Book Club Channel
Context Is Everything: A Scholarly Response to "Revelation of the Magi"
The pizzeria offers a public, unchurched/uninstitutional domain to think of the relevance of the RevMagi. The waiter was fascinated by the title and recognized the story (of course). I suspect the text's relevance could be heightened here. The exotic-ness of the story and ideas, the rituals and prophecies, even the familiar language (Christ, Mysteries, etc.) will be a draw. But a draw to what? I found myself asking. A document without communal context? A fanciful story that makes the reality of Christ fanciful and further mythologized? The airport, train, and taxi contexts also heightened this sense of dislocation for engaging The Revelation of the Magi. Without communal context for discourse -- whether in the academy or in broader contexts -- how does one get any traction for bringing this story into one's own spiritual understandings? I observed a Turkish family at one point, however, and realized that the text might be an interesting connector for those who consider each other strangers. The text brings associations with medieval Europe, Egypt, a monastery in Turkey, and the Vatican Library in Rome all amidst a highly popular story.
Concluding my travels at a well-established, East Coast institution of higher theological education, I felt the age-old tensions about what ‘scholarly merit' means while assessing a text's relevance to Christian faith. To be honest, ‘establishment-academic' eyebrows will raise at the selection of HarperOne as a publisher, which is not to discredit the work or the house. Early-career scholars who choose a more mainstream publishing route (i.e., wider circulation, business-model driven, etc.) often face -- whether justified or not -- the doubt of senior-scholars about the critical rigor of the work. Scholarship given highest ‘merit' usually moves through more traditional, several-round, peer-review processes, and university-press associated houses. This might require a whole post on ‘scholarly merit'! Suffice it to say: while Landau's work surpasses a majority of the extant criteria for scholarship, he will face real challenges arguing scholarly merit. Additionally, he chose a document of research that has little to no scholarly conversation in which to enter. Other scholars have done this and found critical acclaim in the halls of the academy. Many have not found such engagement. Perhaps his work will start a strand of discourse in a critical community of learning. Perhaps not. Time will tell.
Though I lament the increasing gap between scholarly rigor and more popular contributions to human understanding, I also appreciate the value that comes when a critical edge is brought to such a text. For instance, Landau praises the absence of Christ-language in the majority of the RevMagi, suggesting that this absence makes the text a plausible document for religious pluralism conversations. Yet throughout his translation of the document, he adds titles into the translation with ‘Christ' as the focal point. One of his main points for the text's relevance -- that it opens doors to interreligious learning in pluralistic contexts -- becomes completely obscured. Dear friends of mine who happen to be Jewish would find this text difficult to stomach, I think. I felt uncomfortable in reading it myself, cherishing their presence at my spirit's tea-table as I do. At best, the text is confusing; at worst, a hidden colonial or imperialist presumption requiring the infinite diversity of the sacred to fall under Christian-izing images (even idolatries) that come with the word Christ. I was continually struck that the Magi in Landau's assessment were those who praised and worshipped in silence. They saw different things from the ‘same presenting phenomena.' Wonderful openings there, then closed to all those who have been wounded by ‘Christ'-used-as-weapon. Perhaps a little more exploration of silence would help. The endnotes also appear as edited-out content, not clues to deeper, scholarly investigation. Perhaps that was intentional for the popular audience, but no established scholar would consider this a scholarly work, in my view.
Which is not to say that the text has no relevance to a lively Christian faith. Its broader accessibility, its attention to critical-engagement of an ancient text, its companionable tone and fascinating contents . . . all these things suggest The Revelation of the Magi is a great gift for the holiday season and opens doors to new questions in communities of learning. Given the right serendipities in the publishing market, I could see it becoming a popular conversation starter and book-club book. When it comes to a vibrant life of discipleship, its contents will stimulate new thinking if probably less challenge of new practices or risked encounters with other traditions. I am thankful to have encountered the work. I will urge pastoral colleagues to consider it for the season of Epiphany in my own religious tradition. And I will caution all those who read it to consider the advantages and disadvantages of delving into an ancient text with little scholarly discourse about it. It's marvelous, but it's also a bit more risky for communal comprehension and learning.
For more resources on the Revelation of the Magi, including a book excerpt and discussion questions, visit the Patheos Book Club here.
The Rev. Dr. Lisa M. Hess listens, teaches, and writes as a Presbyterian minister (PCUSA) and practical theology professor at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. She is the author of Artisanal Theology: Intentional Formation in Radically Covenantal Companionships (Cascade, 2009). Visit Dr. Hess' Expert Site at Patheos here.