Despite its historical root in Judaism, Christianity has a curious history when trying to relate to the very faith into which Jesus was born. At its earliest stages this relationship was challenged by schisms that divided Christians and Jews politically and socially. Some have argued that the New Testament is at points bigoted in its portrayal of Jews.
Today American evangelicals get squeamish when the issue of interfaith dialogue is raised, struggling to balance their evangelistic zeal, Christian Zionist influences and the desire to be respectful and kind to those who are different. Perhaps that is why the very concept of a Southern Baptist, usually poster children for conservative evangelicalism, studying and worshipping among devout Jews is such an intriguing concept. Thus the title and purpose of Mary Blye Howe’s new and important book A Baptist Among The Jews.
Howe sets out to share with the reader her experience visiting and participating in several Jewish congregations in Dallas while maintaining her relationship to Christianity as a Southern Baptist. She is not seeking conversion for herself or the folks whom she visits. Instead, her journey from the most conservative fringes of Christianity in childhood to a Baptist interfaith cheerleader begins in her attempt to better understand her own faith in Christ. Beginning in a Jewish study group in college, Howe travels a brave and enlightening journey and, in this book, we have the privilege of riding along.
Howe provides description of the details of Judaism. We learn worship practices and Torah study habits that distinguish the most conservative Jews from reformed ones, right down to which groups use umbrellas on the Sabbath. Yet Howe has a way of giving us dictionary detail without losing the heart of these practices. She bravely shares with us her embarrassment at being chastised for taking notes during worship and attempting to buy a Coke on the Sabbath.
Chapters describe topics of interest to those of us who typically stand outside the synagogue and lessons that Howe has learned from the inside. Among these are discussions of her relationships within Judaism and the Jewish understanding of the essence and the mystery of God. In a chapter titled “Dancing with the Torah” Howe compares the literalist tendencies of Baptists with the more mysterious understanding of Torah for Jews.
There is also a fine chapter that discusses the role of women in the Jewish synagogue as they, like many evangelical groups, struggle to balance their desire for equality with what can seem like a patriarchal structure in Scripture. This chapter is a must read for Christians still struggling with this issue and with how we should be practicing our support of women as leaders within congregations.
The great need filled by this book, however, is Howe’s frank discussion of the differences that divide Jews and Christians, in particular the evangelical tendencies that have left many Jews suspicious of Christianity. In a powerful chapter on anger, Howe shares the awkward moment in which she told her Southern Baptist Sunday school class that she sometimes felt angry with Jesus for the things he said about Jews in the New Testament.
In a chapter called “Hungering For My Roots,” Howe discusses the frustration of Jews who have experienced snide remarks about Jewish faith and sneaky evangelistic tactics that have been used by Christians, including sitting in on Jewish study groups to look for proselytizing methods. In a fascinating section of this chapter she also discusses the way Jews feel about the concept of groups like “Jews for Jesus” and those like them, many of whom Jewish persons feel prey on uneducated Jews from other countries. This is where the book works its best magic, making us squirm and theologize as we consider our own evangelical practice and the times we have heard or said things that might be characterized as anti-Semitic in pulpits and classrooms on Sunday. These discussions make the book important and frustrating.
Howe’s honesty will no doubt open her up to criticism from some evangelical circles. There were moments when this reader was uncomfortable with the implications of Howe’s writing. That is not necessarily a bad thing though. In an American culture that is increasingly diverse and complicated it is more important that ever that we begin to understand each other.
More importantly, in light of our commonalities and the Christian call to be witnesses of love and grace, we must wrestle with these issues, even if we come to a different answer than Howe. Her book is an excellent place to start.
Johnny Lewis is pastor of Kendalls Baptist Church in New London, N.C., and a student at the divinity school at Gardner-Webb University.