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October 17, 2012Interviews, Leadership

Jesus: A Theography - An Interview with Frank Viola and Leonard Sweet

I recently had a chance to ask my friends Frank Viola and Leonard Sweet some questions about their new book Jesus: A Theography. I've interviewed them before here on the blog about their book Jesus Manifesto as well as Frank's book From Eternity to Here.

Frank and Len will be hanging around the blog today to answer any questions you may have. You can interact with them in the comments section below.

Frank and Len, welcome to the blog. Your new book JESUS: A Theography is a narrative work on Christology. What is the distinction between biography and theography?

Leonard: A "bio-graphy" is the story of a life, a human life. A "hagio-graphy" is the story of a saint, or a saintly person. A "theo-graphy" is the story of a god, a divine life. By using the word "theography" rather than "biography" in the title, we are putting our theology out there and making it clear from the very cover that we believe that Jesus is The Divine One and the human one, both fully human and fully divine.

Frank: A theography is a theological biography. We are telling the story of God's interactions, intersections, and interventions with humanity through the life of Jesus as found in Scripture. The book lifts up the epic story of Jesus as the single, ascertainable truth that triumphs over all other contingent truths. Since Len and I believe the Bible to be God's inspired written Word, fully true, fully reliable and fully authoritative - the standard for judging and testing all claims of divine "revelation" and spiritual insight - it gives us the facts about the living Word - Jesus.

Why do you begin in Genesis 1 (Creation) rather than Luke 1 (Bethlehem) for a book about Jesus?

Frank: Because according to the New Testament, that's where the story of Jesus begins. The first chapter of John tells us that the Word (who became flesh) was "with God and was God" before He said "let there be." Theologians call Him "the Eternal Son," and we know Him as "Jesus" after Bethlehem. But He is the same Person. Paul had a great deal to say about what He was doing "before the foundation of the world" and so does John. We take an entire chapter to unravel that amazing, yet little-told story.

Leonard: "Before Abraham was," Jesus said, "I am" (John 8:38). NOT "Before Abraham was, I was." Jesus claimed that name to be eternal. It's about time someone told the Jesus story as Jesus himself understood it. We are fully aware, however, that this decision may be one of the most controversial components of the book. Reinhold Niebuhr spooked biblical scholars ever since his warning that any reading of Jesus into the Hebrew story is, as he put it, "an intellectual form of anti-Semitism." We see it just the opposite.

How did God lead you to write this book in this particular manner, a story?

Leonard: Because story is the language of this culture. In the Gutenberg world we communicated in words (hence Bible "verses," giving us all an acute case of 'versitis') and points. You might even say that the modern, Gutenberg world began with a 95 point sermon. But this Google culture doesn't communicate in words or points, but in story and image, narrative and metaphor (I scrunch the two words together and call it 'narraphor').

Advertisers don't spend billions of dollars a year to give us words, but to give us narraphors. That's why so many commercials are wordless. Both Frank and I get excited at this for 2 reasons. First, the natural language of the Bible is story-the Bible wasn't written in chapter and verse, but in stories, letters, songs, etc. We have in our hands "the greatest story ever told," or more accurately, "the greatest story never told," or at best the greatest story half told. A story culture needs to hear our story. Second, every revival and awakening in history has taken place when followers of Jesus have returned to the Scriptures and read it in the language of their culture.

Frank: Story is the language of Scripture. The Bible contains the ultimate story, and that story is primarily about this Person we lovingly call Jesus. Jesus Himself said, "All Scripture points to me." In our book, we seek to tell that story as it appears from Genesis to Revelation, connecting all the dots together from the First Testament to the Second Testament, weaving into it the most up-to-date research on the historical Jesus.

We wanted to provide a book to God's people and seekers alike that reveals Christ in such a way that they can clearly see the plotline of the Bible in a clear, yet detailed way. The book is 424 pages with over 1,800 endnotes.

There are many books about Jesus, do we really need another one? How did you battle this during the development of the book?

Frank: Indeed, there have been countless books about Jesus. But as a far as we know, virtually all of those books either take a completely historical approach to His life or they take a completely theological approach to it. Our book seeks to marry the two approaches and show that they aren't at odds with one another.

The tension that exists between the theological community and the New Testament scholarly community is embodied in Stanley Hauerwas' well-known remark. "New Testament scholars ought to be lined up and run off of a cliff!" That's a peek into the tension that exists between the two communities.

In Jesus: A Theography, Len and I seek to bridge the gap between what the best theologians have taught us about Jesus and what the best New Testament scholars have taught us, merging the best insights from each and turning them into a right-brained story with a huge number of left-brained endnotes showing our sources and giving detailed explanations for our points.

Leonard: A story told often is not always a story told true, or well. Herbert Butterfield, the British historian and philosopher of history, concluded his book Christianity and History (1979) with words that have haunted me ever since I first read them: "Hold to Christ and for the rest be totally uncommitted."

Frank and I are writing books together that focus with laser-intensity on Christ, not on "the rest," which constantly tangles the thread of the story. Whether we've succeeded in that mandate to "hold to Christ" the reader will have to decide.

You make the distinction between Old and New Testaments, using the categories "First" and "Second." Why?

Leonard: The word "Old" has such negative connotations in this culture, some of which imply that it no longer applies, that we wanted to convey the importance and authority of both testaments. "First" and "Second" seemed to do that better than "Old" and "New." Plus we are trying to make the familiar strange so that it can become fresh again. This book is all about baking fresh bread.

Frank: For many Christians, the Old and New Testaments are two separate entities. Melito (second century) and Tertullian (third century) were the first to call the two halves of the Bible the Old Testament and New Testament. However, the Old Testament and the New Testament belong to the same inspired canon. Thus they are organically united. To underscore this unity, we chose to call the Old Testament the First Testament and the New Testament the Second Testament. They are Act 1 and Act 2 of the same drama.

Though you weave in Old Testament connections to the life of Jesus, the book largely follows the pattern of the Gospels and Acts. If Jesus is the central character of the Old Testament, why not walk through the entire Bible, working from the Garden to other events in the Old Testament, rather than jumping from the Garden to the Incarnation?

Frank: That was our original idea, but as we tried to work through it, we found that it was virtually impossible. Since the First Testament is informed by the Second Testament, there's no way to tell the story of Jesus in Genesis to Malachi without pulling from the Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles. Even if we were writing only for scholars and theologians - which we aren't - there are so many parallels found in the First Testament that aren't terribly obvious in the Second Testament texts, unless someone points them out.

So instead, we begin the story in eternity past, then we move into the seven days of creation, and follow the story found in the Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles alongside the story told in the First Testament, from Genesis to Malachi. The dots are connected throughout the narrative creating a holistic saga of Jesus Christ in and through the entire Bible.

In this way, readers can clearly see how the story of Jesus in the Second Testament replays the entire story of the First Testament over and over again. One of the main themes we demonstrate throughout the book is that Jesus doesn't just complete the story of Adam and Israel. He repeats it. It's truly remarkable to see this.

Leonard: In the chapter on the micro-creation story (Genesis 2), we showed how the entire story of the Bible, from Genesis to the maps, encompassing virtually every book of the Bible, could be told in about ten minutes. In fact, I think that ought to be a requirement of every Christian before they can join a church: tell the whole story of the Bible, and you have ten minutes. But our entire book shows how Jesus recapitulates and reconfigures the whole First Testament in his words and works.

You suggest that the plotline of the Bible is "Creation, Revelation, Redemption, and Consummation." Why did you opt to use "Revelation" where many use the word "Fall" to describe the Bible's basic plot?

Leonard: The best storyline for the Bible has always seemed to me "Paradise, Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained." If we didn't talk about the "Fall" in those words, we talked about it in metaphors and narratives that made it clear that the first humans faced a "Choice and Consequences" scenario, and suffered the consequences of our choices.

Frank: We certainly talk about the Fall throughout the book. Especially in the early chapters and then later when we speak of the cross - which we talk about in some depth. That particular quote comes from the Introduction. In that sentence, the Fall of humanity is included in "Revelation." The revelation of God as Creator follows creation and the revelation of humanity's fallen state after Adam and Eve's blunder. Then the revelation of Jesus Christ which brings us to "Redemption."

Inevitably, because of the genre, the temptation would be to take liberties with the story to make a story more dramatic/compelling. Many criticized Eugene Peterson's The Message along these lines, saying he took too much liberty with the text. How do you feel like you were able to navigate this tricky issue, and how do feel it will be received?

Frank: We were very careful not to move into subjective allegory but to stay tightly grounded in the actual story of Jesus and how the Second Testament authors interpreted it. We spent a lot of time in the notes distinguishing between far-fetched allegory and classic theological typology or a semiotic reading of Scripture that maps to the way that Peter, John, Paul, et. al read the First Testament, including Jesus Himself. We describe their hermeneutic, trace it throughout the Bible, then employ it ourselves.

In addition, we draw from the insights of scholars and theologians in both the Reformed tradition and the Weslyian tradition past and present. The Appendix is one part of the book that I particularly like as it lists scores of teachers in the church from the post-apostolic period to the present from all different denominations and traditions, all of whom make the same essential statement: that the Bible is the book of the church and the story of the Bible is the story of Jesus Christ. Interestingly, the Appendix was originally chapter 1 of the book, but our editor recommended that we move it to the end so that the reader can "get on with" the story after reading the Introduction. (You can click here to read the Introduction.)

Leonard: There is no need for sexing up the story of Jesus. There is no need to add unneeded color to an already vastly chromatic, panoramic story. Without even invoking his divine nature, Jesus was the most creative person who ever lived, and the greatest communicator who ever lived. In his favorite designation of himself, he was "the human one," the ultimate "human being." I want to be a Jesus kind of human. That's a compelling enough story without being hyped and vamped.

Why do pastors and ministry leaders need to read JESUS: A Theography?

Leonard: The world was "formless and void" before Jesus. It was soulless and barren until God breathed Christ's spirit into Adam. Without the Jesus story in all of its beauty and power, our ministries too are "formless and void," soulless and barren. Failure to trust Christ costs us our souls. Failure to abide in Christ costs us daily communion with God and fruitful manifestation of faith working through love.

We also wanted to show our colleagues who gone through an education in the Bible based on left-brained, slice-and dice approaches to the text that there is another way. The Bible is the "Living Word," the "Living Story." The Bible is not simply a collection of distinct books and discrete documents, but a living system, a dynamic process, an interconnected whole.

Frank: Perhaps it's best to answer from the feedback we've received so far from some pastors and Bible teachers. Two common responses have been: 1) it's revolutionized their Bible reading. 2) It's given them a deeper glimpse into the greatness of Christ.

Interestingly, much of the early feedback has come from people who love the work of N.T. Wright (in his Jesus studies) and the work of John Piper (in his work on the Bible). Both groups have praised the book. I find that intriguing (as well as humbling) since these two camps are often at odds with each other.

Here's what one Bible scholar wrote about it recently:

"This is a book where a person can dive in anywhere and find the refreshing waters of Jesus Christ. Building upon their smaller work, Jesus Manifesto, they have constructed a massive structure - like the Louvre Museum - where one can enter the doors and explore many facets of the untold riches of our Lord.

This is a book that will be a deep well to draw from for believers, and those asking questions about Jesus. In it many treasures of Christ will be unveiled to hungry hearts. John noted that "there are also many other things Jesus did, and if every one of them were written down, I should think that the world itself could not contain the books that would appear" (John 21:25). The appearance of Jesus: A Theography in our time will be a lasting contribution to the exaltation of Jesus the Messiah."

Everyone's mileage may vary of course.

Is there anything else you'd like to share with the readers?

Frank: There's a landing page for the book where readers can ask questions and give feedback. The landing page also includes free resources for the book, such as an audio that goes into the story of how we co-wrote it and why there are no endorsements on the cover (a deliberate decision we made). Other resources will be added to the page in the days to come.

Leonard: We hope we've told the Jesus story both conscientiously and captivatingly. Please let us know what you think. To be human is to own, and live out of, a store of stories. To be a follower of Jesus is to own, and live out of, a biblical store of stories. We hope this book will help create a biblical identity in the church that revolves around the story of Jesus.

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