Review: Confronting Old Testament Controversies


Confronting Old Testament Controversies: Pressing Questions About Evolution, Sexuality, History, and ViolenceTremper Longman III. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.

Summary: With a commitment both to the authority of the Bible, and pastoral concern for readers, the author addresses controversial questions about origins, historicity, violence, and sexuality.

This work took a certain amount of courage to write. I suspect there will be a number who read it who applaud what the author says in some places and vehemently disagree elsewhere. Throughout, the author seeks to offer a reading of scripture, particularly the Old Testament that engages the text as a whole and seeks to listen to its overarching  message, that engages scholarship, including scholars, some friends, with whom the author disagrees, and seeks to exercise pastoral care, even for readers who may disagree.

The four issues the author addresses are the controversy of how we read the creation accounts of scripture in light of evolution; whether we can trust that the exodus and Canaanite conquest are historical events, despite claims that they did not happen; how we should think about the claims of divine violence in scripture; and what the Bible teaches about same-sex relations and the pastoral implications of this teaching. My brief summaries of the author’s responses to these controversy should not substitute for a careful reading of his responses, especially if one thinks one differs with the author.

  • On evolution, he both argues against “wooden reading that would lead us to think that it was the intention of the biblical author to provide us with a straightforward description of the how of creation” and equally against those who would deny “a historic fall and concept of original sin.” He contends that the Bible is interested in the who and why of creation while science addresses the how.
  • On history, he affirms the historical reality as well as the theological import of the exodus and conquest narratives.
  • On violence, he believes that attempts to claim God didn’t hurt anyone or that seek to minimize the harm, do not do justice to the biblical text, which, consistent with the New Testament portrays a God who fights against, and finally defeats evil. He actually suggests that the violence of the Old Testament, first against the nations, and later against Israel herself, stand as forewarnings of God’s final judgment.
  • On sexuality, he affirms the historic view of the church affirming sexual intimacy within the boundaries of a marriage between a man and a woman. He thoughtfully deals with key texts and alternative readings. While he holds to what is now called a “traditional” view, he contends he speaks only to the church here and that there are implications of the Bible’s teaching about sexuality that challenge every believer. He opposes crusades against same-sex marriage or the withholding of business services to LGBT persons offered to others.

What I most admired are the gracious ways in which Longman engages and charitably differs with scholars, including one who was a former student, and another who is a close friend. I affirm the ways he shows pastoral concern without compromising theological integrity, modeling a belief that love and truth, story and principle need not be at odds. Finally, I appreciate the thoughtful, nuanced yet concise, responses to four controversies, each of which have been the subjects of multiple complete books. What each have in common are that they represent shifts from historic understanding, arising both from scholarship and other cultural forces. Longman offers a thoughtful restatement of the biblical teaching that weighs the counter arguments and finds them inadequate to justify abandoning historic understandings shared by most of the church through most of its history.

The work serves as a good starting place for someone who wants to read a well-stated “conservative” view (although some conservatives and some evolutionists alike would be unhappy with Longman on evolution) on the four controversies addressed by this book. The documentation points people to the full range of scholarship on each of the questions. The discussion questions at the end of each chapter may help both with personal reflection and group discussion. Most of all, the work models a spirit in desperate need of recovery, that can both speak unequivocally about one’s convictions yet shows charities toward one’s opponents.


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: American Academic Cultures

American Academic Cultures

American Academic CulturesPaul H. Mattingly. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Summary: Traces the history and development of higher education in the United States as a succession of seven “generational cultures,” using examples of prominent institutions representing the emergence of each culture.

How did higher education in the United States achieve its present status, whether one considers this desirable or otherwise? Was there a golden age in American higher education, and if so, exactly when was that? These and other questions are much discussed in higher education circles and the topic of numerous historical explorations of higher education in America. Most trace the development from colleges closely tied to the church through the rise of research universities and public, land-grant institutions, down to the present day of our complex multiversities. Most works simply trace a linear development. What is distinctive in Paul Mattingly’s work is the proposal that this development might be understood as a succession of seven overlapping “generational academic cultures” which he discusses in the course of the fifteen “essays” that comprise the book. In each of these, he elaborates the character of these cultures through highlighting examples of prominent institutions, cultural trends, and key figures that represent a particular academic culture.

The seven generational academic cultures he identifies are (the date ranges are my approximations):

  1. Evangelical (1636-1800): These colleges were church-related institutions (Harvard, Yale, etc) that focused on the intersection of piety and intellect and whose character was profoundly shaped by the Great Awakening.
  2. Jeffersonian (1750-1830): As denominational colleges spread southward, Jefferson and the patrician hierarchy of Virginia sought to check the strong denominational indoctrination and paternalistic control through a publicly supported university that expressed the mores and values of the region. The University of Virginia was the educational, and even architectural expression of the ideal of “Mr. Jefferson’s University.”
  3. Republican/non-denominational (1800-1860): The growth of a post-Revolutionary republic and the need to educate business and civic leaders brought an emphasis on “moral character over “true belief,” resulting in even denominational schools broadening their curriculum to accommodate these needs. (I wonder if 2 and 3 are aspects of a single academic culture)
  4. Industrially-driven post-graduate/professional organization (1860-1910): The Civil War marked a watershed in higher education as war-related research and scientific and technological advances resulted in an increasing emphasis on post-graduate research on the European model, and post-graduate professional education. It led to the rise of the land-grant universities propelling both agricultural and engineering and science education, and Charles William Eliot’s efforts to turn Harvard into a “generic” university.
  5. A Progressive (urban-driven) pragmatism with a substantial liberal arts/teaching countercurrent (1880-1930): The rise of American cities and Progressive reforms led to the growth of urban universities that addressed issues of education, health, safety, and labor. This was the period of figures like Thorstein Veblen in sociology and John Dewey in philosophy and education. This period was epitomized by William Rainey Harper’s University of Chicago that fused liberal education with these pragmatic concerns, all within a Gothic architecture harking back to Europe’s great universities.
  6. An internationally-minded academic discourse (1890-1950): The emergence of research-oriented institutions like John’s Hopkins and its impact on the university landscape led to increasing ties with European scholars. The rise of Nazism resulted in a mass immigration of many of those scholars to the United States, where their presence transformed the discourse in fields from psychology to physics.
  7. The current corporate multiversity (1940-present): The ultimate expression of the development of pragmatism, where academic departments and interdisciplinary research vastly expanded in respond to federal research funding. Clark Kerr’s University of California–Berkeley is the epitome of this pragmatic university, organized not around an educational ideology but around the driving forces of research monies and market forces.

The work concludes with a chapter on challenging pragmatism, and indeed, it seems the author has landed on the critical question that this survey raises. Mattingly traces an evolution of higher education from institutions shaped around cultures centered on ideas to ones shaped by increasingly pragmatic concerns. The question this raises is whether our system of higher education exists for anything more than serving the research and vocational training needs of the country?

Mattingly contends that throughout this history, faculty have had a shaping role in the successive cultures of higher education, and believes this will be so in the future. I have to admit to being more dubious about both parts of his proposal. I think his survey actually demonstrates the predominant influence of cultural forces outside the university that shaped successive academic cultures. The culture-shapers he singles out inside higher education are primarily university presidents, and it seems that the prominent ones were those who got on the leading edge of broader cultural changes and led their institutional response to these changes. Furthermore, the corporatization of universities with more power flowing to administration and the adjunctification of the faculty suggests to me an even more diminished influence. I think the author is engaging in some wishful thinking at this point unless a concerted and focused movement of resistance and reform by noted scholars and tenured faculty arises.

The other criticism of this work is that it focuses primarily on elite institutions. While noting democratizing trends in higher education (with some attention on the development of the California State system as an example) relatively little attention is given to the diverse landscape of contemporary higher education from community colleges to the continued existence of liberal arts schools, urban universities (not the University of Chicago but the Wayne States (Detroit) of the university world, as well as the state systems, the comprehensive public universities, and the elite research universities. There is no mention of online education nor the rise of for-profit institutions. Perhaps considerations of space preclude this but it all seems an expression of the extension of both republican values (small “r”) and pragmatic concerns that the author so helpfully highlights.

These criticisms aside, the model of generational academic cultures as a way of understanding the history of American higher education seems quite helpful. It helps account for the very different ethos one finds in the collegiate settings of 1750, 1850, 1950, and today. As I noted, it also highlights the interplay of broader and academic cultural forces. Furthermore, the overlapping nature of these cultures underscores that the transition from one culture to another was never without tensions, throwbacks, and contention around the question of why a college or university exists. Furthermore, any meaningful conversation about the future(s) of higher education cannot exist apart from understanding where we are and how we got here, or a consideration of the cultural forces shaping the discussion. Mattingly’s well-researched and organized work seems to me required reading for any who care about such matters.


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.

Long Books

War and Peace

The Ultimate Long Book

I’ve seen a number of posts lately about the trend toward long books. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books are credited with stimulating these trends. It’s interesting that all the long book lists are fiction. I suspect that part of the attraction is the chance to lose oneself in a really good story that you don’t want to end. I personally found myself wishing that Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See was at least several hundred pages longer. I’ve reveled in Lord of the Rings several time and thoroughly enjoyed Sharon Kay Penman’s fiction. I have a couple Hilary Mantel books on my TBR stack on the recommendations of friends.

Goodreads has a feature on its stats pages that tells you what were the longest books you’ve read each year. I got curious what books would come up. It turns out that my long books with one exception, have been history or biography and the one work of fiction explores an alternate history. I’ve been on Goodreads since 2011 and here are my long books for each year.

Missing Peace2011: Dennis Ross, The Missing Peace (880 pages). Ross details his diplomatic efforts in the Middle East during the Clinton years, when negotiators probably got as close to an Israel-Palestinian peace as they ever have, only to see Arafat walk away.

At Dawn2012: Gordon W.Prange, At Dawn We Slept (889 pages). This is Prange’s monumental work on Pearl Harbor at the beginning of World War II.

King2013: Stephen King, 11/22/63 (842 pages). King explores how history might have diffent if Kennedy had survived the attempt on his life.

rise of roosevelt2014: Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (920 pages). The first of three volumes, covering Roosevelt’s early life until the day he learns of McKinley’s death and that he is President.

Bully Pulpit2015: Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Bully Pulpit (910 pages). More Roosevelt! Goodwin, looks at the Roosevelt and Taft presidencies. Two big men, one long book.

Lee's Lieutenants2016 (so far): Douglas Southall Freeman, Lee Lieutenants (910 pages). This was the abridged version of Freeman’s study of Lee’s commanders.

King’s ability to spin a tale is well established. But what many haven’t discovered, remembering high school history classes, are that many who write history are a pleasure to read. This was certainly true of the books by Ross, Morris, Goodwin and Freeman. I hope you discover them, along with writers like Barbara Tuchman, David McCullough, Winston Churchill (who wrote history as well as made it), David Halberstam (who also wrote some good baseball books–a kind of history), and Arthur Schlesinger.

So if you are looking for something different in a long book, try some history or biography!

For Whom Was This Written?

Have you ever picked up a book on a subject you were interested in learning more of, and you found it very hard to read? That’s the experience I am having right now with a history of Scotland. Part of my ethnic heritage is Scottish but I know next to nothing of this history of the land where some of my ancestors lived. I also read a fair amount of history, and so I’m not unaccustomed to reading accounts of people, places and events.

The book I picked up is a general treatment of the subject and not an academic monograph. I don’t think it would necessarily be used for a textbook. There are two basic problems I think I am having with this book.

First, I think the author has assumed too much about my knowledge of Scotland, particularly the chronology of events and kings and the physical geography. What maps are included often don’t include many of the place names in the text and it seems that the author just assumes you know where various regions or locations are (can you located the Highlands on a blank map or the Hebrides?). I’m sure someone reading this can but I cannot. There are even terms referring to practices, currency and positions of which I’m not familiar. Now it is not entirely a bad thing to have to look such things up but one does not always like to interrupt one’s reading to do so.

Second, the author has organized his material in a confusing pattern and has the infuriating habit of going back to an earlier time in the midst of a discussion of a particular period and discussing an earlier king or other figure. Since nearly all of these people are fairly new to me, this gets pretty confusing and the absence of chronologies or king lists makes it very confusing. The material is also organized topically and often a new topic starts out at an earlier time than where we left off. For example, you might cover wars in the fifteenth century, and then discuss economics beginning in the thirteenth.

Third, it seems that we’re given far more detail than might be necessary or remembered in an overview of Scottish history. Obviously there is good research here and the author wanted us to have the benefit of it. Most of the time, what I would rather have is further readings if there really is something I want to go into. I find myself losing the forest for the trees.

Barbara Tuchman, whose work I have always enjoyed once said,

“The writer’s object should be to hold the reader’s attention. I want the reader to turn the page and keep on turning until the end. This is accomplished only when the narrative moves steadily ahead, not when it comes to a weary standstill, overloaded with every item uncovered in the research.”  (source work unknown).

My sense with the particular work I am reading is that the writer has forgotten for whom he was writing, or that I am not the person for whom the book was intended. But it would seem that a single volume history covering nearly two millenia is not for the academic specialist. What is missing is a “narrative that moves steadily ahead”. Rather, the feeling is one of plodding my way through a forest, where I keep losing my path and getting lost in the dense undergrowth.

So why don’t I just put it down? OK, part of the reason is that I’m probably a bit (maybe more than a bit?) compulsive about finishing books I start. And I really did want to learn about Scotland’s history and I don’t want to buy and read another book on this right now. So I will likely soldier on to the end and certainly find some things of worth. I’ve already come to appreciate a bit more why independence continues to be such a thing for the Scots and yet the inextricable history of Scotland and England.

But my plea for those writing for those who are not specialists in your field is to have mercy on us! I’ve read many historians and scientists who seem to be able to do this. But if you can’t give us a coherent narrative, it might be better not to try and keep writing for the academic journals where there might be ten people who understand you. It does no one, not even trees, a favor to write a book for which there is no audience.

Have you read books that left you wondering for whom the book was written?

Review: The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History

The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History
The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History by Robert Tracy McKenzie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I started this book on Thanksgiving Day, appropriately enough. McKenzie does several things that make this an outstanding book, in my view.

First he helps us understand the work good historians do in teasing documentable fact and a credible narrative of events out of the accretions of tradition that surround so many famous “historical events”. He explores what sources there are on which to base our understanding of “the first Thanksgiving” and the Plymouth settlement more broadly–predominantly William Bradford’s and Edward Winslow’s narrative of these events–it is a 115 word account in the latters narrative the forms the basis of our attribution of the First Thanksgiving to the Pilgrims.

Second, he then re-tells the history of the Pilgrims based on what we actually know. And from this we learn that the “First Thanksgiving” was probably a harvest festival that probably occurred late September, early October of 1621 and was not repeated. It was not a specifically religious day of Thanksgiving, which the Pilgrims occasionally proclaimed for various reasons on subsequent occasions. In fact the Pilgrims were actually anti-holiday. The only set day they observed was Sunday. Finally, their relationship with the neighboring Indian tribe was ambivalent. It may be that the Wampanoags were not invited but rather simply showed up as they were wont to do. At least on this occasion they brought venison from a five slain deer to contribute.

Third, McKenzie traces the development of Thanksgiving traditions and practices. Only in 1841 was Winslow’s narrative re-published which began to focus Thanksgiving practice on the Pilgrims. Also, he shows how this was primarily a New England tradition until post-civil war years. Thanksgiving celebrations were often coupled with abolitionist events. It wasn’t until 1939 when Franklin Roosevelt connected Thanksgiving explicitly to the Pilgrims that the association stuck. He also recounts some of the fanciful accounts of the first Thanksgiving that have contributed to both art and contemporary practice.

Finally, McKenzie explores what we can learn from the Pilgrims and how their narrative challenges us. He cautions against efforts to read God’s providence back into history. And he argues that it is not our role to make moral judgments on other generations but to engage in moral reflection on what we learn for our own. He thinks we can learn from the spiritually resourced fortitude with which they faced trials. He thinks that their very ordinariness, with all their faults can encourage us as to what is possible for “ordinary folk.” He also thinks that rather than link them to a holiday that is an occasion for over-eating in preparation for over-consumption of material goods, that the occasional nature of the celebration should encourage us to set aside times for such celebrations when it is appropriate and to genuinely thank the God from whom such good things come. Finally, he encourages us to reflect on their name, Pilgrims, and to consider what it means for followers of Christ to likewise be pilgrims who look toward a better home.

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Review: A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future

A Free People's Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future
A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future by Os Guinness
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Guinness contends that great powers basically destroy themselves from within before they ever fall to external enemies. I write this on the day our government has shut down because our leaders cannot even agree to fund the obligations into which they’ve entered. Guinness’s book seems prophetic and especially relevant today.

He argues that freedom has been the fundamental and driving idea of the American experiment. But freedom has two aspects, freedom from and freedom for. His concern is that our understanding of freedom has been pervaded by the former to the neglect of the latter. He argues this was not always so and that we can learn from the framers the positive virtues necessary for sustaining freedom. He believes we can use history to defy history. A repeated refrain in the book is, “For Americans must never forget: all who aspire to be like Rome in their beginnings must avoid being like Rome at their ending. Rome and its republic fell, and so too will the American republic–unless…”

He argues that what is essential is observance of what he calls “The Golden Triangle of Freedom” He argues that freedom requires virtue which requires faith which requires freedom. By this, he means freedom only flourishes in the presence of moral excellence and the cultivation of civic virtue. Virtue in turn must be rooted in some sense of the ultimate–the fear of the Lord, as it were. And faith in turn must be sustained by freedom–free speech, free exercise, freedom of conscience.

He speaks trenchantly about the dangers of overreach which have brought down many of the great powers and it is plain that he sees this as a form of hubris of which we are enamored. He concludes the book with a call not to return to some golden age of American life but nevertheless to return to the American virtues framed by our founders who drew on both biblical and classical sources. He references the beautiful metaphor of the eagle and the sun–the mighty bird whose flight is illumined by something greater and higher.

While this book is published by a religious publisher, Guinness frames his argument in the language of the cultural public square. Whether one is a person of faith or not is beside the point in engaging this book. What is striking to me is that this Irish ex-pat (connected with the Guinness family of brewing fame) seems to love the United States and care deeply for her future. I would encourage others who love this country to consider his argument for sustaining our freedom.

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Reading Choices

Now that I’ve posted a number of reviews, you may be wondering about my reading choices. I suspect that like most of you, the books I read are shaped by a mix of deliberate choices and impulse.  Let me share with you as best as I can figure out why I choose the books I do.

1.  I work in a collegiate ministry working with graduate students and faculty.  Most of the people I work with are probably far brighter than I.  My role is to help them with connecting faith and their chosen discipline with its questions and challenges.  For this, I read books to feed my soul, to go deeper in my own theological grasp of the faith, and also to understand their world.  Most of the people I work with know a great deal about a little.  I read to know a little about a great deal–not so that I can impress any of them in a conversation about their work, but simply to know something about what they are doing. So I will range widely reading about science, technology, law, the humanities and social sciences.  Right now, I’m looking for some good recommendations on neuroscience.

2.  I work for an organization that has a publishing house, InterVarsity Press, that sends me most of its publication at greatly reduced prices that are considered business expense.  That is a nice employee benefit, and so I feel obliged to read a number of their books, which are quite useful in advancing my first aim.  Many are quite well written but I won’t give a glowing review just because our organization published the book.  If I have problems with the ideas or the writing, I will say so.  They haven’t fired me yet!

3.  Some college history professors nurtured my love for history.  I read history because I believe life is understood backward.  The present only makes sense in light of the past.  I think that’s true personally and I also think that it is true with the wider human story.  I tend to enjoy U.S. and European history but also seek to read the histories of other cultures in the world, past and present.

4.  Related to history, I enjoy biographies.  I have always been intrigued with the practice of leadership and love to read of those who have led well, and sometimes badly.  Favorite figures of mine are Churchill, Lincoln, any of the founders of our country (I even read a biography of Aaron Burr a while back!).

5. I read all sorts of fiction.  I have this crazy thing for 19th century British authors–Dickens, Disraeli, Trollope, Collins, Hardy among them.  I read contemporary authors–Ann Patchett was a recent discovery.  I enjoy a good mystery novel and was saddened by the recent demise of Elizabeth Peters, who wrote the delightful Amelia Peabody stories.  And after many year of reading more “realistic” books, I’ve dipped my toe more into science fiction of late, reading some Orson Scott Card, Philip K Dick, and Stanislaw Lem.  Fiction captures the imagination for me and is an intriguing way to explore alternate perspectives and realities.

6.  It is a summer ritual every year to read a baseball book.  I’ve always loved the game of baseball, whether playing it as a kid, watching a sandlot game, or spending a summer evening watching our minor league Columbus Clippers. This year I read Summer of  ’49 by David Halberstam.

7.  A small category that cross the line between fiction and non-fiction would be books on “place”.  Wallace Stegner, Wendell Berry, John Steinbeck, and other authors appeal to me as writers on place.  I believe who we are is in part shaped by where we are.

8.  Finally, sometimes I read “assigned” books.  These could be for book groups I’m in or for conferences or task forces.  Great by Choice was one of those books.  I’m currently reading John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University for our Dead Theologians Society reading group.  I’m also reading a manuscript of a forthcoming book to provide an anonymous review–that is a new experience–and while I can’t comment of the book, I might comment on the process some time.  That’s what I’ll be reading this weekend!

What are your book interests?  And what will you be reading this weekend?

Why Study the Past: A Review of Gordon S Wood’s The Purpose of the Past


Gordon S Wood is certainly among the most distinguished American historians studying the period of the Revolution and early years of the American republic. Pre-GoodReads, I read his Empire of Liberty in the Oxford History of the United States, a wonderful read and an intellectual tour de force.

This book is a reflection on the work of historians comprised of review articles appearing from 1981 to 2007, mostly in The New York Times Review of Books and in The New Republic. A fundamental thread running through these essays is “why do we study the past?” Wood’s contention is that the past needs to be understood on its own terms insofar as possible and not through the lens of present concerns. The reviews chronicle the “present concerns” of the last quarter century of historiography–critiquing such trends as “influence”, narrative, history as fiction, microhistory, history and political theory, postmodernism and history, race, class, gender, and multicultural concerns and history.

What I appreciate about these reviews is that they are neither a jeremiad against these trends in historiography nor an uncritical acceptance of the same. Rather, Wood welcomes the light these various approaches shed on the past and the richer understanding of the course of events that result but he firmly resists whatever he sees as distortions of the past driven by current agendas. For example, in his review of Theodore Draper’s A Struggle for Power: The American Revolution he affirms the more complex power dynamics of the revolution but also contends that ideas were important. He writes:

What is permissible culturally affects what is permissible socially or politically, so that even if ideas may not be motives for behavior, as the realists and materialists like Draper tell us, the do affect and control behavior.

He contends that all Draper can explain is the war of independence, but not the American Revolution.

Wood is not only a skilled historian, he is a skilled reviewer who summarizes the careers of the authors and the content of the books, and gives us his own careful and nuanced critique. He may not always please the authors he reviews but he always treats them with respect.