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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Teachings of Jesus Christ: An Interview with Mark Anthony Barrionuevo

by Seattle Jon (bio)

In this post I interview Mark Anthony Barrionuevo, author of the recently published two-volume anthology of Christ's teachings titled The Teachings of Jesus Christ.

What is The Teachings of Jesus Christ?

I think of it as Mormon Doctrine meets Jesus for Dummies. I’m not trying to be irreverent but I believe the alphabetical and doctrinal order of Bruce R. McConkie’s seminal take on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ beliefs, as well as the simplified format and user-friendly presentation of the [Blank] for Dummies series, is an appropriate synopsis of The Teachings of Jesus Christ.

In a nutshell, The Teachings of Jesus Christ considers every single doctrine, principle, truth, verity, idea, topic, etc. that Jesus Christ spoke while in the flesh among the children of men or taught through His actions. For me, these are encompassed in the Gospels in the New Testament of The Holy Bible—Saint Matthew, Saint Mark, Saint Luke, and Saint John—and in 3 Nephi of The Book of Mormon.

Why did you write The Teachings of Jesus Christ?

This project began because of an experience attending church. I brought my biological father to worship services with me one Sunday and after the meetings were done I asked him what he thought. His answer surprised me. My father said that the church we had just attended claims to be the Church of Jesus Christ but that he did not hear any of the teachers and preachers speak about Christ.

My visceral thought was that he was wrong. Hadn't he listened to the sermons? Hadn’t he paid attention to the topics of the talks? And then I thought again. The topics of temple work, God’s plan for His children, and priesthood authority were all discussed that Sunday and to me each subject is inextricably centered on Jesus Christ: temple work is performed in the House of the Lord Jesus Christ and is possible because of His infinite and eternal sacrifice; God’s plan of salvation is possible because Jesus Christ performed the atonement; and priesthood authority is the authority for man to act in God’s name on the earth, which is the same authority that Christ possesses and acted under while he performed His labors among men. But, to my father who did not have a background in the LDS-perspective on these spiritual matters, Christ, or at least the explicit name of "Jesus Christ," was absent.

So, in answer to your question, I wrote The Teachings of Jesus Christ so that any preacher or speaker who speaks about Christian or spiritual matters can begin with the source and branch off from Him. In that way, our implicit reverence and reliance on Jesus Christ will be explicit and "His light may shine."

How did you start this project?

So, as this conversation and experience with my biological father percolated in my mind, one day while I was observing students do their classwork for a few hours (yawn) I decided to be productive. How could I be productive? Starting with St. Matthew Chapter 1, verse 1 of The Holy Bible and moving methodically from there, I wrote down what topics each verse spoken by Christ or about Christ's actions contained. Some days I was able to complete a block of verses. Some days I would spend an entire hour on one verse, notating and analyzing the multitude of significance and meaning in the words of the Savior.

I have to add that it was a very daunting and extremely humbling, but extremely invigorating, task to analyze the numerous layers of meaning located in one sentence of the Redeemer’s teachings. As the greatest teacher who ever lived, even as the Word in flesh, you can't imagine the complexity and perfection infused in one seemingly passing comment to a lawyer or to an adulteress. Yet no sentence is a throw away; no word is wasted. There's meaningful yet underlying context. There's eternal significance. There's temporal solace. There's piercing condemnation. There's unadulterated love in every syllable. Maybe that is one reason Jesus Christ is called the Master: He is the Master of language and of teaching the eternal verities of God.

How long did it take you to complete it?

I started in March 1997 and it was finally published in February 2012. The process wasn't continuous. I had lots of false starts and switchbacks.

During this fifteen year period, I lived in Provo and Salem, Utah; Las Vegas, Nevada; Ft. Lauderdale, Florida; Washington D.C.; Rockville, Maryland; Garden Grove, Los Angeles and San Fernando Valley, California; Brookline and Boston, Massachusetts; and Denver and Colorado Springs, Colorado.

I backpacked through Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, and England. I traveled to New York City, Washington D.C., Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands, Canada, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Bermuda, as well as to 49 of the 50 states.

I attended and graduated from BYU, Georgetown University and Boston University School of Law.

I worked as a health care advisor at a treatment center, a live-in nanny, a pizza/video man, a teaching assistant, a landscaper, a door-to-door salesman (twice, newspaper subscriptions and pest control), a market researcher, a tutor, an English and creative writing teacher at a Jewish private school, a property manager, an elected city official, and now an attorney.

I had appendicitis. I broke a few bones. I contracted, among other things, Bells Palsy, Ramsey Hunt Syndrome, degenerative disc disease (receiving five epidural nerve blocks in my back in the process), shingles, molluscum contagiosum, mono, and became constructively disabled.

I was physically assaulted, robbed, and emotionally abused by some who are closest to me.

My cousin, great-grandmother, grandmother, and aunt passed beyond the veil.

I was married, divorced, married again, and now have two wonderful boys.

I had severe trials of faith and rapturous connection with God.

In short, like everyone, I lived a lot of life and the Savior and His teachings were my anchors the entire time. I did not complete this project. It completed me, especially when I was less than whole. And it was these experiences, among others, that helped to give me new lenses to decipher Christ's teachings.

What are some insights you gained from your work on this project?

One humorous insight is that after five years of working on the project I had about 200 pages written, and I thought I was nearing completion. Then, one Sunday at church, a youth speaker shared with us how he prayed before starting his homework and how much heavenly help he felt he received from doing that. That talk hit me like a knee to the soul because in five years of working on The Teachings of Jesus Christ and visiting and revisiting prayer on countless occasions, I had never once prayed before I began a day's work on the book. Not once.

So I repented, and the next day when I sat down with my breakfast, my scriptures and my notes for the book, I said a prayer of gratitude for how far I had come and solicited God's assistance in taking me further. Ten years and 1,000 pages later, I now feel like the project is complete. I quip to people that it may not be fully exhaustive—for as the scriptures tell us in John 21: 25, "And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen."—but I am exhausted.

Another insight deals with John the Beloved and the Three Nephites. As may or may not be known, Jesus gave a wonderful wish to at least four special individuals on the earth: the gift of never tasting death.

John the Beloved and the three unnamed Nephite disciples (known in LDS circles as the "Three Nephites") were given the wish of their hearts to stay upon the earth and perform missionary labors, preaching and sharing the teachings of Christ until He should come again.

In pronouncing this blessing upon the Three Nephites in 3 Nephi 28, He states, "… but ye shall live to behold all the doings of the Father unto the children of men, even until all things shall be fulfilled according to the will of the Father, when I shall come in my glory with the powers of heaven." Moreover, the account states that they won't know the "pains of death" nor any pain in the flesh, "neither sorrow save it be for the sins of the world."

Why were they given such a wonderful gift? Jesus answers: "[B]ecause of the thing which ye have desired of me, for ye have desired that ye might bring the souls of men unto me, while the world shall stand." Jesus then states that the Three Nephites will have "fullness of joy" because of their decision and be one with God the Father and Christ, or, in other words, unified in purpose, as they are.

Now, here's the inspiring idea: In the Bible, we receive no great detail about John the Beloved receiving a similar wish except in John 21:22, when Peter questions Jesus about what will happen to John. Christ says, "If I will that [John] tarry till I come, what is that to thee?" The scriptures are silent on much more detail than this. However, John is called Beloved just as the Three Nephites and Christ himself is called "My Beloved Son" by God the Father. Could it be that John, Jesus Christ, and even the Three Nephites are "Beloved" because of their desires to spread the gospel? Because they sacrifice their lives for the kingdom of God and strive to bring souls unto Christ? This idea gave me pause and renewed appreciation for the importance of missionary work and a sense of where a real fullness of joy might come from.

The personal insights I received are innumerable, but these are just a sampling.

What is something Christ taught the most?

Prayer. I thought it would be love or faith, but it was prayer. He seems to want us to have a relationship with God the Father. He was continually turning His followers' attention to our Heavenly Father. "Ask and ye shall receive," the Lord's prayer, the Lord's Intercessory Prayer, Gethsemane, His three progressive prayers on behalf of the Nephites that climax into unspeakable utterances, the parable of the widow and the unjust king ... to me, it seems that every conversation Christ has with someone is an example of supplicating God. We can communicate with God, we can counsel with Him in all things, we can be chastised and we can be praised, but most of all we can be and must be led by Christ in order to find eternal life. A good friend once taught me, "It’s one thing to follow Christ, but it's another thing entirely to be led by Christ."

Priesthood and exercising that priesthood authority would be another principle Christ taught incessantly. The deluge of miracles and healings he performed all stand as an example that those who hold the priesthood should emulate.

Just as a quick example, when Christ changes water into wine, when He walks on water to His disciples, and when He curses the fig tree, He does not do these things as grand, eternal, monumental miracles that change the course of history. No, he does it to serve his mother at a party or to not inconvenience his friends or to teach a lesson about unfruitful followers. As I considered these miracles side-by-side, I realized that I need to use the priesthood more liberally and not only when someone is dying or when I think it will be of some grand significance. No, I need to be an instrument going about "doing good" just as Christ did. That takes more faith, but seeing and internalizing what Christ did helps to replace my doubt and fear with faith and love.

Isn't this just a Topical Guide like the one at the back of our scriptures?

The simple answer is no.

But, seriously, the Topical Guide in all its helpfulness is limited in its scope. It does not include every scripture because otherwise it would be twenty times as thick as the scriptures themselves! It also avoids redundancy, but sometimes there are nuances missed because those seemingly repetitive scriptures are plays with language. When I read something that approaches a well-read verse in a new light, I receive deeper understanding. That’s how The Teachings of Jesus Christ and the Topical Guide differ. The Topical Guide gives an introduction to the principles and teachings of God, whereas my book seeks to deepen one's understanding of and relationship with Jesus Christ and God the Father.

How would someone use this in their daily life?

Any way they saw fit.

Teachers can utilize it in their preparation before teaching Sunday School.

Preachers can sup from it to ground their sermons in Christ more perfectly.

Disciples of Christ can use it as daily scripture study. Instead of reading chronologically, which most of us do, we can do as Elder Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles counseled and look at principles or at "type scenes" that are repeated throughout scripture. What are themes that Christ seemed to return to throughout His ministry? This book will help Christians do that.

Non-Christians can read it to help them understand what Christians believe. I have many friends and family who do not pick up the scriptures nor have they probably ever read The Bible or The Book of Mormon, so diving head first into the King James Bible would be akin to jumping into the middle of the ocean without having learned how to swim. It would be daunting and probably a drowning-like experience for most novices of scripture. Not a very enticing invitation. But, with this book, a person who has never read scripture can easily find a topic of interest and slowly sift through the scripture verses with an eye to that topic. In this way, my book becomes training wheels for the non-Christian or non-scripture reader so that they can feel confident with Christ and His teachings, get their toes wet and wade methodically into the living waters.

Has your biological father read it yet?

Not yet, but I hope he will.

What makes you an authority on the teachings of Jesus Christ?

That's a question I would ask if I was on the other side of the pen.

I didn't necessarily go to divinity school and learn Greek and Hebrew to do this. I relied on the Holy Ghost a lot, as already discussed, and I used some of my educational training to assist me in analyzing and deconstructing the scriptures.

For example, I received my bachelors and masters degrees in English literature. In fact, at Georgetown I wrote my masters thesis on The Book of Mormon as American literature. Approaching scripture with a fine-toothed comb and culling out meanings and meta-meanings of semiotic significance was a lens I had employed during my undergraduate and graduate training. I remember being taught more fully this technique from a BYU professor in a class titled The Bible as Literature. The class shifted my paradigm and helped me see that I could apply the techniques I was learning not only to Hemingway, Toni Morrison, and Shakespeare but also to Luke, John and Nephi. The realization was eye-opening and freeing.

Moreover, legal training has helped me approach language carefully and methodically, with a scalpel instead of a chainsaw if you will. Employing this background, as well as leaning on my own personal daily study of the scriptures, I strived to stay true to what Christ intended and implied. Yes, there are modern-day interpretations, or I’ll call them applications of his teachings, but I didn't delve beyond the scope of His intentions. For example, I didn't list the Lord's Prayer under "Trite" or "Cliché" because that is a modern-day problem that has arisen. I don't believe it was Christ's intention when he initially answered the question, How should I pray?

In the LDS Church, we believe everyone with the Gift of the Holy Ghost has access to inspiration from heaven. And that is the only authority that I lean on, for God knows a lot better than I what He meant.

Where can someone buy the two-volume set of The Teachings of Jesus Christ?

Your readers can purchase both volumes either at Lulu or on Amazon (Volume 1 and Volume 2). Or, you can request your local bookstore or library to purchase the set.

Thanks MMM for allowing me the opportunity to talk with you about something very special to me. I hope your readers find this useful to them as they "come unto Christ."

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