Richard Burridge has produced an excellent book. The book is like a delicious feast. As such as a whole, it will be greatly appreciated, and at certain times, particular courses or chapters will need to be savoured and enjoyed. It should be read by teachers and students of theology alike. As a book it should find a home on the shelf of the minister as well as the academic. This particular minister will dip into each and every time he tries to relate the biblical text to the contemporary world. The present reviewer is therefore an unashamed fan of Imitating Jesus: An Inclusive Approach to New Testament Ethics.
Why am I so enthusiastic? First, Richard Burridge has begun his work on New Testament ethics with Jesus. This is not as simplistic a comment as it seems, for as Burridge shows, many New Testament ethicists have been cautious about starting with Jesus, perhaps overly concerned about what they might realistically reconstruct about the teachings and actions of Jesus. Burridge is aware of such caution, but building upon the painstaking historical work of scholars such as Tom Wright, Marcus Borg and J D Crossan, he is confident that certain contours can be established about the ministry of Jesus. Jesus, firstly was inclusive: he welcomed those who others would not, and secondly, Jesus had a set of rigorous ethics that were exclusive. Thus, the historical Jesus re-interpreted the Torah in perhaps a more conservative way than other Jewish interpreters. Such a conclusion might challenge some readers of the Gospels.
A second feature of Richard Burridge’s work that makes me an enthusiast is that he is cautiously optimistic of the overlap between Jesus and Paul. Imitating Jesus concludes that Paul, often seen as a reactionary, is actually someone who is inclusive; holding together the tension of Jesus’ unconditional welcome into the kingdom, and the radical re-interpretation of the Law for those who committed themselves to following the Christ. Burridge does not shy away from a discussion of Paul’s understanding of the State and Power, the ministry of women or sexual ethics; and ministers, like me will find Burridge’s understanding illuminating and rewarding.
A third reason to be thankful for this book is the chapter given to each of the Synoptic Evangelists. Burridge is a Gospel scholar, and the way he moves between Gospel studies and ethics is a delight.
A fourth and final reason to be convinced about the worthiness of Burridge’s book is that he then roots his theories about imitating Jesus gleaned from the New Testament into the real life situation of South Africa. I am not someone who understands the African situation as well as I should, but what I can say is that the principles that Burridge applies seem to work as well in my own context on the coast of west Cumbria as Burridge suggests they do in post-Apartheid South Africa.
Burridge’s book begins with a discussion on how one might legitimately use the Bible in a 21st Century context. He notes that the Dutch Reformed Church used holy writ to support racial segregation. It can be a simple truth that the Bible is used to say whatever an interpreter wants it to mean. This is why it is refreshing to try and start with Jesus, and particularly his message of inclusion intertwined with repentance.
Imitating Jesus may or may not be awarded the Michael Ramsey prize. It is a book that should be used, and its author is a scholar who church leaders should listen to, which might at times be difficult, Burridge has a prophetic edge, and for that those of us who delight in the memory of Archbishop Ramsey should be grateful.
Kevin Ellis, May 2009