Monthly Archives: September 2013

Are Jews a kind of Christian?

A student asked me that question today in my 100-level “intro to American religious” course.  The question caught me off-guard (partly because it came out of the blue; it wasn’t obviously relevant to the topic of discussion for today), so I was brusquer than I should have been in answering it. “No. Judaism is a religion that predates Christianity.” Someone in the back of the room snickered at the question, which I should have intervened in, another regret.

I’ve blogged before about a student–in this same course, in a previous semester–who asked me what a Protestant is. I resisted then, and I’ll resist now, the instinct to wring my hands about religious illiteracy. But what does it mean that at this moment in American history, I have a student (African American, as it happens; is that relevant?) who is unsure about whether or not Judaism is a branch of Christianity?

Does the student’s question arise from exposure to the concept of “Judeo-Christianity,” a concept which has left him with an impression of fundamental unity between Judaism and Christianity? Is the student coming out of a “post-Christian” environment in which Christianity and Judaism are equally unfamiliar to him? Is the student coming from a religious community where at some point he heard Judaism discussed as a kind of heresy, which he’s now trying to translate into less normative terms, i.e., seeing Judaism as a variety of Christianity not approved by his community? He is not, evidently, coming from a background where he was taught to understand the relationship between Judaism and Christianity in supercessionist terms (or if so, he didn’t understand what that meant). Nor, evidently, has he been exposed to “Jews as Christ-killers” rhetoric–or even, it would appear, to rhetoric about Jews as people who “reject Christ.” Or if he was exposed to such rhetoric, it would appear he’s observed something about Jews that has made him question that rhetoric.

Is it a good sign, then, in a way, that contemporary American society can produce an individual who wonders if Jews are a kind of Christian?

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Reza unchained

On Monday, I participated in a panel discussion with some other faculty from my department about Reza Aslan’s Fox News interview. Part of my comments were directed toward putting Aslan’s book in a broader context of American religious minorities writing about Jesus (as described in Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus). But here’s what I had to say about the interview itself.

I was surprised by how quickly Aslan became defensive when asked why he, as a Muslim, was interested in writing about Jesus. Granted that Green’s intentions proved “confrontational,” certainly, if not “hostile,” and probably Aslan went in expecting that. But he could have handled the question differently. Rather than responding as if it were an attack (even if that’s what it was), he could have treated the question as a softball pitch allowing him to dive right into explaining his fascination with understanding the historical Jesus, just as he does it in the introduction to his book. Certainly, after all, the novelty of a Muslim writing a “historical Jesus” trade book is part of what makes his book stand out from the many other extant instances of the genre. So why not play that up to advantage? Why not acknowledge, and embrace, the “Huh, interesting,” factor–rather than responding to it immediately as an attack?

My answer to that question is this: Aslan does not want to be pegged as a Muslim writing about the historical Jesus because he rests his authority for writing the book on a claim that he has advanced beyond religious bias or investment. Repeatedly in the interview, Aslan insists that he is “a scholar.” Not “a Muslim scholar.” Just “a scholar.” The subtext (or one subtext, anyway) of that insistence becomes clearer when you read the intro to his book. There the narrative he presents for himself is this:

When Aslan was 15 years old, he became a born-again evangelical. Then he went to college, where in the process of preparing himself to defend the Bible from “the doubts of unbelievers,” he was dismayed to discover that “the Jesus of the gospels” and “the Jesus of history” are not the same. He lost faith in biblical inerrancy. He felt that evangelical Christianity was “a costly forgery [he] had been duped into buying.” And from there he made his way back to appreciation for Islam. But the crucial conversion here, for the purposes of the book, isn’t Christian to Muslim. It’s–his words–the conversion from “unquestioning believer” to “inquisitive scholar.” From someone “chained to the assumption that stories I read were literally true” to someone who could discern “a more meaningful truth in the text, a truth intentionally detached from the exigencies of history.” Having been liberated–unchained–from the dogmatism represented by evangelical Christianity, Aslan has encountered, through scholarship, the truth about who Jesus was. And now Aslan is an evangelist for that truth: “My hope with this book is to spread the good news of the Jesus of history with the same fervor that I once applied to spreading the story of Christ.”

Hence Aslan’s defensiveness about his book being characterized as a Muslim perspective on Jesus. Aslan doesn’t see his book as providing “a perspective” on Jesus. He is, rather, using scholarly methods to tell the truth about Jesus–as distinct from the invested “perspectives” of religious believers. This, of course, is a naive understanding of how scholarship works. I would like, generously, to think that Aslan is “dumbing things down” for a trade audience. But I suspect he isn’t: his autobiographical intro suggests he really has converted to a kind of Enlightenment liberalism in which he sees himself as a person who has escaped dogma and now applies rational methods to discern how things simply, truly are. He was defending that self-perception in the Fox News interview: Don’t come quoting criticisms of my work raised by evangelicals. I’m a scholar.

That’s part of what’s happening in that interview, anyway. It’s what’s happening when Green quotes William Lane Craig and references unnamed Christian scholars she’s had on her show in the past who defend the historicity of the Resurrection.  An entirely different line of criticism is deployed when Green cites John Dickerson’s reading of Aslan’s book as the latest instance of a centuries-old Muslim apologetic against the divinity of Jesus. Aslan is right to poke giant holes in Dickerson’s misreading of his work. Aslan is not writing in a tradition of Islamic skepticism about Christianity. He’s writing in a tradition of Enlightenment skepticism about Christianity.

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Antonin Scalia, the Establishment Clause, and majority rule

I was preparing materials this week for a five-week course I’m teaching later in the semester for my university’s continuing education program. The subject is “Church and State in the U.S.,” approached more narrowly as a survey of Supreme Court cases on issues that I anticipate will be of high public interest. We’ll analyze the majority and minority decisions, trace the competing rationales that led different justices to different conclusions.

One of the cases I’m using is McCreary County v. ACLU, a 2005 case involving a Ten Commandments display in the state just south of me. (Howdeedoo, Kentucky.)  McCreary is actually one of two Ten Commandments cases the Court decided on the same day, the other being Van Orden v. Perry, which involved a display in Texas. Do you see a geographic pattern here?

I’ll probably blog about this again as I get closer to leading this discussion for the class and have therefore prepped more and can talk about the details of the cases with more fluency than I’m prepared to do at this moment. These two cases are fascinating and bewildering because, thanks to an idiosyncratic swing vote, opposing viewpoints ended up both enjoying the status of “opinion of the Court.” Not being a lawyer, I don’t what that means, exactly, for the future of jurisprudence on Ten Commandments displays; but to my layperson’s eyes, the situation looks completely f****d up.

But by way of whetting the appetite, here’s a snippet of Justice Scalia’s dissent in McCreary. Scalia’s position–which he argues at great length and care, whatever you may finally think of it–is that government recognition of the Judeo-Christian God (who is also, Scalia says, the God of Islam) does not violate the Framers’ intent for the Establishment Clause. He’s very careful to say that he is not sanctioning a Judeo-Christian establishment; he’s saying, rather, that government acknowledgement of the Judeo-Christian God, as in Ten Commandments displays, does not constitute “establishment of religion” and therefore doesn’t run afoul of the First Amendment. To another justice who charged him with marginalizing religious minorities, this was Scalia’s response. Certainly no one can accuse him of being coy about his commitments and priorities (which is something he charges other justices of in their rulings on touchy church-state issues).

I must respond to Justice Stevens’ assertion that I would “marginaliz[e] the belief systems of more than 7 million Americans” who adhere to religions that are not monotheistic.Surely that is a gross exaggeration. The beliefs of those citizens are entirely protected by the Free Exercise Clause, and by those aspects of the Establishment Clause that do not relate to government acknowledgment of the Creator. Invocation of God despite their beliefs is permitted not because nonmonotheistic religions cease to be religions recognized by the religion clauses of the First Amendment, but because governmental invocation of God is not an establishment. Justice Stevens fails to recognize that in the context of public acknowledgments of God there are legitimate competing interests: On the one hand, the interest of that minority in not feeling “excluded”; but on the other, the interest of the overwhelming majority of religious believers in being able to give God thanks and supplication as a people, and with respect to our national endeavors. Our national tradition has resolved that conflict in favor of the majority.

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Minhag Amerika

minhagamtpThis afternoon I was preparing a class on Jews in America during the mid-19th century. The Minhag Amerika came up, Isaac Wise’s attempt to create a Jewish prayer book that would, he hoped, unify Jews in the U.S. around a Reform vision of Judaism. The central theme of the course I’m teaching this for is Americanization, with an emphasis on contested notions of what it means to “Americanize.” So the Minhag Amerika works well for asking: What is Wise’s understanding of what it takes to construct an “American” Judaism?

I’d never actually seen the Minhag Amerika, so I popped online and was delighted to discover a scanned version available from Hebrew Union College, just south of me in Cincinnati. I was disappointed, though, to find that the book doesn’t contain some kind of preface by Wise laying out his aims or a rationale for an American siddur.

Click here to see the online version.

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