I am pleased to publish this guest post by Dr. Julius-Kei Kato, a scholar and professor of New Testament (and other things!) at King’s University College at Western University, London, Ontario, Canada, and, luckily for us, a member of the blog. You can learn more about him here: Dr. Julius-Kei Kato (uwo.ca)
Just over a month ago Julius-Kei published a book of relevance and surely of interest to members of the blog: Reading the Bible in a Secular Age: The New Testament as Spiritual Ancestry (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2023). I asked him to write a blog post about it, to explain what it is and to indicate where, if you’re interested, you can get a copy. He has happily complied, and here is his post.
If you have any comments/questions, he will be happy to reply.
The burning question of this book is: Why still read the Bible in a secular age? My answer, briefly stated: For us who are located in the West, the Bible is an important part of our “spiritual ancestry,” a dominant idea of the book. Hence, learning how to read and interpret the Bible properly (particularly, the New Testament) is like getting to know our spiritual ancestry better.
The main strategy I suggest (something that, I think, has some originality to it) is to treat the New Testament as a metaphorical (textual) village where some of our most important spiritual ancestors continue to live. This image is rooted in my childhood experiences of going to the rural village where my mom grew up (from the big city where I was raised) to get to know our relatives, ancestors, and ancestry better.
Now, if we learn some good strategies to read and interpret the Bible (hermeneutics, my field of specialization, plays a pivotal role), we will be able to visit this (textual) village, have meaningful conversations with the spiritual ancestors there and, thus, become more firmly grounded in our spiritual ancestry here in the West. With that, we can return to our secular context, better equipped to both embrace and wrestle with our spiritual ancestry. Hopefully, that also enables us to forge for ourselves a more relevant spirituality or meaning-system for our present world while being grounded in our spiritual tradition.
To situate the book in a bigger context, I consider this work a first step in a long-term project I have to attempt to propose to people nowadays how to develop a relevant spirituality (a quest for meaning) for themselves, whether they are religious in the traditional sense or not. And that first step can be solemnly expressed thus: Thou shalt know thy spiritual roots! For, as various philosophers remind us, to be rooted, to be connected with one’s ancestry, especially in the spiritual realm, is one of our deepest and fundamental needs as humans. To paraphrase the Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh, without roots, happiness will always elude us.
For us in the West, it is clear from an unchangeable and inescapable history that Christianity and its heart, the Bible, are, for good or ill, the essential components of our spiritual roots. It is a plain fact that the quest for “the meaning of it all” has been done for most of Western history in serious conversation with, even often controlled by Christianity and the biblical tradition.
Because of that, I propose that we get to know our spiritual ancestry by metaphorically standing in front of a concrete and material symbol of the Christian tradition—the classical work known as the Bible, particularly the part called the New Testament. And then, it’s a matter of doing the same thing that was whispered by a divine voice to St. Augustine of Hippo when he was on the verge of a great spiritual breakthrough, “tolle, lege!” (Take up and read!). Learning how to read well though is a necessary skill which this book seeks to enhance further.
The work takes the following concrete form: In Part 1 (chapters 1–5), we get an overview of our broad topic and discuss some themes that prepare us to make a metaphorical journey to the New Testament village. That journey happens in Part II (chapters 6–11). Chapter 12, the conclusion, brings us from our journey to the New Testament village back home to our Western secularized world and suggests how we can both embrace and struggle with the spiritual ancestry that we will have come to know better after our journey.
Further details. Chapter 1 offers broad but key reflections on why we need to read the Bible even in a secular age. Chapter 2 explains the secular age in which we find ourselves in the West today. Chapter 3 suggests a foundational paradigm for viewing the Bible, shifting the focus from a too facile idea of “the Bible as God’s word” to the plainest fact—that the Bible contains the words of our spiritual ancestors. It will also discuss some foundational ideas that are linked with the Bible, such as: God, faith-as-trust, revelation, belief or unbelief, etc. Chapter 4 presents the main metaphorical image of the Bible, particularly the New Testament, as a village where our spiritual ancestors continue to live. It also suggests some concrete strategies on how to relate with these spiritual ancestors and how to interpret their writings. Chapter 5 gives a general orientation to the New Testament village by giving a “big picture” so that readers could grasp the whole before entering into details in Part II. It also contains an important background review of the Old Testament.
With that, we enter Part II of the work. Here, we discuss in detail six important spiritual ancestors who were present at the very beginning of what would eventually become the Christian tradition. They are Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, Paul, and, of course, Jesus, the great founding ancestor. I call the first five “granduncles” (e.g., GU-Mark). The intention in this part is to encourage the reader to pay a visit to a particular spiritual ancestor, encounter them, and get some idea of, what I call, “sine qua non’s” (Latin for “without which”). This refers to some essential characteristics without which we would not understand what “made this particular spiritual ancestor tick” and what is going on in the works attributed to them.
After those encounters and conversations with the ancestors, we come back to our present, secular world in chapter twelve. The journey will have hopefully given us enough knowledge and insight to equip us both to embrace and wrestle with our spiritual ancestry. All this is for the purpose of eventually directing us toward constructing a more relevant spirituality here and now which would help us to pursue the depth and transcendence that we all long for as humans.
I was pleasantly surprised that in the first three weeks after its publication in late July, the work was on Amazon’s “hot new releases” in its fields. At one point (for a very brief moment though…), it was even ahead of Dr. Ehrman’s Jesus Interrupted! Does that give me bragging rights (lol!)? Jokes aside, the book can be easily obtained from Amazon (both the US and Canadian sites). It is also available directly from the publisher, Wipf and Stock. If you are in the academy, please suggest to your libraries to purchase a copy. If you can write a (hopefully positive) review on Amazon, please do so. I don’t really care much about personal promotion, but I do think that the work has an important message which, I’m hoping, will reach more people. Thank you for your kind attention and thanks to Dr. Ehrman for giving me this platform to briefly share what the book is about.
Link to the publisher’s website: https://wipfandstock.com/9781725277724/reading-the-bible-in-a-secular-age/
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