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the daily review, thu., may 12

Tom Harpur

When Tom Harpur created a sensation with the Easter, 2004, publication of The Pagan Christ, the bestselling Canadian book of the year, he was just days short of turning 75. Written after his 80th birthday, Born Again retraces the route that took him from a Depression-era evangelical Low Church Anglican upbringing in Toronto to local, national and international fame as The Toronto Star's globetrotting religion editor, as a TV personality and the author of many books that culminated in the religious controversies surrounding The Pagan Christ and its 2007 sequel, Water into Wine.

In the latter book, he argues that "contrary to the plain sense of the very Bible that they profess to revere and live by, [Christian fundamentalists] have made [Jesus]into the greatest American Idol of all" by misinterpreting metaphorical myths as historical facts.

In his epilogue to Born Again, Harpur wryly admits, too late in the game, that readers "may be pardoned for thinking that my major preoccupation these days is looking backwards at the past." Bluntly, his memoir is too full of reminiscences of mentors and friends that are more at home at the high table of Oriel College, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, than inside the head of any reader seeking illumination about such divisions of sense and sensibility in Canadian public life as those personified by our evangelical Prime Mnister and the more liberal leaders of the opposition parties.

What makes this book frustrating to those who aren't blood relatives, close friends or utterly devoted Harpurites - who probably do want to know all about the skills in Greek and Latin that won scholarships and the paternal pressures that led to pastorships in Toronto churches and a professorship in New Testament Greek at Wycliffe College before he joined the Star - is that whenever he rouses himself from anecdotage and addresses his passion for accurate reporting on the current state of Christianity, he has vital things to communicate.

Here, for instance, is part of his assessment of Pope John Paul II and his successor: "Few figures in the modern era have so completely escaped a truly objective, balanced reportage as he did. ... Underneath the charismatic exterior was a willfully stubborn, undemocratic temperament ill suited for the huge task of giving guidance to a church heading into the third millennium. … (Benedict is in many ways like Pope John Paul II in mindset - but without the charisma.) … This was not a man who was prepared to do any listening to his own clergy and his most devoted laity. … [The press and public]treated JPII as if he were a rock star, and he played the role of global celebrity to the hilt."

Harpur's accuracy of observation and truth in reporting (he displayed exemplary integrity and courage in writing of Pope John Paul II throughout his papacy) are the best reasons for reading Born Again. Whenever he is actively engaged with wonders of the natural world - including those humans such as Jean Vanier who live as participants rather than as dominators_- he is at his most convincing, and earns the right to claim that there is "far more to learn of the mystery we call God from the world around us than from all the holy books and preachers put together."

In the opening decades of the 21st century, the areas of inquiry under most intense scrutiny by religious scholars are the interfaces between history and myth in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Pagan Christ succeeded mightily in liberating this debate from "the ecclesiastical industry" and bringing it to the attention of the general public.

Born Again reiterates Harpur's claim that Jesus is entirely mythic and without historical foundation and he defends it against his critics in ways that are both foolhardy and wise. The wisdom and principal benefit in reading the book is found here: "Whether Jesus was historical or not, the body of teaching focused upon his name - the ethic of social justice, self-sacrificing compassion and non-violence - remains as bedrock … and affords the common ground upon which a unity of all … can be firmly based."

Contributing reviewer T.F. Rigelhof's memoir of life as a Catholic before and after Vatican II, A Blue Boy in a Black Dress, has been hailed as "a Canadian classic"; its sequel, Nothing Sacred: A Journey Beyond Belief, earned more mixed reviews.

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