Luke Timothy Johnson of Emory University has rendered a service to the church with his Teaching Company audio course: "Great World Religions: Christianity." But he has had to be "cruel to be kind."

A master translator

The truly great teachers anticipate the questions of their students. Then they answer them in a way that hits home. That is, they have the knack not only of drawing up answers from their well of specialist knowledge but working that wondrous translation from their guild's specialist language to a public language. And, even more important, not just any public language, but a language that their students understand—intellectually, intuitively, emotionally.

This feat of intellectual, cultural, human translation is sadly beyond many university professors—as any who have sat through certain courses will attest. Thus when we find a master teacher adept at this miraculous feat of translation, we should indeed, as the Teaching Company does, distribute the fruits of their labor widely and preserve them for posterity. This is the vision of the Teaching Company's "Great Courses" series.

Luke Timothy Johnson is, in the sense I've described, a master translator. Though playing "guess what the professor is thinking" is a hazardous sport, I'll take the guess: It seems to me that Johnson, as he prepared and taught "Great World Religions: Christianity," has kept a particular audience in his mind's eye. This audience seems, if I reconstruct the clues correctly, to consist of non-Christians and nominal Christians who just can't get beyond certain ugly facts about Christianity (folks likely to have a bumper sticker that reads: "I'm for the separation of church and hate"). They have grown up in a Western world shaped, yes, by the ...

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