Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Another Positive Review of Howard Thurman, Sermons on the Parables

A very nice review of Howard Thurman, Sermons on the Parables, by Dr. Robert Cornwall (Phd in Historical Theology; author of several books).

Howard Thurman: Sermons on the Parables (David Gowler & Kipton Jensen, editors) -- A Review

SERMONS ON THE PARABLES. By Howard Thurman. Edited with an Introduction by David B. Gowler and Kipton E. Jensen. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2018. L + 157 pages.

Having recently and belatedly read Howard Thurman's Jesus and the Disinherited (1948), a seminal study of the life and vision of Jesus and a book that gave spiritual sustenance to Martin Luther King, I was pleased to receive a review copy of a newly published collection of Thurman's Sermons on the Parables. Jesus' parables have been illuminating and challenging for many over the centuries. They often subtly convey the essence of Jesus’ message, pushing us to consider more deeply what it means to be a disciple, of course, but more importantly, what it means to be human (and humane). Here, in this collection of sermons delivered by one of the leading African American intellectuals of the twentieth century, we are led into a deeper encounter with the often subversive, but also transformative message of Jesus.

In this volume edited by David Gowler and Kipton Jensen, we have a collection of sermons preached in the 1950s, following in the wake of the publication of Thurman’s Jesus and the DisinheritedIn many ways this collection is a natural extension of that important book. As with the earlier book, Thurman reminds us in these sermons that Jesus always had in mind those on the margins. We fail to properly interpret Jesus if we do not connect these dots.

Thurman may be best known today, if he is known, as one of Martin Luther King's spiritual mentors. While it is true that he influenced King, he was an important leader in his own right, laying the foundation for what would emerge in the 1950s and 1960s. Thurman provided the spiritual foundations for the movement and its use of nonviolent action to move the civil rights agenda. He may not have been a marcher, but he was a key leader of the movement. While Thurman is a product of the Black church, his spiritual vision reached beyond, not only to the wider Christian community, but to the wider religious world. The editors remind us that Thurman was one of the first African American intellectual to meet with Gandhi in India. Their conversations helped Thurman develop his own understanding of nonviolent action. While he was thoroughly Christian, he found elements of Hinduism to be important contributors to his Spiritual Development.

As the editors note, "Thurman reminds us that Jesus spoke primarily to those who were oppressed by the powerful and that Jesus' prophetic message continues to be relevant to the oppressed in any age and in every place, albeit in ways not completely understood or acknowledged by many who claim to follow him." (p. xvi). As for Thurman's sermons, the editors write that his sermons and writings "provided succor and sustenance to an entire generation of civil and human rights activists." (p. xxxvi). Reading these sermons, we are challenged to embrace the prophetic message of Jesus in every age. Consider this word from a sermon titled “Commitment” preached in 1951:
And do you wonder why we have a so-called Christian civilization that doesn’t bother with Jesus? He’s the most dangerous, the most dangerous figure on the horizon of mortal man. And if we seek to reproduce in ourselves the religion which he experienced, we shall destroy our civilization, and there shall not be one stone left on the other. So what do we do? We pray to him instead. That’s easier. (p. 63).
This is the message we hear in these sermons. A call to live into the life of Jesus in a way that could upset civilization. Thus, the book itself might prove dangerous. Considering the times, maybe this a collection that will inspire and encourage action in the spirit of Jesus.

                There are in the book fifteen sermons, all of which were preached in the 1950s. They have been gathered and transcribed from recordings by the editors. These editors, one of whom is a New Testament Scholar who has written on the parables (Gowler), and the other a professor philosophy at Morehouse College, where Thurman studied and taught (Jensen), bring their expertise and experience to the task of bringing the sermons to our attention. Because they have transcribed sermons from recordings made in the 1950s, it’s understandable that not all the words could be discerned. There are words missing, but they are noted. In some cases we can fill in the gaps, but not always. Nonetheless, the fact that they are transcribed live sermons, we get some of the feel of what was originally delivered. However, as is always true of speeches and sermons put into print we don’t get the full experience.  What cannot be fully communicated is the tone of voice and the embodiment of the message. Where possible, the editors add in parenthetically that there was, for instance, laughter. That helps to some degree but isn't the same. Nonetheless, the words printed communicate important truths. We can read with listening hearts.

Each of the fifteen sermons, which take up one or more of the parables, is introduced by the editors, who give us an overview of the text and sometimes the location and context in which it was delivered. Some of the sermons were delivered at The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, where he served for a time as co-pastor. Others were delivered at Marsh Chapel at Boston University, where he served as Dean of the Chapel and professor of spiritual resources and disciplines.

As to who might benefit from this book. Preachers, of course, will find encouragement and spiritual sustenance, that will empower preaching that might just disrupt civilization. Seekers after truth will be inspired as well, as they are introduced to a word from Jesus. While Thurman doesn’t offer “expository” sermons, he does bring the text of scripture to life. For those who wish to understand the civil rights movement in its fullness, they will benefit both from the sermons and the introductions. Finally, those wishing to experience the parables of Jesus in a modern context will find the collection stimulating. I can say this, if Martin Luther King was inspired and encouraged by Thurman's vision of Jesus, perhaps we might as well. As the editors not in their concluding word, suggest that these sermons on the parables “offer clues for living in harmony with the will of God and the purpose of life” (p. 155). Agreed, and thus, Howard Thurman's Sermons on the Parables is highly recommended.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Chicago Tribune's nice, brief review of Howard Thurman, Sermons on the Parables

Powerful collection from MLK's pastor — fitting for our current political moment — leads roundup review of spiritual books
Barbara MahanyChicago Tribune
“Sermons on the Parables” by Howard Thurman, edited with an introduction by David B. Gowler and Kipton E. Jensen, Orbis, 208 pages, $25
Howard Thurman, pastor to Martin Luther King Jr. and long considered one of the great spiritual thinkers and most powerful preachers of recent times, died in 1981, so his voice no longer shakes the sanctuary walls. But a new collection, “Sermons on the Parables,” is the surest dose of what’s needed in these fraught times: a clear, compelling voice that rises up from the page, illuminating a sacred way toward all that’s good and just.
It’s the closest we might come to counting ourselves among the blessed in his pews. All that’s missing is the rustling of fellow worshippers, shifting in their seats, and the booming decibels of the gifted preacher who aimed in his sermons for nothing less than “the moment when God appeared in the head, heart, and soul of the worshiper.”
The treasure here is not only the 15 previously unpublished sermons on the parables of Jesus (brilliantly retold and examined by Thurman), but the rich commentary that rightly refocuses the spiritual world’s attention on this extraordinary 20th-century luminary. It’s a book born out of conversation between editors David B. Gowler, who holds a chair in religion at Emory University, and Kipton E. Jensen, associate professor of phi­losophy at Morehouse College.
Oh, to have rocked beneath the rafters with Thurman at the pulpit.

Friday, September 7, 2018

A brief review of Parables After Jesus

Zechariah Eberhart recently published a very kind brief review of The Parables After Jesus in Religious Studies Review (44:2). He also references my previous reception history volume, James Through the Centuries: 
In this volume Gowler argues that all interpretations of the parables, in some way, are dependent upon and in dialogue with a multitude of conversations that precede it. Including over fifty case‐studies from “a variety of eras, perspectives, media, and contexts,” this ambitious volume seeks to invite a “chorus of voices” to the table, many of which have gone unrecognized in parable studies. The five primary chapters are set to a particular era: antiquity; middle ages; sixteenth to seventeenth centuries; eighteenth to nineteenth centuries; twentieth to twenty‐first centuries. The voices included within each chapter offer select, but intentionally diverse perspectives. Gowler allows each interpretation to speak for itself, within its own context. Following his James through the Centuries (2014), Gowler has once again contributed a valuable work to the growing field of reception history and biblical studies. It is especially important to note that he sees this work as an “introduction,” a “starting point” and “stimulus for further discussions,” and as such it certainly accomplishes this task. Due to the sheer number of voices represented in the book, it is virtually impossible for a reader, regardless of his or her research interests, not to gain some new insight on the parables. Students and scholars with interests in parable studies and reception history will find this work not only engaging and a joy to read, but a book to which they will continue to return.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Howard Thurman and the Parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan

I received word yesterday that my audio recording about the importance of the parables of the Good Samaritan and Prodigal Son in Dr. Howard Thurman's life and thought ran on over 200 NPR stations yesterday. It also appears in The Academic Minute and in Inside Higher Education:

You can find the audio and the transcript here.

Who was Howard Thurman?
David Gowler, professor and chair of religion at Oxford College of Emory University, discusses Thurman’s influence beyond being an influence to Martin Luther King Jr.
David B. Gowler is The Dr. Lovick Pierce and Bishop George F. Pierce Chair of Religion at Oxford College of Emory University; senior faculty fellow at the Center for Ethics, Emory University; and the author of “The Parables After Jesus: Their Imaginative Receptions Across Two Millennia.”

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Do not misrepresent your sources (part 2) or Get to know your sources!

Adolf Jülicher, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu

In early May I blogged about people misrepresenting their sources. in that instance, I pointed out that people were misrepresenting views of Thomas Jefferson. 

I concluded with this admonition: 
As I tell my students, check (and recheck) your sources very carefully and do not--intentionally or unintentionally--misrepresent them.
Currently I am working on revising and adding to my 2000 book, What Are They Saying about the Parables? In the process, I am reading published reviews of recent books on the parables written by scholars and am finding errors about primary sources that should never happen.

Caveat: Everyone makes mistakes, of course. I can easily point to ones in my own books.

Some scholars who write about the Historical Jesus, for example, appear to depend upon secondary literature when they write about such classic works as David Friedrich Strauss's The Life of Jesus Critically Examined or Albert Schweitzer's The Quest of the Historical Jesus (which should happen less now that Fortress published an English edition of the first complete edition--there were some significant changes in his 1913 revision, such as the famous "wheel of the world" quote). See my WATSA Historical Jesus? if you are interested in that discussion.

The same thing happens in parable scholarship, of course, especially when people write about Adolf Jülicher's untranslated Die Gleichnisreden Jesu. 

A trivial example: I read two reviews, one of Ernest van Eck's The Parables of Jesus the Galilean and one of Klyne Snodgrass's Stories with Intent. Both of the reviews took the authors to task for getting the wrong publication dates wrong for Jülicher's works on the parables (there are also misunderstandings of Jülicher's positions, but this example is the easiest to explain).

I will not name the reviewers--I am sure that I am guilty sometimes of such errors, so humility in critiquing others is a good idea--but one of them really chides the author/proofreader for getting this "wrong."

As I point out in both WATSA Parables? and The Parables after Jesus, the dates of differ Jülicher's works differ, because of a revision and new edition with a second volume. Thus it is more likely that Eck and Snodgrass have different dates because they are referencing different editions of Jülicher's works.

Here is how I explain it in The Parables after Jesus:

Adolf Jülicher was born in Falkenberg, Germany, in 1857. He attended the University of Berlin, where he earned a doctorate in 1880, and then served as a Lutheran pastor at Rummelsburg. He also worked as a private lecturer (Privatdozent) in Berlin, and during that time wrote the first volume of his seminal work, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu (The Parables of Jesus), which was published in 1886. As a result, Jülicher was invited to join the faculty at the University of Marburg, where he remained until he retired in 1923 (the famed New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann was one of his students).
Die Gleichnisreden Jesu is the most famous and influential scholarly book on the parables ever written, and it inaugurated a new era in the modern research of the parables. The first volume of the work discusses interpretative issues, and the second volume, published along with a revised first volume in 1888–1889, gives detailed interpretations of all the parables found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Although many of Jülicher’s categories have been superseded by subsequent interpreters, some of his discussions still influence current debates (for much of the following, see Gowler 2000 and the sources listed there).

Here is the version of Jülicher's work that I checked out of Pitts Theology Library for my own reading/research:

Jülicher, Adolf. 1963. Die Gleichnisreden Jesu. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Would the Trump Administration Separate Jesus from Mary and Joseph?

Over two weeks ago I wrote this essay that just appeared in the History News Network (the above photo appeared in the essay). Much has happened since then--a father's suicide after being separated from his son, the Trump's administration's apparent consideration of "tent cities/prison camps" for these children, and so forth--and the policy has become even more horrific in the past two and a half weeks since I wrote the piece.

The essay had to be cut for publication, so I will place the full draft that I first submitted on this blog. The essay includes a brief discussion of the parable of the Sheep and Goats (near the end), for those who come hear to read about the reception history of the parables):

If you prefer the (much) shorter version, just click on the link above.


Would the Trump Administration Separate Jesus from Mary and Joseph?

The family escaped in the dead of night. Like countless other immigrants, they lived in a country oppressed by a ruthless and murderous ruler, and they feared for the safety of their young child. So they fled under cover of darkness and traveled hundreds of miles to a distant country where they would be safe.

This family, the story goes, was fortunate. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus escaped from Herod the Great and found refuge in Egypt, although many others in Bethlehem and the surrounding villages were killed on Herod’s orders.

Last year a woman and her seven year-old daughter, fearing violence, fled the Congo, presented themselves at the U.S. border, and officially sought asylum. Even though officials determined that asylum might be granted, the mother and her child were forcibly separated by immigration agents. The woman was detained in San Diego, and her daughter, screaming and traumatized, was taken to a facility in Chicago. 

This story and numerous other stories of children being separated from their parentsforeshadow what is now official government policy: All people who cross the border illegallywill be prosecuted. This change means that parents who arrive with children are detained in jail, including ones seeking asylum, and their children—even those who are eighteen months and perhaps younger—are turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services.

The stench of this policybegins at the top, as is evident from Donald Trump’s statements, such as the ones in the announcement of his candidacyfor president. Trump found an eager partner in Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recently announced this new “zero tolerance policy”: “If you cross the southwest border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you . . . . If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don't like that, then don't smuggle children over our border.” 

This hostile approach to immigration is justified throughout the administration, such as chief of staff John Kellywho bemoaned the ability of these “overwhelmingly rural people” to “assimilate”:  “They don't speak English. They don't integrate well, they don't have skills.” Kelly supported the policy to separate family members as a “tough deterrent” and infamously declared: “The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever.”

So far the Trump administration’s approach to immigration has significant support among Republicans. A recent Pew Research Center pollindicated that only 26% of Republicans (and Republican-leaning independents) believe that the United States has a responsibility to accept refugees. In contrast, almost three times as many Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (74%) believe that the United States has such a responsibility.  

A core constituency of the Republican party, white evangelical Protestants, reflects the differences of opinion on immigration between Republicans and Democrats. According to Pew:

By more than two-to-one (68% to 25%), white evangelical Protestants say the U.S. does not have a responsibility to accept refugees. Other religious groups are more likely to say the U.S. does have this responsibility. And opinions among religiously unaffiliated adults are nearly the reverse of those of white evangelical Protestants: 65% say the U.S. has a responsibility to accept refugees into the country, while just 31% say it does not.

These anti-immigrant sentiments have a long history in the United States, but they stand in stark contrast with one of the greatest landmarks in the United States, the Statue of Liberty. Since its dedication in 1886, the Statue of Liberty has stood in New York Harbor. It faces southeast so that ships, entering the harbor, can see her as a welcoming symbolfor immigrants and others coming to the United States.

Emma Lazarus wrote the Petrarchan sonnet, “The New Colossus,” in 1883 to help raise funds for the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty stands, and, in 1903, a plaque with the poem inscribed on it was placed inside the pedestal. Even though people such as White House adviser Stephen Miller attempt to undermine the importance of the sonnet, its connections to the Statue of Liberty’s symbolism are clear: 

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Most people quote the part of the sonnet that speaks of the tired, poor, “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” to speak about the greatness of the United States and the value of diversity. Yet just as important is the sonnet’s radical statement about hospitalitythat contrasts the welcoming “Mother of Exiles” symbolism of the Statue of Liberty from the “conquering limbs” symbolism of the statue of Colossus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world that stood in the harbor of ancient Rhodes.

Lazarus’s sonnet also reminds us that although many Christians believe the Gospel of Matthew’s story about Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fleeing to Egypt is unique, that story is similar to thousands of other stories of immigrants fleeing for their lives and livelihoods. In all of these cases the fundamental issue is that of hospitality to fellow human beings.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, as “strangers” (immigrants) in Egypt received hospitality and later return to Israel after Herod the Great died (although they settled in Galilee). Matthew is also the only Gospel to include Jesus’s famous parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46), a story that declares that giving hospitality to those in need, such as strangers/immigrants like Jesus was in Egypt, is the same as giving hospitality to Jesus himself. This parable also teaches that God will judge human beings on their hospitality, how they treat the “least of these,” the hungry, thirsty, stranger/immigrant, sick, ill-clothed, and imprisoned. Since some scholars—incorrectly, in my view—interpret the “least of these” as being Christians, it is important to note that the critical importance of these acts of hospitality is found throughout the teachings of Jesus—such as extending hospitality to “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” 

Hospitality, of course, is not exclusively a Christian virtue (e.g., in the ancient world such acts of hospitality are called “deeds of lovingkindness in Jewish rabbinical traditions, and they are among the virtues in classical philosophy), but the dichotomy between the teachings of Jesus and the beliefs of white evangelical Christians about immigration is striking.

The good news is that a number of Christians, including some evangelical Christian leaders, are challenging other Christians to consider what Jesus actually said and did before reaching any political conclusions

Because “how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner is how we treat Christ,” Christians must oppose “attacks on immigrants and refugees” and “cutting services and programs for the poor” accompanied by tax cuts “for the rich.”

To date there is little evidence that white evangelical supporters of Donald Trump can be persuaded to change their minds by any appeal to the teachings of Jesus. Hypocrisy is often in the eye of the beholder. But one key element in this policy of separating children from their parents may make a difference. As Jonathan Chait argues, the “emotional power of the stories of families torn apart by Trump’s policy has an unknown, but vast, potential.” 

The first step would be to understand that these asylum seekers and other immigrants—who are demonized as “criminals” or even “animals” by those seeking to rationalize this policy—are fellow human beings. The next step would be honest discussions of our immigration policies and to what extent the United States should practice the virtue of hospitality. There are more humane options, as Ali Noorani suggests, such as using discretion in prosecuting immigration cases (families are separated when adults are prosecuted), providing legal counsel for children, alternatives to detention in facilities, and, when detention is deemed necessary, providing more humane conditions.

Will the horrific policy of separating children from their parents cause many white evangelicals and others to change their minds about immigration policies in general? As the anti-immigrant president they support says when he does not know or want to give the answer, “We’ll see what happens.” 

In the meantime those who have a shred of humanity should fight this inhumane policy.

Another Positive Review of Howard Thurman, Sermons on the Parables

A very nice review of Howard Thurman, Sermons on the Parables , by Dr. Robert Cornwall (Phd in Historical Theology; author of several books...