Jonah the Evangelist

I’ve never been a fan of evangelism, which is something of a problem if you come, as I do, from an evangelistic Protestant tradition.

Some of this is likely because my few attempts at witnessing when I was a child ended in horrible failure. Some if it is probably because I never felt strong enough in my own faith to go around sharing it with others. Some more of it is likely because I grew up surrounded by Christians and never had much opportunity beyond those first failed attempts.

There’s more to it, though. Because evangelism, as I’ve seen it modeled, has meant going door to door and asking people if they knew where they were going when they died, or leaving those cool/disturbing comic-book tracts on restaurant tables with the tip, or hoodwinking people with concerts or prizes or fun activities before – surprise! – springing the gospel on them.

So I’ve become content with simply averring on the subject of evangelism and saying, “Well, that’s not my gift.” And, truth be told, I don’t think it is, to the extent that people who are actual evangelists or preachers or missionaries have that gift. But Jesus calls us all to share his good news, right? So what is a recovering conservative to do?

Our reading for class this week was an article by Stephen B. Chapman and Laceye C. Warner of Duke Divinity School. Chapman is assistant professor of religion at Duke’s Center for Jewish Studies, and Warner is (deep breath) associate dean for Academic Formation and Programs and associate Professor of the practice of evangelism and Methodist studies.

Together they look at what the prophet Jonah can teach us about evangelism in an article titled, “Jonah and the Imitation of God: Rethinking Evangelism and the Old Testament.”

To be honest, it’s a slow read. It takes a while to get into it. They use big words like “centripetal” and “centrifugal,” only one of which I’ve ever heard before and certainly not in this context. For the first 15 pages, it’s absolutely what I would consider an example of why more people don’t read academic literature.

Then, on Page 17, bam!

To consider the book of Jonah as a narrative of evangelism is thus to expand beyond a simple focus on the figure of Jonah, his message and his actions, to consider the primary role of God as a character in the story. The book concerns God’s “missionary” overture to Nineveh and the need for Israel to imitate the divine mission in its own life. Jonah/Israel is still “necessary” as a messenger, however, for some reason that is assumed rather than explained. Apparently only through the agency of Israel can the Ninevites hear God’s message.

In this way, the book of Jonah can be very much about evangelism, so long as evangelism is understood more broadly. Evangelism in this broader sense is actually the imitation of God, an activity that entails a whole range of practices, habits, dispositions, activities, and choices. From this per- spective, evangelism cannot be reduced to the character of Jonah’s verbal proclamation. Evangelism must instead be expanded to include a thicker set of practices, all grounded in the notion of the missio dei: God’s mission to rescue humankind and all creation.

The authors ask these questions:

How does this interpretation of Jonah modify or even correct current understandings of evangelism? What specific evangelistic practices might the book of Jonah warrant or underwrite? What would evangelism look like if the OT were taken more seriously as Christian Scripture?

And they respond with seven answers, which I will summarize:

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