Review: Righteous by Promise

Righteous by Promise

Righteous by Promise (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Karl Deenick. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: A biblical theology of circumcision, beginning with Abraham’s being reckoned righteous on the basis of faith in God’s promised seed, who would bless the nations, through its significance in the law of Moses, and fulfillment in the work of Christ.

Male circumcision. The cutting and removal of the foreskin. It is a defining sign of God’s promise to Abraham and his descendents. To this day, bris or circumcision is a public celebration in Jewish communities, recognizing the inclusion of a male child into the covenant that began with Abraham, witnessed by family and friends, surrounded by ceremony and prayer, and celebrated with food.

It became a point of controversy as early Christianity spread beyond its Jewish roots, with some arguing for its practice to include non-circumcised Gentile men in the community of believers. Others, notably the Apostle Paul argued against this, that identifying with Christ by faith and in baptism was sufficient for inclusion in the church. The word, both in its literal meaning and applied metaphorically to the heart or even the ears comes up throughout scripture. Yet Karl Deenick, in making the case for this work, contends that beyond brief surveys, there has been no comprehensive study of scripture, formulating a biblical theology of circumcision.

This work remedies that, in Deenick’s study of texts in Genesis, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Joshua and the rest of the Old Testament, and in his careful exegesis of key New Testament texts where the word is used in Philippians, Colossians, Ephesians, Romans 2-4, and Galatians. He begins with Genesis 15 and 17, and the statements of Abraham believing and being reckoned righteous, and Abraham receiving the covenant sign of circumcision with the exhortation to walk faithfully and blamelessly and to keep covenant.

These words arise in various forms throughout the Old Testament material. Deenick traces these passages, and contends that blamelessness did not consist in sinless adherence to the law, but rather in faith in Abraham’s “seed” and the sacrifices that removed sin’s guilt, anticipating the fulfillment of the promise, thus being “righteous by promise.” He notes the passages that speak of uncircumcised hearts among those circumcised of body, referring to self-justifying efforts that fail to acknowledge one’s sin and humbly look to God’s promise.

His discussion in the New Testament centers on Paul’s letters with brief discussion of Acts 7, and an especially lengthy discussion of Romans 2-4. While there is different language and emphases, Deenick shows that Christ is the fulfillment of the promise of which circumcision was a sign, a visible reminder that the hope of the world was the “seed” of Abraham. Because the sign is fulfilled in Christ, and because the promise of righteousness through faith in Christ, circumcision was no longer necessary for inclusion in God’s people. True circumcision is the circumcision of the heart, that removes the hardness of heart that fails to humbly depend upon God and walk in God’s ways. This comes not by human effort but by the gift of the Spirit, working God’s resurrection life and righteousness in us.

Deenick carefully unravels textual details that often puzzle readers or are glossed over. He helps us understand both the significance of this somewhat puzzling sign, and why its practice was not required in the Christian movement. He models careful intertextual reading that both honors the distinctive context and contribution of particular texts while elaborating the consistent testimony to “righteousness by promise” throughout the canon.

Review: Less of More

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Less of MoreChris Nye. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.

Summary: Proposes that the American dream is making us miserable and that the vision of the kingdom turns the American dream upside down, leading us to a truly rich life.

Chris Nye proposes that the American dream is killing us. Visions of unlimited growth are pressing up against the operating limits of the only place where we can live. Depression and suicide among the young are rising. Our politics are mired in discord pitting groups who share a common citizenship against one another. Nye writes, “we never had more than we do now, and we’ve never been more depressed about it,”

Nye’s challenge in this book is the counter-cultural message of Jesus that we must lose our lives to save them. He contends that the American dreams of growth, self-sufficiency, fame, power, and wealth are gained at the cost of our souls. In chapters on each of these “dreams” he articulates the alternative the gospel of Jesus offers.

He speaks to our infatuation with growth, especially the infatuation among Christians with church growth and measuring goodness by bigness. He counters that the message of the gospel is one of “pace,” of keeping pace with God’s often slow but certain work of transformation. He challenges the hyper-individualism of our culture and the idea that we are more connected than ever with the reality that many are more isolated than ever. He observes the gospel alternative of the connectedness of the welcoming table. He contrasts the quest for fame and gaining a name for oneself with the practice of hiddenness and the downward journey exemplified by Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier at the L’Arch Communities.

The culture defines greatness in terms of power. Nye proposes the humble and vulnerable community, where we reveal rather than hide weakness, and stoop to serve and protect each other. Finally we define ourselves by how much we are worth, by the wealth we have accumulated. Nye invites us to discover that while saving might feel good, giving feels great.

Nye concludes with a pointed challenge. Despite dreams of American greatness, history tells us that the American Epoch will end, the Empire will fall. Christian hope has survived the fall of every empire and challenges us to consider to which we have given our allegiance. He writes, “To follow Jesus is to follow him out of America and into the kingdom of God, from our own weak, man-made houses and into the mansions he has built that await us.”

I wouldn’t be surprised that there is pushback to this book (and perhaps this review). We want both the American dream and to have Jesus to as our eternal insurance policy. It seems to me that Nye is on good ground here in arguing that these are diametrically opposed to one another and that we can’t have both. Jesus himself said that we can’t have two masters, and the truth is that both the American dream and the call of the kingdom of God are a call to serve a master. But Nye goes further. He names the things that make are making us miserable, and the alternative life of the kingdom that restores wholeness. Nye diagnoses our American sickness. The question is whether we will recognize our dis-ease, and what can make us well.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

Review: Fall of a Cosmonaut

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Fall of a Cosmonaut (Porfiry Rostnikov #13), Stuart M. Kaminsky. New York: Mysterious Press, 2000.

Summary: Chief Inspector Rostnikov and his team are charged with investigating three cases, a missing cosmonaut, a stolen film, and a brutal murder in a Paranormal Research Institute, only the first of the murders in the course of the story.

My son often manages to find books I probably never would have noticed that end up as fascinating reads. This book was such a case. It is actually the thirteenth installment in Stuart M. Kaminsky’s Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov series and the real find here is the character of Rostnikov who combines the savvy political instincts necessary to survive in a cutthroat Russian bureacracy with an intuition about human behavior that leads him to surround himself with shrewd associates, and solve crimes.

In this installment, there is not one, but three cases that his boss, the Yak, has assigned him, expecting results. One is a cosmonaut that has disappeared, along with secret knowledge of events on the Mir space station, knowledge that others have already died without revealing, the most recent by a swift injection from an umbrella-bearing man that is following Rostnikov and his son Iosef, as they travel to the village where Tsimion Vladovka grew up.

In the second case, a movie director, Yuri Kriskov has just completed what is adverted to be a great epic on the life of Leo Tolstoy. Then he receives word that the movie and its negatives have been stolen, and are being held for a ransom that if not paid will result both in the destruction of the movie and the death of Kriskov. It turns out that this is a plot of an assistant, Valery Grachev who is in love with Vera, Kriskov’s wife, and Vera, who wants to be rid of Yuri. Sasha Tkach and Elena Timofeyeva are assigned to this case, trying to find the manic genius who has stolen the film, and is seeking a way to kill Yuri.

The third case involves the gruesome death by claw hammer of a sleep and dream researcher at a Paranormal Studies Institute. Emil Karpo and his understudy Zelech are assigned this one. Zelech is sidetracked by a woman researcher who suspects him of special abilities. Karpo collects shoes, finds a suspect who is a reclusive researcher who claims he is framed, and homes in on a jealous fellow scientist good at covering tracks.

Rostnikov has the skill to adeptly counsel each both on the cases and their personal lives. Karpo needs a personal life. Tkach is estranged from his wife. Elena and his son Iosef are engaged. Zelech is single. They eventually unravel each case, but not before others die and their own lives in several instances are endangered. The cases also provide “information”  that “the Yak” can use to advance his own ambitions, and his ability to control and manipulate others.

I mention all the figures associated with the cases because, like any good Russian novel, keeping track of the names and who is doing what is more than half the battle! The narrative keeps moving back and forth between the cases briskly enough that we don’t lose the thread of any of them as we move to the climax and resolution of each.

Altogether, there are sixteen numbers in Kaminsky’s Rostnikov series. I don’t know if I’ll get around to reading all of them, but I did pick up another one as a result of reading this. I think one of the most intriguing thing about mysteries is the distinctive character of the detectives–Holmes, Poirot, J. B. Fletcher, Kay Scarpetta, Robicheaux, Maigret, and Rostnikov–each seems a world different from the others and the delight is as much in the depths of these characters as in the resolution of these cases. I think I’m going to have to modify the bibliophile’s complaint and say, “So many series and so little time!”

Review: Cultural Apologetics

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Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted WorldPaul M. Gould, foreword by J. P. Moreland. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019.

Summary: Contends that in our disenchanted post-modern world, the apologist needs to engage in a culturally aware apologetic that appeals to goodness, truth, and beauty.

One thing anyone engaged in Christian witness for any length of time in a western cultural setting will tell you is that the landscape has changed. While the message of the gospel has not changed, the culture in which the message is shared has. Paul Gould’s one word description of that change is “disenchantment.” From a world shot through with the presence and majesty of God, the embrace of materialism and naturalism as all-encompassing accounts of the world results in a sense of the absence and irrelevance of God, and a culture that is sensate, focused on the physical senses, and hedonistic, focused on our desires. I found this intriguing, particularly considering the growing fascination with dystopian apocalypses, and conversely,  with fantasy and alternate worlds, that might suggest a longing for re-enchantment or despair of its possibility.

Gould contends that in this context, there is still a place for apologetics, but not that of past generations, focused exclusively on rational evidences, although these still have a place in Gould’s proposal. Gould contends for what he calls as cultural apologetics. By this, he means the “work of establishing the Christian voice, conscience, and imagination within a culture so that Christianity is seen as true and satisfying (italics in text).”

The author believes that a cultural apologetic that does this appeals to a universal longing for truth, goodness, and beauty. It is an apologetic that appeals to the longing of truth through reason (voice), that appeals to the longing of goodness through conscience, and that appeals to the longing for beauty through the imagination. The aim of this to foster the awakening of desire (satisfying) and a return to reality (truth) that constitutes a “re-enchantment” eventuating in the decision to trust and follow Christ.

Gould focuses a chapter each on imagination, reason, and conscience, employing C.S. Lewis’s approach of both “looking at,” and “looking along,” the latter considering the reality to which truth, goodness, and beauty point. The chapter on imagination draws upon Makoto Fujimura’s Culture Care (reviewed here), that makes the case for how beauty may open the hearts of people to faith, exemplified in Masaaki Suzuki’s recognition that the music of Bach is a kind of “fifth gospel” that has led to interest in or the embrace of Christianity among many Japanese. The chapter on reason contends there is a case to be made for recovering the lost art of persuasion and sounds at first glance the most conventional of the three. However, Gould moves beyond classic arguments to appeal to the plausibility structures and sacred cores of one’s hearers. The appeal to conscience addresses the longings for goodness, wholeness, justice, and significance and seeks to demonstrate in practice and examples how Christianity has made the world a better place and why that is so.

Addressing barriers to belief is an important part of this approach. It includes the internal barriers of anti-intellectualism, fragmentation, and unbaptized imagination within the Christian community. It also involves the external barriers of the belief that science disproves God, that objects to the exclusivity of Jesus, that believes God is not good, and considers the ethic of the Bible archaic, repressive, and unloving. Gould offers brief responses to each of these barriers and then describes the “journey home” from initial enchantment through disenchantment to re-enchantment as we join the “dance of God.”

One of the things I appreciated about this work amid the strains of anti-intellectualism in significant swaths of evangelicalism was the affirmation of intellectual leadership. He writes, “If we are to be strategic in our cultural apologetic, we must work to cultivate Christian leadership and a Christian presence within the halls of the academy. The perceived reasonableness and desirability of Christianity depends upon how effectively we accomplish this task” (p. 143).

I also appreciate the integrated appeal to goodness, truth, and beauty. It seems that we often prefer one of these to the inclusion. If reasoning about truth alone is not helpful, abandon it for beauty or goodness. Gould recognizes that to be human means we long for all three. Also, the posture of culture care, as opposed to culture clash assumes that people are drawn by desire rather than overcome by arguments.

Finally, Gould reframes rather than retreats from the apologetic task. It seems to me that this is vital in an age where many are not merely indifferent to Christianity but vigorously opposed, and willing to make a case against the Christian faith. He reframes apologetics in a way that challenges the church to live into its heritage: to abandon trivial banality for a rich artistic imagination, to abandon a slovenly anti-intellectualism for vibrant intellectual engagement, and to abandon moral compromise for a fragrant goodness. It seems to me this would be good both for the church and the world.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: Presidents of War

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Presidents of WarMichael Beschloss. New York: Crown Publishing, 2018.

Summary: An account of eight American presidents who led the nation into war, how they coped with its stresses, and the consequences of their actions with regard to presidential power.

As recent tensions (I write in July 2019) with North Korea and Iran underscore, the potential and power of a U.S. president to lead the nation into war is great, and brings solemn consequences in terms of loss of life, ongoing entanglements, or the ultimate cataclysm of nuclear conflict. Michael Beschloss, in this work, studies eight American presidents who led the nation into war. The presidents are James Madison (War of 1812), James Polk (Mexican-American War), Abraham Lincoln (the Civil War), William McKinley (Spanish-American War), Woodrow Wilson (World War I), Franklin Roosevelt (World War II), Harry Truman (Korea) and Lyndon Johnson (Vietnam).

It is fascinating to see pretexts and concealed motives for conflicts. For example, Madison took a poorly equipped nation into conflict with Great Britain over impressments of American sailors and the high-handedness of George III, while entertaining ambitions to invade and seize Canadian territory. James Polk, similarly had territorial ambitions to annex territory in the southwest from Mexico and used clashes on the disputed Texas-Mexico border to seek a declaration of war. The fall of Fort Sumter was the flashpoint of the simmering conflict between North and South that both knew was about slavery. Yet until the summer of 1862, Lincoln spoke of the war as an effort to restore the Union. The sinking of the Maine, likely caused by a shipboard accident, served as the cause for the Spanish-American War, allowing the McKinley administration to seize the Philippines and achieve “regime change” in Cuba. Critical intelligence was not passed on to fleet commanders at Pearl Harbor, and the catastrophic Japanese attack gave Franklin Roosevelt the mandate he needed to lead a reluctant nation into war. Dubious attacks in the Tonkin Bay in response to covert US activity resulted in a congressional resolution that served as the basis for Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam conflict.

Beschloss also chronicles a tension inherent in the U.S. Constitution. While Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution entrusts the sole power to declare war to Congress, Article II, Section 2 names the President the commander in chief of armed forces, entrusting to him the power to launch and direct military operations and deploy our forces, important in the event of attacks upon the country. In this work we see not only how presidents used various pretexts to argue for war declarations up through World War II, but also how Presidents avoided seeking such declarations in the case of Korea and Vietnam, actions that turned out to be unpopular with the American people. Beschloss notes that today’s all-volunteer armies and the lack of a draft make this easier.

Presidents used war to push the limits of presidential power, whether in the suspension of habeas corpus, in executive orders, in harnessing civilian industry to war aims (such as Harry Truman’s takeover of a strike-plagued steel industry), or even the Emancipation Proclamation, effecting an end of slavery without constitutional amendment. At the same time, failure in the exercise of these powers brought new curbs or temporarily weakened the presidency, such as the 1973 War Powers Act, after Vietnam, and the weakened administrations of Ford and Carter, post-Vietnam.

Beschloss also studies how different presidents coped with the pressures of war. Madison seemed not to cope well at all, offering indecisive leadership and being routed from Washington. Polk was the first president who paid a toll with his health for fighting a war, barely surviving his presidency in broken health. Lincoln admitted, “This war is eating my life out” and he had a strong impression that he would not live to see its end (he barely did before an assassin’s bullet struck him down). McKinley turned to his Bible and justified the seizure of the Philippines as a trust to bring Christianity to the archipelago. His life was also ended by assassination while in office. Wilson suffered a stroke after fighting for his Fourteen Principles, the League of Nations, and the Treaty of Versailles. Roosevelt also suffered a fatal stroke on the eve of the allied victory and Johnson’s health was seriously impaired with his death coming within five years of leaving office. Fate is not kind to most war presidents.

This work is an excellent survey of many of America’s wars, and of presidential leadership, both in taking the nation into war and leading the country through them. It is disturbing how many times the country is deceived or deprived of critical information in being led into war, and how often fervor substitutes for a sound basis for war, perhaps most notably in 1812 and in Vietnam. Given the high stakes of modern warfare, Beschloss’s work suggests that questions of character, demonstrated leadership, and the mental and physical fitness of the holders of the office of President should weigh heavily in our electoral processes. It also suggests the critical role of Congress in the exercise of its War Powers, and its role of requiring a President to make the case for war to the American people. The fate of a nation, or even the world, may rest on how our President, and our elected representatives act.

 

Review: Balm in Gilead

balm in gilead

Balm in Gilead: A Theological Dialogue with Marilynne Robinson, edited by Timothy Larsen and Keith L. Johnson. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A collection of presentations from the 2018 Wheaton Theology Conference, discussing the work, and particularly the fiction, of Marilynne Robinson with contributions from Robinson.

It is not unusual at an academic conference to discuss the work of a particular author. What is perhaps more remarkable is to discuss the work of a living author with the author present and contributing. The subtitle of this work calls this “a theological dialogue with Marilynne Robinson, and this is true in two senses. The various essays do engage the theology, particularly the Calvinism of Robinson’s work. But the conference also engaged Robinson, with a presentation by her (“The Protestant Conscience”) and a conversation between her and Rowan Williams, and an interview with Wheaton College President Philip Ryken.

Most of the essays focus on some aspect of the theology found in Robinson’s work. Timothy Larsen considers the main character of her fiction, Reverend John Ames, his heritage as the grandson of a staunch abolitionist in the mold of Wheaton’s Jonathan Blanchard, his reaction against that as a pacifist, and the mindset of the 1950’s Christian Century which he and fellow minister Boughton regularly discussed. Han-luen Kantzer Komline explores Ames “heart condition,” both physical and spiritual, and his struggle to forgive and extend grace to Jack Boughton, the wayward child of his friend. Timothy George explores the unusual, for an academic and a writer, embrace of Calvinism by Robinson, with its doctrine of predestination, emphasizing grace and undercutting human presumption. George notes the central focus of Robinson on Christ and so does Keith L. Johnson in a discussion of Robinson’s metaphysics. Here he teases out Robinson’s understanding of the significance of the cross as the demonstration of the love of God for us rather than on its sacrificial character, a focus Robinson engages and differs with.

Lauren Winner focuses on the preaching of John Ames–the 67,500 pages and 2,250 sermons in the course of his pastorate in Gilead and his conclusion that “they mattered or they didn’t and that’s the end of it.” One of the most intriguing essays for me was that of Patricia Andujo on the African American experience in Robinson’s works. She explores how these works reflect the attitudes of mainline white churches in the 1950’s, a kind of passivity in the face of racism, even while raising the uncomfortable issue of Jack Boughton’s inter-racial marriage, and the lack of response when the town’s black church burns down and the congregation leaves.

Tiffany Eberle Kriner’s essay on “Space/Time/Doctrine” raises the intriguing idea of the influence of Robinson’s understanding of predestination, and the shifts backwards and forwards in time in her novels. Joel Sheesley, a midwestern artist, focuses on the landscape of Robinson’s novels. In the penultimate essay Rowan Williams explores the theme of the grace that is beyond human goodness. He writes:

“Grace, not goodness, is the key to our healing. To say that is to say that we’re healed in relation not only to God but to one another. Without that dimension, we’re back with toxic goodness again, the goodness that forgets and excludes. Lila’s problem in the novel is that the instinctive warmth, the human friendliness, the humanly constructed fellowship that characterizes Gilead cannot allow itself to be wounded and broken open in such a way that the stranger is welcome, whether that stranger is the racial other, or simply the socially marginal and damaged person like Lila herself. But to be wounded in our goodness, to learn to have that dimension of our self-image and self-presentation cracked open, is the beginning of where grace can act in us” (pp. 163-164).

The final essay is Robinson’s on “The Protestant Conscience,” in which she defends not only the freedom of conscience of religious believers but argues that the Protestant idea of conscience defended the freedom of all rather than enforcing a Christian conscience upon all through means of the state. This presentation is followed by conversations with Rowan Williams, and an interview with Philip Ryken. In this collection, I found these diverting, but not nearly as substantive and satisfying as the various essays. Perhaps a highlight was the difference between Robinson and Williams on the literary merits of Flannery O’Connor, of whom Robinson is no fan.

This is a great volume for any who, like me, love the work of Marilynne Robinson. It helped make greater sense of some of the themes I’ve seen in her work, particularly her Calvinism. It served to invite me to a re-reading of her work in its exploration of themes of place, race, and grace. Robinson’s presence by no means muted the critique of her work, and yet I saw no defensiveness in her comments, which bespeaks the evidence of grace in her life. All in all, this is well worth acquiring if you have followed Robinson’s work. For those who have not, read the novels first, and then you will appreciate this volume!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Priscilla

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Priscilla, Ben Witherington III. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: An imaginative rendering of the story of Priscilla, a companion of Paul, as a dictated narrative recorded by her adopted daughter Julia, as she faces possible trial before a Roman tribunal.

Priscilla (or Prisca) is one of those fascinating minor characters we meet in the book of Acts and several of the letters of Paul. Often mentioned before her husband Aquila, she is described as a tentmaker, who works with her husband and Paul to support their mission efforts. When Paul writes the Corinthians, he sends their greetings along with his own. Later, in the letters to the Romans and the second letter to Timothy, he sends greetings to them. Perhaps most significantly, Priscilla and her husband instructed Apollos, who became a noteworthy preacher, in the truth of the gospel.

This book is an imaginative filling out of her story, and that of the early Christian movement. As the story opens, Priscilla is a woman of 80, still proprietor of a tentmaking business in Rome. Her nightmares about the early Neronian persecution of Christians, during which she lost her husband, result in her determining to tell her whole story to her adopted daughter Julia, who takes it down on wax tablets to copy to papyrus.

She traces her Christian journey from the day of Pentecost, when she and her mother became followers of the Way, and were expelled from their home. Eventually, they take up tentmaking in Rome. Prisca meets Aquila, another believer. She describes persecutions of Jews in Rome and their banishing to Corinth, their encounter with and travels with Paul, their instruction of Apollos, to whom she later. attributes the Letter to the Hebrews.

Witherington creates an urgency to the account. Shortly after beginning the narrative, Priscilla receives a summons to appear in a month before the tribunal of Domitian, who has resumed the persecution of Christians. The theme of persecution runs through the narrative–the brutalities of Nero, who illuminated the city with burning Christians, banishments, the trials of Paul, of Peter and many others.

Priscilla’s narrative incorporates descriptions of everyday life, often assumed in scripture, and makes connections that help flesh out the development of the early Christian movement–the ministries of Peter, James, and John, and their writings, along with the gospels of Luke and John Mark.

The account also chronicles the ideal of Paul about Jewish-Gentile relationships in the church, and the struggle, and ultimately failure to achieve this ideal as differences separated these two and the number of Jewish followers of the Way declined. There were both external pressures from the rest of the Jewish community, and the struggle to grasp the new covenant realities that made inclusion of the Gentiles possible.

Finally, the portrayal of Priscilla and the discussion of women and their roles in the church and the world helps us understand both cultural limits and the gospel possibilities Paul envisioned. This commentary by Priscilla, responding to a question from Julia reflects Witherington’s understanding of Paul on women:

” ‘That’s true, but Paulus’s pastoral principle was ‘start with them where they are, and lead them where you want them to go.’ He knew the places Timothy and Titus served were male-dominated, especially on Crete, but if you carefully read the first letter Paulus wrote to Timothy, he mentions female deacons. Those texts were never meant to exclude women from praying or prophesying or teaching or whatever they were gifted and called by God to do so. Paulus view was to change those in the body of Christus over time rather than change society at large.’ “

Sadly, Priscilla probably didn’t envision that two thousand years later the church would still be wrestling with this one.

There are times when the incorporation of explanations of daily life seem a bit artificial, and the use of Latin or Greek terms, and then explanation, while helpful from a historical perspective, seems unnatural in a conversation. Nevertheless, the narrative reflects Witherington’s extensive understanding of the New Testament and its Mediterranean context, and helps us return to the biblical narratives with fresh eyes. The extensive use of illustrations to complement the text add to the reader’s understanding and interest. The use of the impending appearance before the tribunal adds narrative tension, and offers the opportunity for a discussion of the realities of Christian hope that have strengthened believers facing persecution in every age. This is a book both to inform and encourage!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Scripture and the English Poetic Imagination

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Scripture and the English Poetic ImaginationDavid Lyle Jeffrey. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019.

Summary: A collection of essays tracing the influence of the scriptures, and particularly the poetry of scripture, upon poetry in the English language from medieval to modern times.

If you are a Jeopardy fan, you may have noticed how most contestants avoid categories involving biblical knowledge. Friends of mine in university English departments tell me that there is a similar avoidance of Bible as literature courses by university faculty. This is particularly striking given the profound influence of the Bible upon English literature throughout history.

In this work, Baylor University English professor David Lyle Jeffrey focuses on a very specific aspect of that influence–the influence of the Bible, and particularly its poetic character, on English language poetry. He states:

“The central purpose of this collection of essays will be to explore some of the ways Holy Scripture has shaped the English poetic imagination, not merely through subject, cadence, idiom, and various echoes of its diction, but by effecting something deeper in the consciousness of English-speaking poets from Caedmon in the eighth century to Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, and Gjertrud Schnackenberg among our contemporaries. Essentially, this involves an atunement of the vernacular English poetic imagination to biblical poetics as a wellspring of inspiration.”

Jeffrey begins with poetry in God’s own voice, the passages of scripture where God speaks, whether through the Old Testament prophets or the parables of Jesus up through the final visions of the Revelation to St. John. The remainder of the book then explores the English poetic imagination from the medieval period up to the Reformation, and then from the Reformation to the present time. The first part includes discussions of the works of Caedmon, Dante, Chaucer and Shakespeare. The second part begins with John Donne and George Herbert. In Donne, we see human love transmuted into love for the divine. In Herbert, we find one who has deeply digested the scriptures, whose poetry is a prayerful commentary of scripture as a whole. And what scripture? The following chapter explores the profound influence of the King James Version on poetry from the time of this translation forward, as perhaps the pinnacle of English expression not to be matched by modern translations, however accurate they may be.

The last chapters introduced me to modern poets I have not explored: Margaret Avison, Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, and Gjertrud Schnackenberg. Foremost of these is Richard Wilbur, named poet laureate of the United States in 1987, one who Jeffrey says, “teaches us to be open ourselves to wonder.” His descriptions left me wanting to read all of them, Wilbur in particular.

He concludes with the contemporary disarray of the humanities that have ceased “being purveyors of high and noble verities for low, and often trivial, advocacies.” He sees in an academy that has dismissed the higher authority found in Holy Scripture, a place given over to the exercise of power. Against all this, he urges the community of those who are people of the Book (harking back to an earlier work) to the task of the preservation of literature in which they recognize expressions of truth that reflect that Book.

This is a book written particularly for those familiar both with the literature about which Jeffrey writes, and the academic language in which Jeffrey’s fellow academics discuss these texts. This is not so much an introduction to the influence of the Bible on poetry, as an extended rigorous disquisition for students and teachers of English literature showing from medieval to modern periods that much of English poetry cannot be well-understood apart from the biblical text that served as the wellspring of the imaginations that crafted these works.

Those without this background may despair after a few chapters. If they are hungering for a deeper engagement with literature, they might begin with other writers like Karen Swallow Prior. This is a more advanced work, especially suitable both for Christians and those who are not who are engaged in literary studies and suspect the Bible has a greater influence on the works they are studying than credited. I think Jeffrey makes a case well worth considering as well as offering a searching analysis of the parlous state of literary studies at the present time.

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

Review: Upside-Down Spirituality

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Upside-Down SpiritualityChad Bird. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.

Summary: Highlights nine areas in which Christian faith turns cultural conventions on their head, turning the world “upside-down.”

When you ask most people what they think a real Christian is, the answer is often some version of people who are nicer than those around them. Often, we buy that, adopting the way those around us think of a good, or even successful life, covering it with a veneer of Christian-y sounding language.

Years ago, I had a seminary course in New Testament Ethics, the primary text of which was Allen Verhey’s The Great ReversalI have to admit that at the time, I still regarded Christian ethics as a nicer version of the world’s, but was bothered by the title. Over the years of reading and re-reading the Bible, I began to suspect more and more that Jesus really did inaugurate a great reversal, literally turning the world’s ethics on their head, blessing the meek and the humble and making the least the greatest.

Chad Bird’s Upside-Down Spirituality develops a similar idea. Whereas we tend to celebrate good people who succeed, Bird proposes that this common sense needs to be turned on its head. He proposes:

“Failures of a faithful life–that’s what we’ll be talking about in the chapters that follow. What this world’s common-sense wisdom reckons as failures, anyway. The failure to be extraordinary, the failure to live independent lives, the failure to go big or go home, the failure to think love sustains our marriages, even the failure to have a personal relationship with Jesus….For there are areas in all our lives–personally, in our families and marriages, as well as in our churches–where we’ve become so habituated to the empty platitudes of our culture that we don’t even realize our hearts have gone astray” (p. 24).

Bird discusses nine failures under three categories. The first category is how we think of ourselves. He challenges the idea of believing in the God who believes in you. Instead, he argues that God doesn’t believe in us but through “Jesus only” we discover the God who loves us despite our failures. He contends that failing to make a name for ourselves, living what may be hidden lives of faithfulness carries the great assurance that our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. He calls out a culture that urges us to follow our hearts, and invites us to follow not our hearts, but Jesus.

The second part considers how we think about our lives. He begins by puncturing the dream of being the perfect parent. He cites a Facebook post outlining a long litany of things the perfect mom does and contrasts it with the list used by former generations: “feed them sometimes.” The truth is that all of us who have been parents have done mediocre jobs, and that our real hope is that our children grow up, not in perfect houses with perfect parents, but in houses of grace where we all come to understand that our hope is being God’s forgiven children. Instead of questing for our ideal “calling,” Bird challenges us that there is no sacred-secular divide, and that we may live as called persons wherever we are, and in whatever we do.

The chapter in this part I loved the most was where he argues against the myth of finding one’s soulmate. When I hear marrying couples say this, I either gag or tremble, fearing that they are headed to an early divorce if they don’t wake up to the reality that no person can live up to that ideal. We are both unique, and often self-centered and marriage will sooner or later bring those differences and our fallenness to the surface. Bird proposes that it is not love that sustains marriages, but rather marriages that sustain love as we press into Christ for his help to do what is humanly impossible.

Finally he challenges some of the success myths of the church. One is the myth of us versus them, that to not conform to the world, we need to cut ourselves off from the world. He explores what it means to be resident aliens, building bridges into Babylon, seeking its peace and prosperity, even as we embrace our true citizenship in the kingdom. He gives the lie to having “a personal relationship with Jesus,” that faith is a private thing. Rather, we relate to Jesus as part of communities who are his body.

His final chapter wonders about something I’ve wondered about. Why do so many of us drive past fifty churches to go to the “big box” church across town rather than worshiping with those who live near where we live? He contends that instead of buying into “bigger is better,” we find contentment and joy wherever the crucified and risen Christ is preached.

Each chapter ends with a “beatitude,” all of which are summarized at the end. A couple of my favorites:

3. “Blessed are those who don’t follow their hearts, for they follow the Lamb where he goes.”

5. Blessed are those who fail to find their calling, for theirs is the kingdom where life and love and service find them.”

Bird writes with candor and vulnerability. He’s been through a divorce and done everything from pastor to drive a big rig. He punctures the success myths of contemporary Christianity as one who has failed and found grace, and a far more vibrant and honest life as a humble follower of Christ. He offers hope that when we fail, we may be closer than ever to the grace of God and the kingdom of Jesus, who turns the world upside down.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Guest Review: Enriching our Vision of Reality

Enriching Our Vision

Enriching our Vision of RealityAlister McGrath. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2017

Summary: The natural sciences and Christian theology can enrich each other’s understanding of reality and help us better understand this strange world in which we find ourselves.

The fundamental theme of Alister McGrath’s book is that “the natural sciences and Christian theology can enrich each other’s understanding of reality and help us better understand this strange world in which we find ourselves.” (p. 77)

His intended audience is “scientists with an interest in theology and theologians aware of the importance of the natural sciences” (p. viii), of which I happen to be neither.

McGrath suggests that “insisting that we use only scientific methods, forms and categories confines us to a narrow world that excludes meaning and value, not because these are absent but because this research method prevents them being seen.” (p. 16)

McGrath discusses the shortcomings of Ian Barbour’s four general approaches (conflict, independence, dialogue and integration) to the relation of science and religion, then goes on to favorably describe John Polkinghorne’s four approaches (deistic, theistic, revisionary, and developmental). The developmental approach is described as a continuously unfolding exploration wherein Christian doctrine is revised in the light of new insights.

He points out the numerous ways in which scientific and theological thinking are similar, particularly regarding Darwin’s theory and Christian theology, in that “both scientific and religious theories find themselves confronted with mysteries, puzzles and anomalies that may give rise to intellectual or existential tensions but do not require their abandonment. . . . In each case, there is a common structure of an explanation with anomalies, which are not regarded as endangering the theory by its proponents but are seen as puzzles that will be resolved at a later stage.” (pp. 147-8)

And it wouldn’t be an Alister McGrath book without a discussion of natural theology, which he describes as “an attempt to demonstrate the existence or character of God by an appeal to the order or beauty of the natural world, without presupposing or relying on any religious assumptions or beliefs.” (p. 165) McGrath suggests that “Christianity offers a framework that makes sense of what is otherwise a happy cosmic coincidence.” (p. 11)

In summary, McGrath provides an exploration of the relation of the natural sciences and theology and how they can complement each other. Along the way, McGrath responds to the views of some of the New Atheists, particularly Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

The book includes a two-page “For Further Reading” but no Index. The only fault I can find with this book is that the publisher chose to go with end notes (28 pages of them) instead of footnotes, thus requiring constant page-flipping.

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This guest review was contributed by Paul Bruggink, a retired technical specialist whose review interest is in the area of science and faith.