He 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.