Jesus: A Theography – the Sweet/Viola Interview + Recommendation

In the third century, Origen of Alexandria taught that there are four senses of Scripture. In Chanting the Psalms, Cynthia Bourgeault summarizes these as follows:

  1. Historical (or “literal”), where Scripture is “all about facts and linear causality” (50).
  2. Christological (or “allegorical”), in which “all the stories and images in the Bible [are]…pointing toward the Christ mystery” (51).
  3. Tropological (or “growth”), in which the stories of Scripture are seen as “holograms of the soul’s journey” (51).
  4. Unitive in full blossom, (others say “anagogical”), in which “we begin to realize that there is only one story, the great biblical drama of salvation, and our own life is perfectly mirrored and contained within it” (52).

For many contemporary readers of Scripture and followers of Jesus, we’re stuck at the literal or historical sense of Holy Writ. Now granted, for alot of us, this is actually a step up; I know that when I was a kid and even a high school and college student, so much of the Bible was reduced to a one-dimensional morality tale, a story about how to “be like David” (the giant-slaying David, mind you, not the Bathsheba-bedding David!) or the Proverbs 31 woman (well, not me, specifically) or whatever. So when I began to discover the historical context of Scripture through scholars like NT Wright or Amy-Jill Levine or James Dunn or Bruce Chilton, my world opened up, as did my Bible and my faith. Still, as Cynthia‘s outline suggests, the ancients had a far more multi-dimensional approach to our sacred text, and it wasn’t just for reading – it was to to experientially know the God of the Bible (as revealed in Jesus Christ) and move through our own soul’s journey into a sense of union with God and the fullness of our destiny.

To put it mildly, contemporary Bible studies don’t do that. Most of them stick to morals that are often shallow, dubious, and/or partisan. A few of the best dip into the historical context of Scripture and paint the narrative in a compelling way. (For fine examples of this, I’d recommend my friend Sean Gladding‘s The Story of God, the Story of Us from Likewise, with its accompanying DVD set for group reading – as well as the Network of Biblical Storytelling and the International Orality Network) But what if there was a resource the bridged the Historical sense of Scripture with the Christological – the latter being a style of interpretation that has been out of favor with the academy and churches alike for centuries – paving the way for the reader to be catapulted into the Tropological and the Unitive fellowship of the Godhead?

I daresay that Frank Viola and Leonard Sweet‘s Jesus: A Theography does precisely this.

I’ll say more in a minute. But first, I wanted to share with you some about the book from the authors’ own words. I sat down with Sweet and Viola (virtually speaking) over the weekend to glean the following (note – the words are the interviewees, but the links are mostly mine. I like you to be able to engage the conversation with as much depth as you desire; Andrew Jones doesn’t call me “Dr Linkage” for nothing!):

Mike: Thanks for taking the time out to talk to my readers and curious potential readers everywhere. My first question about your new release concerns your sub-title. “Theography?” What’s a theography?   

Len: “Theography” literally means “the story of a god.” Even though I’m not averse to coining words (some would call that an understatement), we did not make up the word “theography.” It’s an actual genre of literature which has a long history. Rather than write a “biography of God” (Jack Miles) or a “history of God” (Karen Armstrong), we decided to lay our cards on the table and write the story of someone we believe is, as the Nicene Creed puts it, “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made.”

Frank: A theography is a theological biography. The book, therefore, tells the story of Jesus, beginning from eternity (John 1:1), all the way through the Old Testament (where Christ is foreshadowed, prefigured, and prophesied about), all the way through the New Testament and ending in Revelation. It seeks to marry theology with biography, bringing together Christology with historical Jesus studies.

Mike: You resurrect an ancient way of reading Scripture that’s nearly lost today – what some would call allegorical, or typological. Can you each say something about this way of finding Christ on every page of Holy Writ?

Frank: It’s not allegorical. We make a clear distinction in the book between subjective allegory (which we don’t subscribe to) and classic typology – which is basically a semiotic reading of Scripture. The latter is how the NT authors interpreted the OT. It’s also how Jesus taught His disciples to read the Scriptures. We unpack those two statements in the book.

Let me add something else. There are three things being emphasized today by some Christians and our book speaks directly to each one:

First – there is an emphasis on being “Red Letter Christians.” For better or for worse, one result of this emphasis is that many people have the idea that in order to really understand Jesus, we have to focus solely on the Gospels, particularly the places where Jesus tells us what to do. The “red letter” emphasis is no doubt a reaction to those who have pushed the gospel strictly in Pauline terms. But the net is often that we end up pitting Justice against Justification and people take sides.

By contrast, we believe that we will never fully understand Jesus simply by reading the red letters in the Gospels. Nor do we believe that we can fully understand Him by reading the writings of Paul only.

It is our conviction that we can only fully understand Jesus by learning to discover Him from Genesis to Revelation and interpret the Scriptures the same way that Jesus taught His disciples to interpret them.

Luke says that the risen Christ opened the understanding of His disciples, revealing Himself to them through Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms. Those are the three parts of the Hebrew Bible – the Tenack.

In addition, if we understand that Jesus is speaking in and through the Old Testament as YHWH, then all of the Bible should be in red letters.

Consequently, we’re all for being “Red Letter Christians,” if by that we mean Genesis to Revelation should be written in red.

If all Christians learned to discover Christ in all the Scriptures, it would constitute no small revolution in the Body of Christ . . . and in turn, the world. I believe the earth begs for such a revolution.

Second – there’s a re-emphasis on discipleship today in many quarters (“discipleship” was also big in the late 60s early 70s, then it went off the rails. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, many who are on the discipleship band-wagon today don’t know their history. And ignorance of history usually ends up in a repetition of it.)

Most of the people who promote this emphasis talk about the importance of reading the Bible. But reading the Bible on its own doth not a disciple make. The Bible must be interpreted.

In Jesus: A Theography, Len and I demonstrate how the first Christians (the NT authors) interpreted the Old Testament. And then we use that same hermeneutic (method of interpretation) to unveil Christ from Genesis to Revelation.

Consequently, beyond being a book that converges NT scholarship with theology and canonical criticism, our volume is a handbook for discipleship, showing God’s people how to read the Bible in the light of Jesus Christ. Reading the Bible this way brings it to life on so many levels.

Third – we live in a time where there is perhaps more diversity among Christians than ever before. Last year, Christian Smith wrote a little book about this and asserted that the cure for the interpretive pluralism that plagues biblical interpretation among Christians today is the rediscovery of the Christocentric hermeneutic.

We believe that there is a lot of truth in Smith’s proposal. While it’s no panacea, reading the Scriptures Christologically can help us profoundly on this score. Thus our book seeks to show what a Christocentric hermeneutic is, what it looks like, and how it can be applied to the entire Bible – both Old and New Testaments.

Len: Nowadays christology is the weak slat under the bed of theology; Frank and I believe it should be the whole bed. That is what we tried to show in this book—the seamless garment story of Jesus.

There has been a renewed interest in both ancient approaches to the Bible known as allegorical and typological. Although Frank and I contrast the two, shunning the allegorical and embracing the typological, there are some scholars who argue that we are mistaken in this and that any crisp contrast between the two is misguided (e.g. David Dawson, Allegorical Readers and Cultural Revision in Ancient Alexandria [University of California Press, 1992).

But we maintain the distinction in our book, and believe that the “storied world of the Bible” (Hans Frei) needs a unitive telling that requires a typological hermeneutic. If we are to move the biblical narrative from its historical context into any present and future setting, “translation” must transition into typology.

Charles L. Campbell’s excellent book on typological preaching defines typology as “fundamentally a Christological and ecclesial form of interpretation. That is, the movement is from events in the story of Israel through Jesus as the center and ‘archetype’ of the story to the church as the ongoing bearer of the story” (p. 253 of Preaching Jesus [1997]).  I personally prefer the lens and language of “semiotics” to “typology,” but the consensus of the publishers was that this would be too confusing to the reader.

You say some intriguing things about gardens and temples in your book, and how they reveal Christ. Could you summarize and preview this a bit here?               

Frank: The garden-temple theme stretches from Genesis to Revelation. We trace it in great detail throughout the book. It’s everywhere in Genesis 1 and 2 (we dedicate two chapters to Genesis 1 and 2, in fact). The garden-temple theme reappears in Revelation 21 and 22.

Jesus uses these motifs often in pointing to Himself. In John 1 and 2, which is “the new Genesis,” Jesus describes Himself as the new temple. In John 7 and John 14, images of living water and a vine tree hearken back to the garden. Christ embodies both the temple and the garden. The details, which we explore in the book, are no less than fascinating.

Len: The world’s oldest profession is not what you think it is. The First Adam was a gardener. The Last Adam, whose mission it was to return us to that garden relationship with God, had the imagination, not of a tool-guy, but of a gardener. In his first post-resurrection appearance, Jesus was mistaken for a gardener. As a writer, I think of myself as a gardener with words, and my computer as a garden bed. The Bible begins in a garden, and ends in a garden city . . . .  Have we teased you enough with the metaphor?

Mike: Yes Len, you’ve given me plenty to plow through. 🙂 (Ba-dum-bum!)

I’ve read both of you since the 1990s, and feel like I have a good handle on your respective themes and styles; I feel like this volume is much more ‘blended,’ style-and-content-wise, than your first collaboration together, Jesus Manifesto. Has your collaboration process evolved since then? How did you go about writing Jesus: A Theography?

Len: The more you spend time with someone, and think their thoughts with them and after them, the more you start to vibrate on the same wavelength. We wrote this book showing how Jesus is our tuning fork to the Eternal, God’s Perfect Pitch. As we disciplined our “tunings” to Him, our voices began to harmonize in a rich and rare way. I think you can still hear our distinctive frequencies, but it’s an ensemble of harmonious difference, not clashing differences.

Frank: Jesus Manifesto was a much shorter work and it reads more like an anthology of collected essays on the same topic. Jesus: A Theography is over 400 pages and it seeks to tell one story – a story that’s based in the discoveries of two lifetimes (Len’s and mine). We tried our best to write it with one voice. Some of our readers have observed that it reads similar to a novel. Each reader will have to decide if we succeeded in our intent.

Mike: Len, Frank – you’ve both served in ministry for decades, and yet I feel you both have as hallmarks of your ministries how everything old becomes new again – especially the ever-newness of God’s mercies in Christ. So I’m curious: In the process of putting words to paper (or pixel, as the case may be), did you each, personally, discover something fresh about the Christ you were unearthing in the pages of Scripture?           

Len: Our ancestors used to sing, “Every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before.” That’s the ultimate in discipleship. Jesus is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. But he also wants to be fresh every morning.

The Living Bread requires we bake fresh bread, which is what this book is: the freshest bread the two of us could serve up. Painter Robert Motherwell confessed one day that “most good painters don’t know what they think until they paint it.” I don’t think we really know what we believe and who Jesus is until we live our faith, put fingers to feelings and legs to thoughts. In writing this book, I discovered so much about Jesus I never knew or imagined.

Frank: When asked how long it took me to write my part of the book, my answer is that it took 30 years. I’ve spent my entire Christian life exploring Jesus in all the Scriptures, in the community of the church (present and ancient), and in day-to-day life. Yet there’s no way to exhaust Him.

So putting the story down in one place with Len took my breath away. And I hope it does the same for those who read our book cover to cover. There’s always more light to break forth from God’s Word whenever we look at it in the face of Jesus Christ. All Scripture really does point to Him (John 5:39).

People can take a look at the Introduction of the book (which includes endnotes), a full description, a Publishers Weekly review, the Table of Contents and a free audio where I share the untold story behind the book (including why we chose not to have any endorsements) and another audio where Len shares why he and I wrote the book. Just click

Frank & Len: Thanks Mike!

Mike Morrell: You’re welcome. Thank you.

* * *

A couple of closing thoughts: I’ve been listening to Jesus: A Theography in audio book form in the kitchen this weekend, while the fam has milled about. My five-year-0ld daughter has been listening in, and started drawing pictures “of God.” There’s a lot of storytelling in the book, and the stories have kept her attention – and ours.

I personally believe that every evangelical, charismatic, missional-minded disciple and Reformed Jesus-follower should read this book. Youth groups and campus ministries especially (can you hear me, Cru, Inter-Varsity, and Campus Outreach?). It can form a True North that everything else you do is oriented toward.

Further, I hope that emergent, progressive, Integral, poststructural, Radical Orthodox, New Monastic, and liberation/anarchist-minded Christians and Questians don’t ignore this book. The authors throw some hermeneutical curve-balls that you may not agree with, but if you stay with the source material (take it, if it helps, as coming from the best of the devotional-Pietist tradition as informed by the Canoncial Critical school of Biblical interpretation), there will be rich material for reflection and community-formation, even if there are points you’d debate with as you hold this vision of Christ in creative tension with a Christology from below.

For readers of every stripe – including those who would not identify as Christian – I believe that Viola and Sweet have done a magisterial job of bridging the Historical and Christological senses of Scripture in a way that can connect and resonate with contemporary readers, which puts Jesus: A Theography at a distinct advantage over similar Patristic and Medieval texts that (at first encounter at least) cannot bridge this divide in the contemporary mind.

Check it out!

21 Responses to Jesus: A Theography – the Sweet/Viola Interview + Recommendation

  1. Chris Jefferies October 22, 2012 at 4:40 am #

    Haven’t bought this book yet, but I think I shall have to 🙂

    Thanks for sharing the interview with us, Mike. Very useful and much appreciated.

    • zoecarnate November 7, 2012 at 6:57 pm #

      You’re welcome! It’s a good read.

  2. Kelly J Youngblood October 22, 2012 at 8:37 am #

    Great interview/review. I know as I read the book, I kept saying “Wow. Wow.” Intelligent response, I know. It combined so many things I had either never heard of or heard of in pieces all in one location. It’ll be a great reference book to have on hand.

    • zoecarnate November 7, 2012 at 6:57 pm #

      “Wow, wow” can be the most intelligent response. These were Steve Jobs’ last words, it is reported!

  3. Chris Wiliams October 22, 2012 at 8:43 am #

    Thanks, Mike. Great content here. It takes lots of work to transcribe interviews, so thank you!

    • zoecarnate November 7, 2012 at 6:58 pm #

      You’re welcome!

  4. Mary October 22, 2012 at 6:16 pm #

    Hi Mike … hope you and family are well … interesting post…. sounds like I’d be interested.
    I kind of think of the word of God AS Jesus, himself. I appreciate Brian McLaren’s take on the Bible in NK of Christianity; because he gave words to a conclusion I had come to on my own. (Paraphrased) The Bible is not a constitution but narrative illuminating Christ. OT Rabbis in general, did the same as bible scholars do now: search texts, try to reconcile “loop holes”, interpret, seek the meaning for self- not just in the common usage but also the individual’s soul journey; just as contemporaries do. In the NT, Jesus quotes books of scripture from the OT that do not appear in the Biblical Canon. (The Jewish rabbi/mystics who studied Kabbalah were delving into the soul’s journey in their interpretations of scripture in their earliest forms as did Christian Kabbalahists and mystics of the Middle ages.)
    This is why Jesus is the author and finisher of [my] faith and I discern what I can from his example (I think this is the impulse behind the Red Letter folks.), not ignoring the OT but seeing it through the lens of Christ, God’s Son. So I wonder where these guys fit into that paradigm?
    Would this book be enlightening for me or more rhetorical?

    Also shout out to Kelly J Youngblood- I don’t know you but my family on Mom’s side is Youngblood and I always try to say ‘Hi!” since it is such an unusual family name.

    • zoecarnate November 7, 2012 at 7:00 pm #

      Mary, I think this would be enlightening for you; I haven’t seen many books do what the allegorizers (I know that they don’t quite like this term – typologizers then 🙂 ) Medieval days did, with a simultaneous regard for historical scholarship. They definitely see the OT/Hebrew Bible (they call it the First Testament) through the lens of Christ.

  5. genesmith12 October 22, 2012 at 6:37 pm #

    great job! thanks for the hard work!

    • zoecarnate November 7, 2012 at 6:58 pm #

      Thanks, Gene.

  6. Bill Dahl October 22, 2012 at 6:53 pm #

    Mike – Fantastic treatment!!! Phenomenal actually…I have got to pass on this one though…NOT that your attempt to convince me otherwise was deficient…just limited time to read…

    • zoecarnate November 7, 2012 at 7:02 pm #

      I hear you, Bill…and, it is in audio. 🙂

  7. John L October 25, 2012 at 11:58 am #

    Xlnt interview MM. Agreed that if we had to pick the overarching J/X theme, it would be “getting back to the garden” — or recovering a non-dualistic existence. Gen 3:5 seems clear that understanding reality in terms of “good and evil” is not the solution, but the original problem. Our cataphatic tendency to embed truth into transient things or dependent ideas (any “thing” or idea subject to division or change) is the root of suffering described at the core of most spiritual traditions I’m familiar with. The idea of God is not God. The idea of holiness is not holiness. Any idea we can fashion about the divine is based in some kind of dualism (good-evil, etc.) and will ultimately fail. But love will never fail, which leads me to think that love, garden, and heaven are identical metaphors, all pointing to an undivided reality, not bound to the parsing of good or evil or any other dependency.

    Would like to see Leonard and Frank expand the garden metaphor as an embodied-missional expression. (& hi to Jasmin!)


    • zoecarnate November 7, 2012 at 7:05 pm #

      You’re singing my song, John. Overcoming the duality of judging reality as “good and evil” is the subject of this blog post, and my upcoming book, Eat God.

      And, I do think that Viola & Sweet expand the garden motif missionally. I’ll be interested to see if you think so, if you read the book.

      I heard Christ say,

      “This is My Body, broken for you.”

      Even me, Lord?

      “Even you. And every ragamuffin, ne’er-do-well, teamster, prankster, gangster, poseur, pollster, reality-upholsterer and gun-holsterer that walks this planet. Even all of you…saints and scoundrels…broken apart like so much bread, in the fragments of your violence toward one another and Me; forgiven and re-gathered, reconstituted and re-mattered, as My Body is consumed and digested, I am consumed with love for you. You are bodies…broken and re-born. You matter to Me.”

  8. Eric Blauer October 31, 2012 at 11:07 am #

    Mike, I really appreciate your closing thoughts here:

    “The authors throw some hermeneutical curve-balls that you may not agree with, but if you stay with the source material (take it, if it helps, as coming from the best of the devotional-Pietist tradition as informed by the Canoncial Critical school of Biblical interpretation), there will be rich material for reflection and community-formation, even if there are points you’d debate with as you hold this vision of Christ in creative tension with a Christology from below.”

    I am using this book for our Adult Sunday School class and as background text for a series I am doing on Jesus in the OT. Our group has a very diverse theological background and the hermeneutical aspects of the book are getting some tripped up in the beginning. I’ve attempted to frame the journey as you described it above, it was good to hear similar thoughts echoed.

    • zoecarnate November 7, 2012 at 7:09 pm #

      Ah – wow! Eric, what denomination are you, if you don’t mind my asking? I’d love to hear more detail if you’re open to sharing the experience of your Sunday School – I’m really curious how Jesus: A Theography will fly for emergents/progressives/mainliners. I think it’s been tailor-written to evangelicals (and beyond-evangelicals, as Frank sees himself – by which he doesn’t mean a moving past relatively-conservative hermenuetics, but rather past some of the constraining forces of evangelical culture and emphasis), but it has a lot to say to those of us who don’t share the exact same lens.

  9. Doug Hammack November 6, 2012 at 11:09 am #

    bummer… another must-read book. you’re making my addiction to closure very difficult to maintain!

    • zoecarnate November 7, 2012 at 7:10 pm #

      Well Doug, sometimes life (and reading) is an open-ended journey. 🙂

  10. Frank V. October 29, 2013 at 7:50 am #

    Thanks for the interview!


    Psalm 115:1

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