Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Book Review: 'Near Christianity' by Anthony Le Donne

While I was working on my doctorate, I traveled back and forth between Huntington, West Virginia (where I lived), and Memphis, Tennessee (where I was attending).  On one of my flights to Memphis, I was seated next to an older gentlemen who was traveling to Memphis for business.  He was a lawyer from Boston, and was traveling to Memphis for a board meeting at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.  As we begin talking during the flight, the question of religion eventually came up.  He discerned quite easily that I was a Christian, probably by noting what I was reading.  He, then, noted that he was Jewish.  As we continued talking, we noted the number of areas that we had in common—a love for God, a respect for creation, a concern for ethical living and social justice, and a desire to meditate on Scripture.  He shared with me that his daily practice was quite simple: Every morning, he rose and read a Psalm.  He would then pray for moral guidance throughout the day.  Not long after, it time to secure our trays and refasten our seat belts.

Ironically, my daily devotional practice is similar: I rise, read a psalm and pray for guidance throughout the day.  The only difference between my Jewish traveling companion and myself is that he is Jewish and I am Christian.  On one hand, my practice of Christianity is the logical continuation of the Jewish religion, as defined by the New Testament (or Christian Bible).  On the other hand, my practice of Christianity is a divergence from orthodox Jewish faith, as defined by the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible).  The question is not necessarily who is correct but can we (Jews and Christians) have open and engaging dialogues about the similarities and differences in our understandings of faith.

This is where Anthony Le Donne’s book comes into play.  A New Testament professor at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, Le Donne is an emerging prolific author who focuses his research on the historical character and mission of Jesus.  As such, Le Donne spends much of his time dialoguing with both Jewish and Christian scholars.  And this volume serves, somewhat, as a summary of the conversations that he has had with both his Jewish and Christian dialogue partners, conversations that are becoming more and more nuanced as scholars and religious teachers continue flowing towards a more inclusive acceptance of one another.

Le Donne finds himself in a quandary.  He was raised in a fairly conservative religious home, one that ingrained a more black-and-white understanding of the relationship between the Jewish and Christian religions.  [Having come from the same denominational tradition, I can certainly “Amen” many of his concerns.]  Armed with a doctorate in New Testament and Christian studies and the humble attitude of a student, Le Donne sought out on a journey to discover the complex and rich nature of the Jewish religion and how Christianity has been deeply influenced by it.  In engaging in these conversations, Le Donne found his faith in God growing deeper as he embraced the values of honesty, integrity, humor and tolerance that undergird modern Jewish faith.  He finds himself growing in faith by living on the “borders” of Jewish and Christian spirituality.

Overall, I enjoyed this volume.  Although it could have easily been constructed as a series of lectures, it is not.  It is crafted more like conversations with over coffee or a meal.  Whether it be a dinner group that has come together to discuss connections between Jewish and Christian adherents, Le Donne is transparent in his concerns and his limitations.  He does not present himself as an expert on these “borders,” nor does he bring theological judgment against either side.  Instead, he offers a model of transparent tolerance and open dialogue with those who stand on the borders of particular religions and (perhaps) faith in general.

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