Review: The Liturgy of Creation

liturgy of creation

The Liturgy of CreationMichael LeFebvre, foreword by C. John Collins. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: An argument that Genesis 1:1-2:3 should be understood in light of the calendars in the Pentateuch, particularly as instruction for our work and sabbath, rather than for science.

This book examines an area I’ve never studied before: the significance of the calendars of the Pentateuch, and the importance of reading Genesis 1:1-2:3 within this context. Michael LeFebvre is a scholar-pastor who noticed how calendar references run through the Pentateuch, studied these, and became convinced that they offer an important clue to understanding the beginning of Genesis.

The first part of the book looks at Israel’s calendars, and how they are shaped by day, month (lunar) and year. He notes the significance of cycles of seven. Days in the week are fairly obvious. Less obvious but striking for me is that all Israel’s major festivals fall in the first seven months. There are also cycles of seven years, and the seven times seven of Jubilee.

He then studies the different festivals and one of the most significant discussions here is between dates of occurrence and dates of observance (we have this in our own calendar with the observance of Washington’s birthday on President’s Day, which never falls on the day of his actual birthday, February 22. Often, difficulties of chronology arise because of failure to observe this distinction. It also means that because a date of observance may differ from a date of occurrence, this does not mean the occurrence did not happen.

Finally, he argues that the creation week is a calendar narrative. The struggles, for example, to explain evening and morning before the creation of the sun and moon on the fourth day is not a problem if we understand this narrative as a calendar narrative having a liturgical purpose rather than describing an actual chronology.  LeFebvre admits that this may be frustrating for those who have worked out apologetic systems to reconcile the narrative with known science, but his contention is that science was not the point but rather the worship of the God who works six days and rests, establishing a model for his creatures to follow in their work and rest as the fourth commandment indicates. He contends this makes good sense in reading Genesis as part of the Pentateuch, where sabbath is a weekly feast observance, a break of rest and celebration in the people’s rhythm of work. It is consonant with the rest of Pentateuch, and evident to any reader of the text without extensive theological and ancient cultural background, or apologetic expertise. As a corollary to this, he contends for the removal of this text for use in controversy in science and that it be used as Paul commends in 2 Timothy 3:16 for training in righteousness–in this case the proper rhythm of work and rest modeled after the first great worker–God.

No doubt, those who have made an intellectual, or even a remunerative occupation of defending a particular position with regard to Genesis 1 and scientific accounts of origins, LeFebvre’s account is inadequate. LeFebvre does distinguish between idolatrous naturalism, and the carefully delimited practice of science, which may be done by both believers and non-believers apart from philosophical or theological commitments. He remains somewhat agnostic about scientific accounts of origins, while affirming the important of scientific engagements in the study of evolution and cosmology so long as the conclusions affirmed are physical and not metaphysical. He just doesn’t believe Genesis is intended to give an account of origins reconcilable with science. That is not what it’s for. Thus, he does not incline here toward any of the apologetic models of origins on offer. None, he thinks, read the text literally enough.

LeFebvre’s book is important for understanding the calendar of Israel, the significance of festival observance dates, and so forth. His charts of all this are very helpful. Most of all, to pay close attention to the sanctity of work, a creation made to be fruitful and to foster the flourishing of God’s creatures, and the vital practice of sabbath and rhythms of work and rest–all of this offers much for Christians in their worship, practice, and rhythms of daily life. With so much of worth, why press these texts to answer and teach things they were not intended to teach?

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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: Subversive Sabbath

Subversive Sabbath

Subversive SabbathA. J. Swoboda, Foreword by Matthew Sleeth, MD. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2018.

Summary: An extended argument showing how keeping sabbath is a counter-cultural, subversive practice in every area of life.

Apart from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s classic, The Sabbath, I would consider this the best book I have read on Sabbath. In a world focused on relentless doing, Swoboda challenges the Christian community to take the sabbath commands as seriously as we do the other nine, observing it is the only command speaking of something as “holy” to the Lord. His argument is that to begin to take this seriously is a subversive act, and perhaps one of the most significant way the church can bear witness to the transcendent reality of God. He writes:

“How is the Sabbath subversive? The truth remains that Sabbath will be challenging for anyone to live out in our busy, frenetic world. Sabbath goes against the very structured and system of the world we have constructed. Sabbath, then, becomes a kind of resistance to that world. Such resistance must be characterized as overwhelmingly good. In other words, if Sabbath is hard, then we are doing it right. It is never a sign of health or godliness to be well-adjusted to a sick society….Relating to our world of death, ‘going along’ is a sign of death. Living fish swim against the stream. Only the dead go with the flow” (p. xi).

The book consists of four parts, each with three chapters: Sabbath for Us, Sabbath for Others, Sabbath for Creation, and Sabbath for Worship. Beginning with Sabbath for Us, the first chapter explores Sabbath and Time, and the marvel that the first day life for Adam and Eve was a sabbath, where they rested along with God, and how hard it is for us to do the same. Sabbath and Work calls us to establishing rhythms of work and rest and challenges our worship of work instead of a reliance upon God when we do not work that carries into our work. Sabbath and Health speaks into how often we cannot say “no” when God says “no” and invites us for our health’s sake to rest.

In Sabbath for Others, Swoboda begins with Relationships, and how Sabbath practiced together may overcome the isolation of our lives and strengthen community. In Sabbath, Economy and Technology, Swoboda challenges us to think about how we prepare for the Sabbath in advance, and how we might do so in ways that others also enjoy rest, and how to manage our technology so we step away from our screens (he just went from preaching to meddling here!). He takes this further in Sabbath and the Marginalized, considering the implications of practicing the Sabbath so that the poor, the marginalized, the under-employed also find rest.

Sabbath for Creation begins by focusing on the intricate balance of creation and how Sabbath neglected is part of the the degradation of creation. He proposes that Sabbath is the string that holds everything together and that Sabbath-keeping is earth-keeping. Sabbath and the Land focuses particularly on how land needs sabbath to be restored, fallow periods every seven years that enrich the soil to enrich us. Sabbath and Critters (!) focuses on how we treat our animals, even to the point of suggesting chickens get a Sabbath from laying, and that all our animals need rhythms of rest.

Part Four centers around Sabbath as Worship, the ways we glorify God in community and in the world. It is Witness, setting us apart as this weird, contrast society that might be intriguing to tired, burnt out friends. It is Worship, and sometimes what we sacrifice rest for tells us what we falsely worship. It calls us into the trust that believes by not doing but by resting, we will experience God’s care. It is Discipleship that helps clear out what should not be in our lives, that exposes the noise inside us in times of silence, and helps us rightly order our lives into a new week.

While Swoboda interacts with a number of theological writers, literary figures, and others throughout this work, as well as the scriptures, his own stories of trying and failing and learning and pressing into Sabbath practice made this reader want to follow him into what appears a richer fuller way found by stopping and resting. He doesn’t present Sabbath as a cure all, but does propose that this command/gift is God’s way of liberating us from our hurried, distracted, alienated, consuming selves. Not only does this help liberate us from our false selves; Sabbath helps us to meet the true God. I will close with this:

“We worship the God who invented the weekend. This is why biblical scholar Al Baylis contends that ‘Genesis 1 is one of the most remarkable put-downs ever administered.’ The biblical creation account essentially served as a theological rebuttal of all the other ‘gods’ who never allowed anyone to rest. In a restless world, Yahweh required rest. Again, imagine what kind of first impression that would have given to an ancient person’s understanding of Yahweh. The God of Scripture not only rests himself but invites the world to rest with him” (pp. 9-10).

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

Review: Leisure and Spirituality

Leisure and SpiritualityLeisure and Spirituality by Paul Heintzman. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015.

Summary: This book explores the connection between leisure and spirituality from a Christian perspective, considering contemporary and classical concepts of leisure, the perspective on leisure we may gain from the Bible, and the author’s own synthesis and critique of leisure concepts, biblical material and contemporary research.

Leisure and spirituality. For some, the only relation between these two words is that of an oxymoron. And that may be our problem. Gordon Dahl, one of the early writers on leisure and play noted that most people, “tend to worship their work, to work at their play, and to play at their worship.” Paul Heintzman, a leisure studies professor at the University of Ottawa, has given us a measured, clear and thoughtful assessment of the contemporary, classical, and biblical material related to these ideas along with findings from contemporary research in this field.

The book begins by exploring concepts of leisure and their contemporary expressions, outlining seven conceptions: leisure as a state of being, leisure as non-work activity, leisure as free time, leisure as a symbol of social class, leisure as a state of mind (flow experiences for example), feminist conceptions of leisure, and holistic leisure. He explores the history of the leisure concept which he sees expressed both in Greek and monastic Christian circles as contemplation, a state of being; and leisure as activity, the primary conception of leisure in the Reformation and Renaissance, conceiving of work as primary and leisure as restorative.

Heintzman turns to the biblical material beginning with the commands around sabbath and its support of an egalitarian view of life, a rhythm of work and rest, and qualitative renewal and celebration. He explores the use of “rest” in the Bible and finds again a qualitative emphasis on the enjoyment of peace, abundance, and freedom, centered around a secure relationship with God in Christ. He then considers other related words, most notably the use of schole’ in the Septuagint translation of Psalm 46:10, rendering it, as Josef Pieper did, “have leisure and know that I am God.” which certainly supports a contemplative notion of leisure. He also notes in Israel’s festivals a more active expression of leisure. He follows this with an exploration of work in the Bible and its relation to leisure.

In the concluding chapters of the book, he applies the biblical material to a critique of the different concepts of leisure, arguing for a holistic view that combines contemplative and active conceptions of leisure. He contends for an identity view with regard to a work-leisure ethic in which work and leisure are not fragmented into separate aspects of a life but experienced simultaneously by whole persons, where we “rest in our work”. He then turns to eight processes that have been found in research to enhance spirituality, considers how these help in coping with stress, and concludes with arguing for the mean found in the book of Ecclesiastes between hedonistic pleasure seeking and compulsive workaholism–the enjoyment of the goodness of our lives in rhythms of work and rest.

This is an important work in several ways. I did quite a bit of reading on the theology of work in the 1980s, covering the ground Heintzman covers. What I discovered, and Heintzman confirms in his literature review, is that little has been written in this area since then and so this book explores work, rest and leisure for a new generation. In addition, Heintzman gives us a thorough and clear overview of conceptions of leisure including those of Veblen on the leisure class, and feminist perspectives, that might not be as commonly considered. What I found most valuable, however, was the latter part of the book where Heintzman gives his own critique and synthesis of all this material. The eight practices he advocates out of his research may be helpful for those who engage in spiritual direction or retreat planning as well as those leading recreation programs, particularly in Christian settings. Many of us still struggle with reconciling the ideas of leisure and spirituality. After reading Heintzman’s book, these are a bit less of an oxymoron for me.

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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. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Blogging into My Second Year

Can you believe it has been almost a year? In a few weeks, I will mark a year at blogging. It’s been an education and a revelation. The education part includes everything from blogging software like that of WordPress to writing catchy titles and attention grabbing first sentences to figuring out what I want to write about. The revelation part has been how much I enjoy putting into writing my thoughts, reflections and reviews on books I’m reading and connecting my own life narratives to the narratives of others.

I have also learned a tremendous amount in dialogue with those who read and comment on the blog. When I’ve written about growing up in Youngstown, I’ve been reminded of memories buried deep but that are part of the fabric of my past that shape my present. When we dialogue about issues or books, I’m made to examine my own take on things and go deeper still. And I kind of hope, reader, that we have done this together.

I’ve been amazed by the exploration of working class and the tremendous interest from many Youngstown friends, and the awakening sense that how growing up in working class industrial cities shaped people in particular ways. As I go forward, I want to keep blogging about these things as well as to continue to explore and share some of the books I’m reading and thoughts about literacy in what seems to be an increasingly visual age.

My faith does inform my writing yet I hope not to be “preachy”. For some, my faith might not seem explicit enough in what I write. My own sense is that Christian spirituality touches all the ordinary and extraordinary things of my life and I hope shows through not in the “preachiness” of what I write but simply that the goodness, truth, and whatever beauty I can muster point to the One who I believe epitomizes these things.

My faith also challenges even how I think about blogging. I’m on a kind of retreat right now and it has struck me that  blogging has become too big a thing in my life at times. I’ve become compulsive  about writing daily. And it is easy to become compulsive about checking one’s numbers of followers, views, comments, and likes. So I’ve reached a couple of decisions. One is that I will take a blogging “sabbath” each week. Sabbath has actually been a life-giving practice in my life and my compulsiveness to write every day has encroached on this. So I won’t be posting, or checking the blog at all on Sundays, the day I usually set aside to sabbath. And second, I’ve decided that I will check the blog twice a day for comments and views and that sort of stuff–once in the morning, once at night. More takes away from other things that matter including time with my wife.

So I definitely want to respond to comments. And I wouldn’t be a writer if I wasn’t interested in knowing whether anyone is interested in this stuff. But it’s time to define some boundaries that keep it from becoming an inordinate thing in life. I actually hope that all this helps me better serve the craft of writing well.

For my blogging friends, how have you dealt with the compulsions that are peculiar to blogging?