Bo Sanders: Public Theology

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Reza Round-Up

The best of what I have found so far. If you know of any other good links please let me know.

I am looking for good reviews and articles as I prepare for Reza Aslan’s visit to Homebrewed Christianity on September 3rd. I am reading Aslan’s newest book Zealot and trying to follow up on its critic’s concerns.

You might want to skip the introduction where he focuses on Reza’s problem with numbers and exaggeration and skip to the meat of the article that starts with the first off-set quote (in maroon).

This combination of overly confident and simplistic assertions on exceedingly complex theological matters, with stretching of truths—numerical, historical, theological, and personal—permeates Aslan’s bestseller. And yet, precisely because Zealot is generating such frenzied controversy, this is all serving Aslan very well. But as it would be wrong to judge Aslan’s book by its coverage, let us turn to its text.

Aslan’s entire book is, as it turns out, an ambitious and single-minded polemical counter-narrative to what he imagines is the New Testament’s portrayal of Jesus Christ.

Nadler aslo laments that Aslan did not consult some of latest work in the field. “The Jewish Gospels – Boyarin and Schäfer are just two of the many serious scholars whose works Aslan has clearly failed to consult.”

This will become a trend in these reviews.

Enns thinks that many of the concerns come from the fact that what the critics wish Zealot was looks more like Dale Allison’s book The Historical Christ and The Theological Jesus.

In the NPR interview he announced once or twice, as if it were a new thought, that there is a difference between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. Yes, and scholars have been writing about that for quite some time, but Aslan’s apparently either/or take on this issue by-passes necessary nuancing

Enns then goes on to point to two other scholarly reviews that are meaty.

  • The first is by Greg Carey over at the Huff Religion page.

Carey is careful with his criticism and concerns – though they are many. After listing some strengths of the book, Carey begins to list its four fatal flaws. He closes with a familiar theme:

Contemporary scholarship is undermining that familiar model. For one thing, Paul was not nearly so removed from the teachings of Jesus as Aslan assert. Paul’s connection to the Jesus movement goes back to within a couple of years of Jesus’ death, and Paul’s teachings resonate with some of Jesus’ most characteristic emphases. Moreover, we find “high christologies” — assertions of Jesus’ divinity — from the earliest stages and from beyond Paul. Daniel Boyarin, a leading Jewish biblical scholar no less, believes that Jesus saw himself as divine. (I mention Boyarin not because I agree with him but because he represents a non-Christian take on these developments.)

So we see a trend there. The next review will make it a recognizable pattern.

Le Donne is thorough and unapologetic about his critique. He opens with a concern about the title of the book itself:

 To be taken seriously on this point, Aslan would have to interact with David Chapman and/or Gunnar Samuelsson.  These scholars represent the most up-to-date researchers on the crucifixion in Jesus’ world.  Aslan cites neither.  If this key element of the book had been researched with more care, Aslan might have had a better chance of overcoming the many other deficiencies of this book.

He lists 10 problems the book has and closes by saying “Without exaggeration, problems like this surface on about every third page.  I’ve only listed ten.”

 I am wanting to have a constructive conversation with Dr. Aslan. We have the concerns covered …  Has anyone else found any good or helpful resources that they can point me to?

Getting Ready For Reza

I am getting very excited about Reza Aslan’s visit to Homebrewed Christianity this September 3rd. In anticipation of this conversation, I am reading his book Zealot and I recently attended a conversation between Reza and Rainn Wilson (who you probably know as Dwight from the Office) that was hosted at Barry Taylor’s church. IMG_2395

All of that aside, I am a little confused at some of the negative press that Reza has been getting in the past weeks. I get that some outlets and camps will be perpetually perturbed, and I don’t worry about them.

What has drawn my attention is the push-back from those I know and follow who have seemed to raise the ire about both Reza and his latest project. 

The complaints seem to come in 3 broad categories.

  • This has all been said before / Why do we need another book about Jesus? 

I am mystified by this line of reasoning. You think that because the Jesus Seminar or Borg or Crossan, Horsely or Karen Armstrong has covered this (at least some of it) in the work that there is nothing new or no new presentation that could be helpful for furthering the conversation?

Clearly – as you can see from the media response – hearing this from a new voice or from a different perspective has hit a nerve of some kind.

  • He is not even in Biblical Scholarship. 

This is an odd criticism. He is a historian and if you look at the courses in his department at the UC Riverside department you will see that it is not your normal creative writing program. Plus, discounting an author because of their field/title within the academy seems like a last-ditch effort at some level.

  • The Islamic thing. 

Don’t even get me started. If only people within a tradition are allowed … so Christians are not allowed to research-write about Jewish history or address anything Islamic? This just doesn’t hold up.

Enough of the negativity. Let me get to 3 things that I like about Reza’s project.

  • I love his approach. 

Instead of starting with the Bible, he starts with history. The Roman world was well documented and allows us to gain an elaborate picture of what life looked like during that period. We even know about their agricultural practices and prices – not to mention military, political, construction, trade, and religious matters.

Then what he does is come back to the Bible to if the details in the Gospel accounts stands up in relation to what we already know. The advantage to doing this is it helps illuminate what aspects of the Gospels were written for theological reasons. I find this a very helpful approach.

  • Not everyone knows about synoptic studies.

I come from an evangelical world where people spend lots of time reading the Bible but may not know that much about the Bible. In fact, every Christmas and Easter I felt like the bad guy for introducing them to the differences between the Synoptic accounts (not to mention the Gospel of John being its own thing).

This is why I love that Reza is getting so much attention and that we will get to chat with him on September 3 … and at my home church of all places!

I am a confessional christian and take great joy in integrating contemporary biblical scholarship as much as possible. The trick is always taking the often critical stance of that scholarship and utilizing it is a constructive confession!

One way I have found success in doing this is to embrace that the Gospel accounts are theological presentations – not newspaper reports – and that in those details that appear to be non-historical the authors/communities that wrote them are trying to tell us something. I want to hear and proclaim that something.

Am I worry that Reza’s work might not be intended for that purpose? No. That is why we are in dialogue with those in different disciples and traditions. We are translators at some level – all of us.

We engage, absorb, adapt, adopt, appropriate and integrate to the best of our ability.

  • Liberals should be even more upset than Conservatives and Evangelicals.

I get why folks from the conservative and evangelical branches of the family might not be too keen on Raza’s project. It gives them whiplash if they have never thought about this stuff before.

The most ridiculous response, however, is when those from the liberal side of the fences take the ‘we have heard all of this stuff before’ stance. Listen to what he is saying:

If the only thing that you knew about Jesus is that he was crucified, you would know everything that you need to. Crucifixion is reserved from state-criminals. Jesus was convicted of sedition.

From there it gets zesty. It turns out that the criminals on either side of Jesus that day were not ‘thieves’ they were bandits. That is how the original greek word should be translated according to Reza.

Jesus was not a good little Jewish boy who unfortunately and surprisingly got tacked up on a cross. He was a political threat with radical stances that were dangerous to the establishment. So when Liberals shrug their shoulders and go back to being ‘Chaplains to the Empire’ and participating in the establishment in ways that are complicit in unjust and oppressive institutions … they have missed what Reza is saying about their ‘savior’. It is an indictment on a brand of christianity is that is so compromised and complicit with the system that it is has lost its prophetic unction and revolutionary subversiveness.

I am excited to read the rest of this book and to continue to get ready for the September 3rd event. I don’t want to miss the opportunity to hear about Jesus from an angle I normally wouldn’t encounter. If people want to quibble about the title of the book as being fantastical and over-the-top in order to gains sales … OK.  But let’s not miss the point of the project over the title.

I would love to hear your thoughts or concerns. 

A Sentence about Seminary

Once in a while you run into a sentence that hits you like a ton of bricks.  You can read thousands of sentences in order to get to it.

Only rarely do you see it coming. Once in a while you are in a chapter that is so rich and nourishing that the sentence is just the Pièce de résistance.

Over the past 21 years, I have 5 sentences that have hit me like this. I can tell you exactly where I was when I first read them and why they hit me so hard. I say 21 years ago because that is essentially when I started reading. I was captain of the football and basketball teams in High School and didn’t so much … how do they say? … read.

It was after High School when I was no longer at my parents house – and I couldn’t make sense of my faith – that I picked up a copy of Josh McDowell’s apologetic classic: Evidence that Demands a Verdict.  On that first page was sentence that stabbed my in the heart. That was the first of the 5 sentences.

Yesterday in the spirited exchange of comments on my blog post “You have to believe in Hell, Predestination, Election and the Book of Revelation”  Nate Gilmore (you can hear his Georgia via Iowa drawl on last week’s TNT) was responding to a little bit of a fun rabbit trail we had going about seminaries and said:

 At least in online encounters, I’ve seen far more appeals to authority, citing “Biblical scholarship” as if it were a monolith, from liberals than from right-wingers.  In my own experience, the conservatives are much more interested in seeing the argument worked out than in “experts say that…” claims.

This is one of my favorite topics of discussion!  I love this topic! Not because I agree with the binary between Conservative and Liberal (I don’t – I can’t after reading The Argument Culture by Deborah Tannen, which contains 1 of my 5 sentences) but because I have a story about it  – a story that holds the last of my 5 sentences.

The Story:

I was writing my Master’s Thesis on Contextual Theology and I was utilizing a lot of material from a specific author – a real authority on the subject.  In the midst of completing the Thesis I was accepted into the PhD program at a large Evangelical shool where he teaches and I was even appointed to study with him!  It was an amazing honor.

After the Thesis was over, I was reading as much of his work as I could and I ran into a sentence from which I never recovered. He was talking about the need for innovation in the way we do Seminary – something that I am very passionate about – and he made a quick point about the difference between Liberal and more Evangelical seminaries in Africa.

He said that in Africa, Evangelical seminaries are much bigger, grow faster and produce more pastors because they are very method focused. They teach future pastors what to do.
Liberal seminaries, however, while being much smaller, are where almost all the innovation happens. His observation was that the difference came down to permission. His caution was that innovation can not become syncretism. 

Its not that his point was especially earth-shattering or unique. There was just something in the way he said it … or perhaps it was the gravity he carried as my future PhD Advisor … but I put down the book, went for a walk, and decided that I needed to go a different direction. I turned down my appointment to the school and enrolled in a totally different program at a Liberal institution (Claremont School of Theology). 

It was odd that someone I respected said something I agreed with, and the end result is that I knew I had to go a different direction than them.

This is the reason that I went into Practical Theology. It bridges the gap between these Liberal and Conservative approaches. It also attempts to bridge that gap between the Church and the Academy. It also addresses the false gap between theological theory and practice.

I’m so happy with my decision. Every time seminary education comes up, that sentence rushes to the front of my mind. My father (who was recently on the podcast) now runs the D.Min at his Evangelical seminary – so the topic of seminary education comes up a lot.

I don’t normally subscribe to the Conservative/Liberal binary, but in this case I concede the framing of the discussion because the institutions themselves identify this way and teach this way in a sort of self-reinforcing manner. 

You may not like the split, but if those on the inside are telling you that there is a significant difference … you may just have to go with it for a while and see where the road takes you.

 I just wanted to share my little story and see if anyone had any thoughts on the subject. 

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