Marin County to Habitat for Humanity: Get Lost!

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that residents in an area of Marin County are trying to raise $100,000 for legal fees to prevent Habitat for Humanity from building affordable housing there. The average price of a home in Marin, according to the article, is $800,000, and in the neighborhood in question, most homes are valued at between $1 million and $2 million . The article quotes one opponent as saying:

"The homes are of a certain type and would not fit in. The placement of these homes would really stand out."
I suppose it's true that poor people don't exactly "fit in" in such wealthy enclaves, unless, of course, the poor people in question are nannies or pool boys.

According to the article,
it has been exceedingly difficult to find any place to squeeze in low-cost housing outside of the predominantly African American enclave of Marin City and the largely Latino neighborhood of San Rafael known as the Canal area.

The reception in Marin has been so hostile that a county chapter of Habitat for Humanity disbanded in the late 1990s because the volunteers could not get any low-income housing projects off the ground, [executive director of the San Francisco Habitat chapter Phillip] Kilbridge said.
As for the $100,000 in legal fees that Habitat opponents are trying to raise, Kilbridge asks, "Do you know how many nails that could buy? To us that's a lot of money that could be of such incredible use to the community."

I guess it depends on your personal values. $100,000 could not only buy a lot of nails, it could also feed a lot of hungry mouths. But, perhaps to some, what could be more useful than keeping poorer people out of your neighborhood?

The Word of God

UCC pastor Kent Siladi has been commenting on the preamble to the UCC constitution in his blog. As I read this statement from the UCC, I find myself reacting to it in a lot of complex ways. Part of me finds some of the language in the statement a little too orthodox for my comfort level, which initially suggests that perhaps I am drawn to the UCC despite, rather than because of, what it says it stands for. But part of me recognizes that a statement like this is often theologically ambiguous and can be interpreted in a lot of different ways, thus making it broad enough to encompass the theological diversity that characterizes an organization like the UCC. I know that the UCC is a congregational body, and that this diversity manifests itself in various ways; some churches are more progressive than others, for example. I then can't help but wonder, as I sit comfortably in the pews of my little progressive Christian church, if I am more on the theological fringe of this denomination than I realize.

What got me thinking about this in particular was what the statement said about revelation: "It looks to the Word of God in the Scriptures, and to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, to prosper its creative and redemptive work in the world." Any time I hear the "Word of God" and either "the Scriptures" or "the Bible" used in the same sentence, a little alarm bell goes off in my head. Fundamentalists often refer to the Bible as the Word of God--even though the Bible itself (or at least the Gospel of John) makes it clear that God's word revealed itself in the form of a person (Jesus), rather than some book or collection of writings. One of the hallmarks of fundamentalism is a slavish devotion to the Bible that goes beyond mere appreciation for it as a normative, foundational document of the faith. This is dangerous territory, because it can lead to an intellectually bankrupt set of views on, among other things, science and biblical criticism.

When I read Kent's commentary on this, I was also given pause. He wrote, "The Scriptures are formative for the United Church of Christ. We are a people of the Word of God. We take the Bible seriously as God's Word to us as God's very own people. The Word occupies a central place in our life together. It is through the Word that we come to know God better and to deepen our relationship to God through the study of that Word." In response to a comment I left, he made it clear that he was not suggesting that we should take the Bible literally or that we should fall into the trap of bibliolatry; instead, he was saying that the Bible should be taken seriously, which makes sense to me, at least in principle.

As I reread that preamble, I noticed something. It actually did not say that the Bible is the Word of God. Instead, it simply referred to the Word of God "in" the Scriptures. In other words, it suggests that the Word of God can be found within the Bible, but it does not equate the Bible with the Word of God. This is an important distinction. I see the Bible, quite frankly, as a human document (or, more accurately, a collection of human documents). It is not God's word per se, but rather a historical record of human attempts at understanding God. It is useful and instructive on that basis, not because it is an infallible record of God's own words, but because it shows us how others have related to God and in the process it has offered inspiring literature. God's word shines through the Bible, just as God's word shines through nature, through poetry, and through human acts of loving kindness. The Bible is a flawed work because it is a human work; but it is also an important foundational document for Christianity and Christian-derived spirituality.

One of the interesting realizations that comes from reading Thus Saith the Lord by Richard Rubenstein is that it indicates quite clearly the progressive nature of the prophetic imagination as depicted in the Bible. Early Biblical prophets, like Elijah and Elisha, could be tribalistic, fundamentalist, and even (in the case of Elisha) obscenely violent in their theology. Over time, especially in the face of Babylonian exile, the great prophets expanded their theological horizons. God became less tribalistic and more universal; all nations, even those who did not worship YHVH, were seen as part of God's plan. The prophet whom scholars call Second Isaiah, who wrote during the time of exile, and whose prophetic words were appended to those of the "first" Isaiah as a later part of the biblical book of that name, took this universal theology to its ultimate expression. Rubenstein writes:

In a breathtaking act of imagination, the poet [Second Isaiah] pictures God in space, looking down from a great distance on his handiwork:

He lives above the circle of the earth
its inhabitants look like grasshoppers.
He has stretched out the heavens like a cloth,
spread them like a tent for men to live in.

Then he delivers the punch line:

He reduces princes to nothing,
he annihilates the rulers of the world.

No previous prophet had raised the Holy One of Israel to such stratospheric heights. In the work of the first Isaiah and Jeremiah, YHVH talks about what he will do, not about who he is. He does not say things like "I am YHVH unrivaled, I form the light and create the dark"; or "the heavens are as high above earth as my ways are above your ways, my thoughts above your thoughts."
Rubenstein summarizes the importance of Second Isaiah in this way: "Understanding that the One God implies the oneness of humanity, he opened the door of monotheistic faith to all..." Rubenstein continues:
Rhetorically, Isaiah sometimes spoke as if the restored Israel would be a great imperial power--a "master of the nations" as well as a "witness to the peoples"--but it was clear that her authority would be spiritual and ethical rather than military or political. The earth's peoples would turn to YHVH spontaneously, out of the conviction that his teachings were just and true, not because they had been forced to accept them. The idea of a voluntary spiritual consensus is the ultimate response of classical prophecy to the enterprise of empire-building. Implicitly, it annihilates the legitimacy of power-based imperial systems. For great empires generate goals and expectations that coercive methods cannot satisfy--hopes for human solidarity and world order, international standards of justice, national liberation, and the peaceful resolution of disputes. Isaiah's vision of a just, harmonious world was not some sort of religious supplement to existing imperial practices; it represented a frontal challenge to any system of governance that dashes these expectations by subordinating them to the preservation of violent, unjust authority.
This is a long, long way from the prophecies of Elijah and, in particular, the violent tribalism of Elisha.

I focus on Second Isaiah here because it raises a point about the nature of revelation. Prophets were those who have heard what they believe to be the word of God, who then told the world about what they've heard, and whose messages manage to inspire us. The Bible shows us that divine revelation in the ancient history of Israel and Judah was progressive in nature. It never dropped out of the sky in whole form--it evolved, over time, in the face of new circumstances and as human theological judgments matured.

The preamble to the UCC constitution says that it looks "to the Word of God in the Scriptures, and to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit." This word is "in" those Scriptures. The same divine Spirit that gave words to, and which inspired, those ancient prophets is still calling out to us today. Trinitarian Christians assign that role of Divine inspiration to what they consider one of the three persons they define as comprising the Holy One. (But you don't have to subscribe to a Trinitarian notion of the "Holy Spirit" to appreciate the concept of God speaking to us.) We can turn to the record of others--like Second Isaiah--who were inspired by God and in turn who inspire us today. And we can also listen to God ourselves, who is always speaking to us. That is the message that I can take away from that statement by the UCC.

Thus Saith the Lord

I stumbled onto the book Thus Saith the Lord by Richard Rubenstein quite by accident in a bookstore one day. I am glad I did; I am halfway through it, and so far I would say that it is one of the best biblical commentaries I have ever seen. The book focuses on the issues that concerned the major prophetic figures of the Bible, including Isaiah and Jeremiah. Drawing from a variety of biblical and extra-biblical sources, the author provides an amazingly clear and interesting depiction of the context from which these prophets emerged--namely, the geopolitics of the major powers of the Middle East, including Assyria, Babylonia, and Egypt. These prophets were intimately involved with the complicated diplomatic and military issues of the day. Comparing the imperial politics of that time with our own suggests that some things haven't changed much in over 2500 years.

The rulers of Judah and Israel were bit players in the face of the overwhelming imperial juggernauts of their time--first Assyria, then Babylon. The debate over realpolitik versus a policy of justice was very much what the people of that time had to contend with. And this is an issue that we still contend with today. For example, Rubenstein writes:

Isaiah remained fascinated by Assyria, the world leader....[T]he empire-building, nation-smashing activities of the Assyrians--even their policy of mass deportations--were revelatory. They revealed, first of all, that just as God is One, the earth's inhabitants are one. The correlative of monotheism is the unity of mankind. And second, the Assyrians' behavior demonstrated the inefficacy of coercive power to create that unity. They could create the conditions for international community, for example, by building magnificent roads to facilitate travel between distant parts of the empire. But roads used for conquest and rebellion could not provide a stable basis for peaceful intercourse among people. Only when the power of all nations is subordinated to YHVH's universal ethics will the highways become a blessing.
This is a lesson that still holds true today. The modern American Empire has attempted to use its coercive power in Iraq, but, as in the days of ancient Assyria, it was unable to "provide a stable basis for peaceful intercourse among people." And just as ancient Assyria's infrastructural innovations and technology were not enough to assure a lasting justice and peace, the modern American use of technology--from the internet to its array of weaponry--is also woefully inadequate in and of itself. Isaiah wanted no part of the "practical" politics that governed the foreign and domestic politics of his day. He understood that supposedly practical considerations that did not seek to establish a just social order were doomed to failure. As Rubenstein points out,
To Isaiah, the idea of a peaceful resolution of international conflicts was not at all posthistorical or utopian. The political history of his own time demonstrated the hopelessness of trying to establish a stable world order on the basis either of imperial might or violent rebellion. What would finally organize international politics, he was certain, would not be some sort of pax Assyriana but "a peace that has no end." The Assyrian "king of the world" could not realize such a peace, but those following the world's true king could do so--and not at the end of history, but in the course of it.
Some Christians have, unfortunately, been focused on the idea of waiting for God to intervene in order to bring about a utopian vision after the end of history. Believers in a "rapture" are an example of such Christians, and the "Left Behind" series of books and video games have all played to such a vision. This hope for Divine intervention is not new. Dominic Crossan believes that John the Baptist subscribed to a similar notion of a future intervention by God to bring about a better world--although he also believed that Jesus, his disciple, rejected that vision in favor of bringing about an imminent Kingdom of God through human activity.

According to Rubenstein, Isaiah believed that the building of a just and peaceful world could happen within the course of history. I suppose I could be described as a radical utopian for believing that it is possible for the human race to achieve the kind of just society that Isaiah believed in. My vision is radical indeed--a world based on the priority of human needs rather than corporate profits, of peace rather than war. I am not naive enough to believe that such a society will happen any time soon. But I do believe that we have no choice but to try to work towards its accomplishment, even if the best we can do is make our small contributions and hope that in some way our efforts will make a difference in the long run. Perhaps, at some distant time in the future, that which we seek will come to fruition.

Dangerous religion

According to this news article:

The 43-year-old computer consultant is an evangelical Christian who says he believes that a warming planet is "one of the signs" of Jesus Christ's imminent return for Judgment Day.
The scary thing is that there are probably a significant number of Americans who actually think this way.

The real problem is not just that certain kinds of evangelicals view the world's ecological and international problems as positive signs of the impending end of the world and glorious return of Jesus. It is the implications of this belief that really matter. This kind of religious outlook leads many people to take dangerously obstructionist actions that seek to prevent the nation and the world from making serious efforts at solving these problems.

The difference between charity and justice

The current issue of Sojourners magazine contains a column by Rose Marie Berger, titled "What the Heck is 'Social Justice'?" She provides a nice explanation of the difference between charity and social justice:

Justice is the moral code that guides a fair and equitable society. When an individual acts on behalf of justice, he or she stands up for what is right. Charity is a basic sense of generosity and goodwill toward others, especially the suffering. Individual charity is when one responds to the more immediate needs of others—volunteering in a women’s shelter, for example.

The goal of social charity and social justice is furthering the common good. Social charity addresses the effects of social sin, while social justice addresses the causes of such sins. Brazilian Catholic Archbishop Hélder Câmara famously said, “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint; when I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” His phrase indicates the societal pressure to separate charity and justice. The two can not be separated. It would be like taking the heart out of a body—neither would live for long.

Many Christians support acts of charity for the victims of social injustice. But I would argue that charity for the victims of social injustice is only a band-aid, even if a necessary one. Homeless shelters, for example, are a necessary response in a society like ours that sees obscene salaries going to the CEOs of major corporations while some people don't even have a place to live. But if our social and political system serves to support the interests of the rich and powerful, then a band-aid should be recognized for what it is--a stopgap measure. The Divine imperative as I see it is to go beyond mere charity, and to seek social justice.

The way things are

I did not watch the World Series on television last year, so, until I read an article in the current issue of Sojourners by Danny Duncan Collum, I did not know that both John Mellencamp and Steven Earle, two men who usually stand as progressive social critics of the status quo, had allowed their songs to be used in car commercials during the televised games.

The Mellencamp song featured in a Chevy Silverado was "Our Country", an obvious homage to Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land". As Collum points out,

But to paraphrase the late, great Waylon Jennings, “I don’t think Woody done it this a’way.” For one thing, Woody sang for the United Auto Workers, not for their bosses.
Steve Earle, according to Collum, "identifies himself as anti-capitalist and his political identity is central to his work," and thus "it was...a shock when he crossed that line."

So what is the "line" that both Mellencamp and Earle crossed? Quite simply,
When a John Mellencamp or Steve Earle rents a song out to General Motors, he is no longer an artist speaking to and for the people who make and buy Chevy trucks. He is instead, at least for a while, a cog in GM’s corporate strategy that for the last three decades has consisted of maximizing profits by laying off workers, demanding givebacks from those who remain, offshoring every possible function, resisting attempts to replace the fossil fuel economy, and then appealing to patriotism to con Americans into buying their products anyway.

As Steve Earle himself once sang, “Come back, Woody Guthrie.” Please.
The lure of big money makes it easy for even the most progressive and anti-capitalist protest singers to succumb to the temptation to sell out their music to advance corporate goals. In a CBS news online article about the subject of rock singers selling their music to advertising, Bill Flanagan points out that not every musician is willing to sell out:
Two of the surviving Doors sued the third, drummer John Densmore, for blocking their attempts to sell Doors songs to commercials. Densmore said it was counter to everything the band had stood for, and added that if Jim Morrison were really dead he'd turn over in his grave. Well, actually I made up that last part but you get the idea. Densmore believes the Doors stood for something bigger than making the most bucks off the old songs, and they should preserve their dignity.
The irony here is that, unlike Mellencamp and Earle, the Doors didn't record protest songs and were not identified with political activism.

A few years ago, I got interested in the idea of doing voice over work, so I took some evening classes from a voice over casting director. There are many kinds of voice over work, but the majority of it involves acting in radio commercials, and it was easy for me as a student to get swept along with the tide and make that my own emphasis. At some point, though, I realized that I didn't want to be a prostitute for corporate interests. I stopped taking the classes, leaving open the possibility of studying voice over again at a later time, but with a different area of emphasis.

In our society, the corporate value system is so overwhelming accepted that even protest singers often give no thought to selling themselves out to it. I can't really blame Mellencamp and Earle, since, as my own experience with voice over classes showed, I too have been a sinner. Capitalism makes sinners of us all.

But still. It is a sad sign of the present state of our society that there is no counter-ethic out there for people to turn to. There are no Woody Guthries out there. The corporate sensibility is so ingrained in all of us that it just becomes accepted without thinking that we should just go along and participate in the system of whoring ourselves to corporate advertisers.

Marcus Borg, in his book Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, wrote:
Jesus pronounced blessings on the poor and woes upon the wealthy. Why? Because the poor were especially virtuous, and the wealthy lacked personal virtue? If the wealthy followed the Ten Commandments, would that have been enough? But the issue does not seem to be personal goodness. Rather, the kingdom of God, God's dream for the world, will bring blessing for those burdened by the domination system and woe for the perpetrators and beneficiaries. The kingdom of God is about a great reversal of the way things are.
And the question for us today is therefore this: do we live our lives as participants in the way things are, or as the way they should be?

Thank you for the nomination, whoever you are!

I am very flattered to discover that my blog has received three nominations for the Third Annual UU Blog Awards. This is especially flattering since I am not a UU, although I do sometimes mention Unitarian Universalism in my writing. To be honest, I'm not sure if not being a member of a UU church should technically disqualify me, but I'll take the compliment anyway! The three nominations are:

  • Best Non-UU-Themed Blog
  • Best Religious Writing or Theological Commentary - Best of class
  • Best Commentary
To whoever nominated me, thank you!

Worship paradigms

I think it was shortly after I attended a Sunday morning Episcopal service for the first and only time a few months ago that I began to grasp something about nature of the variety of worship paradigms that exist within Christianity. An Episcopal service is, I realized, structured as a kind of narrative. It has a beginning (the procession of the cross), leading up to narrative climax that consists of the Eucharist, and finishing with the denouement (the recession of the cross.) The climactic role that the Eucharist plays in Episcopal worship is illustrated by the fact that published Episcopal service times are almost always described in terms of the Eucharist; they will say something like 8 AM Eucharist (Rite I), or 10 AM Eucharist (Rite II). Everything before the Eucharist in a worship service leads up to it; everything afterwards is a post-climactic conclusion.

I thought that this recent entry by ePiscoSours, an Episcopalian blogger, served as an interesting example of this point. The writer in this case described how he felt about the experience of the taking communion:

I still feel awe and joy and passion when I go up to the altar rail to receive communion. At the dismissal, I can’t stop myself from smiling in relief and gratitude as I say, “Thanks be to God.”
Now just contrast that reaction to the Eucharist to the fact that some mainline Protestant churches don't even do communion every Sunday; the UCC church I attend, for example, does it once a month. Quakers don't do communion at all. Neither do Unitarian Universalists.

As I've mentioned before, I don't always partake of communion at the church I attend. The times when I have taken communion at the church I attend have only been when it was not as much about relating to the body and blood of Christ, and more about a celebration of the kind of open commensality that Jesus practiced. The former pastor, who has just recently left the congregation, would sometimes introduce communion by stressing in great detail that you didn't have to believe anything or do anything to participate. Those were the magic words of inclusion for me, enough so that I overcame my reluctance and participated. But just two Sundays ago, the person who led the monthly communion didn't introduce it with those magic words, and as a result I felt no desire to participate. I don't see communion as a sacramental act.

Most importantly for the purposes of this discussion, communion at a UCC church has none of the narrative function that you find in Episcopal worship. It is seen as a sacrament, but, unlike the Episcopalian Eucharist not performed within any broader narrative context.

So what are some of the other worship paradigms? For Quakers, it is about silence, listening, waiting on God, the ministry of all believers. It is defined by what George Fox expressed when he said, "There is One, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition." It is about God speaking to all of us, and thus building an entire worship experience around listening to what God has to say.

There are other denominations and movements that have their own unique paradigms, many of which I just know little or nothing about. I know nothing about Catholic worship services, for example, but perhaps they have a narrative structure of their own. I once attended a Pentecostal church when I was a teenager, and I can't comment much on Pentecostalism, being mostly ignorant of it, but it would seem to me that its worship paradigm has much to do with ecstatic celebration.

So what is mainline Protestantism's worship paradigm? What is the paradigm, for example, of the UCC church that I attend? I admit that this one has me stumped. Perhaps this is because I was brought up in a Protestant denomination (not a mainline one, but not a Pentecostal one either), and the sort of non-ecstatic, non-silent, narrative-free structured service paradigm is so ingrained in me that I can't step back objectively and describe what its paradigm is. All I can describe is what it is not. The services do have a structure, to be sure; but it is a structure that I think is flattened out, without a rising and falling narrative.

I am afraid that the Episcopal narrative structure at the church I attended, along with the pomp and formality of the procession and recession of the cross, left me cold. It came across to me as dryly formulaic. But that's a purely personal reaction, and is by no means a judgment on how others feel about it. By contrast, as the above quote from ePiscoSours clearly shows, many other people are deeply drawn to Episcopal services, in ways that give them "joy and passion". All of which suggests an important point--God is much broader, much more expansive, than any single denomination or style of worship. Perhaps the reason why there are so many different worship paradigms is that people have different spiritual needs that can be met in distinct ways.

It also suggests that loyalty to a church can come from many sources. It can involve doctrinal agreement. Or it can involve approval with the values and practices and polity of the denominational organization. It can involve a feeling of attachment to the people in one's local congregation. Or, perhaps, it can involve a simple appreciation of the worship paradigm of that church.

Jesus as a Jewish mystic and prophet of social justice

We all know that Jesus was Jewish. Or, at least we all should know this. It does seem like many Christians, in their zeal to grant a messianic role to Jesus in his lifetime, ignore the fact that Jesus did not intend to found a new religion, that, as a devout Jew, he worshiped in the synagogues, was circumcised, wore fringes, and believed in "the law and the prophets" of Judaism.

Marcus Borg, in his most recent book, Jesus, describes Jesus as a prophetic Jewish mystic, and I think this captures something close to my own understanding:

Mystical experience not only changes the way mystics see. It also empowers, for mystics have experienced a reality, a ground, greater than themselves and the world. Empowerment begets courage and often leads to passionate protest against the way things are and advocacy of another vision of how things can be. For these mystics, the world has a positive value; it is the good creation of God, and not simply to be escaped. Rather, it is filled with the glory of God. It is where we live--but it needs to be changed.

It is in this sense of the word "mystic" that I see Jesus as a Jewish mystic. What the gospels report about about him fits this profile very well. He not only experienced God, but it was the ground of his vocation, activity, and teaching. He spoke and taught from the Spirit, he healed from the Spirit, and he became a passionate advocate of God's passion for justice. Jesus as a Jewish mystic also stood in the tradition of the Jewish Bible with its passion for justice. The God whom he experienced was not a "generic" sacred, but the God of Israel, the God of the law and the prophets.
The Judaism of Jesus and early Christianity has been the subject of many books. I have commented in an earlier posting on the book The Reluctant Parting, by Julie Galambush, as an example. Although I have critiqued some of Galambush's comments on New Testament scholarship in her book, I also think she deserves credit for approaching Jewish-Christian relations from the perspective of one who has worshiped in both faiths, and as such she offers a respectful and conciliatory approach to interfaith relations.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of Amy-Jill Levine, author of the book The Misunderstood Jew. Levine's book focuses on anti-Semitism in post-Easter Christianity, which is generally an important issue to tackle, but, unfortunately, she goes much farther than I think is credible in attacking New Testament authors; and her understanding of Jesus's life seems based on a kind of knee-jerk defensiveness and, as a result, is unnecessarily limiting in its scope. I understand that she has reasons for her sensitivity and bias; Christianity has a sordid history of persecuting Judaism, as we all know, and there are certain infamous texts in the New Testament that have served as a justification throughout history for anti-Semitism by Christians. Yet many Christians in recent history have acknowledged that these faulty biblical texts exist and have refused to cover up for them or make excuses for them. John Spong, in his book The Sins of Scripture, for example, discusses among other things this very problem of anti-Semitic texts in the Gospels, and condemns them. Levine goes much farther than these Christians, however.

Levine seems to draw a stark line between Jesus and those who followed him after his death. Where I believe there was a gradual evolution of ideas emerging after his death that lead to post-Easter Christianity, she seems to put Jesus and his post-Easter followers on opposite sides of a deep divide. On the one hand, she sees Jesus as so unremarkably Jewish as to have offered nothing innovative, unique, prophetic, or distinct from some amorphous mass of first century Palestine Judaism. On the other, she insists that the post-Easter Christian New Testament writings, and by extension the Jesus movement that spawned them, had already made a complete break from Judaism and thus could not be considered "Jewish" in any sense. In my view, this does little to explain how Christianity could have emerged after the death of Jesus, and it is not credible to suggest that a man who preached an unremarkable vanilla brand of Judaism could have so quickly and suddenly spawned a movement that completely broke away from that man's own faith.

Galambush, unlike Levine, recognizes a continuity in the Judaism of Jesus and the evolving post-Easter Judaism of his first generation of followers. Over time, this post-Easter movement of Jesus followers found itself increasingly involved in an internecine struggle with those Jews who did not follow Jesus. It is commonly the case that the hottest rhetoric and the strongest vitriol is found not in disputes among those who are the farthest apart, but rather among those who are the closest. Thus, Galambush argues, the rhetoric against "Jews" found in Matthew, John, and some of Paul's letters represents a debate among different groups of Jews for the soul of the religion, and it was precisely the internecine nature of this struggle that made the rhetoric so vitriolic. These were attacks by Jews against other Jews.

Levine will have nothing of this. Whereas Galambush pointed out that all of the New Testament authors (with the possible exception of Luke) were Jewish, Levine flatly denies this. The Gospels of Matthew and John, for example, she sees as simply containing unrelentingly anti-Jewish polemics.

Both of these positions that she takes--the bland Judaism of Jesus on the one hand, and the non-Judaism of the New Testament writers on the other--seem to be born from a position of extreme defensiveness, and of a homogeneous conception of what Judaism was at the time. It seems that, as far as Levine is concerned, to accept that Jesus could possibly have been a social critic of the socio-political and religious hierarchies of his day is simply to attack the Judaism as a whole of the time he lived in; and, furthermore, for modern Christians to embrace these criticisms as Jesus's message is nothing short of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism on their part.

It should be self-evident how absurd this is. Judaism has, throughout its history, had its share of social critics and prophets who criticized certain religious and political practices of their times. The systems of political power merging with religious elites who served the interests of the wealthy and powerful has existed in other times in Jewish history (as it has in Christian history). The prophet Amos, to cite just one example, describes a confrontation with "Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel", and criticized this collusion of power with the religious elite. In many ways this is what the prophetic tradition is about.

But for her, the idea that Jesus criticized the "temple domination system" of his time would imply a criticism of Judaism itself. The temple, as she rightly points out was at the center of Judaism. She writes, for example,
The Gospels and Acts depict Jesus, his family, and his followers as worshiping in the Temple and participating in the Temple sacrificial system. Apparently the didn't get the message that it was a "domination system."
Here she shows had badly she has missed the point. The problem with the Temple domination system was not the Temple per se, but the perversion of the Temple by the established collusion between the Roman Empire and its appointed clients who ran the Temple. Marcus Borg describes this collusion in this way:
Rome continued the practice of ruling through native collaborators responsible to the governor. With Archelaus gone, Rome assigned the role of client rulers to the temple authorities in Jerusalem. They included the high priest plus a group called in the gospels "the chief priests and elders." Rome appointed the high priest from the "high-priestly families," part of the traditional Jerusalem aristocracy. They were wealthy, in part because of the wealth that flowed into Jerusalem from tithes, taxes, pilgrimage, and building projects such as the temple, which Herod the Great had begun and which continued to be built in the first century. Their wealth also came from the ownership of agricultural land, despite the Torah's prohibition against priests owning land. They conveniently interpreted that prohibition to mean that priests could not work as laborers on the land, but it did not prevent them from owning land.

Though the high priest was the head of the native domination system, his position was vulnerable. Not only did he owe his appointment to Rome, but he could remain in office only so long as his rule pleased Rome. Many failed. From 6 CE to 66 CE, Rome appointed eighteen high priests. Three of these served a total of thirty-nine years, with the longest tenure held by Caiaphas, from 18 CE to 36 CE. This means that the remaining twenty-two saw fifteen high priests.

Thus, early in Jesus's life, the high priest and temple authorities became the mediators of imperial rule, responsible for collecting and paying tribute to Rome and for maintaining domestic order. Jerusalem and the temple, the sacred center of the Jewish world, had become the center of native collaboration with an imperial domination system. (Jesus, pp 90-91).
Yet Levine would have us believe that, first, no prophetic Jew would have criticized this system despite its oppressive character, and, second, to accept the validity of these criticisms of the temple domination system is simply an expression of anti-Judaism. On the contrary, the criticisms of oppressive systems of collaboration between religious authorities and political power lie at the heart and soul of prophetic Judaism, and they always have

The current issue of The Fourth R, a magazine published by the Jesus Seminar, contains an interview with scholar and author William Arnal. Arnal has this to say about those who complain about portrayals of Jesus within Judaism that don't conform with some people's rigid understanding of the Judaism of that era:
If we define "Jewish" in a very restrictive way...and then insist that Jesus must have corresponded to this restrictive definition, we're not investigating Jesus or the early Jesus movement at all; we're just making up caricatures of a flat, unchanging culture. Any type of argument to the effect that "Jesus, as a typical Jew, would have..." is just an end-run around the problematic sources for Jesus and the many difficult questions they raise.
That is the fundamental problem with Levine's book. Zealous to preserve Judaism's good name against those who would slander it, she ends up conflating the Temple authorities and the way they ran things with Judaism as a whole; thus she takes the absurd position that a devout Jew like Jesus could not possibly, in her scheme of things, have criticized the Temple domination system, since that would have meant criticizing Judaism itself.

The reason any of this matters for us is that Jesus's prophetic message has resonance for us today. Jesus resisted the Empire of his day, and the way its clients in the temple domination system participated in the oppressive system of class rule. We still live in an age of Empire today, and we still have a domination system of class rule, in our case manifesting itself through the prevailing of corporate interests. The prophetic vision of Jesus--of the Kingdom of God, in which God's justice prevails--is still as valid today as it was in his time.

Marcus Borg summarized several points about the prophetic vision of Jesus--which Jesus called "the Kingdom of God". One of the points was that
the kingdom of God was not only for the earth, but involved a transformed world. It is a blessed state of affairs, a utopia brought about by God, God's dream for the earth. Imaginative descriptions from Jewish sources near the time of Jesus portray an earth transformed by God into a world of plenty. One speaks of "life without care" in which "springs of wine, honey and milk" flow on an earth that will "bear more abundant fruits spontaneously." Moreover:

The earth will belong equally to all, undivided by walls or fences....Lives will be in common and wealth will have no division. For there will be no poor man there, no rich, and no tyrant, no slave. Further, no one will be either great or small anymore. No kings, no leaders. All will be on a par together.

It means the end of injustice and violence. Everybody will have enough, and nations will not make war on nations anymore. (Jesus, p. 187)
Until the day arrives when we see the end of injustice and violence, the vision of a certain Jewish mystic and prophet from two thousand years ago will continue to stand as a beacon for those who consider themselves his followers.

Martin Luther King's progressive Christianity

The San Francisco Chronicle reports on a book to be released today that is the result of research into a collection of his writings that his widow asked Clayborne Carson, a Stanford University professor, to examine. What came out of the research was greater insight into Martin Luther King's theology. What I found of particular interest was that King was not a biblical literalist, and that this related strongly to his vision of the social gospel. According to the Chronicle article,

"Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and not concerned about the city government that damns the soul, the economic conditions that corrupt the soul, the slum conditions, the social evils that cripple the soul, is a dry, dead, do-nothing religion in need of new blood," King preached in 1962 to his congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

It wasn't known until these papers were released how consistently King had been developing the social gospel. Nor was the extent to which King rejected a biblical literalism.

King didn't believe the story of Jonah being swallowed by a whale was true, for example, or that John the Baptist actually met Jesus, according to texts detailed in the King papers book. King once referred to the Bible as "mythological" and also doubted whether Jesus was born to a virgin, Carson said.
The Chronicle article also reports,
King "wanted to develop an intellectually respectable form of Christianity that did not require people to simply abandon their rational, critical abilities," Carson said. The essential truth King saw, according to Carson, was the social gospel -- "to see the Bible as a message of spiritual redemption and global social justice."
I had not realized this about King before, and now that I know this, my respect for the man is even greater than it was before.


When I first started attending Taize services at a local Episcopal church, I used to spend the ten minute period of silence silently reciting a mantra. I would spend the first minute or two letting my mind flow freely, trying to find the words of the mantra. I came up with this idea of a mantra as a means of focusing my mind, as a kind of spiritual discipline, to allow myself to feel the Divine presence. I somehow felt that I needed to be completely focused, or otherwise I was afraid I might not be getting the most out of the experience.

Sometimes, the mantras would be in the form of a question to God. Sometimes, they were simple statements. Once, the mantra I formulated was not something that I would repeat in polite company. I therefore will not reveal here what it was.

Lately, though, I haven't been coming up with mantras so much. It just seemed like too much work. When push came to shove, I wasn't sure that ten minutes of repeating a mantra was doing anything for me. Tonight, for example, I sat quietly in the candlelit setting, and let my mind dance around God a bit. My mind took various circuitous routes, darting here and there, but never straying too far and always returning to the religious questions that concerned me. I looked at the dimly lit interior of the church, as I often do, allowing the three dimensional depth of what I saw to come into sharp focus, which somehow always turns my thoughts to our human smallness in the face of the vastness of the cosmos and the infinity of God.

When I attended silent Quaker worship, I rarely closed my eyes or assumed a stereotypically "prayerful" posture for all that long. I'd slouch, I'd cross my legs, I'd take a sip of water from my water bottle. I sometimes closed my eyes for a while, but I also sometimes opened them and looked around. In the years that I attended silent Quaker meetings, I would see other worshipers, some with eyes closed, some with hands flat on their laps, everyone deeply in meditative or prayerful thought. That never completely worked for me. I liked the silence, I liked the contemplation, but physically I probably didn't always look all that contemplative.

I think that the really great mystics--not that I am a great mystic, or even a mediocre one--are in constant contact with God, no matter what they do. They are in contact with God when they are driving. They are in contact with God when they are paying their bills. They are in contact with God when they are peeing. They are in contact with God when they are making love. (That being said, it goes without saying that calling out "Oh God!" during the throes of orgasm is usually not an outward sign of religious mysticism taking place at that moment.)

So if good mystics can be in contact with God no matter what they are doing, then obviously the position your body is in or the fact of having your eyes closed is not a prerequisite for mystical contact with the Divine. But then, people who are good at anything don't need the crutches that the rest of us do. Really good musicians or painters don't necessarily need to follow the same routines that people who are just learning the craft do. Once you internalize the rules, you are free to violate them. So maybe I should be focusing more on the seemingly superficial "rules" of good contemplative practice. By doing so, maybe I will develop my contemplative skills better.

Yet, for me, that just takes the fun out of it. It formalizes the religious experience. Worse still, for me, it formalizes the relationship with the Divine. I have the same problem with beginning a silent prayer with "Dear God"--I just can't do it. To me, if you want to talk to God, why not just start talking? God's already there with us anyway. Formality, for me, introduces a barrier between myself and the Divine. I am only speaking for myself, of course; other people certainly have different ideas of what works for them in their spirituality. And maybe I would be ultimately better served by applying more formal spiritual practices to my relationship with God. But if I tried to do that, I think I would soon grow tired of the whole religious experience.

More on baptism

One of the Common Lectionary readings for last Sunday was Luke's description of John's baptism of Jesus. Chuck Currie, a UCC pastor in Oregon, published yesterday's sermon in his blog, where he expounds on the subject of baptism. I liked one of his comments, in response to the questions that some might raise over the fact that he had not baptized his infant daughters:

If I thought for a minute that God would reject anyone from the Kingdom of Heaven simply because they had not undergone a ceremony I'd renounce my ordination and my faith. But I believe in a God whose love for creation is simply too deep for that kind of pettiness. Want proof of God's expansive heart? Think of the baptism story of Jesus again. Remember that Jesus stood with the sinners and not apart from us. That is the God that I follow.
This is, to me, the heart of matter. Baptism is, in my view, a fine ceremony, but not a necessary one. It is a nice thing to do, for those who believe in its importance. But it holds no importance for me. My Quaker background plays a role, perhaps, in my perception of the rite.

The woman who preached yesterday at the UCC church I attend also spoke on the subject of baptism. She made the point that rules regarding baptism are sometimes appropriately broken. She told the story of one hospital patient, a longtime attender of Christian worship, never baptized, but who wanted to be baptized before she died; the problem was that this person was infirm, and thus unable to participate in the ritual in the context of a public worship service, which was considered an important element of the act in at least the denomination that the individual was a part of. So the chaplain baptized that person in the hospital anyway, despite the rules.

Of course, that was the story of someone who wanted to be baptized. But what about those who don't want to be baptized, or at least who consider it unimportant?

Wikipedia has an interesting article on the subject of baptism. Among other things, it contains a chart summarizing all the different practices and beliefs among various Christians regarding the act of baptism. It is worth viewing, just to take note of how much variety of belief there really is. If Christians can't even agree among themselves on an array of issues surrounding the theology and practice of baptism, then isn't it just possible that its role in an individual's relationship with God is less important than many Christians imagine?

It is worth remembering what the Gospel of Luke reports John the Baptist as having said that while he baptized with water, Jesus would baptize with "the Holy Spirit and fire". What does it mean to be baptized with "fire"? The Gospel writer was obviously using metaphorical language. Bruce Epperly, in his commentary on the lectionary reading on the Process and Faith web site, suggests that
While the meaning of John’s affirmation is unclear, it surely points to the energetic nature of God’s presence in our spiritual lives. Our faith journey is meant to embody the energy of the “big bang” or “big birth” of the cosmos. God’s energy flows through our lives in each moment. We are the children of cosmic stardust and cosmic energy, who are meant, to use Whitehead’s language, not only to live, but to live well and live better. Abundant energy and life flow through us, God’s passion awakens, guides, and inspires us, but—for the most part—we are oblivious to its intensity and guidance.
What Epperly says about God's energy and God's passion in our lives is something that I believe to be always true--true for all of us, whether we were baptized or not. He goes on to say:

Fiery followers of God will encounter challenges that threaten to overwhelm us. To become fire is to take risks, test new behaviors, and embark on adventures to new and strange places. Exciting as these new adventures may be they may also heighten our anxiety, and we may turn back from the pathway God has invited us to follow. There is no all-protective safety net on the Holy Adventure, but there is the companionship of God and faithful spiritual friends, and this is our healing, salvation, and sustenance for the adventure.

In the risks of life, we need to remember our baptism and other significant moments of transformation. While God’s love and guidance does not depend on the ritual of baptism, remembering God’s word to Jesus, “you are my child, my beloved,” reminds us of God’s unconditional love for every child and at every season of life. Breathe in God’s spirit, bathe in God’s healing waters, radiate God’s fire. God is always with you, enlightening, illuminating, soothing, and inspiring.

It is God's fire, not the water of a ritual, that should really matter in our lives. Baptism is a ritual, no more and no less. There is nothing magical about it. For those who place great importance on the ritual, it can be a wonderful experience. For others, however, it is perfectly possible to be in a relationship with the Divine without ever being baptized. I believe it is the relationship with God, and the transformative power of that relationship, that should matter to us the most in the long run.

Death sentences in the US

AP is reporting that death sentences in the US have dropped to a 30 year low--amazingly, fewer last year than in 1976, the year the death penalty was reinstated. There is increasing wariness about the death penalty, which is a good thing, but whether this ultimately signals the eventual abolition of the practice in the United States is another question altogether. Still, it is good to see that this issue is being discussed and concerns are being raised. Not too long in the recent past, the question of capital punishment seemed to be politically off limits for discussion. Politicians of all stripes in both the major political parties shared a consensus in favor of the death penalty. But in the past few years, concerns have been raised--concerns that had been previously off limits for discussion in the political arena. How far this will go is anyone's guess, but one can always hope that American society can move forward to a more progressive, civilized approach to crime and punishment.

Sometimes, it seems like the struggle for building a more just world is an impossible task. But I continue to hold out hope that we can build a better world. I'll take whatever glimmer of hope I see, no matter how tiny. And this decline in death sentences in the US is a tiny glimmer of hope.

The doors of perception

There's a story of a woman who had been blind since childhood. After she had radical surgery, she saw four brilliant shafts of light separated by dark valleys. Puzzled, she turned to a nurse, to be told that she was looking at her own fingers. There is evidence from early eye surgeries (when surgeons first learned to remove cataracts) that some patients who had their sight restored overnight were plunged into a mystery that overwhelmed them. They had no visual idea of form, size, or distance. Some even asked for the bandages to be replaced. When one was asked how big her mother was, she set her two index fingers a few inches apart. Some took months to tell the difference between a sheep and a tree. A comment of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins comes to mind: "When I look hard at something it seems to look hard at me as if my eye were still growing".
-- Alan Jones, Reimagining Christianity (p. 205)
When I ran across the above passage a few weeks ago, it brought to mind a salient fact of the human mind; to a certain extent, we are conditioned to view reality in a certain way. The mind is not simply a passive receptacle of what our eyes see and our ears hear; on the contrary, it actively constructs models of the external world, using those sense perceptions as building blocks. In many cases, the mind does this pre-consciously, and we are not even aware of it taking place. With respect to our sense of vision, those of us who have been sighted all our lives don't even give it any thought. In fact, the reality that our minds construct are so taken for granted that it never even occurs to us that reality might not be exactly as we perceive it to be.

Some two decades ago, I read an article in the New York Review of Books about a certain kind of color blindness where individuals actually saw the world in black and white, unlike typical color blindness. I don't remember much about the article now (which may have been written by Oliver Sacks, although I'm not sure), except to recall that the research on this phenomenon demonstrated certain ways in which the brain actively constructs what we think of as "sight". I was unable to find any reference to the article via a quick internet search, but I did find this article from 1993, titled "The Vision Thing: Mainly in the Brain":
Vision, of course, is more than recording what meets the eye: it’s the ability to understand, almost instantaneously, what we see. And that happens in the brain. The brain, explains neurobiologist Semir Zeki of the University of London, has to actively construct or invent our visual world. Confronted with an overwhelming barrage of visual information, it must sort out relevant features and make snap judgments about what they mean. It has to guess at the true nature of reality by interpreting a series of clues written in visual shorthand; these clues help distinguish near from far, objects from background, motion in the outside world from motion created by the turn of the head. Assumptions are built into the clues--for example, that near things loom larger, or that lighting comes from above.
It is often so ingrained in us that our perceptions of the universe are simply "the way it is" that we don't realize that these perceptions are the result of an active process of the human mind. Because we are used to the way we conceive of our perceptions, and because most of us actively engage the world with our minds in the same way, and because the way we conceptualize things works so well for us--we easily forget that what we see and hear is not simply the sum of what the senses gather from the world. The mind actually organizes and interprets what it receives from the senses.

Immanuel Kant made the point that the human mind has certain kinds of a priori means of synthesizing knowledge. The mind, he argued already "knows" a priori about certain concepts that we take for granted--space and time, for example.

When, as a teenager, I rejected the religion of my upbringing, I became a radical empiricist. I simplistically believed that all knowledge must necessarily come empirically, and since God could not be empirically verified, God must therefore not exist. This, to me, represented the height of rationalism. In reality, Empiricism, or perhaps logical positivism, had become my new faith; I had simply substituted one faith (religion) for another. But over time I came to realize that things are not quite so simple. There is a deeper reality that we can only pretend to understand. Some of the ways we build our understandings of the world--the a priori forms of knowledge like space and time that Immanual Kant pointed to--are so ingrained in the cognitive faculties of the human brain that we take them for granted. But other ways of perceiving reality are, no doubt, learned. Perhaps, as illustrated by the story of the blind person who, after surgery, did not recognize their own hands, we learn very early in our lives how to actively construct our models of reality.

Science is always trying to get at the deeper truths that lie behind the physical world. The deeper physics goes, the weirder it gets, and thus the more removed from our everyday reality it becomes. Quantum physics is very weird indeed. String theory, which is at present highly speculative, would, if proven to be true, show a reality that is even weirder.

The deepest realities of the world are beyond our understanding. God, which I consider the ultimate reality, is clearly the greatest, most elusive mystery of all. The great mystics of all religious traditions have always tried to penetrate beyond the superficial perceptions of reality, in order to come in contact with that which is the deepest and most profound. Mystics seek to throw off our traditional ways of understanding in order to accomplish this.

We all must live in the everyday world. I cannot pretend that my ways of perceiving the world are meaningless. If I see a car going down the street at a high rate of speed, knowing that the car's supposed solidness is an illusion, because it really consists of empty space filled by millions of quantum events, does not change the fact that it would feel very much like solid metal if it should come in contact with me. I choose therefore not to step out in front of a moving vehicle.

There are practical reasons why our minds construct models of the world as we do. We live at the the intersection between the deepest realities and the superficial world we think we perceive. The sacred mystery of God is about living in this world, not escaping from it. We are contained within God, and God within us. The big task for the religious soul is to figure out how to mystically join the deeper, mostly impenetrable reality of God with the mundane lives we must lead. The best I can make of this intersection between the mundane and the sublime is that we manifest its presence through the power of love.
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern. -- William Blake

The Reluctant Parting

Perusing the religion section of a used bookstore can often result in interesting finds. One book that I discovered in this way was The Reluctant Parting, by Julie Galambush. The author is a former American Baptist minister who then converted to Judaism. The Reluctant Parting is essentially a commentary on each of the books of the New Testament, written from the perspective of Judaism, and aimed primarily but not exclusively at Jewish readers who might want a better understanding of Christianity and its Jewish roots. The author points out the New Testament was written by Jewish authors before the complete rupture between Judaism and Christianity had taken place.

This is an important point that often gets missed. Jesus did not self-consciously create a new religion. On the contrary, he was an observant Jew, who was circumcised, went to synagogue, wore fringes, and observed the dietary laws. His immediate followers, after his death, continued to worship in the synagogues. Christianity thus emerged initially as a sect within Judaism. Only after time did it split away and become a religion in its own right. (These points have also been stressed in a book I am currently reading, The Misunderstood Jew, by Amy-Jill Levine.)

The book provides some interesting insights, and I think it is worth reading for the overall perspective she offers--not for reasons of scholarship. I say this because I do occasionally take what she writes with a grain of salt; for example, when she writes of the authorship and dating of many of the New Testament books, she sometimes expresses views that don't necessarily seem to reflect the weight of scholarly opinion.

For example, here is what she writes concerning the authorship of the pastoral epistles of 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus--which were traditionally believed to be written by Paul, but which the scholarly consensus now believes to have been written by later authors in Paul's name. Galambush offers an argument that the Pastorals could have been written under Paul's supervision, despite their stylistic differences from the uncontested Pauline epistles:
The letters' diction is frequently considered "non-Pauline", but given the role of secretaries in composing letters in antiquity, any "author's" diction might vary from letter to letter, depending on the scribe. (p. 204)
I am certainly not a biblical scholar, and my personal collection of scholarly literature is quite scarce, so what I have as reference materials are incomplete and certainly scatter shot. But it is interesting to compare the above passage to what New Testament scholar L. Michael White wrote in his book From Jesus to Christianity, which was published the same year (2004) as Galambush's:
The language, tone, and style of the Pastorals is noticeably different from those in the genuine letters. Some earlier scholars still defending Pauline authorship attributed such differences to Paul's use of a secretary (or amanuensis), especially if he were "in chains". But this argument does not solve the problem, since it is clear now that Paul employed trained scribes as secretaries for most, if not all, of his genuine letters (cf Rom. 16:22). Thus, the differences remain stark. (p. 428)
And the German scholar Udo Schnelle wrote in his 1994 book The History and Theology of New Testament Writings:
If the direct authorship of the Pastorals by Paul must be virtually excluded, the possibility of an indirect authorship remains. Here the secretary hypothesis hold the most important place, according to which the Pastorals were composed independently by one of the apostle's colleagues on the basis of instruction and materials from him....But the difficulties that stand against Pauline authorship are not resolved by this theory. The Pastorals know of no collaborative authorship, and in 1 Timothy and Titus there is no indication that these writings were composed only at Paul's behest rather than by Paul himself. The apostle's own linguistic features are also found in letters we know were dictated to a secretary (cf. Rom. 16.22), so the problem of linguistic peculiarities of the Pastorals is not set aside by the secretary hypothesis. (p. 332)
Just to cite another example, in her commentary on the epistle to the Hebrews, she says the following:
Hebrews is quoted in 1 Clement, a Christian work usually dated to 95-100 C.E., making its composition by about 95 reasonably secure. (p. 223)
But L. Michael White pointed out in his book From Jesus to Christianity,
The traditional date of 1 Clement is about 95-96, based on the legendary identification of the author, Clement of Rome, with a certain Flavius Clemens who was executed under Domitian. In fact, there is no direct or known connection between Clement of Rome and the senatorial family of Flavius Clemens, who was a relative of Dominitian. Consequently, 1 Clement has been dated as late as 140, but a more reasonable date would be about 100-120 C.E. Hebrews must be still earlier but may date anywhere between 90 and 115 C.E. (p. 319)

These criticisms may sound like nits, and in a way they are. The main thrust of her book is not to serve as a scholarly work, but to discuss each book of the New Testament as a Jewish writing produced for a Jewish audience. So as long as one is careful not to take her comments too seriously about the authorship and dating of the New Testament books, then one can achieve a deeper appreciation of the Jewishness of the early Christian movement. She rightly points out that early Christianity was a sect of Judaism, and in her book she often provides insights into how a given passage actually makes sense if it is understood in the light of the Jewishness of the author. Her background as a former Christian makes her qualified to attempt to bridge the communication gap between followers of the two religions.

The question arises as to why this matters. In my view, the historical origins of Christianity matter. Christianity would hardly deny the importance of its past; it is a faith that is rooted in traditions, reflected in the Bible, and acted out each year as part of the church calendar. But it is also a past that is often seen through the lens of centuries of accumulated dogma, piled on top of those original events. Understanding the origins of the faith can open up one's eyes to the nature of religious revelation and help one to break free of the constraints of dogma.