Generation to generation, pitching baseballs and values

Benjamin Pratt playing Little League baseball at age 10By BENJAMIN PRATT

“PLAY BALL!”

The clarion call proclaims spring in sand lots, city streets, country roads, mega-stadiums and, of course, back yards.

My father told stories of pitching semi-pro ball in the hills of West Virginia where a dirt road threaded between home plate and the pitching mound. Play had to stop when a car came along. The same field had a knoll in center field that often kept the left and right fielders from seeing each other.

My daddy told me more than once he wanted me to play pro ball.

Actually, I was pretty darn good. I batted switch hitter in Little League with a .500 average. As a teen, I could throw a ball from center field that never went more than 10 feet off the ground, one bounce, into the catcher’s mitt, with the Ump’s cry, “You’re out,” to the runner’s surprise.

Memories of my youth!

Then, my eyes went bad. Dreams faded.

My field of dreams still gives me pleasure. My mind tells me of possibilities while my body reminds me of my limitations.

So, on a recent spring day my mind and heart yearned with anticipation as I said to my grandson, “Let’s play catch in the back yard.” He raced to get the ball and gloves. He humored me as my pitches were more balls than strikes to our fantasy batter in the bottom of the 9th with the score tied and the bases loaded.

Then, he lobbed the ball back with encouraging words: “Come on, Poppy! You can get ‘em out!” The throw was high, my glove went up to catch the routine ball that sped by, missing the glove, but not my head. Next thing I knew I was down on my knee, he was racing toward me, concern and worry flowing from his tongue and eyes.

Three days later, when my jaw still creaked with discomfort and the pain was pin-pointed above my ear, I noticed how quiet my usually loquacious grandson had become. I asked him, “So, what’s up? You seem caught up in your thoughts.”

“Nothing much,” he mumbled.

“So, is that ‘Nothing much’ like your mind has gone to zero and feels deadly dull? Or, is that ‘Nothing much’ because you can’t wrap your mind and heart around the potential deadly consequences of throwing a baseball that hit your Popster in the noggin?”

He wryly looked at me and said, “It’s hard to hide some things from you. I’ve been feeling guilty about throwing the ball that hit your head and thinking about how awful it could be. You could have had a concussion or even died and it would have been my fault.”

“That’s heavy! Not so much because you are wrestling with the potential consequences—but because you made the giant leap to assume responsibility for the whole event.”

He nodded.

“But,” I said, “you weren’t responsible for everything. Fact—you didn’t throw the ball to intentionally hit my head, like some pitchers have actually done. That would be a legitimate reason for real guilt. Fact—I failed to catch a perfectly good throw that in my youth I could have done without looking. Fact—Once you threw that ball, it was literally and figuratively out of your hands.”

I called it like a good ump: “No Fault! You aren’t a Superman who can turn the clock back and take the pitch back. A lot of folks heap guilt on themselves rather than accepting their limitations, their lack of power to prevent things from happening. This happens often when we don’t want someone we love to age and die. It’s easier to feel guilt than to feel and acknowledge our limitations.”

I realized this was a lot to unload on him. “Am I making any sense to you?” I asked.

“Yes, I think so. You want me to understand that since I didn’t throw the ball with the intent to hurt you—it’s not a moral issue. I’m not guilty. The other thing I’m hearing is the guilty feeling keeps me from facing my scary and sad feelings about losing you someday.”

“I think you just pitched a strike!” I said. “And, I do want to play catch with you again.”

He jumped up. I sat up straighter—and felt the ache. “Ahhh,” I said, “but not just yet.”

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Play ball! … with ‘Hope’s Diamond’

Rodney Curtis cover of Hopes Diamond

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

REVIEW by BENJAMIN PRATT

Play Ball! 

Laugh Out Loud!

Who would put these two together in a colorful, fanciful, uplifting novel? No one better that Rodney Curtis whose own journey with cancer he recorded in A “Cute” Leukemia.

Rodney’s latest is a LOL, magically provocative, imaginative novel that begins mid-winter in the suburban wasteland of “snot freezing,” ice-laden Detroit, a city existing on a diet of decline and devastation. Willie Palmer, former great shortstop of the Detroit Bengals, is now the beleaguered, most-losing manager of the most-losing team in baseball. Palmer’s greatest asset is his dog Sparky whose humane wisdom and divining-rod nose sniffs out a pitcher whose fastballs exceed the speed of Fister and Scherzer combined.

So what do you pay a pitching giant like this in our day when greed is valued more than grass? You will only learn as you laugh your way through this fanciful tale.

So, go grab your favorite beverage, find a soft spring-time patch of grass where you can wiggle your toes and dream your dreams by reading Hope’s Diamond.

LOL!

ROG-LYAO!

Believe in a HOFD!

Live with HOPE!

PLAY BALL!

 

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A push at the Vatican to make ‘Love’ not ‘Just War’

The_Holy_See

Click this image to read Francis’s own early appeal to the gathering, published by the Vatican.

Just a week ago, the Vatican preached to the world about The Joy of Love and then followed up that book-length exhortation from Pope Francis with a global gathering intent on dismantling the traditional “Just War” rationale that has been used all too often as a moral mandate for conflict.

While this summit on “Just War” did not have the official weight of other major gatherings welcomed by Francis in recent years—it nevertheless appeared to have his full blessing. Read Francis’s plea to the participants, published just before they gathered in Rome, to see his deep concern that violence around the world has become a “unique and terrible world war in installments that, directly or indirectly, a large part of humankind is presently undergoing.”

WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING AROUND THE WORLD

Newspapers in Ireland and other historically Catholic countries around the world carried the news. However, Irish reporting on the Church’s views about war was especially pointed because this is the centennial of the 1916 Easter Rising. This uprising took place during World War I, while England’s armed forces were heavily engaged in Europe, and was the most significant Irish campaign for independence since the late 1700s. In Ireland, the implication of this move away from “Just War” by Catholic leaders is that the Easter Rising was not morally justified.

DAVID QUINN commentary on Vatican gatheringOne such analyses was published by David Quinn in an Opinion section of the Irish Independent. His lengthy article says in part:

But was the Rising justified? As educated Catholics, they ought to have been familiar with ‘Just War’ theory. Was the Rising a just war? One person who says “definitely not” is the Jesuit philosopher Seamus Murphy. Writing in ‘The Irish Catholic’ a few weeks ago, he set out the major criteria by which a war may be considered just or unjust. He lists these as: don’t target non-combatants; don’t start a war if there is no hope of success; only a “competent authority” such as a government or popular representatives possess the right to start a war or insurrection; the war requires a just cause such as defense against invasion; and there is no realistic alternative to war.

Writing in French from Belgium, correspondent Manu Van Leer reported on the Vatican conference, including comments from Pax Christi International leader Marie Dennis. Translated into English, an excerpt of this story says:

The starting point of this three-day conference in Rome was the assumption that the traditional teaching of “Just War” in the Catholic world may prevent creative, nonviolent alternatives to develop. “When there is a conflict, don’t we tend to limit ourselves too quickly to the only conclusion: a few more bombs may stop the violence?” asked Marie Dennis. “Shouldn’t we give more support to a theology of nonviolence and ‘Just Peace’ in juxtaposition to this theory of ‘Just War’.”

The conference also was covered in Arabic-language news media. Among them, the French-based website Aleteia, which covers news and viewpoints about Christianity, published an Arabic summary of what was happening in Rome.

The Tablet, the influential Catholic weekly founded in 1840, added key context to the story—pointing out that this does not represent a change in official Vatican doctrine. Rather, this is an effort that seems to have major backing by Vatican leaders to move toward a focus on “just peace” rather than using theology to justify wars. The weekly magazine’s Christopher Lamb captures that context in the headline: Pax Christi puts pressure on the Vatican to end its support of ‘just wars.‘ Francis himself may have signaled that he supports this move, but that’s not the same as formally changing worldwide Catholic teaching.

In the U.S., The National Catholic Reporter has been the best source of coverage, both before the conference began and as it concluded. One story on April 12 summarized Pope Francis’s appeal to the gathering. On April 14, NCR correspondent Joshua McElwee wrote in part:

The participants in this first-of-its-kind Vatican conference have bluntly rejected the Catholic church’s long-held teachings on just war theory, saying they have too often been used to justify violent conflicts and the global church must reconsider Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence. Members of a three-day event co-hosted by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the international Catholic peace organization Pax Christi have also strongly called on Pope Francis to consider writing an encyclical letter, or some other “major teaching document,” reorienting the church’s teachings on violence. “There is no ‘just war,'” the some 80 participants of the conference state in an appeal they released Thursday morning.

CARE TO READ MORE?

Last week, ReadTheSpirit.com magazine published a news analysis by global peacemaker Daniel Buttry about the significance of the Vatican gathering.

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Next on the Vatican’s agenda? Rethinking “Just War” …

Saint_Peter's_Square_from_the_dome_v2 (1)

VIEW FROM THE VATICAN.

HEADLINES around the world are reporting on Pope Francis’s call for Catholic leaders to rethink the way they try to explain and enforce the church’s teaching on relationships and families. This week, April 11-13, 2016, the Vatican is hosing a worldwide summit of theologians on “Just War Theory,” the church’s traditional set of rules for morally justifying conflict. The gathering is hosted by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the global Catholic peace network Pax Christi International. Reporting by the National Catholic Reporter in the U.S. characterizes this event as “phenomenally important.”

It seems that way, as well, to the editors of ReadTheSpirit magazine. We invited Daniel Buttry, a veteran peace trainer on several continents and the author of books about famous peacemakers, to write about the significance of this event.

RETHINKING
‘JUST WAR’

By DANIEL BUTTRY

Amid much ground-breaking news from Pope Francis and the Vatican last week there is another vitally important story involving Christian ethics and tradition. This week, the Vatican is hosting a conference to re-examine the Church’s teachings about war, commonly known as “just war theory.” The conference may even come out with recommendations for revising the Catholic teaching related to violence and prompt a papal encyclical to address these concerns.

I wasn’t invited to attend the conference, but I certainly will be in prayer for these discussions.

I grew up in a Protestant military family—my father was a U.S. Air Force Chaplain. While in ROTC in college I was challenged by a female student in a Bible study group about my views about war. She asked, “What did Jesus say?”

As I poured through the gospels in my dorm room I became a conscientious objector. Later I began to understood more about the injustices in the world and realized that pacifism as passivity was not helpful. Instead peacemaking needed to be a positive engagement in the struggles of the world to deal with the problems and issues of injustice at the root of conflicts. Eventually I became a full-time peacemaker, but that story is told in full in Peace Warrior: A Memoir from the Front.

For the first three centuries of Christianity the primary stance of Christians was pacifism, based on teachings of Jesus about loving one’s enemies—that those who live by the sword will die by the sword, and his example of dying on the cross out of love. As Tertullian wrote in the late Second Century, “When Christ disarmed Peter he disarmed every soldier.”

Then the Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire, changing everything for the once marginalized and persecuted Church. Now the Church was tied to power and the greatest army in the world.

Saint_Augustine_of_Hippo

AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO

Augustine, a bishop from North Africa, developed just war theory as a way for Christians to bring an ethical reasoning to questions of war by examining issues of limiting the violence and assuring that the authority calling for violence is legitimate. Augustine’s criteria for certifying that participation in war was ethically acceptable were refined by various thinkers over the centuries, including most notably Thomas Aquinas, the 12th Century theologian whose teachings have been pillars in Catholic theology. Basically the just war theory has been usually boiled down to these criteria: Just cause, comparative justice (for what is gained or protected by the cost of the war), legitimate authority, right intention, just means, probability of success, proportionality, and last resort.

2 PROBLEMS and 1 IDEA

Two major problems and one relatively new ethical idea have spurred the call for the teaching of just war theory to be reconsidered. One problem is that with current conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction the criteria about means and proportionality have become antiquated. The staggering human suffering we’ve seen in contemporary wars, in which civilians usually account for about 90% of casualties, makes a mockery of most of the refined ethical discussions.

Furthermore, every war is justified and claimed as “just” by those who engage in it. In practice just war theory has not served to restrict warfare so much as to give shape to the self-justifications employed by political and religious leaders.

Then, toward the end of the 20th Century a number of discussions as well as the development of nonviolent movements began to coalesce into what many thinkers now call “Just Peace.”

Glen-Stassen-Baptist-theologian-of-Just-Peace-Theory

GLEN STASSEN

“Just War” focuses on the negative, letting war stand as the assumption and looking at how to legitimize the violence or minimize the damage. “Just Peace” focuses on the positive, on how peace can actually be built among the political, economic, and social realities of our world today. “Just Peace” leads us to a positive ethic, one in which both pacifists and just war theorists can find common ground as well as a substantive agenda for action.

Glen Stassen, the late Christian social ethics professor at Fuller Seminary in California, was one of the key shapers of Just Peace thinking. His book Just Peacemaking: Transforming initiatives for Justice and Peace introduced the concept. Then Stassen worked with 23 ethicists and scholars to identify 10 specific practices that are being undertaken in our world today that actually prevent, end, or limit war. He edited another book by the same lead title to examine these practices: Just Peacemaking: A New Paradigm for the Ethics of Peace and War.

10 Practices for Just Peacemaking

Contrasted to the criteria for just war theory, these are the practices of just peacemaking:

  1. Support nonviolent direct action.
  2. Take independent initiatives to reduce threat.
  3. Use cooperative conflict resolution.
  4. Acknowledge responsibility for conflict and justice and seek repentance and forgiveness.
  5. Advance democracy, human rights, and religious liberty.
  6. Foster just and sustainable economic development.
  7. Work with emerging cooperative forces in the international system.
  8. Strengthen the United Nations and international efforts for cooperation and human rights.
  9. Reduce offensive weapons and weapons trade.
  10. Encourage grassroots peacemaking groups and voluntary associations.

After Stassen published the first collaborative effort on Just Peacemaking, he coordinated an interfaith effort with scholars and ethicists of the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faiths. These practices have the proven track record of actual events and projects that have made a positive impact in actual conflict situations, whereas just war theory has remained an academic idealistic exercise.

Now is a propitious time for a re-evaluation of the ethical mainstream view about war, not just within the Catholic Church but in many parts of the human community.

Albert Einstein once said, “With the splitting of the atom everything has changed except our way of thinking.” Maybe now we are seeing our ethical way of thinking catch up to our technological capacity at war-making.

Daniel L. Buttry is the Global Consultant for Peace and Justice for International Ministries of the American Baptist Churches. He is an author of 9 books including Blessed Are the Peacemakers and We Are The Socks by Read The Spirit, which includes discussion of Glen Stassen’s just peacemaking practices.

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Pope Francis preaches mercy and flexibility in ‘Amoris Laetitia’

Pope Francis releases Amoris LaetitiaWhat does this massive new message from the Vatican mean?

It will take a while to answer that question, say Catholic leaders, writers and religious observers around the world. The New York Times put it this way:

Wedding invitations. Empty nesters. In vitro fertilization. Children of divorce. Pope Francis’ new 265-page manifesto “Amoris Laetitia” covers so much territory that it is going to take some time for Catholics to read and reflect on it.

This week, ReadTheSpirit.com offers the following starting points to learn more about what the pontiff is saying—and people around the world are saying in response.

READ THE ENTIRE DOCUMENT

Apostolic-Exhortation-cover (1)

Click on the cover to visit the Vatican’s website and download a PDF of the entire document.

Here is a direct link to download the “apostolic exhortation” from the Vatican website (1.3 MB in PDF format). The opening pages include these often-quoted lines:

The Joy of Love experienced by families is also the joy of the Church. … Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it. This will always be the case as the Spirit guides us toward the entire truth … until he leads us fully into the mystery of Christ and enables us to see all things as he does. Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs.

The Holy See staff also published its own summary of the document.

WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING

Before and after publication, The New York Times has published many stories about the pope’s newest message to the world. Staff writers in the U.S. and Rome collaborated on Rather Than Rules, Pope’s Document Gives License to Adapt. The report says in part:

The exhortation … is not a book of new rules — if anything, it is the opposite. Rather than dictating policy like a chief executive, Francis effectively devolved power and suggested that in a global church, answers sometimes are best found locally. In this way, the document created something more significant: a broader space, or room to operate, in the relationship between the clergy and the faithful—a space that some liberal Catholics think may provide a path for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments, including communion. Rules matter, Francis wrote, but so does individual conscience.

Newsweek‘s Theo Hobson praises the pope’s new message as striking a “Deft Balance.” He writes in part:

The document is mostly a hymn to married love (including sex) and family stability. In line with Catholic tradition, it is all rather rose-tinted: It overstates the centrality of the family to Christianity, ignoring those bits of the New Testament that are less enthusiastic about marriage and procreation. (But, Hobson writes …) The document confirms his image as a reformer who uses tone, nuance, implication, the vague suggestion of reform-round-the-corner. His method of reform is to signal that he wants local churches to push the boundaries, to apply the rules more flexibly than hitherto.

The New Yorker invited author and Catholic reformer James Carroll to write about the new document. Carroll’s analysis provides a unique point of view, since Carroll once served as a priest struggling to counsel men and women who were questioning what the Vatican was preaching about relatoinships. For The New Yorker, Carroll writes in part:

The Pope—to the disappointment of many liberals, no doubt—is not replacing an old set of harsh and restrictive rules with a new set of flexible and merciful rules. Rules, actually, are not the point. It is true that this document does little explicitly to uproot the structures of misogyny and homophobia that have long corrupted the Catholic tradition, but it does give a fresh impetus to change on these issues. Francis’s watchword is mercy, but mercy adheres, first, not in alterations of doctrine but in the new way that Catholics are invited to think of doctrine. When human experience, with all of what the Pope calls its “immense variety of concrete situations,” is elevated over “general principles,” a revolution is implicit. Francis explains: “It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations.”

Many Catholics were not so pleased with the pope’s publication. Gay commentators point out that that pope seems to have backed away from his now-famous off-hand comment to the press: “Who am I to judge?” And, of course, Catholics hoping for tangible changes in church rules didn’t find any substantial revisions in these pages. Another voice of disappointment came from David Clohessy, who has worked tirelessly on behalf of victims of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy. The International Business Times (IBT) talked with Clohessy. The IBT reported in part:

In keeping with his modern image, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church issued a 264-page document called “Amoris Laetitia,” or in English “The Joy of Love,” urging church leaders to be more welcoming toward followers who may be gay, lesbian, divorced or remarried. But there’s one group of people still waiting for that kind of recognition: clergy abuse survivors. They said Francis, who’s been hailed for tackling everything from climate change to Cuban diplomacy, again skipped over the international scandal that’s implicated thousands of suspects in sex crimes and cover-ups. Before writing policy documents, they argued, he needs to solve the ongoing crisis in the church.

DOCUMENTING ‘THE FRANCIS EFFECT’

The IARJ publishes a Global Plus column on the Pope Francis Effect

Click on this snapshot from the IARJ website to read the entire Global Plus column about ‘The Pope Francis effect’

The International Association of Religion Journalists just posted a new global analysis of Francis’s impact, reported by Barney Zwartz—a senior fellow with the Centre for Public Christianity in Sydney and former religion editor for The Age newspaper in Melbourne. Zwartz writes in part:

In becoming the first pope in 1000 years to take an unused papal name – itself implying new directions – the choice of Francis was significant: The message was humility, sympathy with creation, and a concern for rebuilding the church. He conveyed a sense of generosity and inclusiveness. The effect on the church, and the watching world, was instant and dramatic. And he has not faltered since, with an almost unerring ability to strike the right note and deliver powerful, genuine symbols. It is an appeal that extends beyond Catholics.

OTHER IMPORTANT VIEWPOINTS?

Have you found other important viewpoints on the pope’s new exhortation? If so, consider emailing us at ReadTheSpirit@gmail.com and tell us about what you’ve found. We may update this summary column in coming weeks.

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‘Shrunken Treasures’—A Love of Reading Begins at Home

Cover of Shrunken Treasures Scott Nash

Click on the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

REVIEW by DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit.com

The moment I discovered Marcel Proust‘s seven-volume masterpiece reduced to two lines of poetry, I was hooked!

Perhaps you know that Proust’s vast narrative canvas began to unroll one day when he dipped a little sponge cake known as a “madeleine” into a cup of tea. He hadn’t recalled much about his childhood, but that singular bite unlocked a cascade of recollections. The result is a series usually translated as Remembrance of Things Past.

My late father awakened my own love of reading at an early age because, first, he had a good-sized library lining one wall in his pastor’s study. The books came in all manner of shapes and sizes from enormous Bible concordances to tiny little leather-bound volumes of poetry. Then, second, he intentionally sought out the best versions of world classics for young readers and read aloud such adventures as “the Trojan wars,” a child’s version of The Iliad, and even a child’s version of Moby Dick.

By the time I was in grade school, I loved books! And more than the volumes he read to us, I was curious about his books in French, including a set of Proust that he began to read while in seminary when French was his “second language” for theological research.

“What are these books about?” I would ask him, flipping these puzzling pages.

“They’re about a man’s life,” he said.

“He wrote so many books!” I said, thinking of comic books that also came in long series. “He must have been a super hero.”

“Someday you can read his books,” my father would say. But there was no child’s version of Proust.

Until now. The creative team at Candlewick Press has brought us Scott Nash’s brilliantly conceived Shrunken Treasures: Literary Classics, Short, Sweet and Silly. 

My only critique of this book (which I think should be on every parent’s bookshelf) is that I think Nash is far more than “silly.” I think he has nailed the themes of most of these works he summarizes in verse. For example, here is Proust in two lines:

I dipped a sweet cake in my tea
And a whole world came back to me.

Opposite those lines is a colorful illustration of Proust dunking his madeleine and looking heavenward at a collage of dreamy associations.

The book also includes similarly brilliant, colorful (although not as short) renditions of The Odyssey, Frankenstein, Moby-Dick, Jane Eyre, A Thousand and One Nights, Hamlet, Don Quixote and Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.

If you’re a parent, a grandparent or someone who simply cares for a child in your family or classroom—a book like this just may be that memorable step that further awakens a love of reading.

 

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Retired bishop John Spong on rediscovering Matthew’s Jewish roots

John Shelby Spong wearing the garb of his 21 years as an Episcopal bishop. (Photo by Dick Snyder; used with permission.)

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of www.ReadTheSpirit.com

Spring is the perfect season to explore John Shelby Spong’s new book, Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy. First, look past the book’s title—those words are a publisher’s way of reminding readers of the controversy retired Bishop “Jack” Spong has sparked throughout most of his career. Yes, this new book is a provocative re-interpretation of gospel stories and some Christians will disagree with Spong, as usual.

But, there’s so much more than mere “controversy” in this book!

What’s so fresh and fascinating about this book is its in-depth look at the Jewish roots of the Christian gospel of Matthew. That’s perfectly timed reading for the season that includes Easter (Western Christians have celebrated; Eastern Orthodox will soon) as well as Passover. This is a time, each year, when interfaith relationships blossom. Most Jewish communities nationwide offer some kind of friendly outreach to Christians who want to understand the Passover seder from a Jewish perspective. Most Christians, after all, traditionally say that Jesus’s Last Supper was a seder meal.

“Book titles are funny things,” Spong said with a chuckle as he discussed this new book in a recent interview. “I guess I fight about book titles with my publisher more than we fight about anything. What I’m really working on in these books is ‘The Gospels as Midrash,’ but Harper doesn’t want anything to do with that kind of title.”

I asked Spong, “How many non-Jewish Americans know that term midrash? I’m not sure as a journalist that I’d be able to explain it fully in a sentence. I’d probably say: Midrash is a traditional Jewish process for interpreting scripture by exploring tangents and connections with the basic text. And that’s what you do with Matthew in this new book—it’s one of your best books, I think. But putting ‘Midrash’ in a title for general readers? As a publisher myself, I wouldn’t recommend that.”

And he chuckled again. “Yes, you’re probably right. And Harper was right. But we go round and round about titles sometimes. I am glad you understand what this book is about. I have written about this general subject before, but this time I really look at Matthew in a new way.”

If readers look beyond the front cover, they will find that the book has a second and more descriptive subtitle: “A Journey into a New Christianity through the Doorway of Matthew’s Gospel.” That gets closer to the unique look at Matthew Spong offers in these 400 pages, but not entirely.

This book really is a midrash on Matthew, connecting Christian readers with Jesus’s Jewish world in a new way. Spong ultimately draws a new kind of Christian message at the end of the book. But, he also draws on a number of notable Jewish scholars in his research and it’s likely some Jewish readers will be intrigued by the many connections Spong makes.

Cover of Biblical Literalism by John Shelby Spong

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

If you’re wondering whether such an ambitious idea makes sense—writing a book that might interest both Christian and Jewish readers—we can say: Spong knows knows something about his audience.

In fact, this particular book was born after Spong was invited in 2014 to present five days of lectures at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York. How many people showed up? Ten thousand!

By his estimate, about a quarter of those men and women who attended his lectures were Jewish. It was truly a five-day interfaith gathering. His subject that year was the Jewish context of the gospel of John. And the enthusiasm for his lectures led him to dig deeper into the other three gospels. The result is this book that walks readers through Matthew from a perspective most Christians have never considered.

Spong argues that nearly 2,000 years ago the gospel known as Matthew was written for early Christian churches to read and remember the key events in Jesus’s life—as organized in a pattern following the annual calendar of Jewish festivals. Spong credits the late British Bible scholar Michael Goulder with writing about this notion in a persuasive way—convincing enough to lead Spong to devote years of study to expanding on Goulder’s ideas.

“I’ve included ‘Michael Goulder (1927-2010)’ in my dedication of this new book,” Spong says. “Most Americans haven’t heard his name, but among Bible scholars, he was so important. I discovered his work back in the 1990s when I was doing research on the gospel birth narratives at Cambridge. I remember buying this massive book Goulder had published and it really was tough sledding going through his work. But one of his big contributions was this idea that the gospels were organized around themes in the Jewish year.”

What does that mean? Regular Bible readers know that there are many references to Jewish customs and festivals in the New Testament. What Goulder theorized and Spong now unfolds in detail for general readers is the idea that the actual order of the stories from Jesus’s life in Matthew are sequenced to be read against the backdrop of a Jewish calendar.

This new book is about 400 pages, describing how this connection between the faith traditions could help modern readers rediscover fresh inspiration from scripture. Some early Christians were gentiles, non-Jews who converted to the new faith and had no background in Judaism. But many early Christians were experienced in both religious realms. Imagine how much deeper some of Matthew’s stories would unfold if read against traditional Jewish reflections on the seasons and religious festivals.

JESUS, JONAH AND YOM KIPPUR

Here’s one small example: Christians reading about Jesus’s arguments with critics in the 12th chapter of Matthew are likely to read right over the scene in which Jesus tells his critics that they don’t fully understand the story of Jonah. Gentiles unfamiliar with Judaism probably recall Jonah as the ancient prophet who was swallowed by a big fish. Christians who regularly study the Bible may remember more about Jonah and his mission to make the wayward people of the town of Nineveh repent of their sins.

“But I’m sure most Christians reading that passage—or hearing it read—are thinking: What’s this sudden reference to Jonah? Why is Jesus talking about Jonah?” Spong says. “If we don’t understand the structure of Matthew, it’s just something we read and forget about, isn’t it?”

But in the middle of Spong’s book, readers will discover why that reference to Jonah is such a poignant moment in Matthew—and how that passage of Matthew must have sparked deep spiritual reflection in early Christian congregations with Jewish roots.

Jewish readers will know that the text of Jonah is read, each year, on Yom Kippur. In fact, it’s a common topic for Jewish inspirational writing and teaching each year. Here’s one example of a column from ReformJudaism.org, offered as inspirational reading in the High Holidays.

“When people read my book, they’ll learn that just before Matthew 12, where Jesus talks about Jonah and we get this connection with Yom Kippur—just before that in my book, I look at the ways Matthew 11 relates to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year that leads to Yom Kippur,” Spong says. “And after that section of my book, then I write about how Matthew 13 relates to the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot. These are connections that I think most Christians have never considered while they’re reading Matthew.”

Of course, there’s a lot more to Spong’s argument in this book, which takes all 400 pages to unfold. Step by step, his argument leads to his interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’s death—once again placing his theology in contrast to preaching about Jesus’s crucifixion that is more typical in evangelical churches. For many years, Spong has called for a rethinking of these basic Christian teachings.

‘TRANSFORMATIVE POWER OF CHRIST’S MESSAGE’

Some critics charge that Spong himself is a heretic—and no longer is a Christian. He rejects that charge and, in books like his latest, says that it is preachers who take the Bible literally who have abandoned their Christian roots.

“I simply want to help people see the truly transformative power of Christ’s message,” Spong says. “And, in this book, I point out that it’s right there in Matthew, if only we know how to read Matthew.

“The early followers of Jesus had to use words to describe and explain what really is beyond words,” he continues. “It’s our error today if we take those words, which can tell us so much, and force a literal reading that really imprisons Christ in a way that was never intended.”

And, in those words, Spong is echoing the final pages of his new book, where he writes in part:

The gospel of Matthew is about human beings discovering the divine that is always in our midst. It is about the divine calling and empowering human life to break the boundaries that imprison us in a warped sense of what it means to be human. It is about setting aside boundaries that we have created in our human quest for security. It is about stepping beyond those boundaries and into the meaning of God. It is about discovering the human in a boundary-free world.

In Spong’s new book, Christian and Jewish readers likely will find fascinating, fresh interpretations of these ancient gospel stories. Agree or disagree with Spong’s larger theological arguments, he says that nevertheless, “After you consider what I’m describing in this book, I don’t think you’ll be able to read Matthew in the same way, again.”

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