Anthony Le Donne on His New Book, Near Christianity (Skinner)

near-christianityMy friend, Anthony Le Donne, has recently written a book entitled, Near Christianity: How Journeys along Jewish-Christian Borders Saved My Faith in God (Zondervan, 2016). I have long been a fan of Anthony’s more academic writing (here, here) and his student-oriented (here) and popular-appeal books (here) about Jesus, but this book is a departure for him. I recently had an opportunity to interview Anthony about the book and the motivations for writing about such different subject matter.

(CWS): You say at the start of the book that you’re writing for fellow Christians. How much of your motivation was to expose Christians to an alternative history of Christianity?

(ALD): I am interested in alternative versions of history. Our histories are always being revised. Sometimes this is good, sometimes not. Christians in particular tend to revise our histories to suit our positive self image. We remember great “fathers” and historic episodes heroically. We tend to see the expansion of Christianity as a spread of the good news. I guess part of my book is about trying to listen to voices from beyond the Christian echo chamber. It turns out that our religious neighbors remember the expansion of Christianity differently. We need as many different voices in the study of our history as possible.

(CWS): In the book you write: “How did Christian morality look in Nazi Europe? What dogmatic shape did it take? And if we find that it looked similar to the Christian moralities at work in the heresy hunting of early Christian theology, or Constantine’s vision, or the Crusades, or our major church splits, or manifest destiny, or the Salem witch trials, or Confederate America, or the Red Scare, or countless acts of harm to LGBTQ+ children, should we not stop to wonder if there is a deeper sickness at work?” Do you think that a deeper sickness is at the heart of Christianity? And if so, what is it?

(ALD): I call this the “mythological foothold.” It is the very old Christian strategy to create a caricature of an “other” who represents some sort of danger, and then triumph over the caricature we’ve created. I don’t think that this needs to be the heart of Christianity. But, for some reason, many Christians need an ideological enemy. This is a very old problem in Christian thought and it began with our attempt to supplant Jews and Judaism. But we’re now seeing the same sort of ideological strategy at work in western Islamophobia. We’ve created a stereotype of Muslims and we’re using it as a rallying cry. It really is the worst version of Christianity. The good news is that we don’t need an enemy to be faithful Christians. We have it in our spiritual DNA to remedy this.

(CWS): In your chapter on Christmas, you denounce Donald Trump as a demagogue. I imagine that ledonnemany evangelicals will not like this description, and this book is published with Zondervan, an openly evangelical press. What, do you think, is the appeal of Trump’s politics to conservative Christians?

(ALD) : Well, I guess that I ought to define “demagogue” as I neglect to do it in the book. So here the Merriam-Webster definition: “a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power”; or “a leader championing the cause of the common people in ancient times.” Aside from the “ancient times” portion of this, I think that this is a perfect description of Mr. Trump. He comes up in the book because he contributes to the so-called “war” on Christmas. My point is that Christians ought to be focusing on Advent rather than fueling a culture war. As a Christian, Advent is important to me. But national surveys show that most American Christians do not observe these important weeks of preparation before Christmas. We have allowed something sacred to be lost. Advent is a time for anticipation, remembrance, and listening for God. But we’ve allowed this time of year to become a consumer frenzy. This is what C. S. Lewis called his “pet abomination”—one can only imagine what he would have thought of people being trampled at Wal-Mart or Best Buy. One of the consequences of this secularization of the Christian calendar is that we’ve created a season of protest. We’ve allowed the news media to draw us into culture wars and Advent becomes a time of celebrating Christmas as a show of religious freedom.

(CWS): Since this book is about your “journeys along Jewish-Christian borders,” can you give us a preview of some of the important insights that have come to you in your interactions with Jewish friends, Jewish customs, and Jewish texts?

(ALD): Sure. But first let me say that my experience of Jews and Judaism is idiosyncratic. Everything that I write in this book reveals only my particular experience. I imagine that others might gain different insights from different sort of inter-religious conversations. In other words, nothing that I say should be used as a general stereotype. This book is more about what I’ve learned from my conversations and less about simply retelling bits of wisdom I’ve digested. That said, here are a few things I’ve learned about Christianity: (1) Christians are much more powerful than we know. We have to get over the us-against-the-world myth. Our inferiority complex is dangerous on a global scale. There are 2.7 billion of us. That we have considerably more power than we think we do is both good news and bad news. It is an enormous responsibility. (2) The best and fastest way to make the world a better place is for Christianity to become the best version of itself. This is not something that I learned from a book or a rabbi or some ancient bit of wisdom. It’s just something that would have never occurred to me unless I had journeyed along Jewish-Christian borders and fault-lines. Finally, (3) most of my Jewish friends want me to become a better Christian. I find this especially motivating. My devotion to God through Christ actually makes me a more interesting dialogue partner at this particular table. For whatever it’s worth, I don’t think that I can say the same thing about my Christian friends. I find that the more time I spend at the Jewish-Christian fence, the more I want to be a good neighbor.

I hope this is enough to whet your appetite. I never cease to be entertained and informed by Anthony’s writing. This book is no exception. Now that you have read the interview, you should go and buy a copy of the book (or two). I’m sure Anthony would appreciate that.

Book Notice: How John Works: Storytelling in the Fourth Gospel (Skinner)

Estes Sheridan Front Cover.inddI am pleased to make mention of a soon-to-be-published book from SBL Press edited by Douglas Estes and Ruth Sheridan. It’s called, How John Works: Storytelling in the Fourth Gospel. The book went to press yesterday and should be available on October 7. Here’s a brief description:

“In this book, a group of international scholars go in detail to explain how the author of the Gospel of John uses a variety of narrative strategies to best tell his story. More than a commentary, this book offers a glimpse at the way an ancient author created and used narrative features such as genre, character, style, persuasion, and even time and space to shape a dramatic story of the life of Jesus.”

Features of the book include:

  • An introduction to the Fourth Gospel through its narrative features and dynamics
  • Fifteen features of story design that comprise the Gospel of John
  • Short, targeted essays about how John works that can be used as starting points for the study of other Gospels/texts

Here’s the table of contents:

  1. Genre, Harold W. Attridge

2. Style, Dan Nässelqvist

3. Time, Douglas Estes

4. Space, Susanne Luther

5. Point of View, James L. Resseguie

6. Plot, Kasper Bro Larsen

7. Characterization, Christopher W. Skinner

8. Protagonist, Mark W. G. Stibbe

9. Imagery, Dorothy A. Lee

10. Scripture, Rekha M. Chennattu

11. Rhetoric, Alicia D. Myers

12. Persuasion, Ruth Sheridan

13. Closure, Francis J. Moloney

14. Audience, Edward W. Klink III

15. Culture, Charles E. Hill

We will have more on this book in due course. We will post an interview with the editors and possibly even have a giveaway. Stay tuned…….

New Book: Urban C. von Wahlde, Gnosticism, Docetism, and the Judaisms of the First Century (Skinner)

von WahldeOver the past year or so I have been transitioning into research on the various reconstructions of the Johannine community and how those reconstructions impact our understanding of the ethics of the Johannine literature. To that end, I am currently co-editing a book for Fortress Press with my friend, Sherri Brown on the (mostly implicit) ethics of the Johannine literature, and working up a proposal for an authored monograph on history and ethics in the Johannine community. More on that anon….. Of obvious importance to any reconstruction of the Johannine community is understanding the background and content of the Christological claims being made by the so-called “secessionists” in 1 John. Yesterday I saw that Urban von Wahlde–whose work on the Johannine literature I have very much appreciated–has just published a new book with LNTS entitled, Gnosticism, Docetism, and the Judaisms of the First Century. Here’s a description:

In this book von Wahlde provides an exploration of three distinct cultural and religious backgrounds against which scholars have frequently proposed that the Gospel and Letters of John are to be read and understood.

von Wahlde examines each of these three possibilities in turn, and shows how they may be regarded as plausible or implausible depending upon the evidence available. von Wahlde shows that there are features within the Gospel and/or Letters of John that do in fact suggest that they were influenced either by Gnosticism, Docetism or one of the variant forms of Judaism. However, in each case, while some of the evidence suggests a particular background, von Wahlde shows that it is equally evident that not all of the evidence can be seen to suggest the same background. Through an examination of the origins and purpose of the gospel, and drawing on the conclusions of his well-regarded commentary on the Johannine literature, von Wahlde presents a new way of understanding the Gospel in its wider contexts.

I’m hoping I can convince the peeps at T & T Clark to send along a copy, which I will not only use for my own research but happily review for the blog.

Book Notice: The Role of the Jewish Feasts in John’s Gospel (Skinner)

Wheaton BookYesterday I checked my campus mailbox and found that, to my delight, I had received a copy of Gerry Wheaton’s recently published monograph, The Role of the Jewish Feasts in John’s Gospel (SNTSMS 162; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). This monograph is a revised version of Wheaton’s dissertation, written at St. Andrews, initially under the direction of Richard Bauckham, who was then passed on to Kelly Iverson after Bauckham’s departure from St. Andrews. Wheaton is currently Professor of New Testament at Seminario ESEPA in San Jose, Costa Rica. Here’s a description of the book:

In the first three Gospels, Jesus rarely travels to Jerusalem prior to his final week. The Fourth Gospel, however, features Jesus’ repeated visits to the city, which occur primarily during major festivals. This volume elucidates the role of the Jewish feasts of Passover, Tabernacles, and Dedication in John’s presentation of Jesus. Gerry Wheaton examines the Fourth Gospel in relation to pertinent sources from the second-Temple and rabbinic periods, offering a fresh understanding of how John appropriates the symbolic and traditional backgrounds of these feasts. Wheaton situates his inquiry within the larger question of Judaism in John’s Gospel, which many consider to be the most anti-Semitic New Testament text. The findings of this study significantly contribute to the ongoing debate surrounding the alleged anti-Jewish posture of the Fourth Gospel as a whole, and it offers new insights that will appeal to scholars of Johannine theology, New Testament studies, and Jewish studies.

I was excited to get this book; I only wish I had had access to it six months ago when I was writing a chapter on John and Judaism for my forthcoming book. I look forward to working through Wheaton’s argument. Thanks to the good people at CUP for the copy!

Book Notice: Kelly R. Iverson, From Text to Performance (Skinner)

Iverson.BookRecently I was thrilled to receive a copy of my friend, Kelly Iverson‘s new edited volume, From Text to Performance: Narrative and Performance Criticisms in Dialogue and Debate (Biblical Performance Criticism; Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2014). This is an area in which Kelly has been working seriously for some time now. When we were in the process of editing one of our previous volumes, Mark as Story: Retrospect and Prospect, one of the conversations that guided our choices of contributors was the growing recognition among many that the next organic step after narrative criticism is performance criticism. Consequently, there’s a fairly distinct emphasis on performance in that book–something numerous reviewers have noted. (BTW, if you’re not acquainted with performance criticism, you can find a great deal of information here.) I have also recently given some attention to the burgeoning discipline of performance criticism at the end of my survey of Markan research on character.

Here’s a description from the back of the book:

For the last two centuries biblical interpretation has been guided by perspectives that have largely ignored the oral context in which the gospels took shape. Only recently have scholars begun to explore how ancient media inform the interpretive process and an understanding of the Bible. This collection of essays, by authors who recognize that the Jesus tradition was a story heard and performed, seeks to reevaluate the constituent elements of narrative, including characters, structure, narrator, time, and intertextuality. In dialogue with traditional literary approaches, these essays demonstrate that an appreciation of performance yields fresh insights distinguishable in many respects from results of literary or narrative readings of the gospels.

Contributors include David Rhoads, Joanna Dewey, Philip Ruge-Jones, Holly Hearon, Thomas Boomershine, Margaret Lee, Kathy Maxwell, and Richard Swanson.

 

Book Notice: Justin Marc-Smith, Why Bios? (Skinner)

Smith PhotoWhen I was in San Diego last month for the annual meeting of the SBL, I picked up a handful of really interesting books. The first one I decided to read was Justin Marc Smith’s monograph, Why Bios? On the Relationship Between Gospel Genre and Implied Audience (LNTS 518; London: Bloomsbury / T & T Clark, 2015). This volume is a revised version of Smith’s dissertation from St. Andrews. The book was of immediate interest to me for several reasons. First, in my SBL paper, one of my major points was that we need to take seriously the gospels as Greco-Rmoan biographies in order to make arguments about narrative techniques and characterization. I was therefore very interested to see what Smith had to say. Second, in a future project I intend to develop a via media between the Brown/Martyn hypothesis about the Johannine community and the Bauckham/Klink “gospels-for-all-Christians” model. At the heart of that debate are deliberations about the nature and scope of the gospels. Smith’s treatment is insightful and conversant with a great deal of material both within and outside of the discipline of gospels research. I am sure this work will become a dialogue partner for me in my future research on this topic. I have already identified some areas in which Smith and I disagree, but I’ll save those for a future time. For now, I recommend this resource to those interested in this important discussion. This monograph definitely contributes to advancing the current state of the discussion.

A Book That Has Everything: Christology, Old Testament, Characters, and the Gospel of John (Skinner)

Ahn's BookLast week I ran across the title of a book that was too interesting not to order. The book in question was Sanghee M. Ahn’s monograph, The Christological Witness Function of the Old Testament Characters in the Gospel of John (Paternoster Biblical Monograph Series; Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2014). I am interested in characters, Christology, the Old Testament, and the Gospel of John, so I immediately realized, “here’s a book with everything!” Here is a description of the book, Ahn’s revised dissertation:

This book investigates the narrative function of the Old Testament characters in the Gospel of John. The intriguing thesis is that the Hebrew characters in John’s narrative uniformly function as a witness for the messianic identity of Jesus. The Jewish scriptural traditions (Hebrew and intertestamental ones) are compared to shed light on John’s indebtedness for its formation of his Christology. A compelling argument ensues that informs our understanding, not only of the Gospel itself, but also of Jesus Christ revealed in the Gospel.

Earlier this week the good people at Wipf and Stock sent along an exam copy for me to peruse. It remains to be seen if this book really has “everything.” I have only just begun to read, but the one thing I can say right away is that this book is extremely well researched. It looks to me as though Ahn has read practically everything directly and/or indirectly related to his subject matter in English, German, and French. I wouldn’t be surprised if over half the word count for this book was found in the footnotes! The bibliography alone spans 60 pages! I look forward to saying more about this book in due course. Congratulations to Professor Ahn on the publication of his monograph!