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When God's Kingdom Comes (BOOK REVIEW)

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Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) December 26, 2010:   In his new book THE GREATEST PRAYER: REDISCOVERING THE REVOLUTIONARY MESSAGE OF THE LORD'S PRAYER (HarperOne, 2010), John Dominic Crossan, the leading authority on the historical Jesus, analyzes and discusses the Christian prayer known as the Lord's Prayer (aka the Our Father and the Abba Prayer).

The term "greatest" in the title of this book is a superlative term: great, greater, greatest. As a result, the main title of this book might lead us to expect that the author will undertake to compare and contrast a number of prayers from different traditions that he has somehow selected for consideration, and through comparing and contrasting them with one another determine one to be the greatest. But the author of this book undertakes no such comparison of different prayers. So the main title is probably best understood as a marketing gimmick to get our attention.

Nevertheless, as the author says on page one, "The Lord's Prayer is Christianity's greatest prayer." That much is true. But Christianity's greatest prayer could have been composed by any well-versed Jew in the first century. However, in both the Gospel According to Matthew (6:9-13) and the Gospel According to Luke (11:2-4), Jesus is portrayed as teaching this prayer to his followers; hence, the name, the Lord's Prayer. Because of the distinctively Christian name (the Lord's Prayer), this prayer is Christianity's greatest prayer. However, apart from the name (the Lord's Prayer), I cannot identify anything distinctively Christian in this prayer. Leaving aside the obviously Christian name (the Lord's Prayer), this prayer is arguably thoroughly Jewish because it emerged out of the ancient Jewish thought-world. This is why Crossan repeatedly draws on the ancient Jewish thought-word to analyze and discuss it.

When we turn our attention to the subtitle of the book, we should note that the word "revolutionary" has also appeared in the subtitle of another book by Crossan: JESUS: A REVOLUTIONARY BIOGRAPHY (1994). So the subtitle of each of these two books is probably best understood as marketing gimmick to get our attention.

But of course Jesus was executed with the charge "King of the Jews." Because the Roman empire had a zero-tolerance policy regarding would-be kings, he was executed for purportedly being a revolutionary. However, because of the charge involved in his execution ("King of the Jews"), we should ask the question, Was the historical Jesus a revolutionary who aspired to lead a violent revolt against the Roman empire in the Jewish homeland? No, says Crossan. He says that the historical Jesus was not aspiring to foment a violent uprising. In short, the historical Jesus was not a messiah-figure (i.e., not a warrior/king like King David, the anointed one, which is what the term "messiah" literally means). According to Crossan, the historical Jesus was a practitioner of non-violence.

Well, was the historical Jesus a non-violent bottom-up activist like Martin Luther King, Jr.? No, says Crossan. According to him, the historical Jesus did not repeatedly lead direct non-violent confrontations with the local authorities of the Roman empire in the Jewish homeland. Non-violent confrontations with the local authorities of the Roman empire would probably have been met with violent efforts by armed soldiers to kill the locals in the confrontation.

Well, was the historical Jesus a non-violent community organizer like Barack Obama was at one time in Chicago? No, says Crossan. According to him, the historical Jesus was not a community organizer like Obama because the historical Jesus did not organize Jews in rural areas to act within the political system of the time. At the time, the Jewish homeland was under the rule of the Roman empire. Jews in rural areas had no choice but to live under Roman rule. But Jews in rural areas probably had no interest in trying to collaborate with the local authorities of the Roman empire.

Well, how can we characterize the historical Jesus? In THE GREATEST PRAYER, Crossan himself characterizes the historical Jesus as follows: Jesus and his companions set about "to heal the sick, eat with those they healed, and announce the presence of God's kingdom in that reciprocity of spiritual and physical power, building peasant community from the bottom upward" (page 179).

Rob Kall should like the part about bottom-up change, eh? According to Crossan, the historical Jesus was a role model who undertook bottom-up non-violent change in the ancient world.

In Crossan's view then, the historical Jesus was a local do-gooder who somehow got himself crucified with the charge "King of the Jews," a revolutionary. Yes, to be sure, he can also be described as leading non-violent resistance against the Roman empire in the Jewish homeland.

But what had happened earlier in his life that had turned the historical Jesus into a do-gooder? We do not know for sure what had happened to him. However, for the sake of discussion, let us posit the following two-fold way of thinking about his life:

(1) there was evidently a time before which he had not started his public ministry to promote bottom-up change among his fellow Jews; and

(2) there was a later time after which he had begun his public ministry to promote bottom-up change among his fellow Jews.

In this two-fold scenario, we can then posit that the historical Jesus had had a life-changing experience of some kind, a transformative experience, an experience that had indeed truly transformed him. As a result of this truly transformative experience, he then set about announcing the kingdom of God, because he evidently understood his own transformative experience to be the arrival of the kingdom of God in his life.

If this is a fair summary of what had happened to the historical Jesus, then we can draw the conclusion that it is possible for people to experience the kingdom of God, as he did. In addition, we can also draw the conclusion that the experience of the kingdom of God will transform people into do-gooders. However, we might allow that the transformed do-gooders may vary in the good that they then undertake to do, depending on their natural talents.

Now, Crossan's new book is not focused directly on the historical Jesus, but on the Lord's Prayer. However, the Lord's Prayer contains the wording "Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10, NRSV). But when God's will is done on earth as it is in heaven, then God's kingdom has come on earth. Hollywood will probably not make a movie about God's kingdom coming on earth, because a movie about a do-gooder would probably be boring to watch. However, in real-life, a do-gooder might be a very interesting person to meet, perhaps even a magnetic person, as the historical Jesus evidently was.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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What if the end of the world as we know it came, b... by Thomas Farrell on Monday, Dec 27, 2010 at 9:15:55 AM
but in reading this review, I am reminded why I re... by Richard Girard on Monday, Dec 27, 2010 at 4:33:09 PM