What follows is Anthony’s reaction to my review of his latest book.
If we don’t get a slew of light bulb jokes in the comments section, I’m going to be disappointed.
I would like to thank Larry Behrendt for reviewing my book and for allowing me to respond to it on his blog. I have read several book reviews by Larry and I’ve never witnessed a less than gracious and measured tone. Even when Larry disagrees—whether he knows the author or not—he does so with respect and kindness. Just don’t get him started on baseball. Downright mashugana.
Larry begins his review by commenting on the reluctance of many biblical scholars to reveal their faith commitments. He finds it refreshing that I am willing to talk about my faith. I will take this opportunity to explain something that I don’t write about in the book. Being a Christian who is professionally invested in academic conversation is complicated. I remember reading John P. Meier’s A Marginal Jew for the first time and appreciating his comments about “Mariology” (the veneration of Mary the Mother of Jesus). Meier said that his Catholicism would certainly influence the way that he dealt with Mary tradition in the Gospels. He called this out honestly, suggesting self-awareness. I wish more scholars would indeed demonstrate a bit of self-awareness related to ideological commitments. But this is where it gets complicated: being aware of one’s faith defaults can be impetus for distancing oneself from them. In other words, how do I know when I am overcorrecting to balance out my ideological defaults?
In the book I refer to the problem of Christian progressives leveraging Jesus against Judaism to defend modern-day victims of religious oppression. In many cases (I think without meaning any harm) progressives say horrible things about ancient Jews when defending people from modern Christian “legalism.” I use Jimmy Carter as an example of a well-intentioned Christian who misunderstands and disparages “the Jews” of Jesus’ day. Why did I use Jimmy Carter and not Malcolm X or Billy Graham? If I am honest I think my decision was related to my affinity for Carter. His politics and Christianity closely relate to my own. If I accuse Graham I risk appearing biased against conservatives (I am not politically conservative); if I accuse Malcolm X I risk appearing biased against Muslims (I am not a Muslim). My default is to notice the faults of my religious neighbors and so I lean in the other direction more often than not. Carter is the safer choice because I can critique him as an “insider.” But is there any less bias in accusing Carter because I am more like Carter? Something similar happens when I critique Christian dogma. Am I being overly critical when I self-correct? Hard to say. I have learned to aspire to self-awareness and honesty rather than imagined neutrality.
Larry rightly questions whether the problem of “underdogma” (the progressive tendency to always side with the underdog regardless of the strength or integrity of their argument) and the problem of “dogma” are really distinct enough to talk about a border between them. Perhaps not. In my chapter titled “On the Border of Dogma and Underdogma” I have a particular kind of dogma in mind. I reflect on the troubling truth that European Christian teaching about “the Jews” was not dissimilar enough from Nazi stereotypes of “the Jews” to avoid being coopted. Or perhaps: European anti-Semitism was too easily baptized as Christian dogma by too many German Christians. Whatever the case, during the rise of National Socialism, many German Christians justified mass-murder on religious grounds. So to the main point: what do we make of the fact that Christianity and fascism are sometimes ideological bedfellows? I suggest that it is a topic worthy of reflection. On the other hand, “underdogma” is not a fascist problem. It is something else—perhaps something on the opposite end of the political spectrum. Does the idea of a “border” work in this juxtaposition? Maybe not. But I would disagree with Larry that they are two sides of the same coin. I might concede that they both deal in the same currency: anti-Judaism.
On a different matter, I need to correct an oversight. Larry writes: “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.” He is completely correct. I realize now that my title might suggest a sort of hybrid identity whereby I identify as both Jewish and Christians and this is not the case. I am a Christian. I’ve never considered myself a “Christian Christian” but I am pot-committed at this point so I might as well double down.
Larry writes, “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.” I do sometimes find comfort in the fact that my Jewish friends don’t tend to worry about my orthodoxy or the status of my “personal relationship” with G-d. I never get the feeling that my Jewish friends are waiting for the right moment to apply their theological screwdriver on my faith to give it a tune up. I ought to say, however, that the reverse is true when it comes to talking about my pacifism. I take comfort in my Christian siblings who aren’t overly worried about my pacifism; whereas, many of my Jewish friends are noticeably uncomfortable with this commitment. I sometimes get the sense that they would like to fix my ideological deficiency in this area. But my experience of Jews is idiosyncratic. Surely there are varying Jewish perspectives on this topic. My point here is to say that I can reveal different aspects of myself to different sorts of friends. So I appreciate having a wide variety of conversations partners.
Larry offers high praise indeed when he endorses portions of my book as “laugh-out-loud funny.” I think that the role of humor in Jewish-Christian dialogue is paramount and ripe for more research. My chapter on “Laughter and Intimacy” hardly scratches the surface. Most of the Christians I know who are interested in the enterprise come for the guilt and stay for the self-deprecation. Larry asks, “I’m not sure how many Christians it takes to screw in a light bulb. Is it ever more than one?” Sometimes:
Q: How many Christians does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: Three, but they’re really one.
Q: How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb?
A: One to actually change the bulb and nine to say how much they like the old one.
Q: How many Pentecostals does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Ten, one to change it and nine others to pray against the spirit of darkness.
Q: How many Quakers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A:Ten to sit around in a circle until one feels the inner light.
Q: How many Calvinists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: None. God has predestined when the lights will be on.
Q: How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Well, it should require about five committees to review the idea first. If each is staffed with half a dozen members, that’s what … thirty?
One can find more of the like on the world wide web. I don’t doubt that some of these were originally Jewish jokes told about Jewish synagogues. It is quite common for Christians to steal jokes and rewrite them for Christian contexts. We also do this with New Testament commentaries from time to time. Larry writes, “Le Donne himself is pretty funny, as Christians go.” If I ever decide to revise my business card, I will gladly adopt this slogan. It means even more coming from Larry who in my estimation is moderately funny, as Jews go.