As a Christian, I find Greg Carey’s book Sinners an uncomfortable read. Repeatedly it adjusts the lenses we use to look at Jesus, making his wider cultural context come into sharper focus. This allows us to see the ways that Jesus (and his earliest followers) violated the norms and expectations that provided his society with structure and meaning. The result is a deeply informative exploration of the New Testament; Carey helps us understand why some of Jesus’ contemporaries wanted to kill him, and why his enduring message continued to cause offense. This perspective is especially important for us to consider during Holy Week and Easter, when we’re tempted to contort the Christian story into something about what Jesus does to help me. Instead, first and foremost, it’s a story about what Jesus does for the sake of the world, and about what the world does to him in response, to resist him.
The discomfort comes to me when I compare the biblical material to my own experience of Christianity, as a privileged member of a respectable “faith tradition.” Jesus extended holiness to others and suffered ignominy for the purpose of articulating his vision of the society God desires for the world. I live my life much more interested in fitting in, maybe “influencing” my culture here and there—when I can, from a distance. Too many of us Christians in the West have exchanged discipleship for respectability. Sinners has prompted me to face a number of ways I pour my effort into trying to maintain Christian institutions or traditions instead of embodying compassion and opposing injustice.
Also, as a scholar, I am deeply impressed by this book: it’s smart without being—well—scholarly. Its overriding goal is to provide a clearer understanding of Jesus within his social world. In the end, Sinners is about Jesus and where we find him; it’s not a sociological study of how Jesus fit (and didn’t fit) within his world. The book does not set out to instruct readers about recent scholarship on the gospels and the sociological dynamics of first-century life. But the masterful thing is that Carey manages to provide this instruction in the process of pursuing his main goal. He does what so many of us in the academic world of biblical studies wish we could do better: make our scholarship on the Bible accessible, relevant, and interesting. Some scholars find it profitable to water-down or sensationalize their scholarship in attempts to shock or wow their audiences. Such an approach looks to me more like cynicism or arrogance than erudition. By contrast, Carey invites us, with great hospitality, into a Bible made more vivid by what he knows and by the questions he asks. His book takes the Bible seriously as a place to encounter Jesus, and it offers an intelligent and faithful way of doing so.
Finally, as someone who has hung out with and learned from Greg Carey in person, I appreciate that this book helps me know him better. (Is this full disclosure on my part, or another attempt to cultivate my own air of respectability?) He introduces me to his hero, Clarence Jordan. He tells me about growing up in Lauderdale County, Alabama, about a million cultural miles away from where I was raised. He considers the wisdom we can gain from the incomparable Lisa Simpson. Carey’s readers follow him through the story of Jesus while he reflects on his own life. They don’t teach this when you’re pursuing graduate degrees in New Testament Studies. But any theology (thinking about God) involves autobiography (knowing ourselves). At least, we encounter God and express our religious hopes through the particularities of our own lives and experiences. Greg Carey opens both the Bible and—with appropriate restraint!—his life to readers, inviting us to imagine how the messages Jesus declared and enacted might be manifested in our own lived experience.
Matthew L. Skinner is Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul. His research interests focus on the Gospels and the book of Acts, the cultural world reflected in the New Testament, and the Bible’s potential for shaping theological imagination among its readers. An ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), he holds degrees from Brown University and Princeton Theological Seminary. His most recent book is The Trial Narratives: Conflict, Power, and Identity in the New Testament, and he blogs about the Bible at The Huffington Post.