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Christ and the Neighbor

In a well-known moment in the tenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, a lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds with a logocentric-seeming question: “What is written in the law?”1 The lawyer appropriately answers with the old Levitical saw: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus affirms the answer, but the Lawyer – pushing his luck, and, according to Luke, wanting to “justify himself” – asks what he seems to think a clever question: “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus answers with the well-known parable, which deconstructs the Lawyer’s glib question by rendering the question absurd in relation to the command. To accomplish this, Jesus brilliantly reverses the expected subject-object relation in the story: the lawyer, after all, is asking to whom he should be a neighbor, which might lead one to expect a parable in which a Judean, like the lawyer, is the one in a position to be neighborly. Jesus turns that position on its ear, making the Judean in the story the object rather than the subject, the one in need of a neighbor rather than the one in a position to be one. The Judean protagonist of the parable, then, watches as his compatriots in the upper echelons of the society of which he is a part, using a twisted concept of their own law, wind up ruling out their own most obvious neighbor (a fellow Judean Jew) as such. That, of course, is precisely what the lawyer was attempting to do with his question: rule out potential neighbors. After all, the question “who is my neighbor” assumes that the command hinges on a differentiation between two sides of a binary: those who are one’s neighbors, and those who are not. Jesus, in his response, out-Derridas Derrida by not only showing that the lawyer is engaging in binary thinking and that his binary is far from stable, but also in showing that binary thinking itself lies entirely outside the discursive and ethical universe of the commandment in question. In terms of the way in which the lawyer applies his own law, the one in need of a neighbor is ruled out as such by members of his own community. He even rules himself out: if the protagonist in the parable is a metaphorical stand-in for the lawyer, then he is as ritually unclean to himself as he is to the Levite and the Priest. Applying the question “who is my neighbor?” to the commandment to love one’s neighbor as one’s self, then, excludes the lawyer-protagonist from both neighborhood and selfhood.

Jesus provides a solution to this dilemma in the figure of the Samaritan. It is important that Jesus identifies him as such – through a cultural label – as doing so creates an ironic, needling reference to the very kind of cultural exclusion and categorization the lawyer, through his question, wants to apply to the neighbor: the Samaritan is a member of a cultural “them” as opposed to the lawyer’s “us.” Samaritans were regarded by Judeans as practitioners of a heretical perversion of Judaism: unclean, despised, possibly violent and dangerous. That categorization makes it all the more astonishing that the Samaritan in the story disregards all such categories and simply identifies with the protagonist in his suffering humanity. His action is a bit like a benign version of a return of the Freudian repressed: the repressed Other that the subject has excluded in order to reify his own subjectivity comes back not to haunt the subject as a painful symptom, but to rescue him and return him to wholeness.

Jesus then proceeds to further trap the lawyer with the flaws in his own thinking, asking him who acted like a neighbor in the story. Unable, apparently, to bring himself to say the dirty word “Samaritan,” the lawyer responds, “the one who showed mercy.” This is a wonderful moment: Jesus banks on the lawyer’s own exclusionary thinking precisely in order to force him out of it, rhetorically cornering him so he has to admit that neighborliness has nothing to do with exclusive categorization, but rather with acts of mercy without regard for category. The parable points to the paradox the lawyer’s question is meant to mask: to ask to whom the commandment to love the neighbor applies is to break the commandment before even attempting to follow it. Jesus thus exposes the lawyer’s question as the rhetorical dodge that it is: the question shows not that he is interested in learning how to follow what he admits is the highest commandment under his own law, but that he has already decided not to.

More than simply an exhortation to treat others well, Jesus’ parable thus challenges us to think deeply and critically about what it means to be a neighbor in all areas of life—including our lives as teachers and scholars. Our friend and colleague Don W. King, Professor of English at Montreat College and editor of Christian Scholar’s Review from 1999-2015, exemplifies such a neighborly attitude toward other scholars and other texts, treating each submitted manuscript and its author not only with respect, but also with a full openness to what he might learn, even – or especially – from those with whom he might disagree.

We can think of no better way to honor Professor King’s commitment than to present, in his honor, this special issue of CSR, which prompts us to consider the implications of Jesus’ parable within King’s own field of study (literature), exploring literary texts, readers, and writers by more fully theorizing the way Professor King approaches them: as neighbors to be loved as one’s self.

Theorizing the Neighbor

George Edmondson, in The Neighboring Text: Chaucer, Boccaccio, Henryson, raises the figure of the neighbor as a guiding metaphor for approaching literary texts: “What would happen,” Edmondson writes, “if we began to think about relations between certain readers and certain texts as one of neighboring, defined by proximity and carrying the weight of an event?”2 Doing so, we might consider the ways in which “the neighbor [like the text] is both intimate and strange, both proximate and remote, both reassuring and threatening…”3

While Edmonson approaches the idea of the neighbor from the perspective of psychoanalytic theory via Lacan, we are particularly interested in the implications of the idea of the neighbor for those scholars of literatures and cultures who, like ourselves, engage in their work specifically as followers of Christ. In that case, the idea of “loving one’s neighbor as one’s self” is, of course, not merely an interesting ethical idea one might trace through Freud, Kierkegaard, Buber, Lacan, Reinhard, and others (though it is most certainly that), but also a direct commandment from the One we fall under the clearest of imperatives to follow. Bringing such an idea to a text can lead to some very useful questions: What is one’s goal as a reader/scholar of a text? To get something out of it? Make it, like a torture victim, cough up its secrets? Extract a resource? Control or contain what is troubling about it? Christ’s imperative to love the neighbor as oneself potentially troubles all such approaches – all of which seek to categorize and judge difference – by invoking a concept that demands, as Kierkegaard has taught us, an approach to the Other that is rooted in acts of love and mercy without regard to category.

Similarly generous approaches to the Other abound in religious thought, from Buber’s perspective on inclusion (as opposed to mere tolerance or utter erasure of self in the face of the Other), to the melding of generosity and permeable boundaries in relation to the Other embodied in Miroslav Volf’s figure of the embrace. An embrace, says Volf, has four elements: They are “opening the arms, waiting, closing the arms, and opening them again.”4 The first movement in an embrace – opened arms – demonstrates a willingness to embrace the Other and shows that others are seen as potentially enriching friends rather than as potentially diminishing enemies. Opened arms also issue an invitation to the Other to enter. After opening one’s arms, the willingness to embrace is next signaled by waiting to see if the invitation has been accepted. The third movement – closed arms – requires a “soft touch,” where the Other is not crushed and where the inviter’s boundaries of self remain intact as well. Closed arms are a sign, says Volf, that

I want the other to become a part of me while I at the same time maintain my own identity. By becoming part of me, the other enriches me. In a mutual embrace, none remains the same because each enriches the other, yet both remain true to their genuine selves.5

What happens when texts become guests to be embraced with hospitality as opposed to Others against which one must maintain impermeable boundaries? Or, perhaps more pointedly, what happens when we, as scholars, consider ourselves the guests, rather than the hosts, of the texts we study?

The following four essays explore the possibilities – and, in at least one case, the potential dangers – of embracing the neighbor as a guiding metaphor for literary scholarship. In “Narrative and Neighborliness,” Susan VanZanten demonstrates many of the possibilities that a neighborly hermeneutic might provide. A neighborly reading might lead us to focus on ways in which characters in a story treat each other (or fail to treat each other) as neighbors—a focus that can, in turn, help us learn to be better neighbors ourselves. Good neighbors see our shared humanity while at the same time recognizing the differences between us. Thus, in being a neighbor, “we are not to make our neighbors into ourselves but rather to honor their differences.” A neighborly reading could cause us to treat texts themselves as neighbors. Doing so, says VanZanten, means “practicing openness and hospitality, attempting to simply be with [the text] for a time rather than uncover hidden error.” It also means “listening carefully and attentively” to what this text has to say. In so doing, we may have to fight our own preconceptions about the author of the text, “recognizing and combatting our human propensity to stereotype.”

Daniel Taylor and Julie Ooms both address the importance of emotional authenticity in the neighbor relation. In particular, they consider the ways in which a lack of such authenticity can impede the neighbor relation by distancing writers, readers, texts, and characters from real engagement with one another’s humanity. Taylor recognizes that we all know what it feels like to read or hear a well-told story: We feel like we are experiencing joys and sorrows, adventures and disasters along with the characters. Some of these characters (even if they are hobbits or robots or talking animals) become, for a time, our friends, and we are especially drawn to those characters who are “trying their best to figure things out, even survive.” Their efforts to “figure things out” often give us much food for thought about the human condition generally, or even our own particular lives. In “‘Didn’t Our Hearts Burn within Us?’ The Use and Abuse of Emotion in Storytelling,” Taylor contrasts writing that thus authentically engages readers with characters’ emotional struggles with writing that forestalls such engagement through emotional manipulation. “The abuse of emotion in storytelling,” writes Taylor, “as in all art, is any use of emotion that distorts or otherwise fails to convey the nuance and depth of our lives as we actually experience them.” For Taylor, such emotional manipulation is not merely a failure of writerly craft, but an ethical problem as well, in which the writer becomes an inhospitable host by keeping characters and readers at arm’s length from one another’s shared humanity, replacing genuine connection with contrived sentimentality.

In her essay, “‘Some quick, however slight, therapy’: Neighborliness and Rebuilding Community after War in J. D. Salinger’s War Stories,” Julie Ooms analyzes J. D. Salinger’s critique of the very kind of distancing sentimentality Taylor describes. Ooms notices the ways in which Salinger contrasts two kinds of war stories. On the one hand, there are war stories that mask the real pain and trauma of warfare – and the pain and trauma of the remembrance of war for those who have experienced it firsthand – with a veneer of patriotic and heroic commonplaces. Ooms sees Salinger’s critique of such stories, for example, in the image of Holden Caulfield witnessing a woman becoming caught up in a sentimentalized war movie while ignoring the more immediate pain of a very real child who sits beside her. For Ooms, “…war injures bodies and minds, families and communities, and many hold views that, like the woman in the theatre, work actively against healing those injuries.” On the other hand, Salinger both tells and affirms another kind of war story, one that acknowledges rather than glosses over such suffering, that puts “soldiers’ and others’ humanity back in range, in order for soldiers and their families to heal and reform community during and after the profoundly un-neighborly experience of war.” In both essays, Taylor and Ooms mark sentimentality and lack of emotional authenticity as strategies analogous to that of the Levite in Jesus’ parable, as ways of staying on the other side of the road, ignoring the Other’s suffering.

While the above three essays mark the possibilities of neighborly reading and writing, it remains important to acknowledge that a hermeneutic of neighboring may pose problems as well. Maintaining a true neighbor relation, after all, is hardly easy: one must, on the one hand, remain fully open to the neighbor without over-identifying with the neighbor and thus effacing the difference that must obtain for the neighbor relation to exist in the first place. Such over-identification, notes Kenneth Reinhard (channeling Othello), loves not wisely but too well.6 On the other hand, one must also avoid policing the boundaries of one’s own identity to the degree that one either fails to establish a neighbor relation at all, or only loves that with which one identifies in the neighbor, thereby loving little more than one’s own deluded mirror image. John Netland’s essay, “Re-writing the Death of Jesus: An Intertextual Reading of Shusaku Endo’s Deep River,” is perhaps, in this vein, more cautionary than the other three, as it raises a potential problem with the idea of neighborly reading and writing. Netland’s reading of Endo’s novel points out ways in which Endo uses imagery and ideas from Christianity while divorcing them from their soteriological meanings within Christianity, using them to serve more pluralistic purposes. Is Endo, in that way, failing to be a “good neighbor” to the tradition from which he borrows? Netland’s work, in this way, raises some provocative questions about the limits of neighborly reading.

Ultimately, we hope that these essays begin a conversation about the idea of the neighbor in relation to literary scholarship, and about what such a conversation might add to our conversations about Christian approaches to literary texts. What might it mean to treat a text in the way that the Samaritan in the parable treats his sociocultural and religious Other: to open one’s self to an encounter with that Other approached as such with all its own potentially disturbing, disruptive difference and desire intact? To acknowledge responsibility for the fact that one is going to find things in that Other/text that are potentially threatening, incomprehensible, incommensurable with and even possibly dangerous to one’s own identity and “worldview” and love those things in it? Even love them as ourselves?

How might such a love change the ways in which we read, what we look for in an encounter with a text? Can we become more open to surprising, unsettling, and even dangerous encounters without trying to contain that danger—either through the pre-emptive employment of other frameworks or after-the-fact attempts to explain them away, much less acts of dismissal or rejection? The most common paradigm in what is sometimes called “Christian literary criticism,” like most ideologically-oriented schools of thought, seems prone to such acts, a critical methodology that insists on comparing every text with a list of doctrinal propositions said to constitute a ‘Christian worldview.’ That kind of exclusive ‘worldview,’ conceived as a set of characteristics designed to mark texts or people as falling within or without a particular category, is, after all, precisely what Christ himself seems to warn us against in his parable—the Samaritan is the “good” one precisely because he acts in mercy without regard to category. Applying the imperative to love the neighbor in our approach to texts, perhaps, can allow for an approach to literary texts that is at once distinctively Christian (in that it starts with an application of Christ’s primary commandment) while remaining fully open to and willing to embrace the suffering, the difference, the danger of every wounded pilgrim we pass.

Cite this article
Marion H. Larson and Mark P. Bruce, “Introduction: Hospitable Readers, Neighboring Texts”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 46:1 , 3–9


  1. Biblical quotes here and throughout are from the NRSV.
  2. George Edmondson, The Neighboring Text: Chaucer, Boccaccio, Henryson (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011), 4.
  3. Ibid., 10.
  4. Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 141.

  5. Volf, “A Vision of Embrace: Theological Perspectives on Cultural Identity and Conflict,” Ecumenical Review 47 (1995): 203.
  6. Kenneth Reinhard, “Toward A Political Theology of the Neighbor,” in The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 98. Nook (Epub) edition.

Marion H. Larson

Bethel University (MN)
Marion H. Larson is a Professor of English at Bethel University in St. Paul, MN

Mark P. Bruce

Bethel University (MN)
Mark P. Bruce is an Associate Professor of English at Bethel University in St. Paul, MN.