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Professor Suzanne Henderson aims to help Christians reclaim the earliest roots of their faith

imageSuzanne Henderson’s “Jesus Christ Incorporated,” which evolved from her doctoral dissertation, teaches Christians to reclaim the earliest roots of their faith.
12/02/13 -  

On Thanksgiving Day, the Charlotte Observer ran the following feature article on Professor Suzanne Henderson, discussing her new book, her  journey to becoming a professor at Queens and the true foundation of being a Christian. 

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Queens University of Charlotte professor is reminding people about Jesus' message

By Erin Ryan
Charlotte Observer Correspondent

Suzanne Watts Henderson has a lot on her plate these days. She's finishing up a book called "Jesus Christ Incorporated: Messianic Community in the Canonical Gospels," is under contract to write a volume on the Gospel of Mark and she's teaching religion at Queens University of Charlotte.

Henderson's research for "Jesus Christ Incorporated," which evolved from her doctoral dissertation, aims to help Christians reclaim the earliest roots of their faith and to understand their role in using God's power to create a just and equal world for everyone.

Henderson, 48, is also director of Queens' Center for Ethics and Religion. She calls teaching "her greatest joy."

To her students, Henderson tries to "model the possibility of being an academic and being a person of faith. Those two things are not mutually exclusive."

At least half her students are Christian, she says; many of them from "the kind of tradition that's not really interested in the kind of academic inquiry that we do" in the Queens religion courses.

But when it works, "I love watching the lights come on. I love the sense of empowerment."

"I had a conversation yesterday with a student who said, 'You know, I always sat in the pew and if I asked a question, they said, 'You should believe what I say!' He said, 'This just makes so much sense.'"

'Happy coincidence'

So much began with a seminar she almost didn't take.

Henderson grew up in Nashville. A lover of literature, she got her undergraduate degree in English from UNC Chapel Hill and her master's of divinity degree at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1990. In her last year at Princeton, "one of my favorite professors was teaching a doctoral seminar on the Gospel of Mark," she says. Master's students were normally not allowed into doctoral seminars, "but I begged and pleaded and clawed my way into the class."

That professor became her mentor: Joel Marcus, a renowned scholar in the Gospel of Mark. Marcus, 62, recalls she "turned out to be the best student in that class, outshining the people who actually were Ph.D. candidates."

Henderson spent about nine years serving in Greensboro and suburban Atlanta as an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), her small mainline Protestant denomination.

During those years, "I had three small children, including a set of twins," Henderson says. "I kept going up to the attic to put away baby clothes and baby gadgets and transition into the next box of hand-me-downs, and I kept sitting down and reading my papers from seminary while I was in the attic. I would just kind of get lost up there.

"And then I thought, 'Wait, this is not normal. ... I think I'm going to embrace the inner nerd and go back to school.'"

She returned to Duke Divinity School to get her Ph.D. - and found that Marcus had come to the school. He became her dissertation adviser, a second collaboration he calls a "happy coincidence."

Consider the loaves

Henderson wrote her dissertation on the first six chapters of the Gospel of Mark, which most scholars agree was written for a community of Christians around the year 70.

It is stated frequently in Mark that Jesus' disciples fail to understand the things he says and does. Mark's Jesus even seems exasperated with them at times: "Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?" (Mark 8:18.) Scholars often take this "misunderstanding of the disciples" motif to mean that the disciples did not grasp who Jesus truly was.

Henderson says, "It's not his identity that they misunderstand, it's his mission and their involvement in it."

As an example of what she calls "messianic power-sharing," Henderson points to the scene in Mark 6 where Jesus goes with his disciples to a deserted place and is followed by 5,000 people whom they feed, miraculously, with five loaves of bread and two fish.

"If you read carefully, you see that Jesus gives the loaves to the disciples to set before the people, and the fish he divides among them all." Jesus does not do it alone. By passing out the bread, the disciples are "participating fully in the miracle."

In the following scene, the disciples are crossing the Sea of Galilee in a boat. They struggle with the oars. Jesus comes toward them walking on the water. "Mark says, 'He intended to pass them by.' And then they cry out," Henderson says. "And then Mark explains it with this odd verse that has really stumped interpreters for a long time: It says, 'They did not understand concerning the loaves, for their hearts were hardened.'"

Henderson's insight was that while they were on the sea, the disciples forgot the power they were just given by Jesus. They could conquer the turmoil on the seas on their own, but instead they "turn to Jesus for the bailout."

Even today, Marcus says, "There's this tendency in some Christian circles to say, 'We're so lowly, and powerless, and Christ has all the power,' but this (message says) that you have more resources at your disposal than you knew that you had."

The larger story

Henderson says she thinks the New Testament views Jesus as having a distinctive role of his own - but that to "focus just on his life, death and resurrection, is to miss the larger story, which is that he becomes kind of a prototype, or the paradigm of the new community that he has established."

Christians today who have grown up within this institutional, individualistic culture can tend to see the kingdom of God "as a personal and spiritual and private matter."

Instead, she hopes it's time for Christians to reclaim the original, communal vision of the earliest Christians - a vision that rejects our current economic structures of "I get more, you get less."

"The underlying principle of the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed," she says, "is that there is enough. There is enough health care for everyone. There is enough food for everyone.

"Not only do we have the power to share, but it is incumbent upon us. If we claim the title 'Christian,' if we claim to be a part of this community, we really have no choice. It's part of the job description."

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