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Jewish Christianity in the Early Church: How Christianity Forgot Its Jewish Roots [Kindle Edition]
by Kenneth W. Howard
"Paradoxy is a book that conservatives and progressives can
read together with mind and heart, grappling with issues of
pluralism and inclusion on the one hand and the integrity of
our faith and conviction on the other hand. It’s an excellent
meditation on our quest for a generous orthodoxy that is,
indeed, both generous and orthodox. Sanctus Theological
Institute recomends this book for all levels of study and for
all clergy in all faiths !"
In his recently published book, Paradoxy: Creating Christian
Community Beyond Us and Them, Reverend Ken Howard argues the
Christian church is being threatened by divisions and disagreements. At his own church in Darnestown - St. Nicholas Episcopal - Howard said he has worked with a diverse community to find ways to come together amongst differences.
Raised in the Jewish tradition, Ken Howard attended seminary and
became an Episcopal priest in the 1990's. He has drawn on both his
outside perspective of Christianity, as well as his experiences within
the church organization, along with years of study of theological
history to propose a new way for people to come together in faith.
Patch recently sat down with Howard at his church to discuss the
development of his ideas and his hopes for the conversation the
book will inspire.
A condensed and edited version of that conversation follows.
Patch: How long have you been developing the ideas in this book?
Howard: In some ways you could say I've been thinking about the
ideas ever since I became a believer. I grew up with parents of
different faith traditions - my mother was Jewish. My great
grandfather was a rabbi in the orthodox tradition in Belarus. My dad
was sort of a non-practicing tradition of a west-Texas Congregationalist,
so there was always this sense that there was something wider than one
tradition going on.
It was just amazing to me to observe all these different traditions
withinChristianity fighting with each other, over what looked to me to
be kind of small things. From my standpoint, they all believed in Jesus;
they all held up the idea that the core things lie in the relationship to it.
[In Seminary] I tried to determine the reason that the early fathers gave
for excommunicating Jewish believers in the early church.
What I really came to believe in was that it was a terrible mistake;
that it was caused not by their belief system. But the main thing that got
them thrown out was that they wanted to worship in a Jewish way.
The thesis that I wrote [in Seminary as a Master of Divinity student]
was basically following that whole transition and beginning to put
forward the idea that neither in belief or practice defining Christianity
in fact as a religion was really correct. That it was really a relationship,
that Paul and Jesus were not interested in starting a religion, it was
really irrelevant to them.
Patch: In your book you reflect on the history of the Christian church
and make projections for it's future. What is the significance of this
present time in history?
Howard: At so many levels we are kind of shifting our understanding
of what it means to be a community. We can also see it reflected in
Where you have on the one hand you have people who are left or right,
really more interested in defeating the other side than Actually
accomplishing something themselves, versus a real desire for moving
beyond that. I think Obama was able to articulate that but so far has not
really been able toachieve, maybe in part because people want it really
bad but they don't believe it can happen.
Scientists are now realizing that there is no way for human beings to
observe reality without changing reality. One person unaided can never
get tothe truth. If you have two people, with different opinions or
different points of view to observe the experiment you find you get a
little bit closer to the truth, and if you have three people doing the
experiment from different points of view, you get a little bit closer to
the truth. In that argument, in bringing those different points of view
together then we can finally begin to get somewhere.
Patch: Can similarities be drawn to the current state of national
government and politics?
Howard: David Brooks of the New York Times wrote an article on this,
called "A Case of Mental Courage". He used the term metacognition,
the ability to stand outside and observe yourself. He said it's totally
missing from our discourse today. He spoke about how both Democrats
and Republicans will fight the reality of things because it threatens the
positions we already hold.We'd rather hold our positions than know the
He used for example the surge, in Iraq, on the liberal side everyone was
saying it wouldn't work, and it ended up working. You could make the
logical arguments like at what cost, but people on the left weren't
making those arguments. They were trying to deny that it was working,
until it became too obvious that it was. The amount of vehemence and
anger that was being focused on people who were saying that it was
working was amazing.
And of course it goes the other way as well, you have tea party people
and republican rank and file that will do the same thing. They will say
if Obama is putting it forward then I have to oppose it.
Patch: In your book you write about the recent trend of people
describing themselves as spiritual instead but not religious. Why do
you think that is?
Howard: In the book, I talk about there being three ways we've thought
about church that are failing us now. The first one is this thought we've
had since the enlightenment, that we can be certain about things. And
with all the advances in science, we know that's not true anymore.
Another is the idea is that Christendom, that you can have some kind of
uniformity by exerting control or power, that you can have uniformity
and that uniformity will unite us, that's false.
And then the last thing that I see as falling is organized religion itself.
Christianity was never meant to be an organization — I think it was
more meant to be a movement. The original believers referred to it only
as "The Way". I think that's what's happening where people are saying
I'm Spiritual and not religious. They're saying spirituality has to be
something other than rules.
Patch: Do you identify yourself as more liberal or conservative?
Howard: I reject those labels. I would say that I'm very orthodox, that all
those things the church has traditionally believed, I believe. When it
comes to the specifics as how you live that out, I am hard to peg. On
certain issues people will think I'm very conservative, on other issues
they'll think I'm a raging, radical liberal.
For example, in the issue of sacredness of life. I would have to say
that I'm pro-life, which would make me conservative in some people's
eyes. Although I believe people are called to make their own decisions
about that, which would make me liberal in some people's eyes. But
then I am entirely non-violent, and I am opposed to war and yet I
understand that there are times in which there are no other options, but
war. But at the same time, that doesn't make war good. That makes war
an utter moral failure. People have a real hard time pegging me.
Patch: Do you still practice Jewish traditions or observe the Jewish
Howard: We celebrate them at home. We do things like Hanukkah at
home, other seasons of the year we'll celebrate as appropriate. I'll often
do aHebrew blessing over the meal at home. Every service I do here at
St. Nick's, the blessing that I do at the end is Adam's blessing. I say it in
Hebrew and then say it English so they know what I said. Every other
year we do a Seder here. I do a pretty authentic sader, and reflect, what
could this mean to us as Christians.
Patch: What kind of feeback have you received about the ideas in the
Howard: Since the book has been out, I've really been surprised at the positive response to it. As I've made presentations on it, what it has felt liketo me, is that people have had some level of deep yearning in finding some kind of way to transcend this kind of false choice, saying we have to be enemies or we have to be in total uniforminty to be friends.
Nobody has had the language to either critique it or articulate another way. It's almost like I've been introducing another language. I don't think the book is a be all and end all, it's the first stab at kind of articulating a theology, it's a new thing.
Patch: You talk about the book as starting a conversation. How do you
hope those conversations and discussions will continue?
The publisher is giving out a thousand copies to clergy across the
country and they're giving it out to bishops in all the mainline
denominations across the country.
I really do think that this is one of those shifts that happen. When
paradigms shifts happen, they happen. You don't stop them. You can ride
it or you can miss it. You can try and fight it and get drowned. If you
want to survive you have to find a way to ride it. I think if people can
learn to think this way, then the church can survive and thrive in a
somewhat different form and can be kind of a beacon to society about
how society might be.
In describing where we are and recounting how we got here, Ken strikes a beautiful and difficult balance: he simplifies, without oversimplifying, complex historical and philosophical developments. His approach provides a good on-ramp if we don’t have a lot of historical, theological, or philosophical background, and yet it won’t insult our intelligence if we’re more knowledgeable in these matters.
The vision Ken proposes isn’t a step-by-step plan. It can’t be, because we live in vastly different settings and face different opportunities and different obstacles. Instead Ken offers an intriguing vision, evoking a twist on Robert Frost’s famous poem. Where Frost pictures two leaf-strewn pathways diverging in the yellow wood, one of which is “less traveled by,” Ken sees two wide and well-traveled roads, but between them, a barely visible path. That’s the one he invites us not only to explore, but to widen by our walking it so that others may follow.
Along the way, he provides apt and intriguing quotes, much like roadside rest stops with interesting historical markers, to remind us that though we may feel like pioneers moving into uncharted territory, we are part of a long tradition of pioneers who blazed trails of their own in the past, making possible the future we know as the present. Seen in that light, suddenly it matters very much whether we seek to preserve the church in its current state, abandon it altogether, or help it become a creative agent for a better future—the world that will be the present for our great-grandchildren.
The key to that creative work is not simply good ideas, but true faith, hope, and love, rooted in the living God in whom we trust and love, and by whom we seek to be empowered. It’s at that point of connection with God, not just in theory, but in experience and practice, that Ken’s proposal—what he calls Incarnational Orthodoxy or Paradoxy—offers a vision that transcends old polarities between liberal and conservative.
As a person from a very conservative background, I know that what conservatives cherish beneath their arguments and divisions is the experience of God, the nearness of God. It’s their pearl of great price, and in defending a lot of other things, I believe this is what they really are seeking to defend. And as a person who has grown first to accept, then begrudgingly to respect, and eventually to love liberals, I also believe the same is true for liberals. On both sides a lot of other issues get mixed in, but in appealing to this core treasure, this core desire—and not only in appealing to it, but more, in embodying it—Ken offers a way forward that I believe has the only real hope.
It’s no accident that Ken “gets” this way forward and embodies it, because it flows from his own biography, spanning Jewish and Christian, conservative and liberal, Pentecostal and liturgical, academic and pastoral. And beyond that, as you’ll learn in these pages, Ken also knows this way forward because he has seen a church polarize and divide, and then saw another church take shape beyond schismatic polarity.
For Episcopalians and for all mainliners, this book holds great value, and for Evangelicals and Charismatics, I believe the same is true. It can help us discover an identity where those terms become less like epithets applied to enemies and more like family names applied to neighbors.
May that better day come!