“Near Christianity” (A Book Review)

downloadIn a recent piece on his subscription-only blog, Bart Ehrman—controversial scholar of the historical Jesus and early Christianity—addressed whether it bothers any of his more religious colleagues that he’s become an atheist-agnostic. According to Ehrman, this subject never comes up in academic circles. Why not? Because Ehrman has “never, ever, had a conversation with a colleague about my personal religious views.  Never.” Why not? Because, Ehrman says, he works at a secular institution of higher education, “and faith commitments are irrelevant to scholarship.”

Ehrman’s statement is typical of my experience with scholars of religion. A few of them are willing to open up about matters of faith. Many of them are not. Most scholars (and, I think, all of the good ones) want their work to be evaluated on the merits, and not by how well their scholarship jibes with our faith assumptions. But that doesn’t stop me from wondering about the relationship between faith and scholarship. I can only speak for myself, but my study of religion is a personal matter. I am changed by the works I read, and the study I do. I cannot imagine studying religion for a lifetime, and not being profoundly affected by this study.

So it is with great joy that I read my friend Anthony Le Donne’s latest book, Near Christianity: How Journeys along Jewish-Christian Borders Saved My Faith in G-d. Le Donne is a terrific scholar, particularly in the fields of the memory-history of early Christianity and the importance of gender and sexuality within Christianity. In Near Christianity, Le Donne describes his personal journey. Not his entire journey—for that, we’ll have to wait for his autobiography—but a particular personal journey Le Donne has taken, as a Christian, through his interaction with Judaism.

There are a few things I should say at the outset as an introduction to Le Donne’s book, all of them focused upon Le Donne’s book title. When Le Donne says that his journeys have “saved my faith in G-d,” he doesn’t mean “saved” in the Christian soteriological sense. He’s not talking about “saved” as a question of his going or not going to heaven. When Le Donne talks about his faith being “saved,” he means this in the sense of faith “preserved,” or faith “maintained,” or faith nurtured and cared for. So: if you’re looking for a book about a Christian who has been rescued from the brink of apostasy and G-dlessness, you should look elsewhere, because Le Donne has not written that kind of book.

Another thing about Le Donne’s title: the title’s reference to Near Christianity is both a pun on and a kind of homage to C.S. Lewis’ famous book of Christian apologetics, Mere Christianity. More than this: Lewis is Le Donne’s companion throughout Near Christianity. Le Donne begins each chapter of his book with a quote from Lewis, and on occasion he uses Lewis to help explain “essential Christian beliefs.” But ultimately, Le Donne’s book departs substantially from Lewis’. Mere Christianity is a Christian insider’s view, intended by Lewis to explain the essence of Christianity to his “unbelieving neighbours.” In contrast, Le Donne intends to provide his fellow believing Christians with a view of Christianity from the Christian periphery. At times, Le Donne is quite critical of Lewis—in particular, Le Donne is unhappy with Lewis’ “misperception” of Judaism as broken (“manqué”) Christianity.

The heart of Le Donne’s book is his described interaction with Judaism. This is a Christian Christian’s interaction; Le Donne is in no sense a “Jewish Christian,” a “Messianic Christian” or any other form of Jewish-Christian hybrid. It’s just that Le Donne’s Christianity is heavily influenced (or perhaps, a better word is “informed”) by Judaism. This leads us to a third element in his book’s title, what Le Donne calls his “journeys along Jewish-Christian borders.” Again, some explanation is in order. By ”borders,” Le Donne is thinking about more than just the beliefs and practices that demark what is Jewish and what is Christian—for example, celebration of Sabbath on Saturday versus Sunday. Le Donne also examines ideas and classifications that “border” upon both the Jewish and Christian experience.

For example, Le Donne writes about “the border from sidewalk to synagogue,” a border that Le Donne and I crossed together one Saturday morning to pray at my synagogue in Los Angeles. Le Donne was surprised to find this border guarded by uniformed security personnel. In turn, I was surprised that he was surprised. Surely in our post-9/11 environment, churches implement security plans, and these security plans sometimes include the hiring of security guards. But this is not Le Donne’s experience, and I have to admit: I’ve been looking for security cops at churches, and so far, I’m not seeing any. It seems that the border between sidewalk and synagogue is different from that between sidewalk and church.

Sometimes for Le Donne, a “border” is something more concrete, like a border between nations. He points out that in the Christian imagination, crossing a national boundary might be about pilgrimage or religious mission, while for a Jew this same imagined journey might conjure pictures of expulsion and exile. Of course, there are Jewish pilgrims as well as Christian exiles. But Le Donne is right to suggest that Jews and Christians may think of the same borders in different ways.

At other times, Le Donne’s “borders” hardly seem like borders at all. For example, Le Donne devotes one chapter to a border between “dogma” and “underdogma.” The “dogma” identified in this chapter is traditional (and today, receding) Christian anti-Judaism. Le Donne uses the term “underdogma” to refer to the argument made by present-day progressive Christians that it’s good Christianity to fight the Christian establishment on behalf of social “underdogs” (including women, people of color and LGBT folk), because Jesus took the side of the underdog against the 1st century Jewish establishment. This “underdogma” has Christian progressives identifying themselves with Jesus and labelling their opponents as “Pharisees,” “legalists,” or some other coded word for “Bad Jews.” On this point, I strongly agree with Le Donne; I’ve also argued here that Christian progressives should make their case without mischaracterizing Jews as the enemies of progress and reform. But I’m not seeing how a “border” lies between “dogma” and “underdogma.” Isn’t “underdogma” a form of dogma? Aren’t these dogmas two sides of the same coin?

But I’m nitpicking. Le Donne’s book works, because Le Donne’s “borders” share two things in common: they arise from Le Donne’s experience of Jews and Judaism, and they increase our understanding of Christianity and Christian lived experience.

As is typical for Le Donne’s books, Near Christianity is something of a wild ride. At times, this book is intentionally laugh-out-loud funny. In fact, Le Donne devotes a chapter of his book to discussing the “Border of Laughter and Intimacy.” Blessedly, Le Donne can discuss religion and humor without telling any jokes involving rabbis, priests and ministers playing golf or walking into bars. And luckily for us, Le Donne himself is pretty funny, as Christians go. He acknowledges that there is such a thing as Jewish humor, that there are themes in Jewish jokes (such as reversals of power and the victory of the little guy) that make the jokes themselves characteristically Jewish. But I’m left to wonder: is there any such thing as characteristically Christian humor? I’m not talking here about jokes told by Christians; I’m talking about jokes that help forge a specifically Christian sense of identity and intimacy. If we can’t find such jokes, perhaps the church could hire some Jews to help it write some. I’d be willing to work on this project, though I may not be up to the task. For example: I’m not sure how many Christians it takes to screw in a light bulb. Is it ever more than one?

Seriously. Le Donne is a serious guy with a good sense of humor, and most of his book is serious stuff. Sometimes, his book is a painful read. At one point Le Donne juxtaposes anti-Semitic quotes from Martin Luther against Holocaust accounts from Elie Wiesel’s Night. The effect is jarring. To see Luther’s recommendation that Jews be rounded up for forced labor, followed by Wiesel’s description of slave labor in Auschwitz, gives the impression that the Holocaust was architected by Luther himself. Even more disturbing is Le Donne’s inclusion of this imagined Luther-Wiesel dialogue in a chapter titled “On the Border of Jesus and Genocide.” My reaction to this dialogue is typically contrary—surely Luther would have regretted his words if he’d been witness to Nazi atrocities! But it seems, there may not be much of a border separating religious polemic from genocide. Not even the 400 years separating Luther from Wiesel proved to be an adequate border.

A theme running through Le Donne’s book is what he calls his “experience of G-d’s silence.” Le Donne’s discussion of this “experience” is both enlightening and confusing to me, particularly as Le Donne indicates that many Christians would equate his experience with a loss of faith. Le Donne describes a conversation he’s had with a pastor friend who went thirty years without “a personal experience of G-d,” and as a result felt unable to say certain Christian prayers with full conviction. Perhaps more troubling for Le Donne is what he describes as a Christian “fear” to discuss the topic of G-d’s silence with other Christians.

Here, evidently, is another Jewish-Christian difference, because the Jews I know think it’s kind of loopy to speak too often or too directly about one’s personal experience of G-d. On occasion, Jews use the Yiddish word b’shert, which roughly translates as something good that was “meant to be,” “not a coincidence,” or even G-d-intended. B’shert might be used most often to describe how someone met their marriage partner (“it’s b’shert, you two were meant to be together”). But b’shert is not something experienced in the present-tense—at least, not in my experience. If b’shert is an experience of G-d, then it’s one in retrospect, looking back at how things worked out. Moreover, b’shert is not an expectation. If a Jew goes a month or a year without a b’shert experience, that’s not a reason (or at least, I don’t think it’s a Jewish reason) to question one’s faith.

Given this Jewish-Christian difference, I find it strange (in mostly a good way) that in his effort to understand the experience of G-d’s silence, Le Donne finds comfort in Judaism and his Jewish friendships. Le Donne describes Judaism (correctly, I think) as a “familial faith,” one “defined by belonging rather than by belief.” He writes that “Jesus could not choose to opt out of his Jewishness,” and that most Jews today “don’t consider it possible to stop being Jewish.” “Could it be,” Le Donne asks, “that my belonging within Christ’s body is secure regardless of my belief?” To which I’d answer: of course. I’m not sure about the business of being “within Christ’s body”—as a Jew, that’s not the way I talk. But as a Jew, the question of Christian identity is not for me one of moment-to-moment belief, let alone that of a continual personal experience of G-d. For me, a person’s Christianity is first and foremost a question of the religion within which she was born, and her continued devotion to that religion. Le Donne seems to take some comfort from this kind of attitude.

If I had to sum up Le Donne’s book in one sentence, I’d use this quote from the book: “Christianity comes into better focus and in higher definition when we compare notes with our closest neighbors.” But really, the book is about much more than this. For me, the book speaks eloquently about the gifts one religious tradition can confer on another. This is, I think, the highest goal of interfaith dialogue. Le Donne’s book describes how his understanding of Judaism has helped him “keep” his faith. I think my understanding of Christianity has done much the same for my Jewish faith. Kudos to Le Donne for providing us with such clean insight into the sometimes messy but always fascinating business of keeping faith.

  • Anthony Le Donne

    Thank you, Larry, for such a close and thoughtful read of my book. I will give some thought to a few issues you’ve raised and reply tomorrow.