Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Chapter for SBL Press book: Thomas Hart Benton and the Prodigal Son



I've published two "public scholarship" essays this month (for The Washington Post and Salon), but today I'm working on a book chapter that includes an argument that Thomas Hart Benton's "Prodigal Son" portrays an understanding of labor and migration similar to the one in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (Benton also created images for the film based on the book).

I included part of these arguments in The Parables after Jesus, but in this chapter I will be able to go into much more detail about Benton's life and art and the contexts--personal and national/international--in which he created this work. I also argue that, in part, the image is autobiographical, like many other depictions of the prodigal.

The book chapter, “The Belated Return of the ‘Son’: Thomas Hart Benton’s Prodigal Son,” will be included in Painted Portrayals: The Art of Characterizing Biblical Figures. Bible and Its Reception Series. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature Press, forthcoming, 2019.

The book is edited by Heidi J. Hornik, Ian Boxall, and Bobbi Dykema.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

"The Work of Christmas," by Howard Thurman



Howard Thurman’s poem, “The Work of Christmas” provides a vision of a society informed by Jesus’s parable of the Sheep and Goats in the Gospel of Matthew and the biblical principle of hospitality:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.  

Thurman reminds us of how Jesus wants us to respond to the mind-numbing torrent of injustice, cruelty, and bigotry around us. 

Or as Micah, another Jewish prophet many centuries before Jesus, proclaimed Micah 6:8):    


[God] has told you, O mortal, what is good;
   and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
   and to walk humbly with your God?


My wish for 2019 is that justice, mercy, and humility will make a comeback.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Washington Post: Howard Thurman and other overlooked heroes of the Civil Rights Movement

I was delighted to see that The Washington Post published my essay on Howard Thurman (as an overlooked hero of the Civil Rights movement). The essay, written a couple of months ago, stemmed from my research on Howard Thurman's interpretations of the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son:


12/12/2018 The overlooked heroes of the civil rights movement - The Washington Post

The Washington Post Made by History Perspective

The overlooked heroes of the civil rights movement: Remembering Howard Thurman and other forgotten activists

By David B. Gowler December 11

In December 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference announced the “Poor People’s Campaign” to demand basic economic and human rights, especially for people living in poverty. That campaign, led by Ralph Abernathy, took place in the spring of 1968, after King’s assassination.

Fifty years later, that vision was reborn with the formation of “The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.” This reincarnation of the Poor People’s Campaign is co-led by Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, the coordinator of the Poverty Initiative at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and Rev. Dr. William Barber — the recent recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant — whom Cornel West famously called “the closest person we have to Martin Luther King Jr.

But this focus on titans of the leadership of social movements, especially the Civil Rights movement, is misplaced. The iconic status of many civil rights leaders of the past often overshadows the myriad people who struggled, suffered and sometimes died in the movement.

Although he did not march on the front lines, Howard Thurman is one of those often-overlooked heroes. He played a key role in providing the theological foundation for the civil rights movement and helped pave the spiritual path upon which King and others would trod. As Thurman argued, “It was important that individuals who were in the thick of the struggle for social change would be able to find renewal and fresh courage in the spiritual resources of the church.” His efforts demonstrate that effective social action requires a community working together for change that is bonded together by a coherent ethical, theological or philosophical foundation.

Although Thurman was a nationally and internationally recognized figure during his lifetime, today, if remembered at all, he is known as a mentor to Dr. King, including his likely influence on King’s merging the religion of Jesus with Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance.

As the leader of a small group of African Americans on a speaking tour in India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Burma (Myanmar) in 1935-1936, Thurman was the first African American to meet with Mahatma Gandhi and incorporate Gandhi’s insights — such as satyagraha or “soul force” — into his theology. Thurman and Gandhi shared a deep reverence for the teachings of Jesus and the belief that modern Christianity had deserted his true message.

After his meeting with Gandhi, Thurman undertook “an exploration of the problems that arise in the experience of people who attempt to be Christian in a society that is essentially un-Christian.” This led him in 1949 to publish his best-known book, “Jesus and the Disinherited,” which served as an inspiration for many civil rights leaders (Martin Luther King often carried this classic work).

In that book, Thurman argued that the religion of Jesus was born in the context of a people suffering persecution and oppression. Over the centuries, however, Christianity became the established religion of nations whose use of power and violence violated the essence of his message. Thurman realized that Jesus, a poor first-century Jew, spoke to others who, like him, were poor, oppressed, disinherited and dispossessed — those with their “backs constantly against the wall.” By highlighting Jesus’s message to the oppressed, Thurman made the teachings of Jesus again relevant for the struggle for civil and human rights.
Like Gandhi, who was himself deeply influenced by Leo Tolstoy’s book “The Kingdom of God is Within You,” Thurman insisted that spiritual transformation must be the foundational first step that leads to all other transformations of self and society, including concrete social action on behalf of the poor and oppressed. As a result, Thurman regularly invoked Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son, which celebrates a father’s welcoming his wayward son back into the family with love, compassion and forgiveness, as well as the Good Samaritan, which illustrates how one should treat fellow human beings, no matter who they are.

For Thurman, the parable of the Good Samaritan was personal, because he attributed part of his own success to a mysterious “Good Samaritan” to whom he dedicated his autobiography: “To the stranger in the railroad station in Daytona Beach who restored my broken dream sixty-five years ago.” Thurman was leaving home to attend one of the two high schools in Florida which at that time accepted African-American students, but he did not have the funds to take the train with his luggage. Then a “Good Samaritan” appeared and paid his fee.

Thurman observed that we are all indebted to people whose names we do not know and whose faces we sometimes do not see. He believed that such indebtedness was in fact a powerful force, that our knowledge of being indebted to God and being indebted to other human beings should fill us with a sense of gratitude for these blessings and, as a result, a desire to “pay it forward,” to help others just as we have been helped.
Thurman contended that an existential encounter with the teachings of Jesus must lead to concrete action in the world, including a profound moral obligation to reflect, decide and act accordingly, whether by working for civil and human rights, promoting justice in the midst of oppression, seeking peace among those who advocate for war or, in the words of Jesus, proclaiming good news to the poor, release to the captives and liberation of the oppressed.

Thurman’s vision provides a much-needed corrective in an era often dominated by political tribalism, in which opinions on various issues closely correlate with the sometimes-fluctuating positions of the political party with which people identify, including significant changes in moral values. These changes in ethical values have profound implications for public discourse and for social actions, since shifts in attitudes and values lead to
shifts in actions. When Donald Trump, for example, calls the news media “the true Enemy of the People” or encourages chants that call for his political opponents to be “locked up,” those words have consequences. Such inflammatory rhetoric, where cruelty is the point, stokes fear, anger, hatred, and division. As even the president knows, incendiary rhetoric not only begets more incendiary rhetoric; it also can lead to violent actions (hate crimes have spiked over the past two years, including a 57% increase in anti-Semitic incidents).

In today’s contentious, toxic, and increasingly violent environment, Thurman’s vision reminds us that our principles should not vacillate with shifting political winds. Our beliefs and corresponding actions should be consistent, and they must be based on a solid philosophical or religious foundation, which, for Thurman, was the actualization of the inner presence of God outwardly in one’s words and deeds. Although Thurman looked primarily to the example of Jesus, he also pointed to other people as moral exemplars, those who had “walked with God,” such as Gandhi, Buddha, Plotinus and Meister Eckhart.

In addition, societal transformation must begin with an inner, personal transformation of individual human beings, which is the reason Jesus, Thurman argued, “again and again came back to the inner life of the individual.” This transformation of individual human beings creates a community — what was called in the civil rights movement a “Beloved Community” — that is dedicated and active in social transformation based on their core beliefs and in response to the human need that surrounds them.

For Thurman, like Gandhi before him and King after him, “non-violence — what Gandhi called ahimsa, which for both Gandhi and Thurman is analogous to “Christian love” — is not merely an abstention from violence. Instead it is a positive force working to effect positive social change: actively wanting and working for the well- being of all people.
And just as Thurman’s philosophy was evident during the civil rights movement in the 1960s (for instance, the 1963 Birmingham Civil Rights Movement's “Ten Commandments”), it has found worthy successors in such current movements as the Poor People’s Campaign led by Barber and Theoharis.

Thurman knew that social justice would never be completely achieved, but he believed that human beings should “really work at it,” because, he argued, despite all of the difficult obstacles one faces, individual people can make the world a more decent and humane place. He ends with this plea, which remains excellent advice today: “Let’s try it and see.”

David B. Gowler
David B. Gowler is the Dr. Lovick Pierce and Bishop George F. Pierce chair of religion at Oxford College of Emory University and the author of "The Parables after Jesus: Their Imaginative Receptions across Two Millennia." 

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Thurman and Parables at AAR/SBL in Denver



They have a very nice selection of books at the annual American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature in Denver. Thanks to Orbis Books for creating the poster highlighting the Howard Thurman parables book.

Plenty of copies on sale! 

In addition, tonight there is a premiere showing of Martin Doblmeier's new film, "Backs Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story." 


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. 

Models for Grant Wood's American Gothic

Grant Wood, American Gothic  (Art Institute of Chicago) I just finished my chapter, “The Belated Return of the ‘Son’: Thomas Hart Bento...