Thinking Out Loud

September 19, 2016

Rethinking Our Connection to our Jewish Friends

near-christianity-anthony-le-donneHe had me at the title.

Near Christianity: How Journeys Along Jewish-Christian Borders Saved my Faith in God by United Theological Seminary professor Anthony Le Donne is a collection of seven1 essays concerned with the manner in which dialog between Christians and Jews takes place, and the ways in which Christians perceive Jews individually and collectively. There is a flow to this, but I suppose you could read the sections out of sequence, as each begins with a new playing field across which the dialog often takes place. The book officially releases tomorrow from Zondervan.

I don’t want to get sidetracked with superficial details, but at $18.99 US for a 212-page2 paperback, I rather assumed that this title was intended for the academic reader. But I’m not sure that this is the case, hence the review here. Certainly anyone with an interest in religious history, the Holocaust, Israel or Judiasm in Western Europe and North America would find this engaging and understandable. I’m told that Le Donne is the author of seven titles, but other than one from Eerdmans — Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It — the others are textbooks or have limited distribution. 

The Holocaust figures prominently into a couple of the chapters, but perhaps it’s a microcosm of a larger church history:

If this were a book about Christian “best practices” or “what you need to know about Christian beliefs,” we might live without the contradiction.  But this is a book about borders and, especially, the borders shared by Jews and Christians.  So we must ask, 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?  pp102-103

If the book has a central thesis, it is that we are better served if we have Jewish people in our circle of friends, or with whom we can at least have the occasional conversation. The book also points out areas where as Christians we have, sometimes unintentionally, created racial stereotypes that do not foster ideal relationships. We probably never consider this perspective:

If you walk into one hundred different synagogues on one hundred different Saturdays, you might never hear a single mention of Christians or Christianity.  By contrast, most Christian worship services – and there are many, many more of these – regularly refer to Jews and Judaism. Of course we do. Almost all of the Christian Bible was composed by Jews. Most of the early Christian theology was either adapted from Judaism or composed in departure from Judaism.  We believe that our God established a special relationship with Israel. Our Messiah is Jewish. For better or worse, Christians simply cannot stop thinking about “the Jews.”

Would it surprise you to learn that many Jews find great discomfort in this?  Would it surprise you to hear that many Jews (I will not say most because I do not rightly know) would prefer to have Christians focus on something else? Can we blame our Jewish friends for wishing that we would talk about someone, something, anything else? Take a moment to consider this. How would we Christians feel if a neighboring group that outnumbered us by billions could not stop discussing us, in most cases without our presence or permission? Now imagine that this same group has a long history of trying to convert us, punctuated by determined efforts to murder us? Wouldn’t we want those billions of people to just leave us alone? Even if billions of these folks said kind things about us and if most of them meant well, wouldn’t we want them to focus elsewhere?   pp126-127

Le Donne is indebted to C. S. Lewis for more than just the title of the book. Quotations from a variety of Lewis works appear in many if not all chapters. I tend to skip book introductions until I am completely finished reading, but he expands on the connection to C.S.L. there even more clearly. 

As to the subtitle however, the book definitely bears the subjectivity of an autobiographical work, but I may have missed the cathartic moment. I would have chosen the less dramatic ‘Shaped My Faith’ over the more sensational ‘Saved My Faith.’3 Make no mistake though, the author’s proximity to Judaism from a very young age is evident in each and every chapter. His window on this ‘border’ is unique.

This was a great book, and I didn’t even mention the section about Jewish comedy. I’ve already started to re-read a few sections and I give this my full recommendation.


1 A popular Christian retail site lists eight chapters, each having different titles than the ones in the advance copy of the book I received. I’ll try to get access to a finished copy of the book and see which was more accurate.

2 Despite the greater number of chapters, the same website lists a lower (192) page-count.

3 In the introduction, the author suggests something closer to preserved and certainly not anything in a soteriological sense.

Thanks to Mark H. at HarperCollins Christian Publishing in Canada for an opportunity to read a pre-release copy of Near Christianity. Page numbers cited may differ from the finished work.

Advertisements

January 4, 2016

Christianity’s Diminishing Influence: What if We Were the Refugees?

In eight years of blogging I’ve repeated many articles but this is the first time I’ve ever repeated a book review, especially one that appeared only 12 months prior. But as I was looking at these Pew Research stats, especially the one showing Christianity and Islam having relatively equal numbers in the year 2050 (based on current projections) I realized we are about to witness a massive paradigm shift.

This book is therefore very timely, but without the fear-inducing sensationalism of mass-appeal titles.

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? Ps. 137:4

Book Review: The Church in Exile

Although I worked for InterVarsity Press briefly several lifetimes ago, and have covered other IVP books here before, this is the first time I’ve attempted to review anything from the IVP Academic imprint. So let me say at the outset that perhaps I have no business considering scholarly titles here; however there is a personal connection that had me wanting to read this book, and that resulted in my wanting to give it some visibility here.

Lee Beach was our pastor for nearly ten years, and one year of that overlapped a staff position I held at the church as director of worship. He came to us after serving as an associate pastor and then interim pastor of a church just 45 minutes north. He was young, passionate and everyone just called him Lee.

Today, years later, when mentioning him to students in his university community, the honorific is always used, it’s Dr. Beach at McMaster Divinity School in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada where he serves as assistant professor of Christian ministry, director of ministry formation and teaches courses on pastoral ministry, mission, the church in culture and spirituality.

The Church in Exile - Lee BeachThe Church in Exile: Living in Hope After Christendom is made more accessible to those of us who are non-academics because of its timeliness. Because of immigration, the rise of secularism, and a decline in church membership and attendance, Christianity is losing both numbers and the influence that those metrics bring. In some communities already, Christians are no longer the majority stakeholders.

From his vantage point in Canada where religious pluralism has been normative now for several decades, Dr. Beach has a clear view of where the U.S. is heading. From his background as a Christian & Missionary Alliance pastor, he also has a heightened awareness as to the status afforded Christianity in other parts of the world.

The book is divided into two sections. The first begins in the Old Testament with a focus on those times God’s people lived in exile, or were scattered, particularly the narratives concerning Esther, Jonah, Daniel, and what’s termed the Second Temple period, where the community of the faithful seems to be diminished; a shadow of its former self. (Sound familiar?) From there, the book moves to the New Testament with particular attention to I Peter.

In the foreword, Walter Brueggemann points out that while exiles may have a sense that the present situation is temporary, the Jewish Diaspora brought with it no expectation of returning home. In other words, their placement was what we would call today ‘the new normal.’ That so well describes the church in 2015. There is no reasonable anticipation that things will go back to the way they were.

The second section builds on the theological framework of the first to turn our thoughts to the more practical concerns of being the church in the margins. How does one lead, and offer hope in such a period of decline? How does our present context govern or even shape our theological framework? How does a vast religious mosaic affect evangelism, or one’s eligibility for inclusion or participation in church life? How do followers of Christ maintain a distinct identity?

To that last question, the term used is ‘engaged nonconformity’ wherein

Exilic holiness is fully engaged with culture while not fully conforming to it. Living as a Christian exile in Western culture calls the church to live its life constructively embedded within society while not being enslaved to all of its norms and ideals. p. 183

It should come as no surprise that some of this section cites practitioners of what has been termed the missional church movement.

“But wait;” some might say, “We were here first.” While that may not be exactly true, the spirit of it is well entrenched, and early on we’re reminded that you can experience the consequences of exile even in your own homeland. You don’t have to sell your house to feel you’ve been displaced, and that’s the reality that will impact North American Christians if it hasn’t touched some already.

In the post-Christian revolution, it is fair to say that the church is one of those former power brokers who once enjoyed a place of influence at the cultural table but has been chased away from its place of privilege and is now seeking to find where it belongs amid the ever changing dynamics of contemporary culture. p. 46

In the end, despite my misgivings about wading into academic literature, I read every word of The Church in Exile, and I believe that others like me will find this achievable also, simply because this topic is so vital and our expectation of and preparedness for the changes taking place are so necessary.


The Church in Exile is now available in paperback (240 pages) from IVP and wherever great books are sold (click the image above for a profile) and retails at $25 US.

January 22, 2015

As Christianity Loses Its Majority Status in the US

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? Ps. 137:4

Book Review: The Church in Exile

Although I worked for InterVarsity Press briefly several lifetimes ago, and have covered other IVP books here before, this is the first time I’ve attempted to review anything from the IVP Academic imprint. So let me say at the outset that perhaps I have no business considering scholarly titles here; however there is a personal connection that had me wanting to read this book, and that resulted in my wanting to give it some visibility here.

Lee Beach was our pastor for nearly ten years, and one year of that overlapped a staff position I held at the church as director of worship. He came to us after serving as an associate pastor and then interim pastor of a church just 45 minutes north. He was young, passionate and everyone just called him Lee.

Today, years later, when mentioning him to students in his university community, the honorific is always used, it’s Dr. Beach at McMaster Divinity School in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada where he serves as assistant professor of Christian ministry, director of ministry formation and teaches courses on pastoral ministry, mission, the church in culture and spirituality.

The Church in Exile - Lee BeachThe Church in Exile: Living in Hope After Christendom is made more accessible to those of us who are non-academics because of its timeliness. Because of immigration, the rise of secularism, and a decline in church membership and attendance, Christianity is losing both numbers and the influence that those metrics bring. In some communities already, Christians are no longer the majority stakeholders.

From his vantage point in Canada where religious pluralism has been normative now for several decades, Dr. Beach has a clear view of where the U.S. is heading. From his background as a Christian & Missionary Alliance pastor, he also has a heightened awareness as to the status afforded Christianity in other parts of the world.

The book is divided into two sections. The first begins in the Old Testament with a focus on those times God’s people lived in exile, or were scattered, particularly the narratives concerning Esther, Jonah, Daniel, and what’s termed the Second Temple period, where the community of the faithful seems to be diminished; a shadow of its former self. (Sound familiar?) From there, the book moves to the New Testament with particular attention to I Peter.

In the foreword, Walter Brueggemann points out that while exiles may have a sense that the present situation is temporary, the Jewish Diaspora brought with it no expectation of returning home. In other words, their placement was what we would call today ‘the new normal.’ That so well describes the church in 2015. There is no reasonable anticipation that things will go back to the way they were.

The second section builds on the theological framework of the first to turn our thoughts to the more practical concerns of being the church in the margins. How does one lead, and offer hope in such a period of decline? How does our present context govern or even shape our theological framework?  How does a vast religious mosaic affect evangelism, or one’s eligibility for inclusion or participation in church life? How do followers of Christ maintain a distinct identity?

To that last question, the term used is ‘engaged nonconformity’ wherein

Exilic holiness is fully engaged with culture while not fully conforming to it. Living as a Christian exile in Western culture calls the church to live its life constructively embedded within society while not being enslaved to all of its norms and ideals. p. 183

It should come as no surprise that some of this section cites practitioners of what has been termed the missional church movement.

“But wait;” some might say, “We were here first.” While that may not be exactly true, the spirit of it is well entrenched, and early on we’re reminded that you can experience the consequences of exile even in your own homeland. You don’t have to sell your house to feel you’ve been displaced, and that’s the reality that will impact North American Christians if it hasn’t touched some already.

In the post-Christian revolution, it is fair to say that the church is one of those former power brokers who once enjoyed a place of influence at the cultural table but has been chased away from its place of privilege and is now seeking to find where it belongs amid the ever changing dynamics of contemporary culture. p. 46

In the end, despite my misgivings about wading into academic literature, I read every word of The Church in Exile, and I believe that others like me will find this achievable also, simply because this topic is so vital and our expectation of and preparedness for the changes taking place are so necessary.


The Church in Exile is now available in paperback (240 pages) from IVP and wherever great books are sold (click the image above for a profile) and retails at $25 US.

Blog at WordPress.com.