But for several reasons I’ve become much more aware of the problem in recent years.
I wish I could tell you that this pernicious stuff is disappearing from our pulpits. Despite a few hopeful signs, I think the problem will persist because our seminaries seem not to be doing all they should to educate preachers about first century Judaism and how to understand Jesus in a Jewish context.
And as Vanderbilt New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine has written, “Jesus cannot be understood fully unless he is understood through first-century Jewish eyes and heard through first-century Jewish ears.”
I heard Levine give a series of lectures in Kansas City this spring. She offered chapter and verse about where sermons go wrong and she described the difficulty she has had getting the Association of Theological Schools interested in offering curriculum guidance on this matter or accepting her offer of free workshops for ministerial candidates.
And Levine, author of The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, is not alone in worrying about this.
“I certainly agree with Prof. Levine that it is crucial for Christian seminaries to teach students about the rich variety of Judaism … during the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman periods,” J. Ross Wagner, associate professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, told me.
Wagner said Princeton provides many opportunities for students to study in this area but acknowledged that beyond a New Testament introduction class, “all of these other courses are electives. … Our M.Div. has relatively few required courses; instead, we have distribution requirements, that is, so many credits in Bible, so many in theology, etc.”
And Wagner’s professor colleague, Ellen Charry, is distressed by how difficult it seems to be to remove anti-Jewish prejudice from Protestant sermons.
“Anti-Judaism from the pulpit is (a) largely unrecognized (problem),” she told me. But she said she has heard many examples of it and when she has called preachers on it, they don’t even acknowledge there’s a problem. “They’re not sensitive or have their antennae out for the things that Amy-Jill (Levine) is concerned about.”
Worse, said Charry, “This problem is as old as Christianity itself and we’re not going to solve it with quick fixes.”
Still, our seminaries simply must do a better job helping students understand the dynamic Judaism (really, Judaism) of the first century so they can grasp more fully what Jesus was about and so they can avoid continuing the long, lamentable Christian history of anti-Judaism. (See my blog for my essay about that.)
How? Charry offers three approaches:
• Require biblical scholars to study Judaism on its own terms. And teach students the sorrowful history of how the church often has promoted anti-Judaism.
• Have Jewish scholars (Levine is one) work with students to help them understand the hurt created by century after century of anti-Jewish prejudice in Christianity.
• Give students in preaching classes examples of problematic sermons so they know what to avoid and how to preach the gospel without needing to denigrate another religion.
One difficulty is that seminary students have trouble packing in all the classes they need now to be prepared for ministry. But, in the end, that’s no excuse for seminaries sending out preachers who will continue — even if inadvertently — offering anti-Judaism.
Levine is right when she says that in the popular Christian imagination, Jesus “becomes the rebel” against his own Jewish religion. And in many sermons “Judaism becomes … a negative foil: whatever Jesus stands for, Judaism isn’t it; whatever Jesus is against, Judaism epitomizes the category.”
Let’s remember that the gospel is good news not because of what it’s against but, rather, because of what it’s for.
Bill Tammeus is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Mo., and former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog at http:// billtammeus.typepad.com. E-mail him at [email protected].