Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’
Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women, Exploring God’s Radical Notion that Women are People, Too by Sarah Bessey, Howard Books, 2013, 235 pp.
This book was chosen for a UCC clergy book group in which I participate, and I was very disappointed in this book as a choice for that group. We have been a church ordaining women and embracing feminism for 150 years, and this book seemed far too basic for our conversation. Bessey’s argument is about why women should be included in church leadership–a debate we are no longer having.
I am trying to separate my frustration with the choice of this book for that group and my feelings about the book itself, which are not nearly as negative. There are still far too many places in the church where women are not understood to be equally created in the image of God and qualified for spiritual leadership. There are countless women who are silenced, by their churches, by this theology, and by themselves. Bessey’s book speaks faithfully and well to those audiences, especially to those who find themselves with a hopeful suspicion that Jesus actually welcomes women to live up to their full spiritual leadership.
Bessey is a poetic writer, and her book is all heart. Her heart is beautiful, beckoning, pleading with the heart of her readers to be moved to open themselves to God’s plans for women in a more expansive way. This is lovely. She says things like, “Patriarchy is not God’s dream for humanity.” (14) She offers spiritual insights like these:
Let’s be done lobbying for a seat at the Table. I want to be outside with the misfits, with the rebels, the dreamers, second-chance givers, the radical grace lavishers, the ones with arms wide open, the courageously vulnerable, and among even–or maybe especially–the ones rejected by the Table as not worthy enough or right enough. (4)
That’s the thing when we say yes to God–it’s not about that one yes. Our one yes keeps resounding and spreading, like ripples in a pond after a pebble is thrown into it, until the yes of God and the yes of our hearts and the yes of Jesus’ love and the yes of us all sweep over the world. (149)
On losing her faith:
I hold almost all of it loosely in my hand now, all of it but this: the nature, identity, soul, action, and character of God is love–lovelovelovelovelovelovelove. Everything was resurrected on that truth. (50)
However, as a reader I needed more “head” to go with the heart, more substance and scholarship to make her case. Bessey’s understanding of the issues showed little or no research or understanding of biblical scholarship, and especially feminist biblical criticism. I have spent much of my adult life immersed in Christian feminist scholarship, and her book’s ignorance of these conversations was frustrating in every way. She presented ideas and concepts about Jesus, Paul and their attitudes toward women that have been explored in depth for more than 30 years–yet she talks as though she just found them herself in the scripture. While she may indeed have come up with them on her own, her versions lack the depth and perspective of so many ongoing conversations. I wish she had done just a little more homework, to discover that such a world even existed–she writes as though these are new ideas, and they are not. They are shallow, oversimplified (and sometimes even discredited) ideas about the interpretation of scripture about women. She never even questions or critiques the use of exclusively male language about God.
That is a harsh critique, but it is not the end of my assessment of the book. Bessey’s book still matters, it still has a place, it still fulfills a need, and I would still recommend it to certain readers in certain circumstances. Those just emerging from the closed world of conservative fundamentalism or evangelical Christianity will find a soul sister in Sarah Bessey. Women and men just beginning to question the hardened gender categories of biblical womanhood and pastoral leadership will find a handy introduction and invitation to open their hearts and minds a little wider.
I can imagine people to whom I would recommend this book, and to them it would be life-altering. However, that audience is small and targeted, and does not include the many of us who have already decided that women are to be fully integrated into the life and leadership of the church and have moved on to living it, doing it, and watching the consequences and changes women bring.
Beyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern World by John Dorhauer, Chicago: Exploration Press, 2015, 158 pp.
Don’t judge this book by its cover. It looks about as dry as can be. It’s not.
Don’t judge this book by its font. It’s annoying, yes, but you’ll get over it and the content is worth it.
Don’t judge this book by its subtitle. “Postmodern” is an overused, dated term these days, but the much of the content of this book on the state of the church is as contemporary as any I’ve read.
John Dorhauer is the newly-elected General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, and this book lays out his perspective on the current state of decline in the American church. I read it as a clergyperson in the UCC eager to hear his vision.
What struck me first and foremost was that Beyond Resistance refuses to paint a rosy picture or offer a programmatic solution to the problem of church decline. This is an odd thing for a book, and it was initially a bit depressing. The author’s opening line is, “Let’s be honest… churches are dying.” (7) He then lists lower birthrates, aging property and “postmodernity” as the three key factors impacting church decline. While he does not try to define what postmodernity means (thank goodness!), he describes it as a cultural change “in expectations around what it means to be a person of faith,” (14) making note of three key factors of being “a postmodern.”
Disbelief in universal truth
Learning differently (i.e., not through written and spoken word alone)
Distrust of institutional authority
Let me pause here a moment to say: I find the term “postmodern” loaded with baggage from other disciplines and very dated. My philosopher spouse saw the book on the table and said, “How old is that book? Why are you reading a book on church change from the 1990s?” I wish Dorhauer had used another term–perhaps “post-Christendom” or “21st century” or even a neologism he invented. He later uses the term “Church 3.0,” which I also didn’t much like, but it’s at least better. However, the problems with vocabulary aside, the content of what he says is right on. It seemed obvious to me, because I clearly belong to the group he describes. However, active, engaged, but older, clergy colleagues in a book group on this text were shocked and upended by this information about the worldview of so-called postmoderns. I was shocked by their shock, but it revealed to me just how vast is the divide between “moderns” and “postmoderns.”
Given that the church has historically been driven by its claims to universal truth and institutional authority, and Protestantism’s reliance on written and spoken word, you can see why the current crisis has occurred. However, Dorhauer insists that it is not a “rejection of Church as Church.”
This is not a denial of the value of a life well lived, enhanced by meaningful encounters with the sacred and shaped by like-minded people living in a committed community of faith with one another. It is simply the experience of coming to church, wanting to have a meaningful encounter, and walking out under-stimulated, bored, or having learned little to nothing. (20)
The second chapter argues that the church exists for mission, and much of our current malaise is founded upon our loss of our core sense of mission. However, Dorhauer never defines what he means by mission, and in my experience people hear that word to mean very different things. Does he mean acts of charity, caring for the poor and needy? Does he mean evangelism, converting people to the way of Christ? Does he mean discipleship, forming new followers who will walk in Christ’s way? The way he uses the term throughout the chapter seems to imply that he has only the first definition in mind–acts of charity and justice. If so, I find that deeply disappointing. While I agree that the church should always be about that kind of service and advocacy, our core mission is to build disciples AND build the Kin-dom of God. People don’t come to the church looking to help the poor–they come looking for holy presence and Jesus Christ, and we should be about making that presence known. Service and advocacy are one of the most important ways we do that–but only one. Dorhauer would probably agree with me here, but I was frustrated with the lack of clarity in the chapter, and the way service and advocacy seem to be privileged as *the* mission of the church. It is a frequent critique I have for leaders across our United Church of Christ.
However, lest you think I am only critical, the second chapter also contained one of my favorite sections. In his role as Conference Minister, Dorhauer talked with churches about these changes. When older, stable congregations talked about “becoming Church 3.0,” he told them frankly that they couldn’t. Instead, established congregations should seek mission partners who are about this new way of being church. That’s where the wisdom lies–with the establishment in doing tradition well, and with outsiders who are doing church 3.0 well. (40-43)
The third chapter is titled “Grieving, Believing, Perceiving,” which reminds me immediately of Walter Brueggemann’s excellent book Reality, Grief, Hope, which I have revisited in sermons, conversations and even our Indiana-Kentucky Annual Meeting theme in the last two years. The difference here is that Dorhauer takes on the truth-telling (reality) and grieving with a greater openness, depth and brutal honesty than I have seen anywhere else. It is painful, but also affirming to hear that we are not alone in our struggles. He shares openly about the shrinking opportunities for clergy and the feelings of failure. I felt heard and seen for the first time. Though the truth is depressing, it is liberating to hear it told, especially from the new GMP of the UCC. He gets it.
As he moves toward the hopeful–believing and perceiving in his rubric–Dorhauer names the current task in this time of tumultuous change as identifying the core values and practices that cannot change if we are to remain faithful to the Gospel.
The Church as we know it is going to have to live through open debate about what changes can and will be accepted, and what changes simply cannot be made. … Knowing, through the time of change, what is so important that, if it is altered, we cease to be is an essential task of the Church. Knowing what must be passed on through the sea of change that is coming is important. (56)
In his role as GMP, I hope he leads our entire denomination through this kind of rigorous open debate. It is sure to be painful at times, but it is the best ministry we can offer right now, I believe.
Chapter four focuses on the difference between Church 2.0 and Church 3.0. As he recognizes, others have written with greater depth on this topic. Dorhauer takes special care to note that this change is not an upgrade or adjustment–it is an entirely new way of being and doing. Chapter five tackles the difficult questions arising around church authority and clergy authorization. He addresses the crumbling model of a seminary-educated clergy, who are trained for a dying church 2.0 at great expense, while recognizing the ongoing need for accountability, oversight and development of new religious leaders for church 3.0.
Chapter six repeated the same fundamental problem of this book–using outdated examples or terminology for a concept or content that is actually quite leading edge. The chapter is about metrics and measurement in churches, looking beyond membership and money to the lives we change, the impact we make in our communities, and the ways our mission is accomplished. However, he begins by saying the church should be more like McDonalds (“Over 6 billion served!”), without seeming to recognize that McDonalds is losing money like mad these days, a franchise on a faster downward spiral of unpopularity than the church is. The ideas in the chapter are good–the illustration risks making them look old and irrelevant.
Chapters 7-10 turn toward the new expressions of Christianity sprouting up in our midst. He is deeply appreciative of these new Christian communities, but draws a clear boundary around calling them churches–because they would not self-identify that way, nor would a traditional church necessarily recognize them. They are generally small, with flat hierarchies, non-ordained leaders, non-traditional gatherings that don’t resemble formal Christian worship, and exhibit a commitment to openness with regard to Christianity and other faiths, a mingling of diverse ideas. Yet what Dorhauer concludes after his exploration of many of these communities is that they are authentic expressions of Christian community.
The gospel as we know it is in good hands. It is my hope that your own explorations of these postmodern communities of faith are no threat to the current expression of the Church and, in fact, are going to preserve the good news and make it relevant in people’s lives in ways that my church can’t. (118)
He offers validation that those newly sprouting Christian expressions are real and true versions of following Jesus, even if they are unlike any church we have yet seen. The final chapter offers helpful guideposts to churches navigating this time of transition.
As you can tell if you’ve bothered reading this far, this book provoked a lot of reaction in me. There were things that bothered me and that I would argue against, but those are surface matters like vocabulary and illustrations that made cutting-edge ideas seem unnecessarily dated. The heart of the book, its insights and truth-telling, is a great gift as we wrestle with the rapid changes afoot in the life of the church. This book makes an important contribution to the conversation. If you care about this conversation, I highly recommend it, especially if you are a part of the United Church of Christ.
Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth by Alister McGrath, HarperOne, 2009, 282 pp.
This follows a series of five book reviews on the Christian creeds, which I read in preparation for a sermon series entitled, “I Believe: Christian Creeds in Context.” Those sermons can be found here.
Alongside reading five books and preparing six sermons on the Christian creeds, I had to read up on the controversies that sparked many of the creedal formulations—the debates among early followers of Jesus trying to sort out the basic beliefs required to remain within the Christian fold, tracking the groups labeled “orthodox” against the groups labeled “heretics.” It was one of the most interesting and helpful things I read.
McGrath begins with a sense of eye-rolling impatience with the current fascination with heresy. He blames scholar Walter Bauer for the idea that heresy is nothing more than “suppressed orthodoxy,” the evidence of historical losers who may offer more radical or inclusive ideas. He eschews the contemporary claim that “heresy is radical and innovative, whereas orthodoxy is pedestrian and reactionary.” (2) Instead, he offers his own definition:
Heresy is best seen as a form of Christian belief that, more by accident than design, ultimately ends up subverting, destabilizing or even destroying the core of Christian faith. … Heresy represents certain ways of formulating the core themes of the Christian faith—ways that are sooner or later recognized by the church to be dangerously inadequate or even destructive. (10-11)
Having been influenced by Bauer’s ideas about heresy and subject to the intrigue McGrath criticizes, I found his position compelling. Orthodoxy, he argues, is not about exercising power over one’s detractors—it is about protecting Christianity from easy answers and demystification. He uses the metaphor of dead ends. Heresies are theologies that do not lead anywhere, that result in pat conclusions and a God that can too easily be known and understood. This angle made a progressive, mystic Christian like me sit up and take notice.
[One point, out of order: McGrath makes it clear, especially toward the end of the book, that his definition applies only to theological sects during the patristic period. Once Christianity reached the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church turned to heresy as a tool to punish any individual or group that sought to subvert its power. These groups were not necessarily heretics by McGrath’s definition, and should not be seen as problematic because of their views of the Christian faith. McGrath’s understanding of heresy requires that it is a threat to the whole of the Christian faith–not to individuals or institutions. (208)]
McGrath’s opening chapter on “Faith, Creeds and the Christian Gospel” was one of the most helpful things I read in preaching about the historic creeds of the church. He frames the creeds after William James, as the church’s “working hypotheses” about how to see and comprehend the world. (17) They represent the “consensus of the faithful, rather than the private beliefs of individuals.” (28)
An intellectual scaffolding needed to be developed to preserve the mystery, to safeguard what the church had discovered to be true–a process that entails both discernment and construction. (28)
Doctrine, then, preserves the central mysteries at the heart of the Christian faith and life. … But what happens if a particular doctrine turns out not to protect such mystery but in fact undermines it? What if the theoretical framework intended to shield and shelter a central insight of faith is found to erode or distort it? These questions point us to the essence of heresy. A heresy is a doctrine that ultimately destroys, destabilizes or distorts a mystery rather than preserving it. (30-31, italics original)
I found this insight into heresy made orthodoxy far more compelling that it had been since I stepped away from conservative, evangelical faith. When the creeds are guardians of mystery, their goal is not to explain and codify, but make sure that each new generation is provoked into questions and engagement. Heresy is not unbelief, but unbelief can be the outcome of heresy because it undoes the need to believe in the mystery. (33) Heresy is also not an attack from outside. It emerges from within the church itself. (83)
McGrath continues this line of thinking in his chapter on “The Early Development of Heresy,” where he argues that innovation is required for orthodoxy. It is heresy that wishes to limit or calcify Christian doctrine. He traces this theological claim back to Athanasius in the third century, and follows its progress through a series of orthodox theologians who all emphasize the need for Christianity to evolve.
Yesterday’s attempts to conceptualize the essence of faith need improvement, the need perhaps arising through their being too closely tied to the prevailing assumptions of the day, or perhaps through their focusing excessively on one aspect of a complex question. Doctrinal development is the inevitable and proper outcome of the theological watchfulness demanded by the church. There is thus a sense in which Christian orthodoxy is something that is made as succeeding generations inherit ways of speaking about God and Christ that they rightly respect yet equally rightly wish to subject to examination. … This is most emphatically not being disrespectful toward the past; rather, it is about maintaining the dialogue that began in the past, continues today, and will not end until the close of history. (70)
This accords easily with our United Church of Christ Constitution, which “claims as its own the faith of the historic Church expressed in the ancient creeds and …affirms the responsibility of the Church in each generation to make this faith its own.” However, I did not expect this to be defined as the practice of orthodoxy for all Christians. It raises serious questions for contemporary fundamentalist traditions that demand an unchanging, unquestioning faith.
The remainder of the book offers a deeper look into several prominent heresies, including Ebionitism, Docetism, Valentinism, Arianism, Donatism, and Pelagianism. Other heresies, such as Montanism and Marcionism, make brief appearances from time to time. McGrath does not offer an exhaustive catalog of heretical thought, but takes representative examples.
One chapter explores what motivates heresy, then and now, which McGrath places into a typology of “pressures” that pull against orthodoxy:
Cultural norms: A perception that Christianity is significantly out of touch with contemporary cultural values…
Rational norms: The belief that certain Christian ideas are contrary to “right reason”…
Social identity: A means of religious self-identification of marginalized social groupings
Religious accommodation: Pressure to modify certain aspects of the Christian faith in order to facilitate coexistence
Ethical concerns: The perception that religious orthodoxy is excessively morally permissive or anarchic on the one hand, or restrictive or oppressive on the other. (180)
One of the most interesting things I had not previously recognized was the extent to which heresies are more, rather than less, morally demanding and restrictive than orthodoxy. The Donatists are a chief example, but I am also reminded of movements such as the Shakers.
The concluding chapters address the rise of Protestantism and Islam, and how both movements relate to both orthodoxy and heresy. McGrath then ends with a final plea for the beauty of orthodoxy:
The pursuit of orthodoxy is essentially the quest for Christian authenticity. The relentless attempt to find the best formulations of Christian truth claims reflects the insight that Christianity is capable of stating and understanding its ideas inadequately and inauthentically. … Defective and damaging forms of the Christian faith–in other words, heresies–will limit its survival prospects. The quest for orthodoxy is above all a search for authenticity. (232)
I found McGrath’s defense of orthodoxy very compelling, because it offers a breathable, evolving faith that preserves mysteries rather than forcing them closed. It offered me a much different approach to the historic creeds of the church that unlocked them in new and compelling ways, and engaged my often-skeptical faith in a richer conversation with orthodox ideas.
“I Believe” Exploring the Apostles’ Creed by Alister McGrath, InterVarsity Press, 1997, 120 pp.
This is the fifth of five book reviews on the Christian creeds (and a book in heresy), which I read in preparation for a sermon series entitled, “I Believe: Christian Creeds in Context.” Those sermons can be found here.
Alister McGrath is a darling of the evangelical movement, because he is a Christian apologist willing to argue with leaders of the New Atheism movement with the authority of his academic credentials at Oxford. He is generally a conservative sort, but I enjoyed his books on the development of the King James Version of the Bible and his biography of John Calvin. This book on the creed was not as uniformly helpful as some of the other resources, simply because other resources (including his own book on heresy) covered the topics with greater depth and interest.
McGrath’s take on the creed divides it into six sections, each of which gets a chapter in the book. Each chapter begins with a segment on “The Ideas Explained,” followed by a parallel on “The Ideas Applied.” He emphasizes the scriptural background of each section of the creed, providing a list of biblical citations at the end of each chapter, without commentary. His best contribution to the conversation about the creeds was his logical, critical analysis of each element of the creedal theology.
For example, his section on the importance of Jesus’ suffering and death addresses the problem of evil. He lists four answers that have been given in the history of religious thought (suffering is real and alleviated only by death; suffering is an illusion; suffering is real and we can rise above it; and the Christian response that God knows our suffering). The idea that God suffered in Christ, with us, is Christianity’s unique contribution, and places us in an intimate relationship. McGrath’s analysis in placing the creed in a wider context of religious history adds an interesting dynamic to the discussion. However, he also gives us powerful turns of phrase from time to time. In the same section, he writes,
God is not like a general who issues orders to his troops from the safety of a bomb-proof shelter, miles away from the front line, but one who leads his troops from the front, having previously done all that he asks them to do in turn. If God asks us to suffer on his behalf, it is because he has already suffered on our behalf. (67)
McGrath was most helpful for his ability to be clear and concise in his descriptions, but the brevity of this work leads to few new insights or ideas. However, I was simultaneously reading his book on heresy, which covered much of the same territory in a richer and more interesting way.
The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters by Luke Timothy Johnson, Doubleday, 2003, 325 pp.
This is the second of five book reviews on the Christian creeds (and a book in heresy), which I read in preparation for a sermon series entitled, “I Believe: Christian Creeds in Context.” Those sermons can be found here.
Luke Timothy Johnson’s work is richest, deepest and most scholarly of the various books about the creeds I have read. All other sources after 2003 refer to his work as foundational. It is also the only resource that focuses on the Nicene Creed more than the Apostles’ Creed.
Johnson begins with more than 60 pages of background on the origins, history and importance of the creed. He provides the most detailed account of the origins of the creeds, beginning with the initial professions of faith that named Jesus as Christ, Lord, Messiah and Son of God. Johnson then offers an extensive but manageable review of the patristic letters and writings that show traces of the creed’s formation and development before explaining the dynamics of the Council of Nicea.
Johnson’s second chapter, “What the Creed Is and What It Does,” was incredibly insightful and helpful in explaining why the creeds matter. His claims answered my inner skeptic and the skeptics in my congregation, and helped me formulate my own response to their importance. He writes,
In a world that celebrates individuality, they are actually doing something together. In an age that avoids commitment, they pledge themselves to a set of convictions and thereby to each other. In a culture that rewards novelty and creativity, they are words written by others long ago. In a society where accepted wisdom changes by the minute, they claim that some truths are so critical that they must be repeated over and over again. In a throwaway, consumerist world, they accept, preserve and continue tradition. Reciting the creed at worship is thus a counter-cultural act. (40-41)
No one of us individually believes as much or as well as all of us do communally. The church always believes more and better than any one of its members. … We choose to stand together under these truths, in the hope that our individual “I believe” someday approaches the strength of the church’s “we believe.” (46)
When believers stand together in the liturgy after the readings from Scripture and recite the words of the Christian creed, they affirm that the world as imagined by Scripture and constructed by the creed is the world in which they choose to live. (61)
Johnson divides the creed into six major sections, and writes extensively about each one. He begins by tracing scriptural precedents for each, then offering a theological analysis of every piece of the creed. His Roman Catholicism, traditionalism and orthodoxy shine a little to strongly for me in his outdated critiques of liberation theology, but he surprised me with his insistence that we question all-male God language and recognize all forms of the church as holy and godly.
Many times in the course of the book, he makes a theological claim or description explaining the creed that is simply beautiful. He is able to articulate the importance of these basic theological claims in ways that leave me wanting to affirm them more deeply and more passionately. In his reflection on the resurrection, he writes,
The strong sense of salvation as a participation in God’s life, remember, depends on the strong experience of liberation and power, not as something hoped for in the future, but happening already in present-day lives. The reality of the resurrection was convincing because people acted freely and powerfully through the Holy Spirit. … The greatest miracle supporting the claims of Christians was the transformation of their lives and the creation of transforming communities. (151)
This is but one small example among many, in each section of the Johnson’s writings about the creeds, where he makes the ancient words come alive and reinforces their importance in the Christian life and faith.
The Creed is valuable not only because of the depth of its history, explanation and focus in the Nicene Creed, but because Johnson constructs a beautiful, holistic theology of the Christian faith. While I may disagree from time to time, I learned an enormous amount and my heart was warmed again and again throughout his reflection on the creeds.
The Apostles’ Creed for Today by Justo L. Gonzalez, Westminster John Knox, 2007, 99 pp.
This is the first of five book reviews on the Christian creeds (and a book in heresy), which I read in preparation for a sermon series entitled, “I Believe: Christian Creeds in Context.” Those sermons can be found here.
Justo Gonzalez always offers an accessible, straightforward, learned perspective on topics of Christian history and theology, while remaining attentive to the life of faith. His theology is fairly orthodox (he is United Methodist), but he does not ignore questions or controversies. His book on the Apostles’ Creed is no different. While it was among the shortest I read in this whole series, it still contained a great deal of insight and information I found nowhere else.
Gonzalez begins with a “fact or fiction” analysis of the origins of the creed, describing the fiction that the original disciples each authored one sentence of the creed while sitting around a table and the fact of the creed’s uncertain origins but precursor “R” (for Rome) widely known throughout the early Christian community in the early second century. He also traces the use of the creed in interrogatory form from early Christian baptism to its status as a personal statement of faith or even a test of faith in contemporary context.
The remainder of the book offers a short, 3-5 page commentary on each section of the creed, which Gonzalez divides into 13 sections. The commentaries he offers are brief, but insightful. Rather than the approach many authors take of seeking scriptural support for each creedal claim, Gonzalez mixes a bit of scripture, some early Christian context, and some history of the controversies that were implied by each creedal claim. The result was a helpful, interesting mixture of ideas for preaching.
For example, one of the observations I found only in Gonzalez’ work was a discussion of the Roman paterfamilias and Greek pantokrator as context for the creed’s opening lines. To the original ear, the image of “God the Father Almighty” likely conjured power and authority far more than tenderness and care. However, that same power and authority did point beyond the worldly powers of Rome and all systems of oppression toward a higher authority of redemption, especially when paired with addressing Jesus as Lord.
Gonzalez has a way of honing in on the key questions that are at stake in the creed, and naming them in such a way that we see how those same questions remain at stake for us as well. His brevity in this book summons the critical issues, adds relevant context, and leaves us with plenty to ponder. I recommend this slim volume to any preacher studying the creeds for its thought-provoking content, and to small groups looking for a study. Each chapter also contains a few questions for discussion.
The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine, HarperCollins, 2006, 250 pp.
I had several seminary students and colleagues who raved about this book and the unique voice Dr. Amy-Jill Levine brought to Jesus scholarship as a Jewish scholar of the New Testament. I was surprised by how much of the book felt like old and familiar information, but also by the parts that felt new and intriguing. I found the first half of the book a bit boring, because it felt like something I have read many times in many places. However, the second half of the book covered new and interesting territory for me.
The introduction outlines Levine’s personal journey toward becoming Jewish scholar of the New Testament, and the unique project of this book to simultaneously illuminate the Jewishness of Jesus in the New Testament and the ways Christian interpretations of Jesus’ Jewish context continue to jeopardize interfaith relationships.
The first section of the book covers familiar territory recognizing that Jesus was faithful to his Jewish practices. While he occasionally broke the rules, he did not set up his ministry as a counter to the prevailing Jewish practices of the day. He wore tzitzit (fringed prayer shawl), kept kosher and Sabbath, drew on the Shema (Deuteronomy 6) for the Golden Rule. His parables and conversations over the meaning of the law follow Jewish rabbinical practices. In a commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, Levine makes an excellent case that Jesus’ use of the word “Abba” for God is not unique either, undoing an oft-repeated sermon topic. Her second chapter examines the unfolding division between Jewish and Gentile Christians, the missionary controversies between Peter, Paul and James, and why Jews did not perceive Jesus to be the Messiah.
The midpoint of the third chapter, for me, marked an entrance into newer and more interesting material. After a basic discussion of the difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism and a recounting of the most famous anti-Jewish passages in the New Testament, Levine begins to explore the separation between Judaism and Christianity. She undercuts theories that Christians were thrown out of synagogues beginning at the end of the first century, naming the Council of Jamnia as a historical fiction and arguing that, if Christians were ejected, it is because they were no longer Jews in any sense of the word, replacing the worship of Yahweh with the worship of Jesus.
The fourth chapter, entitled “Stereotyping Judaism,” was the most new and insightful for me, because Levine levels a stark criticism of liberal Christian interpretations of Jesus.
Christian skeptics thus have an enormous problem. Why remain Christian if Jesus is one of several wise individuals with good ideas for social improvement? The easiest answer to the question is to argue that Jesus does what no one else ever did or could do; he is distinct, special, better. This process means depicting a Jesus who stands out as unique in his Jewish context; it also usually means enhancing the distinction, and this is done by painting the Jewish context in noxious colors. (120)
Those of us who wish to paint Jesus as a social justice leader tend to portray his Jewish context as the exemplar of injustice. Levine deconstructs misunderstandings about the harshness or impossibility of following Jewish law and the perception that all Jews anticipated a warrior Messiah. She then goes on to issue a strong critique, on both historic and anti-Jewish grounds, against the claim that Jesus was a feminist, based on biblical stories of his interactions with the Samaritan woman and his teachings on divorce. As one who has admired Jesus as a feminist based on these arguments, I took Levine’s critique to heart. It’s not that Jesus wasn’t good to women, it’s that our arguments to make that case rely on shaky stereotypes and exaggerations.
She proceeds to offer a similar deconstruction of liberal interpretations of the parable of the Good Samaritan that rely on negative stereotypes of the Pharisee and Sadducee, instead seeing the “punch” of the parable in the animosity between Jews and Samaritans.
We should think of ourselves as the person in the ditch, then ask, “Is there anyone, from any group, about whom we’d rather die than acknowledge, ‘She offered help’ or ‘He showed compassion’?” More, is there any group whose members might rather die than help us? If so, then we know how to find the modern equivalent of the Samaritan. (149)
These deconstructions persist in Levine’s questioning of the characterization of the temple as a “domination system”(154) or “ethnocentric system”(159) in the analysis of the widow with the two coins and the Syrophoenician woman.
The remainder of the book combs through volumes of contemporary liberation theology for examples of anti-Jewish rhetoric or New Testament interpretation. She indicts everyone from liberation icons Gustavo Gutierrez and Leonardo Boff to multiple publications from the World Council of Churches. Some of those WCC authors have not taken Levine’s critiques seriously, others have revised their arguments accordingly. The final chapters discuss contemporary Jewish-Christian relationships, including perspectives on the use of “Old Testament” or “Hebrew Bible,” the prevalence of Christian seders, and the conflicts around the plight of the Palestinian people.
My overall assessment of the book is that, while the first half was slow, the second half of The Misunderstood Jew was rich and thought-provoking, especially since Levine took aim at some familiar (and even beloved) interpretations of Jesus as feminist and exemplar of social justice. Her critiques of anti-Judaism will impact how I view and preach those stories in the future.