In this series, we’re reviewing the book, Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity, by David M. Felten and Jeff Procter-Murphy. In this post, we’ll review chapters 5 - 7 and finish of the first section.
Chapter 5: Lives of Jesus
This chapter brings us the story of Jesus in the four gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Or should that be stories. Felten and Procter-Murphy point out that four books bring four distinct visions of Jesus.
John Dominic Crossan likes to say that there’s really only one Gospel in the Bible and four “according tos.” Crossan believes that the life of Jesus has too much meaning to be limited to only one telling that followers would be tempted to literalize and venerate. The four “according tos” give us four very different glimpses of Jesus. Despite efforts to the contrary, they defy synthesis (pg. 42).
I really appreciate this. For me, and this will be a very bad analogy, I look at the gospels like four television news crews all covering the same story. There’ll be bits and pieces that are the same with some variations. Two of them may interview one witness while the other two ignore her. And even then, those two interviews will be slightly different because of the questions the reporter asks. Three get almost the same exact camera angle but the fourth changes it because she feels it’s a more dramatic shot. And on and on and on it goes.
Now, the difference, obviously, is that the news crews are based in our time. They look at things like we do. Sure, they may emphasise different things, but the bottom line is the same—they want to get at the “facts.” And, in our culture, facts equal “truth.” And that’s a problem when we read the Bible. We expect it to be the same way. And it’s not. Not by a long shot. If we can grasp that, we’re well on our way to having a better understanding of what the writers were trying to tell us.
And it’s just at that point that I think Felten and Procter-Murphy miss it. On page 45, after giving a summary of each gospel, they state, “Each of these authors brings his own bias and agenda to his Gospel. While that makes the gospels unreliable historical documents, it does make them lively telling contributions to the biblical narrative as a whole” (emphasis added). To me, that’s a huge misreading and misunderstanding of the gospels. Everyone who has ever written a biography or covered an historical event “brings his own bias and agenda” to the story.
Tom Wright points this out in his book, How God Became King: The Forgotten Stories of the gospels. He maintains that the gospels are biographies.
When you compare the gospels with ancient Greek or Roman “biographies,” they match up quite well...No history, no biography, ever tells you everything. All history selects and arranges, not to falsify but to highlight what is significant. And when, in Greco-Roman biography, the death of the central figure is particularly important, it is given special treatment. Think of Socrates or Julius Caesar...[The four gospels] are not merely reflections of the faith the later church projected onto a screen that the earliest evangelists themselves knew to be fictional. They present themselves as biographies, biographies of Jesus. But they are biographies with a difference. One can imagine how this might work. Someone might write a biography of Abraham Lincoln that was at the same time designed to show the way in which the old America of the original revolution was passing away, never to return (pp. 62-63).
That’s the key that Felten and Procter-Murphy don’t seem to grasp. I’m all for re-reading the gospels; of looking at them in a different light. But make no mistake—the gospels “present themselves as biographies” from a ancient Greco-Roman standpoint, not a 21st century one.
At another point, they even say that the gospels of Matthew and Luke “creatively plagiarized” the gospel of Mark. That’s a modern concept that a first century scribe just wouldn’t grasp. That’s not how they would have seen it. Plagiarism is a derogatory term in our culture that has very harsh consequences. When saying that about an ancient text, especially when it’s the Bible, in my mind, it creates a tension that’s completely unnecessary and unfounded. It’s to simply misunderstand the world in which these documents were written.
And, for me, that’s my main complaint with this book. It seems that Felten and Procter-Murphy look at the Bible from a 21st century understanding. And while that certainly can’t be helped, they leave out one of the most important parts of biblical study — seeing the Bible from ancient eyes. Before we can find things to apply to our own lives, that work must be done prior to anything else. Once that’s done, in my opinion, one will see that the gospels tell the story of the long promised Realm of G‑d coming into the world through this strange and wildly misunderstood person of Jesus the Nazarene. Not only that, they speak to the harsh reality of what that means for the existing power systems of their day.
After spending time with various theories (one being the completely unfactual and unsupportable view of “Q,” for example), they come back to very solid ground with a quote from John Dominic Crossan:
Basically, it’s awfully simple. It means [asking ourselves] what this world would look like if God sat on Caesar’s throne. What would a divine instead of an imperial program look like? What would a divine budget look like? So “kingdom of God” is a way of saying Rome is not the kingdom of God. Rome thought (since Caesar was divine and it had a kingdom) that it must be the kingdom of God. What Jesus is really saying, sort of in your face is, “Rome, you are not the kingdom of God. You’re not even the will of God.”
And, for me, that’s spot on!
Chapter 6: A Passion for Christ—Paul the Apostle
“Perhaps no single person is more responsible for the existence of Christianity as we know it today than that balding preacher from Tarsus whom we know as Paul” (pg. 51).
So starts this chapter. And I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. I mean, I get where they’re coming from, but it goes hand in hand with my complaint about the previous chapter. How can Paul, a man who lived thousands of years ago, be responsible for the religious business institution called Christianity “as we know it today?” Especially when they spend a great deal of time talking about which books are authentically Pauline and which aren’t. I think Paul would probably be the first person in line to smash the golden calf we have named “church!”
For those who don’t know, the contested letters of Paul are Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, Hebrews, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus (these last three are often referred to as the “Pastoral letters”). Felten and Procter-Murphy state, “Even the most cursory reading will reveal the profound differences between these Pastorals and the undisputed letters of Paul” (pg 54). But, on page 56, they quote Amy-Jill Levine regarding the uncontested letters, “[Paul] adapts his message according to the needs of the individual congregations to which he writes, which means he’s a good pastor.” The question that immediately springs to my mind is, “Why isn’t the same understanding applied to the differences between the contested and uncontested letters or the gospels?” Felten and Procter-Murphy don’t ask this question nor suppose it’s even a viable one. And that’s so frustrating!
Now, before we get the wrong opinion, I’m not saying there isn’t a difference between the two sets of letters. There seems to be a distinct difference between them in terms of thoughts, concerns, writing styles, etc. And I would even go so far to say that some of them probably aren’t “authentic.” But how does one determine what’s legitimate and what’s not? Most of the time, I’m sorry to say, if something doesn’t fit with our modern mores, then it’s probably not really “Paul” (the same goes with how we determine “authentic” stories in the gospels).
But, and again this never seems to be the case, what if the differences are there because Paul really was a good pastor? What if he really did “adapt his message according to the needs” of the people he was addressing? I’m sure, if Felten and Procter-Murphy were presenting this same material to a youth group, a lot of the wordings and phrases would be vastly different. It seems to me that this same courtesy should be given to Paul.
From here, Felten and Procter-Murphy address some of the elements of the uncontested letters and they start with “faith” (πίστις—pistis in Greek). They do a fantastic job in approaching this issue and, in my opinion, settle the dispute of how Paul (and, therefore, every other first century follower of Jesus) understood the concept. On page 57, they write:
John B Cobb, Jr., says, “pistis for Paul (and in its general use in his time), included a whole way of living that’s better captured in the English word “faithfulness.” Faithfulness included trust and assurance, but it also includes the total way of being in the world.
They go on to say:
For example, the grammatically confusing context of Romans 3:22, pistis can be interpreted in two very different ways. Overall, Paul was interest in the faithfulness (or faithing) of Jesus and his obedience to death. But instead of being translated as the faith of Jesus, Romans 3:22 was translated as faith in Jesus, essentially suggesting right belief as the priority. There is a significant difference between believing in Jesus and faithing the way Jesus did. Such choices in translation can and have contributed to Christianity’s emphasis on an aspect of discipleship Paul may have never intended (ibid).
I couldn’t agree more. This is such an important difference that a whole chapter in a different book should be dedicated to it. Felten and Procter-Murphy state further that Paul expressed “a belief in a God who is up to something in the world” (pg. 59). And, for me, that something is tied to precisely the point the gospel writers were making. Felten and Procter-Murphy conclude with, what I believe not only to be Paul’s emphasis but should be ours as well. They write:
Paul’s confidence in the future was based on his perception of what God had done in the past and had promised for the future. Paul lived believing that what God had begun would be completed sometime in the “not yet.” In the meantime, the form in which one’s faith is best expressed is in a love that cuts across social orders and barriers, a grace that heals all divisions, and a hope that can overcome all the violence, injustice, and grief the world can muster (pg. 59).
Chapter 7: Out into the World—Challenges Facing Progressive Christians
This chapter, as a whole, is one of the best so far. It captures, in my opinion, the very heart of the message for followers of The Way of Jesus.
Felten and Procter-Murphy emphasise the move from a “literal” interpretation of the Bible to a “metaphoric” one. On page 61, they make an incredibly important point, “When the Bible is held up as a final authority trumping all other arguments, it’s helpful to remember that the early church didn’t have any Bible beyond the Hebrew scripture.” And, I would go a step further to say that, even here, our understanding of this is flawed. Let me explain.
When we speak of “having a Bible,” we have images of everyone having their own copy. We see bookstores with various translations lining the shelves — various aids to accompany our study. That’s a far cry from what the first followers had. Furthermore, if a local gathering happened to have a copy of the Hebrew scriptures, they usually weren’t in Hebrew. They would have most likely been the Septuagint — the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures (you can find several versions of it online; my favorite is here).
As stated previously, the Bible contains various symbols to try and capture one’s understanding of the Divine. Or, as Felten and Procter-Murphy state on page 62, we all use “clumsy human terms and metaphors to describe the indescribable.” Therefore, one of the best ways for plumbing the depths of the Bible is to use what Marcus Borg calls the “historical-metaphorical” approach (Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, 2009, HarperCollins Publishers).
One of the ways Felten and Procter-Murphy go about this is to once more address our understanding of biblical terms. On page 64, they write concerning the word “believe”:
Similarly, the Greek and Latin roots of the word believe mean “to give one’s heart to.” Believing isn’t necessarily limited to giving one’s mental assent. It suggests something deeper — something that asks for our whole selves. In our friendships and relationships with significant others, we don’t believe in the other person (at least not in the same way we talk about believing in God). Instead, we are in dynamic, fluid relationships with other people.
Because of this understanding, and built upon what they wrote previously about “faithfulness,” they start pointing to things that concerned Jesus. Still on page 64 they write,
[Progressive] Christians cannot tolerate injustice, abuse or exploitation, and are actively committed to eradicating evil in all its forms — including hatred, discrimination, and violence. The heart of this religion is compassion, hospitality, and a posture of welcoming the outsider — not because those thing are politically correct or trendy, but because such behavior was modeled by Jesus, who always put people before the rules.
The differences Felten and Procter-Murphy are painting are spot on. On one side of the spectrum, some followers of Jesus seem only concerned with “sacred” things — saving souls, going to church, “going to heaven,” etc. On the other side, some followers of Jesus seem only concerned with “secular” things — feeding of the poor, welcoming outcasts, siding with the marginalized. etc. The issue, they rightly highlight, is stagnation — when either extreme won’t budge from their position. As they state on page 67, “Stagnation, not change, is Christianity’s deadliest enemy. Vital faith has always been dynamic, flowing, and moving.” Later on, they write:
For many religious people, it takes some serious readjustment to change those theological underpinnings and recast Christianity as something fluid. Some are too controlled by fear — of change, of uncertainty, of being called heretical — to make the shift. They keep trying, desperately, to hold on to old conceptions as if their eternal life depended on it. But there are alternatives.
I know this fear all too well. I’ve written about it in our book, Secular Monasticism: A Journey. Letting go of one’s certainties is not an easy thing. In fact, it’s probably one of the hardest thing anyone ever does. And when it comes to spiritual certainties, well, it’s almost undoable. I’ve had roughly three such upheavals in my journey and none of them we very easy. I would go so far to say that they were world shattering. So, a little compassion and patience is helpful when this is going on, especially when it’s a huge part of one’s life.
Furthermore, when one starts down a road of recovery, one realizes that this new spiritual path (or, perhaps, it’s the same path just another part of it), one begins to realize that remaining on the sidelines is no longer an option when it comes to social activism. One sees that there is more, much more, to The Way of Jesus.
That’s it for now. Next time, we’ll begin the second section, Reconciliation.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.