George M. SOARES-PRABHU: The Dharma of Jesus, edited by Francis Xavier D'SA. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2003. 296 pp. $30.00 pb. ISBN 1-57075-459-4.
Reviewed by John SNIEGOCKI, Xavier University, Cincinnati, OH 45207-4442

George Soares-Prabhu is an Indian biblical scholar and theologian who died in 1995. This volume is a collection of his essays exploring the meaning of Jesus in the context of contemporary India.

The first section of essays presents Soares-Prabhus's portrait of Jesus and of the community that he founded. While S-P recognizes that the gospels are not biographies, he believes that they do allow us to "encounter" Jesus and asserts that the overall impression of Jesus that they convey can be seen as reliable. (28) Rather than focusing primarily on the "historical Jesus" (which S-P views as too uncertain) or on the "Christ of faith" (which he sees as too abstract and metaphysical), S-P focuses on what he terms the "Jesus of faith," i.e. the Jesus presented to us in the confessional history of the New Testament.

Soares-Prabhu describes Jesus as teacher, prophet, and proclaimer of the Kingdom of God. S-P highlights the "non-elitist pedagogy" of Jesus, stressing his openness to the uneducated, the poor, and the social outcasts. He also highlights Jesus' dialogical teaching style, expressed for example in his use of parables which elicit response on the part of the hearer. As a person rooted in the prophetic tradition, S-P understands Jesus to have challenged the social structures of his day through his words and actions. Proclaiming a God of unconditional love ("Abba"), Jesus challenged all that which hindered the proper expression of love. Thus, he violated harmful social restrictions through his table fellowship with outcasts and his openness to women, he challenged injustice in his cleansing of the temple, he stressed service and non-authoritarian leadership, he criticized accumulation of wealth and emphasized sharing, etc.

The task of theologians today, S-P suggests, is to develop christologies rooted in this biblical witness that respond to our contemporary social contexts. The christology of the ecumenical councils such as Chalcedon, he argues, "however correct it might be, represents a narrow, culturally conditioned, and even politically motivated development which exploits only a very small fraction of the christological potential that the New Testament offers." (76) New circumstances call for new christologies. In contemporary India, S-P suggests, what is needed is a christology that responds above all to realities of oppressive poverty, caste discrimination, and religious pluralism. It is from encounter with the liberating praxis and person of Jesus, mediated through the New Testament texts and incarnated in contemporary communities of faith, that such christologies will arise. The reality of religious pluralism in India leads Soares-Prabhu to reflect on the meaning of Christian mission, the subject of the last several essays in the volume. S-P suggests that mission should be defined primarily in terms of witness rather than verbal proclamation. It is, he suggests, by seeking to faithfully demonstrate God's unconditional love through their actions that Christians will most effectively be instruments of God's Kingdom.

Overall, this is an excellent collection of essays. Soares-Prabhu demonstrates extensive and nuanced knowledge of the biblical texts and brings the texts into dialogue with contemporary realities in creative and thought-provoking ways

. Several areas may merit further attention. One is S-P's discussion of violence. While stressing that Jesus calls for love of enemy, S-P states that such love does not necessarily exclude violence. (170) He doesn't provide much explanation, however, as to the compatibility of love and violence. Elsewhere, he speaks very positively of Gandhian nonviolence and asserts that it "is the most consistent and effective method that has yet been elaborated" for living out the teachings of the Gospel. (228) Some tensions seem to exist here.

Also, Soares-Prabhu at times speaks in overly general and negative terms about Judaism at the time of Jesus. He states, for example, that "for the Jewish contemporaries of Jesus, the Law was to be observed in a strictly formal way." While he strongly warns elsewhere against the dangers of anti-Semitism, statements such as this would seem to perpetuate harmful stereotypes and not accurately reflect the historical reality of the time. S-P's main concern, in any case, seems more to be with setting up a critique of the failings of contemporary Christians and calling the Christian community to faithfulness. It is this call to faithfulness which is the heart of S-P's work:

"For with the stifling ritualism of our worship and the unbridled legalism of our canon law, with all our ecclesiastical careerism, our petty tyrannies, our delight in tinsel titles..., with our large neglect of the poor, our shoddy compromises with the powerful, our connivance at injustice, and our worship of wealth, we are, surely, far indeed from the dream that Jesus dreamed. But this should not discourage us....The important thing is that we do not stop walking, that we continue to be pulled by Jesus' dream." (48)
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