Tuesday, February 9, 2010
Matt Skinner on the Trial Narratives
Just received my copy of Matthew L. Skinner's The Trial Narratives: Conflict, Power, and Identity in the New Testament (Westminster John Knox, 2010). Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John all receive one chapter. Acts, in which Skinner is a recognized expert, receives three separate chapters -- but then again, Acts features lots of trial scenes. Skinner's approach is largely narrative-critical, informed by historical knowledge but primarily attentive to the stories' dynamic flow. Thus, each text is allowed to speak in its own voice.
I enjoyed the opportunity to read earlier versions of some chapters, so I can say a little about the book right away. It's a scholarly work, but the writing is clear and accessible: pastors, seminarians, and informed laypersons will be able to enjoy the book.
It strikes me that activists and denominational workers might want to read it too. Skinner is getting at the intersection between Christian identity and power. In many cultures, not least our own, trial scenes have provided the venue through which we explore ourselves, our values, and our conflicts.
How do the NT trial scenes depict the relationship between Jesus and his followers, on the one hand, and the authorities, on the other? Skinner characterizes the trial narratives as contributing to early Christian "self-definition" (158). The trial narratives insist that human authorities may seem overwhelming, but their authority does not rival God's. Faithful witness, such as that of Jesus and his followers, can expose the provisional nature of human power and promote an alternative path. Trials, even those with unjust endings, may in the long run serve to advance the gospel.
We'll benefit as well from recognizing the diverse portrayals of the authorities within the New Testament. Early Christians related to Roman and local authority in diverse ways. No one attitude toward political power accounts for the broad witness we find in the NT, just as no one theory of power can speak for all Christians and all times.