MODESTO — John Ortberg's newest book, "Who Is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus," looks at the impact of the carpenter from Galilee. Believe in Jesus or not, Ortberg said, but you can't escape the fact that he has split history, influenced education, impacted science, raised the worth of women and children and been at the heart of thousands of compassionate efforts to feed the hungry, clothe the poor and heal the hurting.
"It's a little like if you're on a lake and a huge wave comes by," said Ortberg, a prolific author and pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, during a recent phone interview with The Bee. You wonder what caused that big wave and see the many ripples ripples that go out from that, he said.
Jesus, more than any other person, he said, "has impacted our understanding of transcendent goodness from compassion to arts and beauty to forgiveness and humility more than anyone else."
Easter is the day that his impact is perhaps most on public display.
"Easter is a reminder that whatever you think about Jesus, he's still the hinge of history," Ortberg said. "We still divide history into what happened before him and after him. That happened because of Easter and is what transformed that little group of people who followed him, simply the conviction that death cannot stop this man.
"Usually when a great man dies, everyone can predict on the day that he died that his impact will be huge Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Steve Jobs. On the day after Jesus died, it looked like his memory would be gone incredibly quickly. If there was the least-likely-to-succeed award, it would have gone to Jesus. The fact that his impact is so great is proof of the resurrection and the reality of Easter. How utterly defeated (his disciples) were on Saturday, and then look at his impact on the world thousands of years afterwards."
But what about all the negative things that people have done in the name of Christ, such as the bloody Crusades, and people who used the Bible to argue against women's rights to vote and hold property, and those who said slavery was biblical?
Critics are "absolutely right," said Ortberg. "One of the amazing things about Jesus' impact is it often happens in spite of his followers and friends. Going back to the very beginning, Jesus would often talk about things the disciples didn't understand, like when they were arguing about who was the greatest. I think throughout the history of the world, we (Jesus' followers) get it wrong, and sometimes we get it right. But there's something about the life of Jesus himself that refuses to get submerged. It comes back up to the surface and is re-forming and reforming."
For example, he said, in the ancient world, compassion "tended to get directed to my family or my tribe or to people who could reciprocate. People who were malformed or diseased, they were kind of out of luck."
Then first through Israel (Judaism) and later through Jesus came the thought that because everyone is made in the image of God, everyone deserves the compassion of anyone who is able to help, Ortberg said. "Through Jesus and the influence of the people around him, that movement spread."
Jesus' influence, Ortberg said, led to the founding of many of this country's colleges, the creation of orphanages and other compassionate ministries, led to advances in science and medicine and countless other "ripples" throughout history and diverse cultures.
So what is Jesus' greatest impact on the world?
"I would say, especially as we think about him around the time of Easter, hope. People in the ancient world mostly thought of the human existence as cycles moving up and down but never leading anywhere. Again, starting with Israel and coming through Jesus, the world was created by God and is moving toward redemption, moving toward goodness, and so we have hope. His resurrection creates a kind of hope, including for despairing people, depressed people, and that hope continues to shine."
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2012.