

As far as giving background to the original text, for example, Marty adds some good points of explanation, like the fact that Jews avoided going into Samaria or that leprosy was a particularly dreaded disease at the time. In other places, however, he states other things of equal culture foreignness—the Jewish leaders wanting the legs of the crucified men to be broken—without any clarification.

Also, as I noted before, the writing itself tends toward simplistic. I can only take so many simple sentences in a row, so several sections of the book felt jarringly monotonous, while some of the word choices were awkward, to say the least. If an author is writing for modern readers, I can understand substituting “engaged” for “betrothed.” But “tent of holiness” rather than “tabernacle”? It might get the idea across, but it’s hardly less opaque. I’m also not sure that “grateful” best describes Jesus’s reaction to his disciples’ faith. On a more humorous side, Jesus’s brothers urge him to “go public!” Unlike my previous review, academic this book is not.

Neither of these issues is crucial, but they do make the book feel a bit disjointed, like it's trying to be both comprehensive and simple, or that in avoiding archaic or Christianese terms, it's using modern jargon instead. So, overall, I’d rate the book as okay—not a bad read, but not great writing, and a little flat in places. At the same time, it is a great way to read through the entire New Testament story in a relatively short time. 

For someone looking for a more comprehensive book closer to the original text, I might recommend instead Johnston M. Cheney’s The Life of Christ in Stereo or his other version with Stanley A. Ellison, The Greatest Story. Otherwise, for someone struggling to get through the Gospels or looking for a change of pace, rather like reading a different translation, The Jesus Story seems like a good option. And that, ultimately, is what this book is meant to be—a readable retelling of New Testament history.

[My thanks to Bethany House Publishers for sending me a review copy of The Jesus Story in exchange for my honest opinion of the book.]


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