As many of you know (because you showed up), the incomparable and funny Vanderbilt New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine (seen in the photos here) was in Kansas City last week for several appearances. Her trip here was sponsored by the Interfaith Religious Literacy Center, a special project of the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council, and made possible by the Oppenstein Brothers UMKC Judaic Studies Outreach Program Fund.
Focusing on three of her most popular books, The Misunderstood Jew, Short Stories by Jesus and The Jewish Annotated New Testament, she helped us all understand more fully the Jewish context out of which Christianity arose.
I can't replay in printed words here everything she said in various venues, but I thought it would be helpful to give you some highlights of the insights she shared. So here's a brief compendium of Levine's greatest hits from her time in KC.
* "First Century Jews knew that parables were not children's stories." They are not spoken to comfort people but to afflict them in some way so they can see themselves and their vulnerabilities and faults more clearly.
* "It should not be news that Jesus was Jewish. At least on his mother's side."
* "The word 'parable' is from the Greek." It's a poetic way of comparing and contrasting two things or ideas. "Therefore, with a parable it's better to ask 'What does this parable do? How does it affect me? What does it remind me of? How does it make me feel?' than to say, 'What does the parable mean?' because the parable can mean a variety of different things, depending on the person who looks at it."
* "Matthew (meaning the writer of the first gospel) has written a driver's ed manual for the early church."
* "How can I say I know my neighbor as myself if I don't know what's the most important thing in his life?"
* "The Bible for most people is a book of answers or a book of doctrine or a book of history. And it's none of that. The Bible is best read as a book that helps us ask the right questions."
* "We all have different lenses through which we understand our (sacred) texts. So Judaism is closer to Catholicism and to Islam than it is to standard Protestantism in the sense of this on-going revelation. . .So reading the Bible for Judaism is necessarily an act of interpretation. . .We are encouraged by our tradition to open up multiple readings, (so) the scripture is not only a site of revelation, it's a site of argumentation."
* "(Scripture) is God's word, but that doesn't mean that's the end of it. It's God's word and now I'm going to engage it -- and you know what? -- I might not like it. And I may decide I want to wrestle with it . . .It can be the divine word, but that doesn't take humanity out of the picture. So the text remains a living text."
* "We're all reading (scripture) metaphorically when we choose to read metaphorically. We're all reading literally when we choose to read literally. . .Literalists aren't literalists, and sometimes people on the more liberal side are a whole more literal with certain verses than they are with others."
* "One of the benefits of the Protestant Reformation is that it put the Bible into the hands of the laity and put it into the vernacular so they could read it. . .Part of biblical literacy, scriptural literacy, is to figure out how to use the Bible as a rock on which to stand -- and pardon this cliche -- rather than a rock with which to do damage."
* The books of Chronicles "manage to tell the story of King David and miss Bathsheba. It's like telling the story of President Clinton and missing Miss Lewinsky."
* "No one tradition has a lock on the truth."
* Jews "don't have to earn God's love. We've already got that. . .God chose us out of love. The reason we follow the law is to respond to the love that God showed us."
* "According to Judaism, God is the God of the world. . .If everybody converted to Judaism, God would only be the God of the Jews."
* "Anti-Jewish teaching and preaching is also on the rise today in liberal Protestant churches."
* "If we think about Jewish law, what Jewish law did was to allow Jews to maintain their own identity despite pressures to assimilate. . .When Jesus talks about the law he does not make it less rigorous, he makes it more rigorous. The law says don't commit adultery; he says don't think about it."
* "It's the Sabbath in part that keeps us (Jews) going. It's a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven."
* "By the end of the first century the dominant church is gentile rather than Jewish. . .It's not that Jews rejected Jesus. For most of them he's not on the radar in the first place. But if you were to say to them, 'Is he the Messiah?' most of them would say, 'No.' Why? Because the messianic age has not come yet."
Well, that's a taste of some of Levine's thinking that she shared with Kansas City over recent days. The hope of those of us working with the Interfaith Religious Literacy Center is that through her appearance here and through other upcoming programs, especially in partnership with the American Public Square at UMKC, Kansas Citians will want to become more religiously literate and even want to join small interfaith groups to learn about not only other faiths but their own in more depth as well. (The next American Public Square event on this topic is Dec. 10. Details are here.)
(The top photo shows Levine speaking Saturday at Second Presbyterian Church. The photo on the left shows her at Temple Israel, which meets at Rolling Hills Presbyterian Church, on Friday evening. And the photo on the right shows her at the Central Library on Wednesday evening.)
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IT RAISES THIS QUESTION. . .
Pope Francis, closing the synod on families, tells church leaders not to be so closed-hearted. The obvious question is why would you have to tell church leaders that? Isn't part of their job to be welcoming and open-hearted? Hmmm.