I’m a fairly regular reader of Scot McKnight’s blog (http://www.jesuscreed.org/). He is a professor in Religious Studies at North Park University (Chicago, Illinois). He is one of several Christian writers and theologians whose material I regularly find worth reading.
Although I’ve had it for a while, I only recently got started reading his 2004 book The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others by Paraclete Press. This is a book with a big upside and a small downside. Since there are few books with a big upside in the vast world of contemporary religious literature, I figure a book like Jesus Creed is a must-buy.
First, the upside. Jesus Creed is a part of two trends in contemporary Christianity that I find refreshingly positive, perhaps even a sign of a promising future. One of those trends is the way some contemporary leaders are defining Jesus-faith as living and active pursuit of the teachings of Jesus as opposed to the former dominance of mere attendance or doctrinal affiliation as markers of the genuine residence of Jesus in someone’s life. That is, for far too long modern American Christendom has emphasized the lowest common denominator as the identity marker of a Christian. Typical questions designed to ascertain the genuineness of one’s faith would be limited to such areas as, “Do you believe in grace and do you attend church almost every Sunday?” Super-spirituality would then involve going to extra Bible studies, sporting Christian bumper stickers, or reading theology books on the side. The increasing trend, as I see it, is in a direction of putting Jesus’ words into action in concrete settings. Helping the hurting, loving the unlovely, and blessing people in need of a blessing are becoming more and more the way of Jesus’ modern followers.
Also, Jesus Creed is part of a second promising trend, from my point of view, the fairly recent surge in appreciation for the Jewish context of Jesus. Jesus Creed is about something very Jewish, the Shema and, to a lesser degree, the Kaddish. McKnight is looking at the teaching of Jesus and adapting Jesus’ own use of Jewish prayer for modern people. That’s right: this is a Christian book adapting some Jewish prayers and teaching Christians to pray liturgically.
For the uninitiated, the core of the Shema is Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Added to this are three paragraphs of scripture: Deuteronomy 6:5-9; 11:13-21; and Numbers 15:37-41.
What does the Shema have to do with Jesus? Well, a scribe once asked Jesus what the greatest commandment is. Only Mark gives Jesus’ full answer, in Mark 12:29-31. Jesus said the Shema, specifically Deuteronomy 6:4-5, was the greatest commandment. But to this he added Leviticus 19:18, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
What does Jesus have to do with the Kaddish? Well, the prayer known by many as “The Lord’s Prayer” or the “Our Father” has some similarity to the Kaddish. The Kaddish begins, “Exalted and hallowed (sanctified) be his great name,” which sounds rather similar to “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.”
There is a lot of upside and only a little downside to McKnight’s book. The downside is that, at times, it can seem like McKnight is suggesting that Christianity is superior to Judaism in matters of loving human beings. I don’t think McKnight actually intends this. But when a sense of superiority is so well-ingrained in many naïve Christians, I wish McKnight had tried harder to be clear on this point.
For example, in telling the Parable of the Good Samaritan from Luke 10, McKnight says:
A priest and a temple assistant (a Levite) come upon him separately, but fearing impurity from contact with a corpse, they skirt to the other side of the road. They are following the Torah, mind you.
The problem is, he is wrong. The command to save a life outweighs the prohibition against impurity. The priest and Levite in Luke 10 are decidedly not following Torah. That, in fact, is Jesus’ point.
In some places, McKnight is careful and clear. He admits that Judaism emphasizes justice and kindness toward fellow human beings. So, again, I do not think that McKnight intends this slight on Judaism.
I’m about halfway through the book now. It’s a book I would recommend to my Christian friends. It would be great to see more followers of Jesus today praying the Jesus Creed (the Shema plus Leviticus 19:18 plus the Lord’s Prayer). It would be great to see more Christians receiving the value of a Jewish understanding of Jesus.