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Customer reviews

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on 27 December 2005
I am fortunate to have been able to have Luke Timothy Johnson as one of my professors when I was studying religious studies at Indiana University in the early 1980s. He has since moved on to Emory University, which is definitely I.U.'s loss. Johnson has been one of the more prolific and studied historian/theologians of this generation. This recent book, 'Religious Experience in Early Christianity: A Missing Dimension in New Testament Studies', shows much of the way he thinks and some of what he considers important in Christianity. 'Combining trenchant criticism with careful analysis, Luke Johnson calls for a radically new direction in New Testament studies, one that can change the way we view the entire phenomenon of early Christianity.'
Johnson explores three main topics: baptism (ritual imprinting), glossolalia (speaking in tongues) and eucharist (communal meals). This book grew out of the 1997 Stone Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary, and argues the need for a phenomenological approach to the examination of religious experience. 'This is neither history in the strict sense of the term, nor is it theology. That's the whole point: we need a new way of looking in order to see what we can't otherwise see.'
Johnson argues that there has been a comfortable agreement between scholars and clerics toward a more sanitary, orderly, control-able way of examining religious phenomena, which is only natural considering, particularly in Western society, medieval and modern scholarship grew out of the clerical ranks. The 'history' of early Christianity has thus been a history primarily built of ideas and institutions rather than experiences, which tend to be too subjective.
Perhaps the most remarkable chapter in this text is the one on Glossolalia and the Embarrassments of Experience. Speaking in tongues is something that fringe groups do, most scholars, clerics, and lay Christians believe (except for those in denominations which still regard this as a valid practise). Johnson, coming out of a Roman Catholic background, would be one of the last people one would expect to deal with this subject.
Even at Pentecost, speaking in tongues divided the crowd. Since then, glossolalia has been singled out as either the supreme criterion for the direct action of the Holy Spirit in Christian lives or the supreme example of how enthusiasm is a bad thing for Christian piety.
Part of the problem with analyzing this phenomenon is that there is no consistent form, either physically, psychologically, and gets into areas that certainly go against modern, more 'scientific and objective' ideas. Johnson does not try, with this topic or with baptism and eucharistic experiences, to formulate a definitive, 'this-must-be-it' way of thinking or viewing these phenomena, but rather strives to show the real experience in the real lives of early Christians as best as can be reconstructed. This is a fascinating text.
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