Review: Thunder in the Soul

Thunder in the Soul (Plough Spiritual Guides), Abraham Joshua Heschel. (Edited by Robert Erlwine). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2020.

Summary: A collection of the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel concerning the life of knowing and being known by God.

The Plough Spiritual Guides are a great little series collecting the thoughts of some of the great spiritual thinkers of the last century. This latest is no exception. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was truly one of the great spiritual figures of the twentieth century. He escaped to London from Poland trying to get family members visas before the coming Holocaust. Before he could succeed, they died. He went on as a Conservative Jewish leader whose life and works transcended his own faith community. I was in a seminar just the other day where his book The Sabbath was extensively referenced. He wrote towering works bringing spiritual insight to Jew and Christian, believer and skeptic alike: Man is Not Alone, Man’s Quest for God, God in Search of Man, and The Prophets. After the assault on Blacks at Selma in March 1965, he joined Dr. King in the march to Montgomery, earning himself a place on an FBI watchlist. He was close friends with Reinhold Niebuhr and delivered the eulogy at his funeral in 1971, following him in death a year later.

This little book collects excerpts of his writing that read as a seamless whole, a tribute to Robert Erlwine’s editing. These come under twelve headings:

  1. Every Moment Touches Eternity
  2. The Only Life Worth Living
  3. In the Presence of Mystery
  4. The Prophets Show us God Cares
  5. God Demands Justice
  6. Modernity Has Forfeited the Spirit
  7. Prayer is Being Known by God
  8. A Pattern for Living
  9. The Deed is Wiser than the Heart
  10. Something is Asked of Us
  11. Faith is an Act of the Spirit
  12. Not Our Vision of God but God’s Vision of Us

Reading the headings alone offers material for extended reflection. Often I like to select a quote or two from a book. This was a book where nearly every sentence could be a quote pull, and occasion to stop and think before one moves on. One of the big ideas that run through this selection is that we search for God only to discover that God seeks us. Heschel writes:

“When self-assertion is no more; when realizing that wonder is not our own achievement; that it is not by our own power alone that we are shuddered with radical amazement, it is not with our power anymore to assume the role of an examiner of a subject in search of an object, such as we are in search of a cause when perceiving thunder. Ultimate wonder is not the same as curiosity. Curiosity is the state of a mind in search of knowledge, while ultimate wonder is the state of knowledge in search of a mind; it is the thought of God in search of a soul.

This search of God for us is the source of our worth. Heschel observes:

“We must continue to ask: What is man that God should care for him? And we must continue to remember that it is precisely God’s care for man that constitutes the greatness of man.”

Another key idea is that of faith as faithfulness, a response in every moment in how we live our life to the reality of God. Faith is not centered around the doctrine or dogmas of prior generations, which he considers “spiritual plagiarism.” Faith moves beyond our own reason and wisdom. “In faith, we do not seek to decipher, to articulate in our own terms, but to rise above our own wisdom, to think of the world in terms of God, to live in accord with what is relevant to God.” The life of faith is shaped by the law and the prophets. “The good is not an abstract idea but a commandment, and the ultimate meaning of its fulfillment is in its being an answer to God.”

Finally, Heschel talks about the paradigm shift of knowing God. We do not so much think about God as think within God. He explains:

“His is the call, ours the paraphrase; His is the creation, ours a reflection. He is not an object to be comprehended, a thesis to be endorsed, neither the sum of all that is (facts) nor a digest of all that ought to be (ideals). He is the ultimate subject.”

Some speak of God as Ultimate Reality. Often this sounds like an abstraction, but what I think Heschel would say is that God is the most Real, the really Real, by whom all else is understood.

This is a taste of what you will find here. Strong stuff. J. B. Phillips wrote a book titled Your God is too Small. I think Heschel would agree and this little book is a gateway to his thought. What is troubling to me is how rarely I encounter writing like this coming out of Christian publishing houses or in Christian media. This deceptively little book is, as the Wardrobe in C.S. Lewis, much bigger on the inside than the outside. Read slowly and be filled.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Unto Us a Child Is Born

Unto Us a Child is Born, Tyler D. Mayfield. Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2020.

Summary: Proposes that, as we read Isaiah during Advent, we need to read “with bifocals,” considering both the Advent liturgical significance of the texts and their meaning for our Jewish neighbors.

For unto us a child is born.” (Isaiah 9:6a)

This is a phrase from Isaiah 9: 2-7, one of the readings on the fourth Sunday of Advent (Year A) in liturgical churches. Many non-liturgical churches will read this as well during one of the services leading up to Christmas. And surrounding all of this is the magnificent rendering of this passage by George Frideric Handel in Messiah. In our churches, we readily connect this passage with the babe born in Bethlehem, this great one come from God, even called “Mighty God.” We marvel at the divine condescension that means our salvation.

Little do we often consider that we are neither the first nor only ones to read passages like these that we understand as “Messianic.” These passages were read by Jews in Isaiah’s time, and down to our own day. Yet we often remain oblivious to what these passages meant and mean to our Jewish neighbors, sometimes in painful and insensitive ways.

Tyler D. Mayfield recommends that we read with bi-focals, using our near vision to read the Isaiah passages of Advent to consider their significance in the Christian Advent context. He also suggests that we simultaneously read with our distance vision, understanding what these texts mean for our Jewish neighbors who share them.

He spends the first part of the book discussing what it means to read with bi-focals. An important contention he makes is that the prophecy-fulfillment paradigm we often use fails to recognize the significance of the text in its original context, and to Jewish readers. He proposes instead a model of texts in conversation, as is often the case in liturgical churches where Old and New Testament texts are paired and we listen to the conversation between them for common and relevant themes. He also observes the importance of historical development of “messiah” from “anointed” to an eschatological figure, the deleterious effects of supersessionism (the idea that the church has superseded, or replaced Judaism in God’s economy), and how this may even shade into anti-Judaism.

The second and third parts of the book consider eight passages from Isaiah that are a part of the Advent liturgical readings, four “Messianic” texts (Isaiah 7:10-16; 9:2-7; 11:1-10; and 61:1-4, 8-11) and four “eschatological” texts (Isaiah 2:1-5; 35:1-10; 40:1-11; 64:1-9). For each passage, Mayfield considers originating contexts, later Jewish and early Christian contexts or readings, contemporary Jewish and Christian readings, and finally a “bifocal look,” a kind of summary.

We might take the example of Isaiah 9:2-7, noted earlier. He begins with the context of the passage in the 8th century BCE, at the time of the Syro-Ephraimite war. The language is that of the birth of a king whose enumerated qualities would have been vital for this time. Who is this child-king? He is not named but the leading candidate may be Hezekiah. In the early Christian context, “for unto us…” is not quoted but the first verses of this passage are in Matthew 4:12-16, noting the light that has come to the northern tribes in the region of Galilee. Early Christian commentators Justin and Jerome were the first to apply “for unto us…” to Jesus. He then considers the influence of Messiah, including some translational issues, and current contexts, focusing on the light to the Gentiles in this passage for Christians, the shared theme of light with Jews in Hanukkah, and a shared hope for faithful government. He concludes with this “bifocal look”

“With our near vision, we see a wonderful child has been born to us. With our near vision, we hum along with Handel as we celebrate: ‘Wonderful! Counselor! The Mighty God! The Everlasting Father! The Prince of Peace!

With our far vision, we see our neighbors celebrating the theme of light during Hanukkah. With our far vision, we see the originating context’s focus on a new king’s accession to the throne.”

This book raises an important issue of how we read not only these scriptures but other Old Testament texts. Do we read these in a way that recognize and honor our Jewish neighbors, are oblivious to them or even exclusive of them, or at worst hostile? Mayfield models an approach holding in tension readings acknowledging the conversation between these texts and New Testament texts and respect for the context of Jewish readings of these same texts. In this era of rising anti-Semitism in many countries, it is vital that Christians in no way contribute to this by our reading of scripture, and in fact affirm our common heritage with and debt to our Jewish neighbors.

I wonder, at the same time, about the repudiation of the idea of fulfillment, an idea found in the New Testament scriptures, for “conversation.” Fulfillment has historically been an important part of both a Christian hermeneutic of reading the two testaments, and of Christian apologetics. Likewise, prophecy has been understood not only as “forth-telling” but as including elements of “fore-telling.” Mayfield’s approach mutes but does not negate the differences between Jewish and Christian readings of these texts. Good bi-focals, ground to the correct prescription, bring both near and distant objects into sharp focus. I am concerned that Mayfield’s prescription for near vision softens or blurs our Christian reading of these texts while bringing our far vision into focus. While the latter is a commendable aim, for which the author offers a good and important model, I would like clarity of vision in both readings, even if it means wrestling in charity with the tensions that have always existed.


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

Review: Story-Shaped Worship

Story-Shaped Worship
Story-Shaped Worship by Robbie Castleman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Robbie Castleman contends that worship that is pleasing to God is worship that is shaped by the story of God–a story where God, and not me (or us), is the hero! What she sets out to do, and accomplishes, in this book is to explore the resources in the Old and New Testaments, and in Jewish and Christian practice through the centuries that may inform the shape of our worship today. How worship shaped by God’s story appears may look very different in different times and cultures but there are some underlying contours that distinguish between God-pleasing, and human-centered worship.

The first part of her book explores the biblical pattern for worship. She begins in Genesis with God, creation, fall, and what she calls the first “worship war” between Cain and Abel. She goes on to explore worship patterns, the matter of sacred space and the importance of sabbath in Israel’s worship and identity. She then identifies a seven-fold pattern of worship that emerges in the liturgical patterns of ancient Israel that she believes has continuing relevance to story-shaped worship: God’s call, praise of God, confession, declaration of the good news of our forgiveness, the Word of the Lord, responding to the Word, and Benediction. She proceeds to talk about worship by the book, that we are not free to improvise any way we wish or turn worship to other purposes than the glory of God. Worship is to reflect an obedience grounded in the grace of God. She concludes this first part with looking at the rise of the synagogue and the pattern of readings and prayers that was carried over into Christian practice.

The second part considers structures of worship in the patristic, reformation and contemporary periods. In the patristic period the church worked out in its liturgy what it was clarifying in many of the early battles around the Godhead, the person of Christ and his work. The reformation was a period of both confirmation and correction–reaffirming patterns that were true while modifying practices of the eucharist (and baptism) around differing understandings of the meanings of these ordinances. In the contemporary period, the issue is avoiding falling into a subjectivism of worship where everyone does what is right in their own minds, while adapting the resources of scripture to develop God-honoring worship that is faithful to his story.

Each chapter includes a “workshop”–a series of questions that may be used by worship leadership teams. The book concludes with a chart of the Christian year showing how this is another way of shaping worship around God’s story. An extensive glossary and bibliography is also included.

Robbie Castleman is a former work colleague. A personal memory of Robbie is her strict commitment to spend time speaking to and listening to God before she participated in any other conversations in her day. This passion for God, and God’s story runs through this book, which offers helpful resources for the theology and practice of worshiping God for any who share her passion for God.

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