Monday, July 30, 2007


Dr. John Tietjen (1928-2004) was a well-respected theologian and seminarian in the Lutheran church. He played a pivotal role in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod's Seminex controversy, and his book Which Way to Lutheran Unity?: A History of Efforts to Unite the Lutherans of America is perhaps his best-known work.

The Gospel According to Jesus, which was unfinished when Tietjen died, is his attempt to synthesize the four Gospels and present them from Jesus' perspective. Writing a believable and quality account in Jesus' first person, that is, getting inside Jesus' head, is certainly a daunting challenge.

It is not clear what audience Tietjen had in mind when he wrote this. It reads like Jesus is talking to eight-year-old kids of the modern day. An adult reader may feel like he's reading a children's book or like he's being talked down to. Tietjen has Jesus explain many Jewish customs and contexts (but strangely, neglects to define many Jewish terms), which is nice in and of itself, but which also takes away from the "gospel" feel of the piece.

Tietjen takes some liberties (Joseph was married before, etc.), but in an account like this, some degree of poetic license is necessary, and most of these liberties do not detract. One, however, does: When Jesus talks with the Samaritan woman at the well, he guesses how many husbands she had, which is so thoroughly problematic that no further discussion is needed.

I have some serious problems with Tietjen's Jesus. This Jesus is completely ignorant that he is the Messiah, that he is the Son of God, until his baptism. After the baptism, we're dealing with an insecure, figure-it-out-as-you-go Jesus, which is largely incompatible with the works of power he does. With a running mentality of unsurety interspersed with outbursts of authority, Jesus comes off as almost bipolar at times. This Jesus is certainly not "one with the Father" (John 10:30). When Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, Lazarus is still sick. He's "just as he was before he died" (p. 64). This seems like something of a poorly-executed miracle.

Jesus' temptations simply aren't. During the second temptation, when Jesus is told to throw himself down from the Temple, Jesus immediately thinks, "...this idea was more disgusting to me than the earlier bread idea" (p. 20). The whole temptation scene is rendered rather ineffectual.

The reader is also left without a payoff. The greatest challenge in writing from inside Jesus' head would be the Passion. But Tietjen switches perspectives here, and gives us Mary the sister of Lazarus as narrator.

The book has other problems. There are many typos, too few commas, and a bizarre recurring changing of tense in mid-sentence. The writing is profoundly amateurish at times. For example, "With a loud voice I shouted" (p. 42). However, the cover, by Sally Beck, is nothing short of gorgeous.

Who knows how this book would have turned out had Tietjen lived to finish it? This really seems like a missed opportunity. In its current condition, The Gospel According to Jesus is unworthy of anyone's time.


The Gospel According to Jesus was published in 2006 by Creative Communications for the Parish.