Book Review: Near Christianity

Historically, Evangelicals have been those who’ve planted their flag well within carefully-defined spiritual boundaries. People are either “in” or “out”, based on their stated relationship with Jesus. On the inside of that boundary line, there are dozens of other fissure lines based on denomination, worship style, and doctrinal difference. Boundary-crossing words like “interfaith” and “ecumenical” are usually viewed by those in the Evangelical world with great suspicion, as they seem to speak of human-engineered truces and kum-bay-ah emotions. And most Evangelicals I know believe the prayer for unity Jesus prayed for his followers hours before his arrest is something that will be realized at some misty date in the future, but not today. As a result of all this, we have been trained to stay far, far away from boundaries.

Anthony Le Donne, Associate Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary, has not only devoted himself to exploring the spiritual boundary that exists between Evangelical faith and Judaism, but finding new life there. His new book, Near Christianity: How Journeys along Jewish-Christian Borders Saved My Faith in God (Zondervan, 2018) is not a book about apologetics or Jewish evangelism. Instead, it offers a compelling description of how Professor Le Donne has become a student of various streams of contemporary Judaism, and how his own Christian faith has deepened as a result.

He opens the book with a helpful description of the differences between the way Christians and Jews understand their faith identities, noting that while Christians view themselves in terms of belief, Jews tend to name themselves in terms of heritage and blood line:

Many Jews do not attend synagogue. And many Jews who attend synagogue regularly are openly agnostic. Also, it is becoming increasingly popular for Jews to study and practice Buddhism. And whether they are secular, observant but agnostic, or Buddhist, their status as Jews is not in jeopardy. Among my Jewish conversation partners, it is not uncommon to speak of “Jewish Atheists” (Jews who deny the existence of God) or “JewBus” (Jews who practice Buddhism). There is no perceived contradiction here as there would be in the title “Christian Atheist”.

Though Le Donne doesn’t mention it, I would be remiss if I didn’t note here that this seemingly-expansive view in the Jewish community about who is a Jew almost always stops short of including people like me – Jews who believe that Jesus is the Messiah and have committed their lives to serving him. I’ve been called a traitor enough times by my fellow Jews to know that this historically has been one boundary line guarded by an electrified fence.

Because I’ve been living on that boundary line for more than forty years and know what it is to exist in both Jewish and Evangelical worlds, I was keenly interested to see what Le Donne discovered as he mapped the border from the Christian side of the line. He tackled topics including American culture’s consumeristic approach to Christmas, genocide, how Christian theology contributed to Nazism, the deeply entrenched tendency in the Church to either demonize or fetishize the Jewish people, the link between laughter and intimacy, and the relationship between tolerance and love.

His chapter on the border between pilgrim and stranger offers a good sampling of the approach he took throughout the book. As I recently wrote a book on the topic of exile and pilgrimage, I was keenly interested in Le Donne’s approach to a subject core to Jewish identity. He shares his surprise at discovering an armed guard at a synagogue he attended with a friend, but used the experience as an opportunity to reflect on the numerical disparity between Christians (2.7 billion) and Jews (14 million) in the world. He notes, “Extinction is not a necessary concern for Christianity. We may have unhealthy denominations, but there is no danger of Christianity’s imminent demise. In contrast, Jewish extinction is a real-world concern for many Jews.” He cites reasons including Middle Eastern politics, intermarriage with non-Jews, the impact of the Holocaust on the Jewish community, and evangelism, adding, “…there is little comfort in the knowledge that these borders are populated by Christians.”

Though in the Middle East, the concern about who is on those borders tends to focus on Muslims, I understood Le Donne’s point here. The chapter went on to note that many Jews in the first century were awaiting a return to the full blessing of being in the Land, living the commands of Torah under the rule of a Davidic king. He notes that after the Resurrection, the apostles asked the risen Jesus if now was the time that the kingdom of Israel would be restored (Acts 1:6). They were homesick for the blessing of the life their forebears had enjoyed in the Land. “So when did this mentality change for Christians?” he asks. “When did Christians stop hoping for a way of life in the Land and seek, instead, a way to the afterlife? When did Christianity become an outward-focused mission with little regard for a single holy place?”

This focus on mission rather than place has allowed Christians to cross geographical and cultural bodies with ease, though, he notes, “…it is often because we are unaware of the fault lines we have imposed on the Western landscape.” Le Donne’s interactions with Jewish people and various streams of Jewish thought have called him to a humbled approach to faith in contrast to the triumphalistic Evangelicalism of his youth:

The borders of Christian identity are renegotiated, redefined, indeed crossed over as motivated by suffering…they do perhaps strike closer to the heart of Christian beginnings. While we were still strangers, while we were still enemies, St. Paul tells us, God through a ‘son of God’ suffered. This will seem banal to most Christian ears, but it must be heard in a different way. Acquiring cultural, political, and religious power has not worked well for Christianity.

He recognizes in the Christian impulse toward accumulating worldly power a kind of kingdom-building that completely erodes a healthy understanding of our shared life with God and one another. I’d add that even when the children of Israel lived unfettered in the Land during the reign of David, the three pilgrim feasts named in Leviticus 23 were a reminder to them of their core identity as spiritual pilgrims.

Near Christianity wraps with a solid discussion about the relationship between belief and belonging. Le Donne recognizes that even when he’s wished to run in frustration from the Christian world in which he lives, his exploration along this boundary line has strengthened his understanding of who God is and who he is as a follower of Jesus.

While I wish he would have included a bit of dialogue with a Messianic Jew or two in the book because I believe this could have added an additional measure of illumination about what it means to journey along Jewish-Christian borders, I do honor the thoughtful approach to those borders Le Donne took in Near Christianity. The book is relevant to those struggling to make sense of their Evangelical roots, those interested in the way some of the many variations of contemporary Judaism interact with Christianity, and those believers involved in study, dialogue, or shared community concerns with members of the Jewish community.

Photo by Jonas Jacobsson on Unsplash

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