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.

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April 14, 2011

Exploring our Jewish Roots

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:25 am

Around this time of year, some churches will experiment (for lack of a better word) with the idea of replicating a Passover Seder, as this was what the disciples were doing with Jesus on the night of his betrayal by Judas and subsequent arrest.

My wife started a local ministry here many years ago called Stained Glass.  It centered around an interdenominational worship team — each person in the band was from a different church — and extended worship times based on a theme with poetry, prayers and readings added to the mix.  She did a Seder one time, and studied hard to understand the various nuances of it.  She then placed what seemed like a hundred cushions on the floor around a low table — actually a stage riser placed on the floor — so we could get the whole “reclining at the table” vibe.

But she is the exception. I think for the most part, anyone attempting this is well advised to bring someone in who is fluent in Jewish culture, including possibly bringing a Jewish person to join your event.

But I’d never thought of bringing the celebration of Purim to church until I read this blog post from a month ago by Dan Kimball at Vintage Faith.  Purim, which recreates the story of Esther, involves much participation from the children present including audience participation a la Rocky Horror Picture Show.  It’s also been described to me — because the kids dress up in wild costumes — as a kind of Jewish version of Halloween, at least for the kids. The good guys and the bad guys are delineated to the extreme, sort of like turning up the color balance on a monitor to maximum saturation.

Be sure to click this and read Dan’s report.

January 24, 2011

My Jesus Year: An Evangelical Embed With An Alternative Agenda

Ever since Jim Henderson took Casper the Friendly Atheist to church, I’ve had a fascination with books where  a “fish out of water” give us a fresh take on what the Christian world looks like to an outsider. This weekend, I completed yet another such tome.

In Jim and Casper Go To Church, the “fish” was a foreigner to all things religious.  In My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith, the writer, Benyamin Cohen is all to familiar with what is, potentially at least, going on inside a house of worship.

As I type this, I am aware that I’ve lost track of the number of this type of book I’ve read recently, though certainly the Jim Henderson & Matt Casper title was the one that got this genre going for me.  Then there was Kevin Roose’s semester at Liberty University, chronicled in Unlikely Disciple.  And of course, Daniel Radosh’s investigation of Christianity in Rapture Ready.

Radosh like Cohen is Jewish, but there the similarity ends. Radosh is doing investigative journalism, albeit some of it with tongue firmly in cheek. Benyamin Cohen is on a personal quest; on a personal mission. He is seeking to connect with his own faith by immersing himself in the Christian culture he has always lusted after from afar.

But unlike the other writers embedded for the ride, Cohen continues to attend synagogue as well. It makes for some very tiring weekends. To make matters worse, this Rabbi’s son is married to the daughter of a Methodist minister who was on a road to conversion to Judaism before they met. She is able to provide him with briefing and de-briefing information, but is not along for the ride at all. Oh, and just to make it all that much more colorful, the Rabbi who has given his ‘blessing’ to the one-year project insists that Cohen wear his press credentials and his yarmulke wherever he goes.

Bottom line; this is a book that is really more about Judaism than it is about Christianity. It’s about faith, the quest for faith, finding faith; and purports to show that there are more similarities than differences.

On that point, I am not so sure. Cohen was reared in Orthodox Judaism, that branch of the faith requiring the highest level of devotion to its various laws and interpretation of the laws.

Still, there were a couple of serendipitous parallels between Cohen’s faith journey and my own that were tucked away in sentences almost hidden in the narrative. One was a reference to Benyamin and Elizabeth’s simultaneous membership in two different synagogues. As I mention that, I do so knowing that my wife and I are currently listed in the directory of two different church families. The other was a reference to their decision to ditch the main services taking place over the Jewish high holidays in order to worship with about twenty other people at an “alternative” service in a smaller classroom. That is so something my wife and I would choose to do.

Like Casper and Radosh and Roose, Cohen does not convert at the end, just in case you’re wondering. (Hardly a spoiler!) Though in a way, he does; describing his journey as a later-in-life finding of his own faith.

Cohen is embedded in more than just evangelical culture — this review’s title flawed with an irresistible alliteration — and his journey also takes him into a Catholic confessional booth, and inside the home of a woman being proselytized by Mormon Missionaries. But the book is really a primer for Christians on Orthodox Jewish faith and practice, and simply uses the alleged similarities between the two faith systems as a means to explain his own.

My Jesus Year was published in hardcover by HarperOne in 2008 and in paperback in 2009. It is well-written, engaging, evocative and a must-read for Christians who want to get to know their Jewish neighbors.

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