Monday, August 3, 2015

Mock interview with Yung Suk Kim

For his new book 

RESURRECTING JESUS: The Renewal of New Testament Theology


1. Your book title “Resurrection Jesus” is very interesting. To be blunt, why did you write this book?

I wrote this book to tell the people that the historical Jesus must be brought back to our discussion of New Testament theology. The traditional New Testament theology has not seriously taken into account the work of the historical Jesus. For example, people have no interest in the question of what brought him to death. His crucifixion is the result of what he did. We have to know what he proclaimed and why he was willing to die. Otherwise, he was not born to die. Jesus is a historical figure who should not be domesticated by any one.

2. What do you think is the primary work of Jesus?

I believe that Jesus’ primary message or teaching is well summarized in Mark 1:14-15: “After John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and God’s rule has come near; change your heart and believe in the good news.”
As we see here, Jesus proclaims the good news of God; it is God’s good news. Good news is about God: God’s time and God’s rule has come in the here and now (perfect tense). For this God’s radical time and rule to be effective, people have to accept it by changing their minds, which is what metanoia means. So it is impossible to talk about Jesus without God-talk in first-century Judaism. New Testament theology would be misleading if we do not look at God to whom Jesus points his finger. Jesus does the works of God, not his own.

3. As you know, there is a big divide between history and theology, or between the historical Jesus and New Testament theology. For example, some historians say that the New Testament is not based on the historical Jesus. How is it possible for you to do theology by drawing attention to both of these seemingly irreconcilable areas of study?

I believe that it is possible by redefining New Testament theology in which we can engage the historical Jesus. I broadly redefine New Testament theology as our explorations about God, the Messiah, and the world. New Testament theology is not constructed deductively (from heavenly revelation, for example), but can be constructed by readers who critically reevaluate not only the work of the historical Jesus but also various writings in the New Testament. So in my book I define New Testament theology as follows:
New Testament theology involves both what the New Testament says about God, the Messiah, and the world, and how the reader evaluates, engages, or interprets diverse yet divergent texts of the New Testament, including difficult, sexist, and oppressive texts. The reader’s task is not merely to discern what is good and acceptable in the New Testament, but also to surface its limitations by examining early Christians’ disparate positions about God, the Messiah, and the world. Consequently, New Testament theology is constructed by the reader who deals with both the divergent texts of the New Testament and the historical Jesus to whom they refer. By carefully sifting through the layers of New Testament witnesses while acknowledging unbridgeable gaps between them and the historical Jesus, the reader, in view of all aspects of life in the first century CE and today, has to explore relevant relationships among God, the Messiah, and the world.

4. Once again, why is the historical Jesus important to your New Testament theology?

Let me use a body analogy. Just as the body without the spirit is dead, New Testament theology without the historical Jesus is dead because the former is built on the work of the latter. No matter how many gaps exist between the historical Jesus and the New Testament, New Testament theology needs a solid understanding about the historical Jesus.

5. Can you give us a few examples of your critically reconstructed contents of New Testament theology?

Yes. For example, the “righteousness of God” will be redefined as God’s righteousness rather than as an individual justification. “Faith of Christ Jesus” will be also redefined as his faithfulness through which he proclaims and embodies God’s rule in the here and now. Accordingly, “the kingdom of God” will be redefined as God’s rule in the here and now that challenges Rome’s rule or any obstacles that occlude the flow of God’s justice. In the end, Christians will be redefined as Christ-followers who do the works of God.

6. What do you want to say to your readers if they ask why this book should be a must read?

I like to list three important benefits for readers:
1. Getting a better, clearer understanding about the historical Jesus and the New Testament writings that refer to him.
2. Exploring the significance of Jesus’ life, teaching, and death, based not on doctrine but on his work of God in first-century Judaism and Palestine
3. Redefining New Testament theology as a process of discerning and engaging the historical Jesus and the New Testament writings

7. Do you believe your newly defined New Testament theology can improve human conditions?

Yes, very much so. We can learn from Jesus and follow his footsteps that embody God’s presence in the here and now. Jesus’ death is the result of his costly proclamation of God’s rule in the here and now. It is not somewhere else than here. However, there are lots of people who see Jesus’ death merely as salvific, vicarious atonement that does not look into the evil hands responsible for his crucifixion. By the way, Jesus’ death is the form of crucifixion, capital punishment by Rome. So when we see Jesus’ crucifixion, we have to see both God’s love that he embodies at the risk of his life and both his love of God and God’s judgment that brings evil people and power to justice. Condoning evil is not the point of Jesus’ crucifixion.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Book intro video Resurrecting Jesus

While my new book is expected to be released in a few days or so, I made this author video first time in my life. I used tablet to record, which is more powerful than webcam. Well, this video looks like preaching, but that is okay; that is what I am about. Enjoy and feel free to give me feedback if you like.

Resurrecting Jesus: The Renewal of New Testament Theology (CASCADE, 2015)

Yung Suk Kim’s Resurrecting Jesus is a rare synthesis of historical criticism and spiritual passion. Kim boldly challenges the conventional divide between theology and history. Making the words and deeds of the historical Jesus the foundation for theology, Kim redefines central concepts of the New Testament in ways that are relevant to seekers for ethical consistency in a harsh world. Kim resurrects the memory of Jesus as a fearless witness to the truth who risked it all for the sake of God’s justice. —L. L. Welborn, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, Fordham


Saturday, April 18, 2015

Photo Essay: The Way It Is

Photo Essay
The Way It Is!

A good theologian must be a great poet who thinks deeply about the meaning of existence of world and people. This afternoon I took a trip to the nearby park, Deep Run, in Richmond, VA. I walked a lot and gave me lots of poetic thoughts about nature.

Key words of this photo essay: interpretation, diversity, solidarity, perspective, the way, weakness, nature, beauty, others, reality, participation, poet, theologian

I am blessed with an eternity out here: moments of breathing fresh air, standing alone for seconds with intention, focusing on what I like to do, asking for a help from somebody unknown, and above all, the sky, trees, lake, fountain, wooden deck, and the very time and earth.

  I walked trails.

I looked up and down and marveled at the complex yet understandable picture of this. I saw green leaves and trees; and yet right next to them lie dead trees and their branches. This is the way it is and we call it nature. Then, suddenly, my thinking mode switched to theological poetic sensitivity. I continued to walk along the trails, wondering about the reality of the downside or dark side of nature.

I cannot believe this dry trunk. Why did this happen? By nature or some other natural forces? Is this natural and okay in nature? Or is this something unnatural? Can it be there any remedy to this? From a holistic perspective, is this picture as a whole just beautiful?
Everywhere I went through the trails, I saw the fallen trees. What can we think of this dark part of nature? Of course, I don't mean the dark side is simply bad. But the question is, Is there good sacrifice that we have to accept? For whom and why?

Oops! This tree was broken and dried. What is wrong with this? Or, is it just natural? How is this seen by the background trees?

We tend to see the bright side of things without paying attention to their complex or dark side. But when we see things out there from a holistic perspective, we can appreciate the way and reality in which all things are intricately connected. This is a mystery of life in nature. No one, human or not, can live independently. Even weakness or vulnerability may have a role to play in our lives though not desired by us.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Reading the Bible From a Perspective of Human Transformation

*Note: This following piece was also posted at New Testament Scholarship Worldwide.

(Yung Suk Kim, PhD., is a Korean American New Testament Scholar, currently serving as Associate Professor of New Testament & Early Christianity at School of Theology, Virginia Union University. He is Editor of Journal of Bible and Human Transformation as well as Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Religion).

I have a passion for human transformation, rooted in self-knowledge and self-criticism. Traveling many Latin American countries during my business career, I learned a great deal about cultural diversity and the need of human solidarity. With a new vocation of theological education, I now ask: What does it mean to live in this world in relation to each other (i.e., meaning of the Other — which resonates Emmanuel Levinas’ “the face of the other,” Paul Ricoeur’s inter-subjective narrative identity, or Jacques Derrida’s “relationless relation”), and How can we do theology in our thoughts, deeds and action, while moving pointedly away from individualism? How can we read biblical stories with each other in a critical context? What are some viable definitions of cross-cultural hermeneutics, if any, by which we can improve the sense of living together in difference?

My approach to the Bible is based on “kenosis.” Let me illustrate. Once upon a time there were a father and his son; they were beggars. One day just across a river a big fire broke out and saw a big house being burnt down by the fire. The father said to his son proudly, “My son, we are so fortunate because we do not have a house to be burnt down.” This comic but pithy conversation speaks of some lessons about our life. There is a saying in the Buddhist book banyshimkyung: “sak-jeuk-see-gong and gong-jeuk-see-sak,” which can be translated as “all visible things are empty, and all that are empty are all visible.” It is hard to explain here what it means. I can say like this: life is nothing (empty) but your nothingness (emptiness) makes you something.

Similarly, Christian understanding of kenosis (Phil 2:6-11, emptying of oneself) reflects nothingness attitude in our life. It is also found in the Q gospel: There was once a rich man whose lands yielded a good harvest. He thought to himself, “What should I do? I don’t have enough room to store my crops. I know, I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones so that I can keep all my grain in them. Then I will say to myself, ‘I have enough to last me for years. I can take it easy, eat, drink and have a good time.’ But God said to him, “You fool! This very night you may die. Then who will own this hoard of yours? So it is with those who pile up possessions but remain poor in the treasures of the spirit. Jesus says, “If you try to gain your life, you will lose it; but if you lose it, you will gain it.”

St. Paul also says, “I die everyday on the cross.” If you gather more and more and do not give out, you will become slaves of riches. But if you give up more and more, your freedom of heart will be greater and greater. Furthermore, your self will live a meaningful life, a perfection of life with a sense of living with others in the community. In this way our life extends forever; it is not different from the idea of “eternal life” in the Gospel of John. True spirituality begins when we feel the same fate with others and act out by giving what we have. God wants a fair balance between the rich and the poor. God wants the light and life for all because God is the God of all. That is how I read the Bible.

Teaching the Bible in a Different Culture

*Note: The following piece was also posted at Teaching Theology in a Global and Transnational World.

by Yung Suk Kim

Ellen Ott Marshall wrote in a blog: “Transnational pedagogy is learner-centered teaching. It takes into account the varied experiences of students in the classroom, recognizing and utilizing expertise and also accommodating different backgrounds.” Her words struck a chord in me.

I am teaching in the area of biblical studies, and New Testament in particular, at the school of theology where I am the only faculty member of Asian (Korean) heritage and my students are predominantly African-American. They are thirsty for the “living waters” so to speak.

Most of my students, full-time employees in the private or public sectors, come to study in the evenings during the weekdays or on weekends. In this unique environment, teaching the Bible or theology is a daunting task, partly because I am a cultural stranger to the students and partly because my students are divergent even within their African culture.

Some are more marginalized than others. There are also issues regarding gender and class. More importantly, their theological spectrum is broader than I had assumed, ranging from liberationist to fundamentalist positions. However, one thing I have discovered again and again is that I could share my own marginalized experience with them.

I also found that the students are very open to new learning and challenges in biblical studies. Over the years, as I wrote in my Web site, I have come up with the following teaching philosophy that tells who I am or what I am doing in this vocation of theological education:

I teach to engage in the knowledge of who we are in this world where we see one another as diverse. Diversity is not taken for granted but utilized as a source of critical engagement with others. I value both a critical and self-critical stance toward any claim of knowledge, truth, and reality and emphasize the following as pedagogical goals: learning from others, challenging one another, affirming who we are, and working for common humanity through differences. All in all, the goal of my teaching is to foster critical diversity and imagination in their learning process.

Most recently, I taught Introduction to Biblical Studies to first year students. The contents and design of the course focused on helping students to become critical contextual biblical theologians. I explained the processes and complexities of biblical interpretation in which the reader takes the center stage. I also emphasized three elements of critical contextual interpretation: how to read (the text), what to read (textual focus or theology), and why to read (contextuality of the reader), which will be the topics of my future book.

In my teaching, I reiterate the importance of the role of the reader, who has to engage not only the text but also his or her life in a particular life context. At the same time, I help students to be critical of all readings because not all are equally valid or helpful. The oft-cited verse in my classroom is: “Test everything; hold fast to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21).

We not only unpack the texts from many perspectives, but also deconstruct our familiar readings and reconstruct them in new life contexts. Students are refreshed because of their new learning experience in biblical studies. They also find themselves loving the scripture not simply because of what has been written there but also because they can engage it critically and faithfully for their lives. Oppressive theologies are rejected and the students are reaffirmed as the people of God. In this way the Bible is deconstructed and reconstructed through their lives, because God is the God of all. God is not the God of the past alone, but of the present amidst their turmoil.

In one of my classes, I asked each group (made up of six or seven people) to discuss and answer this question: “Who is Jesus to you and your community? Portray him, using all kinds of methods or approaches that you have learned so far.”

Each group worked hard, and all were genuinely engaged. They used pencils, colored pens, and poster board. Afterward, members of each group stood alongside each other and presented their works creatively and faithfully. I was very impressed by their comprehensive understanding of Jesus in context and by their skills in portraying him from their particular life contexts.

One group said Jesus is water because he is the source of life for Africans and others. After the presentation, I added one thing: Water is a great metaphor since I could relate to my experience of water in my culture. I briefly talked about the image and metaphor of water in Daoism and my cultural experience. The experience here is cross-cultural, spiritual, and contextual.

The other group said Jesus is the sun, because he shines upon all people, showing God’s love to all in the world. The idea here is that Africans need the light and that they become a light for others. I added one more thing: Jesus as the sun is like the power plant, which runs with nuclear fusion, giving energy and light to others (centrifugal). In contrast, the Empires gather power for them at the expense of others (centripetal). There are three more groups that presented nicely. I could see all of my students were engaged in the exercise and they were excited by what they had done. Finally, all said amen. 
*Yung Suk Kim is Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology in Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books, including A Theological Introduction to Paul’s Letters: Exploring a Threefold Theology of Paul (Cascade, 2011) and Christ’s Body in Corinth: The Politics of a Metaphor (Fortress, 2008).

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Miracles and Human Transformation

Miracles and Human Transformation
 Yung Suk Kim
The Nature of Miracles
What do miracles in the Bible have to do with us? If we read them only as God’s power, we would miss the point of a transformation we need today.  As we hear of miracle stories in the Exodus event (such as parting of the water or striking the rock to get water), we are challenged to rethink about miracles because they call for certain action with faith. Similarly, if we read the story of Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes in the wilderness, we are challenged to think and act differently than is normally thought of. Here the point is not simply that Jesus could do anything as the Son of God. In fact, miracle stories are placed in particular literary or historical context in which biblical audiences have to deal with their life circumstances. Otherwise, they are not told in a vacuum. In this sense, a miracle is not merely about God or Jesus but about people in the world who face various life struggles and difficulties. In the following we will briefly look into transformative lessons from the exodus miracle and Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes.

The Exodus Story (Exod 7-12)
Scholars believe that the early stage of the exodus story begins with a few hundred Hebrew slaves at the Nile delta area (Ramses) who flee Egypt for their liberation at all risks. These slaves believe Yahweh would help them. They were on foot and could cross the marsh reeds or shallow lakes (not the Red Sea; the Hebrew word yam suph means “sea of reeds”) without being struck down by the Egyptian chariots. The Egyptians gave up chasing them because they could not enter the lakes with chariots. Moreover, a few hundred slaves were inconsequential to the Egyptian economy. But to a group of these slaves their escape was nothing short of a miracle. Reflecting on and remembering what just happened to them, these slaves firmly believe that this event is none other than a miracle, possible only through God’s power and grace. The Lord (Yahweh) made it happen and their faith confirms it. This experience gives them words of confession and encouragement that God is the source of everything.
Actually, this miracle would not have been possible if they had not left a place of shackles in Egypt for a new home of freedom and justice. It was a miracle not because supernatural things happened but because what they thought was impossible came true in their eyes. They could have been captured and killed, but in fact they were saved.
The transformative lesion is clear: we can break shackles of oppression by trusting God. Hebrew slaves did not wait for angels to come to rescue them in prisons or their working places. If they had stayed in their place with fear and despair, they would not have enjoyed freedom. Scholars believe that as time goes by, this seemingly simple story of faith that calls for action for liberation has been embellished and expanded. But the whole point of the story is not about the graphic, majestic description of how fleeing Israelites crossed the sea by the miraculous act of God, but about people’s courage, faith, action, dream, and hope for a free home even with the cost of a death on their run.

Feeding the Multitudes
Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes appears in all four gospels (Matt 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-15) and has similar transformative lessons for us. The power of this miracle story does not lie in the supernatural power of Jesus as if Jesus could provide anything for the needy, but lie in a little child's faith and action through which many people are supposedly motivated to give their own, too. Imagine people gathering in a dry, sunny wilderness. Even a little bread amounts to tons of bread for the hungry bodies and souls. A little thing of sharing could ignite others to do the same. Sharing is a miracle! This miracle story is a symbolic, moral story that challenges others to do the same like a little child and those who gathered who participated in the boy’s faith and action. Otherwise if we focus only on Jesus’ power that feeds the five thousand people, we would miss this important aspect of a sharing miracle sparked through a little child and completed through the participation of the crowd in the desert.

In this sense, a true miracle in this story has to do with a change of the heart – from self-feeding attitude to other-feeding attitude by sharing a little thing. This miracle is not merely about the power of God or Jesus who does supernatural things like changing the tree, the stone, or the wind. Many people are starving to death even today not because food is in short in the world but because people are as dull and hard as not to break their hearts for others. A miracle begins with one’s heart and with small things.

Jesus' Parables and Human Transformation

Yung Suk Kim
The Nature of Jesus’ Parables
A parable (parabole in Greek) is a fictional story about everyday life; para means alongside, and bole comes from ballo (to mean “to cast”). Literally, it means a story thrown alongside of life. About one third of Jesus’ teaching in the synoptic gospels is done through parables and his teaching focus is about “God’s rule” (basileia tou theou) in the world, the recurrent theme of the gospels. Jesus’ parables invite the audience to see something radically different from the status quo of society or community.
Because of the parable’s nature as such, it has double-entendre. On the one hand, a parable must be easy to understand because it is taken from everyday life (as shown in the parables of the sower and the mustard seed). On the other hand, however, it is very difficult to understand because the parable involves figurative language which needs careful attention and skill from the reader.

Meaning of a Parable as Engagement
Since meaning of a parable is not self-evident and the parable is open-ended, hearers always have to struggle and interpret it for themselves by drawing on metaphors or symbols in it. For example, in the parable of the sower (Mark 4:1-20; Matt 13:3-23; Luke 8:5-15; Thom 9), there are at least four metaphors that we have to interpret: the sower, soil, the seed, and the harvest. The interpretive task and question is how can we relate God’s rule with each of these metaphors? That is, how can we understand a link between God’s rule and each metaphor? It is like swimming a deep sea where readers have to decide what to do and what to explore in such a place. What follows is an illustration of human transformation in the parable of “the seed growing secretly” found in Mark 4:26-29.

The Seed Growing Secretly (Mark 4:26-29)
Jesus’ parables are a perfect place for studying human transformation. At each step of metaphoric interpretation of a parable, our understanding and challenge about God’s rule is indescribably big. Mark 4:26-29 reads:

26 He also said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground,
27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come."

In this parable we can identify several metaphors: the sower (someone scattering seed), the seed, the ground or the earth, and the harvest. One caveat is that this parable should not be read as allegory although such an interpretation has been popular and practiced for so long beginning with the early church. The reason is clear: allegorical interpretation of the parable deprives not only the diversity of meaning but very challenging metaphoric messages hidden in the story, which readers have to struggle to understand; that is possible only by readers’ engaging the parable.
First of all, we can think about God’s rule and its relationship with the sower, which, in theory, may be variously compared to God, Jesus, Jesus’ disciples, or to any person. But God and Jesus may not be a good option because verse 27 says the sower does not know how the seed would sprout and grow. Readers assume that God and Jesus must know how the seed grows. Then another option may be that Jesus’ disciples take the role of the sower, who plants the seed and waits patiently for the harvest. The transformative lesson is that the disciples have to endure until harvest while doing good works of planting. In addition, we may think of the sower as any person like a farmer, who may realize that he or she cannot have harvest without good weather. Here the transformation is the recognition that we cannot live alone without God.
Second, we can relate God’s rule with the seed, which is sown on the ground and grows. At least, there are two metaphorical relationships between them. On one level, the seed’s mystery can be looked at and the seed grows because of it. The seed is certainly not human-origin and it can be understood variously as God’s power, grace, word, or teaching. So the lesson about human transformation is that we depend on the seed as a source of life: God’s healing presence (not human-made presence), God’s grace (not human efforts), God’s word and teaching (not human wisdom or philosophy). Caution is that this parable assumes that the seed itself is good. In a real world, there may be bad seeds which may bear bad fruits. But that issue is not dealt in this parable. This means a parable does not deal with all situations; therefore, it should be interpreted in context, however complex or diverse it may be.
On another level, we may think about the seed’s sacrifice. The seed must die and bear fruit. Jesus teaches the way of the cross in Mark 8:34-38, and his followers (his disciples and the crowd) must deny themselves to follow him, taking up their cross: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). So the transformative lesson is: “Die like the seed and bear fruit.”
Third, we can relate God’s rule with the ground or the earth. Once the seed is sown on the ground, it sprouts and grows. The seed alone cannot do anything unless sown on the ground. It is the ground that accepts the seed and supports it with calmness and sincerity. In this sense, the ground is God-given blessing. In theory, we can think of various conditions of soil as shown in Mark 4:10-20, which is an extended interpretation of the parable proper in 4:1-9. But the proper context of this parable limits us to focus on the theme of God’s grace, which is compared to the image or metaphor of “the seed growing secretly.” That is to say, the ground represents the gift of God along with the seed. Once sown on the ground, the seed will sprout and grow. What we can do is to scatter or plant the seed and wait until the harvest. There are things we can do and there are things we cannot do. What we cannot do is God’s part. So the transformative lesson is turn to God for life. Our job is not to create or manipulate God’s world but to care for it.

As we see above, the meaning of a parable is not fixed but very invitational and challenging precisely because God’s rule involves complex realities and diverse ongoing participation. The other important thing is the fact that parables are open-ended, and therefore hearers/readers have to come up with their own responses to the unfinished or unanswered questions with metaphoric links in the parable. Readers are often surprised, challenged, and awakened to a new awareness of God’s rule or presence in the world. In this regard, the parable does something to us to the extent that we are asked to re-create our own transformative stories in accordance with God’s rule in the here and now.