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Dialogue: In Search of Jewish-Christian Understanding

Book Number: 
Date Fred Read: 
July 2018
Fred's Rating: 
Total Pages: 
Seabury Press

This dialogue was between John Shelby Spong of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and Jack Daniel Spiro of Temple Beth Ahabah, both in Richmond, VA, in 1975. It received local press, radio and TV coverage. (For Spong’s books I’ve read, click on his name.)

The Amazon website for the paperback edition (the only edition on Amazon) is:

[None of the ISBN-10, ISBN-13, or ASIN numbers on Amazon’s websites for the three editions (Kindle, hardcover, or paperback) are recognized by Amazon, thus the ‘no image Circle' appears. I think this new change by Amazon is not good. However, you can see the images of this book's covers at the website above.]

The home page has neither a summary nor the ‘Look inside’ option, but I recommend the Top customer review by William Stroebel. The paperback’s back cover has this brief summary: “This Dialogue, between an Episcopal Clergyman and a rabbi, captivated and shook the City of Richmond, Virginia. Here is an attempt to sink beneath the superficial and to grapple with the core of both Judaism and Christianity making apparent areas of common ground as well as areas of irreconcilable differences. It is accomplished with a rare theological sensitivity in which the personalities of the two participants are revealed as open and warmly human. This book can be a major catalyst for Jewish-Christian discussions in every city of this nation.”

This book was John Shelby Spong’s third book, first published in 1975 by Seabury Press. I quote from the first part of the authors 3-pp Preface, for the first part is the story of how these dialogues came about. I exclude all but one paragraph of acknowledgments in the last half of the Preface, which is dated January 1975.

“One never knows what will result from an unexpected telephone call, but in that manner this volume was conceived. As two clergymen, a priest and a rabbi, living within our different traditions in the same city, we each knew something of the other’s public image, but had never met.

“A recently published book (761) changed these circumstances. The book was written by the priest, who sought to probe the ancient heritage of Christianity. In so doing, he expressed an unusual appreciation for the Jewish tradition as the foundation for the Christian claim about Jesus as the Christ. There appeared to the rabbi ample common ground in this book to make discussion stimulating, as well as sufficient disagreement to make debate real. So he called the author-priest, inviting him to public debate in the synagogue.

“When we met to discuss the details, our conversations were rich, deep, and satisfying. The more we talked, the longer grew the proposed debate; and indeed debate itself faded into dialogue. We planned no special publicity in connection with this dialogue; it was originally for our local congregations only. We were thus surprised to discover that this quickly became the focus of community-wide attention. Every dialogue session was fully covered by the daily press. Front page stories sought to lay theological issues before the population of the metropolitan Richmond area. The holy name Yahveh was actually used in a headline, which was undoubtedly a first in Richmond history. Synagogue crowds at the dialogues were ten times the usual Sabbath eve services, while church attendance exceeded the previous Easter service. Virginia’s largest radio station recorded the dialogue for presentation a month later. Richmond’s educational television station asked us to repeat it live in a two-hour prime time broadcast. For two months the public forum column of the editorial page of the morning newspaper was filled with reader debate concerning the dialogues. Finally, community pressure demanded that the series be published, making this book a possibility.

“We, a rabbi and a priest, had succeeded in bringing theological discussion into the real lives of a sizable number of people and, in the process, we discovered a deep and abiding friendship. For this we are thankful.”

I include below an unusual paragraph of thanks: “We would also like to acknowledge with special gratitude the support given us by the National Conference of Christians and Jews in sponsoring this volume both in Richmond and throughout the United States. The NCCJ has for years encouraged dialogue across the Jewish-Christian barrier. Though obviously the opinions expressed herein are our own, the NCCJ is nonetheless an appreciated partner in enabling this dialogue to become a model beyond this city.”

I learned little from this book. The book is different from what I expect to read (or hear) from dialogues, which are rather brief exchanges between the two dialoguers. Instead, based on their agreement that what each is prepared to state is exchanged in print so as to prepare each other for each issue in the next dialogue. As it turned out, this printed material was not brief. Often it was between about a half-page and as long as about three half-pages. Thus, when each had his turn to respond, the responses were usually brief, then he who had responded begin to read his much longer ‘prepared and exchanged’ statements. Thus these dialogues seemed to me to be alternating long monologues, following a brief response to the preceding monologue by the other man. But don’t think of the monologues as sermons, for they are more theological than are typical sermons.

The format of these ‘dialogues’ did not meet my expectations. But since it does spell out well the 'core' of both religions, I rate it at four stars.