Veronica Mary Rolf: Following the Light of Julian of Norwich

Veronica Mary Rolf’s relationship with Julian of Norwich, the 14th-century mystic, began on 91st Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. A theology teacher at the Convent of the Sacred Heart quoted Julian’s most famous line—“All shall be well”—to Rolf in a time of crisis. Then a young Broadway performer and dancer, Rolf found comfort in the words of this woman who seemed worlds away. “I was in crisis a lot, because I was doing eight Broadway shows a week and doing ballet shows, and running myself ragged,” Rolf says. “And I was trying to live out my Christian faith in the world of the theater.”

Years later, Rolf placed Revelations of Divine Love, Julian’s reflections on 16 mystical visions of Christ’s passion, on her nightstand. She has continued to refer to it throughout her career as she trains and directs actors around the globe. “Julian asked all the big questions I was going through growing up,” Rolf recalls. “I loved how she confronted fears, and I was in awe of her total trust in God’s unconditional love. Her probing mind and largeheartedness made her appealing. Julian became my mentor and guide.”

Rolf later moved from New York City to Berkeley, Calif., where she lives with her husband of 42 years. In addition to working at Berkeley Repertory Theater, she began a lecture series on the history of Christian mysticism. Rolf was thrilled when her students also showed interest in Julian of Norwich. “Everyone wanted to know more about the woman, and I realized I did, too,” she says. Rolf quit her work in theater to immerse herself in the history and drama of the 14th century. The result is Julian’s Gospel: The Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Orbis Books, Oct.).

The first part of the book delves into the history surrounding Julian’s life as a cloistered nun in 14th-century England who experienced a series of visions of Christ and began to write about them; the second part delves deeper into Julian’s reflections through a chapter-by-chapter commentary. The text consists of Rolf’s original translation of Julian’s reflections from the Middle English. “She tells the essential Christian message of God’s unconditional love, but in a woman’s voice and point of view,” Rolf says. “I think that’s a voice we need to hear, especially in our churches today.” In her translation, Rolf lets stand some Middle English words, syntax, and phraseology, viewing these as “textured entry points into Julian’s voice, both physical and spiritual. She adds, “Julian breaks open the gospel. She startles you.”

Rolf hopes that her historical look at Julian’s life will help draw readers into Julian’s spirituality and story, so they will better understand her. “It’s a drama of the soul,” Rolf says. “Julian wanted us to go through what she went through to realize what she realized. Then we can start to look at the fact of revelation in our own lives.” —Kerry Weber

Mark Larrimore: Job Through the Ages

Mark Larrimore was still in high school when he had his first experience with the Book of Job: he had a bit part in Archibald MacLeish’s play J.B., a dramatization of the Bible’s famous rumination on suffering. “I didn’t get to be Job, or God, or Satan, or any of the friends, but I was the messenger who brought all the news of the deaths of Job’s family,” Larrimore says.

Now Larrimore is a messenger of a different kind as the author of The Book of Job: A Biography (Oct.). As part of Princeton University Press’s Lives of Great Religious Books series, The Book of Job is not a biblical commentary but a reception history that traces how philosophers, rabbis, poets, and others have interpreted Job through the centuries. Larrimore, a philosopher at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts, says he is “interested in the presentation and conversation about Job.”

How people address Job in different eras, Larrimore suggests, reveals as much about the interpreters themselves as about Job. For example, centuries ago there was much hand-wringing about “why God gets into a wager with Satan in the first place. Is God playing dice?” And early rabbis “were often nervous” about the question of whether Job was Jewish.

Today, if anything, the ambiguity of Job’s religious identity is part of the book’s appeal. “Because Job has a relationship with God outside of the covenant, it makes him a quintessentially modern figure,” Larrimore explains. “Job stands alone facing God, and I think that’s true of many modern religious people.”

In fact, Larrimore notes that the Book of Job has taken on a literary life of its own apart from the rest of the Bible. “In some Great Books courses in colleges, Job is the only thing they read from the Bible. This is in direct contrast to earlier generations, when people said, ‘This book is really hard to understand! Good thing we have the rest of the Bible to help us make sense of it.’ ”

Both classical and modern interpreters have roundly criticized Job’s friends, who are infamous for their unhelpful advice, but Larrimore believes we should be careful of this. Although the friends appear clueless and limited, Larrimore says there is no textual evidence that they ever leave Job’s side, and this constancy in itself teaches us something.

Larrimore cites the later chapters of the Book of Job—the theophany when God calls attention away from human experience and toward the rest of creation—as particularly relevant to contemporary thinkers who approach the book with a holistic, environmental sensibility. His own next book, as yet untitled, is related to this; it explores human ethics in the context of “broader moral communities,” which includes animals, plants, and rocks. —Jana Riess

Molly Worthen: Evangelical Paradoxes

“There is nothing like teaching religious history at a world-class university that happens to be in the Bible Belt,” says Molly Worthen, assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The diverse student body of “Baptists, Mormons, atheists, and everyone in between” constantly challenges Worthen to rethink her assumptions. This fresh perspective informs her second book, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, Nov.), which examines the dialogue and debate between religious authority and secular reason that has shaped modern evangelical doctrine.

Worthen grew up in a secular family, but became interested in spiritual thought during her college years. Curious about the history of humanity’s “speculations about the supernatural,” Worthen spent one summer living with an “obscure Russian Orthodox sect in rural Alberta, attending their five-hour worship services and learning to slaughter chickens.” This exceptional real-life experience fed her fascination with how people translate abstract theology into real life. Her later work as a freelance journalist (she has written for the New York Times, Slate, Christianity Today, and other publications) sharpened her interest in the history of those religious traditions that are most influential in America today, particularly evangelicalism.

Apostles of Reason is different in scope from Worthen’s first book, The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007), a political biography of Yale professor Charles Hill. Her first book considered politics and history through a single lens; the new one is broader. Worthen approached the diversity of American evangelicalism by including all Protestants who have “circled around a shared set of questions about how to connect with Jesus, reconcile faith and reason, and live out their religion in an increasingly pluralistic world,” she explains. Worthen then examined “core samples” of the most influential traditions to see how they answered those questions.

Asked if any particular evangelical movement most strongly illustrates her assertion of deep-rooted paradoxes in evangelical beliefs and behaviors, Worthen mentions younger believers who have turned to Catholic monasticism in recent years. These new monastics, Worthen says, are looking for “a firm source of authority” that the average evangelical megachurch doesn’t provide. On the other hand, these same seekers are individualistic Americans who resist following a single religious authority and instead tend to pick and choose teachings. The paradox, says Worthen, is this: the more they pursue historical, hierarchical traditions like Catholicism, the more radically evangelical they often become.

Worthen takes nothing at face value; her probing scholarly approach allows her to turn an idea around and examine it from all angles. A core finding, for example—that evangelicals escalate their opposition to modern biblical scholarship with every new scientific or historical discovery—is interesting on its own. Worthen, however, doesn’t stop there. She goes on to uncover the sincere belief behind the opposition, by people who “see themselves as the most faithful disciples” of both Christ and the Enlightenment. Apostles of Reason is Worthen’s intriguing examination of the ways in which evangelicals have tried to craft an approach to knowledge that balances the opposing authorities of religion and secular reason. —Sheila M. Trask

Scot McKnight: Bible Politics

If someone were to tell you, “The Bible has nothing to do with politics,” would you believe them? Most likely not, because it seems that today stances on various issues from every political perspective come undergirded with proof texts from the Good Book. Still, the question remains: what does the Bible have to do with politics? According to New Testament scholar, historian, and author Scot McKnight, quite a lot.

When he hears young evangelicals say things like, “Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not,” McKnight explains to them what they are really saying. “They are surprised by all the politics involved [in the New Testament]—they just weren’t aware.”

Combining his dedication to the study of the New Testament with his passionate views on faith and politics, McKnight worked with co-editor Joseph B. Modica and several prominent scholars to produce IVP Academic’s collection of essays, Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies (Apr.).

Reared Baptist, McKnight always took this Christian view at face value. Then in seminary he came across Ronald J. Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. From that point on, McKnight was on a trajectory toward Anabaptism. “I am more Anabaptist today than ever,” he says, “which means I believe that the heart of the Christian commitment is in the church and not in the political sector.”

Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not interprets the New Testament in its Roman political context. McKnight argues that over the past two decades, such empire criticism—a method of New Testament studies aiming to place Jesus’ life and ministry within the Roman political context—has emerged in reaction to scholars’ own political views. Specifically in the U.S., McKnight and his co-authors found “an uncanny connection between the [critics’] personal politics and the amount of empire criticism [they] find in the New Testament.”

And while McKnight says he is not naïve enough to think anyone can escape their own politics when reading the New Testament, he believes the multiauthor approach he and Modica took in putting together this critical evaluation of empire criticism provides perspective. In the end, they concluded, “empire critics were stretching the evidence,” he says.

Even though it is his academic conclusion, it does not sit well with McKnight’s spirituality. “As an Anabaptist, I want empire criticism to be true—it fits with what I already believe,” he says, “which means I believe the Christian’s calling is to first and foremost follow Jesus regardless of political implications.” As a historian, however, he says, “as I watched empire criticism grow, I thought we were seeing far more politics at work than is fair to the evidence.” There lies the moral of the story for McKnight. “We need to become more conscious of the influence of our own politics on the way we read the Bible,” he says.

Still, McKnight believes Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not bears not only exegetical value but also political force. “This book helps us see the kinds of politics at work in the New Testament and how Christians can follow Jesus in our pluralistic world today more effectively.” For McKnight that means pledging allegiance to Jesus and, as a result, engaging social, moral, and political issues “from a different starting point, a different lordship.”

—Ken Chitwood

Johnny Bernard Hill: Turning Rage into Action

Johnny Bernard Hill, a Morehouse College graduate raised on the edge of a Southern plantation, knows the power in remembering one’s roots. He grew up poor in the back hills of Georgia with his seven sisters, surrounded by tobacco fields his ancestors had worked as slaves. It is a story he tells in Prophetic Rage: A Postcolonial Theology of Liberation (Eerdmans, Nov.; reviewed in this issue), a scholarly look at how theologians and Christians in the pews can use the power of memory to work for global freedom from poverty, apathy, and violence.

The book defines prophetic rage as the “right remembering” of history that reveals how past constructs and systems have led to current reactions. “The very key to redeeming or overcoming the problems of hopelessness or despair in the Western world,” Hill says, “may very well rest in the hands and experiences of formerly enslaved black bodies in the U.S.”

Now assistant professor of philosophy and religion at Claflin University in South Carolina, Hill has “always felt deeply committed to issues of human rights and social justice,” he tells PW. Hill’s previous books have compared the social justice–oriented theologies of Martin Luther King Jr. and retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and examined the status of the black family in American life. His third book, The First Black President: Barack Obama, Race, Politics, and the American Dream (MacMillan) was published in 2009. “I believe all of that led to this current work,” Hill says. It took about five years to write Prophetic Rage, which he wanted to be reflective and academically rigorous. “It’s about not just black liberation, but how those movements fund other movements around the world and how marginalized communities can organize for progressive change in their communities,” he says.

The result is a book that reflects the cultural challenges of Western life in the 50th-anniversary year of the March on Washington and the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. In the aftermath of the death of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager fatally shot by George Zimmerman, Hill says “a new horizon of voices is bursting open through social media, where the oppressed have some say in their global political context through cyberspace, injecting a new wave of justice.”

Hill is currently working on an interfaith gathering and coalition, Building a World House, as well as writing his fifth book, a memoir titled If I Had a Nickel. —Joshunda Sanders

Joel Baden: King David’s Feats of Clay

Mention King David to most people, and you’ll only hear good things. He was the handsome boy who defeated the giant Goliath; the warrior who bested jealous King Saul, winning the hearts of the people; the man who became the pious second king of Israel; the author of the Psalms. But in The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero (HarperOne, Oct.; reviewed in this issue), Joel Baden, a Yale Divinity School professor, probes the historical evidence, revealing that the Bible’s pro-Davidic overlay obscures a series of events that reveal a David who achieved and maintained power by any means necessary, sometimes in a less-than-heroic way.

Baden was heavily involved in the Jewish youth movement in high school and traveled to Israel almost every summer. “Being Jewish remains an important part of my identity,” Baden says, “and it probably doesn’t hurt that I teach at a Christian divinity school, where one is always conscious of one’s religious standing.“ His commitment to Judaism led him into biblical scholarship, and it introduced him to the rabbinic writings that approach the Bible as “an infinitely deep text, one for which there will never be a lack of questions or possible answers.”

Baden did his undergraduate work in Judaic studies at Yale, and his graduate studies in Semitic languages and Hebrew Bible at the University of Chicago and Harvard—a robust background for a critical scholar. While many of his current students are not interested in critical readings per se, Baden says he aspires “to make people aware that their views of the Bible are beliefs, not objective facts; faith claims rather than historical claims.” Understanding the historical David “allows us to see what sorts of ideals we have imposed on David over the millennia, and thereby to recognize more clearly what we value as a culture.”

The two figures who loomed largest for Baden, with his Jewish background, were always Moses and David. He notes that there is “more about them in the Bible than almost everyone else combined. The problem with Moses is that, from a critical perspective, there isn’t much to be said in the realm of history.” But, he adds, “David is, to my mind, the only figure from the Hebrew Bible for whom there is a full enough story to make a narrative, and whose historical existence is accessible enough to conjecture as to what his life may have been like.”

The Historical David isn’t intended as a Jewish reading of the text; the essence of critical scholarship, Baden says, is “the giving up of any preconceived approaches to the Bible.” While he’s not trying to make any faith claims in the book, Baden expects that there might be “some backlash from those with particularly strong faith commitments to the traditional understanding of what David represents, especially as the model/ancestor of the Messiah, Jewish or Christian.”

While some are likely to see Baden’s approach to David as an attack on a keystone of faith, his respectful presentation is not about debunking faith in the virtue of David—it’s about provoking thought.