Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
February 23rd, 2016

in the mail from @OUPAcademic, “The Catholic Study Bible 3rd Edition”


This landmark resource, the first fully-based on the authoritative NABRE translation, contains the trustworthy study notes, expanded essays, and informational sidebars which have guided and informed students and general readers for 25 years. In this new edition, one-third of the Reading Guide materials are new, and all of the other Guides have been reviewed and revised by their original authors.

The extensive Reading Guide, the focal point of this volume, leads the reader through the Scriptures, book by book. References and background information are clearly laid out to guide the reader to a fuller understanding of the Bible. New to this edition is a more extensive treatment of the biblical background, including history and archeology.

Other outstanding features include: a 15-page glossary of special terms and complete Sunday and weekday lectionary readings for the liturgical years of the Church. Thirty-two beautiful pages of full-color Oxford Bible Maps come with a place-name index for easy reference.

Perfect for both higher education and clergy, Bible study and general readers, The Catholic Study Bible is an essential resource for both experienced students and first-time readers.

October 13th, 2015

In the Mail, @OUPAcademic’s “We Gather Together – The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics”

Don’t you think this is timely?

The story of the birth of the Religious Right is a familiar one. In the 1970s, mainly in response to Roe v. Wade, evangelicals and conservative Catholics put aside their longstanding historical prejudices and theological differences and joined forces to form a potent political movement that swept across the country. In this provocative book, Neil J. Young argues that almost none of this is true. Young offers an alternative history of the Religious Right that upends these widely-believed myths.

Theology, not politics, defined the Religious Right. The rise of secularism, pluralism, and cultural relativism, Young argues, transformed the relations of America’s religious denominations. The interfaith collaborations among liberal Protestants, Catholics, and Jews were met by a conservative Christian counter-force, which came together in a loosely bound, politically-minded coalition known as the Religious Right. This right-wing religious movement was made up of Mormons, conservative Catholics, and evangelicals, all of whom were united–paradoxically–by their contempt for the ecumenical approach they saw the liberal denominations taking. Led by the likes of Jerry Falwell, they deemed themselves the “pro-family” movement, and entered full-throated into political debates about abortion, school prayer, the Equal Rights Amendment, gay rights, and tax exemptions for religious schools. They would go on to form a critical new base for the Republican Party.

Examining the religious history of interfaith dialogue among conservative evangelicals, Catholics, and Mormons, Young argues that the formation of the Religious Right was not some brilliant political strategy hatched on the eve of a history-altering election but rather the latest iteration of a religious debate that had gone on for decades. This path breaking book will reshape our understanding of the most important religious and political movement of the last 30 years.

August 3rd, 2015

Review, “The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe”

Where do our most pernicious myths begin? Is it something within us, or maybe within our time and place, giving birth to these evil narratives?

Where did the Holocaust actually begin? Perhaps we can honestly say it began in late 12th century Norwich, England with the publication of an unfastidious genesis of the blood libel. After all, E.M. Rose, the author of The Murder of William of Norwich, notes that rather than having the blood libel (see her note on terminology, 241–42) as a centuries old account only coming to life with a poorly sourced tale, the stories did not begin to take hold until the Early Modern period. And, as she recounts, in a 60-plus year time frame ending in 1935 (p11), there were more charges of blood libel than all the centuries before. Perhaps, then, we see the power of myth — the deep, dark power of words chosen only to inflict harm to a people — and the damage it has done. Rather than a history of the blood libel and damage it has caused, the story Rose so eloquently tells us is about the first audience, the first myth givers, and the cult of William of Norwich.

Rose eloquently challenges long-held notions of the roles of Jews in Europe — and how Christians in England and on the continent treated them. Simply put, her historical narrative reveals a world quite unlike Brother Thomas’ Life and Passion (the first and only surviving account about the trial of William of Norwich) but one of  harmony usually accompanying Jews and Christians. So, how did we end up with a story permeating and fueling anti-Semitic tropes for the past 1000 years? How did we go from a well-knitted social fabric of allowing Jews and Christians to work together to the expulsion of Jews from England and the continued use of this horrendous myth to further subjugate the Jews, almost to the point of extension? As with all stories, there is no beginning ex nihilio .

Legend of the Jew calling the Devil from a Ves...

Legend of the Jew calling the Devil from a Vessel of Blood.–Fac-simile of a Woodcut in Boaistuau’s “Histoires Prodigieuses:” in 4to, Paris, Annet Briere, 1560. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the first several chapters (constituting Part 1), Rose slowly introduces us to the world of William of Norwich, the cult that sprang up after his death, and the larger world full of failed crusades and rampaging knights intent on eking out a sense of victory, even at the expense of whole peoples. We meet the genesis of the blood libel not as some historical fact — although there are plenty of historical myths and stories giving birth to this horror — but as a genius of a judicial strategy to save a knight from embarrassment, a king his allies, and England her financial due.

Rather than having any real basis, the blood libel began as a way to end a trial, becoming quickly a tool to preserve the martyrdom of William (and the financial windfalls of a reliquary), the all but forgotten murdered boy at the center of the story in our mythmaking. Once the charge was made— a charge never proved true and never properly investigated — it became alive, with new stories and tales popping up to build upon the case. Rose makes it clear that Brother Thomas, the first transporter of the tale, had no actual first hand information, but relies on, at best, a third-hand recounting. Simply put, the only real thing about the libel is the harm it has caused Jews and Jewish-Christian relationships in the intervening years. The presentation of the small, almost forgettable judicial strategy, makes one believe it was entirely possible to have never encountered the blood libel as a myth. It is, simply, a haphazard point of history, a minuscule argument – a statement so preposterous that we are left to wonder about the legal dullards who bought it. Surely, we moderns say, no one in a country that treated the Jews as well as England did, would believe such a thing.

The Murder of William of Norwich reveals nothing tangible about the murder of said lad, but turns us upon ourselves, to reveal our history and fascination with convenient fiction.  Once the die had been cast, the cult of William exploded in Norwich, at the expense of the Jews. The same expense cast relics as prized positions — after all, the local dead boy had done well. He has suffered a violent and tragic death at a time when heroes were needed. His death saved a knight — a knight who was guilty of a murder of a Jew — and promoted Norwich as a seat of mystical miracles. Two deaths — William and Deulesalt — brought riches to Norwich, but at the expense of a thousand-year charge against the Jews of the blood libel. What was most likely a suicide (as Rose notes) became a martyr and what was a martyr became a cause. However, to Rome’s credit, William was never formally canonized. At least, I think, we can thank our God for that.

The book is divided into 2 parts, 4 chapters between them. Part I ends with the elevation of the cult of William of Norwich in East Anglia. Part II takes us through the continuation of the cult by continental kings. There, the blood libel tale was expanded and applied to other youths, creating a mythos taking root in Europe that is still not completely burned out. As Rose points out, the great tragedy is that the death of a Christian individual was applied to the whole of the Jewish people rather than any individual person (237). While a relatively short book (240 pages), the breadth of scholarship is expansive. This is seen in the in-depth endnotes (nearly 100 pages) which includes more than citations. Rather, the endnotes must be read in part with the narrative of the book. They exist as something more than the usual academic footnotes, but more like an annotated bibliography. The storytelling by this first-time author is quite voluble, with the pen of a master narrator. The text is never boring, picking up new lines just when the old ones had run their course. A brilliant entry by this author, leaving us wanting a next book soon.

E.M. Rose’s The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe arrives at a time when we see the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, labeling of whole people in the United States, and an uncertain world seeking someone or something to blame for the chaotic state of world affairs. Everything spoken seems to have a hyperbolic quality. We have forgotten the power of words and stories and how carefully we must choose to employ them for our defense. When the Bishop Turbe stepped into history to defend the depraved knight, he chose to play on the stereotypes of a people. I doubt Turbe believed it would go as far as it did, nor did he have a malicious intent. However, the road to hell, and such as that. Rose’s work reminds us that things don’t just happen. Her intricate weaving of the social context around the death of William, the role of the initial charge, and the elevation of the cult, shows us that sometimes societies are ripe for evil.

July 27th, 2015

Review, “A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism” @OUPAcademic

…it makes sense that Christian feminists today are often drawn to their nineteenth-century predecessors in their own search for inspirational forebears, to a time when Christianity and feminism were often closely aligned. – Kristen Kobes Du Mez

Rather than cutting the Scriptures up, in the mold of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Katharine Bushnell stayed well within the principles of Christian hermeneutical tradition and developed a solid theological feminism. Her work deserves to be reread, something Kristen Kobes Du Mez makes not only possible but desirable.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s story of Katharine Bushnell work, God’s Word to Women, is part biography, part literary commentary, and part social commentary — and, completely, a challenge to men and women alike “to discover what shape…freedom might take for the twenty-first century.” What A New Gospel for Women (NGW) entails, however, is not a mere recounting of an often overlooked person from history, but a significant portion of the life of American feminism encapsulating corresponding stories of the Methodist people, foreign missions, women’s suffrage, and what it is like to see fulfillment postponed. Indeed, for an account of events beginning in the 19th century, it reads like current events.

katharine bushnellI am not a student of feminism, although I have benefited from it. I do know the story of those considered the great pioneers, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton — but likewise, I know the sad tale of how Christian theology was dispensed with, Scripture was brought low, and the movement suffered because of it. But, through these pages before me I am introduced to a woman who is a scholar, exegete, and theologian rivaling those of the great Antiochian and Alexandrian philosophers long before her. To be sure, by today’s standards she is often a mixed bag. At first, Bushnell was an opponent of traditional Christianity (her own version was that of the holiness tradition), only to then become welcomed by even the most conservative interpreters. She was a feminist, but by today’s standards — with her important take on birth control and abortion — I doubt she could maintain such a reputation. She was not a mere novel of history, a fortunate accident, but as Du Mez presents her, a truly quintessential prophet lobbying against entrenched power — both patriarchal and even imperial — and for the oppressed. Her life is the absolute fulfillment of Matthew 10.18.

The first four chapters are biographical. We are given a well drawn out, never boring, and often times too short account of the life of Katharine Bushnell — and like any good disciplinary attendant, Du Mez gives us the surrounding picture as well. She crafts the narrative about Bushnell by giving us what is going on in the world around her. Bushnell only comes into focus, then, when we see the town of Evanston, the mission to China, the American society, the colleges for women’s education, and the birthing of feminism in the late 19th century Victorian age. Du Mez, in these chapters, assemble the puzzle pieces that is Katharine Bushnell and presents a picture of a woman who very much deserves to be better known by people today — not as a historical figure, but as an ever-present reminder of the deep connection between Christianity and feminism, and, more importantly, what a deep exegetical review of our Holy Text may accomplish for those normally considered second-class.

Du Mez’s fifth and sixth chapters explore that exegetical review. In these chapters we are taken behind God’s Word to Women to see the processes that went into developing the exegesis — which includes something beyond understanding the context of the original page, but so too the context Bushnell lived in. She could see beyond the publication and understand the need of her would-be reviewers and readers to carefully craft, before they could issue their objections, the answers to the objections. In that, she does better than any theologians today. I am impressed with Du Mez’s presentation here. Bushnell is presented as a calm and assured exegete of Christian scripture — one who upholds the conservative and orthodox position of Scripture, even to the point of inerrancy, while pushing interpretation into a progressive arena. My heart is quickened to think that this has been done and can be done in such a way as to give American Protestants space to appreciate the work (even if they disagree) and perhaps even accept the work. I am amazed at her craftsmanship, at her skill, at her passion. Bushnell, via Du Mez, holds together the tension of a high view of Scripture, the need to correct Tradition, and the refrain of holiness. I cannot comment on Bushnell’s work — that is not the point of the review — except to say that in many ways, her work precedes trends in historical criticism prevalent today. Indeed, in scanning my library I see several references to her work as a noted scholar.

Du Mez’s final two chapters bookend the book, bring Bushnell’s life to a close, setting it into a rather sad juxtaposition. On one hand, we have a woman who brought justice to both China and India via her tireless crusade against the regulation of vice, the production of a rather important work (God’s Word to Women), and the end of the Victorian Age. On the other, we have the beginning of the divide in American Protestantism, the beginning of World War I, and the emerging New Feminism. What falls through the cracks is an important step in Christian feminism, biblical exegesis, and a huge moment for American Protestantism. Bushnell could have shown us that we did not have to pick and choose between conservative and liberal, fundamentalism and relevancy, but could very well have endured with our faith in tact and an ear to science (and historical criticism). And what a world it may have been — had both sides not retreated away from the feminism Bushnell promised. This retreating is covered unbiased by Du Mez. Neither side wins — as both, conservatives and liberal, create their own repressive anti-feminist movements.

As a white male United Methodist, a historical critic of Scripture, and a sometimes-theologian who presses others to examine Scripture in light of the context (both then and now) — and as one who cannot seem to fit into any specific category — Du Mez’s A New Gospel for Women is a pinnacle of acceptance and understanding. I sit in awe of what Bushnell accomplished — beginning with the Methodist Episcopal Church — and mourn for what it could have been. Perhaps, as Du Mez points out, the resurgence we see in Christian feminism will again turn to Bushnell and her long overdue reward, as prophet, will finally be given. I cannot help but to recommend this book to every American Christian, especially those in the Wesleyan tradition, and those with a hope that through a high view of Scripture we can dismantle oppressive structures and rather than dispensing with everything around us, construct from the ashes a better system befitting our Christian Tradition.


June 29th, 2015

Book Notice, @OUPAcademic’s “The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe”

Thanks to OUP for the review copy.

In 1144, the mutilated body of William of Norwich, a young apprentice leatherworker, was found abandoned outside the city’s walls. The boy bore disturbing signs of torture, and a story spread that it was a ritual murder, performed by Jews in imitation of the Crucifixion as a mockery of Christianity. The outline of William’s tale eventually gained currency far beyond Norwich, and the idea that Jews engaged in ritual murder became firmly rooted in the European imagination.

E.M. Rose’s engaging book delves into the story of William’s murder and the notorious trial that followed to uncover the origin of the ritual murder accusation – known as the “blood libel” – in western Europe in the Middle Ages. Focusing on the specific historical context – 12th-century ecclesiastical politics, the position of Jews in England, the Second Crusade, and the cult of saints – and suspensefully unraveling the facts of the case, Rose makes a powerful argument for why the Norwich Jews (and particularly one Jewish banker) were accused of killing the youth, and how the malevolent blood libel accusation managed to take hold. She also considers four “copycat” cases, in which Jews were similarly blamed for the death of young Christians, and traces the adaptations of the story over time.

Saint William of Norwich

Saint William of Norwich (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the centuries after its appearance, the ritual murder accusation provoked instances of torture, death and expulsion of thousands of Jews and the extermination of hundreds of communities. Although no charge of ritual murder has withstood historical scrutiny, the concept of the blood libel is so emotionally charged and deeply rooted in cultural memory that it endures even today. Rose’s groundbreaking work, driven by fascinating characters, a gripping narrative, and impressive scholarship, provides clear answers as to why the blood libel emerged when it did and how it was able to gain such widespread acceptance, laying the foundations for enduring antisemitic myths that continue to the present.

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