Monday, May 28, 2007

Meanderings on "Static" by Ron Martoia

I'm about halfway through this book, but wanted to get some of my questions and thoughts out in the open for others to see before they drive me nuts.

The tagline for this book is "Cutting through the Christian noise to the real message of Jesus." I wasn't sure what "Christian noise" meant, whether it would end up being Kristian Kommercialism or theology or maybe even many Christians' general noisy and judgmental approach to evangelism. I wasn't even totally sure if this would be a church book, evangelism book, theology book, something about engaging culture, or something even different from that. But I'd heard about this book from a few other blogs and figured that I'd give it a shot.

What this book does turn out to be, is largely an examination of a traditional Christian message and theology in light of the language used in the Gospels. This includes language such as "repent," "gospel/good news," "kingdom of God," "Lord," "Savior," and "Christ/Messiah." I was surprised and impressed that Martoia spends time putting these phrases in a Roman context. He explains how these terms would have been heard by people used to hearing about the kingdom of Caesar, the good news of Caesar as Lord and Savior and Anointed, and that when a new king took the throne, people were told to "repent," that is, reorient their loyalty toward the new regime. I'd heard most of that before, but Martoia's audience is different...he is writing, I think, for an Evangelical audience that hasn't heard any of this; that has grown up thinking that the whole gospel/good news is "believe in Jesus and go to heaven/avoid hell."

Martoia structures his book around conversations that he has with two friends of his, Phil and Jess. It's unclear whether these are real people or if he just wants to present his ideas in a different format, a la McLaren's A New Kind of Christian. Nevertheless, his friends are at first scandalized by these alien ideas, but it gives Martoia a jumping-off point to explain what he means.

I have some issues with this book. Maybe he'll ease some of them as I keep reading.

~Martoia suggests that Jesus is first calling Israel to repentance for forgetting who they are. That's the first time I've heard his message of the kingdom put that narrowly. There are parts of Matthew and Mark that lend themselves to this view, but there are many others that work against it. Certainly, Jesus was in part looking to critique and reform his own tradition, but when he says, "Repent, the kingdom of God is at hand," it isn't clear that he is only meaning that for Israel (especially since Roman non-Jews might have had a much stronger reaction to such a proclamation). Which brings me to my second issue...

~Martoia goes a traditional route of pitting Jesus against all of Judaism. The Jews are presented as overly legalistic, exclusivist, unspiritual jerks that Jesus swoops in and makes mad by his free-wheeling maverick welcome of everybody. One really has to search for acknowledgment that Jesus himself came from a Jewish heritage; acknowledgment of those passages that suggest that he is engaging in self-critique or that he actually is seeking to reform some Jewish practices rather than throw out the whole thing and present something new. At the same time, Martoia has yet to truly explore how angry the use of terms such as "kingdom of God" would have made the Romans. So far, he's been spending most of his time focusing on Jesus vs. The Jews.

~We need more endnotes, man. I want to see where the idea that Jesus is calling on Israel to repent comes from. Later on, I want to see who these other Jewish rabble-rousers are who made their own "triumphal entries" into Jerusalem. Still later, I want to see where Judaism lifts up certain passages from Isaiah as being about some distant future reality rather than a more immediate exilic context. The endnotes are pretty scarce; half of them are scripture references. I'd be interested in checking out his sources for some of his claims. It's not that I don't trust him...I just want to see where he gets them.

Martoia presents some good material, and this book is the first in a while that I've needed to slow down and spend some time with. He comes at the material from a slightly different angle from where I've heard before. His book's intended audience will at least be given the opportunity to wrestle with these things. Still, I'd like to see where some of these things come from.

More later, probably.