This is what living within a big historical event looks like
Jon Meacham, 50 years old, was managing editor and then editor of Newsweek from 1996 to 2010. He holds an endowed chair at Vanderbilt University and has received a Pulitzer Prize and eight honorary doctorates. His latest book is The Hope of Glory: Reflections on the Last Words of Jesus From the Cross. Here are edited excerpts of our pre-Easter conversation.
Did you major in English at the University of the South (Sewanee) because you wanted to be a writer?
I grew up reading big biographies and big histories, and loved them. Loved Herman Wouk, loved Robert Penn Warren, read Churchill’s war memoirs fairly early on. I wanted a way to avoid law school, to combine writing and my fascination with politics. Journalism and history became the natural avenue.
You grew up in Episcopal churches and schools?
Yes, including an Episcopal day school and university. My secondary school was broadly Protestant: McCallie in Chattanooga.
It seems you had an orderly progression in journalism—Chattanooga Times, Washington Monthly, Newsweek—and were not a religion reporter, but you dealt with religious subjects.
I’ve always been fascinated by the role of faith not simply as a personal, private, or denominational matter but its role in the public sphere.
Newsweek often had covers right before Easter with Jesus on the cover. CNN Business said these had big newsstand sales. Did you get pressure from the business side to have those covers?
None at all. They tended to do well.
You wrote in the 2005 cover story that the Apostles probably did not create the Jesus story out of thin air, but their message strained credulity even then. Did it, does it, strain your credulity?
The resurrection is complicated for me, but I believe the tomb was empty and the people of the moment, most affected by it, believed in what had happened.
You say on Page 7 of your new book, flat out, “I profess the creeds.” Apostles and Nicene?
Since some profess the creeds generally but not the specifics, do you affirm everything in them?
Correct. … I believe that the claim to divinity in the salvation drama as we came to understand it is true. I am fascinated that the Gospels tell the story in a way that clearly says those closest to Him did not fully understand it amid the cataclysm of the Passion. If in the very beginning they needed to work things out, then we have to continue to be humble and open to ongoing revelation and the role of reason as well.
I don’t believe the Gospels are a transcript of what unfolded.
I’m getting a little confused here. The creeds are very emphatic that these things actually happened, yet on Page 28 you say the Gospel accounts are not literal reports but clues to the hopes and fears of the faithful. Could you play that out?
I don’t believe the Gospels are a transcript of what unfolded. I believe they are true, but I don’t believe they are necessarily factually accurate in the way the post-Enlightenment era has come to think of fact and reason, and data.
If you had been there at the resurrection, would you have heard Jesus’ last words? Would you later make up a story about what happened there?
I don’t know. That’s the tension. If there was invention, I think it was good-hearted and inspired. Nobody had a tape recorder. The message had to be within the plausible realm because some people were at least as familiar with the basic drama as the author. You couldn’t advance some radically dissonant or totally fanciful proposition because these were people who had lived through this cataclysmic event.
Luke is very much a good journalist: interviewing witnesses, investigating carefully, presenting a true account. Do you consider Luke to have been a reliable journalist?
I accept the Gospels as ancient accounts of ancient events within the genre of classical biography.
You write, “Each of the evangelists thought it important for his audience to believe that Jesus had said them”—those particular words. Does that seem Machiavellian—do you think of the Gospel writers as not necessarily believing but making others believe?
They were reporting their vision of the Good News. They weren’t setting out to write what we would think of as modern biography. That doesn’t mean they’re less legitimate. They are of such cosmic importance that they changed forever the lives of billions. So they need to be read carefully and with great fascination. But they are what they are, evangelical documents, written to inspire and to convince. They are not written to balance out competing evidence and claims about this controversial figure who was so controversial that the Roman Empire executes Him in the way they executed slaves. … I believe the essence of the story. My life is different and richer because I do.
On Page 40 you write, “By reporting that Jesus himself had forgiven all those who might be blamed for his brutal death, Luke was making the faith more accessible and appealing than it might have otherwise been.” Does that make Luke seem a bit like Joel Osteen?
I don’t accept the analogy you offer, but as a matter of textual criticism, I made a perfectly plausible point. The Gospel writers are writing for audiences, trying to engage the world, to do what Jesus said. I would not share the view that these documents should all be entirely taken at face value. Understanding the text in context for me has brought me closer to the core message than it has pushed me away from it.
But Paul tells the Corinthians, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God. ... If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” That seems to eliminate the middle ground.
Yeah, that’s certainly the Paul eye view. In the context of the Christian story, if the Passion did not do the work we believe it did, then of course it’s in vain, because that means it didn’t happen. … I believe in the resurrection, yes, absolutely. I choose to believe it. But if I put on a rationalist hat, I think doubt is accurate. Since St. Peter doubted it too, I’m not that concerned about it.
Well, he doubted it for a time, and then he realized what had happened. I hear you saying the Gospels are trustworthy to a certain point.
I think they’re trustworthy because they’re troubling. Why tell the story of the resurrection in this way if it weren’t roughly reflective of what unfolded? You have the women. You have everybody puzzled. They have to run and figure it out. They don’t understand.
You write on Page 70, “We do not genuflect to images of an empty tomb [but] to a representation of a place of suffering and of sweat, of blood and of death.” So you seem to be saying, Yes, we know the crucifixion occurred, but the empty tomb?
Why is every church in Western Christendom built around the cross, and not an empty tomb? Why does nobody wear an empty tomb around their neck? Why did the Church build itself around Friday and not Sunday?
Interesting, but the early Church did start meeting on Sunday. Let me ask about what you say on Page 42: We should be “deciding, through the use of reason, whether a given passage is an actual report or a theological device.” Do you trust your reason that much? Or I could ask: Has there ever been a time in your life when your reason really led you astray?
Six times this morning. I totally accept that point. As George Eliot said, we move through dim lights and tangled circumstance. Chesterton said we have to permit the twilight. What I am trying to say is that I am among the most fortunate of people. I was born in the United States of America at the height of its power when it stood against tyranny, against the Soviet Union. I was brought into the Christian tradition, born into it. It has fused my life with a meaning it would not have. One of the requirements of those of us to whom much is given is to try and tell our stories, and this is my story.
I was brought into the Christian tradition, born into it. ... I have struggled to resist self-righteousness.
You’ve had what looks like a smooth career, rising journalistically and then writing very well-received books. Has there ever been a time that you realized, with all the honors, “I’m really stupid. I should not trust my own reason. I should trust God”?
Oh absolutely. I have struggled to resist self-righteousness. I try to remember that I may well be wrong. In my own sense—this is far more personal than I’ve ever talked about this—but I have a kind of internal covenant, a private covenant, and will actually pray for the patience not simply to pronounce but to listen, but also for the courage, if I have something that I believe needs to be said, to say it whether it be popular or not. … The sense of your questions is, Am I exalting reason above God, right?
For me—just speaking for myself—the life of the mind, the life of theological reading, has led me closer to an orthodox faith than it has led me away from it. I believe more deeply because I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to think more deeply about the faith