With My Own Eyes by Bo Giertz – A Review

By personal habit, and soon by way of formal study (again), I read a good […]

Adam Morton / 8.25.17

By personal habit, and soon by way of formal study (again), I read a good deal of academic theology. It isn’t always easy going down – sometimes quite far from it, as most working theologians are not sparkling writers. By contrast, I don’t read much popular Christian literature. It isn’t my thing, and I justify this opinion by noting that a huge proportion is bound to be saccharine, moralistic, anti-intellectual, or just plain bad art (though somewhere in this Venn diagram of horror there must be a kitschy sweet spot). There do exist, however, Christian writers who have addressed head and heart with equal clarity, communicating the hilarity of the Gospel with a sharpness that disarms its readers wherever they may stand, even jaded hard cases like yours truly. The late Swedish pastor and bishop Bo Giertz deserves mention on any such list, right alongside luminaries like C.S. Lewis or Mockingbird favorite Robert Capon.

Giertz was long lived and hugely prolific as a writer, and has certainly received a bit of attention from Mockingbird, but is not yet widely known among English-speaking Christians. Lutheran pastor Bror Erickson appears on a mission to change that. Only a few of Giertz’s books have been available in English until recently: The Hammer of God is rightly (among those who have read it) regarded as something of a modern spiritual classic, but what little else had ever been translated was long out of print. Erickson has previously worked on translations of Then Fell the Lord’s Fire, a collection of Giertz’s ordination sermons, The Knights of Rhodes, a historical novel, and To Live with Christ, a daily devotional. His latest project is more ambitious, and promises a wider reach: a fresh translation of With My Own Eyes, a novelization (and to that extent, a harmony) of the Gospels from the perspective of various biblical characters.

First published in Swedish in 1948 (it has seen English translation before, but has been out of print for several decades), the book was inspired by Giertz’s 1931 trip to Palestine with his mentor, Uppsala professor Anton Fridrichsen, and the marks of that trip are on display in the book’s vivid descriptions of geography, flora, and the details of daily life. Giertz was raised in an unbelieving, well-educated Swedish family and converted to Christianity as a young man, switching his focus at the University of Uppsala from medicine to theology. Significant to that conversion, and to his subsequent theological formation, is Giertz’s sense of the overwhelming and personal reality of Jesus and his Gospel, a reality that cannot but touch all of life. He walked on real roads and spoke with a real voice, and really is and was the Resurrection in the flesh.

That realism grants the novel its immediacy and punch. There is an inherent risk in portraying the Gospel stories in this way, of committing Jesus to a specific place, time, and way of moving that could turn out to be mistaken. When fleshed out into fuller pictures of events, and interpreted through the geography and reconstructed customs of the land, there will surely be misunderstandings, narrative choices made that later scholarship proves indefensible. The risk, then, is of a sincere but naive and easily dismissed story. Though Giertz was very learned, neither New Testament scholarship nor archaeology have stood still in the last seven decades. Every careful reader is likely to find points at which Giertz’s reconstruction is unsatisfying – but how much more often will that same reader find herself simply borne along by the vividness of events and the power of the Master’s words, quickly turning the page to find out where the strange man from Nazareth will take her next. I admit, I began the book slightly skeptical, not about Christ, but about any novelization of the Gospels. I finished it by wanting to post a passage from one of the later chapters, and suddenly worrying that I might give away the ending. The familiar had become very strange indeed, in a remarkable, thrilling way.

Again and again, With My Own Eyes catches the edge of something that every preacher has struggled to articulate, from the prophets to Mary Magdalene to today: the breathtaking newness of Jesus Christ. Here the novel’s structure, episodic and shifting in perspective, serves the content admirably. While Hammer of God is a powerful read, it perhaps suffers a bit as a novel from lack of continuity. The Gospels are better ground for this sort of thing, as at their center stands one who, though humbly residing in human flesh and human words, exceeds every description. Giertz intentionally leaves the disciples’ reports of resurrection appearances a confused matter, unable to quite agree on how many men were at the tomb or the precise sequence, their minds and speech simply overawed by circumstance. The disciples’ encounters with Jesus gradually become the reader’s own, which is in fact how it has always been since the days the stories were first told.

Erickson has done the church a service by bringing this treasure to new light. I am quite certain that my first engagement with it is only the first of many. Now, a taste, from near the end, relating Jesus’ ascension from the Mount of Olives:

Suddenly, James took his gaze off the horizon and looked at the Lord. He had lifted his hands, just like the high priest lifted them when he blessed the congregation in the temple. James fell down because these hands were not the same as other men’s. And even when they were not lifted in blessing, they encompassed all that which lived in them when Jesus walked among men. There was the miraculous power of faith that had lifted the dead girl from her bed. There was the authority that had stifled the cry of the possessed man in the dark. There was the royal power that could calm the waves and the compassionate healing judgment that threw off fever and disease. There was the almost caressing tenderness that had touched the heads of children to give them a share in the kingdom, and there was the devotion with which he broke bread during the thanksgiving and set it before him, full of the same divine life that was hidden within himself.

Ever higher did these hands of blessing raise themselves. Now they were over the eleven. Now they seemed to lift themselves over the city that lay down there, and over the whole land.

Only then did James realize what was happening. The lord vanished from their sight. He was taken from their view, but not in the same manner as so often before. This time, hew as taken up. He went into the heavens. How it happened, James could hardly fathom. When he looked up, there were only white clouds that blinded him. Then he heard someone ask why they stood there looking up to the heavens. This Jesus who had been taken up should come again in the same way.

With My Own Eyes, written by Bo Giertz and translated by Bror Erickson, is available now from New Reformation Press, a part of the 1517 Legacy Project.