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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Quarterly Quote of the Month about Jesus for This Week

The basic fact is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish thinker and teacher appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed. That it became, through the intervening years, a religion of the powerful and the dominant, used sometimes as an instrument of oppression, must not tempt us into believing that it was thus in the mind and life of Jesus. 'In him was life; and the life was the light of men.' Wherever his spirit appears, the oppressed gather fresh courage; for he announced the good news that fear, hypocrisy, and hatred, the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited, need have no dominion over them.

                         ~Howard Thurman

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Congratulations, Mike Holmes!—Chris Keith

Juan Hernandez shared on Facebook that Mike Holmes is retiring at Bethel University and also shared this video.

I'd like to take a moment and offer my sincere gratitude to Mike Holmes for his 35 1/2 years of service not only to Bethel but to the field of New Testament scholarship, especially text criticism.  Mike is a great scholar, but he's also an absolutely wonderful person.  He has encouraged me personally from the very beginning of my career and I've always been appreciative of that.  We've continued to be friends, and I was even honored to pose with him in 2015 at the SNTS in Amsterdam.  (Everyone was posing with their spouses.  Since our spouses weren't there, we posed together.)  Congratulations, Mike!!  Tell us where the SBL party will be, and we'll be there!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Render to Caesar....

Today friend of the program, Loren Rosen III posted this on Facebook. Not only is it an interesting conversation starter, I thought that his survey question summarized the various views quite nicely. He writes:

Happy Tax Day. I “rendered to Caesar” this morning.

But here’s something to ponder: Jesus command to “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”, was... what?

(A) A clear distinction between religion and politics, implying that Caesar’s taxes were lawful and should be paid. Jesus was trying to transform the individual heart above all. While he opposed exploitation of the poor, he identified the problem not in sociopolitical structures but in individuals. (Martin Hengel, Victory over Violence.)

(B) An enigma which deliberately left the issue unresolved. Jesus wanted to make people think for themselves and decide on their own if Caesar and God were compatible. On top of this, he “probably slipped the coin into his purse while they were haggling over what he told them.” (Robert Funk, The Five Gospels.)

(C) A paradoxical command to revolt and pay taxes at the same time. Jesus was protesting both against Caesar as a false lord and against tax-evading revolutionaries. His punchline meant: “Pay back Caesar as he deserves, and give God the divine honor claimed by Caesar.” In so doing he was implying that tax-evading revolutionaries were the true compromisers with Rome. (N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God.)

(D) A cryptic way of saying that Caesar’s taxes were unlawful but should be paid “with contempt” in order to rid the land of idolatry. Jesus’ punchline meant: “Give Caesar back his filthy coins, and give your total allegiance to God, so that Caesar and his coins may be removed from God’s land.” People should pay their taxes in contempt or as an act of non-violent resistance, meaning that Caesar had no valid claim on people, even if he was entitled to his filthy currency. (William Herzog, Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God.)

(E) A cryptic way of saying that Caesar’s taxes were unlawful and should not be paid at all. Jesus’ punchline meant: “Give Caesar nothing, God everything.” Jesus believed no one could serve two masters at the same time (Mt. 6:24/Lk. 16:13) and followed the early Israelite tradition that since God was king, no one else could be (Judg. 8:22-23; I Sam 8:4-7; Hos. 8:4). (Richard Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence.)

Thanks for your permission to repost this, Loren!


Thursday, April 13, 2017

Holy Thursday Post: Was the Last Supper a Passover Meal?

One of the primary reasons it took me almost ten years to write Jesus and the Last Supper (Eerdmans, 2015), is because it took time to work through the complex debate over the date of the Last Supper.

Was the Last Supper a Jewish Passover meal? Or was it celebrated 24 hours in advance? Do John and the Synoptic Gospels contain different chronologies of the death of Jesus?

Here's an interview that I did for this year's celebration of Passover that gives an overview of some of my findings.

And to all those who celebrate, best wishes for a sacred Triduum.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Quarterly Quote of the Month about Jesus for this Week

Study of the historical Jesus belongs to the diversity and pluralism of modernity, or, if you prefer, postmodernity, and there can be no easy appeal to the consensus on much of anything. The biblical guild is not a group-mind thinking the same thoughts. Nor are the experts a single company producing a single product, "history." As Chesterton says somewhere: "There is no history; there are only historians." The unification of academic opinion would be almost as miraculous as the union of the churches. If you are holding your breath waiting for the consensus of the specialists, you will pass out.

   ~Dale C. Allison Jr.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Issue 14.3 of JSHJ

Check out the latest issue of Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus.


Thursday, March 30, 2017

My Next Book

Look, you should really read Near Christianity. It's good fun and it would make my publisher happy. Or maybe just pretend that you did and write a nice Amazon review. It's what complete strangers do for each other, after all.

But if you are too busy to pretend to have read my latest book. Do the next best thing: pretend that you want to read my next book! 

The book will be put out by Hendrickson, it is due out by the end of the year, and my co-author and I are presently revising the final draft. I cannot tell you the title yet but here is a word cloud based on the manuscript:

Look at all those fancy words!

The book is by me and a Jewish friend of mine. Here are a few topics we cover.

Rules for the road in inter-religious dialogue.

Differences in memory between groups.

Postures we take in dialogue.



Dirty-hippie liberals.

More soon....


[CLARIFICATION: this post refers to my "other next book". I should have been more clear on this point because I've recently referred to a different project in a recent post.]

Monday, March 27, 2017

I (Still) Believe on Sale for $2

Attn: eBook readers: “I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship” by Byron and Lohr and is only $1.99 right now:

The deal ends at 11:59pm ET on March 28.

Listen to me now and believe me later.


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Help me write my next book.... pretty please?

My next book will be in the Oneworld "beginner's guides" series. It will be called, simply, "Jesus: A Beginner's Guide." Because Jesus (not specifically the historian's Jesus) is such a big topic, I will be doing something of a "deep cuts" survey of the evolution of an idea. I.e. this won't be another "greatest hits" book. Although, there are a few top-40 soundtracks on the playlist.

The book will include four parts: (1) Jesus, the Man; (2) Jesus in Early Christian Literature; (3) Jesus in Western History; and (4) Jesus in popular culture.

The first three parts are mostly finished. I now begin part four: pop culture. So I need your help.

What elements of pop culture should I include? Criteria: (a) it must be an element that reveals a characteristic of the culture; (b) it has to tickle my fancy.

Examples: Warner Sallman's Head of Christ; Jesus as a recurring character on South Park; Jesus on midwestern billboard ads.



Wednesday, March 15, 2017

St Mary's Bible and Politics conference in June: Win a free registration!

The forthcoming Bible and Politics conference at St Mary's University (2-3 June, 2017) is drawing near. As you will no doubt be aware, it will involve critical analyses of uses of the Bible in politics in a range of geographical and cultural contexts roughly within the timeframe of capitalist modernity. The keynote speaker is Erin Runions. For details about the conference see here.
Brace Belden, also nice to stray dogs

As is the custom with the annual St Mary's conference, there is a competition for one free registration. This year it was decided that the competition ought to be "political" and about higher education (you'll probably find the Bible too if you look hard enough). So this year it is about who replaces whistleblower Edward Snowden as Rector of Glasgow University after his term comes to an end in April, 2017. There are a range of candidates for the position this year, such as heroic YPG/IFB revolutionary, antifascist, and anti-ISIS fighter, Brace Belden, and some others. The competition this year is this: in under 100 words, describe who you think deserves to be the next Rector. Leave answers in the comments section here or on Historical Chaos. The deadline for answers is Friday 24 March and the winner will be registered shortly after. The competition will be judged by the strictest and highest standards of objectivity.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Medical Practice in Antiquity

Today I've been reading this fascinating article by Sarah Yeoman at Bible History Daily: "Medicine in the Ancient World." Excerpt: 
Excavations have also revealed evidence of sophisticated dental practices in antiquity. In a mass grave at Horvat en Ziq in the northern Negev desert of Israel, a skull dating to about 200 B.C. was found that contains one of the earliest known dental fillings. A 2.5-millimeter bronze wire had been inserted into the tooth’s canal. Elsewhere, skulls recovered from the catacombs in Rome, which were in use during the first through the fifth centuries A.D., exhibit some rather pricey dental work: Several were recovered that have gold fillings.
I have often suggested to my students that Jesus probably lacked a full set of teeth. The information cited by Yeoman, however, is new to me. Of course, it probably bespeaks occasional practices of the wealthy and may say nothing of how a member of the artisan class might care for an problematic tooth.

I also found this interesting:
The famous Roman physician Galen (c. 129–199 A.D.), who was born in ancient Pergamon near the Asklepion, is generally regarded as the most accomplished medical researcher of the Roman world, and some of his surgical procedures would not be seen again until modern times. He successfully conducted cataract surgeries by inserting a needle behind the lens of the eye in order to remove the cataract, and his described methods of preparing a clean operating theater reveal a keen awareness of contagion.
I had studied Galen before but I was unaware of his use of sterile surgical instruments.

Certainly worth a read in full.


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Praying for 45 with Ron Herms

In the church of my youth, we were taught to pray for our leaders. We always prayed for the President of the United States (regardless of party). Usually our pastor prayed that the president would be granted wisdom. Those were different times. I attended a different kind of church. The ethos of American Christianity was different. The integrity of the office of POTUS was much different. 

I will confess that it had not crossed my mind to pray for the 45th president. I have, however, been reflecting on Jesus' sermon on the mount since November 9. One of the most striking teachings of Jesus is Matthew 5:44: "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." So what would it mean to take this teaching seriously in our present political climate?

Ron Herms, New Testament scholar and Dean of the School of Humanities, Religion and Social Sciences at Fresno Pacific University, suggests four ways to pray for 45. Herms recent wrote a series of posts on this topic:

Prayer #1: Every week. Every falsehood. I've identified four ways I'm praying for Donald Trump. The first is that "his folly would be exposed": this man operates in the shadows of conspiracy theories, hoaxes, and alternative realities. To him, I have no doubt, they are real. So, for the foreseeable future, truth-telling cannot be taken for granted. This is a start...  
Prayer #2: A few days ago I posted the first of four thoughts I've been praying for Donald Trump. Here is the second: I'm praying that "his arrogance will be broken." While some may hear this as judgmental-ism, nothing could be further from my intent. Such a prayer simply responds to his obviously arrogant and bullying behavior and recognizes that the people of God's kingdom have often prayed for and spoken to manipulative powers in such a way (Psalm 2; Daniel 4; Acts 4; and more). Some will say there are other, very different biblical prayers for rulers and authorities. True; my list isn't finished yet. :) For today (and in light of a lengthening list of manipulative moves by DT) this is enough...  
Prayer #3: Over the past few days I've posted two of four thoughts I've been praying for Donald Trump. Here is the third: I'm praying that "his deepest insecurities would find rest and healing." ALL of us have demons, fears, and insecurities, but most of us have the "luxury" of relative anonymity where we mask or hide them. As I pray in this way, my mind often goes to Zacchaeus in Luke 19 whose profile of wealth and struggles with physical and social stature have interesting parallels to our current president. Donald Trump is not a lost cause; this prayer believes that his future can be better than his past. Lord, have mercy…  
Prayer #4: Over the past few weeks I've posted three of four thoughts on how I'm praying about / for Donald Trump as US President. Here is the final thought: I'm praying "that his constant and public need for affirmation would be met with radical opportunities for generosity and compassion." The transformative power and deep satisfaction of giving oneself (and one's resources) away so that an "other" can flourish should not be underestimated. We're all fundamentally in need of both the gift of affirmation and the discipline of self-sacrifice; and we all benefit when those in leadership discover that to be true for themselves. This is how I'm praying for the welfare of my city / country / world (Jer 29.7).
 My thanks to Ron for allowing them to be republished here.


Tuesday, March 7, 2017

2017 Christian Scholars' Conference

The 2017 Christian Scholars' Conference (Lipscomb University; Nashville, TN) is quickly approaching. I must confess I'm not exactly enamored of the name of this event, but I hear from others that it is one of the better small annual conferences. This year's theme is Memory, Tradition, and the Future of  Faith, and this year's plenary speakers will be James H. Cone (Charles A. Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology, Union Theological Seminary), Marie Howe (Sarah Lawrence College, New York University), and Shaun Casey (senior fellow at the Berkeley Center; professor, Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University). The 2017 CSC will also feature:
  • Greg Sterling (Dean of Yale Divinity School; The Reverend Henry L. Slack Dean and Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament) will deliver the Abraham J. Malherbe plenary address.
  • Carol Newsom (Charles Howard Candler Professor of Old Testament at Candler; senior fellow, Center for the Study of Law and Religion) will deliver the J. J. M. Roberts Lecture in Old Testament Studies.
  • Margaret Mitchell (Shailer Mathews Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Literature, University of Chicago Divinity School) will deliver the Everett Ferguson Lecturer in Early Christian Studies.
Now listen . . . if these names aren't enough to coax you into making travel arrangements to Nashville, TN, in early June, let me sweeten the pot. I will be presenting twice this year:

  • First, Nick Zola (Assistant Professor of Religion, Pepperdine University) has arranged a panel discussion of memory, tradition, reconciliation, and pedagogy. Here's the session abstract: "Dr. Stuart Zola, former director of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center and current interim Provost of Emory University, will present some of the latest research on the neuroscience of memory—how the brain remembers and what factors impair effective communication. Three panel members, each leaders in their fields, will respond with how a more robust understanding of memory function can inform a range of disciplines: Dr. Rodriguez on how Jesus is remembered in the New Testament; Dr. Turner on how individuals reconcile with others and their surrounding systems; and Dr. Erbes on how students best retain and recall classroom information." Stuart Zola has presented at an SBL before, and I'm looking forward to learning from and responding to his work.
  • Second, John Harrison (Professor of New Testament and Ministry, Oklahoma Christian University) has coordinated a session on memory and the Jesus tradition. Here's the session abstract: "For several decades now, memory studies and investigations into early Christianity has opened new questions about what first followers remembered and what affect Christian rituals had on the formation of that memory. In this session, two papers will lead the discussion around specific applications of memory studies and early Christian practice. The Jesus tradition was first experienced by eyewitnesses and then handed down orally for others to remember. Can eyewitness memory actually be detected in the Synoptic Gospels? How did baptism come to function as a preserver, transmitter, and transformer of Christian memory?" With the imminent arrival of the second edition of Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans) and the Reception of Jesus in the First Three Centuries project (Bloomsbury), this session will offer a critical view of the current state of Jesus research and its intersection with memory studies.
So we'll see you in Nashville in June! If you're coming, look me up and let me know. I can't wait to see you!

Monday, March 6, 2017

Reading Strategies: Otherness and Empathy

I have been asked to lead a Bible study tomorrow for Presbyterian pastors in Cincinnati. John 3 was among the lectionary options I was given and I happily agreed. Part of my attraction to this chapter relates to my fascination with texts (like John 3:16) that have cultural momentum behind them. Such texts have the power to tell us something about our own biases and affinities. Because to the extent that we employ them, we are prone to distort them. John 3:16 is a great example of a text that modern American Christians have put in service to a particular kind of reductionist theology. Conversely, I was also attracted to John 3 because I am fascinated by texts that alienate our modern sensibilities. John 3:14-15 is such a text. Our cultural repulsion also reveals something about us. Lucky for me, this passage happens to set an alienating text right next to a darling text.
John 3:14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life....
I talk more about how this passage relates to Numbers 21 in this post. Today I'm tinkering with this text in a different way. Preparing for a Bible study, I have found, requires a different sort of reading strategy. I must resist my tendency for historical-critical dissection (although some pastors like this) and a simple devotional reading will be unsatisfactory. Preparing for a Bible study is more like a workshop reading. I get the feeling I once had when I would take a screwdriver to an old radio in my father's garage just to see what's inside. In this case, the hope is to put it back together again.

In the case of John 3:14—the business about serpents as divine judgement, divine salvation, and savior typology—we meet an alienating text (lifelong Bible readers tend not to like literary serpents). But the task of the teacher is almost never to alienate. It is therefore my task to bring an alienating text to life in a way that does not alienate my students.

Here is how I'm thinking about reading strategy today:

Step one: create space wherein the text can be appreciated for its otherness. Notice its capacity to offend our modern sensibilities or confound our familiar theologies. Allow yourself to recognize how removed you are from the time and place of the first audiences of the text. E.g. Who is this God who sends venomous serpents as a consequence for complaining in the wilderness? What function did serpentine imagery play in ancient Egypt relative to Numbers 21? Are the implicit problems created by this zoological image solved by 2 Kings 18:4 (cf. the fate of the Nehushtan)? Is the Johannine Jesus creating more problems than he's solving in John 3:14-15? Does Jesus intend to teach Nicodemus or confuse and shame him? I would suggest that many such questions will allow us to experience the text as "other."

Step two: create space wherein the text can be appreciated as an "other" that requires empathy. If the goal is understanding and we are willing to admit our status as aliens to the text, can we approach the text as a cross-cultural encounter? Why does this particular combination of words make sense to the first composers and audiences? How do we explain the difference between their world and ours in a way that doesn't judge one to be superior to the other? And if we cannot avoid judgement, why not? What is the nature and extend of our cross-cultural encounter? Finally, is there a way to look beyond the offense to discover something more?

I would suggest that (while by no means the only reading strategy) this two-step approach to Bible reading might prepare us for cross-cultural empathy in other encounters as well.


Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Review of Le Donne’s Near Christianity—Chris Keith

Anthony Le Donne’s Near Christianity is unlike any book that I have read before.  Two parts personal memoir, one part theology, and one part history, this book is a fresh and important contribution to Jewish-Christian dialogue.  I’ve read most of what Le Donne’s written, and I don’t hesitate to say that I think this might be the most interesting book he’s published.  The next time I teach an introductory hermeneutics, Gospels, or Christian history course, it will be on the syllabus.  The next time I’m asked by a pastor or layman what he or she should read, I’ll be handing it to them.

Near Christianity is so interesting partly because Le Donne has cultivated the art of accessible writing.  Reading this book is not like reading a book at all.  It’s like having a pint at the pub with Le Donne, except it’s not just you and him; it’s you, him, and a whole host of his friends whom he’s brought for the occasion.  His family’s there; his Jewish friends, such as Larry Behrendt, are there; his Christian friends, such as “Ben” the struggling pastor and “Adrian” the frustrated Catholic, are there; Freud is there; the Grateful Dead are there; Homer Simpson’s there; Elie Wiesel and Amy-Jill Levine and the Coen brothers are there. . . . it’s basically the best Friday afternoon at the pub that you’ve ever had.

Le Donne is happy to host you at the pub.
Le Donne’s chief conversation partner in the book is C. S. Lewis, the British patron saint of evangelicals.  The title of Near Christianity is intended to mimic Lewis’s popular Mere Christianity.  Throughout the book, Le Donne interacts critically with various assertions of Lewis, all the while providing readers with a book that, like Mere Christianity, introduces them to some of the finer aspects of the Christian faith.  There is a critical difference, though.  Le Donne is not attempting to replicate Lewis’ “classic” introduction to the core of the Christian faith; he’s deliberately taking readers to the margins, to the places where borders are blurry, particularly borders between Jews and Christians.  At these borders he tells stories of failure and stories of success.  He walks the reader through unpleasant truths about the anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism of such heroes of the Christian faith as Martin Luther and John Chrysostom.  Some Christians never knew these things and some did but preferred not to talk about them.  But here, in the pub, Le Donne is putting it all on the table, convinced that honest conversation is the best step forward.  The conversation is rife with laughter and sorrow.  Your side splits when Le Donne tells you about how he—an Italian—once honestly believed as a child that he was Chinese and was severely disappointed to find out that he was not.  The hair on your neck stands up as he quotes Luther’s The Jews and Their Lies, advice to government officials on the persecution of Jews in pre-Holocaust 1542, alongside Elie Wiesel’s post-Holocaust Night.  Le Donne, master storyteller, leads us to see ourselves and others as we too often do not.

This book proceeds on the basis of shared borders between Jews and Christians.  For example, Chapter Two, whose title, “On the Border of Always Winter and Always Christmas,” plays upon Lewis’s description of an Aslan-less Narnia as “always winter and never Christmas,” forces readers to consider the power dynamics at work in the Christian-dominated Christmas season.  Chapter Three’s aforementioned invocation of Luther and Wiesel, “On the Border of Jesus and Genocide,” lays bare the Christian contributions to Kristallnacht and the Holocaust.  A similar theme emerges later in Chapter Five’s discussion of the anti-Semitic influences that helped created “Kittel,” the much-referenced Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.  This chapter, titled “On the Border of Anti-Judaism and Philo-Judaism,” makes the important point that both anti-Judaism and philo-Judaism share an inherent possible danger, that of making Jews into caricatures.  Le Donne carefully indicates that the possible—though not inevitable—danger is always in pressing Jewish identity into a theological agenda.  To combat this danger, he advocates here and especially in Chapter Six (“On the Border of Laughter and Intimacy”) that friendship and personal relationships are better than caricatures.  In my estimation, “On the Border of Anti-Judaism and Philo-Judaism” and “On the Border of Laughter and Intimacy” are the highlights of the book, where Le Donne masterfully leads readers to consider difficult problems from new perspectives.  Without a doubt, the reader emerges from these chapters, and the whole book, having learned important and unexpected lessons.

As I write these words of praise, I know some readers of this blog will dismiss them because Le Donne and I are close friends, frequent collaborators, and former colleagues.  To prove that I did not shut off the critical parts of my brain while appreciating this book, and thus that my praise is not simply cheering for the home team, let me note a few places of disagreement.  Despite my attempts, Le Donne continues to read Mark 15:35//Matt 27:46 as a divine abandonment and says, “Jesus also accused God of abandonment” (166).  I am not afraid of a Jesus who makes me uncomfortable, but I think there’s a better way to read that narrative that makes more sense of the full narrative. 

I also think that, in his largely-correct attempt to impress upon the reader that ancient “faith” was more about family than it was belief, Le Donne has overcooked the argument.  He says, “Many ancient Jews (Jesus and Paul among them) used the metaphor of family to describe their relationship with God.  This metaphor fit hand in glove with their biological connections.  Belief did not make a person a child of God; belief—and demonstrated belief—was a natural response to the reality of a previously established and secure belonging.  This stands in opposition to what many modern Christians think of when they think of religious membership” (194–195; see also 199).  It’s true that ancient Judaism was a “collectivist culture” (199) and also that modern Christianity overdoes the significance of individual belief, particularly when it conceptualizes belief as “assent.”  What Le Donne omits here, however, is that one could also say that modern Christianity has made these mistakes with the help of some ancient Jews.  For, in my opinion, the author of the Gospel of John was an ancient Jew (or in the very least a Gentile who was steeped in the sacred texts of ancient Judaism) who indeed emphasized the connection between “belief” and being a “child of God” with teachings he sometimes puts on the lips of Jesus:  “To those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12); “For whosoever believes in him . . .” (John 3:16; see 3:16–18).  We can perhaps argue over what constitutes “belief” for this author, but whether it is connected to be(com)ing a “child of God” seems pretty clear.

As a briefer complaint, I have more of an appreciation for Ricoeur’s “second naiveté” than does Le Donne (200).

Finally, Le Donne is a godawful bull-rider.  It’s as if he’s never even seen 8 Seconds. 

Let me get back to underscoring why this book is incredible and the best available at what it does, not just in terms of content but in terms of timeliness.  I’m sure that I hardly need to point out the significance of Le Donne’s demonstration that hearing, understanding, and loving those of other faiths (and no faith, though this isn’t the point of his book) in these times in which so many, including many misguided Christian leaders, are siding with xenophobia.  Beyond this, however, I believe this book, consciously or not, taps into another big trend in American Christianity, namely the disintegration of evangelical identity.  One of the running subthemes in this book is Le Donne’s own transition from being an evangelical into a “progressive” Christian.  Although there were undoubtedly many other forces at work, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Le Donne has come to appreciate Christianity’s inherently symbiotic relationship to Judaism, and therefore Christianity’s shared borders with Judaism, once (or as) he also moved away from evangelicalism.  This fits entirely with other trends, such as the well-documented surge in evangelical “conversion” to Catholicism.  Evangelical identity, particularly in America, is fragmenting so thoroughly that many people who formerly moved in that world are tapping religious kin with more tradition and history, seeking to anchor their own identities into something more solid.  In a different way and for different reasons, this plays out at the practical level as well.  I don’t have statistics to back up this point, but anecdotally there certainly seems to be an upswing in evangelicals hosting seder meals and observing Lent.  I would go so far as to say that any of those American churches doing things like hosting seder meals should be required to read Near Christianity.

In that sense, I think Near Christianity, like its namesake Mere Christianity, provides not only a snapshot of this moment in Christianity, but something of a road map for the future.  For Christians, Le Donne stresses owning our ugly, wrestling honestly with doubt and God’s silence, and having one’s own faith enriched by honest friendship and conversation with Jewish neighbors.  For Jewish readers of Near Christianity, the book should give some sense of why some sectors of Christianity have ignored this important conversation too long and function as a key step toward mutual appreciation.  Given the nature of the topic, it is inevitable that some critical readers will find points of disagreement.  It is also inevitable that all readers will emerge having learned more than they expected when they picked the book up. 

Le Donne is to be commended.  Near Christianity might be the most important book since Eli Cash’s Wildcat.