Blessed, Indeed, Are the Cheesemakers

Dr. Amy-Jill Levine explains Jesus’s teaching so clearly, it’s as if centuries of varnish have been cleaned from the surface of a gorgeous painting. Join the Episcopal Booksellers Association in conversation with her on February 11, 2021.

When Amy-Jill Levine was in first grade at Job S. Gidley Elementary School in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts, her teacher led the children in the Pledge of Allegiance, the Star-Spangled Banner, and the Our Father prayer. Recalling that ritual in her latest book, Sermon on the Mount, Dr. Levine says, “So after pledging loyalty to ‘liver tea’ and singing about the ‘donzerly’ light, I’m sure I was not the only one in the class who bowed my head and prayed, ‘Our father, who art in heaven, Harold be thy name…Lead us not into Penn Station…’…Little children have much to learn.’”

When it comes to the New Testament, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Lord’s Prayer, as we Episcopalians call it, Dr. Levine has much to teach us. Sermon on the Mount approaches chapters 5-7 in the Book of Matthew that most of us consider familiar ground and shows us in the most enthusiastic and loving way that our understanding (at least as a lay reader) is not much more accurate than her interpretation of the “dawn’s early light” was back in first grade.

University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies and Mary Jan Werthan Professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and College of Arts, and Sciences, Dr. Levine is the first Jew to teach at Rome’s Pontifical Biblical Institute, and her list of degrees and accomplishments is long and impressive. She brings all her education and experience to her deconstruction of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, which she begins by saying “is not a sermon. It’s a series of discrete teachings, each of which could be the basis of a sermon, a lecture, a community study, or a personal meditation.” She suggests that Matthew needs marketing help, and that what we call the Sermon on the Mount (and he never did) should be called something like “A Sampling of Jesus’s Greatest Teachings.” And then she uses her knowledge of Jewish practices at the time of Jesus, her understanding of the Torah and the New Testament, and the range of translations of the bible to deepen our understanding of every significant phrase in these chapters.

Her book is not long—six chapters cover The Beatitudes, The Extensions, Practicing Piety, Our Father, Finding Your Treasure, and Living into the Kingdom. Each of these chapters is packed with thought-provoking, knowledge-based, exciting ideas. Though her erudition is apparent, her work has a strong sense of joy. She is able to laugh at herself, the religious establishment, and outdated interpretations of what Jesus was teaching, while remaining respectful and non-judgmental. She connects the holy with history, head, and heart: reading her book feels like engaging with a remarkable professor—one so sure of her material that she can explore new ideas even as she teaches, one who is delighted to share her knowledge because she has experienced it as life-changing.

Each chapter is an exploration. Sometimes she detours into her own experience or delves into playing with language, and as she does, she remarks on the richness of the Matthew’s writing. She leaves the reader with the hope that future books will further explore these paths that she glimpses down as she moves through the elements of the Sermon on the Mount.

The Jesus that she presents and his messages that she explains come though so clearly, it’s as if centuries of discolored varnish have been cleaned from the surface of a gorgeous painting. We still recognize the beloved subject, but now we can see it as it was intended to be seen. It seems so logical—if we are to accurately understand Jesus’s lessons, of course we need to understand who he was as a Jew, who he was teaching, and what language they were speaking. 

In Monty Python’s “Life of Brian,” the crowd hears Jesus say, “Blessed are the Cheesemakers.” Some past translations and interpretations of the Book of Matthew have left us with some ideas that are just as inaccurate. After reading Sermon on the Mount, we not only know specifically what Jesus means when he uses terms like “Peacemakers,” we also come away with a practical understanding of how to apply these powerful teachings in our own lives. Blessed are both cheesemakers and peacemakers and blessed is Amy-Jill Levine for so generously and articulately sharing her learning and experience to shed new light on this important section of the New Testament. 

To register for the EBA Authors Series discussion with Dr. Levine on February 11, 2021 at 6:00 p.m. Central, click here.

To purchase Sermon on the Mount: A Beginner’s Guide to the Kingdom of Heaven, click here.

To see David Hockney’s vision of the Sermon on the Mount, click here.

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
~Marcel Proust

Choose Your Own Adventure: Dystopian, Apocalyptic, or Re-Enchanted

Ilia Delio’s latest book offers a new vision for the future. Join us on January 14 as she explains why AI needs religion and what the reunion of science and religion can mean for humanity.

I’ve heard the word Orwellian used more in the last few weeks than I have at any time in my life, even in the literary throes of obtaining an English degree. The world, I keep hearing, has become Orwellian, or dystopian, headed towards apocalyptic, or post-apocalyptic. We’re living in a brave, new world where we have become pawns, they say. We’re doomed: we’ve already been sucked up by [choose your enemy] big pharma, big tech, big government, big deep state—futuristic big bad wolves of every ilk lurk behind every tree.

God is dead, said Nietzsche; God never existed, say scholars like Jerry Coyne; and many of us without theology degrees are struggling to understand concepts like dynamic metaphor to reconcile our faith with the Darwinian drumbeat of a purely scientific world view. If you stray too far from the stained-glass world of your pew, the future seems very dismal. Cyber-dismal.

In Christ in Evolution, one of her earlier books, Ilia Delio says, “Religion must evolve along with human consciousness if it is to have any relevance and influence. For Christianity, this evolution would consist of a reformulated Christology that is better suited to engage twenty-first century thought.”

What if the next steps of science and technology aren’t leading us to an Orwellian future? What if we aren’t doomed to live in a spiritual wasteland? What if we cease seeing science and religion as non-overlapping magisteria and instead use their intersection as our lens, seeing the future not as a deterioration of the faith that has sustained us, but as a more complex, more whole, and more interconnected reality? What if artificial intelligence doesn’t destroy us in some sort of Julie Christie/Demon Seed nightmare, but directed by Christological principles, brings about an ecological re-enchantment of the Earth?

In her latest book, Re-Enchanting the Earth: why AI needs religion, Ilia Delio shows us that the future doesn’t have to look like the darker visions of twentieth century writers. If humans are made in God’s image and what we create is therefore divinely created, then technology, rather than being anti-God, can be seen as an extension of God. A clamshell, the technology of a clam, is an integral part of a clam. Perhaps we are evolving to a point where a computer is an integral part of our God-inspired humanity. Ilia Delio’s understanding of personhood and her vision of a healed world is mind-blowing.

This latest book of hers has been described in profound terms: “A bold new take on evolution, humanity, intelligence, and spirituality, Ilia Delio draws with refreshing originality on post-humanism, the work of AI visionaries, and the deep theological insight of Teilhard de Chardin. The result is a summons from the future, a winsome, readable, and urgent call for a new humanity and a new spirituality. A brilliant critique of the modern, autonomous, isolated self,” says Ron Cole-Turner of Pittsburgh Theological Center.

A provocative call to arms for a generation the already embraces science and technology but wants to go beyond conventional religion in search of spiritual inspiration and direction,” says Steve Fuller of University of Warwick, the author of Humanity 2.0. And David Grummett of University of Edinburgh calls it “a wide-ranging interdisciplinary study that provocatively interprets classic Christian themes for today’s connected, dynamic, and reflective world.”

Who could imagine such a departure from the popular dirge of the slow erosion of spiritual life and the wasteland left in its place? Ilia Delio, OSF, is a Franciscan Sister of Washington DC. She holds the Josephine C. Connelly Endowed Chair in Theology at Villanova University and is founder of the Omega Center. In addition to having doctorates in both science and theology, she has written many books, including Christ in Evolution, The Emergent Christ, The Unbearable Wholeness of Being, and Birth of a Dancing Star: My Journey from Cradle Catholic to Cyborg Christian.

Whether or not you agree with her vision, Ilia Delio is profoundly intelligent and profusely educated. Her arguments, though they may fundamentally change our understanding of the cosmos, are so logical they don’t seem radical. And though her ideas may be challenging for the average reader like me to articulate, they make beautiful, reassuring, and exciting sense. What she says.

On Thursday, January 14, at 6 p.m. Central, the Episcopal Booksellers Association and Orbis Books present a conversation with Sr. Ilia Delio and Greg Hansell, executive director of the Center for Christogenesis. Join the Cathedral Bookstore and readers from Episcopal bookstores across the country to hear what she says from her own mouth. Whether you are an AI expert with Nietzschean leanings or a devout soul wanting hope for a future more compelling than the landscapes created by writers like Orwell, Huxley, or Atwood, Ilia Delio, with her profound learning and deep desire to understand Augustine’s question, “What is it I love when I love you my God?” will blow your mind. She makes the future seem no less complicated, but far less dismal.

To receive a link to the conversation on January 14, email bookstore@christchurchcathedral.org before noon on January 14.

To purchase Re-Enchanting the Earth: why AI needs religion, click here.

“Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.” 
― Corrie ten Boom