By PAUL A. BARRA
MONCKS CORNER — The University of South Carolina added to the prestige of its Hall Lectureship in New Testament and Early Christianity series by hosting Luke Timothy Johnson on March 29-30. Dr. Johnson was the fifth presenter in the series that began with Father Raymond Brown in 1995.
The New Testament scholar drew huge crowds for two talks at USC in Columbia the preceding Monday — despite competing with the NCAA finals for his evening session — and packed the church at Mepkin Abbey the next afternoon. His lively presentation at the monastery about learning the living Jesus was in stark contrast to last year’s speaker, the Jesus Seminar advocate Marcus Borg.
“If Jesus is just a dead guy from the past, then historical research would be the most appropriate way to find out something about the man,” Johnson said. “Then we would be, as Paul said, ‘the most pitiable of people.’ But if we confess that Jesus is the living Christ, then we must engage in learning Jesus, a continuous and complex undertaking. We can never rest from learning Jesus. If Jesus is alive, discipleship can only end at death.”
Johnson said that Christians learn about Jesus from gathering as the body of Christ, through Scripture and prayer and, above all, through the breaking of the bread.
“We also learn Jesus in the saints, whose lives have been transformed by the face of Christ. We learn Jesus in the strangers who knock on our individual and communal doors,” he said.
Johnson said the process of being Christian demands “an astoundingly complex conversation … that is blown by the Spirit.” He noted the qualities required to interact with a living God as the Other, including what he termed creative fidelity.
“That’s the faithfulness that changes as the Other changes. If Jesus is really the living One, then he is changing; he is not the Jesus we knew when we were 12. It’s not so much that Jesus is changing as that our understanding of the living God is evolving, although I’m prepared to concede that God may be up to new things. After all, God’s action in becoming incarnate broke the rules written in Torah. The Church is always trying to catch up with what God is doing,” he said.
Johnson, a world-class theologian who has written 19 books, 66 articles and 124 book reviews, said that the Bible, especially the four gospels, is the single best source for learning Jesus.
“What a precious gift these Gospels are to us. The Church canonized only the four narrative Gospels that … show the human Jesus. There is no replacement for reading the Gospels from beginning to end,” he said.
Johnson said that the Gospels, though differing in viewpoint and some content, always are consistent in defining Jesus as the servant of God and others, and in an appreciation of discipleship as following the path of Jesus.
Thomas W. Mahan, who came all the way from the North Carolina mountains to hear Johnson, said that the trip was worth every mile.
“He presented the kind of challenge that we have to be meeting in our parishes. It was a very useful afternoon,” said Mahan, who is helping his Brevard parish initiate an adult Christian formation program.
Sister Nancy Schmidt said that Johnson was a natural teacher with clear insights: “He made me want to be sure to read those Gospels through to the end.”
Two other nuns, Franciscan Sisters Deanna Bartolomei and Noreen Buttimer, studied Johnson while earning master’s degrees in pastoral ministry through the LIMEX program at Loyola University of New Orleans. Both thought his talk was “wonderful, life-giving.”
“He is definitely in conversation with the Jesus of the Gospels,” Sister Deanna said. “He’s engaged in knowing and walking with the Lord.”
She was one of a dozen in the crowd of 300 who asked questions of Johnson. His answers were like his talk: humorous and self-effacing while profound and thorough. He said: “Being right does not matter; what’s important is being righteous.”
Luke Timothy Johnson was a Benedictine monk and priest before becoming a biblical scholar. He is a professor of New Testament in the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. He has advanced degrees from St. Meinrad School of Theology, Indiana University and Yale. He is now a lay Catholic.
Donald Jones of USC, who arranges the Hall series and who is himself a renown Lukan academician, said that the series is getting a national reputation for attracting the best New Testament scholars. He was pleased to land Johnson, whom he called “an incredible person.” After 90 minutes of his inspired discourse, the animated Holy Week crowd at Mepkin seemed to agree.