The Faith of the Outsider

A review of Frank Anthony Spina’s The Faith of the Outsider: Exclusion and Inclusion in the Biblical Story, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Erdmans Publishing Co., 2005, 206 pages.

Jeffrey Metcalfe

It is expected that on June 29th, Bill C-31, the so called Protecting Canada’s Immigration Act, will be signed into law, paving the way for the deportation of those it designates as unwanted outsiders, including victims of persecution and torture. As Mary Jo Leddy, theologian and founder of Romero House claims, “this may very well become the civil rights issue of our times.”[1] If Leddy is correct, it follows that no theological theme could be more important for churches in Canada to reflect upon then the relation between the insider and the outside in the biblical witness. Thankfully, Frank Anthony Spina’s book, The Faith of the Outsider: Exclusion and Inclusion in the Biblical Story, does just that.

Spina, an Old Testament scholar and Episcopalian Priest in the state of Washington, brings the attentiveness of an academic and the predilection of a pastor to bear on the problem of exclusivity in the biblical narrative’s account of Israel’s election. To the post-Twentieth Century reader, the idea that God would select a specific nation in exclusion from others through which God would exercise God’s will upon the world seems backwards at best and genocidal at worst, leading Christians to bypass such seemingly problematic themes. Yet as Spina points out, “exclusivity is at the heart of the biblical message. No amount of tinkering or tweaking can hide what is so profound and conspicuous a teaching.”[2] Instead she argues, one must read the biblical stories of outsiders more intentionally and carefully, for “these stories actually magnify the emphasis on God’s sovereignty and grace.”[3] Indeed, this is the very purpose of The Faith of the Outsider, which, taking six stories from the Old Testament and one story from the New Testament, shows how God’s grace works in, through, and beyond any firm insider-outsider boundaries.

Spina begins in the first chapter with the story of Jacob and Esau, taking particular note of the inversion of God’s election. Whereas one would expect Esau, the first born, would carry on God’s promise, in fact, through deception and theft, Jacob becomes the inheritor. Yet even though Esau is cast into the role of an outsider in relation to God’s plan of salvation, he is not thereby impoverished, “both brothers are promised prosperous futures.”[4] Moreover, the radical forgiveness that Esau offers Jacob, leads Jacob to proclaim that he has seen the “face of God” (Gen 33:10) in Esau’s actions. Concluding this section, Spina notes that “the possibility of seeing God’s gracious face in the gracious actions of a forgiving and accepting human being was the purpose God had in mind for the chosen insider community in the first place.”[5] While remaining an outsider, Esau has nevertheless shown the insider community what they are called to be.

Spina follows a similar pattern of examination in the subsequent chapters, dialectically showing how the faith of the outsider comes to exemplify the ideals and the call of Israel. In the second chapter, he surprisingly draws this theme out of the story of Tamar and Judah, showing that while Judah was an insider, “it was Tamar, who as an outsider […] acted in a manner that was decisive for the future of God’s people and God’s world,” ensuring offspring would continue to carry on the promise; offspring who would include King David and Jesus in their number.

Rahab and Achan take up the third chapter. Here, while Rahab is a quintessential outsider, a Canaanite, through her clever aiding of Israelite spies and through a faithful confession of YHWH, she becomes incorporated into Israel: the outsider through faithful words and deeds becomes an insider. In contrast, Achan, an Israelite par excellence, through disobedience to God’s direction, looses his insider status and is executed for his behavior. This shows that “outsiders are only a confession away from being included, while insiders are only a violation away […] from being excluded.” As in the case of Tamar, Rahab’s decedents include both King David and Jesus.

Spina turns to Naaman and Gehazi in the fourth chapter, where Naaman, a high-ranking foreign military leader who has a skin condition leaving him ritually unclean, is healed by Elisha. This healing prompts Naaman to convert to worshipping YHWH while maintaining a separate cultural and political identity from that of the Israelites. Again, here “religious commitment and theological comprehension are primary factors”[6] for who is marked as a true insider, as Gehazi, Elisha’s servant, becomes inflicted with Naamans skin condition for his unfaithfulness, making Gehazi ritually unclean, and thus, baring his access to the temple.

The story of Jonah takes up chapter five, where infamously, Jonah flees from his prophetic task to prevent the outsiders of Nineveh from being spared from God’s wrath. As Spina notes, “Jonah is orthodox, but he never quite gets to the place where he realizes what that orthodoxy suggests: in the end, God wants insiders and outsiders to be part of the same divinely constituted community.”[7] Ironically, it is the Ninevites, who, despite their outsider status, intuitively understand that faith is belief committed in action.

The last story Spina draws from the Old Testament is that of Ruth, who like Tamar and Rahab before her, transitioned from an outsider to an insider through both providence, and a love of Naomi. By accompanying and supporting Naomi, Ruth ends up bearing Boaz’s children (the ancestors of King David and Jesus) effectively saving “Naomi’s future, Boaz’s future, and Israel’s future,”[8] and demonstrating once again that the outsider can be more central to God’s plan then the insider.

Finally, Spina ends his account in the Gospel of John, with Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus, breaking gender and cultural barriers, strikes up a conversation with the Samaritan woman (a double outsider), which results in the Samaritan woman publically proclaiming that Jesus is the Messiah: a proclamation that takes place while Jesus’ disciples remain ignorant in both thought, word, and deed. Perhaps most striking Spina’s analysis of this story is his assertion that Jesus cuts across the Jewish-Samaritan theological divide, indicating that “both Jews and Samaritans take positions on the matter that are, in a word, irrelevant.”[9] Here both appear as outsiders to what really matters: the true worship of God, which invites both groups to enter into God’s grace on equal footing.

Here The Faith of the Outsider ends – rather anti-climactically – leaving the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. While Spina has successfully shown how the faith and the fate of the outsider have been critical in preserving and strengthening the witness of the insider community, what this might mean for contemporary church life and Christian identity is left unsaid. How should Christians relate to their national and religious outsiders? Where can these biblical insights be applied to contemporary church polity? It is surprising that Spina would intentionally write The Faith of the Outsider to be linguistically accessible to laity, and yet fail to articulate, if not answer, the basic questions his book raises for faith communities. A concluding chapter or afterward that addresses such questions would have been helpful.

Nevertheless, for those who struggle with exclusivity in the biblical witness, The Faith of the Outsider presents a persuasive case that such exclusivity can actually help bring the intended inclusivity of God’s grace into clearer focus. That such clarity might call churches to radical acts of inclusion for those outsiders Bill C-31 is about to deport cannot be out of the question.

Jeffrey Metcalfe is a deacon in the Diocese of Quebec and is currently serving as the assistant curate at Church of the Redeemer, Toronto. He is a co-editor of Catholic Commons.

[1] Mary Jo Leddy, in conversation with author, Romero House, Toronto, ON, May 26, 2012.

[2] Frank Anthony Spina, The Faith of the Outsider: Exclusion and Inclusion in the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Erdmans Publishing Co., 2005), 9.

[3] Ibid., 10.

[4] Ibid., 21.

[5] Ibid., 34.

[6] Ibid., 93.

[7] Ibid., 116.

[8] Ibid., 136.

[9] Ibid., 152.

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