"Reasoning" from the Scriptures
Into my possession has been delivered a item of great personal interest: an official Jehovah's Witness guide to doctrine and proselytization entitled Reasoning from the Scriptures. Already a fan of such underappreciated discards as The Watchtower and Awake! as found on any metro-Philly public transportation line, this was a welcome development. As with business and government publications, it is one thing to read what is written for general consumption and another to read what is written for people operating within a given institution.
I have always been impressed with the amount of research Witnesses bring to their publications. Not surprisingly, this is often scriptural in nature, but frequently extends to include the work of contemporary scholarship. General interest items such as those featured in Awake! regularly cite mainstream scientific and other expert sources, often with no obvious religious agenda.
Reasoning from the Scriptures is persuasively written and generously supported from a wide range of external sources. The text is organized by subject, and there are many -- everything from birthdays to government to sex. A section on evolution quotes text from Darwin and draws on scientific findings relating to the fossil record. Another chapter devoted to the "cross" consults the original Greek word, stauros, which has traditionally meant a stake or "upright pole," and suggests that today's popular symbol is not accurate in relation to the crucifixion of Christ (or anyone else in that period). This was news to me and of particular historical interest.
To its credit, Reasoning often concerns itself with basic questions of accuracy like these, doubtless fitting for a publication designed to bolster engagement with skeptical audiences. It opens with an introduction on usage, including How To Respond to Potential Conversation Stoppers, which includes sample dialogue. In all cases, the tone is respectful: for example, nowhere is it suggested that pressure or manipulation be employed to gain or keep an audience. Its motivating ethos seems to be that some people are more receptive to new information than others; what's important is communicating that information well when it is welcomed. This was an issue I was very curious about regarding Jehovah's Witnesses prior to reading this text, since their eccentricities are prone to confusion with the eccentricity of other not-well understood religious groups.
My only real grievance with the publication is the same one I maintain towards the religion as a whole, and this primarily relates to its distribution of concerns. For example, it is unconscionable to me in a Christian guidebook, apparently "comprehensive" in subject matter, that "poverty" somehow goes unmentioned. In this respect, Witnesses seem to place a heightened emphasis on some biblically-prescribed activities and concerns to the apparent exclusion of others. In itself, this is probably to be expected; for my part, I would tend to pay more attention to something like the Sermon on the Mount -- e.g., how my behavior affects others right now -- rather than worrying about the implications of Armageddon, which I don't think is very well understood by anyone, to put it mildly.
Witnesses seem centrally concerned with the role that preaching played in the life of Jesus, and to that end I think they do an admirable job. Unfortunately, until they start talking more about the responsibilities we have towards one another as articulated in the Gospel vs. the end of the world and getting some real estate in heaven, it will be hard for me to relate to their basic mission.