Review: Confronting Old Testament Controversies

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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.

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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: A Subversive Gospel

A Subversive Gospel

A Subversive Gospel (Studies in Theology and the Arts), Michael Mears Bruner. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Academic, 2017.

Summary: Proposes that the grotesque and violent character of Flannery O’Connor’s work reflects her understanding of the subversive character of the gospel and the challenge of awakening people in the Christ-haunted South to the beauty, goodness, and truth of the gospel.

A number of years ago our book group decided to read the collected works of Flannery O’Connor. It was a challenge. The stories involved everything from a stolen wooden leg to a rape to the murder of a whole family. The word “grotesque” is often used to describe her work. The question arises, why did this single Catholic woman, who lived on her parents’ farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, suffering and ultimately dying of lupus, write such strange stories?

Michael Mears Bruner explores this question in his contribution to the Studies in Theology and the Arts series.  His discussion focuses particularly around the novel The Violent Bear It Away (an allusion to Matthew 11:12 in the Douay-Rheims version) and a statement about the main character, Francis Tarwater, about whom O’Connor says:

“His black pupils, glassy and still, reflected depth on depth his own stricken image of himself, trudging into the distance in the bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus, until at last he received his reward, a broken fish, a multiplied loaf.”

Bruner’s thesis is “that through the medium of her art, Flannery O’Connor showed her readers how following Christ is a commitment to follow in his shadow, which becomes a subversive act aesthetically (“bleeding”), ethically (“stinking”), and intellectually (“mad”).” Elsewhere, and repeatedly in the text, he refers to the “terrible beauty, violent goodness and foolish truth of God.” Bruner helps us realize that O’Connor writes in a Southern context that has been effectively innoculated against the Christian gospel–grown so comfortable with Christian language that it is impervious to the radical and startling claims of the Christian faith–the beauty of God’s love revealed in suffering, the goodness and righteousness of God revealed in the violent death of Jesus, and the foolishness of a message wiser than human wisdom. The grotesque and the violent in O’Connor’s stories startle us awake to realities to which we’ve grown too accustomed.

Bruner begins with tracing the development of O’Connor’s writing from the earlier to the later works which reflect a theological turn that he attributes to the influence of Baron von Hugel’s thought. He then looks at the moral and theological vision that shapes her work as a Roman Catholic in the fundamentalist south. He connects her dramatic vision with her subversive aesthetic and then goes deeper into how her work subverts the transcendentals of beauty, goodness, and truth. Finally he applies this approach to her last novel, The Violent Bear It Away. A brief conclusion is followed by a liturgical celebration of the Eucharist using O’Connor’s work.

The body of this work consists of dense literary analysis, and it is helpful to have recently read and have a copy of O’Connor’s work handy. In the process, Bruner joins O’Connor in challenging the nostrums and platitudes of Christian faith with the subversive character of O’Connor’s work. One example is this passage:

“Yet this hardly settles the matter regarding the notion that God might indeed be terrible, and so what do we do with this component of O’Connor’s fierce theology? She refuses to placate us with religious euphemisms and spiritual jargon, preferring instead to ‘shout’ and ‘draw large and startling figures” in our faces” (p. 154).

O’Connor wrote to disturb the comfortable, and Bruner demonstrates just how subversive she was in her story writing. He also helps us understand the theological turn in her writing and the influences other critics have noted briefly or not at all. He helps those of us disenchanted with enculturated, saccharine versions of Christianity who ask, “is that all there is?” to see that O’Conner writes out a more bracing vision, one we might even need to brace ourselves against. She defies all our conventions of beauty, goodness, and truth, Bruner argues, because that is what the gospel does. She bids us ask the dangerous question of whether this is in fact the gospel we’ve believed–as dangerous a question as a Flannery O’Connor story.

 

Walking Back From the Abyss of Violence

staircase-962784_1920The latest (for now) mass shooting in Las Vegas was the deadliest shooting so far with 58 dying as well as the shooter. Sadly, it seems that these horrors are becoming a regular occurrence, complete with victim accounts, an attempt to understand the shooter, thoughts, prayers, and candlelight vigils and renewed outcries that something must be done to limit guns in a nation where there is nearly a gun for every person already.

The reality is that this is nearly a daily occurrence. According to a Guardian story, in the 1735 days ending on October 1 when the Las Vegas shooting took place, there were 1,516 mass shootings (defined as an event where four or more people were shot, not including the shooter). This does not count the “routine” violence occurring in our major cities. For example nearly as many die every month in Chicago as died in Las Vegas. A Vox report on gun violence reports that 2900 people have died at the hands of police since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson (police are also at greater risk in states with more guns). The same report contends that guns allow people to kill themselves more easily and that where gun access is limited, suicide deaths drop. It may be that the only person your gun will ever kill is someone you love, or even yourself.

Before I go any further, I am not going to advocate any gun control measure, nor am I going to advocate gun rights. I think we are at a stalemate and there are plenty to argue one way or the other. I’m not going to join either chorus. Rather, I want to suggest that these almost daily reports of terrible shootings and the other forms of gun violence, along with our rancorous discourse, suggest we are becoming an increasingly violent society, and that if we don’t obliterate ourselves in a nuclear winter, we might be headed toward a violent, anarchic abyss.

Do we in truth want to live in one of the most violent societies in the world? What I want to propose is that we make a collective decision to walk away from the abyss of violence in our national life.

What I mean by this is that we begin the long and arduous journey to conceive a different kind of society from the one that alternately celebrates and grieves violence. Rather than looking for some kind of quick legislative fix or imposition of government power, I want to propose a movement that may take a generation, just as the campaigns to discourage smoking and warn of the dangers cigarettes pose in terms of cancer, heart disease and other illnesses. As I child, I saw ads saying cigarettes were good for you. Now any ad, and every container of cigarettes warns of the health risks. For years, I had to inhale other people’s smoke in public places. Now my right to a smoke-free environment is protected in many public places. It took fifty years to get to this point.

Perhaps this journey needs to begin with a realization that we are all complicit in this violent society. Liberal Hollywood, the gaming industry, and all of us who consume their products participate in a celebration of violence. We may complain about those who manufacture assault rifles and other lethal instruments, and those who own them but how often do we passively absorb scenes of cinematic violence or participate in various forms of virtual violence? While most of us never conceive of violence, do we create a glamour around violence that suggests to some who don’t share our restraints, that violence is an acceptable way to go–often to one’s end?

Might we begin by agreeing that entertaining ourselves by virtual violence against human beings may not be the noblest of activities? If nothing else, there are other ways to employ our time, and a country as rich as ours provides many other outlets, including those that get us off our theater seating and toughen our bodies and minds.

* * * * *

Human beings will do all sorts of strange things when they don’t feel safe, from hoard water, to build underground shelters, to stockpile weapons, and to pass regulations and laws.  Most of the time, doing these things doesn’t make us any safer, they just give us some sense that we are in control.

A number of studies have shown that our number of confidants–real friends– has dropped (from roughly three to two on average). Likewise, there seems to be a correlation between time spent on social media and higher levels of anxiety. Correlation can’t determine which causes which or if there is some third factor. The past election cycle accentuated the phenomenon of “echo chambers” with the insidious addition of targeted ads playing to the tendencies of a given audience or even individuals. And social and other media amplify our fears of violence with the 24/7 news cycle. The old saw in the news world is that “if it bleeds, it leads.”

So, in addition to turning from our celebration of and pre-occupation with violence, might we turn from the things that induce fear? The truth is that while we have seen horrendous examples of gun violence, overall, gun violence, at least up to 2015, is down. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned about the possibility of future events like Las Vegas. It means dedicating ourselves to fostering a society where Las Vegas is even less likely to occur. Maybe rather than trying to limit guns, how do we foster a society where fewer people feel the need for them?

A few beginning thoughts:

  • Find out ways to re-neighbor with our real neighbors and build real community rather than the brittle virtual communities we’ve come to rely on that reinforce our fears and separate us off from the diversity of real humanity. This might also help us spot neighbors whose activity patterns are out of the ordinary and, where appropriate, “see something and say something.”
  • One common thread in so much violence is men.  Young men, old men, and men of every color. It seems to me we have to start asking what is going on with men that makes this resort to violence a choice a number are making. My hunch is that fathering may have something to do with it, and the absence of models to help boys pass into responsible and self-controlled manhood. It seems that much of the energy we spend on fighting about guns might be spent in understanding the men who use them.
  • It wouldn’t hurt to create incentives and easy paths to turn in guns, registered or not. Guns are often left behind on the death of someone and we should do all we can to make sure they as well disposed of as our recycling. This does nothing to limit the rights of gun owners. “How to Get Rid of a Gun” illustrates the challenges of legally disposing of guns. Our local county sheriff’s website gives detailed instructions on securing a concealed carry permit, but no instructions on legally disposing of guns.

I don’t think there are any easy answers. I’d have to look at this more than I have, but I suspect we’ve always been a violent nation. I don’t think fighting about gun control is going to change that, except maybe for the worse. Like so many things, I doubt things will change until we are sick and tired of being sick and tired and we turn from our love of violence in film and sport and our habits of verbal violence in so much of our discourse. I doubt things will change until we start paying attention to why so much gun violence is committed by men. We can provide easier ways to legally and safely dispose of guns without impairing the rights of anyone to own one, and maybe if done extensively, this could reduce the number of weapons out there that could fall into the wrong hands.

The real question it seems is do we have the national will to begin the hard work of forsaking a culture of violence. Will we keep after it for twenty, thirty, fifty years? If we survive long enough, we might bequeath a less violent country to our great-grandchildren.

 

Review: The Insurrectionist

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The InsurrectionistHerb Karl. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, forthcoming, February 2017.

Summary: A fictionalized biography of the last three and a half years of John Brown’s life from the Pottawotamie massacre in “Bloody Kansas” to his raid of the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, ending in his execution in 1859.

John Brown, along with Harriet Beecher Stowe, were two northern abolitionists who probably did as much as any, one by the sword, the other by the pen to precipitate the Civil War. Yet Brown remains something of an enigma, considered by many to be a fanatic. He chose violent, vigilante methods when it was necessary to resist the slaveholder element in Kansas and believed that his fight against slavery was God-ordained. Yet he was motivated, according to the pages of this novel, by a Golden Rule ethic of doing to others as you would have them do to you and particularly a concern for the oppressed in bondage.

This new novel tells the story of Brown’s last three and a half years. It begins with the caning of Senator Charles Sumner by Preston Brooks on the floor of the Senate, which moved Brown to action. He had heard from his sons in Kansas of the efforts of slaveholders from Missouri to resist Kansas from entering the Union as a free state. After attacks upon “free” settlers, Brown responded with an attack on the Pottawatomie Creek settlement where he killed five pro-slavery men, leading to the bloodiest period of raids and counter raids that left 29 dead in what became known as “Bleeding Kansas.”

The novel then traces Brown’s movements back and forth between Kansas, his farm in North Elba, New York, and trips into Canada to fugitive slave settlements, to his sons and pro-abolitionists in Ohio, where Brown lived for part of his youth (in present day Hudson, Ohio). It recounts various meetings and solicitations with wealthy East Coast abolitionists, and his relationship with Frederick Douglass. It also describes his efforts to gather an “army” to fight slavery, setting up training camps in Iowa, his North Elba farm, and eventually in Maryland, five miles from Harpers Ferry.

The story culminates in the raid of Harpers Ferry with a mere eighteen men. Frederick Douglass had strongly cautioned Brown against this, saying he could get in but that the town was surrounded by hills on all sides, a kind of “steel trap.” On October 16, 1859, he moved into action and seized the three buildings of the arsenal, took hostages and freed slaves and waited, hoping others would join them. He waited too long and word got out to local militia and Federal forces under Colonel Robert E. Lee, who first attacked and succeeded in killing or wounding all but a handful of Brown’s men, including the two sons who had joined him. Eventually Marines assaulted the arsenal, killing or capturing the remainder and freeing the hostages.

The book concludes with Brown’s trial, the guilty verdict, his final visit with his wife, and his execution. It also concludes with the growing realization by Brown that the power of the press to turn him into a martyr and catalyst for the abolitionist cause was even more significant than anything he could do of a para-military nature and his last month was devoted to interviews and letter writing.

Karl gives us a fast-moving account based on the actual history. Brown’s utterances seem consistent his written and recorded utterances. Karl also explores the mind and motivations and influence of Brown–his strong sense of the injustice of slavery, his belief in his call by God to fight slaveholders and to take this fight into the south, coupled by the deep loyalties he engendered in his sons, three of whom died in his efforts, as well as the support he enjoyed from abolitionists who helped by the weapons with which he fought. There was also his disturbing consciousness that words would not be enough to overcome the slaveholder. Only conflict and bloodshed could do this, and to conviction, he joined action. On the morning of his execution, December 2, 1859, he wrote:

“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”

Beyond simple civil disobedience, Brown’s life, and this account of it raises the question of can violent resistance to unjust authority ever be warranted? Karl doesn’t answer this, but it is a question that arises with other figures including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who joined a plot to kill Hitler. It is particularly troubling when God is invoked, which Brown did from what seemed the purest of motives.

As I noted in the beginning, Brown’s act contributed to inflaming abolitionist efforts in the North, and stirred slaveholders’ fears in the South. The South formed militias. The North elected Lincoln. And less than two years later, the “very much bloodshed” Brown hesitated to prophesy came. By war’s end, approximately 620,000 combatants died, the costliest war in terms of human life in our history.

Brown seemed a “fringe element” that never attracted very many dedicated followers. But he connected into establishment business men, and with the leaders of abolitionism. We might ask what this means for the present, and our present discords as well. What potential exists for those on the fringes (of left and right) to draw support from and to inflame and embroil others? And what could this mean for us if we do not learn from the lessons of the past and instances from other parts of the world when civil order deteriorates into civil war? This narrative left me pondering all these possibilities.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via a pre-publication e-galley through Edelweiss. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: Answering Jihad

Answering Jihad

Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward, Nabeel Qureshi. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016.

Summary: Contends that there is a basis in the foundations of Islam for violent, and not merely defensive, jihad, which neither can be ignored, nor assumed of all Muslims, but calls for a proactive response, particularly of Christians, of love and friendship with the hope of breaking the cycle of violence.

In this book Nabeel Qureshi, a convert from Islam to Christianity, details his own realization, particularly in the aftermath of 9/11 that Islam at its foundations was not the “religion of peace” in which he was raised and that many Muslims as well as American political figures touted this idea to differentiate the perpetrators of terror from the mass of Muslims.

Qureshi contends in this book that it is true that many Muslims were raised as he was, and that the vast majority of Muslims indeed simply want what all want: to live peaceably, to be financially secure in fulfilling work, and to raise healthy families in their faith. However, what he found as he researched the foundational texts and early history of the Prophet Muhammad, was a trajectory toward increasing violence, both in the Qur’an, and in the acts of Muhammad, and that not all of this was merely defensive. He particularly points out that Surah 9, the last of the Surahs is the most violent and, he would contend, abrogates earlier peaceable Surahs.

What he faced, and he believes faces young Muslims who turn to these teachings, particularly as they are promoted online, is that there is a choice between apostasy through leaving Islam, apathy through ignoring Muhammad’s teaching or “radicalization” which seeks to obey all his teachings, including those concerning jihad as violent struggle, not merely “spiritual” struggle as it is sometimes portrayed. Thus he would propose that efforts to separate violent radicalism from religiously rooted motivations are misinformed and dangerous.

The book consists of a series of short chapters, each which attempts to answer a single question. The first part is concerned with the origins of jihad and explores whether Islam is a religion of peace, what is jihad, is it in the Qur’an and the life of Muhammad, and what is sharia. Many of the conclusions mentioned above come from this section.

The second turns to jihad today, asking what is radical Islam, does Islam need a reformation, who are Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Boko Haram, and why Muslims are being radicalized. He would contend that the “reformation” of Islam is actually at the heart of violent radicalism, and that what is needed is re-imagining a peaceful Islam, but does not hold out much hope for this because it means ignoring or de-emphasizing some of the teachings of Muhammad.

The final section compares Islam and Christianity. He contends that what Christians and Muslims believe about God is sufficiently different that they do not worship the same God, contra theologians like Miroslav Volf. In fact, he criticizes Volf for stifling dialogue because of Volf’s categorical statements denying that there was any theological justification for the suspension of Larycia Hawkins from the Wheaton faculty for affirming that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. At the same time, Qureshi acknowledges differences here and would like to see more dialogue, which he believes Volf’s statements precluded.

In this final section Qureshi also discusses the comparisons of jihad with holy war in the Old Testament and with the Crusades. He quotes a friend who said, “If you want to follow the biblical model of attacking a land, the first thing you have to do is wait 400 years.” He also contrasts the biblical and Islamic trajectories–the former begins with war but ends in the New Testament with a renunciation of violence that carried through the first 300 years of the church’s existence, where Christians were martyred but did not fight back; the latter becomes increasingly violent in the later Surahs and its earliest centuries are filled with violent conquest and often viewed as the Golden Age of Islam.

What Qureshi would contend is that we need to have eyes wide open to these things–and to proactively love even those who could turn out to be enemies. It is a call neither to close our eyes and minds to discerning the roots of violence that he contends is at the heart of Islam, nor to close our hearts to Muslim neighbors, including those who seek refuge. It raises the question of whether we can be both vigilant and compassionate. It is a call that recognizes the possibility that some may be “radicalized” and yet that many others may be won by friends, who like a Christian friend of his, suggested that radicalization was not the only option.

It strikes me that Qureshi exemplifies the “both-and” thinking that characterizes Christians who believe the gospel calls us to a “Third Way”. Vigilant compassion succumbs neither to naive sentimentality nor to fear and hatred. It reckons with the fallen, violent world in which we live, and holds to the redemptive possibilities in the way of the Christ. As Qureshi concludes, this is not the final answer, but rather a way forward.

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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.

Do We Need More Than Lament?

black ribbonAnother mass shooting. At least 14 dead in San Bernardino. Once again there are the expressions of grief and appropriate expressions of sympathy to families who lost loved ones today.  Once again expressions of outrage against what was plainly an outrage against every standard of decency. Men [and, according to reports after I wrote this, one woman] with long semi-automatic rifles decimating a gathering in a conference room.

And in the outrage, it seems the conversation begins to deteriorate. Some cry for gun control, others for arming ourselves against the violence. Meanwhile I see posts on social media about how rhetoric feeds the anger that ends with attacks on Planned Parenthood clinics. Others raise the question of whether similar anti-police rhetoric leads to shootings of police. Advocates for safe space fight with advocates for free speech. While domestic gun violence is claiming thousands on our streets and in our schools, churches and public spaces, we live in fear of enemies from without.

It is right and appropriate to grieve and lament, comfort and pray. Yet I also wonder if we have taken stock of how far we are from a healthy and flourishing good society. What I wonder is whether we are reaping the society we have sown. Can we constantly glorify violence in our games and media and contemplate committing violence against humans with many of the guns we purchase and not have a violent society? Can we constantly foster a vicious rhetoric of us versus them and not have it turn from words to violence, as much as the words are defensible as free speech?

I wonder if it is enough to lament if our lamentation does not also include confession and repentance. While it is true that neither you nor I pulled triggers in the events of today, do we see ourselves as part of a society that has made its peace with a violent way of life, violent in thought and word and sometimes deed? Repentance doesn’t simply mean mourning our sin. It is metanoia, a change of mind. It means a mental “one-eighty”, turning decisively away from violence and our constant celebration of violence, except when it happens in real life (and even then the incessant media cycle serves to celebrate the deeds of the violent, especially in a violent subculture who emulates them).

Frankly, I wonder if we are really ready for that. Yet I would suggest that if, as a society, we are not, our expressions of grief and lament are a bit hollow, as sincerely as we think we mean them. We have not truly decided to lean into the long, hard work of writing and living stories where conflict ends in peacemaking rather than a hail of gunfire, or verbal or physical abuse. We have not truly decided to write and live stories where grievances are acknowledged, repented of and forgiven rather than nursed into deep bitterness and raging revenge.

This has been a year of staring into the abyss of violence. I wonder if it is also a year of seeing the abyss of the human heart, the abyss of violence in my own heart. I wonder…