This is new.
These are, indeed, hidden themes Alexander Shaia is unearthing for us from the pages of the Bible.
But this isn’t “The DaVinci Code.” When someone claims to have discovered a pattern in scripture that seems to have been ignored by billions of readers over thousands of years, readers quickly can become skeptics. That’s smart. After all, the Dan Browns of this world entertain us with slight-of-hand fictional tricks involving our treasured traditions.
But, trust me on this: I’ve spent a long time pondering Shaia’s work, since I first encountered his Quadratos approach to scriptures and personal transformation a few years ago. It takes most of us from traditional backgrounds a moment or two to realize the powerful wisdom of his insights.
Before you read the interview about his brand-new book today, if you’re just joining us, check out the brief excerpt we ran in Part 1 of this 2-part series. It’s a story of a hate crime that shaped Shaia’s entire life.
We heard from readers immediately on Monday morning, responding in an almost visceral way to that story. In short: Starting from the fire, and the grandmother’s brave response, we can glimpse the big picture of Shaia’s goal. No, he’s not taking us into some self-absorbed inner journey that winds up with personal dreams of prosperity—as some preachers are pushing these days. Rather, Shaia’s big picture is a world of compassionate and joyful service to one another.
How do we get there?
Well, Shaia had a major revelation about a decade ago in his own Bible study: The four gospels (Matthew, Mark, John and Luke) form an “ancient four-fold journey of spirit and transformation.
The journey is universal, sequential, and cyclical. It is recognized by every major religious faith and school of psychology and forms the very heart of Christian belief and practice.
“At its most universal, the pattern of Quadratos is found in our experience of the four seasons and their cycle.
Within Christianity, Quadratos provides a deeper understanding of Jesus the Christ and a new foundation for affirming early Christianity’s choice of four gospels …
The four progressive paths of Quadratos correspond to the four gospels and the four great questions of the spiritual life.”
Those italic lines are taken word-for-word from Shaia’s special Quadratos Web site. (He also has a personal Web site.)
The four questions? They are: How do we face change? (Matthew) How do we move through suffering? (Mark) How do we receive joy? (John) And, how do we mature in service? (Luke).
Seeing the big picture in this light, then:
Wow! We begin to see that Shaia isn’t luring us into some esoteric corner. He’s leading us out of the stress and confusion most of us face in daily life—toward joy and stronger communities.
CLICK HERE to order “The Hidden Power of the Gospels: Four Questions, Four Paths, One Journey,” the new book that unfolds Alexander Shaia’s insights in a format ideal for individual reading and small groups.
of Conversation with Alexander Shaia on
“The Hidden Power of the Gospels”
DAVID: Let’s start with that dramatic story of the attack on our grandmother’s home. This was in the 1950s and you were Arab-Americans and Catholics living in the South—double minorities facing discrimination. Who was behind the attack?
ALEXANDER: We assume this was the KKK. This became a core story that shaped our family, formed our upbringing and continues to shape my life today.
We were Christians, yet Christianity was being used against us. I made a deep decision right then and there—to refuse to divide people into groups. I wanted to find a pathway that was universal and all embracing. Throughout my academic life, I’ve always been cross-disciplinary. My professional life has been both working in the church, in psychology and in social-service agencies. I work across denominations. I’ve always tried to live in neighborhoods that are white and black, young and old, and where every ethnic group is welcome.
The night of the fire formed a fundamental core decision in my life that we have to live beyond division and categories.
DAVID: There aren’t many Maronite writers with major publishers like Harper One. So, tell us a little bit more about your family background.
ALEXANDER: My family line goes back into one particular village in Lebanon for more than 900 years on both sides—both on my mother’s and father’s side of the family. This deep mystical strain ran through village life and through my grandparents who were clearly, to me, the wisest people I will ever know. They were people who lived very close to the earth, very much following what today we would call an inner wisdom or inner guide. That would not be their language to describe themselves, but that was the experience.
DAVID: You grew up with feet in more than one world. Maronites are Christians. They’re Catholics who look to Rome. But they’re Eastern-Rite Christians.
ALEXANDER: The Maronite tradition is one of the rare Eastern Rites that, in the split between Constantinople and Rome, wound up choosing Rome. In that choice, Rome actually took Maronites to Rome and created a school for them. Many Maronite priests were going to school in Rome, then going back to Lebanon. That opened up a very interesting East-West conversation that bridged people over a very long period of time.
DAVID: So, you write as a scholar representing more than one world. In some ways, you’re an outsider as a Bible scholar. Your background is in psychology and education and you’re not, let’s say, someone with a doctorate in biblical studies. Yet, the cover of your new book has a whole lot of heavy-weight insiders recommending your work: Brian McLaren, Phyllis Tickle, Diana Butler Bass.
ALEXANDER: I don’t think it will surprise you if I say that I feel like both an insider and an outsider.
As an insider, I have worked in and for the church all of my professional life. But, I also fully understand why this book and this message may appear as an outsider’s message. It’s coming from someone whose doctorate is in clinical psychology. My academic credentials are not theology or scripture study. So it does seem like an outsider offering a redefinition of the gospels.
My personal journey has been through mainline Christianity—along with a wide, compassionate and universal understanding of our journey. The message in this book is touching people—all the way from those who are disaffected totally by religion to those who have been hurt by Christianity and who are looking for a way back in—to evangelical ministers and congregations.
Maybe this insider-and-outsider question means that there’s a wide center in our human experiences.
DAVID: We just published a very popular interview with the English Bible scholar N.T. Wright. Thousands of readers from around the world are flocking to that page in our Web magazine.
One might guess, at first glance, that you and the Bishop of Durham Tom Wright have nothing in common. He’s a traditional Christian leader and teacher. You’re an innovator with your fresh approach to spiritual discernment.
But, if readers correctly understand your book, I think you and Tom Wright are leading people toward the same destination: a powerful, personal encounter with the gospels that leads, in the end, to actual service in the world.
Am I correct in saying that?
ALEXANDER: The critical moment in Sunday services is that last prayer that basically says: Get out of here and get to work! This isn’t about gilding the temple. It’s about living a value that understands true and deep dialogue with our world—work that is going to move the planet in positive ways.
DAVID: I think with some variations, you and Tom Wright are pointing toward somewhat different pathways that lead toward the same goal.
ALEXANDER: I think what we’re talking about right now actually is one of the largest questions of this new century. How do individual journeys include the community—and, at the same time, how does the community respect the individual? This is going to be a big question for those who have come alive with a sense of their own personal journey. We’ve got to find ways to develop communal life—while still being deeply respectful of the individual.
Growing up in a Lebanese community, I’ve always been aware of the limitations and the possibilities. My community, growing up, was not a community that encouraged freethinking. Then, in college and beyond, I had to figure out how to think for myself outside the clan.
The question is: How do we build community that respects the individual journey? The communal life needs to be that place where we live for ourselves, for others and for the world.
How do we build communities that are diverse? How can that diversity become a rich soil for transforming the community, the world and ourselves.
DAVID: This is hugely difficult.
ALEXANDER: Yes, we’re trying to do things here that we have not done in human history. For a long time in human history, people perfected tribal communities, but that can no longer be our definition of community.
That’s why my book starts by laying out the individual journey. But, then by the time we get to the gospel of John—and, after that, the fourth path in the gospel of Luke, we’re seeing how the community also is necessary in our journey. The community shapes our path toward service.
DAVID: We should clarify that you’re listing Luke here in the fourth position in acknowledgment of the ancient ordering of that gospel as connected to Acts. There are some Bibles, available today, that reunite Luke and Acts
ALEXANDER: Yes, I’m speaking to the ancient tradition in which there is a slightly different order to the gospels than we find in most of our Bibles today.
DAVID: Let’s talk for a moment about each of the four gospels. Now, you devote big chunks of your book to discussing each gospel’s path. Here, we’re going to try to give readers just a few words on each one—to give readers a feel for what they’ll be able to explore in your book.
ALEXANDER: I’m demonstrating how each gospel was not written to the question: Can you tell me about Jesus’ life? Rather, I think the gospels were written to answer: Can you tell me about the life of Christ in this question?
So, starting with Matthew, I see this gospel as written to show us how to begin to work through moments of change. This gospel was composed at a particular moment for a particular people wrestling with a big change in their lives: the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the Romans. This gospel becomes a way of understanding how to move through such a moment of change—over and over again over time. Can we face change on this level in our lives?
DAVID: And Mark?
ALEXANDER: Mark is one of the most disturbing and inspiring sacred texts I know. From the first line to the last line as a teaching of the Risen One, we learn that in the midst of resurrection there also is suffering. Because of the Risen One, we can move into and endure suffering.
This is the great paradox because in essence this text is teaching us both about how to quickly move through suffering—but it’s also telling us there will be times in our lives and our history when we will have to endure suffering.
DAVID: Then, John?
ALEXANDER: John has a profound mystery in it. John rises to the level of the world’s absolutely greatest texts ever written. It opens with the idea that there is one source from which all has come—and to which all of us are accountable. Then it gives us the meditations on that one source that keep us from claiming it in a narrow way.
John is Christianity’s highest glory.
DAVID: I realize that we’re not really doing justice to these gospels or to your analysis of them, but at least we’re giving readers a little frame of reference here to what they’ll find in your book.
So, finally, let’s say a word about Luke.
ALEXANDER: I would prefer to think of Luke-Acts as one body of texts. It’s the largest writing in the Christian testament and it’s a series of teaching stories about maturing in compassion and service and my theme here is that we are going to offer transformation one heart, one heart, one heart, one heart.
I see Luke-Acts as a practical text today as we move beyond ourselves and into discussions—passionate dialogues with differing views in our world. We must speak truth to power and yet we must move beyond our dualistic way of seeing the world—our dualistic politics, for example—and see that we can be one people, one community, one planet.
DAVID: You argue that, ultimately, we’re all on one journey as people on this planet, right?
ALEXANDER: The truth is that we are all making one journey on this planet.
The ways that we walk—and what we each need to do in our life—and the kinds of things we can carry with us in our backpacks—these are the things that the world’s great traditions have given us for the journey.
We may take this journey in different ways. Some of us travel alone. Some of us like to travel two by two. Some of us like to do this by ship. Some of us like to take a bicycle. Some of us are more visual. Some of us are auditory. Some of us are contemplative. Some of us are social activists.
But there is a known journey and that journey is in every religious tradition and every psychological school and it’s mapped.
I say there is one truth. But there are many pathways.
DAVID: With so much suffering and so many crises in the world, are you hopeful as you publish this new book?
ALEXANDER: I believe in the journey and I believe the journey is always moving us toward more love, more healing, more compassion, more faith.
In the macro view, I see the world today as somewhere in the second path—the path of Mark—and I know what comes next for all of us on this journey. Next is John and a great coming together and, then, after John comes Luke. We won’t just be coming together. We’ll be coming together for service.
If that’s optimism, sign me up. I hesitate in using terms like optimism or hope, because it’s really neither for me: I know.
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