A book review
I just finished re-reading Jesus Rediscovered, by Malcolm Muuggeridge, and I have to say that it is once again a great read.
It was first recommended to me by a good friend named Fred, probably some time in the late Seventies. At that time, I didn't know much, if anything, about this rather well-known -- may I say, social critic, for lack of a better label? I came away from the book with the sense that Muggeridge was somewhere in the middle of a good walk from somewhere very unpleasant to somewhere much better. How far he had gotten, I wasn't sure.
But I certainly remembered him a few years later, when the time came to discover a couple of his later books -- The End of Christendom and A Third Testament; and I found both of these books to be a distinct blessing.
I am not going to analyze or critique the book, Jesus Rediscovered, for two reasons. The first reason is, I am no good at it -- critical analysis, that is. It just isn't the way I read books: when I am reading, I am usually just trying to get acquainted with the author; to help me do this I mark relevant passages, and make notes in the margins. Attempting to remember, but not to analyze.
The second reason not to comment in an analytical or systematic way is that I don't think Muggeridge wants me to. His first paragraph in his foreword seems to say as much:
"It is with the utmost trepidation and diffidence that I have collected together these miscellaneous pieces all directly or indirectly concerned with my attitude towards, and feelings about, the Christian religion. They do not set out to present a coherent, or even consistent, statement of faith. I am well aware that they are often contradictory, repetitive and imprecise; I have deliberately refrained from trying to trim and prune them into conveying an impression of coherence and consistency which would falsify my own actual mental state. All they represent -- and it is little enough -- is the effort of one ageing twentieth-century mind to give expression to a deep dissatisfaction with prevailing twentieth-century values and assumptions, and a sense that there is an alternative -- an alternative propounded two thousand years ago by the Sea of Galilee and on the hill called Golgotha." (p.6)
Muggeridge wrote most of these "miscellaneous pieces" between 1965 and 1968. By that time, the social utopia dreamed of by his father, and promised by the Labor Party in Britain, had failed long since, and nobody even wanted to seriously talk about it; classical liberalism in general was discredited; marxism, in those days, was in its intellectual high noon in the West, or just a little bit past it; and America was dominated by the dual crusades of the Great Society and the Vietnam War. Furthermore, most of the institutional church in the West -- or at least its intellectual leadership -- had slid, if not into marxism, then into mere materialism: and whether revolutionary or non-revolutionary, what did it matter?
Muggeridge, then in his middle-sixties, felt thoroughly estranged from both the political world and the institutional church; and he expected to be dead within a decade. And I think he was glad at the thought. He was not an optimist, at least not of the kind who join clubs, though he would call himself "a tactical pessimist and a strategic optimist."
Whence the strategic optimism?
During his lifelong process of abandoning successive utopias, he had begun to rediscover Jesus. First, perhaps, in his favorite writers -- Pascal, Blake, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Simone Weil, and several others; and then, later, in the Holy Land.
He was there to do a series for the BBC, and visited various historic sites in Galilee and around Jerusalem. At the close of the filming, he and his friend Allan Frazer walked on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, recalling St. Luke's story of Cleopas and his friend making that same walk on the day of the Resurrection. Here are Malcolm Muggeridge's words about that experience:
"The story, you know, is so incredibly vivid that I swear to you that no one who has ever tried to write can doubt its authenticity. There is something in the very language and manner of it which breathes truth. Anyway, they went in to eat their supper, and of course when the stranger broke bread they realized that he was no stranger but their Saviour. As my friend and I walked along like Cleopas and his friend, we recalled as they did the events of the Crucifixion and its aftermath in the light of our utterly different and yet similar world. Nor was it a fancy that we too were joined by a third presence. And I tell you that wherever the walk, and whoever the wayfarers, there is always this third presence ready to emerge from the shadows and fall in step along the dusty, stony way." (p.98)
We may be thankful that, in the succeeding decades, neither his personal history nor our cultural history turned out as badly as Malcolm Muggeridge thought they would. He lived more than twenty years more, during which time he wrote several good books; he became a close friend to Mother Teresa; and he and his wife, Kitty, were received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1982. He died in 1990 at the age of 87.
He lived long enough to watch the sun begin to set on marxism as a serious historical or philosophical revolutionary movement. The imminent collapse of civilization did not come.
So, is Muggeridge's book at all relevant after more than forty years? I would say yes, very much so. The things that concerned him -- the crass materialism, the epidemic of ignorance, the hypnotics of the media, the inflamed and empty eroticism, the love of violence, the absence of spirituality, and the general decline of the formerly Christian West continue to worsen.
The very good news, though, is that Malcolm Muggeridge is far from alone in rediscovering Jesus. Jesus is here; He is being rediscovered. And not only, in Mother Teresa's words, in "one of His most distressing disguises" as the poor, though certainly there. Listen to the stories! And tell your own.
The words of Malcolm Muggeridge are true: "Wherever the walk, and whoever the wayfarers, there is always this third presence ready to emerge from the shadows and fall in step along the dusty, stony way."
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I hope to put some good quotes in the comments. Join me there.
Jesus Rediscovered was published in Glasgow by William Collins Sons, 1969. Some (later?) editions are available online.