Book Review: Bruce Fisk, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jesus

Fisk. Bruce N. A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jesus: Reading the Gospels on the Ground. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2011. 288 pp. Pb. $23.00. Link to Baker   Link to Logos.

Bruce N. Fisk has written a very entertaining introduction to the study of Jesus that touches on many important issues through the fictional adventures of a student visiting Jerusalem in order to find some answers to his doubts about the “historical Jesus.” The book follows the travels of Norm Adams, a student who read Bultmann in a university religion class and found his faith shaken. The class was taught by Professor Guilder. Guilder represents the assured findings of the “scholarly guild” on each issue. As he travels Norm exchanges emails with Guilder asking about specific issues. Norm decides that an extended stay in the Holy Land might just answer his nagging doubts about Jesus.

HHGTJThe book is illustrated with photographs and drawings by the author. Some of these are line drawings, others are pages torn from primary sources, with underlined phrases and marginalia giving the impression that the student is wrestling with their contents. Charts are printed as pages from Norm’s notebooks. Sidebars appear as “sticky notes” in the margin, usually with a quote from a significant scholar commenting on the topic at hand. These make the book feel like a real travel journal. While these features work well in the print version of the book, they are less successful in the Logos version. Some the line drawings are well done and all the photographs are reproduced, but the sticky notes and charts are (mostly) simple grids or boxes.

There are plenty of cultural references that should appeal to a wide range of readers: The Simpsons, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Bob Marley, and Bruce Cockburn; from Shakespeare to The Beatles, with frequent reference to dialogue from Monty Python. The title of the book is an obvious hat-tip to Douglas Adams and ought to give the reader an idea the sort of humor found in the book. There is some current political commentary in the book, although it seems fairly balanced. Told through the story of the hitchhiker, a political agenda is muted.  I think I would enjoy having a conversation with Fisk!

Fisk Old City

From Logos on the iPad

Chapter 1 uses the plane ride to Israel and a discussion with a fundamentalist to present evidence from Pliny, Tacitus and Josephus for the existence of Jesus. In Chapter 2, Norm explores the existence of John the Baptist and has a chat with John Meier on the criteria of authenticity. After meeting some apocalyptically minded travelers, the student visits Qumran, the pilgrim map at Madaba in Jordan, then the traditional baptism site. Chapter 3 uses a trip to Bethlehem to discuss the virgin birth of Jesus and the “true scandal of the Trinity” (77).

Chapter 4 deals with the miracles of Jesus. Fisk opens with dialogue from the Life of Brian, name-checks Middle Earth, Wallace and Grommit, The Truman Show and Stigmata – and that is just the first page! I particularly liked his description of a modern Arab wedding banquet, especially given my interest in the wedding banquet image in the synoptic gospels. Fisk provides an excellent chart connection Jesus’s actions in John 2 with Jesus’ bridegroom sayings in Mark 2 and Luke 5.

Chapter 5 follows Norm as he compares the various versions of Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi. This leads to a “dream sequence” featuring a long discussion in the “Hall of Questors.” Here Fisk presents the criteria of authenticity via a discussion with John Meier as well as the meaning of the phrase “coming of the son of man” with Scot McKnight (Tom Wright was asleep, having just finished another book), and James Dunn (“call me Jimmy”). Fisk does include pre-millennialist views (my dreams for a meet-up between Tim LeHaye and N. T. Wright were not realized, sadly). I am disappointed that Tim LeHaye was used as the representative of pre-millennialism, especially since meeting Darrell Bock in Jerusalem would have made for entertaining reading!

Hitchhiker 1

From Logos on the Desktop

In Chapter 6 Norm follows the last days of Jesus as he entered Jerusalem. He begins with a reflection at the little chapel known as Dominus Flevit on the Mount of Olives. This the traditional site of Jesus’ weeping over the city of Jerusalem, just before the triumphal entry. Norm spends some time in the chapel thinking about the meaning of Jesus’ actions on the Mount of Olives, crossing the valley and riding up to the city of Jerusalem on a donkey. After quoting Hermann Reimarus on the meaning of the Triumphal Entry, “one of my German ghosts,” Norm comments, “full points for drama, Hermann. Zero for plausibility.” Rather, Norm understands that the actions point to Jesus as the Davidic King, the Coming One, the Messiah, and the Savior.

Chapter 7 concerns the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. In this chapter Norm does not start at the traditional site of the Garden of Gethsemane, but rather the Grotto, where there is an ancient olive press. Norm reviews here Jesus’ prayer in the garden and thinks about what it means to be a martyr in the First Century. Comparing texts from Polycarp and 4 Maccabees, Norm wonders if “martyr” is the best description of Jesus. Norm eventually moves on to the Holy Sepulcher and does what any protestant does when they visit the Church: he watches the various liturgies with a sense of wonder (and not a little confusion!) While in the Holy Sepulcher, Norm discusses the possibility of a bodily resurrection as well as evidence like the James Ossuary and the Talpiot Tomb.

As Norm prepares to return home after his lengthy stay in Israel, he reviews what he has learned in his own person “quest” for Jesus. Is it possible to “discover” the historical Jesus and have all questions of faith answered by archaeology and history? “If the Jesus of history will not be pegged, pinned, the Jesus of Scripture is almost as elusive” (266).

Conclusion. I will confess: When I first saw Fisk’s Hitchhiker’s Guide in the bookstore, I dismissed it as a shallow book attempting to cash-in on the “For Dummies” style book. But this was a false impression, for which I repent.  The content of the book is excellent and the presentation is entertaining. To some extent the book reminds me of the books by Peter Kreeft (such as The Journey) that use fiction and creative dialogue to get at serious philosophical questions. Logos did a good job reproducing the book in the Logos format, considering the variety of graphical items in the text. The book is available through Logos at a discount as part of a Jesus Studies Collection from Baker Academic. All of the books in this collection are worth reading.

Fisk succeeds in presenting some of the more difficult problems for modern people studying the Historical Jesus in an entertaining and compelling fashion. The book would make an excellent textbook for a Gospels class at the undergraduate level and a good introduction for a layperson wanting to get an understanding of some of the more difficult issues discussed by Historical Jesus scholars. While this would not make a very good “hitchhiker’s guide” for a visitor to Israel, Fisk does accurately reflect the sites that Norm visits.

NB: Thanks to Logos for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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