Saturday, June 16, 2012

Book Review - The New Testament Without Illusion by John McKenzie

When history has fully provided us with enough vantage for perspective, I believe the conclusion will be made that Catholic biblical scholarship rested upon two pillars: John McKenzie and Raymond Brown. Both men, now deceased, mastered the primary data and volumes of secondary sources requisite in Biblical Studies - though McKenzie may have had a stronger background in ancient Semitic languages than Brown. Brown, in part due to the lateness of his death (1998 versus McKenzie's 1991) and in part due to his willingness to refrain from following his scholarship to non-confessional conclusions as well as his refusal to genuinely apply his scholarship to theological or ecclesiological has been both more ingratiated to rising tide of neo-conservative Catholic biblical scholarship. Whereas Brown, with justification, can be credibly said to be buried in his books, McKenzie always rose from his scholar's chair to apply his work to the living reality of Christianity. During the pontificate since their death's, Brown is fast becoming the model for Catholic biblical scholars in the United States: produce a large amount of research that has nothing other than academic relevance. McKenzie, meanwhile, has become something of an underground sensation, alluded to by the occasional academic and read by disparate strains of thought in the same Catholic church. Now, however, there is some attempt to reprint McKenzie's work in the hope of exposing his writings to a new audience, or maybe to remind an old audience that these books are still out there.

McKenzie's writing, not all of which is being reprinted in this current run, spans the breadth from properly intellectual to popular compositions. In all cases, however, McKenzie never shies away from doing theology, which, in general, consists of synthesizing the theological and ecclesiological consequences of his research regardless of how much it confronts standard Christian fair. The New Testament Without Illusion aptly demonstrates McKenzie's penchant for synthesizing his data into something more than an obscure monograph related to biblical studies. A long running theme in McKenzie's writings, apparent in everything I've read by the man, is that the information gleaned from critical biblical scholarship should have real consequences. The New Testament Without Illusion is no exception.

As the title implies, McKenzie's desire is to strip the romance or fantasy from the reading of the New Testament. His first desire is to recognize who Jesus really was, a task that involves situating Jesus into his actual historical context, a task Christian confessions are hesitant to do. Part of this task involves wiping away the almost Manichean presentation of Christians in the Roman Empire, a political entity that is often portrayed as systematically persecuting Christians - a portrayal that may have served recruitment efforts well in the middle ages but is hardly supported by the available evidence. All of this, however, is in preparation for McKenzie's ecclesiological critiques which appear through the rest of the book and eventually become the book's primary point of focus. Chapter 6, while dealing with texts that encourage the preaching of the gospel to the whole world, takes on the twin topics of biblical inerrancy and ecclesiastical/papal infallibility found in more  conservative circles. The surety of the gospel does not equate into the literal inerrancy of biblical texts nor does it permit any member of the church or the church itself to claim infallibility - the gospel, McKenzie argues, presumes a lifetime of learning and the fact of needing additional learning, a fact the gospel nowhere says is brought to cessation, seriously argues against propositions of infallibility.

McKenzie's ecclesiological concerns ultimately form the underlying theme of the book. Thus, the book tries to address what McKenzie sees as the linchpin upon which Christian formation in the postmodern world will rest, that is, the willingness to reconsider the decades if not centuries of fantasy Christians have interpolated onto the documents that comprise the New Testament. Indeed, there are portions of the book that are, ecclesiologically speaking, of immediate importance to the contemporary reader. In a discussion on what is now termed "Catholic identity", McKenzie rejects an entrenchment of "typical" Catholic devotions, practices or even doctrines, rather, a rediscovery of identity will only return to the Catholic Church in so far as the Catholic Church returns to the New Testament. Interestingly, McKenzie believe Vatican II attempt to do just this, however, in his words, the Church of the New Testament was so strange to persons accustomed the highly institutionalized model, where the urgency of Jesus' message is tempered in favor of social stability.

The genius of the author was his decision to caste truly ecclesiological concerns, concerns that have not gone away since the book's composition, through the lens of New Testament studies. In so doing, he puts Christianity in the difficult spot of acknowledging where it has read its institutional aspirations over the genuine New Testament narrative. McKenzie, however, is no "liberal"; now as it was then, this book, much like most of the author's back list, makes any institutionalist, left or right leaning, cringe with discomfort. He poses no easy ideological answers (liberal or conservative), but rather lays out a hard course marked by more than a facade of reform. Here's hoping people begin reading him again.