Cellar Door Think Tank

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Christianity and its (dis)contents: A conversation between nonfiction writers Jo Scott Coe and Larry Behrendt

Monday, April 23 • 6 PM
Cellar Door Books
5225 Canyon Crest Dr #30a, Riverside, CA 92507

Nonfiction writers Jo Scott-Coe and Larry Behrendt were both driven by a curiosity about Christianity that was occasioned by chance encounters with cultural artifacts. This curiosity about religious tradition that was intimately known yet imperfectly practiced (Scott-Coe) or completely foreign yet historically intriguing (Behrendt) caused them both to embark on quests that became progressively richer and more complicated. Both journeys resulted in years of research and writing, culminating in two books: MASS: A Sniper, a Father, and a Priest and SACRED DISSONANCE.


On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the University of Texas at Austin’s clock tower and performed the first televised and (at the time) deadliest mass shooting in American history. Two weeks after the murders, FBI agents interviewed a Catholic priest in Alaska who had known Whitman and his family for fifteen years.
Jo Scott-Coe discovered the report of this interview in an online search about the shooting nearly fifty years later. As a stray Catholic, she was intrigued: Was the priest still alive? What was the nature of his connection to the sniper? How had he been affected by his friend’s violence? What light did this relationship shed on the sniper’s experience of religion?
Curiosity was the driving force for Larry Behrendt as well. Like most Jews, Larry grew up knowing next to nothing about Christianity. So what caused him to take the New Testament off the shelf in the first place? Two events of seemingly little intellectual consequence: the publication of Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code”, and the release of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” At first, Larry thought the novel was a silly page-turner, but the book made him wonder if there might be something to the story it told of Christian origins. Could it be that the real Jesus was just an ordinary human being, with a wife and kids, and that the history of Christian-Jewish enmity was based on a misunderstanding? The film made him even more curious about who Jesus might have actually been, and how Jews might understand him.

Both MASS and Sacred Dissonance offer distinctive ways in of thinking critically and comparatively about Christian practice in this country and beyond. Jo’s book MASS works as a postmodern case study that helps us to see mass violence as a reflection of dark theological and cultural legacies. Larry’s book, Sacred Dissonance, coauthored with Historical Jesus scholar, Anthony LeDonne, unfolds as a series of dialogues, where two people of very different faiths attempt to grapple with topics like civil rights and the Holocaust.

The two authors will talk about some of the following issues, and more:

  • How is nonfiction important to the study of Christianity?
  • Why is it important for non-Christians to be actively involved in that conversation?
  • What are the risks of studying religion from within and without?
  • To what extent do secular forums aid or undermine serious dialogue among faith groups?
  • What tools can we employ to engage in meaningful dialogue with each other about religious topics and how they intersect with questions of race, gender, sexuality, and politics?

About the authors:

Jo Scott-Coe is the author of MASS: A Sniper, a Father, and a Priest (Pelekinesis) and Teacher at Point Blank (Aunt Lute). Her first-ever portrait of Kathy Leissner Whitman, “Listening to Kathy” (Catapult), received a Notable listing in Best American Essays and is now available as a second edition in print. Jo’s nonfiction has appeared in Salon, Talking Writing, Tahoma Literary Review, Cultural Weekly, American Studies Journal, Pacific Coast Philology, Superstition Review, Fourth Genre, Ninth Letter, The Los Angeles Times and many other publications. She is an associate professor of English composition at Riverside City College, where she was named 57th Distinguished Faculty Lecturer for her research on the epistolary history of Kathy Leissner. Jo also facilitates community workshops for the Inlandia Institute. Find her at joscottcoe.com and on Twitter @joscottcoe and Facebook @teacheratpointblank

Larry Behrendt is the co-author with Anthony Le Donne of Sacred Dissonance: The Blessings of Difference in Jewish-Christian Dialogue (Hendrickson Publishers). Larry is a specialist in interreligious dialogue with specific emphasis on Jewish-Christian relations. Find him at jewishchristianintersections.com.


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