Interview: Hal Taussig and A New New Testament

A few months ago, I posted some information about a project that I was invited to participate in, the formation of A NEW New Testament, organized by Hal Taussig. If you read the post, from the comments you can see that this book will stir the theological souls of many. Some will feel liberated by discovering new lenses through which humanity may experience the gospel of Jesus Christ, while others will see the project as dangerous and heretical.

The book will be released on March 5th [ORDER HERE] and I had the pleasure of interviewing Hal about the book and process.  Here is my interview with Dr. Hal Taussig on his newest book project, A New New Testament: A Bible for the 21st Century Combining Traditional and Newly Discovered Texts.

No doubt people who don’t know you are going to paint a one-dimensional picture of you. So who is Hal Taussig and what’s one thing that we might not guess about you?

I have been both a pastor and professor for over 30 years, never having given up either work. The major work I have done pastorally is to be a primary figure in the re-starting of two successive local churches, which were on the verge of dying and now both are vibrant communities. Almost all of my time as a professor has been teaching New Testament at the graduate or seminary level. For two of my early books, I was officially accused of heresy within the United Methodist Church, and I was exonerated of these charges.

I was raised on a cattle ranch in the high Rockies.

I love Motown, modern ballet, and raquetball.

How did this project come about and, knowing the kind of backlash that will be created, why did you take this on?

This project came slowly into focus over the past 20 years as I heard over and over again in the congregation where I pastor, with my M.Div. and Ph.D. students at the seminary where I teach, and at speaking engagements around the country that learning about many of the new discoveries of ancient Christian documents meant a great deal spiritually and intellectually to those who heard about them. Over and over again people acted as if they had just discovered their long lost sibling as I told them about the likes of the Gospel of Mary, The Thunder:Perfect Mind, the Acts of Paul and Thecla and others. So many people in so many different settings kept asking me why this material was not in the traditional New Testament.

In terms of the backlash that may come from this, I am not very good at taking this seriously. I generally expect people’s interest and honest engagement about what I do, so I do suspect that I am not well enough prepared emotionally for such a backlash. I can say that I do have a fair amount of experience with national controversy. In my national engagement with the Jesus Seminar and the national controversy during the accusations of heresy against my early books, I found it fairly easy to concentrate mostly on the promise of what I was doing rather than the damage done to me.

I blogged about this project a few months back, and while there were some positive comments, a majority of the comments accused you and The Council of being a group of arrogant religious celebrities who have finally gone too far. How do you respond to these accusations?

I would respond by telling them about the new works we have added to the traditional New Testament. I would quote to them how Mary Magdalene in the Gospel of Mary consoles the rest of the disciples after Jesus has left them. I would quote them the Odes of Solomon which sound so much like the Psalms in the Bible, but include Jesus in those “new” Psalms. I would tell them of how when the disciples in the Letter of Peter to Philip are threatened with death, they nevertheless go back out into the street to teach and heal. I would ask them what they think of these new discoveries from early Christianity, and whether they think they are important for the public to know about.

In this work, one needs to stay focused on the substance of the issue, and not be distracted by people trying to discredit by innuendo and allegations.

The Council was diverse in many ways. How did you decide who would be invited to be a part of the The Council?

I had three criteria for inviting people to be on the Council:

  1. that almost all of them were enthusiastically Christian;
  2. that a small minority were deeply spiritual leaders from beyond Christianity;
  3. that they all have wide experience in some kind of ministry and especially in recommending to the general public what they can read to help them grow spiritually.

Within these three criteria, I then asked as broad a spectrum as I could. I asked people from every major denomination. I asked conservative, middle of the road, and liberal people. I asked people from a broad range of ethnic backgrounds. I tried to ask as many women as men.

What surprised you about the process of getting to the final selection of writings?

I was most surprised by how enthusiastic these Council members, most of whom had not really known much about the new discoveries of documents from early Christianity, were about these documents. I was also very surprised at how meaningful the leadership of women in the newly discovered ancient documents was to the members of the Council.

Were you disappointed or surprised by the inclusion or exclusion of any particular writing/s?

About eight months before the final meeting of the Council, I secretly wrote down a list of documents I wanted to be in A New New Testament. But, of course, in the Council of 19 members, I only had one vote, just as each of the other Council members. So only half of my own choice of documents made it into A New New Testament. To a certain extent, of course, this is disappointing in the mundane way that we are disappointed when we don’t get our way. But honestly, I am so committed to this project being as an authentic and nationally framed collaborative effort, I now am much more excited about being a part of a process that reflects a wide spectrum of wisdom and a longstanding way churches have made decisions than remembering why some of my choices got lost. I know how much more wisdom emerges when more people from as diverse a perspective as possible are included in the decision-making.

How do you hope people will use A New New Testament?

I think there are three main (and different) ways I hope various people use A New New Testament:

  1. Like both Christians and non-Christians use the traditional New Testament. That is, as a way to be closer to God, more in tune with all of life, and challenged to grow in character, morality, and spirit.
  2. as a new way to picture how Christianity began. That is, as a new sparkling prism of the many different visions and experiences of the many groups that eventually made up the realities of emergent Christianity.
  3. as a way to deepen relationships with the existing New Testament, new initiatives to make Christianity come alive for individuals and communities, and those seeking a more spirited way in the world.

What do you hope does NOT happen as a result of the release of A New New Testament?

I hope that people do not dismiss A New New Testament without reading it, especially without reading the wonderful ways these old and new documents fit together.

Think five or 10 years down the line, what do you hope will be the overall impact of A New New Testament on culture, Christianity and/or the church?

My hopes are that A New New Testament becomes a significant part of the way we find meaning in our day relative to the ways we are connected to the beginnings of Christianity. As the head of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Bruce Nichols, said to me early in our discussions about publishing this book, he hoped that for the next two decades A New New Testament had a favored place on bookshelves and electronic readers, so that they would often turn to it and think about what they found there.

What part of the entire process brought you the most joy?

There was so much joy throughout the process, especially in the time I had to re-read and think about all the old and new texts, talk with very insightful and recognized spiritual leaders about all the books, and see the excitement in so many people as the reality of a new New Testament came into being. But, Bruce, two particular moments of joy come to mind:

  1. in the final deliberations of the Council’s choosing the books to be added, the careful and intense conversation among the Council, involving intense desire, much argument, and careful listening to one another. People laughed with so much shared appreciation, wept with desire and disappointment, and changed their minds in various directions.
  2. when the publisher committed a very substantial sum of money to make sure that a group of national spiritual leaders could work together for up-to-a-year together to study these texts and make these decisions together in a way that had integrity and time to prepare.

Pay it forward – Please name 2-3 groups, organizations or people you believe do great work in the world and why more people should know about them.

What a great question!

The First Corinthian Baptist Church of Harlem. A large,growing, spirit-filled congregation of thoughtful, young and old, multi-gendered, and courageous people. Their devotion to open-minded and open-hearted life together in the big wide world is stunning and powerful. (Among other things they are already in the process of reading the newly discovered documents of Christianity alongside the old ones.)

Two cutting edge scholars at the intersection of New Testament and new discoveries, Karen King, Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School and Maia Kotrosits, newly minted Ph.D. in this field.

The Pennsylvania Ballet. A hugely creative ensemble whose dance breaks down old barriers and shows the beauty and volatility of the human body.

Personally, while I understand that there will be continued backlash about this project, it was a privilege to be a part of it. I only hope that even in the midst of the deepest disagreement, we may all see one another as created and complex children of God.

Here are a few more links of note:

This blog post was originally published on www.reyes-chow.com.

Why This Christian Will Never Own a Gun

Sign the petition: Christians Standing Together Against Gun Violence.

Photo by twak on flickr

As a Christian and a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA) I often struggle with Scripture and how God intends for me to live in the world. Jesus and our faith demands of us to make difficult decisions in life that often stand firmly against our own upbringing, our own wants and, at times, our friends and family.

I believe that, today, the question of gun ownership and fighting gun violence is one of those times.

Trust me, I do not wade into the topic of guns lightly. After posting on this topic here and here, I am fully aware of the passion with which people approach this issue and the subsequent conversations about it. While some would say it would be wiser and even safer to avoid such engagement, I disagree. For if I, as a Christian, cannot find a way to engage in healthy and helpful conversations with those  who disagree with me, Christian or not, then, I am abdicating my responsibility to live the kind of life that I believe God hopes for me to live in the world.

Still, I know that there will be some immediate reactions by many who might react to any opinion that seems anti-gun, so let me try to pre-empt some of the obvious pushback that is likely to be directed my way.  I have no delusions that commentors will, in fact, read this blog before commenting, but for those of you who do and are interested in fruitful conversation, know this . . .

  • When I say that I will never own a gun because of my Christian faith, that does not mean that I am saying that you are not a Christian if you do.
  • I do understand that there is a difference between owning a rifle for hunting and owning a handgun for self-defense. And while I would never own either, my Christian sensibilities are not as challenged by those who have grown up in a culture of hunting as by those who advocate widespread handgun availability.
  • This is not about the 2nd Amendment or gun control, but rather a public expression of how my faith informs the way I chose to live in the world.  There is a time and place for conversations about civil engagement and faith, but in this post, my primary authority is not the US Constitution, but my faith in Jesus Christ and God’s unfolding reality as told through the Bible.

Gun ownership, gun violence and gun control are obviously not new debates in our nation. At the same time, I do think that the ideological, philosophical and theological foundations that give structure to the arguments about guns in our culture are beginning to manifest themselves in ways that are tearing apart the social and cultural understandings that have brought this country together for a very long time. In the name of free speech, we are experiencing a rise of violent political rhetoric; in the defense of freedom, personal interactions are increasingly tinged with violent posturing; and  recent shootings – mass or otherwise – are creating a fatigue that further normalizes gun violence in our culture.

As a Christian, a pastor, a father, a citizen of the United States and member of the larger global community, this is not an acceptable reality, nor does this align with the many ways in which I believe Christ calls us to live. There is much in the teachings of Christ that offer me pause, but in the case of guns, any way I look at the questions of owning a gun and the risks involved to the larger community, it is abundantly clear to me why I will never own a gun.

I first begin with my place in the greater community. I choose not to own a gun and provide an opportunity for the violence that so often accompanies guns because this is how I would hope others would be in the world. Yes, many will label me a fool and accuse me of creating an atmosphere of inviting gun violence into my life, but when it comes to faith, my actions, while defying logic to many in the world, is an expression of my deep commitment to God.

36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Matthew 22:36-40

Secondly, nowhere in Scripture does Jesus give us permission to solve our problems, respond to aggression or even defend ourselves with violence. In word and in deed, we are often called to fight injustice and violence with words and actions that are distinctly NOT violent, even in self-defense. Turning the other cheek, defending with a swordstoning of the prostitute, etc, Jesus reminds us of other powerful ways to respond to those who would chose to goad us into violent conflict. Yes, we do those things out of self-survival and self-defense, and justified by society or not, viewed through a lens of the Christian faith violence of any kind cannot be justified.

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:17-21

People may call this approach to faith and life absurd, weak or out of touch, but this is where my Christian faith leads me to stand and I consider this posture of non-violence in word and deed, to be one of power, transformation and graciousness. Again, because this is where my faith leads me, does not mean that I think any less of those who decide that gun ownership aligns with their faith, only that I have chosen differently.

I believe is that at some point, people of faith must stand side-by-side speaking together to let the world and one another know that there is a different way to live and respond to that which may threaten us . . . and it is one that does not involve guns, so if you would like to add your name to a “petition” is support of church leaders everywhere who are engaged in importnat work against gun violence, please sign sign and share This Petition:  Christians Standing Together Against Gun Violence.


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