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the most useful piece

14 February 2010 9 comments

It is no mystery that I am an academophile. I love school. I love lectures and information and learning things. So, when I get a chance to go to a lecture that interests me, I try to go. It helps if the topic is something that either confirms something I thought correct, or dispels something I believed incorrectly. Last night, I went to two lectures by Vanderbilt Divinity professor Amy-Jill Levine. She is an orthodox Jew who is professor of New Testament Studies. Wrap your head around that a moment. If you have ever gotten a Teaching Company catalog (“The Great Courses”), you have come across her name. She is brilliant, dynamic, funny, and a great educator. Imagine a shorter Jane Lynch with a New York accent, with black hair graying at the front and sides and brushed back so that the dark part almost resembles a yarmulke. She also has a view of the New Testament that I have never gotten before. I have known many great preachers in my life – some are Facebook friends of mine – and they all have a great knowledge of all things Bible, a hallmark of Church of Christ education. Where they often fall short, however, is a “uniquely” Jewish point of view of scripture. Most have (at best) a Greco-Roman point of view. They come by it honestly, as most scripture was written even after the Bar-Kokhba revolt from 132 to 135 (c.f. Bart Ehrman‘s research, et al). Last night’s topics were the parables found in scripture. Dr. Levine approaches them from an historical point of view first; she does not discount or deny the strength of the parables, but she does state that they almost certainly are not “true” – they did not happen, since most are told from an absurd point of view. The “mustard seed” parable is such an example. No one would plant mustard in their gardens in Palestine (it was against Jewish law), and neither does it form a huge tree (she compared its stubbornness to the dandelion and its size to scrub pasture-grass). Still, it forms the basis for theological understanding, since it can be interpreted many ways by many viewpoints.

For me, the skeptic, it shows how the New Testament is, at best, generally well-thought-out prose. Enough doubt has been cast on the mere existence of Jesus, let alone his divinity and the inspiration of the text, that the question of the supernatural (at least using the Bible as reference) is moot. But values are values, and the stories of Jesus share enough ethical theory with other religions, not to mention common sense itself, that the stories have merit from a literary standpoint. It is that reason, in a theological studies framework, that I find Dr. Levine so compelling. That, and she’s a hoot to hear speak.


  • Emily Overturf said:

    This is so nice. Your title says it all.

  • Kellwood said:

    Nice. Overall, I am glad that you don’t take it literally anymore.

  • dan (author) said:

    Em, thanks. Kelly, when you stop taking “worldwide flood” and “talking snake” literally, then at some point you have to question whether “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:20–21)” is literal, as well. Then you just have to decide where to stop thinking about it and just take the rest on faith.

  • Emily Overturf said:

    At least you can listen to the stories, and ya’got no strings to hold you down. Real boy that you are.

  • Linda Sanders Fryer said:

    I would respond but I feel somehow you would make a fool of me. I love you. Your “expert” is wrong.

  • Emily Overturf said:

    I have always found it such an honor to “sit at the feet” of a Jewish scholar and learn from them regarding cultures, laws and practices surrounding the times of the bible. It is amazing how different the perspective of the stories appear, once you receive a little education and history; rather than limiting yourself to the contraints of your previous ignorances. I do not believe that the power of the parables is in the case of fiction vs. non fiction; but rather in the moral lesson that is taught in each one. Much like Eesops fables, the greek and roman myths, and the norse myths; humans have always turned to storytelling to make gentle points and lessons regarding moral and ethical rights and wrongs. God or Not, Jesus was a HUMAN TEACHER and would have used a teaching practice familiar to the people around him so that they would “get him”.

  • Southern Beale said:

    I love AJ Levine, she has spoken at our church a few times and I have enjoyed her Teaching Company lectures on both the Old and New Testament. It really makes you understand how silly Biblical literalism is. So much of the Old Testament (Biblical creation stories for example) are rooted in ancient, pagan myths from pantheistic cultures.

    Of course, as the late, great William Sloane Coffin pointed out that *everyone* interprets the Bible selectively, even the most Fundamentalist Christian. You can’t point to Leviticus to justify your treatment of gays while munching on barbecue pork and shrimp cocktail.

  • Linda said:

    Hummm…eating BBQ pork while justifying my treatment of gays. When Jesus was nailed to the cross the old law, the law of Moses, was nailed to the cross. I have yet to see a Christian not eat bacon, pork or pork products or catfish for that part. It’s a favorite Sunday meal for some of us Christians. Leviticus is under the old law as is the laws regarding eating or not eating of certain meats. When was the last time anyone had a goat for a burnt offering? It was required under the Jewish law. As for a Christians treatment of a gay, we let the Bible and God judge them. I have told all my gay friends my belief and they are still my friends. One even told me that he loved me because I have the kind of love Jesus had. Coconut shrimp is my favorite and I am still going to heaven.

  • dan (author) said:

    “It is easier for Heaven and Earth to pass away than for the smallest part of the letter of the law to become invalid.” Luke 16:17 – New Testament. Jesus, in fact.

    “I have told all my gay friends my belief” – and your belief comes from Leviticus. So, either your belief is wrong, or your timing is wrong. Or, there’s a third likelihood, of course, which we’ve been over.

    In any case, you are picking and choosing, as all fundamentalists are fond of doing. Mainstream Christianity disagrees with you, and I don’t feel inclined to defend what most Christians already believe.