Book series result of interfaith friendship
"A Baptist pastor and a rabbi walk into a Mexican restaurant" sounds like a set-up for a joke, but it's actually the story behind a series of books about the Bible written from both a Jewish and Christian perspective.
By Jeff Brumley
A shared passion for studying and interpreting Scripture helped inspire a Rabbi and Baptist pastor to pen the ongoing âReverend and the Rabbiâ series of books on the Bible.
âI think the first thing is we both share a curiosity about the world in general and religion in particular,â Michael Smith, senior pastor of Central Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tenn., said of his relationship to co-author Rabbi Rami Shapiro. "That kind of binds us together.â
So does Spiderman. Both share a mutual childhood interest in superhero comics. "We were definitely Marvel Comics people,â said Smith, 58. âSpiderman, Thor, the Fantastic Four â all that bunch.â
Those shared interests emerged during a series of meetings in 2004, while Smith was pastor of First Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Smith was moderator for a panel discussion on âThe Passion of the Christâ movie. Shapiro, who lives in Murfreesboro, was a panelist. They met to plan the event over lunch at a Mexican restaurant.
That's when another huge factor in their budding friendship came to light.
âIt was then we discovered we both love Mexican food,â said Shapiro, 62, an author and lecturer. âI can only have Mexican food with Mike, because my wife doesnât like it.â
As the two continued to meet -- with conversations ranging from fantasy literature to religion to current events -- their mutual respect and admiration grew. One day Shapiro said he shared Smith's frustration about Christian congregations that hold poorly informed and planned Passover Seders. From that conversation came their frist book, Let Us Break Bread Together: A Passover Haggadah for Christians, in 2005.
Later, Smith approached Shapiro with the idea of examining passages of Scripture from their own religious traditions. He got the idea after reading the collected letters of C.S. Lewis, written in a time when colleagues held in-depth, continuing correspondences.
âI said I wondered if there was a modern way to have that kind of conversation about a biblical text,â Smith said. âSo we decided on the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, and that a blog was a natural medium.â
The Mount and Mountain blog was launched, and it led to their second book project, Mount and Mountain: A Reverend and a Rabbi Talk about the Ten Commandments, in 2011. The second volume, looking at the Sermon on the Mount, was released in March. Shapiro said the next book will cover Genesis.
Rabbi: 'open to Jesus'
Shapiro said he and Smith often disagree on an interpretation of text or of what ethical action a given passage calls for. But thatâs OK, because Judaism emphasizes the importance of interpreting Scripture from different vantage points â regardless of agreement.
âHeâs presenting truth as he sees it for the sole purpose of putting truth on the table, and Iâm doing the same thing,â Shapiro said. âBoth are considered the words of the living God.â
Shapiro said he benefits spiritually even by hearing viewpoints he doesnât share. That would include Smithâs belief that Jesus was the Messiah. âHe has enriched my understanding of Jesus as a prophet and a teacher and a rabbi,â Shapiro said. âI am open to the wisdom of Jesus, and I think he was a God-intoxicated Hebrew wisdom teacher.â
Smith said he, too, has benefitted from his intellectual and theological wrangling with the rabbi. âThe biggest single impact has been to drive home the reality of the Jewishness of Jesus,â Smith said. âIt really comes alive that you are dealing with a Jewish person in the first century.â
Smith said it has changed his study of the Gospels and how he prepares his sermons. âAny time I am dealing with Jesus or a saying of Jesus, my first question is âWhat was Jesus thinking and feeling and speaking as a first-century Jew?â
Books 'a byproduct'
Both men said it would be a mistake to think this is all about forging interfaith partnerships in order to write books. In fact, none of it would be possible without their most important ingredient: friendship.
Shapiro said a genuine friendship â built equally on shared academic, professional and personal interests â provides the safe space needed to explore and debate without subtle efforts to convert or win arguments.
âItâs all about maintaining integrity without blurring the lines between faiths or pretending [differences] donât exist,â Shapiro said. âBecause we are friends we are safe. I never feel I have to defend my position.â
Smith said the restaurants, blog and books have all shown him how important it is to seek and build friendships across religious boundaries. âItâs not a mock friendship," he said. "Itâs not a utilitarian friendship. Itâs a real friendship.â
âThe books are a byproduct.â
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