Jason Mahler is the producer of The Dust Cast, a podcast dedicated to discussing the ancient Hebraic context of scripture. Jason was kind enough to answer a few questions that relate to topics discussed on this blog. The Dust Cast is a great resource for discussing the necessity of reading scripture in its proper social and religious context.
What is your background as a Christian? Do you identify with any specific tradition or denomination?
I was raised in the Churches of Christ, a group of autonomous congregations associated with the Restoration Movement. I attended Abilene Christian University and am currently a member of Bammel Church of Christ in Houston, Texas.
What led you to explore the Hebraic nature of scripture and faith?
A philosophy professor at ACU, Randy Harris, once remarked to me that our typical dualistic concept of the body and soul is more Platonic than Biblical. That had never occurred to me before, and it intrigued me. I ended up writing a paper for my humanities class on the subject, where I was able to explore several Biblical passages that I thought supported a more holistic concept of the nature of mankind, but beyond that, I didn’t know how to go much deeper. How could I know what the ancient Hebraic worldview was? Being a philosophy guy, I searched for “Jewish philosophy”, but most of what you find is much later – the writings of people like Maimonides in the 12th century – who by that point were just as influenced by Greek and Latin culture as we are.
While I never found ancient Jewish “philosophy” per se, I did eventually stumble my way into books about Near Eastern culture and worldviews through authors familiar with Rabbinic Judaism, Arab Christianity, and the Ancient Near East (including Egypt and Babylon). I was also blessed to be able to travel to the Holy Lands twice (once as a member of a small tour group, and then later leading a group from my church), and was amazed at how much I could learn by being physically present in the land and hearing from a guide familiar with the historical, geographical, cultural, political and linguistic context.
Is there anything specific about your own faith that has shifted as a result of your studies?
I feel that I am on a continual spiritual journey, and my own faith has shifted considerably over the years, but it is hard to sift out exactly what has changed as a result of my Hebraic studies versus other influences. I have become more comfortable wrestling with the text, and admitting when I have trouble with the Bible or don’t like what I think it seems to be saying, which I think has been at least partially enabled by my understanding of the Jewish tradition of debate and Hebraic comfort with mystery and paradox. Earlier in my journey, my focus on systematic theology and apologetics made it harder for me to be comfortable openly wrestling with the text. I now see the Bible as multilayered and complex, giving voice to many perspectives as it carries forward a discussion between God and his people. Wisdom is found in the tension.
I have developed an increasingly strong aversion to proof-texting, and tend to take a “context is everything” approach. I try to see the entire narrative of the Bible within its original cultural context and orient my theology within that big story. I have been inspired by authors and theologians who seem to do an especially good job with articulating that story, such as NT Wright.
I am more focused on social justice than I used to be, which I think is at least partially due to a deeper study of the prophets, the Sermon on the Mount, and the book of Revelation.
As I work through atonement theories, I find myself drawn towards versions of Christus Victor and Recapitulation, as well as theories that focus on covenant, all of which I view as more ancient than some of the most prevalent theories in our culture today. I’m influenced more by ideas of corporate election and corporate sanctification than our individualistic Western culture typically emphasizes. I am, to some degree at least, rethinking everything I believe about heaven and hell, soteriology, women’s roles in the church, spiritual disciplines, and the nature of disciple-making – all while trying to be as true to the Bible as I can by understanding it deeply and authentically.
Is there any particular biblical book or passage that you’ve reinterpreted or (re)discovered during this time?
I would say that the most significant example is the book of Revelation. Previously, I didn’t know how to even begin to approach such a complex book, but my study of Jewish apocalyptic literature has opened the book of Revelation in amazing ways. A close second would be Genesis through John Walton’s work. His focus on functional creation was revolutionary for me. I also found his discussion of the Tower of Babel within the context of Babylonian ziggurats especially fascinating.
What do you think about the different approaches to “biblical theology” and “systematic theology”? Do you see any conflict in the traditional Western view of these disciplines?
I see systematic theology as a predominately Western – and largely modernist – concern. It seems to me that the Biblical authors typically take a more narrative approach. They give us stories – as well as poems, songs, metaphors, parables, proverbs and prophetic images – which communicate something about the nature of God and his work in the world. There is nothing inherently wrong with taking this mosaic of insights about God and attempting to understand them together in a logical manner, but the risk is in the arrogant assumption that we can understand God well enough to successfully build a single systematic theology that captures God’s nature and redemptive history perfectly. Mixing metaphors is dangerous, as is pushing them too far or taking them out of context. And all language about God is ultimately metaphor. There is value in exploring multiple perspectives, and in giving voice to multiple differing – even conflicting – points of view, as they each give us unique insights.
Systematic theology in Western academia in the modern age has often been at least somewhat divorced from Biblical scholarship. Biblical scholars in the academy look at the Bible as an ancient text (seeking to understand it historically, grammatically, rhetorically as literature), while systematic theologians think about theology philosophically (building logically-defensible, internally consistent systems of belief), and the two disciplines may never meet. My faith tradition – the Churches of Christ – has always been somewhat suspicious of systematic theology as something man-made that tends to cause denominational divisions. Now I’m not saying that the Churches of Christ have been any more grounded in the Hebraic context than any other Protestant group, and I do think that theology matters, but I wonder if the culture I grew up in primed me to be willing to simply approach the Bible to see what it actually says without regard to whether that message fits neatly into my pre-existing systematic theology. The Bible is messy, but we have to be willing to appreciate it for what it is, and whatever it is (I won’t attempt a comprehensive definition here given the diversity of genres), it is not a modern systematic theology textbook. Even Paul didn’t write systematic theology – he was always writing pastorally to address specific problems in a local church and drive towards specific changes in praxis.