Jesus the Forgiving Victim is an introduction, or more likely a re-introduction, to Christianity for adults. Three major themes are interwoven through the course: 1) desire and Atonement, 2) handling the Bible, and 3) the project called Church. The course is divided into four parts – a summary of the material covered in each part is presented below.
Part 1: Starting human, staying human
Topics: New patterns of desire, revelation and discovery, and Luke 24:13-35 (the road to Emmaus)
Companion texts: Essay 1, “Don’t speak until you’re spoken to” and Essay 2, Emmaus and Eucharist.
James Alison describes Part One of Jesus the Forgiving Victim this way:
“Jesus the Forgiving Victim course is a journey of discovering that God is communicating to us at a very human level about who God is, who we are and to whom we belong. We’ll start by spending a good chunk of time looking at things we already know but we don’t typically remember about what it’s like to be human, how we relate, how we grow, how we remember. Only then will we approach a familiar piece of scripture which I hope will come alive for you in new ways.
“By the close of Part One, I hope you will be feeling both well-grounded in a new understanding of anthropology and a bit unsteady as well. Encountering the Forgiving Victim is at once unsettling and reassuring: unsettling as we discover things aren’t what we thought they were – things as essential as who we are and what being good is all about; and reassuring as we realize that the One who is moving us, creating us and calling us into a new life is someone who loves us deeply, even likes us! I hope that you found that the material has helped you spark off things with each other so that you can explore together the ways in which encountering the Forgiving Victim is both unsettling and reassuring.”
Excerpt from Essay 1, Don’t speak until you’re spoken to
Someone whose sins are being forgiven is someone who is being let go of being tied to their past in a certain way, and being given a whole new perspective from which to hold themselves in relation to their past. In other words, a massive, and often initially painful, revision of their story is being given them by someone else.
Part 2: God, not one of the gods
Topics: Old Testament background, interpretation, the discovery of monotheism
Companion texts: Essays 3 and 4, Who’s afraid of the big, bad book (parts 1 and 2)
James Alison describes Part Two of Jesus the Forgiving Victim this way:
“It’s time to dive into the Bible, what I sometimes jokingly call the big bad book. It can be difficult to find your way into these texts because of the linguistic and cultural issues that separate us from the ancient world. You can feel as if you’ve stumbled into the middle of a heated conversation without knowing who the parties are or what they’re so worked up about. In Part Two I’ll be trying to guide you into handling the texts in a more relaxed way so as to get on the inside of some of the issues that the sacred authors were wrestling with. In short we will be starting to read the Scriptures through the eyes of the forgiving victim, just as St. Luke teaches us to do. By the end of this part I hope you will have discovered that biblical scholarship is less frightening than it might seem and that you will have the confidence to dabble for yourself in these biblical texts without being scared of them.
Excerpt from Essay 3, Who’s afraid of the big bad book?
I’m trying to make it possible for you to handle the Bible without being frightened. For you to be able to receive the texts of Scripture not as a scary trap that somehow you must accept if you are to be a ‘good person’, but as something much richer and more freeing: the ancient texts through, and by means of, which the living God enables us gradually to learn who God really is, and who we really are.
Part 3: The difference Jesus makes
Topics: Faith, atonement, mercy
Companion texts: Essay 5, Stand up and be godless! On receiving the gift of faith; Essay 6, Undergoing atonement: The reverse-flow sacrifice; Essay 7, Induction into a people and Essay 8, Inhabiting texts and being discovered
James Alison describes Part Three of The Forgiving Victim this way:
“In this part we’ll further fill out the impact which Jesus makes, coming amongst us as the Crucified and Risen One. How his presence does the hard work behind making faith possible for us, what his self-giving up to death achieved, how this opens us up into becoming a new people. We’ll also try to catch some glimpses of the Master at work as we watch Jesus interpret his Scriptures to his own people.”
Excerpt from Essay 7, Induction into a people
What is being founded, in short, for those who are enabled to enter into the perspective of the victim, is the possibility of being forgiven – literally, let go, from the victimizing way of creating and maintaining togetherness, and thus of beginning to relate to other people without the need to gang up in order to survive.
Part 4: Unexpected insiders
Topics: Prayer, church and the shape of the new belonging
Companion texts: Essay 9, Prayer: Getting inside a shift of desire; Essay 10, The portal and the halfway house: Spacious imagination and aristocratic belonging; Essay 11, A little family upheaval and Essay 12, Neighbours and insiders: What’s it like to dwell in a non-moralistic commandment?
James Alison describes Part Four of Jesus the Forgiving Victim this way:
“At this point in our journey we are discovering new dimensions of how we are insiders within a great shift: old patterns of belonging are being undone from within; we can no longer so easily form identities over and against victims because the forgiving victim has called us into a new space. I hope that you have begun to get a sense of something that is true independently of my attempt to teach it, a center of meaning to which I’ve been pointing but which is not of my invention, one from which so much more flows than I have been able to bring out here.
“I hope that as the course concludes you find yourself leaving with an enriched sense of the crucified and risen one who is just there, alongside you, calling you into being, forgiving you and challenging you, teaching you to laugh at yourself, not despising you or putting you down. One who wants to see what you are going to make of this, is curious and excited to journey with you in ways I can’t anticipate. So where will you take it? How will you build each other up? As we work through our desire and our belonging, what will the new shape of community take, one in which there are no longer insiders and outsiders, only those who are being inducted into a human story in which death does not have the final say? And how will we respond to the challenges that flow from this? I look forward to your filling me in so that my journey is enriched by yours!”
Excerpt from Essay 12, Neighbours and insiders: What’s it like to dwell in a non-moralistic commandment?
I hope that it is by now obvious to you that… an account of faith which postulates a mysterious event in the past leading to painful morals in the present reveals its distance from the original by making Christianity boring. And that, above all, is the trap that I’ve been trying to avoid. Instead of this, I have been attempting to set before you a rather different take on the same events. One in which a rambunctiously Alive One – the one I have described as ‘the Other other’, effervescent beyond words – comes rushing towards us, taking us by surprise, undoing us from bonds we scarcely knew were there, and bringing us to life.