Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Book Snap: Luke T. Johnson's "Among the Gentiles"

From the March 2010 E-Block. The Ticker will return after the holiday.

Luke Timothy Johnson (LTJ), author of our review subject, Among the Gentiles (ATG), has a longstanding reputation as a moderate scholar who is not afraid to take on the opposition. Some time ago he weighed in heavily against the Jesus Seminar. In this book, he's not taking on anyone in particular, but he has plenty to say, and generally says it well.

ATG is a sort of survey of religious experience in the ancient world, as LTJ looks at Greco-Roman religion, Judaism, and Christianity (from the first to the fourth century) in terms of four categories of experience: Participation in divine benefits; moral transformation; transcending the world, and stabilizing the world. As a survey, ATG is extremely informative, though perhaps best for the beginning reader in this subject, who will find LTJ an amenable conversationalist who only occasionally drifts into academicspeak.

The only thing that might put the reader off ATG is found at the beginning and end of the book, where LTJ disdains what he calls "apologetics" in favor of what he calls "conversation" and dialogue -- sounding for all the world like an emergent Christian of the Brian McLaren mold. One can certainly understand that a survey work will not "take sides" and decide which religion is correct, but at the same time, there is little need for LTJ to make a point of saying that he plans to be indolently indifferent to the taking of sides.

Still and all, the message of ATG is a good one, which amounts to, "religious life in the world of early Christianity wasn't simple." Perhaps the only other warning we might issue here is that ATG is bound to be misused by adherents of the "pagan copycat" school who will misuse ATG to argue that Christianity was just a mutated pagan religion. LTJ's categories are far more general than that, and he is far from claiming anything of the sort that might be agreed upon by the producers of the Zeitgeist movie.

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