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Jesus didn't plan on starting a new religion, he was just trying to “radicalize” his listeners and snap them out of their spiritual doldrums, according to Erik Kolbell, author of What Jesus Meant: The Beatitudes and a Meaningful Life (Westminster John Knox Press, $19.95).
Dr. Kolbell, a Yale Divinity School graduate, minister, psychotherapist, author, and inspiration for the pastor in the TV series Seventh Heaven, said Christians and Jews alike tend to overlook the fact that all eight of the Beatitudes, or blessings, on which Jesus preached in his Sermon the Mount were based on Hebrew scriptures.
The Israelites of Jesus' day were living under oppressive Roman rule, and many had drifted away from the faith of their parents and grandparents, Dr. Kolbell said in an interview this week from his New York City office.
“My contention is that it was the people's lack of attentiveness to these ancient teachings that contributed to the sense of spiritual malaise they found themselves in,” he said.
From his mountainside perch, Jesus spoke to the multitudes, as written in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 5, by starting off with eight spiritual characteristics essential to living a godly life, beginning with, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Dr. Kolbell describes the Beatitudes as “a rich stew of elements ... that Jesus believed must be present if a life is to be lived in true obedience to the will of God.”
In his book, he focuses on each trait in a separate chapter: surrender, empathy, patience, self-denial, contrition, sanctification, wholeness, and courage.
As the Rev. Billy Graham has said, Dr. Kolbell believes the character traits found in the Beatitudes reflect Jesus' personality.
“I think it gets to the nub of Jesus' ethical teachings,” Dr. Kolbell said. “And I think that can be a portal to understanding his teachings on other matters such as the afterlife and faith in a God who is unseen.''
Ordained in the United Church of Christ, Dr. Kolbell believes the message of the Beatitudes applies to all people, regardless of religious tradition.
“Part of what helped inform this book was the work I've done with some of my patients as a psychotherapist,” he said. “I see each pillar representing a fundamental piece of human character, whether it's empathy or meekness or peace, and the ideas are not bound to any dogma or credo. It's what it takes to live a full life.”
He also said Jesus intended for his sermon to build up the oppressed Jews' sense of community along with their fulfillment as individuals.
“A spiritual malaise had fallen over the people, and they were wandering and groping and didn't know where to turn,” Dr. Kolbell said.
“I think that Jesus was saying not only can we find the rudiments of a better life in our faith as individuals, but as a community.”
A former minister of social justice at Riverside Church in New York, Dr. Kolbell, 50, remains active in social justice issues and although he is not on a church staff, he conducts weddings, funerals, and often serves as a guest preacher.
It was Dr. Kolbell who inspired the character of the Rev. Eric Camden, the Protestant minister and father, on the popular WB network program 7th Heaven.
“The show's executive producer, Brenda Hampton, and I are old friends, and when she was knocking around the idea of putting together a show like this, she called me and asked for specific ideas,” Dr. Kolbell said. “What are some of the issues he would face, what kind of resistance would he meet? Just general ideas about what it's all about being a minister.”
The program, often cited for including more prayer and church services than any other TV show, has been a surprise hit.
“One of the things that surprised us is that parents will say, `Yeah, we're aware of the show. My kid never misses it.' We've heard that from a lot of different circles, and not necessarily overtly religious families.”
Dr. Kolbell wrote a sermon that Mr. Camden preached in one episode and was amused when the writers slipped his name into a 7th Heaven show by saying the minister had been trained at “Kolbell Seminary.”
“Brenda sent me a videotape of that one little snippet,” he said, and he showed the tape to his ailing mother, who later died of emphysema.
It was a special memory he will never forget.
“That was her last laugh before she passed away,” Dr. Kolbell said.