Review: Interpreting the God-Breathed Word

Interpreting the God-Breathed Word, Robbie F. Castleman. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018.

Summary: A book for all who want to be students of scripture focusing on how to study and understand the texts employing inductive study, speech-act theory, and canonical interpretation.

Robbie Castleman, not unlike this reviewer, discovered the joys of studying and understanding the meaning of scripture through what is known as inductive Bible study. She eventually became a biblical studies professor at John Brown University. This book reflects both her joy of discovering scripture and additional practices that address some of the ways inductive study may go off the rails in interpretation unrelated to what the passage meant for its intended audience, interpretation that fails to account for the rest of scripture and the framework of biblical theology.

Castleman begins with one of the great strengths of inductive study–careful observation of the text. She speaks of the attentive disciplines involved in hearing the God-breathed Word. Reading it over and over (including aloud!), printing out and marking up the text, asking questions of genre, setting, who, what, when, where, and how, and using our senses. One is looking for what the text says and how it says it. She shows the difference between exegesis and eisegesis–reading out of rather than into the text. I love the image of being careful to not cast our own shadows onto the text. She offers another image–that of studying as a surgeon rather than a pathologist, studying something alive to which we are attentive rather than something dead over which we assert mastery.

Castleman addresses the story or narrative character of much of scripture, and how important the particularities of time and space are. It is vital to grasp the “there and then” before we consider “here and now.” Drawing upon speech-act theory, she calls our attention that scripture is a God-breathed record of how God has spoken and acted out his will in those particularities of space and time. But something else is at work as well. Through God’s Spirit this Word of scripture speaks into our present, accomplishing God’s intentions in our lives as well.

The next three chapters further develop this idea of the three voices. The first is the actual event in which God speaks and acts that we only know indirectly through the biblical record, a voice we must listen to by faith, as we attend to the details of the text. The second voice then is the voice of the writers of the text, the time, and the circumstances in which they wrote as God breathed upon them. She uses the four gospels to illustrate this idea, accounting for both the distinctive voices and the one Lord to whom they attest. With the third voice, we step into the story as we grasp through the Spirit’s illumining work the “here and now” implications in the second voice’s “there and then.” She also shows how “third voice” dynamics work within the canon as later Old Testament writers act upon earlier material, and likewise, as the New Testament writers reflect on the Old Testament voice in light of Messiah come. Using the language of theatre, we must pay careful attention to our lines, and then step up onto the stage, loving the one who has spoken so much that we even risk “flubbing our lines.”

In the final chapter, Castleman advocates the importance of canonical interpretation, speaking of the centrality of creation, the gospel of Christ, and biblical theology as shaping how we read all of scripture. She uses C. S. Lewis image from “Meditation in a Tool Shed” to speak of how we look both at the light cast by a passage of scripture and along it, seeing how it is connected to the whole story of scripture. She then concludes with an epilogue reminding us that the God who has spoken is a fire before whom we take off our shoes and bow and listen, that scripture is not a vending machine to dispense the answers we want, and that our interpretation of scripture is music best made as we play in sync with the rest of the orchestra, stretching back to the earliest fathers, not a solo act.

There are several features that make this book a valuable resource for the person wanting to grow in reading and understanding scripture. One is the author’s warm love of scripture, that breathes in the pages. Second is the distillation and integration of some of the best practices of good hermeneutics into a brief, 120 page text. Finally, she offers numerous examples and praxis exercises that show and then allow us to practice what we are learning. This is both a good introduction for the student learning to study scripture and as well as the Bible teacher who wants to review and sharpen his or her understanding of how to lead those instructed, not only to understand the God-breathed Word but to heed and obey the One who has spoken and is speaking.

Review: The Birth of the Messiah

The Birth of the Messiah, Raymond E. Brown. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1979 (Link is to 2nd edition, published in 1999 by Yale University Press).

Summary: An academic commentary on the Birth Narratives in Matthew and Luke.

This has been on my shelves a long time, a library copy picked up at a sale many years ago. More recently, it has been joined by Brown’s two volume The Death of the Messiah. I decided for Advent this year, it would be a good time to finally dive into this magisterial commentary by Brown

The commentary consists of an overall introduction, introductions to Matthew and Luke’s account respectively, and then commentary, running section by section of each narrative. This includes Brown’s own translation of the text, notes on the text, including textual variants, and commentary. In addition to overall bibliographies, Brown offers a bibliography for each section. He also includes a number of appendices on the genealogies, the Birth at Bethlehem, virginal conception and the charge of illegitimacy, the census, and midsrash.

I will offer here some overall highlights, rather than a lengthy discussion of a lengthy commentary. First of all, it is Brown’s theory that the infancy narratives came last in the formation of the gospels, the passion narratives being first, and then the ministry narratives. One of the big questions is why these narratives are so different and Brown would chalk this up to the theology of each evangelist, which he develops in the commentaries.

First, with Matthew, he emphasizes how Matthew shows Jesus to be Son of God and son of David, fulfilling Old Testament prophecies, key for a Jewish-Christian audience. We see this in the genealogy, the five Old Testament texts which Brown would suggest may have been interpolated into an earlier pre-Matthean tradition, particularly Isaiah 7:14, which he deals with at length, as well as the visits of Magi, Herod’s attempt to kill him, and the flight to Egypt, a kind of recapitulation of Israel’s history. I was also struck with the thread of Joseph’s implicit obedience throughout. Joseph shines for this brief moment, and then slips from the scene.

The commentary on Luke focuses the transitional character of the infancy narratives, even as Acts 1-2 focuses on the transition from the ministry of Jesus to the church. The annunciation stories echo those of the births of Samuel and Samson, upon whom the Spirit dwelt. At the visit of Mary, who had conceived by the Holy Spirit, to Elizabeth, John, in utero, testifies to the coming of Jesus as Elizabeth speaks in the fullness of the Spirit. This anticipates the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. Brown also gives extensive attention to the parallel annunciations, birth narratives, and subsequent hymns. He also offers intriguing ideas about the connections of Simeon and Anna to the anawim and the Essene sect at Qumran. He observes the intensification of each of these for Jesus, showing how John is the lesser forerunner we will encounter in the following chapters.

The work reflects the historical, form, and source criticism of Brown’s time. Brown moderates some of the radical skepticism that would question the historicity of these events. Most notably, he defends the virgin conception (but not necessarily birth) of Jesus and the Davidic descent, but considers the claims of a Bethlehem birth weaker (despite this being a commonality of the two accounts), and believes Luke was in error about a census under Quirinius. He would not consider such passages such as the Magnificat as ipsissima verba of Mary, being skeptical that testimony could have come through Mary or her family to Luke.

While Brown, in this work, is more skeptical about the historicity of various aspects of these narratives than I am, it is wonderful to read with this scholar who has read scripture so closely. Having written narratives of local history, drawing on various sources, I am more sympathetic than I once was to his exploration of how Matthew and Luke composed these narratives. But I suspect that no two people who studied what I wrote could dissect the sources in the same way. There is a speculative element of this and I am more appreciative of the rhetorical criticism that looks at the final form of a work and its theological purpose. I think this is where Brown seems to be on the most solid ground.

My review is based on the first edition of this work. A revised edition was published in 1999, a year after his death. I have not had the chance to compare the two and to see if Brown’s views changed on any matters. At very least, it may reflect more current scholarship. This is well worth obtaining for any who expect to preach on these texts and offered rich devotional reflection for me.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Great County Seat Horse Race

Vintage European style engraving featuring horse racing with jockeys by Charles Simon Pascal Soullier (1861). Original from the British Library. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel. Licensed under CC0 1.0

One of the most fascinating stories in Joseph Green Butler’s History of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley is that of a horse race that occurred some time before 1810 on Federal Street. At stake? Whether Warren or Youngstown would be the county seat. You must remember that at this time, Warren had been designated the county seat ahead of the little village further down the Mahoning River.

The good people of Warren had a horse by the name of Dave that they thought could outrun anything. They even added a $500 wager, they were so sure of themselves.

The early founders of Youngstown were horse people. Judge George Tod, Judge William Rayen, James Hillman (who met John Young on his first surveying trip), and John Woodbridge. Judge Tod agreed to their bet and covered the $500 wager. He selected a bay mare owned by James Hillman and trained and curried the horse to perfection.

The race would begin at Judge Rayen’s home, located near Spring Common and run through the village on Federal Street ending at Crab Creek, a distance of about a mile. Everyone took off work that day. People from Youngstown lined up on the south side of the street. Those who came down from Warren were on the north side. A spectator observed that people “bet what money they had, bet watches, penknives, coats, hats, vests, and shoes.”

His account continues:

“Alexander Walker rode Fly, and under his tutelage the Youngstown horse forged ahead in passing Henry Wick’s store. At Hugh Bryson’s store Dave came alongside, but the spurt was unavailing as Walker plied his whip and gave a few Indian warwhoops and Fly shot ahead once more. Dave’s chance vanished then and there, for Fly reached Crab Creek six lengths ahead. In fact Fly had entered so thoroughly into the spirit of the affair by this time that she refused to stop at all and was brought up only at Daniel Sheehy’s cabin, a mile beyond the goal.”

Youngstown won the race and the $1000 purse. Youngstown bettors filled their pockets with winnings. But the county seat remained in Warren. It turns out that you can’t bet county seats and Youngstown wouldn’t even be the first county seat when Mahoning County was formed. Canfield held that honor from 1846 until 1876, when, after an Ohio Supreme Court decision, the county seat moved to Youngstown. It turn out that it takes more than a horse race to claim a county seat. But what a great story!

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Gift Articles

Photo by Laura James on Pexels.com

I’d like to give you a gift. It is an article I just read that I liked and think you will like. About the only way I can do that these days is to cut out the article and send it to you. But I can only do that with one person.

Why? Paywalls on digital content. These often prevent non-subscribers from reading content, or only a very small number in a month. Often, you have to register at the website, subjecting you to emails from that site. For many, it is not worth it, and that article I want to share with you may end up unread.

I was so happy when the New York Times instituted a policy for its digital subscribers of permitting them to “gift” ten articles each month. I often find good things to share that I like to post on one of the social media pages I curate. Being able to do this is and not hear back, I couldn’t open it because of the paywall makes me feel better about my subscription to the NY Times.

I curate social media accounts related to books and to higher education. For each, I tend to post 3-5 articles a day selected from different media. Sometimes I can’t access a good article because of a paywall and other times, I can access an article because I subscribe to the publication but if I share it with non-subscribers, they are subject to the paywall. Result: I limit the number of paywalled articles I share.

But I don’t like it as a subscriber and I’d like (and have written) publications to which I subscribe to adopt a policy like that of the NY Times. Here’s what I think they ought to consider:

  • It is an extra subscriber benefit that gives me one more reason to keep subscribing.
  • Subscription prices are rising rapidly. If I have to cut my subscriptions, I will retain the ones that offer me the most perceived benefit.
  • The fear, I realize, is that “gift” content will discourage subscriptions. What is not considered is that gift content will help retain subscribers. From the development world, it is far easier to retain a subscriber than to get a new one.
  • Shared content that people can actually read demonstrates the worth of the publication. For example, I subscribed to The Atlantic because of online articles I read before they instituted their paywall policy.
  • Allowing “gift” articles also expands traffic to a publication’s website–as important a metric as subscribers for advertisers. When I share an article on my Facebook page, I potentially share that article with nearly 59,000 followers, a significant “reach.” In turn, they appreciate the gift and increase their engagement–and some may subscribe.
  • Magazines often allow you to give a year “gift subscription” to expand their subscriber base. Why not use gift articles to expand subscriber base?

I suspect at worst, this idea wouldn’t cost publications anything, and may have the upsides I’ve proposed. But I suspect, this may be a quixotic quest unless there was a mass subscriber movement. The publications I’ve written just tell me what I already know, which feels condescending. None made me feel they actually valued me as a subscriber and were interested in building the relationship between us. The only time most really seem to care is when I drop a subscription. Then they’ll often offer a new one for less than half what I was paying, usually via a computer generated mailing. Maybe some day they will recognize the power of a gift and the multiplier effect it can have with subscribers.

Pandemic Reflections: The Omicron Edition

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I did not think that in January of 2022 that I would still be writing pandemic reflections. Now, I’m beginning to wonder when pandemic reflections will be a thing of the past. Right now, I wonder who else I will learn has COVID when I open Facebook each day (perhaps opening Facebook is my mistake!). I keep hearing Omicron is milder but we’ve never had so many in the hospitals where I live. Right now, over 700 are dying each week in my state. Tests are hard to get. I suspect there are far more infections than those recorded on our state’s dashboard.

Against this backdrop, it is hard for me to hear talk about “new normals” and “I’ve got to live my life.” When schools scramble to get teachers in the classroom and bus drivers to get the children there, when restaurants close because all their servers are sick, when sports teams cancel big games because of “protocols,” this hardly seems normal and I wonder what kind of life we are trying to live when it requires a lot of people to get sick for us to live it, or equally when it requires us to get sick. This all sounds off to me, somehow. It makes me wonder what “living my life” means.

For me it has meant a two year respite from getting on airplanes. It’s meant growing closer to my wife who is my bubble-mate! It’s meant treasuring those times when we have gathered with others. It’s meant working on our home. It’s meant near daily neighborhood walks, glorious sunsets, changing seasons, and getting to know people along the route. So many of my work years have meant getting on a plane or jumping into a rental car for a trip and I haven’t met many of the people in our community beyond my immediate neighbors. I’ve participated in virtual pilgrimages with people from all over the country–times to walk, and meditate on scripture, to listen to stories, and to pray. I’ve written nearly 600 blogs, engaged in hundreds of online conversations, worked with over 30 talented writers in my work, hosted online conversations with a variety of authors and online book groups, and read a few good books along the way (actually more than a few!). I’ve enjoyed plein air painting with my wife and a group of artists in good weather, and actually felt I improved. While I can think of things I wish we could do, I’ve lived, and I think lived well these past years. I even weigh five pounds less than at the beginning of the pandemic (not much, but I’ll take it!).

And by God’s grace, we’ve remained healthy. I don’t presume it will continue when I hear reports saying nearly everyone will catch this latest variant. But neither am I going to run out, plunge into a big, maskless crowd and “get it over with.” That’s the vibe I get as I listen to the media. When I talk to friends our age (late 60’s), we feel like the tornado sirens are blaring and right now we are going to our safe place until the storm of this latest wave blows through. We’re getting good at this. We’ve had a lot of practice and many of us have found the richness of life on the other side of “safe at home.”

Here’s how we look at it. No illness is “milder” when you get older. It takes longer for anything from a cut to a cold or the flu to heal. Even if our vaccinations and booster mean we don’t get sick enough to go to the hospital, that can still be pretty sick. And it is a crapshoot when it comes to after effects. And getting exposed and sick adds to the strain on testing, on our primary care docs, pharmacists, and if we get sicker, a host of others at a time they are all being pressed to the wall. As far as it depends on us, we’ll try to avoid becoming another case.

What’s hard is that as you get older, it is easy not to think of yourself in that way, especially when you see the world around you trying to get back to “normal” in the middle of a wave. It’s easy to start questioning whether you are too cautious. It helps to have other older friends who tell you that you are not nuts.

So for the time, we do takeout. We shop early, and only as necessary, don’t linger, and wear at least a KN95 mask. We won’t do any indoor, unmasked gatherings with a significant group of people. Perhaps for the next few weeks at least, no indoor gatherings outside our bubble.

We don’t take talk of things “levelling off” or “lessening” at face value. We watch infection rates as a rough benchmark. At one time in our state, our governor wanted to get below 50 infected out of 100,000 (1 out of 2,000) over a two week period (and we actually got down to 19.2 per 100,000 last summer). Today the rate in our state is 1818.8 per 100,000 (nearly 2 out of 100) infected in the last two weeks (and because of test shortages, that number is probably low). That means in a group of 50, at least one person is probably infectious. That feels to me that we are amid a storm.

When it was a few hundred cases per 100,000 we did discretionary shopping, and some indoor dining at off hours. Probably, we’ll wait to see things go below 100 per 100,000 to go back to “normal,” perhaps with an Omicron booster.

At the end of the day, I realize there is no sure thing about any of this. The choices we make, we do so out of prudence (God never invites us needlessly to imperil our health or life) and love for each other. My choices affect my wife, other loved ones, and indeed a wider community. But they finally do not make us invulnerable. I live each day grateful for this day’s life (something the pandemic has taught me that is itself a gift). As a Christ-follower, I do believe that someday I will rest in peace with Christ and be raised with him in glory. So I act, not out of fear but rather as one who both lives in hope and cherishes each day of life. I’ve also learned with this pandemic this wisdom of James 5: 15 which says, “Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’ ” It seems that any predictions of what this virus will do are folly, and the best we can do is say, “if it is the Lord’s will.”

This reflection is neither an argument or judgement on other choices. Some of the choices we’ve made, we realize, are not possible for others. It is simply a reflection of how we are thinking and acting at this stage of the pandemic. If it’s helpful to someone else, I’m glad, and if you see things differently, I have no interest in a quarrel. We have to get through this thing together, so a fight is counter-productive. I suspect whenever this relents, we’ll all have a lot of sorting out to do, and who knows but that we may end up helping each other–or at least forgiving each other the unkind judgements we have made upon one another.

Review: Changed Into His Likeness

Changed Into His Likeness (New Studies in Biblical Theology), J. Gary Miller. Downers Grove: IVP Academic/London: Apollos, 2021. (UK publisher link)

Summary: A biblical study of how personal transformation takes place in the life of a believer.

Change is hard. How many of us keep those New Year’s Resolutions? At the same time, one of the claims made by Christians is that new life in Christ is transformative. J. Gary Millar, in Changed Into His Likeness explores what may be asserted from the teaching of scripture about the change that is possible, avoiding the extremes of over- and under-realized eschatologies. He considers the clear teaching that we both have been changed in coming to new life in Christ, and we will be changed. Meanwhile, there is the question of what may be expected in between, where believers live their lives this side of eternity, which is the focus of this volume.

Before engaging this question, Millar asks the question of what do we mean by “us,” considering what is meant by the image of God, and the various words used addressing body, soul, spirit, mind, etc. This relates to current neurophysiological debates. If we are merely material, change is simply a matter of re-routing neural pathways. He seems most sympathetic to the idea of “holistic dualism.”

He then turns to the biblical account of change, considering first the Old Testament. His contention, considering case studies from Noah to Solomon showing that positive change was not possible for those who believe, but rather decline. He then asks an intriguing question: were Old Testament saints regenerate, particular if this Spirit was at most upon them rather than indwelling them? The theologians he references dance around the question and he leaves this unanswered as well. But the evidence shows that transformation is not evident in the Old Testament.

He then considers the New Testament. Jesus, unlike the Old Testament saints fulfilled the law and expanded his treatment from outward to inward, limiting the provisions for divorce, and transforming the lives of those who encounter him, like Zacchaeus and the Samaritan woman. He frees from sin, and promises the indwelling of the Spirit, through whom he would bear fruit in their lives. Paul likewise speaks of the gospel’s transforming work. Believers abound in love, please God more and more, learn to discern his will, increasingly reflect the character of Jesus, are strengthened to serve, filled with God’s fullness, show a work of God moving forward to completion, and reflect God’s glory in Christ. He also traces the contributions of other New Testament writers. His summary of Hebrews could preach: We will grow in our knowledge of truth, focus on encouraging others, and experience the kindly discipline and training of God

He then does a historical theological survey from Augustine to the present, including fascinating material on Calvin and John Owen. He also characterizes James K. A. Smith’s focus on replacing cultural liturgies with richer, thicker Christian ones to be a flirtation with legalism. I think he misreads Smith here and does not distinguish what Smith proposes from his own recommended practices of a Word-shaped life. He makes these observations: Biblical change is complex, God’s work, trinitarian, flows from union with Christ, is word-driven, requires piety, and is comprehensive. This sets the stage for his own biblical theology of personal transformation. He highlights that it is a work of God, occurs through the gospel, enabling us to respond with repentance and faith. This change comes through our life in the church and in the world, and involves perseverance. Perhaps more simply, we change as we gaze upon Christ and are changed increasingly into people who reflect his glorious image (2 Corinthians 3:18).

This is much needed work in an era where the gospel has been hi-jacked either for personal prosperity or political ends, all of which reveal a shrinking understanding of the true and glorious transforming power of the gospel. Only this holds hope for those who have been failed by all the self-help teachers and those in the grips of sin’s tyranny in all its forms–our idolatries, our besetting sins, our injustices, and our fearful animus toward our neighbors. God can transform all of these–not with a wave of a magic wand but as we focus on Christ, are discipled by his word, are impowered to repent, believe, and change by his Spirit, and drawn by a loving Father in a community of mutual encouragement. This theology of change speaks into the lives of quiet desperation of believers who wonder what there is between having first believed and going to be with the Lord and who feel they are just going through the motions. Millar’s study is a vital resource that I hope enjoys much use by pastors and all who commend the Lord who is changing us into his likeness.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A. Heinlein. New York: Ace, 2018 (originally published in 1966).

Summary: In 2076, Luna, a colony of Earth on the Moon, decides to declare independence, to end the one-sided grain export to earth that will deplete lunar ice reservoirs, under the leadership of a sentient computer.

In 2075, the colony of three million on Luna lives underground in a warren of tunnels. Many are convicts, former convicts, and descendants of convicts. Nominally, they are ruled by a Warden whose main responsibility is insuring the continuity in hydroponically-grown grain shipments being shipped to earth via the catapult. He’s largely incompetent, and the real brain behind Luna’s operations is Holmes IV, a supercomputer, that, unknown to all but a computer tech who listened and treated him humanely, had become sentient. The tech, “Manny” O’Kelly-Davis engages him and teaches him to joke.

As extraordinary as this relationship is, it is just the prelude to a series of events leading a body including Manny and the computer, now named Mike (short for Mycroft Holmes), to instigate a movement leading to a declaration of independence on July 4, 2076. Joining him is Wyoming (Wyoh) Knott, a female revolutionary agitator and Professor Bernardo de la Paz, who has recognized that Luna’s grain shipments to earth will use up Luna’s ice reserves in seven years, leaving the moon waterless and threatening the existence of the colonies. And Mike? He becomes Adam Selene, leader of the movement (as well his alter ego, Simon Jester, who loved to poke fun at Luna Administration as the impetus for revolution developed)

After independence, Manny and the Prof pursue a desperate course to head off an invasion from a vastly more powerful but dependent Earth. Despite their physical weakness due to living their lives in Moon’s low gravity, they go to Earth, even while they leave Mike and Wyoh to prepare an unorthodox defense of Luna. They hope to negotiate a peaceful transition to independence and a sustainable trade relationship that didn’t deplete Luna’s ice reserves, serving as ambassadors for Luna. Will proud Earth listen, especially the North Americans, or will they be as stubborn as the British monarchy 300 years ago? You can probably guess, if you don’t know the story. Will a war be necessary and will these scrappy revolutionaries have any better chance of succeeding? Mike had calculated their odds as one in seven.

The plot serves as a vehicle for exploring a variety of alternative possibilities–sentient computers being just one example. Line marriages address a two to one ratio of men to women, where one married into a line of interlaced marriages of men and women spanning generations and lasting over a century or more. Government, such as it is a combination of a function-driven bureaucracy and a cross between anarchy and libertarianism. The threat of being tossed out an airlock keeps most in line–the bad actors don’t last long. They develop a system of trade with little theft and where payment of debt is a high value. With the “harsh mistress” of the moon, perhaps they realized both responsibility and interdependence.

Of course, the most interesting question is what the relation of colonies on the Moon, or perhaps Mars, will be to Earth. More recent futurists and many in the space exploration enterprise have considered the colonizing of the Moon and Mars, particularly as life on earth becomes more environmentally tenuous. It is easy to think of Earth as the Mother planet. But if colonies become established, and people inhabit them for generations, what paths will exist to redefine these relationships to avoid interplanetary war? Admittedly, this is still a ways off, if ever. But Heinlein makes us consider questions that go beyond feasibility and technology–questions that in a way have always occupied us and need to be answered anew.

Review: The Free World

The Free World, Louis Menand. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021.

Summary: An intellectual and cultural history of the forces and figures whose creations contributed to the emergence of the United States as an intellectual and artistic leader in the years between 1945 and 1965.

The years between 1945 and 1965 were a time of transformation in the United States. The return of servicemen from the war fueled a boom in university education. An influx of intellectual and artistic refugees from Europe sparked a dynamic mix of ideas and artistic development. The boom in education and culture was accompanied by an economic and technological boom, fueling a widespread interest in music, art, books, museums and and the rapid growth of publishing and music and film industries. Something had happened in the country, where ideas mattered, and culture engaged, with an urgent and widespread interest.

The Free World is an account of the institutions, the people, and the cultural movements and moments of this period. The title is significant in two respects. One is an emphasis on the United States, fueled by Western Europe thinkers and artists, becoming a center of intellectual and artistic culture in a way it had never before. The second is the idea of freedom, that in a variety of ways was a theme running through the “slices” as Menand calls them of this history.

Menand’s approach to this sprawling intellectual and cultural history is to take slices, focusing on a particular aspect of that history and a particular network of key figures and their relationships. He begins with the advent of the Cold War, and the intellectual architect of America’s doctrine of Cold War, George Kennan, and the “Wise Men’ surrounding him, transitioning into a discussion of thinkers about power, anti-totalitarian George Orwell, and anti-communist James Burnham whose The Managerial Revolution foresaw the rise of the bureaucratic totalitarianism of mass culture.

Meanwhile, in occupied and post-war France, the existentialists (Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus) looked into the void, seeing nothing but absurdity, developing the philosophy of authenticity and radical personal choice and responsibility. Political and social theorists continued to wrestle with the connection between mass culture and totalitarianism. Hannah Arendt, influenced by Heidegger and the horrors of the Nazi camps wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism and sociologist David Riesman The Lonely Crowd on group conformity and how this would undermine personal autonomy, little realizing it also made room for alternative visions. Meanwhile, Claude Levi-Strauss, a pioneer in anthropology joined Roman Jakobson in developing Structuralism, a system for analyzing languages and cultural systems, eclipsing the concepts of freedom on which existentialism rested.

In the arts, a constellation of individuals led by Jackson Pollock and Clement Greenberg, along with other artists like Willem de Kooning, were trying to break out of the strictures of painting and art criticism (in the case of Greenberg). Menand chronicles the introduction of Pollock’s drip paintings and other similar works and the galleries and shows and the patronage of figures like Peggy Guggenheim that made this revolution possible. Meanwhile, the thinkers and writers were at work, a circle that included professor Lionel Trilling of The Liberal Imagination, poet Allen Ginsberg, and beat writer Jack Kerouac. Menand returns in a later “slice” to these figures and the further development of their work into the early post-modern deconstructive thought of Barthes and Derrida and the literature that followed.

Another arts movement, centered at Black Mountain College sought to implement a hands-on experimental approach, breaking with the strictures of theory in art, music, and dance under the influence of Josef Albers. Visual artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, composer John Cage, and dancer Merce Cunningham all were part of this circle. Menand does a masterful job describing the innovations of each of these figures. Meanwhile, rock ‘n’ roll was breaking onto the scene. Menand chronicles the unpremeditated recording of “That’s All Right, Mama” that launched the career of Elvis Presley and the intersecting growth of the record industry and disc jockeys who got them air time, often for pay, and the growth of television. He explains how all these factors created the environment for the surprising U.S. success of the Beatles. A later chapter on consumer sovereignty shows mass culture applied to advertising by McLuhan and the marketing of everything from pop art to cars with fins.

One of the most interesting chapters is the one on “Concepts of Liberty,” moving from the high philosophy of Isaiah Berlin in “Two Concepts of Liberty” exploring both negative and positive freedom (“freedom from” and “freedom to”) to the paperback revolution, and their covers and content and what constraints can be placed on this form of expression. This is followed by a discussion of the embrace of “freedom” as a key rallying cry in the Civil Rights movement.

In later chapters, Menand traces further developments in feminism and pop art and the central figures of Betty Friedan, Andy Warhol and Susan Sontag, the freedom literature of James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, and the shift of cinematic artistry from Europe to America, advocated by critic Pauline Kael, who wanted films both smart and entertaining and how Bonnie and Clyde was a watershed film in this regard.

The last chapter comes full circle with George Kennan testifying in the Senate against American expansion of the Vietnam War in 1965, which he and the other Wise Men thought contrary to not only American interests but unnecessary for “containment” of communism in a country trying to free itself from colonialism. But the real story of “This is the End” was that the diversion of intellectual and cultural energy from the intellectual and cultural awakening of the previous twenty years.

Menand does us an incredible service in chronicling this intellectual and cultural history in “just” 727 pages. It could have actually taken far more, and with commendable concision he summarizes complex ideas and multi-faceted movements and the contributions of a variety of key people. The one thing I miss is the religious element of the country’s intellectual culture. Reinhold Niebuhr is mentioned in one line on a single page but was a formidable influence on Kennan and many others. Howard Thurman played a key role in shaping Martin Luther King, Jr. Paul Tillich and Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel did major intellectual work during this year, addressing the themes of freedom in this work.

Menand concludes his preface musing, “As I got older, I started to wonder just what freedom is, or what it can realistically mean. I wrote this book to help myself, and maybe you, figure that out.” He does not draw conclusions as he ends the work. He challenged me to think. Arendt, Riesman, and Berlin all have concerns about how mass culture, under the guise of expressive individualism can lead to tyranny. Yet by and large, the freedom of thinkers and culture-makers in this work, is the freedom of throwing off of constraints. And when we are indeed shackled physically or by unjust practices like colonialism, racism, or sexual discrimination, removing constraints is necessary to human flourishing. But the religious outlook would also recognize some constraints enable us to flourish both individuals and societies to flourish–constraints upon evil or unchecked and undisciplined affections, that in extreme form can lead to tyranny. But Menand is spot on in identifying freedom as an important theme for our cultural life, and one worthy of consideration. His intellectual and cultural history certainly points toward the sources of our contemporary ideas of freedom. It seems to me an urgent matter to discern whether these ideas are the best for both individual and societal flourishing.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Passbooks

Mahoning Bank Passbook. Photo by Robert C. Trube

Remember passbooks? Like me, you may even have some old ones around your house like this one I found. This was how we saved money growing up in Youngstown.

It started for me when I set up my own lawn cutting business and started setting aside money to buy my own stereo. Each week, I would walk down to the Dollar Savings and Trust on Mahoning Avenue, a few blocks from my house (I don’t have that passbook anymore). I’d set aside some money for things like baseball cards and maybe save $10 a week.

The Dollar Savings and Trust on Mahoning Avenue was in a long, narrow building. When you walked in, there was an enclosed office in front, teller’s windows on the left, and on the right, a standing desk with chairs on either side. At the desk, you would fill out a deposit (or withdrawal) slip with your account, date, and amount, using one of those pens on a chain that seemed to work about half the time. Toward the back was a manager’s office and the safe with safe deposit boxes. I went in there a few times with my dad.

After you filled out the slip, you stepped across the aisle to an open teller window. After a while, you got to know the tellers, some who had been there for years. You gave them your money and deposit slip and your passbook. They would write or stamp the date, the kind of transaction, the amount, and your new account balance. Once a month, they also wrote in the accumulated interest in your account. And they would initial each transaction.

What a cool idea! They added money to your account (at that time 4 percent interest!) just for taking care of your money. They even paid you interest on your interest! Someone told me early on that one of the keys to getting rich was working for your money and then letting it work for you. They also said that you wanted others to pay you interest rather than you paying interest to them.

It turns out that banks did not always give customers a passbook. At one time, they just kept their own, handwritten account ledgers. Passbooks gave customers a certain amount of control and access to their own accounts. They also served as identification, much like a passport, which is of similar size.

And now they are largely a thing of the past in most places. Computerization and online banking have eliminated paper records, like passbooks. Now, most funds are deposited, withdrawn, or transferred electronically, and we only go to the bank if we need cash, or maybe a loan (even much of applying for a loan may be done online). Even then, we often use ATMs or drive throughs. I deposit checks with my smartphone. I can’t remember the last time I went into a bank and every time I went there, I dealt with different people than were there on my last visit. Now, I keep track of my accounts through the app on my phone or from my computer. It’s convenient, to be sure, but…

I do miss the personal relationships of the past. You knew the tellers names and they got to know yours. They knew your dad and other family members. It was fun to look at your passbook and see the steadily increasing balance of your account toward your goal of something you wanted to buy, or eventually, saving for college. Savings and scholarships meant I graduated without owing anything.

Passbooks were part of how we learned to save. The habit of going to the bank each week to save a bit of what I earned became a lifelong habit. Compound interest was the first lesson I learned about having money work for me. I felt like the tellers were cheering us on.

I wonder how children learn how to do this today. Looking around, I do see that banks have youth accounts. Often the banks are not as close by, certainly not in walking distance. Things can be done online. I wonder if parents need to be more involved than in the past. I could go to the bank myself, even at age ten, and that felt empowering. It meant I was growing up. In Youngstown.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Review: Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity?

Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity, David Wenham. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1995 (print on demand).

Summary: A study of the relationship of Pauline thought to the teachings of Jesus by a comprehensive effort to compare them on a number of major themes.

One of the more discussed questions in Pauline studies is whether Paul may be considered the real “founder” of Christianity as we know it. For one thing, Paul rarely quotes Jesus, and aside from the death and resurrection of Jesus, seems to have little interest in the ministry of Jesus. On the face of it, his teaching seems to have different concerns, everything from justification by grace through faith, the inclusion of the Gentiles, and the ordering of life in churches.

This work was brought to my attention when I reviewed Who Created Christianity, a festschrift honoring Wenham’s work. That work was not possible without this one, and I found it sufficiently interesting to dig into the work that began it all, published by Wenham back in 1995. Wenham’s project in this work was nothing less than a comprehensive comparison of the teaching of Jesus and the thought of Paul. His method, which he outlines in the first chapter is to set the teaching of Jesus and Paul side by side in six major areas in chapters two through seven. He considers that of Jesus first, and then that of Paul. This in itself reveals many areas of consonance as well as divergence. The second part of each chapter is even more important. Wenham looks for connection between Jesus and Paul, and whether this can be argued to go back to the teaching of Jesus. These may be one of the following: formal tradition indicators, where Paul indicates he is drawing upon the words of the Lord, such as in teaching on divorce in 1 Cor 7:10; references to things known by his readers that would have come from Jesus, as in 1 Thes. 5:1-2; verbal and formal similarities, such as Paul’s “yes, yes” or “no, no” in 2 Cor. 17-18, and similarities of thought.

Wenham deals with the question of correlates not demonstrating relationship. His own approach is one in which, if the accumulated evidence shows a number of highly probable or plausible connections, then it may be argued that there is a likelihood of dependence of Paul on the Jesus tradition.

In chapters two through seven, Wenham applies this method to the following:

  • The Kingdom of God
  • Who is Jesus?
  • Why the Crucifixion
  • Jesus and the Community
  • Living in Love
  • The Future Coming of the Lord

Chapter 8 takes a slightly different approach, surveying the life and ministry of Jesus, considering what Paul might have known of his birth, baptism and temptation, ministry, miracles, and lifestyle, transfiguration, passion, resurrection and exaltation.

Finally, Wenham draws together his conclusions in chapter 9, some of which I will highlight. While Paul doesn’t use kingdom language very often, he teaches that new creation, a new situation has come in Christ. Jesus speaks of himself as the Son of Man and Paul of him as the new Adam, and also uses the “Abba” language distinctive to Jesus. At the last supper, Jesus sees his suffering as redemptive and bringing in his coming kingdom and Paul sees the redemption of sinful humanity, and a strong connection in Paul’s writing about the last supper. Jesus speaks of the destruction of the temple and the community and mission of the twelve. Paul sees the new temple composed of Jews and those incorporated into the church through the Gentile mission. There is a common thread of the primacy of the law of love and a vision of the last things. Wenham also sees difference but contends that the pre-passion and resurrection setting of Jesus in a Jewish world, and the post-Pentecost, Gentile setting of Paul’s thought accounts for differences. He shows how Paul’s thought is a development rather than departure from the teaching of Jesus. He also has some intriguing ideas in a concluding note about Paul’s gospel sources in relation to the Mark, Matthew, Luke, and Q sources of synoptic scholarship.

While taking nothing away from Paul’s importance to the Gentile mission in the urbanized Roman empire, Wenham contends that “Paul would have been horrified at the suggestion that he was the founder of Christianity” (p. 409). Rather, he would consider himself a follower, indeed a “slave” of the one he encountered on the Damascus road.

This is not only a wonderful contribution to Pauline studies but also to biblical theology, in considering the continuity, indeed the origins of our Christology across the gospel. I suspect there are those who would be more skeptical of Wenham’s connections and conclusions, giving less credence to dependence upon Jesus. But what Wenham does accomplish is the removal of the wedge some would drive between Jesus and Paul, while doing full justice to the biblical material. So much of Pauline studies has been dominated by the “New Perspective” discussion which may lead to overlooking Wenham. Amid discussions that may threaten to eclipse Jesus, this work both honors Paul and exalts Christ.