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'Jesus Seminar on the Road' connects early Christianity and today's political resistance.

Celene LillieIn 2017, it's difficult to find a topic that doesn't relate back to politics. So it should come as no surprise that Southminster Presbyterian Church in Beaverton is hosting a seminar next weekend on the life of Jesus and the early Christians, ancient religious and historical texts — and, you guessed it, our current political climate.

"Jesus Seminar on the Road" is presented by the Westar Institute, a Willamette University-based organization that promotes the scholarly study of Jesus and Christianity. At the upcoming Beaverton seminar, academics Arthur Dewey and Celene Lillie will give talks and host forums with titles like "Jesus and the Art of Resistance," "The Political Jesus" and "Christian Resistance Today."

For Lillie, the seminar is a chance to bring a Christian perspective to American politics, and to educate people about the political realities of Christianity's founding. She pointed out that during the religion's early years, Israel was occupied by the oppressive Roman empire.

"What we think of as Christianity today was really part of, and a response to, a political situation," she said.

As a scholar, Lillie takes a particular interest in drawing parallels between ancient Christianity and today's society. As an example, she brought up the the way ideologues across the spectrum often try to distill their beliefs into black-or-white issues.

"It's a pretty either/or message," she said. "It's, this is the right way and this is the wrong way ... and the world has gotten really complicated."

Complicated — just like early Christianity.

"We look at things that were actually going on in the world, and the stories in the New Testament, in the scripture — the stories that the four different gospels tell are different stories," she said. "The story that Paul tells is a different story. And when we move out beyond that, the story of early Christianity gets much more complicated."

Lillie knows that because of separation of church and state, Americans can sometimes be reluctant to look at politics through a religious lens. She also recognizes that when political issues do become religious, it's often in the form of divisive wedge issues, such as reproductive rights or LGBTQ issues.

But, Lillie asserts, Christian values can be applied to American political discourse in a much more holistic manner.

"I think about the environment," she said. "What is our responsibility to the world around us? I think this is a huge area that Christianity needs to be thinking about. This is something that's really interesting, too, as we look at more evangelical and, quote-unquote, progressive voices. This is one of those areas where intra-Christian dialogue is possible. ... Evangelicals are doing a lot around environmental issues, and around poverty issues."

She went on to point out that economic justice is the most-discussed political issue in the New Testament.

"You cannot say that the Apostles and Jesus are not talking about the poor."

Lille recently published "The Rape of Eve: The Transformation of Roman Ideology in Three Early Christian Retellings of Genesis," in which she studies the prevalence of sexual violence in ancient origin myths, and the ongoing challenges those origin myths present for women, such as being blamed for the concept of original sin. It isn't hard for her to connect the dots to today's society.

"Questions of sexual assault were big questions in the last election, and especially in the last few weeks with the Harvey Weinstein revelations," she said. "Every day, there are more women coming forward about their experiences with men in power. And we have ancient texts that directly address questions of sexual violence. I think that's a really important thing to talk about."

Religion and politics might not make for polite dinner conversation, but for Lillie, it's essential to not look at these issues in a vacuum.

"Our history is a way for us to think about our current situation," Lillie said, "even if there's not a one-to-one correlation with what's going on today."

Click here for more information on "Jesus Seminar on the Road."

Blair Stenvick
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