Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Fifth Way: A Journey to the Heart of an Aramaic Jesus by David Brisbin, MDiv, LPPC

By all reasonable accounts the Christian church is in decline right now. Consequently, I am grateful that Fifth Way: A Western Journey to the Hebrew Heart of Jesus courageously applies the latest in Bible scholarship to trace out, in a very personal manner, the implications of living a Christian life that reflects the unquestionable Jewishness of the Aramaic Jesus.
Cover art for Dave Brisbin's second revised
version of The Fifth Way: A Western
Journey to the Hebrew Heart of Jesus.

David Brisbin is championing a fresh take on the Aramaic Jesus, an approach which may turn things around for Christianity and provide the wholesome insight of Christ to a new generation of believers. As such, I see Brisbin’s book as an extremely important contribution in a world where it seems as if pastors themselves are perhaps too squeamish about the messy details of Bible scholarship. In contrast, Brisbane’s book suggests a fresh approach to life that depends on trust in God, comfort with ambiguity, and a large dose of forgiveness. In my view, these are three ideas that remind me a great deal of the teachings of Jesus himself. Brisbin even seems to mirror Christ’s somewhat annoying mysterious by asserting that the Fifth Way taught by Jesus cannot be adequately captured in books.  It can only be experienced by living life, moment to moment, in complete trust in God.

As far as I can tell, Brisbane perspective is influenced by – but cannot be reduced to - his sincere seeking of the Lord in the context of Brisbin’s shame as both a childhood survivor of sexual abuse and as a Catholic divorcee. His carefully planned book presents us with a compelling account of the scriptural study and daily practice which left him content with the cheerful knowledge that he is loved by God.  His main metaphor is the vision that we are frogs living in a deep well, blind to the realities of the larger world outside the well. As we ask God to help us, Brisbin suggests we may be surprised to experience shovel loads of dirt dumped on our heads. Brisbin suggests that what seems like an inappropriate response to our heartfelt prayers may actually be our God’s rather mundane way of filling up our wells and slowly raising us up to the surface of the planet.

As a political scientist, I especially enjoyed the manner in which Brisbane describes the other four ways by leveraging the work of Josephus, a first century Jewish historian. As you may remember, Josephus categorized Jewish political life around the time of Jesus according to different ways of reacting to the impact of Roman colonialism. Brisbin, for example, sees the Sadducees as yielding to superior force and profiting from their control of the Second Temple. He sees the Pharisees as seeking to manipulate that superior force through religiously based arguments. He sees the Essences as fleeing the oppressive situation by moving to isolated desert locations where they practiced a monastic lifestyle. Brisbin surprises me the most, however, by including the Zealots in his model. He sees the Zealots as the ones who resist through their efforts to fight back against Roman rule, an effort highlighted by the Zealot’s willingness to die at the Judean fortress Masada.

In this historic context, Brisbin sees Jesus teaching a healthier Fifth Way.  For example, Brisbin relies on existing scholarship to help us better understand the words of Jesus through the lens of the Hebrew/Aramaic language and traditional Jewish idioms. This focus on the Jewishness of Jesus makes Jesus’s words much easier to understand and less likely to cause befuddlement or off-the-cuff rejection.

As such, I think it is fair to say that Brisbin’s The Fifth Way represents a rather substantial popularization of recent scholarship regarding the creation of the New Testament and shares Brisbin’s excitement regarding the potential healing qualities of an improved understanding of the Aramaic language and the Jewish culture of Jesus.  Consequently, I also think it is fair to say that this is a timely and contemporary book that puts this new scholarship into an agreeable and practically accessible form. It leaves us with a fresh take on Jesus which, for most readers, should take away much of the guilt, shame and confusion they may experience when they initially access the New Testament. Brisbin’s book will also give those who are already intuitively clear about the consistency of Jesus’s message quick access to the source material they need to persuade those who may, or may not, be relying on the latest linguistic and scientific advances in Christian theology.

I imagine that Brisbin’s critics will point out that Western civilization - with all its guilt and shame - seems to have been doing pretty well without the assistance of what we learn from modern Bible scholarship.  

Even Brisbin suggests that while increased information can easily give us a truthful and easier-to-understand Jesus, it may not give us the sort of Jesus that appeals to television viewers or facilitates the growth of large standing armies. Nevertheless, I suppose the good news about the Good News is that Brisbin has paddled into the ocean of this new scholarship and he has now come back to report to us that the surfing is pretty good. His personal testing of this Fifth Way gives me confidence that greater scientific knowledge about Jesus and his Jewishness will allow us to hold tight to much of what is most attractive about Christianity, while also allowing us to mercifully dispense with what has become unattractive and inappropriate about Christianity. From my perspective as an ex-Marxist, Tea Party activist, I can report that I feel comfortable with Brisbin’s overview of contemporary issues and his defense of a slightly more complex Christian world view, a world view which allows me to feel more comfortable with divorce and assisted suicide, while still allowing me to remain unhappy with gay marriage and the sheer evil of Communism.

After attending Brisbin’s church and reading his book, I certainly have the feeling that he is a good guy to have as a friend and that his cheerful manner provides a realistic way to enjoy a joyous and free life.  The book provides a dependable example of this approach when he reports how he attempted to help a young women deal with anger, guilt, and shame she felt for a friend who left the Christian faith for Judaism and then later committed suicide. The story shows us how Brisbin’s perspective allows him to comfort the young woman through Biblically based knowledge in a manner reminiscent of how Jesus himself dealt with religious conflicts and deep-seated guilt. This story certainly provides an accurate description of the Dave Brisbin I have met in real life at the church, theeffect, where he serves as the teaching pastor.

Over the course of the book, the reader will experience some of the healing and comfort Brisbin provides on a daily basis. With his words, we gain a contemporary look at the historic Jesus who offers a Fifth Way in which we can escape the stoning of our peers and simply go and sin no more. It is a book that will soften the heart of the Christian atheist and enlarge the heart of the Christian seeker. It may even be the book that turns things around for the Christian church and the larger civic culture that depends on it.

John C. Drew, Ph.D. is an award-winning political scientist.

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