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Every Conceivable Jesus: A Review of "Jesus Through Pagan Eyes"

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I won't say I was in love with Jesus, but I will admit that I miss him sometimes.

Jesus was the dropped pin on my Google Map; the marker which showed me where I was in relation to everything else. Jesus was central to my religiosity in the way that salt is central to cooking, or tempo is central to music. Jesus was the unspoken principle which informed all things religious, spiritual, or cosmic, because Jesus was, as I was taught, the true center of those things.

I never believed that idea completely, though. I recognized that Jesus could be central to one's tradition, but I didn't believe he was necessarily the center of all things. I also took issue with the divisive politics of Jesus's followers, their rigidity surrounding matters of sexuality and gender, and their tendency to literalise mythology. My rift with the corporate institution led to less attendance at Sunday services, or weekday Morning and Evening Prayer in the chapel. Eventually I stopped attending all together.

I sort of broke up with Jesus.

In our four years apart, I've discovered other ways of approaching divinity, other forms of ritual than that of my Episcopal upbringing, and I've been more or less ok without him.

But then comes Reverend Mark Townsend, renegade priest and author of the book, Jesus Through Pagan Eyes: Bridging Neopagan Perspectives with a Progressive Vision of Christ (Llewellyn, 2012), and now I'm digging through old pictures of me and Jesus, wondering what it was that made me, to paraphrase Townsend, throw out the divine baby with the dirty bathwater.

In Townsend's view, Jesus not only exists in the hearts and minds of the faithful, but he might also be seen as a useful point of entry for conversations about different expressions of faith, experiences of divinity, and understandings of compassion in the lives of people from many different religious traditions. Townsend uses Jesus to initiate dialogue, and he does so in way that is accepting and inclusive of many understandings and interpretations of Jesus, his purpose, and his relevance (or irrelevance) in the religious practices of contemporary Pagans.

The Pagan teachers, leaders and elders who contributed to Jesus Through Pagan Eyes include the likes of John Michael Greer, Archdruid of AODA, Selena Fox, senior minister of Circle Sanctuary, and Christopher Penczak, co-founder of the Temple of Witchcraft. They offer personal reflections about their connection -- if any -- to Christianity, their conflicts with the Church, and their take on Jesus as man, myth, and metaphor. Some of the Pagan writers speak about Jesus with a degree of familiarity and fondness that caught me by surprise. Others seem unable or unwilling to separate Jesus from the religions built in his name. But regardless of their perspectives, or how those perspectives sat in relation to my own, the dialogue remained civil and honest. This isn't always the case when one brings up Jesus in a crowd of Pagans.

One important idea Townsend seeks to get across with this book is that there is not just one Jesus; there are (at least) three. There is the human Jesus of Nazareth, the divinised Jesus Christ of the Church -- which is the Jesus that Pagans took issue with most -- and there is the universal Jesus, known as the Mythic or Cosmic Christ. It is this third Jesus, the Christ, which Townsend believes to be the most underrepresented in the popular consciousness. It is also, I think, this third Jesus which spoke most clearly to me when I was a practicing Christian.

Townsend writes, quoting Fr. Richard Rohr:

Of course, the essence of both the Jesus story and the Christ myth is this: "There is no division/no separation between the divine and everything else. The Incarnation of God in Jesus is the symbol of what's true, of what has always been true, for everything."

I read those words, and it feels like Jesus left a message on my phone to tell me he misses me sometimes, too. I read those words, which speak clearly to the idea that the divine is immanent, integrated into the fabric of the universe, and I wonder what would happen it all Christians and Pagans, and everyone else for that matter, could imagine a world in which the Mystery was manifest in all things, at all times. Would we stumble through our lives bored, tired, disenchanted, or would we rejoice with every breath at the wonder of our existence?

I'm glad I read this book, and I'm glad to remember what it was about Jesus that did a number on my heart. I think there is good cause for Christians and Pagans, alike, to read Jesus through Pagan Eyes, and to step back from our preconceptions about one another. I'm happy, too, to remember that Christ can be conceived of as something apart from the Church, and that the Church -- when functioning at its most healthy -- is bigger than any of its individual Christianities.

Perhaps one day it will be big enough for every conceivable Jesus.