The Difficult Words of Jesus

Difficult Words of Jesus coverThe Difficult Words of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to His Most Perplexing Teachings
Amy-Jill Levine
Abingdon Press (August 3, 2021), 176 pages
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $14.53

I am very familiar with the work of Amy-Jill Levine. I have listened to her lectures in the Great Courses and I have read her book The Bible With and Without Jesus. Levine offers an interesting viewpoint. She is an observant Jew who is a professor of New Testament studies. From her Jewish background she takes the perspective that the Bible should be interpreted and debated, as the Jewish Talmud exemplifies.

Levine does not stand by as an objective scholar. She inserts herself into the conversation. In discussing Jesus’s statement that no one can follow him unless he hates his mother and father, she states, “My first thought is to reject the entire Gospel. I’m not hating my parents. I’m not hating life. Not me. No way.” She goes on to say that this commandment cannot be taken literally, especially considering that Jesus tells his disciples that they must obey the Torah, including the commandment to honor your father and mother. She suggests that the statement really takes the perspective of those left behind: “My son must really hate me to have done that.”

The author is not afraid to engage in debate. She tells how she wrote a commentary on the Gospel of Luke with a colleague. Levine’s position is that Luke was not progressive on women’s issues. For example, in the parallel stories of Anna and Simeon only Simeon speaks. But she says her colleague believes Luke has Jesus promoting an active role for women in his communities.

Levine avoids taking the easy way out on tricky passages. Regarding the statement of Jesus that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven, she refers to the theory that there was a small gate in the city wall where you had to unpack your camel in order to get it through. She states, “There is no such gate.” Similarly, she writes, “Jesus, like Paul, presumed that slaves were a normal part of life.”

The author differs from mainline scholarship on some points. She suggests Luke was written about 90 CE, later than most scholars believe. She also believes that Matthew drew from Luke, where the standard belief is that both Matthew and Luke drew from a common “Q” source. She writes, “I am also finding it increasingly likely that the Book of Revelation was written before the Gospels,” where the accepted belief is that it is a product of the late 90s.

Levine concludes, “We can work together. Since we find common history in the first century, or what is called Second Temple Judaism, we can learn together and interpret together.”

I’m more than happy to learn and interpret with Amy-Jill Levine.


Searching for Sunday

Searching for Sunday coverSearching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church
Rachel Held Evans
read by the author
Thomas Nelson, April 21, 2015
$20.96 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

I had long known of Rachel Held Evans when I read of her hospitalization in 2019 with a strange infection, and was, like so many others, saddened by her subsequent death at a time when we needed her wisdom and insight. I had, however, not read any of her work.

I was interested, therefore, to learn of the posthumous publication of a new book entitled Wholehearted Faith. Her husband discovered she left behind extensive notes and unfinished writing on her computer, so he called on her writing collaborator, Jeff Chu, to craft what was there into one final book. When looking at her books, however, I was attracted by an earlier work of hers, Searching for Sunday. She writes about her own spiritual path; it seemed to me to have parallels to my own.

She divides the book into seven sections, corresponding to the seven sacraments: baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing the sick, and marriage. (The Episcopal Church considers communion and marriage to be sacraments, while it calls the remainder sacramental rites.) Within each section she writes both about her spiritual path and her reflections on church and society. A couple of the chapters amount to her own liturgical litanies.

She writes about growing up at the evangelical Grace Bible Church in Tennessee and being baptized there as a teenager. The pastor at Grace later presided Rachel and her husband’s wedding, and they attended the church until leaving when the doctrine there became incompatible with their own beliefs. The members of their church and others in their small town made this a topic of conversation. When someone emailed Rachel telling her she had heard that Rachel had become a Buddhist, Rachel responded, “I’m not disciplined enough to be a Buddhist!”

She and her husband did some halfhearted church seeking, but she admits that on many Sundays they ended up television binge-watching. When the former youth pastor at Grace decided to form a mission church in Dayton Rachel and her husband joined in. The mission didn’t last, and after its closure she and her husband didn’t spend a lot of time in church search. Rachel’s weekends were busy meeting with church groups and attending conferences resulting from the popularity of her first two books. (I’m sorry to say that her California hosts could not convince her of the sacred nature of the In-n-Out burger.) She writes about a stay at a monastic retreat house, where the guestmaster was completely accepting and her lunch table-mate was taken aback that Rachel had doubts (and that she wasn’t Catholic). Ultimately, Rachel and her husband found an Episcopal church a half hour away from their home which they attended semi-regularly.

It was delightful listening to Rachel tell her story in her light Tennessee accent. She makes you think she is the kind of person with whom you would like to have a long after-dinner conversation. Not that everything is upbeat and pleasant about the church for Rachel. She suggests that the church should be a place where a person feels safe but not necessarily comfortable.

It is a tragedy that Rachel Held Evans is no longer with us, but if you have ever had doubts about your own spiritual path get the audiobook and listen to Rachel’s comforting voice. You will feel better about your own struggles.


Judaism for the World

Judaism for the World coverJudaism for the World: Reflections on God, Life, and Love
Arthur Green
Yale University Press (September 22, 2020), 481 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $25.99

I have long felt that my religious inclinations are closer to modern Rabbinic Judaism than to Christianity. That is odd, since I’m a practicing Episcopalian, but it’s true. I’ve never been able to wrap my mind around the Trinity and I’ve been told I don’t understand it. I like the idea of a direct relationship with God, and I’m not sure why we need a Son to facilitate that.

In fact, if things had been slightly different I might have converted to Judaism. My first wife, Ruth, was Jewish and the rabbi at the local reform synagogue married us in our backyard. We were members of the synagogue and attended Friday night sabbath services, which I loved. One year I had the privilege of attending the Erev Yom Kippur Kol Nidre service, which I found deeply moving. I felt a real resonance with the liturgy.

At one Friday sabbath service, however, the rabbi came down strong and hard against new age practitioners in his sermon. This was a bit of an issue in that Ruth was a new age practitioner. His comments, understandably, seriously ticked her off. I tried to defuse the situation, but without success. The conversation went something like this.

Me: “He was just trying to say…”
Ruth: “No!”
Me: “He was only making the point that…”
Ruth: “No!”
Me: “He simply wanted to suggest that…”
Ruth: “No!”

As you can imagine, we did not return to Friday evening services. But I had a strong affinity for Judaism long before I met Ruth and I have maintained that affinity in the decades after her untimely death.

It’s no surprise, then, that when I saw Judaism for the World reviewed it got my attention. Arthur Green is a rabbi and a trainer of rabbis. He has had a long career and Judaism for the World includes a variety of his writing over a period of years. He is a student of Gershom Scholem, and as such takes a mystical approach to his religion. He is conversant with Kabbalah and its primary written work, the Zohar, as well as the teachings of the Hasidic rebbes. He is also a scholar and well-versed in the Law.

Green takes seriously the history of the Jewish people having been slaves in Egypt and is therefore critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Green is highly ecumenical in his approach and respects the validity of other religions. He writes, “Religions acting together, in common quest for God—or the One, or Being, or the great Nothing—and fulfillment of the divine purpose in existence, can be a great force for good.”

One of the most interesting passages in the book is Green’s recounting of his own spiritual path. His mother died when he was eleven, and his father was an atheist. However, Green found a great deal of meaning in the small synagogue his maternal grandparents attended. His father sent him to Hebrew school to prepare for his bar mitzvah. The bar mitzvah was not something the father wanted but agreed to it in order to make Grandmother happy. He told the young Green that he could drop out if he didn’t like it. Much to his father’s consternation Green loved Hebrew school and was delighted to receive his bar mitzvah. As a college graduate he nearly declined to be ordained as a rabbi, citing inconsistency and hypocrisy in the religion. Ultimately he realized he could do more good from the inside than from the outside. The rest is… Well, you’ll see what the rest is from the essays and speeches in this book.

Judaism for the World reinforced for me my understanding that part of me is quite Jewish.


Dangerous Religious Ideas

Dangerous Religious Ideas coverDangerous Religious Ideas: The Deep Roots of Self-Critical Faith in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam
Rachel S. Mikva
Beacon Press (November 3, 2020), 262 pages
Kindle edition $16.99, Amazon Hardcover $17.47

Beacon Press publishes books that tend to be both intelligent and interesting. The good folks at the Unitarian Universalist Association run the publishing house, and as one who spent several years as a Unitarian, I pay attention when I see a book reviewed that bears the Beacon Press imprint. Thus, it was not surprising that I followed up when I encountered Dangerous Religious Ideas.

The author, who is a rabbi and teaches at Chicago Theological Seminary, takes on the content and interpretation of scripture in the three Abrahamic religions. Mikva writes about the inconsistencies and disputes that surround the interpretation of scripture. She asks, “Why were biblical and Qur’anic texts that seem to support patriarchy prominently deployed, for instance, while those showing women equal in creation, with moral courage and political and spiritual power, were not seen to have equally broad mandates?” She tells us that Clement of Alexandria pointed to the first chapter of Genesis, where man and woman were created at the same time, as an indication that women should be equal in the eyes of the church.

Mikva notes that even within a religion there is not full agreement. She points out that the various Christian divisions (she mentions Roman Catholic, Orthodox Protestant, Orthodox, and Coptic) have canons that differ from each other. I grew up a Methodist but am today an Episcopalian, so I know that Protestant denominations do not accept the Apocrypha as scripture, but the Episcopal Church does. The author tells us that Martin Luther personally disliked the New Testament books of Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation and put them at the end of his 1522 edition of the Bible.

A long passage on Judaism and the Talmud discusses how the rabbis debated and interpreted the Torah, the first five nooks of the Bible. Mikva states that in the early days of Islam there were nineteen schools of legal opinion, which eventually narrowed down to four.

The author tackles head-on the topic of supersession, the idea that a newer religion replaces an older one. It is something of which both Christians and Muslims are guilty. She suggests that it is not likely to go away any time soon.

Mikva suggests that ultimately scripture can be both good and dangerous at the same time. Perhaps the best we can do is focus on bringing out the good.


The Face of Water

The Face of Water coverThe Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible
Sarah Ruden
Vintage (March 28, 2017), 232 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon paperback $17.00

I read a review of The Gospels: A New Translation and promptly bought the book. In it Sarah Ruden’s goal is to come as close to the original Greek as possible. In the process of buying the book I found her 2017 title, The Face of the Water. That looked interesting, so I bought the Kindle edition.

In The Face of Water Ruden discusses the problems in translating the Bible and analyzes a few passages in both the Old and New Testaments where she provides the King James version and then offers her own translation of the Hebrew or Greek.

Some of us at times get frustrated with Old Testament narratives because of the repetition. Ruden points out that Hebrew is an infected language (as is Greek). This means that verb and noun endings convey meaning that require additional words in English. So when translating a passage more words are required in English than in Hebrew, making the repetition more tedious.

Her own translations provide some insight. She points out that in the Lord’s Prayer, “daily bread” in the King James is a poor translation. There is no “daily” in the Greek and “bread” is better translated “loaf.” She states that the label “a Psalm of David” that appears on so many Psalms is misleading. She writes that the inscription is “To/for/regarding [here pretty much an impossible word to translate] David.” Ruden suggests that in the book of Ecclesiastes “vanity” is better translated as “evanescence.”

Ruden writes with a self-effacing humor that makes the book a pleasure to read. If you have an open-minded view about things Biblical you’ll find this book fascinating and enjoyable reading.


The World’s Greatest Churches

The Worlds Greatest Churches coverThe World’s Greatest Churches
Professor William R. Cook
State University of New York at Geneseo
Instant video $35.00 when on sale
If the course is not on sale, check back – the sale price will come around again

William R. Cook is one of my favorite Great Courses professors. I have taken several of his courses, both audio and video. In fact, I think his series The Cathedral is my very favorite of all the Great Courses I have watched or listened to (and that’s a lot: nearly 80, I believe).

The World’s Greatest Churches ranks right up there with The Cathedral for being interesting, informative, and visually captivating. In twenty-four half hour sessions Cook visits churches of all denominations around the world. What’s impressive is that he visited most, if not all, of these churches in person and took most of the photos we see himself.

The variety is amazing. We see famous churches in the East, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the former Constantinople (later a mosque and now a museum). In the West we visit Chartres and Winchester cathedrals along with St. Peter’s Basilica. But at the same time I was treated to churches with which I was not familiar: the cave churches of Cappadocia, the churches of Armenia and Georgia (the country that lies between Russia and Turkey, not the state in the U.S.), and the simple, wooden stave churches of Norway. Nor does Cook omit modern churches He shows us an impressive church in Iceland called the Hallgrímskirkja, and two modern churches in Korea, one Catholic and one Presbyterian.

Professor Cook is a practicing Catholic, but he has the utmost respect not only for other Christian denominations, but for other religions as well. As a Great Courses veteran he is an excellent lecturer and he keeps each lecture fascinating and lively.


See No Stranger

See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love
Valarie Kaur
Narrated by the author
Random House Audio (June 16, 2020)
$22.05 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

I had not heard of Valarie Kaur until she gave a brief message on All Saints’ Day at a virtual service presented by the the Episcopal National Cathedral. (The service was entitled Holding on to Hope. Valarie’s remarks begin just after the 48 minute mark.) It was shortly afterwards that I saw mention of this book. And a long book it is. The print edition is 375 pages, and the audiobook is over thirteen hours.

It is also a challenging book. Valarie is a Sikh by birth and upbringing. (I’ve always heard it pronounced “seek” but she pronounces it with a short i: sĭk.) She opens the book with a chapter on wonder, but quickly shifts to the prejudice and bullying she faced growing up in the rural Central Valley of California. She also describes the struggles her Sikh father and grandfather faced.

Kaur discusses her life as an activist, and her documentation on video of the hate crimes that Sikhs and other people of color faced after 9/11. She talks about her college and post-graduate career, originally wanting to be an academic, but ultimately choosing the law to further her activism. She writes about how a Sikh medical student (and later doctor) with whom she was in love refused to accept her activism. And she tells us about her life with a Muslim who supported her in her filmmaking and activism, the man she eventually married.

Valarie is honest and unblinking in her description of her personal life and her own body. Some of the material in this book is deserving of an NC-17 rating, both in her description of her own sexuality and health and in the description of violence instigated against non-white people. I chose the audiobook version of the book because Kaur reads it herself. Not only does her emotion come through, but she does a beautiful job of singing the Sikh shabads, the religious chants and prayers. Of course the NC-17 portions were hard to listen to, and I couldn’t skim over them as I could with a print or Kindle edition. Overall, though, I was more than happy that I chose the audio version in order to hear Valarie tell her life story in her own voice.

Bottom line: this is an important book in documenting the ongoing fight for social justice.


The Bible With and Without Jesus

The Bible With and Without Jesus coverThe Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently
Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler
HarperOne (October 27, 2020), 512 pages
Kindle edition $16.99, Amazon hardcover $28.99

I was familiar with Amy-Jill Levine from one of her Great Courses offerings, so when I saw this book advertised it immediately caught my interest.

Levine and Brettler do a real service with this title because it is easy for those of us who come from a Christian tradition to interpret the entire Bible, including the Hebrew scriptures, through a Christian lens. Obviously Jews do not do that.

The authors cite several passages in which Christian and Jewish interpretations differ. For example, in the Jewish interpretation of the Garden of Eden story, there is no suggestion at all of original sin, and Eve is not singled out for blame.

Levine and Brettler explain that while the author of the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews was obsessed with Melchizedek, the priest-king is only briefly mentioned in two places in the Hebrew Bible. The first is Genesis 14, where, they suggest, “the Melchizedek story can be removed from Genesis without creating any narrative gaps,” indicating that it is likely a later addition. The other Old Testament mention is Psalm 110. They state that medieval rabbinic commentators say little about Melchizedek, perhaps because of the Christian fascination with him.

There are many other examples. They discuss almah (Hebrew: young woman) vs. parthenos (Greek: virgin), the story of Jonah, and the Son of Man in the book of Daniel vs. in the synoptic gospels.

For those interested in how key passages of the Hebrew Bible might be read when the Christian perspective has been removed this book will be an engaging resource.


waiting for the Holy Spirit

I am not a trinitarian kind of guy, as I have more than once noted here. My personal theology is much closer to rabbinic Judaism than it is to a Christian trinitarian perspective. Yet I am an Episcopalian, about as trinitarian a denomination as it’s possible to be.

Nonetheless I do sometimes like the idea of the Holy Spirit, depending on how it is portrayed. Some of the best, most interesting, and fun portrayals can be found in the Facebook page Unvirtuous Abbey. One of my favorites is this one. It reminds me that in those moments when God seems far away one only need wait a short while for the arrival of His (Her!) presence.

Holy Spirit


Why Religion?

Why Religion? coverWhy Religion?: A Personal Story
Elaine Pagels
Ecco Books (November 6, 2018), 244 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $12.08

I’ve long known about the work of Elaine Pagels and have read some of her books. This book is her autobiography with a few summaries of her work thrown in.

Much of her life and work has been informed by loss. Her son died at age ten as a result of a heart defect that he was born with. Her husband later died in a terrible hiking accident, leaving Elaine to raise two adopted children.

I have always been impressed by Pagels and her work in the area of Gnosticism. She is a capable scholar who knows her field well. The fact that she soldiered on in spite of all the tragedy in her life impresses me all the more.