PETER WALLACE is literally the voice of mainline Protestant churches in America—as the daily host of the Day1 radio network broadcast by more than 200 stations nationwide. Peter is the creative force who guided the transformation of the former Protestant Hour radio series, founded in 1945, into the current Day1 format both on radio and online. In addition, Peter has written a series of books offering his welcoming style of religious reflections for individual readers—or small-group discussions.
For years, ReadTheSpirit has recommended both Peter’s work and the Day1 network. Currently, our websites share a popular columnist, the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt. This mutual encouragement includes our recommendation of Peter’s newest book, The Passionate Jesus: What We Can Learn from Jesus about Love, Fear, Grief, Joy and Living Authentically. The new book is part of the extensive offerings for readers hoping to find unusual approaches to daily prayer and reflection from the Skylight Paths publishing house.
ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Peter Wallace about his newest book, The Passionate Jesus …
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH DAY1’S
PETER WALLACE ON ‘THE PASSIONATE JESUS’
DAVID: I know that this will come as a shock to a lot of Christians today—but Jesus had human emotions. In fact, that issue was settled way back in the year 451 in the Christian Council of Chalcedon, when Church leaders agreed that Jesus was both truly God and truly human. The council declared that Jesus somehow had both natures within him—and “fully God/fully human” has been solid theology throughout most of the Christian world for more than a millennium. However, as a journalist, I know that Jesus’s emotions are a shock to lots of men and women, right?
PETER: Absolutely. That’s why I wrote this book. I understand this problem because it was part of my own faith journey. I was raised on images of Jesus frozen in stained glass windows and movies like The Greatest Story Ever Told—images of Jesus as so perfect that he seems to float above the grit and grime of humanity. This Jesus doesn’t laugh. He doesn’t cry.
DAVID: Many film fans will remember that 1965 movie as the sand-and-sandals epic that cast John Wayne as a Roman centurion. Max von Sydow played Jesus and, to underline your point, the famous film critic John Simon wrote about that movie: “God is unlucky in The Greatest Story Ever Told. His only begotten son turns out to be a bore.” So, I think your basic idea is correct, Peter: There’s this ocean of longstanding American assumptions about Jesus as emotionless.
PETER: I’m 58—and I was raised on this very limited view of Jesus myself. I grew up in church assuming that Jesus was not at all passionate—and it’s hard to relate to someone like that.
Yes, Jesus is fully divine, but we have to remember that there’s also this fully human side to Jesus that many of us miss. Bible scholars like Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan have helped us to see this human side of Jesus more clearly. Once people start looking for these references, they’re fairly easy to find. I counted about 60 references in the Gospels, many of them in John, that say things like: Jesus was angry, or Jesus was in grief. Plus, you can’t help but read between the lines in a lot of other passages where we can sense the range of emotions Jesus must have felt from the descriptions of the scenes.
DAVID: Why is this point so important?
PETER: When we understand this, then we can relate to Jesus a lot closer as someone who was totally authentic about the way he experienced life.
DAVID: Let me explain to readers that you’re not timid about this. On page 163, you write: “Jesus’s emotional life was intense and honest. He let himself feel his feelings wholly and expressed them directly. … Jesus’s emotional life resembles a roaring mountain river, with clear water flowing in uninhibited torrents …” Your chapters identify the major emotions in Jesus’s life as: Love, Anger, Fear, Grief and Joy. There is a chapter about each subject.
PETER: Yes, you’ve got it right—and there were other emotions that I could have included, but I wanted to keep the book manageable for readers. Jesus was passionate about all of his emotions. That’s an idea that has always been a little scary to me and I’m not surprised if it’s scary to some readers of this book. When we encounter people who truly are passionate about their feelings—that encounter shakes us up.
I wrote this book because a lot of us, at some point in our lives, go through some kind of emotional meltdown. Many things can cause this. I dealt with a meltdown myself some years ago. As I came through that experience, I was questioning how I could be more authentic in my daily life in relationships with loved ones, coworkers and friends. Everyone wrestles with challenges like this; I wrestled with it, too.
What I discovered, though, is that this whole range of emotions we can feel—Jesus felt, too. The difference is that, unlike a lot of us when we are going through something very difficult, Jesus dealt with these emotions in open and honest ways. He was direct and clear, while at the same time Jesus always was bathed in a love for other people and a desire to do God’s will. They didn’t always understand everything he said, but he expressed authentically what he believed and what he expected of people.
‘PASSIONATE JESUS’: SOMETIMES MISCHIEVOUS
DAVID: Five years ago, I wrote a 40-chapter Lenten book that makes contemporary connections with scenes from the end of Jesus’s life as described in the gospels. We recently published an updated second edition of that book. The one chapter that always draws some criticism is a chapter about Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey—a scene that I compare to the arrival of the Cat in the Hat in Dr. Seuss’s storybook. Many readers enjoy that chapter; but, each year, some readers strongly object to that comparison.
PETER: I can see why, based on what I know about how many Christians regard Jesus. But, I agree with you that Jesus could be mischievous. And, yes, he pokes fun at people, too—he pokes fun at the religious leaders of his day and his own disciples. You can’t help but hear people around Jesus laughing out loud at some of the things he says and does. I can see how you might have made that comparison with the Cat in the Hat—but a lot of people don’t want to see that side of Jesus.
DAVID: Just a moment ago, you were describing Jesus as a model of honesty and transparency. Now, we’re talking about Jesus using mischievous humor. There were times when Jesus’s words and actions were confusing to his contemporaries, right?
PETER: Oh, yes, even though he was clear and direct, there often were times when people didn’t understand what he was saying or doing. Think of the scenes in the Upper Room, when he says: Someone in this circle will betray me. How could his followers fathom something like that? How could they understand what was about to happen?
‘PASSIONATE JESUS’: CONNECTING WITH GLOBAL HUMANITY
DAVID: You explain the challenge in your book. For example, you quote Marcus Borg as saying that Jesus’s “use of language was remarkable and poetic, filled with images and stories. He had a metaphoric mind. He was not an ascetic, but world affirming, with a zest for life.”
Then, you go on to write: “It is important to us as spiritual beings who seek the richest possible relationship with God to see the radiant kaleidoscope of emotions the gospel writers reveal in Jesus. … When we encounter the passionate, fully human Jesus in the gospels, we can begin the journey toward our own fully realized humanity and a more meaningful and vibrant spiritual life.”
As you end your book, you quote Father Richard Rohr, who we just welcomed to ReadTheSpirit. In your book, Rohr says: “Suffering is the necessary deep feeling of the human situation. If we don’t feel pain, suffering, human failure and weakness, we stand antiseptically apart from it, and remain numb and small. … The irony is not that God should feel so fiercely; it’s that his creatures feel so feebly. If there is nothing in your life to cry about, if there is nothing in your life to yell about, you must be out of touch. We must all feel and know the immense pain of this global humanity. Then we are no longer isolated, but a true member of the universal Body of Christ. Then we know God not only from the outside but from inside.”
PETER: As I wrote this book—and as I work with the preachers who come into our studio to record the Day1 radio broadcasts—I keep in mind the readers and the listeners on the other side of these messages we are sending out. You know, it’s often difficult for the preachers who come into our studio to do one of these radio series. They are used to standing up in front of a congregation of people who they know intimately. They can tell, as they preach, whether they are reaching the needs of people in their congregation. They can look people in the eye.
But when we sit in a studio to record, or when I sit down to write—it is so important to imagine people who will receive these words. I know that people out there are dealing with real pressures in their lives—real frustrations and fears all mixed with the love and the joy they experience in their lives. They may be dealing with health issues—or they probably know someone who is. They’re likely dealing with financial issues—or know someone who is. They wake each day and face a whole range of very basic needs.
That’s what I’m really trying to do in this book. I realize that it is only words on a printed page—or words on an electronic screen—but I am thinking of all the people out there reading these words. What are they experiencing today? I want them to know that they are not alone. Jesus experienced the whole range of human emotions that we still experience in life.
Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.