Reviewing Krister Stendahl’s Roots of Violence (including an interview with John Stendahl)

Reviewing Krister Stendahl’s Roots of Violence (including an interview with John Stendahl) August 5, 2019
Some books are books, intended from inception for print. Other books arise out of vital conversations. These books are attempts to record in print the power of a speech event.
The new posthumous book by Krister Stendahl is of the latter variety. It is a manuscript created from the transcript of lectures given at Dana College, a small Lutheran school in Nebraska. The manuscript was kept and edited by colleagues, and is now published together with interfaith commentary.
Stendahl’s reputation as a theologian, bible scholar, and churchman is already well-established. I would not be surprised if at some not too distant point in the future he would be recognized as a saint in the Lutheran communions.
Stendahl’s influence extends in many directions, including the early shaping of the new perspective on Paul, participation in 2nd wave feminism and the pastoral leadership of women in the church (at Harvard some of the female students took to calling him Sister Krister), and participation in the global ecumenical movement.
Above all, Stendahl was a student of Scripture, in love with the Bible. []. Because many if not most readers come to Stendahl through his writings on the New Testament (principal among them his writings on Paul Among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays).
So Stendahl’s turn in Roots of Violence towards “salvation as nirvana” and his more general ecumenical and interfaith approach will come as a bit of surprise if discussions of the New Testament are your primary introduction to Stendahl. However, if you have met the ecumenical bishop and interfaith dialogue participant, the ecclesial Stendahl, then this work will make all kinds of sense.
I’m honored in this post to interview John Stendahl, Krister’s son, about the work, and why so many friends and family have devoted their energy to bringing the talk to publication.
1. Can you tell me a bit about the origins of this book, why this particular talk?
  My father was born in Sweden in 1921 and was shaped by a youth in which he saw the nations of Europe descend into a nightmare of hatred and violence.  During the decades of his residency and eventual citizenship in the U.S. he had been deeply conscious of both the deadly and ever-increasing weaponry in the hands of nations and individuals and also the seductive hold of violent thinking on our culture and politics. 
As I think about it, it seems a quality of my father’s biblical scholarship that he was constantly concerned about the ethical implications of our use or abuse of scripture. Thus he became a champion of a reforming consciousness about those who had often been victimized or marginalized in the Church’s reading: Jews, women, and, he was coming to understand in the 70’s, gay and lesbian people.  The problem of violence was therefore much on his mind and he had begun to formulate his thinking about its relation to religion when, after Ronald Reagan’s election, he received various invitations to come and offer a lecture series.  This particular book is drawn from what remains of the record of the version of this lecture series given in 1981 at Dana College in Nebraska.
2. The book really captures the vitality of the spoken event. But of course most of us who are reading the book were not present at the lectures. Can you tell us more about the mood and environment of the talks that can shed greater light on how to read the talks?
I’m glad that you feel that vitality. My father’s published work almost always had its genesis in spoken communication.  He was a fine writer but he found committing to print difficult.  He told me, in words that describe my experience as well, that, “When you have something to say and you say it, it’s said; but when you write it you look at it on the page and it looks stupid.”  So it was, and in this case is as well, that his thoughts were retrieved from transcripts of recordings of an actual event.  The Dana lecture transcripts were quite flawed and it required a goodly amount of work, taken up many years later and after his death, to reconstitute what he had said.  Having helped with this manuscript, however, I think we got it pretty close to a fully accurate reconstruction.
As to the setting of these particular lectures, I don’t know much about that but would guess that there were dynamics under the surface.  My father was coming as an international churchman and a Harvard professor, an apparent “high church” LCA theologian well known for his advocacy of progressive causes, and he was speaking here at an ALC Midwestern college rooted in the more conservative tradition of Danish pietism.  The head of the college, a professor of New Testament as well, had been openly critical of positions my father had taken.  Thus it is interesting to read this volume with a sensitivity to the task of bringing argument and insight into a setting where argumentative confrontation might easily have sabotaged communication.
3. I was especially surprised by the insights in the chapter on salvation as nirvana. It had never really occurred to me that Christ would, as it were, “disappear” when God is all in all. How do you receive this insight from the lectures?
This is indeed one of the most interesting things in these lectures.  My father’s appreciation of a more apophatic vision of salvation can be found already in his work on the Epistle to the Romans, for example in his famous book Paul Among Jews and Gentiles.  He had noted the way in which, in Romans 11, Paul concluded his discussion of the conundrum of salvation for Jews and Gentiles with an exclamatory affirmation of God’s mystery and then a doxology that is without reference to Jesus.  Now in these lectures he builds upon and extends that appreciation, recognizing that a theological via negativa is not only accessible to us in our tradition but that it may offer a salutary counterweight and corrective to the cataphatic imagery of Christ’s, and our, victory.
I suspect that an influence in this was conversation with my mother, who around this time was setting out on a study of images of heaven in Christian tradition.  As a literary scholar and historian she would certainly have been much aware of the varieties of imagining what salvation would mean for our individual yearnings and allegiances, and I would guess that some of her learnings had now become his.
In devoting three of the four lectures to these three soteriologies—Victory, Nirvana, and Shalom—my father is not seeking to banish any of them altogether from the repertoire of our prayer and discourse.  All three remained part of his own faith and devotion.  But he recognized an inherent and deadly problem with the Christus Victor mode of thinking and understood the importance, indeed the urgency, of deploying an alternative to the hope of triumph.  It seems to me that he was right (as well as rather brilliant) in then lifting up the via negativa that he calls “Nirvana” here, but I also think he recognized that such an alternative would not compete well with traditional imagery of personal and communal vindication.  (Winning, after all, tends to have more appeal than disappearing, even if it is into God that we disappear.)  The provision of a third mode of imagining, that of Shalom, is therefore vital as well, its call for healing and reconciliation and wholeness as God’s deep yearning within us.
4. Where are we today in our conversations on the roots of violence? How do you see this work contributing to contemporary conversations?
Unfortunately, I don’t hear all that many conversations on the roots of violence that seem really helpful.  Certainly there are those folks who diagnose other traditions, or certain parts of their own, as intrinsically violent.  There are certainly charges brought against Islam, and others against Judaism, and yet others against old Christian notions of violent atonement, all accusations of the cultivation of violence by others.  There is some truth and also a lot of caricature and generalization in all that. With occasional exceptions, it doesn’t seem all that salutary and frequently the condemnations contribute more to the problem than to any solution. 

One thing I would like to see is a greater acknowledgment of the common (and  understandable) humanity of the problem.  The roots of violence are sunk in the soil of experiences that are neither unique to one tradition nor entirely absent from any exceptional other.  We need to be recognizing and owning the commonality of human yearnings and wraths that can turn us to cruelty.  Owning it entails that we do not demonize it but also requires that we come with repentant sorrow and a compassionate humility to the table of our conversations.  At the same time, we need to see that we do have choices in the language we deploy and the dreams that we remember and of which we speak with each other.  There are options and alternatives available to us, and our tradition is rich in its imagery and its songs.  This book, providing not only my father’s lectures but also commentary from both Jewish and Muslim perspectives, seems to me an invitation to, and a model of, such a constructive engagement with others in the realm of religious imagination.

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