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.

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.

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.

Review: Notes from No Man’s Land

Notes from No Man’s Land, Eula Biss. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2009.

Summary: A collection of American essays connected to four places the author lived, all exploring the realities of race in which we all are implicated.

Telephone poles. An essay on the introduction of (and resistance to) telephone poles on the landscape becomes an essay on lynching. It turns out that telephone poles were used to hang many black men. Biss writes of how she once thought the “arc and swoop” of phone lines a thing of beauty. Now she comments, “they do not look the same to me. Nothing is innocent, my sister reminds me. But nothing, I would like to think, remains unrepentant.”

This striking comment captures a theme running through this book. Wherever we go in America, if our eyes are open, we recognize that we are implicated in our nation’s racial history. Nothing is innocent. And yet what also comes through in these essays is that Biss is not resigned to this state of affairs–repentance, a turning, is yet possible.

In her essays we follow Biss from New York to San Diego (and trips into Mexico), Iowa City, and the Rogers Park neighborhood of north Chicago. She describes locking kids into a Harlem school where she is teaching on 9/11 and how New York depleted her. In an essay sharing the title of Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” she speaks of how “New York took everything I had” and like Didion, she left, but unlike Didion, she has not returned, and questions how Didion tolerated so many myths about the city.

She moves to San Diego, working for an African-American newspaper. One of her most telling essays describes Eve Johnson’s struggle with Child Protective Services to gain custody of her own grandchildren, and the repeated barriers she encounters because she is “too black” and her persistence. She notes that she never saw such stories in the New York Times.

Her next move is to Iowa City. She writes about her research into the Black company town of Buxton, no longer in existence that seemed idyllic. There was a fabric of community organizations and a strong sense of identity and self-respect among the black residents. She dares to wonder about the kind of “integration” in which Blacks are a small minority in a sea of white, as was the case with dissatisfied Black students at the University of Iowa. Is such integration really a form of assimilation rather than an affirmation of identity? She also discusses the race blindness she encounters as people decry “looting” after Katrina, but downplay thefts by students after a tornado tore through their city.

The title essay, “No Man’s Land” is set in Rogers Park, a neighborhood on the north side of Chicago, bordering Evanston. It was originally called No Man’s Land because of its location. It is also highly integrated with no racial majority, yet she writes both of the racial fears that persist among whites like her in this diverse community and of her husband’s hope that “more white people don’t move here.”

Her concluding essay is titled “All Apologies” and explores the meaning of apologies both in personal life and in our racial history. Amid this is her telling observation: “Some apologies are unspeakable. Like the one we owe our parents.”

Biss dares to explore both our implicatedness in racism, and the ambiguities of living among one another with all that history. She recognizes the ambiguity in her own family, the mixed racial ancestry that gives her a cousin able to move between white and black communities, even while on the basis of appearance, she cannot. Her essays reveal a very different version of our national character from what many would have the textbook versions to be. She sees both the beauty and value of people and cultures, and the blindness, the hardness, and the obfuscations that sustain these disparate versions of America. In her spare, reflective prose she does not offer answers but invites us to sit with her and see.

Review: Orient Express

Orient Express, Graham Greene. New York: Open Road Media, 2018 (originally published as Stamboul Train in 1932).

Summary: Seven people on a train between Ostend and Constantinople intersect in various ways, making choices about the kind of people they will be.

Seven people on a train from Ostend to Constantinople. Mabel Warren is a hack reporter who drinks too much and is on a routine assignment when she recognizes that Richard John, a school master is actually Dr. Czinner, a dissident returning to his native country to hopefully lead an uprising, the story of Mabel’s career. Warren is accompanied by her assistant who is also her lover, Janet Pardoe, enroute to visit a relative, and secretly hoping for a different life. Myatt is a successful young Jewish businessman, an importer of dates, among other things. Coral Musker is an worn out dancer with a heart condition, attended by Richard John, exposing him as a doctor. When she collapses, she is given Myatt’s berth because she couldn’t afford her own, obligating her in the way women often have been obligated to men, which Myatt doesn’t refuse, even though he is drawn more to Janet Pardoe.

Two others play lesser parts. Mr. Savory is a popular writer, perhaps collecting material and also interested in Janet. Finally, joining them in Vienna is an elusive thief, Josef Grünlich escaping a murder charge when a safe-cracking job went south. Meanwhile, Mabel Warren, victim of another thief in Vienna is not able to reboard the train. Because Czinner refused to compromise his plans to save being exposed, Mabel wires the story to her paper, setting up Czinner’s apprehension. Coral and Josef Grünlich get caught up in it.

What is striking is the contrast between one character shaped by noble ideals and six others who live by looking out for number one. The others have their chances but basically are survivors like the great mass of us. There is also the element of a journey where the constraints of ordinary life, and relational commitments are in flux, particularly evident with Mabel and Janet, and Myatt and Coral.

This is early Graham Greene. It is said he wrote this to make a bit of money. But we can already see one of the characteristic elements of Greene’s work–characters in a liminal place and how they will respond. This lacked the focus and weight of later works, but nevertheless held your interest, wanting to see what the end of the journey held for each.

Review: The Great Quest

The Great Quest, Os Guinness. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2022.

Summary: An invitation to the examined life in the pursuit of a meaningful existence, a well-lived life.

The meaning of life. It sounds like one of those discussions for a first-year intro to philosophy class as we are challenged by the dictum of Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” In response, we often joke about it. Or we make it an absurd joke, as in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy in which the supercomputer Deep Thought computes the answer to the Ultimate Question of the Meaning of Life, The Universe and Everything, as 42.

Os Guinness believes the absence of meaning in modern life of significant concern. Citing the statistics of rising suicide rates and falling birth rates in the modern world, he believes the quest for meaning to be pressing:

The truth is that the urgent need of our times is a fresh seriousness about human existence and a renewed openness to ultimate questions. Answers to ultimate questions are not only vital to each of us as individuals but to whole societies and civilizations. Indeed, there are no great societies or civilizations without confident answers to ultimate questions, and such answers need to become vital again in our schools, our universities, and our public discussion as well as in our families.

Os Guinness, The Great Quest, p. 4

Guinness contends that one needs meaning as one needs oxygen and his plea as he introduces this book is that if we haven’t thought these things through, that we do so. He also identifies some of the reasons we fail to do so: distraction, bargaining that we’ll do it later, and the noise and interference of our busy lives. But for those serious about asking the questions and reaching the conclusions that come of an examined life, Guinness offers to be a guide on the journey.

Guinness lays his cards on the table. He is a convinced Christian, while respecting other religions and worldviews. He proposes to be as fair as possible because he wants people to think things through. He also asks of his readers a personal engagement in their search, ready to say, “here I am” if the transcendent comes calling. While welcoming reason, he eschews the ability of proofs to do anything more than suggest that a belief is reasonable.

With these preliminaries out of the way, he outlines four phases in our search

  1. A time for questions. Warning of the psychological objections to our questions and belief in finding meaning as “bad faith,” he notes the insatiable capacity of humans to ask and some of the perennial big questions: Where did we come from? What can we know? What are we? Where are we going? What can we hope for? The questioning may reveal the inadequacy of the beliefs, the view of the world we have embraced. We may find experiences in the world that shatter our conceptions, signals of transcendence that encourage us to look deeper.
  2. A Time for answers. We begin with conceptualizing, weighing different ideas and how they address our questions. We critically assess the differences and compare different “answers.” How would each shape the way we live if we thought the world that way. For Guinness, there are three main families of answers, those of the Eastern families of faith, those of secularists, and those of the Abrahamic faiths. As we work through these possible answers to the great questions, Guinness concludes, “Does any faith that you as a seeker may consider answer your questions? Does it do so in a way that switches on the light in the darkness and fits like a key in the lock…?”
  3. A time for evidences. One might think answers are enough. He contends that the only reason to believe anything is on the basis of reasonable evidence that it is true–Does it align with reality? Do the facts fit? In detail and as a whole?
  4. A time for commitment. Finally we must commit ourselves to whatever we believe is true. Guinness frames this in Christian terms of discovering “that loving and being loved [by God] is the very heart and soul of faith and the meaning of life” and saying “Here I am!” to that God. Whatever the “faith” one commits to, Guinness warns against the myth that it is about the search and not the destination–equating this to the legend of the Flying Dutchman, doomed to never dock but to sail forever.

Some may object to the Christian framing of this work. While there are statements by those of other “families” throughout, the preponderance becomes increasingly Christian in the progression of the phases. Guinness has warned us and certainly speaks in the terms he knows best, particularly when it comes to commitment where he speaks warmly of entering into loving relationship with God in which one finds meaning and purpose.

So, the reader must decide how far to go with Guinness as guide. Strictly following his four phases without being guided by the Christian examples, I could well see a person ending up in any of the three main “families” and any of the branches of those families. And to do so would certainly be to live an examined life rather than the muddled life of distracted modernity. Guinness can offer further guidance for someone wishing and willing to consider a thoughtful account for how one may embrace Christian faith. The illustrations from both his own life and others may well ring true with one’s own journey and help make sense of it.

I suspect this book may work best as something two friends, who trust and can be candid with each other, may discuss, even if one believes and the other is seeking. I could see a process of working through the phases together that would leave neither unchanged. Indeed, one of my thoughts on reading was that reaching a place of commitment ought not end the living of an examined life, and it has often been the dialogues with seekers, skeptics, and those in deep pain that have driven me deeper into the questions, the answers, the evidences, and my own commitment.

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

Review: The Vocation of the Christian Scholar

The Vocation of the Christian Scholar, Richard T. Hughes, Foreword by Samuel L. Hill. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005.

Summary: An account of the calling of a Christian scholar, emphasizing drawing deeply on the theology of one’s own and other faith traditions, and living in the paradoxical tension of one’s faith and one’s disciplinary scholarship.

Richard T. Hughes is concerned less with the idea of “Christian scholarship” and more concerned with how one is to live out one’s calling as a Christian scholar. For him this involves two elements. One is having “an identity that informs every other aspect of our lives and around which every other aspect of our lives can be integrated.” The other is learning to embrace paradox, as we hold both to an faith informed by our tradition and others, and the perspectives of our discipline.

He describes his own journey of growing up in Restorationist churches, complemented subsequently by studies of Lutheranism and Anabaptism, learning to hold the paradox of grace and discipleship together. He turns his attention to the life of the mind and its requirements of a disciplined search for truth, genuine conversation with diverse perspectives, critical thinking, and intellectual creativity. He contends that this applies to thinking theologically as well as thinking about one’s discipline, so that one’s work is grounded in one’s faith.

Drawing upon the work of Sidney E. Mead, he outlines how both the political leaders and college leaders of the American republic modelled this approach of embracing paradox, holding both to theistic or deistic ideas as well as engaging the Enlightenment thought of the time. They recognized human finitude and the rule of God over human institutions. He moves on the advocate both for understanding the particularities of one’s faith tradition and why we ought move beyond them: the nature of God, the nature of the Bible, the core of the gospel that must not be displaced by particularities, our neighbors in faith who must not be excluded by particularities, and dying to our egos, acknowledging our finitude.

This does not mean denying the power of the traditions we call our own. Hughes goes on to describe appreciatively the contribution of Roman Catholicism, the Reformed Tradition, the Anabaptist Model, and the Lutheran traditions, showing the substantial spiritual and intellectual resources these offer for the life of the mind. Drawing on these ideas, he considers how one may teach from a Christian perspective. I would have liked to hear some discussion of church traditions outside the dominant white culture. He observes that because of the paradoxes within our faith, we are uniquely positioned to foster an atmosphere of comfort with paradox and ambiguity essential to good inquiry. He contends that his work is not to give students “pre-digested answers” but rather to “inspire wonder, to awaken imagination, to stimulate creativity….” It is also to help them explore ultimate questions. Drawing on Paul Tillich, he identifies three:

  1. How do I cope with the inevitability of death?
  2. Am I an acceptable human being?
  3. Is there any meaning in life, and if there is, what is it?

He believes that the values of the upside down kingdom ought shape our choices of what to teach, and how he recognized these values in Howard Zinn’s work, even though Zinn is not a Christian. He addresses the concern about the distinctiveness of his scholarship as a Christian. He contends that the depth of his commitment to Christ cannot help but shape his scholarship, just as Madeleine L’Engle answered a young writer who wanted to become a “Christian writer.” L’Engle told her that if she was a thorough-going Christian, her writing would be Christian.

He follows with a chapter on the vocation of a Christian college. His argument is that Christian colleges ought be shaped by a shared theological vision, all pragmatic considerations aside. He also proposes a theological vision combining Lutheran and Anabaptist perspectives, one both of radical grace and radical discipleship. This is a vision of both radical Christian engagement in society and radical dependence on God. He then ends the book with a postscript of how tragedy can uniquely shape the Christian mind, including a personal narrative of his own near-death encounter.

While this work is grounded in the Christian college setting, I think it is also useful to Christians called to scholarship in the secular setting. The essence of his argument is the importance of a life deeply grounded in a theological tradition and an embrace of paradox. While this may not enjoy institutional support outside the Christian college setting, one may find community with other Christian scholars. I also appreciate the focus on the calling of the scholar rather than “Christian scholarship.” Rather than forced expressions of faith, these are allowed to develop organically as one both deeply cultivates one’s faith, understanding one’s own niche in the great story, and pursues one’s research and teaching. I loved the focus on wonder and ultimate questions, although I’d be curious how he might work out the latter in STEM fields. This is a worthwhile work for any Christian wanting to integrate their scholarly calling into their faith.