Jesus: A Theography?

Ogden Nash said, “Here is a good rule of thumb, too clever is dumb.” I have to admit that my first glance at Frank Viola and Leonard Sweet’s book called Jesus: A Theography sort of made me choke. “Theography?” I geddit. Jesus is God so he doesn’t get a “biography” he gets a “Theography”.

I didn’t know Frank Viola, but quickly picked up that the book was sent to me for review by an Evangelical publishing house and when I snooped around a bit more realized Frank Viola is a leader in the New Evangelical movement that might be summed up by his most popular book Beyond Evangelical. So was this fairly hefty hardback a tract from the mega church crowd? Was I being asked to read a cleverly titled book by the same gang who name their churches “InnerSpring” or “BedRock” or “FisherMen”? I was dubious.

However, being the open minded, More Christianity sort of guy that I am. Not wanting to deny but affirm. Wishing to see the good in everything and make allowances for the bad, I picked up Frank and Leonard’s book to get going. Before too long I was thinking that Catholics ought to read this book.

Here’s why: soon after my older brother was received into the Catholic church he said in a phone conversation, “Hey, you know when we were brought up as Evangelicals they said, ‘Those Catholics. They never read the Bible. They don’t know their Bible at all?’”

“Uh huh.”

“They were right.”

OK. It’s a bit harsh. I have met some Catholics who know their Bibles pretty well, but not nearly enough, and this is one of the reasons Catholic should read Jesus A Theography.  This book goes through the Bible step by step and unlocks the mystery of Jesus on every page. Well, not exactly every page. It’s hard to do with those passages in Deuteronomy telling the priests how to slaughter bulls…but you know what I mean.

It also wouldn’t do Catholics any harm to also read it in order to get within the mindset of the present generation of Evangelical Christians.

Frank wrote Beyond Evangelical and is pretty representative of a younger generation who have moved beyond the old denomination and doctrinal boundaries into a new kind of Evangelicalism that is flexible, open minded and open to new spiritualities and fresh ways of worship. I, for one, have criticisms of this trend, but that’s ok. It’s still a vibrant and pretty dynamic form of Christianity and one that we should be aware of. Furthermore, as a conservative Catholic and a former Evangelical I have much more in common with some of my Evangelical brethren and sistren than I do with mainstream liberal Protestants and their bedfellows–the wishy washy liberal Catholics who are Protestants in sheep’s clothing.

We should be honest. In the present climate the divide is not really between Protestant and Catholic, but between those who believe that Christianity is a religion revealed by God to which we owe our obedience and love. The other side are those who believe Christianity is a cultural and historical construct which should be adapted to the spirit of the age. There are Protestants and Catholics in the latter group and Protestants and Catholics in the former group. Me and Frank are in the first set so we have more in common at the foundational level than me and liberal Catholics and Frank and liberal Prots.

The bottom line is–I like Frank’s book, and instead of a typical once and done review, I’m going to write up a series of articles as I re-read the book. The posts will comment on Frank’s observations and make connecting points with my Catholic faith. I’ve emailed Frank and he’s going to be a regular guest on this blog and me on his. We’re going to produce some “dialogue posts” in which we discuss matters theological, moral and societal.

The premise of Frank and Leonard’s book is quite simple: Jesus is the Divine Word of God incarnate. His footprints are there from the before the dawn of time through the creation story and Old Testament and then he comes clear in the gospels. The Bible is therefore the record of God’s revelation to mankind–culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Mary. What I liked about the book immediately was the skillful weaving together of theology and Biblical studies.

The authors tie in their knowledge of the ancient languages and culture of the Bible. They weave in creative and spiritual insights and unlock fascinating details of the Biblical text that shed light on the story of Jesus Christ in every age. The heart and soul of this book can be summed up by those majestic words at the beginning of the gospel of the Hebrews:

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.

I’m also enthusiastic about this book because the authors have reached beyond their Protestant comfort zone and actually [Shock Horror!!] read some Catholic books too. Yep. There’s one Joseph Ratzinger in the quotes page and credits list. Catholic readers should be alert to certain non-Catholic pre suppositions, Protestant theological assumptions and a bit of unconscious anti-Catholic bias here and there, but these are to be expected.

As I review the book in further posts I’ll also take time to remind readers of the Catholic Biblical study resources. There are plenty out there and this book should not replace them. Instead it is a good complement to them.

They say you should have an elevator speech to talk up your project or your mission in just a few short words. For books you should also have your cover blurb ready.

Here’s mine for Jesus A Theography

The fingerprints of Jesus Christ are all over creation and the history of humanity. From the dawn of time to redemption’s final chapter, Christ the Lord is present. Frank Viola and Leonard Sweet do the detective work to find the witness to Christ throughout the Sacred Scriptures and serve it up in a page  turning, ordinary folk-pleasing way. St Jerome said, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” Jesus A Theography corrects that ignorance.

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  • Frank Viola

    I’m truly honored. Looking forward to what’s to come.
    Yours in His grace and peace,
    Psalm 115:1

  • Matt Baugher

    Fr. Dwight,

    Thank you for such a thoughtful and insightful post. As the publisher of Frank and Leonard’s book, it is a thrill for me to see the discussion that is beginning to take place across the wide spectrum of protestant denominations and now the Catholic church as well. As far as I’m concerned, if any book causes an increase in dialogue as well as an increase in the study of scripture, it is a successful release. Thank you for adding your important voice to the conversation. I look forward to hearing more of your wisdom on the topic.

  • Paul Rodden

    Well, I’ve downloaded the audiobook, and have been listening…
    I have several Evangelical friends who are becoming more and more dissatisfied with what Christian Smith has called “Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism” and are becoming far more Catholic sympathetic as I’ve spoken to them about how we read Scripture. I think this book could really build a bridge as it seems essentially the Catholic way to ‘do’ Scripture.
    One thing that is interesting so far is the authors talk about a bible of 66 books, yet say the bible should be read as a whole. But, as John Salza points out in the Appendix of his book, The Biblical Basis for the Catholic Faith, the ‘Second Testament’, as they call it, contains at least 75 quotations/cross-references from the Deutrocanonical books Luther ditched.

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      Interesting. I will be conducting a dialogue with the author on my blog in the future and maybe we can talk about the canon…

  • FW Ken

    It would be interesting to read this along with Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth.

  • Jon Back

    I would never again read a book by Frank Viola – unless he recanted of his work in the book “Pagan Christianity” – it is the worst book I have ever read; it makes false historical claims on nearly every page and cannot be understood as anything less than anti-catholic.
    I pray he finds a more accurate understanding of the early church and the Christian Tradition.

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      I will have to look that book up. Frank wants to engage in dialogue with me on our blogs, and I might be able to engage him on that.