Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Genesis: A Living Conversation

In my post on Jewish influences (see below), Chris Baker (Sandalstraps) recommended also the works of Rabbi Burton Vizotsky, who teaches at Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC. I haven’t yet read any of R. Vizotsky’s works, but I did know who he was because several years ago I saw Bill Moyers’ PBS series, Genesis: A Living Conversation . This was a brilliant series which discussed many of the stories of the first book of the Bible in a series of conversations with biblical scholars (Christian, Jewish, and Muslim–in those few stories also told in the Qu’ran), theologians, artists, playwrights, novelists, and journalists–including some who would call themselves atheists, but also including evangelicals, and Christians from a wide range of perspectives. (Moyers tried to invite fundamentalists, too, but they were only interested in discussing whether Gen. 1 & 2 were scientifically accurate!!!) Other than Moyers as host, R. Vizotsky was the only participant in ALL of the episodes.

At any rate, that reminded me of this great series. I highly recommend it  adult Sunday School classes since each episode is designed to stimulate further conversation–the dialogues are unfinished.  The entire series is expensive:  A 5 DVD set for $119.95 (U.S.) or VHS for $89.96.  It also comes with guides for stimulating conversations and forming discussion groups.  But, if you or your church can’t shell out that much, most public libraries (at least in the U.S.) have copies that can be checked out for free.  This is educational television at its best, folks, and can raise the level of discussion in most congregations. If one could even arrange for interfaith gatherings with Jews and Muslims, as in the series itself, the discussions could lead to better understandings between communities–something not to be sneezed at in our world.

Just to whet your appetites, here are the participants:

Host: Veteran journalist, Bill Moyers, once White House press secretary in the Johnson administration. A native Texan, Moyers has a seminary degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth in the years before it was a fundamentalist preacher factory.

Storytellers/Narrators:  Each episode begins with a passage from Genesis read by either the singer and Emmy Award winning actor Mandy Patinkin (Chicago Hope, Criminal Minds, Dead Like Me, the movie version of Alien Nation, Yentl, etc.) or the Academy Award nominated actress Alfre Woodard (Crooklyn, Scrooged!, Passion Fish, Star Trek: First Contact, etc.)


Azizah Y. al-Hibri, who teaches law at the University of Richmond in Virginia, is the founder and former president of Karamah: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, a member of the editorial board of The Journal of Law and Religion, and editor of Women and Islam.

Robert Alter, Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley, is one of the leading voices in literary/narrative approaches to biblical studies.  He is the author of the groundbreaking, The Art of Biblical Narrative (which was required when I went to seminary in the ’80s), of Hebrew and Modernity, and of Genesis: A New Translation and Commentary, among others.

Karen Armstrong, a former Catholic nun, is a student of comparative religion and history who teaches at London’s famed Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism.  Her book, A History of God, was a New York Times bestseller.

John Barth, despite his theologically famous surname, is a self-confessed religious skeptic. However, as an award winning novelist, he is deeply aware of the influence of biblical writings on Western literature.

Dianne Bergant, C.S.C. teaches Old Testament at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

Walter Brueggemann, is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and one of the most famous, prolific, and influential Old Testament scholars in the contemporary English-speaking world.  Now “retired,” he was at the time of this series Professor of Old Testament Studies at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, GA.

Byron E. “Barney” Calame, a veteran journalist, was, at the time of this series, managing editor of The Wall Street Journal and a profound student of human culture.

Norman J. Cohen, a Reform rabbi, is the dean of the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.  He is the author of Self, Struggle, and Change:  The Family Conflict Stories in Genesis and Their Healing Insights for Our Lives.

Fr. Alexander A. DiLella, a Franciscan priest, is Distinguished Professor of Biblical Studies at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.  He is also a Bible translator and one of the editors of The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version: Catholic Edition.

Francisco O. Garcia-Treto, Professor and Chair, Department of Religion, Trinity University, San Antonio, TX.  A naturalized U.S. citizen born in Cuba, Prof. Garcia-Treto is also an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church, USA and an author of several writings on the literary study of the Bible.

Carol Gilligan, has become famous in American feminist circles, among those involved in studying moral development and moral reasoning.  A clinical psychologist and founding member of the Harvard Project on Women’s Psychology, she is most famous for her work, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Like Sigmund Freud (with whom she has a love-hate relationship!), Gilligan is deeply aware of the moral psychological dimensions of the Genesis stories and, in turn, their shaping of moral development, today.

Rebecca Goldstein taught philosophy for some time at Barnard College, but has concentrated on being a novelist for some time.

Mary Gordon, Professor of English at Barnard College, is an award winning novelist.

Blu Greenberg, is a writer and poet who serves on the editorial board of Hadassah and the advisory board of Lilith.  She is the author of Black Bread:  Poems After the Holocaust; How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household; On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition.

Roberta Hestenes is an evangelical Christian and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church, USA, married to a research scientist with grown children.  Having formerly taught at Fuller Theological Seminary, she was, at the time this series aired (1996), President of Eastern University in St. Davids, PA, where she founded the Center for Christian Women’s Leadership.  She is a past chair of the Board of World Vision International.

Oscar Hijuelos is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1990).

Charles Johnson teaches English at the University of Washington in Seattle and won the National Book Award in 1990 for his novel The Middle Passage.

Leon R. Kass, M.D. is Harding Professor of Biology at Chicago University and a member of the university’s Committee on Social Thought.  He has published widely on ethics, science, and public affairs.

Faye Kellerman is a Los Angeles based mystery writer who has created a unique series of mysteries involving a husband-wife detective team who are Orthodox Jews.

Fr. John S. Kselman, S.J. is a Catholic priest in the Society of Jesus and Professor of Old Testament at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, MA.  Among other scholarly writings, he wrote the Genesis section of Harper’s Bible Commentary.

P. K. McCary, a journalist, author, and playwright, is a member of Brentwood Baptist Church in Houston, TX.  She is the author of Black Bible Chronicles: From Genesis to the Promised Land (a version of the Old Testament aimed at African-American youth).

Stephen Mitchell is a translator and interpreter who wrote Genesis: A New Translation of the Classical Biblical Stories.

Bharati Mukherjee, born in Calcutta, India, is Professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley and an award-winning author of fiction.

Seyyid Hossein Nasr, born in Iran, is a naturalized U.S. citizen.  He studied physics and mathematics at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and earned a Ph.D. in the history and philosophy of science (with an emphasis on Islamic science) at Harvard University. He teaches Islamic Studies at George Washington University and is the author or editor of 29 different books including, Ideals and Realities of Islam; Science and Civilization in Islam; Islamic Life and Thought.

Hugh O’Donnell, a self-proclaimed agnostic, is an internationally recognized artist.  Formerly Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at the University of Brighton (U.K.), at the time of this series he was Director of the School of Visual Arts, Boston University.

Elaine H. Pagels, Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University, is perhaps the most famous (infamous?) contemporary Gnostic and a controversial scholar of the Gnostic Gospels and other Gnostic writings.  Part of a team that studied the Nag Hammadi Library (the largest collection of Gnostic writings), Pagels has argued, against previous critical scholarship that the New Testament writings were far more similar to the Gnostics than previously thought. She argues that the Gnostics had a more authentic interpretation of Christianity than that which became considered orthodox by the early church councils.  Her writings, always controversial, have led her to receive a MacArthur Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Rockefeller Fellowship.

Samuel DeWitt Proctor (1921-1997) was one of the most influential persons in African-American theological education.  An ordained Baptist minister, at the time of the series (1996), he was Adjunct Professor of Theology at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, OH. Long a pastor at the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church, Harlem, New York City, Proctor had also been Professor Emeritus of Rutgers University and Presidentof Virginia Union University (founded by American Baptist missionaries right after the Civil War for freed slaves needing trained ministers).  VUU’s divinity school has since been renamed The Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology.

Eugene Rivers III, an ordained minister in the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), the largest Black-majority Pentecostal denomination, earned his seminary degree from Harvard Divinity School. He is a minister and a community organizer who founded the Ten Point Coalition to reclaim inner-city Boston from druglords.  Co-founder of Azusa Christian Community, Rivers also directs the Seymour Institute for Advanced Christian Studies and is on the editorial board of the Journal for Pentecostal Studies.

Naomi H. Rosenblatt, born in Haifa, Israel, majored in biblical studies at the Reali School and served in the Israeli Navy.  She is a psychotherapist, author, lecturer and, at her local synagogue, is an adult Bible class teacher.  She is the author (with Joshua Horwitz) of Wrestling with Angels:  What the First Family of Genesis Teaches Us About Our Spiritual Identity, Sexuality, and Personal Relationships.

Jean-Pierre M. Ruiz, a Catholic priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, teaches in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, St. John’s University.

Lewis B. Smedes (1921-2002) was an evangelical Christian and an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church. He taught for many years at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA, first in Christian ethics and then in pastoral care. 

Elizabeth Swados is an Obie Award winning writer, musician, actor, and artist, whose theatre work has appeared on and off Broadway.

Marrianne Meye Thompson, an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church, USA,  is an evangelical Christian and teaches New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary.  She is an acknowledged Johannine scholar.

Phyllis Trible, now the founding Associate Dean at the Divinity School of Wake Forest University, was at the time of this series Baldwin Professor of Sacred Literature, Union Theological Seminary of New York.  She is a renowned scholar of the Hebrew Bible who pioneered in what came to be called “rhetorical criticism.” She has written extensively in literary criticism and biblical studies from a feminist Christian perspective.  Her most famous works are God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (which deals extensively with Genesis, among other texts), Texts of Terror: Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives, and Rhetorical Criticism: Context, Method, and the Book of Jonah.

R. Burton R. Vizotsky, a Conservative rabbi, is Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies, Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He is also Adjunct Professor of Biblical Studies, Union Theological Seminary in New York.   R. Vizotsky and Moyers conceived this project together and he is the only participant other than Moyers to appear in every episode.  Among his other writings, he is the author of The Ethics of Genesis and the Genesis of Ethics.

Renita J. Weems, an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, until recently taught Old Testament studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School.  She is another pioneer in feminist/womanist biblical scholarship.  Her book, Battered Love, explored the connections between gender, sexuality, and violence in the biblical prophets.  She has a column at Belief.net .

Robin Darling Young teaches theology at Catholic University of America.

Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, lectures in biblical studies at the University of Jerusalem.  Her 1995 book, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire won the National Jewish Book Award for that year.

As you can imagine, such a diverse group isn’t an echo chamber of unified beliefs.  The conversations in the episodes included some strong disagreements!  You will find yourself sometimes taking sides–and sometimes thinking everyone in that episode is missing the point!  Does wisdom emerge from these arguments? I leave that for you to decide, but it is certain that watching this series, especially with groups that will continue the discussions, will broaden and deepen the way one approaches Genesis–or the Bible as a whole.


September 8, 2007 - Posted by | Biblical exegesis

1 Comment

  1. Truly a great series. There is also a companion book which is essentially a transcript of the shows. It’s good for slow ruminating upon the discussions.

    Comment by Tauratinzwe | September 9, 2007

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