letters to surfers

Question : In your use of the Gospels you seem to downplay the historical method used by all reputable scholars. Why is this?

Answer by Robert Brow   June 1997

A comparison with Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice offers us various approaches, the first four of which I personally avoid in relationship to the Gospels :

A. Use the historical method to mine all sources to discover what the Jews and locals were really like in Venice, and enlighten the public who have so far been wrongly brainwashed by Shakespeare.

B. Use the historical method to rewrite the play to reflect the correct historical situation.

C. Use the historical method to rewrite the play to remove anti-semitisms, male chauvinisms, etc. and make it reflect the politically correct viewpoint.

D. Use the historical method to write the historical introduction for the brochure that is given out to those who attend, but leaving the play to be performed as written.

E. Take the play as is, and try to perform it exactly as Shakespeare would have wanted it to be performed in the Globe theatre. In this case the brochure would ignore the historical situation in Italy and focus on trying to help the playgoer to picture the plot as performed.

F. Write a brochure that focuses on the artistry and power of the play as written.

G. Take the words of the play as is and try to perform it in modern dress and in a modern situation. In this case the brochure would explain some of the words and expressions that might puzzle a modern playgoer.

In preaching from the Gospels, and writing about them, I prefer to work at (E).  Before a performance I would prefer to read about the artistry and power of Hamlet or the Merchant of Venice. I can read the correct history of Denmark or Venice if I care to later. Similarly I would love to read more about the artistry and power of the Gospels, and learn to write about (F) if I was capable.

Similarly with say Matthew's Gospel. I would love to have help in understanding its supreme artistry. Why does it grab me so that I read it again and again? How does it change the life of my hearers, and keep building the Church for 1900 years ?

I occasionally try the (G) approach and write something fanciful, but this would only be to encourage the reader to read the Gospels as written (E). C.S.Lewis did this very effectively in the Narnia stories. This raises the very important post-modern issue of foundationalism.

Historical discussions of Matthew's Gospel (among others) seem to assume that if preachers and their hearers don't get the history right (whether of Q, or the non-canonical writings, Hellenistic Judaism, or Crossan's Historical Jesus) the Church will not be built. That seems to be a very dubious assumption.

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