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Reoriented and Rejuvenated: Anna Case-Winters’ New Commentary on Matthew

 

Rev. Dr. Anna Case-Winters
Rev. Dr. Anna Case-Winters

Can a theologian write Bible commentary?  What happens when a Process-Feminist-Science-Friendly theologian spends a year with a gospel? Rev. Dr. Anna Case-Winters took on such a project, and next month her commentary on the Book of Matthew will be added to the Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible of Westminster John Knox Press.  Anna says that the project challenged her to exercise different scholarly muscles and had a profound impact on her work and teaching.

Walk into any theological library and you will see countless Biblical commentaries, resources to help preachers and theologians understand the historical and literary context of Scripture.  Most authors of these commentators are renowned Biblical scholars who have spent much of their career with the original source material and researching the history of the text, the authors, and the community of origin.  “Recently, with the specialization of religious scholarship, only Biblical scholars write commentaries,” says Anna.  “It used to be expected of theologians to write commentaries, but now we just read each other’s work.”  Karl Barth, one of the most well-known theologians of the past century, argued that it was necessary for theologians to engage with the original text and to wrestle with its messages.  The invitation to write for the Theological Commentary Series helped Anna reclaim the work of grappling with the text.

“If I pray for the reign of God every Sunday, how can I work against it during the week?  What would it mean to live out that prayer in my daily life?”

Anna took a sabbatical and spent a year with the Gospel according to Matthew.  She first read a wide breadth of Biblical scholarship, drawing on the knowledge and resources of New Testament scholars including colleague Dr. Sarah Tanzer.  After she felt that she had a thorough understanding of the historical and literary context of the Scripture, she began to engage the text on a second level—one that challenges theologians to relate it to our modern world.  As she read through the gospel, she noticed five themes emerging:

  • The gospel was written to a community of faith characterized by conflict and division
  • The gospel was written in a time with clearly defined community “insiders” and “outsiders”
  • The gospel was written at a time when religious leaders were mistrusted and coopted
  • The gospel was written when most common people were disempowered
  • The gospel was written amidst a great cultural clash

These five themes highlighted for Anna how relevant the Gospel according to Matthew still is, for these are issues that our modern churches and communities still face.  The Occupy Movement, globalization, the growing wealth gap, and the conflicts within modern churches provide close parallels with the context of the author and his/her community.  These themes informed Anna’s own theological analysis of the text, and gave her a new understanding of what it means to follow Christ in the 21st century.

"Sermon on the Mount" by Laura James
“Sermon on the Mount” by Laura James

One of the most disruptive passages that Anna revisited was the Sermon on the Mount (Matt: 5-7).  “As I was doing the initial research, I noticed that many scholars had been able to work around its radical message.  Some said it was written for a community that believed Jesus was coming back tomorrow; Reform theologians said it was an impossible ethic to highlight our need for God’s grace. They all succeed in laying aside the demands of the Gospel.”  Anna felt challenged to wrestle with the Sermon on the Mount; what would it mean to reclaim the demands of discipleship in today’s world and incorporate Jesus’ radical (some say impossible) instructions into contemporary Christian ethics?

“I also got caught up in the Lord’s Prayer, which is right in the middle [of the Sermon on the Mount],” says Anna.  “We say it every week, it’s been passed down through the centuries, but we rarely think about what it actually means and incorporate it into our daily lives.”  Although it was one of the most familiar texts, Anna found new meaning in the words, including the fact that there is no individual language in the prayer, only communal.  The prayer became more meaningful and more striking than ever. “If I pray for the reign of God every Sunday, how can I work against it during the week?  What would it mean to live out that prayer in my daily life?”

The commentary has also had a profound impact on Anna’s conception and practice of her profession as theologian, scholar, and teacher.  “I was challenged to think outside the narrow constraints of what the academy deems acceptable for theological scholarship.  [The project] also gave me permission to engage the text on a different level, and to go back to the original material instead of limiting my conversations to only other theologians.”  This kind of creativity is well-received at McCormick, where faculty and students are encouraged to take an inter-disciplinary approach to education.  Anna also found that her conversations with students in the classroom helped to flesh out her ideas during the process. “My students are my testing ground, I’m able to work through new ideas that may come that morning!  My writing is also more accessible as a result, my audience is my students.”

In just a few short weeks, hopefully by Valentine’s Day, Anna’s book will be available for purchase.  She gave a talk at the 2014 American Academy of Religions and Society for Biblical Literature conference in California, and is already scheduled to speak at several churches in the Chicago area.  Although this is the end of a long journey, Anna is excited about the book tour.  “Living with Matthew for a year really changed me, and I’m not tired of talking about it yet!”

Matthew CommentaryRev. Dr. Anna Case Winters is a “Process-Feminist-Science-Friendly” theology professor at McCormick Theological Seminary.  Her courses include “Science and Religion,” “Introduction to Theology,” and “God, Suffering, and Evil.” You can order Matthew: A Theological Commentary online on February 9, 2015.  Stay tuned for events coming up at McCormick to celebrate the book release!