I was recently interviewed by Johnny Mejia, the host of the newly-founded Imagers Podcast, which addresses questions about human identity.
My interview, called “The Liberating Image,” was focused on what it means to be created in God’s image. Among the topics discussed were human dignity, the use and abuse of power, cultural resistance, and the sacredness of everyday life.
Alfredo Valentin is a Nuyorican (a member of the Puerto Rican diaspora in New York city), whose specialty is “urban apologetics.”
This is a genre of apologetics that addresses questions especially relevant to the black and brown Christian demographic who are being targeted for proselytizing by religious groups like the Nation of Islam , the Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ, or Israel United in Christ. Such groups often play on issues of identity and race, suggesting that orthodox Christianity is a religion of whiteness.
Alfredo tries to educate his listeners in an intelligent way about the claims of genuine Christian orthodoxy, often by interviewing scholars and practitioners in the faith who has particular insight to share about Scripture or theology.
Since one of the primary issues in urban apologetics is identity (Who are we? and What is our purpose in life?), the topic of the image of God is directly relevant.
Although it hadn’t been planned that way, the presentations (hence the published essays) all focused, in one way or another, on the question of the relationship of biblical exegesis to theology. Or, to put it in Jewish terms, the relationship between peshat (literary-contextual readings of the Bible) and midrash (readings that go beyond the intent of text, in order to explore contemporary significance).
While all the articles are agreed that these are both legitimate approaches to the Bible, there is some disagreement about how these should be related, and Held’s response addresses this issue head on.
This has a parallel with recent discussion among Christian biblical interpreters about the value of the “Theological Interpretation of Scripture” and whether this is at odds with historical-critical study of the Bible. For an excellent discussion of why these two shouldn’t be severed, see Joel Green’s essay, “Rethinking ‘History’ for Theological Interpretation,” published in the Journal of Theological Interpretation (2011).
An Introduction to Shai Held
Rabbi Shai Held is Dean and Chair of Jewish Thought at the Hadar Institute, an ecumenical egalitarian study center in New York City that he helped found in 2006, along with Rabbis Elie Kaunfer and Ethan Tucker.
My initial introduction to Shai Held was in January 2015 when he contacted me to discuss the imago Dei in Genesis 1, in preparation for a public lecture he was going to give on human dignity and police violence against African Americans. He had read my book The Liberating Image and wanted to clarify some aspects of the interpretation. We first communicated by email, then had a telephone conversation on the topic.
Middleton with Rabbis Elie Kaunfer and Shai Held at Hadar, July 2016
Shai Held (son of Ugaritic scholar Moshe Held) has written an in-depth study of the theology of Abraham Heschel (Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence) that explores the complexity of his thought. This is his published dissertation, written under the supervision of Jon D. Levenson at Harvard.
Along with approximately 7,000 others, I subscribed to receiving these essays every week by email; and I have been profoundly moved by Held’s insights. So when I found out that the essays would be published in a two-volume collection, I contacted a number of Christian biblical scholars to join me in writing endorsements for the publication.