Asking "What would Jesus do?" — or WWJD in the popular shorthand — may be a handy speed-dial to reach one's personal moral inventory...

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“When Jesus Came to Harvard: Making Moral Choices Today”
by Harvey Cox

Houghton Mifflin, 338 pp., $26

Asking “What would Jesus do?” — or WWJD in the popular shorthand — may be a handy speed-dial to reach one’s personal moral inventory. But as theologian Harvey Cox demonstrates, that query misses the point. A more productive question is “What did Jesus do?” — closely followed by “Why should I care?”

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Cox explored these questions, and others, in the 15 years he taught his hugely popular Harvard College course, “Jesus and the Moral Life,” which inspired this nervy book.

Cox ventures onto some thin ice in these elegantly organized pages. Aiming to make the biography of the Nazareth rabbi who lived 2,000 years ago relevant to modern readers, regardless of their place on the Messianic-belief continuum, would scuttle a less able thinker and writer.

Such a book risks dismissing nonbelievers and alienating those who embrace a single interpretation of New Testament writings. Instead Cox pulls off a near miracle as he gathers disparate scholarly and religious views of Jesus, while demonstrating respectful, deep knowledge of Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist traditions, and various Christian teachings.

The book does not stop with the scholar’s take, however, and this is its strength. Cox, a Christian, does not hide his beliefs under a bushel: Jesus, to him, is Christ, the son of God on Earth. But the very lack of agreement on Jesus’ intentions and life invigorates him. “I am glad we have four Gospels, not one,” he writes.

Cox contends that the differing accounts of Jesus’ life found in the Christian New Testament books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John reflect the various times and audiences for which they were written, as well as each author’s own understanding of the man. This, he says, reinforces the teaching that Jesus does indeed “belong to the world.”

The book’s chapters are grouped under “Stories He Told” and “Stories Told About Him,” where Cox places the Jewish Jesus in the context of the Roman society of his time and the Christianity that developed after his death.

In connecting Jesus’ teachings to the challenges of modern life, Cox writes incisively on the Sermon on the Mount (Chapters 5-7 in the Book of Matthew), known to almost all of his students for the prescriptive text and the easier-said-than-done exhortation to “do unto others.”

“The Sermon on the Mount reveals Rabbi Jesus at his most eloquent and most unnerving,” Cox writes. “The words are plain enough. But that has not prevented hundreds of contradictory interpreters from tumbling over each other as the centuries have gone by.”

Revisiting the passages with each new class of students, Cox recalls, was exhausting and exhilarating. After each round, he says, “I was thankful that centuries ago, someone took the trouble to write it down so that we could have it today. It is almost impossible to imagine what Western, or even world, history would have been like without it.”

Cox succeeds here because his own relationship to the moral relevance of Jesus is a living thing, expanding and enlightening, not a static academic exercise or modernized catechism. It is the foundation of an energetically examined life, lived by one who believes Jesus today is still met with “the same mixture of welcome and hesitation, skepticism and rejection … But he gently forces people to look at life differently and maybe even to live it differently.”

Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett

is a writer living in Portland.