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Book review: What Would Jesus See? Ways of looking at a disorienting world by Aaron Rosen

14 June 2024

This is a modern Jewish perspective on that of Jesus, says Philip Welsh

“I WANT to look at how Jesus saw, what Jesus saw, and why this is important today.”

Aaron Rosen approaches his theme from the unusual perspective of “a Jewish theologian with a specialty in visual culture”, who teaches prospective clergy at a Methodist seminary and whose wife is an Episcopalian priest.

He subtly examines a range of episodes from the Gospels to show “how Jesus understands the process of vision; his keen eye for spectacle; and how others behold him”, and draws out the themes of paying attention, discerning the truth, and recognising others.

Rosen brings this into dialogue with various artists who use biblical themes, from Caravaggio to the contemporary English painter Roger Wagner. “Thinking about artistic creation as a spiritual discipline offers an opportunity to enrich how we think about attention.” He does not look specifically at the Jewishness of Jesus, though he brings in several notable Jewish thinkers: Maimonides on the value of inscrutability; Simone Weil on paying attention; Martin Buber on relationship.

Popular culture finds a place, too (with a happy reminder of the crowd’s chant in Monty Python’s Life of Brian: “Yes! We’re all individuals!”). So does the author’s personal life — with his lively students; night-walking in Manhattan after a close bereavement; and getting his hair cut.

All of this is brought to bear on a range of contemporary social issues, particularly as seen from Rosen’s eastern-US context: social-media obsession; post-truth public life; racial injustice; the legacy of Covid lockdown (including the writing of this book); the apocalyptic horizon of climate change; gender identity. There is a slight air of preaching to the converted, with the preacher’s temptation to use scripture as a springboard for progressive editorialising.

Take away the daunting endnotes, and What Would Jesus See? is a book of modest length aimed at a general readership, written in a breezy and conversational style, and seasoned with seductively clever words, such as orthogonal, imbricated, and haptic (i.e. right-angled, overlapping, and to do with touch). The illustrations of paintings are, unfortunately, too poor to be useful.

Occasionally, he offers a thought that might come less readily to a Christian commentator. As a further explanation for the so-called messianic secret, “maybe [Jesus] is masking an insecurity or uncertainty about his calling.” Judas may have needed to betray Jesus with a kiss because Jesus was not widely known by sight.

When it comes to the risen Christ, his book “arrives at the outer perimeter of our inquiry, at the entry point of territory best surveyed by believers”. Yet, finally, his portrait of Jesus is sympathetic, challenging, and engaged. “This Jesus, more eagle-eyed, unpredictable, and brilliant than I expected, was not someone I recognized initially, and he still continues to surprise me.”

The Revd Philip Welsh is a retired priest in the diocese of London.

What Would Jesus See? Ways of looking at a disorienting world
Aaron Rosen
Broadleaf Books £20.99
Church Times Bookshop £18.89

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