A Conversation With Dr. James McGrath: Interview Series, Pt. 7

Recently, I was privileged to have a fruitful conversation with Dr. James McGrath, associate professor of religion at Butler University (IN). Among other things, we talked about theology, hermeneutics, creation vs. evolution and some of his new books. Do take a few minutes to read the convo and then, head on over to James's sites and have a look around: Exploring Our Matrix, The Burial of Jesus (Companion Site for the Book). Thanks to Dr. McGrath for taking some time out of his busy schedule to chat! Enjoy the discussion.

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Michael: James thanks for taking the time to stop by Pisteuomen and chat. If you would, tell the readers of Pisteuomen a little bit about yourself (e.g. your faith background, your vocation and some of your interests, etc.).

James: Thanks for inviting me to do this. I think if I answer this first question in full, I'll fill all the space you have set aside for this. But I'll try to keep it brief. I grew up in the Catholic Church, but drifted away somewhat as a teenager. But I was spiritually seeking, and thought I was a Christian (I believed in God more than most people I knew), but when I came across some contemporary Christian music on the radio it made an impression on me, because they sang about God and their faith as a reality in a way I couldn't. To make a long story short, a friend invited me and another friend to a concert at her church (a Pentecostal church), and it too made an impression on me. The next morning at the Sunday service, I simply called out to God in surrender, and felt a wave of peace sweep over me. And that's what got me on the track to doing what I'm doing now - the desire to explore my faith further, learn more about the Bible, understand more and explore more. In the process, I ended up attending Baptist churches, starting when I was a student in the U.K. and I'm now a member of an American Baptist Church here in Indianapolis. I'm skipping a lot of details here, but even though I presently teach at a school without a religious affiliation, I entered the study of religion (and still spend hours and hours pondering subjects in a way that my job description does not require) because it is an expression of my personal interest, having all begun with me exploring my personal faith and considering possible vocations in ministry. Eventually someone thought I might be good at teaching.

Michael: So, what "religious" subject would you say you spend the most time pondering and why?

James: Currently, it is really the historical figure of Jesus. If there is something I am personally as well as professionally interested in at the moment, it is this. I also have other interests (the Mandaeans, and religion and science fiction) that also have some of my attention. But as I've studied how historical investigation works, I've become persuaded that it provides the best tools we have for investigating the past. These tools also seem to be unable to provide the sort of certainty that, at one point in my religious thinking, I assumed religious believers were supposed to have. And so, the question of what it means to be a Christian when Christianity is so intertwined with history and historical study doesn't provide us with absolute certainty, is a key issue for me. In fact, it is one that comes up in my recent book, The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith, and which I will also have in mind but in a different way during my (first ever!) sabbatical in the Spring, when I plan to work on oral tradition and the Gospels.

Michael: Now, you’ve mentioned a few times on your blog—in addition to what you just said—that you have a couple of new books coming out. Care to say a little more about those here?

James: Sure. My first book (as is most common among academics) was a revised version of my PhD thesis. That was published as John's Apologetic Christology by Cambridge University Press. I realized as I was working on it that, in order to make the case convincing for how I understood the relationship between John's Christology and Jewish monotheism, I would have to make a case about Jewish monotheism and the development of early Christology more generally. That research has been a focus of interest over a number of years, and the result (I won't say "end" result, since one never knows) is my book The Only True God, forthcoming in 2009 from University of Illinois Press. It starts with Jewish monotheism in the Hellenistic era, then turns to the New Testament. In the mean time, I wrote a small book, my first, seeking to address issues in a manner more accessible to a general audience (and at a price mere mortals can afford, unlike some of these academic books). As my interest turned to the historical figure of Jesus, I became interested in the resurrection accounts (isn't everyone), and was particularly intrigued by the differences between Mark and the other Gospels when it came to the burial of Jesus. So, I wrote a short book, and sought to begin with a general introduction to a historical approach to the Gospels. I then treated the topic using those tools, and finally attempted to carry the subject through to theological reflection, and thus tried to go from start to finish, addressing in the process, how historical study, theology and faith might interrelate. And since I have other projects to work on between now and November (two conference papers for SBL), and then a sabbatical I want to devote to NEW projects, I decided to go ahead and publish the book The Burial of Jesus through BookSurge.

Michael: What major challenge, if any, would you say this short book poses for Bible readers?

James: Well, the very characteristics of a historical approach are themselves unfamiliar to many, thus, showing how historians approach certain sources can be disconcerting to some, to say the least. For example, if one even raises the possibility that two Gospels might have information that historians cannot simply harmonize, that can really trouble people who have been taught to expect that. This was, in fact, how I ended up studying the Gospel of John and focusing on the subject I did for my PhD. I was given the impression that the four Gospels really should all say the same thing. When I had to acknowledge that John's style and emphases really are different, making sense of that became important. But getting back to The Burial of Jesus, in addition to the historical approach itself, I do think that the fact that historical study cannot remove all doubt about the early Christians’ resurrection experiences will probably be a difficult issue for many to wrestle with. But I wrote on the subject because I know people wrestle with it anyway. And the book is an attempt to figure out what historical study, and what my own life-changing religious experience, can and cannot prove "beyond reasonable doubt". My own view of history in a nutshell is this: I do believe that the perspective of faith and theology can say more than history or science. Just because we cannot "prove", using scientific or historical tools, that people are valuable and have worth, that doesn't mean we shouldn't affirm it. On the other hand, what we say from the perspective of our faith and theology ought to take into account and do justice to the best understanding that historians and scientists and other specialists (like Biblical scholars, for instance!) have to offer.

Michael: So, do your historical insights lead you to argue for more of a “theological hermeneutic” or do you simply contend for more of a “genre oriented” reading? Or do you take another approach

James: I am interested in "all of the above", I suppose is the answer. At the moment, I'm focused on historical matters. But I would very much like to return at some point, to the subject of hermeneutics and the gap that sometimes exists between Biblical studies and theology. It is perhaps for this reason that I rejected the suggestion that someone once made to me that I have separate blogs for my religion and science, religion and TV/sci-fi, biblical studies and other subjects. While they are legitimately separated, I like being able to look back and see what I blogged about my research, what I was watching on TV, and where I was at theologically!

Michael: In the same vein as your last two answers, it is clear that another hot-button issue you deal with, especially on your blog, is the topic of evolution verses both intelligent design and creationism. What piqued your interest in this subject?

James: As a teenager I got very enthusiastic about young-earth creationism, and bought into the notion that evolution was a key reason for people not believing in God and for the unraveling or the moral fabric of society, etc. My interest led me to a book entitled Science and Creationism in which some extremely patient biologists and other scientists explained why the evidence didn't support young-earth creationism, and how at times the evidence was being misconstrued by supporters of young-earth creationism. So, it is because my own views have shifted so much, and because I can easily imagine that, had I thought that the young-earth position was inseparable from my faith, such a discovery could have caused a serious crisis of faith, it is important to me to be as vocal as possible about the fact that there are multiple viewpoints and not merely two diametrically opposed ones. I'm also interested because many Christians who take the YEC position think the Bible requires them to do so, and so the Biblical studies data relevant to this is also something I try to bring into the discussion more than is often the case.

Michael: So, in your view, is there room in the Church for more than one view?

James: Yes, indeed, on many topics! I'm doing a series in my church Sunday School class about "When Christians Disagree". I remember, as a teenager with a lot of zeal about my newfound personal faith, being absolutely certain that I now had all the answers. But in fact, I now know I didn't have all the answers, and it seems odd looking back that I wasn't more aware that I had much to learn. Perhaps we're all like that in our teenage years. But it does seem that if we acknowledge that Christians grow and mature and change their minds over the course of their lives, and that this is normal, and if the church is to be a place that fosters such growth, then by definition there will be different viewpoints. And this is helpful to our growth, since I know that I, for one, learn a lot more from interacting with people who disagree with me than I do when surrounded by likeminded individuals!

Michael: I wholeheartedly agree with the notion of the Church being a place where we can grow and change and whatnot. I also agree that discussion with those of different viewpoints is incredibly enriching. I’m sure that as a professor of religion, you encounter this in other faculty, students, etc. But tell me, in your field, who have been or currently are, some of your major (intellectual) influences?

James: Well, there's James Dunn, who was my doctoral supervisor. And I really admire the work of the late Raymond Brown, who I think was a great model for the compatibility of personal faith, rigorous scholarly honesty, and humility. With all my diverse interests, there are many, but one person whose books I've found particularly helpful and inspiring lately is Keith Ward. And I'm reading Scot McKnight's forthcoming book The Blue Parakeet and think it has an important message for those trying to wrestle with the diversity in the Biblical canon when coming from a conservative Evangelical starting point. [I can't claim Scot as an influence, though - at least not yet!]

Michael: On a similar yet different note, who would you say are some of the leading voices in biblical studies / theology today?

James: Maybe I should have waited to mention Scot's book in THIS category. But there is a lot going on, in so many diverse areas, that it is really hard to keep up with more than a few that one is personally working in. I'm glad Kenneth Bailey is continuing to publish, and can say that I've really appreciated the work of scholars like Bruce Malina on cultural background and context. I lived in Ireland, Northern Ireland, England and Romania and the more time one spends in other countries, the more one realizes that all communication, including in the Bible, requires a context in order to be understood. So, basically everyone who is working on that sort of topic I appreciate!

Michael: Okay James, here’s my last question, one I ask of all my interviewees: If you could own only one book (besides the Bible) what would it be and why?

James: Oh no, the "one book beside the Bible" question! Is it OK if instead of a book I take a CD?

Michael: Sure. This is certainly a first!

James: I'd take a recording of Kurt Atterberg's Symphony No.2, because when one reads academic books it leaves one with a very good sense of the many questions we are still struggling with. When I listen to music, it reminds me that in addition to questioning and investigating, there is a place for simply standing in awe, wonder, and amazement. And since presumably in this scenario I am stranded on a desert island, I'd have a lot of time to simply stand in awe. Also, if I'm stranded on an island, I'd start looking around for a hidden hatch in the ground, but that's another subject...

Michael: James, I want to thank you for taking the time to have a conversation; I’m sure the readers of Pisteuomen will enjoy it very much. We wish you much success in your forthcoming books and future endeavors. Blessings to you and yours.

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Here are links to other interviews that have taken place on Pisteuomen:

* A Conversation with Eric Sowell: Interview Series, Pt. 6
* A Conversation with Alan Knox: Interview Series, Pt. 5
* A Conversation with Chris Tilling: Interview Series, Pt. 4
* A Conversation with Scott Bailey: Interview Series, Pt. 3
* A Conversation with John the Methodist: Interview Series, Pt. 2
* A Conversation with Josh McManaway: Interview Series, Pt. 1

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