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Originally published Sunday, January 19, 2014 at 3:03 AM

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Jay Parini on the complexities and contradictions of Jesus

In “Jesus: The Human Face of God,” poet, novelist and biographer Jay Parini attempts to get beyond layers of dogma in search of the “subtleties, complexities, and even contradictions of the life and teachings of Jesus.”

Special to The Seattle Times

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‘Jesus: The Human Face of God’

by Jay Parini

New Harvest, 170 pp., $20

An old saw has it that somewhere in his teens a person starts wondering about God, then joins a church and stops. We seem to want a GPS program for our spiritual quest: “Follow the detour signs around Deuteronomy, then take a slight left at Job. Proceed to Matthew ...”

There are plenty of such programs. Protestant sects alone number in the hundreds, each offering some version of the truth. But to the seeker, their Jesus can look embalmed with dogma, or like the embodiment of some preacher’s ego.

In “Jesus: The Human Face of God,” Jay Parini invites us to learn from his own quest without seeking to enlist us as pilgrims on his path.

Parini is a fine writer who refuses to be confined to any particular genre — poetry, fiction, criticism, biography — even mixing them, for example, with fictionalized accounts of Herman Melville and Leo Tolstoy. (His novel about Tolstoy, “The Last Station,” was turned into an award-winning film.)

What’s left? As a committed Christian, what’s left is what he has prepared for as scholar, teacher, writer and believer. In “Jesus: The Human Face of God,” he explores a preoccupation from a childhood as the son of a Baptist minister, writing a book he calls “the fruit of my decades-long project of trying to understand Jesus and to take his example purposefully in my own life.”

Parini isn’t reticent about what he sees as the weaknesses of many viewpoints, observing that the literalism of evangelical Protestantism leads to “a limited vision that is both reductive and — in my opinion — dangerous.” Neither does he align himself with Christians for whom Jesus “becomes simply a wise man who wished us to behave like the good Samaritan.”

Instead, he illuminates his own participation in “the gradually realizing kingdom of God, a process of daily transformation.” He offers a disclaimer: “I don’t pretend to know any more about Jesus than any well-disposed Christian who has spent a good deal of time reading about him, studying the Bible, trying to learn from his example and absorb the desert wisdom of his teaching.” However, his erudition includes a knowledge of Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic that reveals subtleties an ordinary reader would surely miss.

Still, he acknowledges that the story is too big for a human being to grasp. He notes the passage in Luke where Jesus returns after the crucifixion, when “even his closest disciples failed to recognize him.” If the disciples themselves didn’t grasp what was happening right in front of them, no wonder we are often uncertain. “Recognition takes time,” Parini assures us, “becoming in fact a process of uncovering.”

For all that is written about Christianity, it can be hard to find a writer who is not out to recruit us to some narrow orthodoxy — or to overthrow all orthodoxy. With “Jesus: The Human Face of God,” Jay Parini gives us a capacious, inspiring meditation on the subtleties, complexities, and even contradictions of the life and teachings of Jesus.

Richard Wakefield’s latest book is “A Vertical Mile,” a poetry collection (Able Muse Press).

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