The central argument of which is that there is a choice with Jesus: either we approach him as a living person (the Resurrected Jesus Christ of faith) or as a dead person (the Historical Jesus).
The former involves membership in a church, the “learning” of Jesus as a being of truth, love, and power; the latter succumbing to the ideology of the world concerning what is and what must be truth. The New Testament was written by individuals testifying to the power they felt in their faith and hope in a Resurrection. In other words, there is no non-Resurrected Jesus in the Gospels. Even the Jesus who in the story is not yet resurrected (or crucified) already is in the mind of the author, already is for the reader who is part of the tradition.
The Scriptures are read then for the Christian as to the future not the past. When the blind will see, when they starting seeing in the midst of our praxis and faith now. To say he is Resurrected is to say he is Lord. he lives. What it is not is to say what Resurrection exactly is or isn’t. That again is the tyranny of history and fact. The damned ignorant “What Happened (or Didn’t Happen) on Sunday Morning….Film at Eleven” view of Christianity.
The Enlightenment Kant described as “think for yourself.” As such, the notion of authority has been degraded in the modern/postmodern world to inherently oppressive external power that continues to keep the individual in a state of childlike idiocy/naivete. What Johnson (echoing Alasdair MacIntyre) is arguing for is a tradition.
He translates “disciple” as “learner”. Hence to “learn Jesus”, the subtitle of the work. In learning Jesus we are “learned” by him and learn about ourselves in our depths as he sees us. That is the transformation of faith that flowers in courage, joy, mercy, and love in this world. None of which occurs (transformation i.e.) by the study of the Jesus of History. Conservative historical Jesus-es, liberal ones, whatever.
There is no holistic sense of worship, study, meditation of the Scriptures, ethics, in a community because faith is a “private” matter in my conscience that no authority or person can question. But it is sterile. Liberal religion–what Kant called religion within the limits of reason alone–is part and parcel of this issue. It assumes the Enlightenment myth of atomistic muscular individuality and the supremacy of the ego and its rationalist thought processes/worldview.
This is not to argue for a pre-rational mythic view (i.e fundamentalism), which if anything is more concrete and limited in its scope. When in reality what is needed is greater depth and understanding of the need and meaning for symbolism and inter-relationship for the human creature.
The argument that one can get back to the “real” Jesus and his teaching without the tradition is a product (a failed one btw) of Protestantism and later the Liberal Enlightenment discourse. Johnson it is worth noting is a Catholic (i.e. he understands that one always stands in a tradition and the NT is the work of communities of tradition).
In my thinking about an Integral (i.e. post-metaphysical) Christianity what Johnson’s work again reiterates is a notion I’m working (vis a vis perspectives in Wilber’s system): namely that how we approach the Scriptures shapes what we experience. To wit, if we take the Jesus is dead path of Johnson’s (i.e. Historical Jesus) that is what will we experience. There will be arguments as to how exactly he is dead, what the meaning of his life was/wasn’t, which is the history of the Historical Jesus Quest–in my take WWJM? Why Would Jesus Matter (forgetting for the moment what we think he would do).
There is the way of approaching the Bible as Literature which has its own merits. But that is our read which comes from the tradition of artists and gains wider credence in a post-orthodox/confessional world. It is not the space from which it was originally written. That is not to say it is wrong, but it should be noted, that it is our choice to enter the text in this manner.
There are the Mystical and/or Gnostic Jesus reads. Whether orthodox or heterodox Christian or pan-religious (i.e. Jesus as the Guru). These reads have their own depth as well. But they are mainly justification/confirmation of the mystical path of interior (individual) consciousness one undertakes.
As a Christian then and as someone studying to be a clergymember, I have to argue for the read of Jesus is Alive. Johnson is right, with other reads one can produce great ethical reflection, mystical exegesis, artistic creativity, but there is no transformative community of faith. In the other versions it generally (though not exclusively) tends to be a second order retroflective support for what we have already on our discovered, however profound it may or may not be.
The texts of the NT seek to help bring about that experience of Jesus as Risen as Lord. That is why they are written. There is a surplus of meaning and meanings and functions the texts can otherwise serve (and do). But it is read in every other way than the one that calls for a leap (in Kierkegaard’s language). Where we enter a world where we are no longer in control and can be called and seen existentially by a power that we can neither understand nor comprehend but are attracted to (and repulsed by) nonetheless. On the other side of walking through door, all bets are off. That is why we avoid this path. Likely for good (though ultimately dehumanizing I would argue) reasons.
This alternate path is the path of following the Glory of the Lord as Balthasar said. In the text of the Bible and the text of our world.