don't let the title scare you -- The Jesus Sutras is as conventionally Christian as The Last Temptation Of Christ, and would knock the Pope on his posterior. It explores enticing questions that smack of heresy: How could Christianity be reinterpreted to fit a Buddhist and Taoist world view? And once altered, would it remain Christian or become a new system of enlightened thought?
Martin Palmer, an authority on Chinese religions, shares his study of the Jesus Sutras, Taoist Christian scrolls from seventh-century China unearthed in 1907. He's created a keyhole through which we peer into the ancient eastern world where this exotic blend of spiritual doctrines arose.
The scrolls weave a thread of Christian thought through Buddhist and Taoist philosophy. Original sin is nixed, the crucifixion and resurrection are downplayed, and new, evocative names are assigned. Satan is the Great Evil Ghost, Jesus is the Jade-Faced One and the Holy Spirit is the Cool Breeze. These translations, especially the one of the Golden Rule, are often comical. The texts themselves are lyrical, compelling and very, very surreal.
As well as informing the reader about an intriguing topic, the book is also an engaging study of how a spiritual philosophy can become dogma, and of the human machinations behind the making of a religion.
For example, in the Church of the East, the Ten Commandments include an injunction to honour the emperor. And adherents were told not to kill animals; the Taoist Christians writing these scrolls were vegetarian.
Palmer's mastery of his subject comes alive in spirited storytelling. The Jesus Sutras is at once an astonishing conjunction of history and philosophy and a hotbed of subversive notions.
Write books at email@example.com
The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity by Martin Palmer (Ballantine Wellspring), 270 pages, $37.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN