December 06, 2011

Tony Reinke, Lit!

"A wide gap separates a reader who simply consumes books from a reader who diligently seeks wisdom" (178). In this thoughtful and practical book, Tony Reinke argues for the value of reading as a Christian discipline, and helps encourage readers to develop wise reading habits. It is a book in two parts, the first being a "theology of reading," the second being a collection of practical advice for becoming better readers.

The foundation of Lit! is the contention that God's illumination can come to us through books, and that truth and beauty are gifts of God that can be reflected in Christian and non-Christian books alike. But equally as foundational is that God's truth is most fully embodied in Scripture, and all other reading that we do must be filtered through the truth of Scripture. "We must be determined to read the imperfect in light of the perfect, the deficient in light of the sufficient, the temporary in light of the eternal, the groveling in light of the transcendent" (28). This means we must always be on the lookout for an author's worldview and the truths she or he is implicitly or explicitly conveying, even as we also seek out the beauty of God's truth, which can be expressed in unexpected places or ways. This means that, once we've developed a foundational knowledge of Scripture and the worldview it builds, we should be eager but discerning as we seek out the illumination of truth wherever it may be found, even in non-Christian works which may have important insights or perspectives to lend.

The second major section of Lit! is a practical guide to reading, both for those who are not already readers and for those who are. Reinke gives advice on what to read, as well as on how. The advice tends to be very practical, and really emphasizes that reading should be intentional. We should be thoughtful in the books we choose, and deliberate in the way we read. One of the nuggets I helpfully gleaned from him is that we shouldn't hesitate to drop a book part way through, or only read selectively, if that best suits our purpose or if we are finding that it isn't worthwhile. So many of his other suggestions comport well with my own discoveries and habits as I have developed as a reader, such as marking in your books (I highly recommend marking in your books, and Reinke makes a good argument for why, as well as describing how he chooses to do it), reading multiple books at once, and reading reviews, for instance. He also helpfully discusses how the internet is effecting our reading habits and our ability to concentrate, something I worry about with myself and even more for my children, calling us back to the development of sustained concentration.

I loved this book. As a passionate reader, this book resonates with my reading heart. For those of you who already share this passion for reading, this book can help provide both practical advice for honing your skills as well as helpful theological context in which to place your reading. And it is just simply a pleasure to read a book that extols the virtues of something you love. But this book is also for those who don't read, and who don't really want to. He makes good, simple arguments for why and how people who don't have interest, time, or enough perceived ability can and should begin to develop this most important and nourishing habit. There may have been one or two places where I didn't particularly agree with his advice (one specific instance comes when he encourages readers to write questions you want answered in the front cover before reading it, which is fine, but he then asserts that one way to find holes in the authors arguments is by seeing if he answers your questions; while I agree that we should read critically and curiously, and that we should look for holes in the author's arguments or logic, the fact that the author doesn't answer the questions we asked at the outset may reflect more the author's purpose than a failure of argument). In all, I warmly commend this outstanding little book. It is well written, thoughtful, and readily applicable. It will ignite or deepen a love of reading.

November 30, 2011

NIV (2011) Study Bible review

With the release this year of the updated translation of the NIV, Zondervan has released an updated version of their well-known study Bible. I would like to review it briefly, with a review in three parts. First, some brief thoughts on the updated NIV text itself, on which the Bible is based; second, a note about the study features; and third, look at the aesthetics of the Bible and its production.

First, the translation. There has been much controversy surrounding the release of this latest revision of the much loved NIV text, much like the controversy surrounding the release of what became the TNIV in 2005. This most recent NIV does preserve many of the changes that were made in the TNIV, though there are a small percentage of changes where the language has reverted back to the familiar text, along with some places where further revisions were made. I don't want to go into all of the details here. But in short, this latest NIV preserves the tradition of an outstanding translation that is readable and comprehensible. The translation committee is top notch, and contrary to much press to the contrary, not out to foist an egalitarian position on the Biblical text (most of the committee members are of the complementarian position, including the chair, Doug Moo). From what I have seen of the translation, it will be an outstanding text for reading and for study, and I am happy to have this latest version in my hands.

Second, the study notes and features. I have owned three previous editions of this study Bible, and from what I can see, the notes are largely unchanged. Each book of the Bible has a general introduction, that covers issues of authorship, audience, context, major themes, and an outline. These provide helpful information for getting a handle on what is going on for each book of the Bible. The second major "study" feature is study notes that run along the bottom half of each page, helping to explain or give additional background on key words or phrases, people, or themes from the text. They don't cover every verse, though more verses than not probably have some type of note. The third major study feature is the cross-reference system that helps point to other passages in the same book, in the same testament, and across both testaments that use a word or phrase. These are helpful basic resources (of these features, I find I use the cross-references the most). The endmatter includes a truncated but still useful concordance (I love having this right in my hands, even though it's getting easy to just look up passages and word-references on the internet), an index of subjects (that is, a topical index of what biblical passages cover various themes), an index of the notes, pointing the reader to various notes that cover a person or topic, and some helpful study maps.

The third aspect of this Bible upon which I want to comment is the aesthetics. The major change, besides the updated NIV text, from previous editions, is that the Study Bible is now set in four colors throughout. Select color images have been added throughout the text, both in the book introductions and in the text itself, and these add some visual interest and also illustrate the text with archaeological images from relevant contexts. The four-color interior does add a little bit to the overall feel, but the main improvement is in the charts and the already-mentioned images. But it's not an overly exciting interior; the layout is quite functional, with all of the elements working together on the page, just like in most previous editions of this Study Bible.

Overall, I give this Bible four stars. It's a nice, functional Study Bible. It is relatively conservative in its overall approach, but it isn't slanted to a particular tradition, and its notes are dependable, and provide a solid resource to draw on. I love the TNIV Study Bible that I have used over the last few years, with its one column layout, and hope they will soon bring out this new NIV Study Bible with that same format, which makes for easier reading and leaves nice room for notes. The color, images, and revamped charts and maps make this a nice Study Bible, and certainly a strong option.

Thanks to Zondervan and the Amazon Vine program for the review copy.

Whose example of mission?

I was really struck by this quote as I read Joel Willitts's review of DeYoung and Gilbert's recent book on the church and mission:

Paul is not the primary model for the church’s work in the world. He was the apostle to the Gentiles (Gal 2) and was called uniquely to fulfill that particular role. Paul describes his role in 2 Corinthians 2—3 comparing his New Covenant ministry to Moses’ Old Covenant ministry. Our model for church mission, if we can find such a thing in Acts and Paul’s letters, should not be Paul, but the communities Paul left behind.
I was instantly a bit hesitant about that main statement, that Paul isn't the primary model for the church. But as I ruminated on it a bit more, I see much wisdom in it. Paul is obviously an example we should follow, someone we should imitate even as we imitate Christ. But he occupied a very particular place in the plan of God, with a unique role in salvation history as the apostle to the Gentiles. So while I think there is much wisdom in seeking the missionary methods and especially the message of Paul, we should also focus on how envisioned his churches to function, and that might be a better example yet. Food for thought.

November 26, 2011

BBR: Treasure Trove of articles

Though I'm sure these won't be a surprise to many of you, I've just stumbled across two treasure troves of articles that are worthy of your time. The first is the archives of the Bulletin for Biblical Research, which contains PDFs of old issues of the bulletin, and is packed with interesting-looking articles by lots of great scholars (Mike Bird, Martin Hengel, Jacob Neusner, Frank Theilman, etc.). The second is a rediscovery of, which is an interactive bibliography for Biblical studies material, including links to tons of PDFs. So happy exploring. Enjoy!

November 16, 2011

J. Mark Bertrand, Pattern of Wounds

I love to read fiction, as well as non-fiction (and Tony Reinke's Lit! gives some good reasons for Christians to do just that, though for me, one key reason is simply that I love to read a good story). And I love to read fiction that engages with Christian themes, which sometimes means reading "Christian fiction," though that's a difficult category to nail down for sure. When offered a review copy of Mark Bertrand's second book, I thought it looked intriguing and decided to take it on, and I'm glad I did. Pattern of Wounds is the second "Roland March Mystery" from Bertrand. I haven't yet read the first, but my interest is certainly piqued. In this relatively classic who-done-it, a girl is found brutally murdered and grotesquely positioned near her landlord's swimming pool. The pursuit for the killer starts out routine enough, but quickly intertwines with one of March's earlier cases which is now being challenged on appeal, and is soon intertwined with a possible serial killer case connecting dozens of deaths around Texas. Suspects come and go, and the case heats up when March's wife is brutally attacked in his house. The action builds to a series of discoveries that break open the case. Pattern of Wounds is published by Bethany House, putting it squarely in the traditional "Christian fiction" world, but it breaks out of the mold in a number of ways. The most prevalent way is that its main character, Roland March, isn't a Christian but is instead a skeptic, sometimes ignoring and sometimes wrestling with his wife's faith. And while Christian themes are present, in sometimes powerful ways, it's not preachy, and there are no facile or obvious conclusions drawn. March comes off as an honest character, and an authentic one. And the book is better for it. I greatly enjoyed Pattern of Wounds, a thoughtful, plausible, and authentic murder mystery with much to offer. I'm glad to recommend it. Thanks to Bethany House for the review copy.

Joel Green takes over the NICNT

The Eerdmans blog announces today that Joel Green is taking the helm of the venerable NICNT, taking over for Gordon Fee, and standing in the same line as F. F. Bruce and Ned Stonehouse. Dr. Green is the author of The Gospel of Luke (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), and is reported to be working on the forthcoming replacement volume on Acts as well (though he doesn't mention that in his blog post). I have great respect for the NICNT series, and would probably consider it my go-to series if I had to name one. There have been some outstanding volumes, such as Paul's Letter to the Philippians (New International Commentary on the New Testament), The Epistle to the Romans (New International Commentary on the New Testament), and The First Epistle to the Corinthians (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), just to name a few. Green also tantalizingly alludes to some volumes that are soon to be forthcoming, such as Hebrews, Mark, and Galatians (no reference to his Acts volume, which I hope is out of modesty, and not on account of its distance from publication). I look forward to future volumes in this series under Green's leadership. It will be interesting to watch how his imprint is left on forthcoming works, particularly with regard to literary criticism, as that seems to be an emphasis in his Luke volume. I wait expectantly to find out.

November 14, 2011

John Dickson, Humilitas

John Dickson's Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadershipis a historical survey of the virtue of humility, along with a frank appraisal of its value and benefits. His subtitle is apt: a lost key to life, love, and leadership. The book is self-consciously styled as a leadership book, though Dickson is clear up front that his expertise in the topic is largely as a historian, as opposed to a leadership expert. And I would say it is very successful in that mold, demonstrating the (counter-intuitive) thesis that humility is a key leadership virtue. But I think the book's benefits extend far beyond the world of leadership. They apply to everyday life, to our closest relationships, and to everything we say and do.

Dickson defines humility as "the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself." He continues by summarizing humility as "a willingness to hold power in service of others" (24, emphasis original). He builds off this definition first by making a historical argument that the ancients didn't value humility as a value, but that a decisive change took place with Jesus Christ, who lived a life typified by humility and called his followers to do likewise. It is worth noting, at this point, though, that while Dickson himself is a Christian, and while Jesus proves a crucial turning point in this history of humility, his arguments are self-consciously not "Christian" in the sense that he doesn't argue from the Bible, instead elevating the virtue based on largely pragmatic and aesthetic grounds, though I think that serves the book well, especially as he envisions a wider audience in leadership circles. But that argument is successful, I think, as he demonstrates the beauty we perceive in humility, the growth and development that can come with humility, and the persuasiveness and inspiration that can come from a leader (or anyone) who exhibits humility.

Dickson's book is an enjoyable read, peppered with stories and anecdotes that illustrate and persuade at the same time. It works as a leadership book, showing the unexpected and counter-intuitive value that comes from humility. But I think it also works for anyone, and especially any Christian, who wants to develop this essential virtue. His clear and persuasive writing make this powerful argument easily readable but also winsome, and I am glad to recommend it.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine program and the publisher for the review copy.

November 09, 2011

Forthcoming from Michael Bird

I'm currently diving into Justification: Five Views (Spectrum Multiview Books), and though I'm only part way through the book, I'm already remembering again how much I appreciate Mike Bird's approach to Paul, and more broadly his approach to the New Testament. I've loved some of his past works, such as his Introducing Paul: The Man, His Mission and His Message and The Saving Righteousness of God: Studies on Paul, Justification and the New Perspective. So it was with great interest that I noticed that he includes on his CV posted on his blog a list of forthcoming books:

First Esdras (Septuagint Commentary Series; Leiden: Brill, forthcoming 2012).
With Jason Maston (eds.), Earliest Christianity: History, Literature, and Theology. Essays from the Tyndale Fellowship in Honour of Martin Hengel (WUNT; Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, forthcoming 2012).
Jesus is the Christ: The Messianic Testimony of the Gospels (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, forthcoming 2012).
Evangelical Theology: A Gospel Theology for a Gospel People (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, forthcoming 2012).
The Gospels of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013).
(ed.) Four Views on the Apostle Paul (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, forthcoming 2012).
Romans (Regula Fidei New Testament Series; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013).
A Theology of the New Covenant: Context, Community, and Canon (Nottingham: IVP, forthcoming 2014).
An Anomalous Jew: Paul among Jews and Christians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, forthcoming 2015).
A Bird’s-Eye View of Luke–Acts (2016)

Looks like some great stuff on its way, especially his Evangelical Theology volume, which I've heard him reference occasionally on his blog over the last year or so, as well as the upcoming four views on Paul book and his Romans commentary. Okay, maybe I'm interested in all of them. Anyway, looks like some great stuff ahead! Thanks to Mike for his irenic and attentive scholarship. It is unflaggingly gospel-centered and God-honoring, even as it is rigorous and readable. I can't wait. 

November 08, 2011

Peter Leithart, Fyodor Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky is one of the most renowned authors of the nineteenth century. His often tragic and dark writing also shines through with gospel light, and his two most well-known works, The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment, among his other writings, are still often discussed and sighted, and the former, especially, seems to be a favorite among theologians. Peter Leithart has written a short "biography" for the Christian Encounters series for Thomas Nelson. I put biography in quotes because his approach is a little unconventional: Leithart helps readers "encounter" Dostoevsky by constructing the book as mainly consisting of a long conversation between Dostoevsky and his friend Maikov. The conversation is largely fictional, as Leithart makes clear in his foreword, though the notes make clear that he frequently draws on Dostoevsky's own words from his letters and from other sources, lending authenticity to an otherwise fictional narrative. The conversation consists of a reminiscence of key people and events in Dostoevsky's life, and thus provide the basic components of a more traditional biography.

 I found this little book enjoyable to read. The use of a conversation as the structure and primary content of the book adds some interest, and I think Leithart uses it to good effect. But it should be clear that at the same time, while some editorial comments and asides do fill in occasional details or critical commentary, these elements are not as full as would be expected in a more traditional biography, though this isn't likely the point in a series like this one, and shouldn't really be considered a shortcoming.

The two elements I did find oddly missing, though, were more discussion of Dostoevsky's writings and his faith. Both obviously figure in the content of the book, but I was disappointed that only a few of his books come in for mention, and those only briefly. The only real quotations of literature (beyond the aforementioned quotations from Dostoevsky's letters and writings that are woven more or less silently into the conversations) are not of Dostoevsky's writing but of Pushkin, one of Dostoevsky's literary forerunners in Russia, and apparently one who had significant influence on Dostoevsky as well as the wider literary and social fabric of Russia. Likewise, Dostoevsky does wrestle some in these pages with what it means to live for Christ or according to Christ, but his faith isn't probed too deeply. I was hoping for more of an investigation into what he believed and how that impacted and was showcased in his writing and thinking. And while I wasn't looking for a deep psychoanalysis of Dostoevsky's religious affectations, and was certainly not hoping for an evangelical hagiography, I wanted more here.

I want to close with a few positive notes, though, so that my review doesn't slant too negatively. What Leithart does give us is a relatively clear picture of Dostoevsky's social vision, or maybe more properly, his vision for what Russian society should be under Christ. And in this encounter, we get a fell for how his convictions about Christ came to bear in a socially prophetic way in the fight for the identity of the Russian soul. And that clearly has value. And as I mentioned before, this book is well written, and was enjoyable to read. Thanks to Thomas Nelson and the BookSneeze program for the review copy.

November 04, 2011

Great deal on new Eerdmans resource

Eerdmans just released their much-anticipated (and long awaited) new introductory Bible resource, The Eerdmans Companion to the Bible. Nijay Gupta has a brief review that gives some info about its contents, an appreciation for what it accomplishes, and also some helpful notes about it's level (it's a more introductory resource than most that they publish, but it seems to be rather erudite, even though pretty basic). And to make things even better, Amazon currently has it listed at just over $20, basically half off: The Eerdmans Companion to the Bible So if you've been awaiting this one, or are in need of a good introductory work, get it while it's discounted.

October 20, 2011

Dictionary of Christian Spirituality

Zondervan has released Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, a new textbook and reference book on Christian Spirituality designed to be an academic resource from a broadly evangelical perspective that consciously takes into account the history and contributions of the wider Christian community throughout time. The book as two major parts, "Integrative Perspectives" and "Dictionary Entries." The first is a series of 34 topical essays dealing with introductory issues, major topics, and historical overviews. Most essays are five or six pages, and they seem to be good introductions to their respective areas. This first part is more or less what you might expect to find in an intro textbook, and their quality and breadth would make for a quite solid one. The second part of the book consists of about six hundred pages of dictionary articles, ranging in length from about a quarter page to around two pages, though most are around half a page. Their topics range widely, covering topics in spirituality like discipleship, nature mysticism, retreats, lament, and so on; historical figures, such as John Wesley, Vincent de Paul, Oscar Romero; and movements, such as Franciscan spirituality, Pentecostal spirituality, etc. As with any dictionary, I'm sure there is some unevenness in the entries, but the ones I read were good introductions to their respective areas.

 I am certain of the value of this new hybrid book. First, the quality of the integrative essays seems very good, and I especially enjoyed editor Glen Scorgie's overview chapter, which provides a very solid introduction to the rationale and scope of a study of spirituality. He describes authentic Christian spirituality as "a Spirit-enabled relationship with the triune God that results in openness to others, healing progress toward Christ-likeness, and willing participation in God's purposes in the world" (30). The other essays I have sampled seem likewise informative and well-reasoned. One aspect of this project that does come through is that it is deliberately interdisciplinary, both in the sense of incorporating various aspects of the study of the Bible and of theology (OT, NT, systematics, history, as well as the more practical) but also beyond the world of theology to other areas, particularly psychology. There is also a very deliberate attempt in the essays and the dictionary articles to include both distinctively evangelical perspectives and personalities and a very broad scope of other Christian contributions. There is also an obvious geographical diversity reflected in the contributors and the articles themselves that lends a global perspective.

 Thinking about the book as containing two principal parts, I see it being of great value as a textbook. I would envision a professor assigning certain of the introductory essays and pointing to a list of relevant articles for weekly assigned readings. There is also the possibility of setting the students loose in the dictionary portion in search of personalities and paper topics that resonate with them or pique their interest, a benefit of the wide variety of introductions close at hand. With those two types of uses in mind, I think this hybrid introduction and dictionary would make an effective textbook as well as a reference tool, though probably best suited to the former.

 This brings me to a couple weaknesses, which might be easily rectified in future printings and editions. First, and most notably, there is no list of dictionary entries. As I have noted, there is an immense variety of topics covered in the dictionary portion, which is a strength. But without knowing that there is an entry on "Motherhood of God," "Leisure and Play," or "Jarena Lee," one likely wouldn't go looking. So I envision a lot of trial and error in the use of the dictionary. This is mitigated a bit by the fact that each dictionary article ends with a short "see also" list of other suggested readings, but it is still a glaring omission that will hamper the usefulness quite a bit. The second shortcoming is that, while the dictionary articles have a list of "see also" suggestions, the main integrative essays do not, though it seems like these would have been especially useful here. As I've mentioned, I can see a student being assigned a few of the major essays and then a selection of the smaller dictionary entries to suit the instructor's desires, but with no article suggestions, the instructors or students are left to page through the 600 pages of dictionary entries in search of the relevant topics. It would have been useful, for instance to have a list after the "Jesus" article (by Dallas Willard, which was quite worthwhile, by the way) that included suggestions like cross; humility; imitation of Christ; Jesus Prayer; Jesus, name of; Lord's Prayer; Lord's Supper; Johannine Spirituality; Luke's Spirituality; and so on. This would also be of great value in the historical essays, as it would help the reader know which historical figures or relevant groups have individual entries.

 These weaknesses aside, there's a valuable resource here. I look forward to continuing to learn from it.

 Thanks to Zondervan for a review copy and a place on their blog tour.

New P. D. James mystery forthcoming

Knopf has announced on their website a new P. D. James novel that will be coming out December 6, 2011: Death Comes to Pemberly. It is a novel taking up the setting and characters of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and involving them in a murder mystery five years after Austen's novel leaves off. I have enjoyed P. D> James's novels immensely (especially Death in Holy Orders). Her writing is wonderful, her characters, and especially her main characters, have great depth, and theological themes often intertwine with the mysteries at hand. So I look forward to this one.

October 18, 2011

On "praying" to the saints

Thanks to Mike Bird for pointing me to an interaction between Rachel Held Evans (and her readers) and Frederica Mathewes-Green about the latter's writings and her move to the Orthodox Church. I admit that I have always bristled at any mention or allusion to any type of veneration or prayer to saints. And I'm still very cautious about the whole idea, but I was greatly enlightened by her response, which I have excerpted below.

From Karl: I realized after reading Facing East that I'd misunderstood many Orthodox and Catholic practices, such as the use of icons and "praying to" saints and Mary. Can you discuss a couple of common protestant misconceptions on these issues and explain how Orthodox view them? How and why do you think those misconceptions arose? [FMG:] I think much of the misconception about the saints goes back to the word “pray,” which originally meant simply making a request. You could say at dinner, “I pray you, pass the steak sauce.” When we pray to God, we ask him directly what is on our minds; when we pray to saints, we ask them to pray for us. It’s just like when I ask my prayer partners to pray for me. But, with them, I use email or a phone; with the saints, I use prayer. It’s a means of communication. Sometimes people say to me, “I can go directly to Jesus, I don’t need to ask intermediaries,” and I reply, “OK, I won’t pray for you any more, then.” Really, the prayers of the saints are no different from the prayers of our friends on earth. It is “the great cloud of witnesses,” both visible and invisible, all one in Jesus Christ.
I have been slowly growing in my realization of what the communion of saints means, mostly in terms of how I listen to voices from the past and seek to dialogue with and learn from them. But this points in a more active and present dimension that I think has a valid place, if we truly believe in the resurrection. I don't affirm her view without reservation, to be sure, but I found it worth considering.

October 12, 2011

Brilliant Resource!

I just received in the mail my copy of Synopsis of the Pauline Letters in Greek and English, and after a very brief perusal, all I can say is, "brilliant!" The layout looks thoughtful, and having Paul's writings (and relevant passages from Acts) in parallel in this format will be so helpful! I wish I had had this resource years ago. Kudos to Baker Academic and to James Ware for this helpful resource. I plan to get some good use out of it in the near future, and will post some more systematic reflections then, but in the mean time, get this one!

October 10, 2011

Just arrived: Dict of Christian Spirituality

In the mail this morning I received a review copy of Dictionary of Christian Spirituality from Zondervan. I was intrigued by the opportunity to review this book, for a couple of reasons. The first is that it has some really great contributors (Dallas Willard with an article on Jesus and Spirituality was first among the articles that piqued my interest), and I am always looking for ways to deepen my own spirituality. The second was that I wanted to read it with one particular question in mind, What is "spirituality"? It seems to be a contested question in our day, with various types of "spiritualities" on offer. So what does Christian spirituality look like? So we'll see what these authors have to say. I look forward to seeing what comes of it. This is a rather large book (well over 800 pages), so I obviously won't be reading it cover to cover before the blog tour in a couple of weeks, but I look forward to dipping in at various points.

October 04, 2011

Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

In Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, Metaxas has given us a very readable biography of one of the most remarkable characters of the twentieth century. Bonhoeffer's theological impact is large and continues to be felt widely, his ecumenical connections and his role in the church struggle in Germany propelled him to prominence in the fight against Nazism, and his role in the plots to remove Hitler gave him a place in the military and political history of the Second World War. So he is certainly a man to be reckoned with. Where Metaxas's biography shines is as he seeks to convey the deep conviction and faith that animated Bonhoeffer's thinking and living. A deeply academic man, with a broad education, he also took very seriously the living and practice of his faith. And Metaxas's biography is careful to trace this stream as he moves smoothly through the various important periods in Bonhoeffer's life. Bonhoeffer biography, in fact Bonhoeffer scholarship as a whole, is contested ground these days. Stephen Haynes wrote a book in 2004, The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon, that sought to show the various ways Bonhoeffer has been interpreted (or even co-opted) by various and diverse groups, how his remembrance goes from technical theological interaction to something approaching hagiography. Simply the presence of his popular Cost of Discipleship as a frequent must-read book among young evangelicals and the popularity of his idea of "religionless Christianity" among liberal scholars shows the breadth of interest in him. On the whole, I think Metaxas has navigated the rough waters well. He doesn't seem to excessively elevate Bonhoeffer, noting for instance that his family rarely if ever went to church while he was growing up or that his father was mostly opposed to religion, but he also doesn't shy away from Bonhoeffer's evident and deep faith that drove his thinking and acting. Instead he presents Bonhoeffer as a vibrant and scholarly Christian dedicated to living a life devoted to God but also willing to wade into complex waters without seeking simplistic answers but instead seeking to faithfully live as a disciple of Jesus. I greatly enjoyed this book, and was deeply inspired again by Bonhoeffer's life and his writings, which are liberally but not overwhelmingly excerpted and quoted throughout the narrative. Metaxas tells the story of Bonhoeffer's education and travels, details his involvement with the Confessing Church and its seminary, highlights his major theological writings without focusing on them in detail, and chronicles his involvement in the plots to kill HItler. It is compelling reading, and I highly recommend it.

September 23, 2011

Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel

Thanks to Zondervan for the review copy of The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisitedand the spot on their blog tour for this great book.

Scot McKnight, professor of religious studies at North Park University, is a widely respected academic, with important books in a number of topics in New Testament studies, and he is also widely known as a popular speaker, author, and blogger. This means he is uniquely positioned to bring academic learning to bear on a wider audience, and this is exactly what he does in The King Jesus Gospel.

There are so many ways one could approach the review of a book like this, with historical arguments, exegesis, theological synthesis, and practical and contemporary application. I have chosen to make this review a summary of the key points, touch on why it resonated so much with me, and conclude with a sustained note of hope for how this book might point in a refreshing direction for gospel thinking and for evangelicalism, and of hope that evangelicalism is poised to heed his call.

McKnight's book is subtitled The Good News Revisited, and that sums up well its topic: it's all about the gospel. And his big contention is that many evangelicals today (and he particularly speaks to evangelicals, though his topic certainly has much wider relevance) focus on and proclaim the plan of salvation without realizing that the gospel is so much more. He asserts very simply (and this is sure to step on some toes) that evangelicals should really be called "soterians" because of the focus on "salvation," often thought of as making a "decision" for Christ, which is the key point of a gospel presentation. Instead, McKnight asserts that the gospel is the good news of God's faithful working in the world by sending his son Jesus to fulfill his promises, redeem his people, and defeat the powers of sin and death. This doesn't entail negating the soterian gospel, but instead affirms its core while recontextualizing it especially around the story of Jesus as King and Messiah. This is still a gospel that is radically "for us" and still deals with sin and calls for response (the need for response is one of the key elements McKnight highlights in the apostolic gospel), but it sets this in the framework of what Jesus accomplishes on the stage of history and in the plan of God. In short, the gospel is the story of Jesus as it completes the story of Israel.

Part of McKnight's expansive argument is a historical one: The Jesus story becomes abstracted into a generic story of God's love, wrath, and grace focused on Jesus' salvific effects. He highlights (without villainizing) the Reformers, both Lutheran and Reformed, showing how their creeds changed from a "gospel" focus that centers around a narration of Jesus' life and significance to a salvation focus that reorders and refocuses Christian faith around issues of personal response and human responsibility. These seeds were cultivated through the revivals and evangelists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and also by a focus on experience as a key to the Christian life.

Another key theme in McKnight's book is that the Gospels preach the gospel. It isn't uncommon today for people to wonder if the Gospels, or if Jesus himself, preached the gospel. McKnight asserts, rightly I think, that people are really asking if Jesus or the Gospels teach the "plan of salvation," and that answer isn't always so clear. But, he asserts, the Gospels are the preeminent examples of gospeling, of declaring that the story of Jesus is the culmination of the story of Israel and is good news for its hearers. This reappraisal of the Gospels and their relation to the gospel is, I think, one of the key points of the book, and one of its strongest arguments, especially as it is coupled with his reading of 1 Cor 15 as a key gospel text for Paul and with his investigation of the gospelingsermons in Acts.

Throughout the book, McKnight exhibits a loving and irenic, though earnest tone. He brings in John Piper and Jonathan Edwards for appreciative comment, just as he does N. T. Wright and Dallas Willard. Though this book may in some ways constitute a major challenge to evangelicalism and its understanding of the gospel, it is written as a hopeful critique from the inside, as opposed to an attack from without. And hand in hand with this tone goes the fact that McKnight is quick to appreciate the positive and enduring aspects of evangelical life and faith, even as he seeks to augment and complete them with greater understanding and a larger story-frame. He may make some important and even controversial assertions, but he is very careful with his denials (that is, he repeatedly reaffirms that Christ's death is for us, and that it is all about salvation; we do need to respond in faith; the gospel leads to a transformed life). At its core, the theme of salvation isn't lost at all, it is simply recontextualized within Jesus story as it completes Israel's story.

I loved McKnight's book! It answered the questions that were only partially formed in my mind. It was a book I didn't know I needed, but it put into words various themes and streams of thought that have been swirling around in my mind: everything from how Jesus' life and teaching fit into the gospel to how the Old Testament relates to the new to how discipleship relates to salvation (and how we present that). Jesus is Messiah and King, and that has profound implications for the whole world. We are called to proclaim that good news far and wide. And it is good news for salvation. 

I conclude this review with a note of hope. I have profound hope that evangelicalism is ready for this reawakening to a fuller understanding of the gospel of King Jesus. Anyone who reads in academic biblical studies knows that evangelicals have been in the forefront in investigating the relation between the two testaments, and how a full and careful understanding of the larger story of Israel is essential to reading the New Testament. Though I could name many, a few key books I might highlight are Richard Hays' work Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul is a ground-breaking study of OT echoes and allusions in Paul; Beale and Carson, eds., Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old, systematically undertakes a study of how the OT figures in the NT book by book; N. T. Wright, in many books, has looked at how Israel's story creates a key component of the NT worldview and is essential to understanding Jesus; and last, though certainly not least, Christopher Wright's magisterial The Mission of God outlines the Bible's grand story of God's mission in his world and our part in it. So many more could be named, but these few illustrate how we are coming to grips in new and fresh ways how the story of the Bible is the gospel. I also thing that evangelical culture itself is shaped in such a way that the broader apostolic gospel that McKnight outlines will fit its major contours even better than the more narrowly soterian version, even if it is a bit uncomfortable in places and feels a bit different. Evangelicalism is by nature full of Jesus-devotion, and a renewed focus on his life, death, and resurrection will be a natural fit. Evangelicalism is very intentionally a movement that highly values Scripture, and the apostolic gospel makes the whole Bible, from Gen 1 to Rev 22, come alive as a gospel story, and that is sure to reinvigorate a people who already love God's Word. And evangelicalism loves to share God's love by telling stories. I think of the great hymn, "I Love to Tell the Story," which both demonstrates that the broader story-shaped apostolic gospel has been a formative part of evangelical culture and that this same evangelical culture has many resources already at its disposal to energetically embrace the apostolic gospel that McKnight describes.

In sum, I enthusiastically commend this great little book. There is no doubt, as with any major and sweeping thesis like this one, that details will need fleshing out a bit, and various formulations and points may need honing. But I think his core argument is a very persuasive one, and I look forward to digesting it with others over the coming months in hopes that it will be instrumental in transforming my life, our churches, and our evangelical culture to be truly gospel-centered.

September 19, 2011

Michael Bird, Are You the One Who Is to Come?

This is more of a brief note than a full-scale book review because I've been a little swamped lately. But I didn't want to let this great book go by without mention. In it Bird undertakes the much contested question in Jesus Studies concerning Jesus own self-presentation: who did he say and show himself to be? And for Bird, this means investigating the intention and identity exhibited by Jesus, arguing that Jesus "saw himself in messianic categories" (29). This proceeds, after an introductory chapter, with a careful though certainly not exhaustive look at messianic expectation in Second Temple Judaism, which provides the essential background and material for what is to follow, arguing that while there was indeed a variety of expectation, or in some cases even lack there of, during this period, even amid this diversity there were ideas and trajectories that were recognizably messianic. He then looks at whether Jesus declined the messianic role, undertaking specifically a study of the Markan Messianic secret motif, as well as interacting with the idea that Jesus' messiahship was only a post-resurrection inference, concluding that Jesus acted in such a way to deliberately arouse messianic hopes. The third chapter looks at how Jesus redefined the role of messiah in his own ministry, with a focus on how Jesus understood the "Son of Man" imagery and also the royal imagery that arises out of Israel's Scripture. The fifth chapter focuses in on Jesus final week and death as keys to seeing Jesus messianism. He concludes the chapter, "I think that Jesus' deliberate attempt to act out a messianic vocation is the smoking gun that explains the messianic testimony of the early church" (158).

These careful investagations lead him to the conclusion that several patterns and themes from the Jesus tradition come together to show that "Jesus' career centered on several messianic scenarios based upon the themes of victory, temple, and enthronement, and these were related to sociopolitical circumstances of Palestine in the first century," and that Jesus saw his role as "'the man' who will be vindicated and receive a kingdom" (159). He then concludes the book with a relatively brief yet helpful constructive chapter thinking about what understanding Jesus as Messiah means for the Christian faith, looking at such themes as relation to Israel, eschatology, and christology proper.

Bird's book is relatively brief, considering the vast amount of terrain it covers, but I found it enjoyable and well argued. He has woven a number of important threads of the Gospels together to paint a coherent picture of Jesus as the Christ, and specifically of Jesus as one who took that role upon himself and acted it out. I am appreciative of his arguments and his great learning, and will certainly refer to it any time questions arise concerning Jesus and his messiahship.

September 09, 2011


Hmm. Tolerance. What a noble concept. Nick Norelli at RDWOT points out a story in the Huffington Post about the possibility of Mel Gibson producing, directing and or starring in a movie about Judas Macabee. Which is an interesting idea. But honestly I don't have much of an opinion on it either way. But what did jump out at me is this quote, which forms the conclusion to the HuffPost article:

Still, Jewish groups are unhappy with the news, with Rabbi Marvin Heir, founder and dean of Los Angeles's Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance, amongst the community leaders who voiced their displeasure in statements to The Hollywood Reporter.
"Mel Gibson has shown nothing but antagonism and disrespect to Jews. First of all there were the anti-Semitic remarks he made, his portrayal of Jews in 'The Passion of Christ,'" he said in part. "I'm talking about those Jews who did not accept Christ, they were all portrayed as idiots, buffoons or people who were tyrants, with a very unfair portrayal. He's had a long history of antagonism with Jews. Casting him as a director or perhaps as the star of Judah Maccabee is like casting Madoff to be the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, or a white supremacist as trying to portray Martin Luther King Jr. It's simply an insult to Jews."
Doesn't seem very tolerant.

August 20, 2011

New Releases Scheduled for Zondervan Academic

I had a chance to peruse Zondervan Academic's new 2011-2012 catalog this morning, and came across a number of interesting offerings.

Darrell Bock, A Theology of Luke and Acts, the second volume of their Biblical Theology of the New Testament series of which Kostenberger's John volume was the first.

Two new volumes in the ZECNT series:
David Garland, Luke (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament)
Eckhard Schnabel, Acts

Also of interest was a new Counterpoints series volume:
Four Views on the Apostle Paul, edited by Mike Bird, with contributions from Thomas Schreiner, Douglas Campbell, Luke Timothy Johnson, and Mark Nanos. This one promises to be worth a read, as it offers some broad perspectives and brings them into dialogue. (Though we have to wait until July 2012 for this one.)

Also of some interest are two volumes, For Calvinism by Michael Horton and Against Calvinism by Roger Olson. These are two respected theologians and seeing their opinions side by side should be interesting. Though it isn't clear from the catalog if they actually interact with each other, which would really make for a constructive dialogue.

Another noteworthy offering is Scot McKnight's The King Jesus Gospel.

August 19, 2011

John the Baptist and Jesus the Messiah

I have been reading Mike Bird's excellent Are You the One Who Is to Come?: The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question recently, and have thus been thinking about Jesus' identity as the Messiah. For those who don't read much academic theology, it may come as a rather jarring surprise to know that the dominant current in Jesus studies over the last century has largely rejected the idea that Jesus considered himself to be the Messiah, or at least held it with great suspicion. This is especially surprising since it is one of the dominant themes of all four gospels. But regardless, this denial of Jesus' own Messianic consciousness has been wide-spread, and is relatively close to a consensus view among many mainstream academics. Bird, in his book, sets out to make a sustained case for Jesus' Messianic role and Messianic consciousness through explicating his teaching and actions. And I've found his presentation both helpful in understanding Jesus and his aims better and also quite convincing in its overall argument that Jesus was self-consciously Messianic.

But one area that Bird doesn't address very fully (it's a relatively short 170 pages of text, so it is obviously a rather "trim" treatment of what could be otherwise voluminously investigated, so this isn't a criticism so much as a proposal) is Jesus' relationship with John the Baptist, in what seems to me to be a pretty solid piece of evidence for Jesus' Messianic consciousness. John's role as the forerunner to Jesus is prominent at the outset of all four Gospels, and his message is quite consistent as one of repentance, coming judgment, and expectation of one who will follow/come after him. Though I don't think John ever explicitly names this coming one as the Messiah, many aspects of his preaching seem to fit well with this type of expectation. And where I think this plays into Jesus' consciousness in that even though John and Jesus had close ties, Jesus possibly even starting out as one of John's disciples and certainly holding John in high esteem, there is a fundamental difference in their preaching and eschatological posture: John preached a message of expectation and preparation, while Jesus focused on a message of arrival and fulfillment. It seems clear that Jesus saw the kingdom coming decisively in his ministry and person, and this fundamental difference between Jesus and John points pretty clearly toward a self-conscious decision on Jesus part: otherwise, why wouldn't he maintain the forward-facing posture of John? Instead, Jesus ministry was typified by gathering the outcasts, healing the broken, touching the poor, and announcing God's judgment as centered around people's response to him. Where I admit weakness in my argument is on the question of the exact parameters of Jesus' self-understanding: does this demonstrate a specifically "messianic" self-consciousness, as opposed to a kingly or prophetic one. I believe it does, but I need to investigate more fully. But I'm pretty sure there is some promising areas for study here.

The IVP Dictionary of the New Testament

IVP's "black dictionary" set has rightfully met with wide acclaim. The New Testament set, which is already complete, consists of four substantial volumes, The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, The Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, The Dictionary of the Latter New Testament and Its Developments, and The Dictionary of New Testament Background. Each one of these volumes is filled with outstanding contributions by leaders in their field. Authors include the likes of Larry Hurtado, Ben Witherington, Scot McKnight, F. F. Bruce, I. Howard Marshall, Craig Evans, and Craig Keener. And the articles are substantial, usually filling numerous dictionary pages. This one-volume compend is a distillation of the four New Testament volumes into one large volume. They did this by selecting various articles from each of the four individual volumes that would best serve for a more introductory volume. This means they have included an article on each book of the New Testament, as well as what the editors determined to be the most helpful of the other articles. I have no doubt that a careful review of what was included and what was omitted would result in various quibbles about what should have been deemed essential, but I can easily say that they have created a spectacular and affordable resource. And, to my mind, one of the best features is that they have essentially left the articles in their original form. That is, they haven't created summaries or abbreviations of the individual entries, but left them as they were originally written, so the level of scholarship is still high, and only the article selection is curtailed. In all, I'm happy to enthusiastically recommend this resource. It is an outstanding place to start and at the same time a thorough and updated resource on many important topics.

Karl Marlantes, What It Is Like to Go to War

In this reflective memoir, Karl Marlantes, writer of the widely acclaimed Vietnam War book Matterhorn, takes a probing look at his own experiences of going to war, and of coming home again. Because it is more of a series of reflections than a continuous narrative, I will review it in kind, with some impressions and appreciations. First, Marlantes' book is honest, sometimes brutally so. And I think this is one of the keys that makes it work. The reader gets the distinct impression that he has carefully worked and reworked his memories until they come out as honestly and completely as possible. Even though at times this means recounting memories of his own brutalities in war. But along with these sometimes tortured memories come candid memories of his own emotions, impressions, and motivations that help bring the experience of war to life. They also guarantee that war isn't glorified, and neither is the warrior. Instead, we meet the brutality along with the valor.

A second impression one gets is that these are carefully analysed reflections. He has quite obviously held his own experiences, indeed his own person, under the light of careful scrutiny. This means the narratives and accounts he relates are thick descriptions of events, filled out with his own psychological analysis about not only what he and those around him experienced but why. And this also means he often extends his reflections beyond his own experiences, through an analysis of why, to a discussion of what we might constructively draw from them. One key example that comes up repeatedly in the book is the experience of coming home. He recounts many of the difficulties of going from a life-or-death struggle in the jungles of Vietnam, where you are dealing death in a god-like fashion, to being rapidly transported via helicopter and airplane, back to your family and friends in everyday society in a matter of hours. And that jarring transition is made without reflection, significant preparation, or guidance. He recommends greatly increasing the debriefing and processing time for returning veterans, both before and after they come home. At one point he recommends returning to the WWII practice of returning home by ship, to give the decompression process time to happen. And he says so much more about this key issue of reintegration. It alone makes the book a compelling and worthwhile read, and has given me renewed respect and concern for our current crop of returning vets.

Last, in my unsystematic collection of reflections, I would say this book is vivid. It takes you not only into the battles but into the very experiences of being there and the psyches of the soldiers involved. The horrors of war are unavoidable, and an honest account like his helps keep us from sugar coating the experience and practice of war. He also raises interesting questions regarding the modern practice of war, with drone pilots dropping death by day and having dinner with the family "after work" in the evening. The psychological effects are hard to fathom.

Marlantes writes well, with carefully crafted words and deeply reflective ideas. I hope this book gains a wide readership, as it has brought home to me a fuller understanding of the exercise of war and also a much deeper appreciation for the men and women we commission to carry out war on our society's behalf. Thanks to the Amazon Vine program and the publisher for the advanced review copy.

July 19, 2011

Rick McKinley, A Kingdom Called Desire

In A Kingdom Called Desire, pastor Rick McKinley takes a look at the life of discipleship to Jesus through the lens of desire.In a culture keyed in on finding the thing that will make us the most happy, McKinley calls us to carefully search out our desires, first because God in fact created them, and second, so we can honestly face up to the question of whether we do in fact desire God the most. And it is in the latter, the deep and true desire for God, that McKinley develops his picture of kingdom living. And part of this involves recognizing honestly the desires God has placed within us and recognizing and developing the God-given desire for him that rests beneath them. In a key chapter, "Life and Death," McKinley gets to the heart of what this transformation of desire entails, as he reflects on the need to face our own mortality, and as we do this, to learn to cling to the cross. "I wanted to cling to one part of the gospel: his death for me. I don't want to grapple with the implications of my death in him" (53). Instead of making our own lives into idols, we must come to grips with our own death in Christ, and our new life as Christ lives in us. It is then that we learn to focus on Jesus and desire him and the coming of his kingdom. And key to this new life is that we no longer act out of duty, of a need to produce the life God can appreciate or that can make us worthy before God, we are no longer seeking to do the right thing to avoid negative consequences, but are instead living into the life God has for us, and sin begins to loose its attraction for us. This transformation of life then begins to work itself out in our lives as we begin to recognize the God-given desires that are unique to us, and we see the way God has made us to be, allowing us to seek out things that are God-glorifying and are at the same time fitting to the way God has made us to be, a deep freedom to become who God made us to be in him.

McKinley's book has a nice conversational quality that keeps it from becoming either too academic or to preachy. He also takes an honest tone that gives credibility to his discussion. And I found his discussion of the concept of desire to be overall a helpful one, as I think finding our fulfillment through the realization of our own personal desires is a key idea in our culture today, but also has some potential as an entry point for reimagining our relationship to God. The danger, of course, is of making the gospel a self-help program or a path to personal fulfillment, though I think McKinley is aware of these dangers and steers mostly clear of them. I may quibble with a few points, but overall found his approach to have some merit. I especially appreciated his call to honestly investigate our desires, to see if we truly are desiring God or if we are merely paying lip service to our faith. IN all, this book has some good things to say to those who want to desire God and live for him.  

Thanks to the publisher and Vine program for the review copy.

July 16, 2011

Ben Witherington III and Ann Witherington, Papias and the Mysterious Menorah

Ben and Ann Witherington have done it again in this third installment of the Art West series of mysteries. Paipas and the Mysterious Menorah is a fast-moving archaeological thriller filled with tantalizing discoveries of "biblical" proportions. Biblical scholar and archaeologist Art West finds himself consulting on a new cache of scrolls in Turkey that seem to be from the second Christian century. And as he gets involved with the dig and the newly discovered documents, it quickly becomes evident they have unearthed something of grand significance: the home, church, and writings of the famous second-century bishop, Papias. But the plot quickly thickens as Art is trapped and nearly killed in a tunnel connected to the home. As he recovers from his near miss, Art and fellow archaeologist Marissa Okur, the supervisor of the dig and a person of growing "interest" to Art, find themselves on a whirlwind journey to both understand the significance of the Paipas house and scrolls and to understand the forces that seem to be nefariously aligning against them. Meanwhile, West's friend Kahlil el Said and his daughter Hannah have chosen a wedding gift from their antiquities shop for their mutual friend Grace Levine's upcoming wedding, but the provenance and mysterious contents of their fortuitously chosen menorah come to light, even more mystery and discovery ensue.

I greatly enjoyed the first two installments of the Witheringtons' Art West Adventures, and this third volume is certainly no different. The writing is solid, the settings are uniformly enjoyable, as are the characters. Especially valuable is the obvious familiarity with both the ancient and modern intricacies of the middle east, as well as the thorough knowledge of biblical studies and archaeology that they bring. And unlike Dan Brown's imaginative fiction concerning Christian origins, the Witheringtons' imaginings are informed and plausible, even if they occasionally indulge some of Ben's minority opinions (such as the fictional confirmation of Lazarus's identity as the "Beloved Disciple" in the fourth gospel), but none of these judgments can be argued to be misleading or distorting. And for me one of the greatest values of these great mysteries, beyond their obvious intrinsic worth as fun reads, is that they bring to life the investigation of the ancient world and its documents and dramatize the revelations that can come from the pursuit and interpretation of ancient sites and documents. So I highly recommend all of three of the extant Art West Adventures, and look forward to the unveiling of future volumes.

Special thanks to Bob Todd and Pickwick Publications for the review copy.

July 04, 2011

William Kent Krueger, Northwest Angle

Thanks to Amazon Vine and the publisher for the review copy.

In this mystery filled with wonderful texture, Cork O'Connor and his family encounter mysterious evil forces in the aftermath of an epic storm that sweeps across the Lake of the Woods. While vacationing near the Northwest Angle in northern Minnesota, the O'Connors are caught in a fierce and destructive storm which scatters them across the lake. Jenny, Cork's daughter, washes up on a small island and discovers, in the storm's aftermath, a murdered woman and her hidden infant. This sets in motion a great chase, as unknown forces seem to be after the child. The O'Connors are eventually reuinted, but the plot only thickens as they begin to put the pieces together. The murdered woman, Lily Smalldog, worked for a reclusive band of fundamentalist Christians driven by apocalyptic visions of the End Times, and though they seemed to care for her, something doesn't seem right. Meanwhile, Lily's fugitive brother is on the loose, and Cork needs to figure out how he fits into the puzzle before more people get killed.

Krueger writes like a Tony Hillerman of the North, as Cork's Ojibwe heritage and the Native American background of the mother and baby come to play a key role in the story. He also develops a number of the characters, as each wrestles with the past, as well as trying to forge a way into the future. Jenny agonizes over her relationship with her boyfriend, Aaron, with the question of children at the center of the conflict. Cork is tring to move forward after the death of his wife, and is reluctant to be caught up in more violence. And in numerous characters, as well as in the main plotline of the book, the nature and identity of God/The Great Mystery become a key element, with the certainty of the fundamentalists and their End Times vision of God occupying one extreme, Henry Meloux and Amos Powassin, two Objiwe wise men and their vision of The Great Mystery on the other end, with Mal and Rose, Cork's brother- and sister-in law, and their Catholicism occupying a more moderate voice. Cork embodies this larger theme, with his spirituality coming "as much from the teaching of men like Henry Meloux, the old Ojibwe Mide, as it did from the text of the New Testament" (181). This honest wrestling with God's nature and purposes lends an agreeable depth and reflectiveness to the mystery genre and serves to make this a great read, both as a compelling mystery and as a work of thoughtful fiction. Though I personally may not agree with the way Cork chooses to resolve some of these themes (in what appears to be an easy syncretism between Ojibwe spirituality and Christianity), I do appreciate the authenticity of the questions and the perspectives that are being portrayed, and hope the dialogue continues in his future books.

In capturing the texture of the Lake of the Woods (I had the pleasure of reading the first half of the book while on a fishing trip there), and the people who live there, as well as building deep and interesting characters, Krueger has written a great book. I look forward to reading some of his others.

June 24, 2011

Eugene Peterson, The Pastor: A Memoir

Eugene Peterson is really a pastor-poet. He is deeply reflective on his vocation and upon God, and these traits all come out in this beautifully crafted memoir. Peterson recounts his "intently haphazard" journey to becoming a pastor, as he discovered his own vocation, and further, discovered what it means to live out that vocation in the modern church. Woven together with his vocational journey are experiences as a church planter and pastor in Maryland for almost thirty years, and some of the people and situations he encountered in those years.

As I would expect from Peterson, his insight runs deep. Foundational to his own development is his discovery of reading the Bible as a conversation:

I was no longer reading words--I was listening to voices. . . . I was learning to listen carefully. (85)
Central to Peterson's story, and probably the key theme of the book, is his developing understanding of the role of a pastor amid the "religious clutter" of congregational life, struggling to understand and live it as a vocation instead of a job. He writes of "discovering my workplace fundamentally as God's workplace" (104), with a "primary responsibility . . . not to the people I serve but to the God I serve" (165). And Peterson's account of learning to live this way puts flesh on these thoughts and aspirations, as he frequently encounters the challenge to get beyond "godtalk" and religious, depersonalized language to "acquiring fluency in the vocabulary and syntax in the 'land of the living'" (242). He also includes many stories and experiences from his years of congregational ministry, including reflections on his own "badlands" years of dryness and dormancy. He also describes his transition away from pastoring to teaching, as well as his writing of the Message.

The Pastor is an eminently pleasing read, and at the same time deeply challenging. Peterson's keen insight is matched by his use of words. I am not a pastor, but I still greatly benefited from his reflection specifically on that vocation, as his fundamental insights really do apply to all followers of Jesus, if sometimes in slightly different ways. And I gained a deeper appreciation for what it means to live as the gathered people of God with lives entwined as we listen to God and are attentive to what he is doing among and around us. I highly recommend the great book. Take and read!

June 16, 2011

Deductive vs. Inductive

I've been looking over books on hermeneutics and biblical interpretation, always looking for a good book to shore up my own exegetical methods. And as I was surveying the new edition of Inductive Bible Study: A Comprehensive Guide to the Practice of Hermeneutics, I got to thinking about the basic difference between inductive and deductive reasoning. Which further got me reflecting on my own seeming inability to ever keep these two concepts straight. So I went to wikipedia for a little info (always with a critical eye, of course), and read this enlightening statement at the end of the article on deductive reasoning, under the heading Uses in Popular Culture:

The fictional detective Sherlock Holmes is described as using deductive reasoning to solve his mysteries, however this is an error on the part of the author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock's methods can more properly be described as a form of inductive reasoning.

It was like a light dawned. I loved Sherlock Holmes mysteries growing up, and, knowing Doyle described his methods as "deductive," it has always served, whether subconsciously or consciously, as one of my prime examples of deduction. But in fact, it's not. No wonder I was perpetually confused. Elementary, my dear Doyle!

June 14, 2011

New Eerdmans Catalog Out

Eerdmans announced on their Facebook page today that their new catalog is out. After a quick perusal, I'm sad to say that there are no forthcoming commentaries in any of their three major series (NIGTC, NICOT/NICNT, or Pillar). There is a new Philippians commentary out from Ben Witherington which interests me, but I was holding out hope that maybe the new volume on Galatians reportedly to be written by David deSilva or some other new commentary offering would be in order. They have released a number of great new commentaries recently, so maybe I was just being greedy in hoping for more. Regardless, there are also a few interesting books on offer, including one by David Bently Hart on American conservatism that looks intriguing. I look forward to digging more slowly through their fall offerings.

June 02, 2011

Gordon Fee on Spirit-gifting and women

Michael Gorman links to an article about Gordon Fee in Charisma magazine. I have long been impressed by Fee's thorough and insightful exegesis, as well as his very good work on hermeneutics, so I read this article with interest. And he has written some of my favorite books, Pauls Letter to the Philippians (New International Commentary on the New Testament), God's Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul, and Pauline Christology: An Exegetical-Theological Study. Fee is an egalitarian, and he speaks about his convictions in some very insightful terms:

But he is adamant: God does gift women for ministry.

“It’s a given,” he says. “The real question is, Which comes first, gender or gifting? What [opponents of women in ministry] are trying to tell me is that gender comes above gifting. How can that be? The Spirit gives the gifting. If a woman stands and prophesies by the Spirit, and men are present, does the Spirit not speak to them? Come on! How dumb can you get?”

His advocacy, Fee says, is on behalf of the Holy Spirit rather than women. “The Spirit is gifting women,” he says, “but many evangelicals are not prepared to adjust because of the ‘box’ they’re in.

Some food for thought, at least.

May 28, 2011

Kenneth Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament

If you have watched any Nova or National Geographic specials on pretty much any facet of the Old Testament over the past few years, it very quickly becomes obvious that a rather stark historical minimalism is dominant in the scholarly world, or at least the scholarly world they feature. And this could be dismissed as just media bias, but a similar minimalism is also quite prominent in the OT academic circles and is evidenced in many introductory OT textbook. So what in the OT is historical? The Bible certainly treats the major characters and events in the OT as historical, and it builds its understanding of God and his character from God's acts in history (God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of the exodus). So if the OT was entirely made-up history, a fictional construct from after the exile to give a rag-tag band of people an identity, that would have pretty profound implications for how we understand God and how we understand the Bible.

K. A. Kitchen, an emeritus professor of Egyptology at Liverpool University, takes these questions head on, as he systematically looks at the historicity and plausibility of the OT writings in their historical contexts. The book is a detailed era-by-era investigation into the Biblical text (sometimes point out that what we assume the Bible says isn't actually what it reports), cultural settings, archaeological discoveries, and documentary and inscriptional evidence from the Levant and the surrounding world, in order to see whether the Bible's historical record fits with, and often intersects with, the history as it can be understood from outside the Bible.

The book is filled with detail. It is 500 pages of discussion of the evidence and the various approaches to its reconstruction along with careful evaluation of how the historical and archaeological data coheres with the Bible, along with another 150 pages of notes, diagrams, and indices. That's all to say, he deals with all of the major issues that arise out of this wide-ranging subject matter. This mountain of detail and discussion is made easily navigable by its good organization, helpful use of charts, and its concise summaries at the end of each chapter.

Kitchen's careful conclusion is that the minimalism so prevalent in the academy and in popular scholarship today is merely a relic of past assumptions now eclipsed by the evidence. He concludes his investigation of whether the Biblical writings were composed entirely within the postexilic period (400–200 B.C.) or whether they reflect their purported historical settings by asserting, with regard to the divided monarchy, exile, and return, that the Bible's accounts of these periods "show a very high level of direct correlation (where adequate data exists) and of reliability." And, concluding on what can be said of the historicity of the accounts before the united monarchy, when direct evidence is more difficult to find, that "the Hebrew founders bear the marks of reality and of a definite period." Thus, he concludes that the Bible's historical accounts make sense in the times that they purport to represent, and don't give evidence of a postexilic invention so popular in academic circles. I must also say that while Kitchen's study is indeed detailed, it is also entertaining, as he shows a warm and sometimes scathing humor as he looks at historical evidence or at rival historical reconstructions. The book was enjoyable to read, and is a very helpful push back against the minimalism that can begin to erode Biblical faith. It certainly isn't the last word on any of these matters, but it is an important and substantial tome that will need to be reckoned with. And if you're not ambitious enough to dig in to all of the data, selective reading of especially important topics and careful reading of all of the introductory and summary materials makes for a good overview of the relevant materials.

May 24, 2011

Alister McGrath, The Passionate Intellect

I loved this book. Alister McGrath is one of the most distinguished scholars in the evangelical world. He spent 25 years teaching historical and systematic theology at Oxford University and is now head of the Centre for Theology, Religion & Culture at King's College, London. He also holds Doctorates from Oxford in both historical theology and molecular biophysics. And he has also written broadly at both an academic and more popular level, focusing especially on historical theology, the interplay of science and theology, and most recently of a Christian response to the New Atheism of Richard Dawkins and others. This all means he is ideally placed to comment in this present book on the importance of theological thinking and the importance of careful consciousness of the traditions of the past as living voices for the church today. The first half of the book is a series of investigations into the sources and methods of theology and an application of these methods to a couple of important theological questions--the role of ambiguity in faith, a Christian understanding of nature, and the role of apologetics and its relation to theology. The second half of the book is a series of essays engaging with important issues in our current culture from a historically oriented theological perspective. These essays focus on two main issues, the proper relation between science and theology and the (closely related) possibility of a robust Christian response to the new athiesm of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. And it is here that this book especially shines. McGrath's readable and lucid descriptions of how science and theology may be fruitfully related are outstanding and point in far more fruitful directions than are often assumed to be possible when the relationship is thought to be one of conflict instead of "reasonance" as McGrath describes it.

This book is a series of lectures given in 2008-9. This gives them a timely feel, as he addresses contemporary issues, and it also give the book a nice conversational and approachable tone. But, unlike many volumes of lectures, these have been been carefully reworked so they cohere nicely and smoothly and are well-annotated with relevant citations. This book demonstrates again McGrath's amazingly wide reading across historical and contemporary theology, philosophy, the natural sciences, sociology and literature, though he wears this learning lightly. His prose is always clear, and he makes his points efficiently. In all, I really loved this book. It was enjoyable to read and reinvigorated my passion for theology, even as it presented helpful directions for cultural engagement in our postmodern and post-Christian world.

May 19, 2011

Glen Packiam, Lucky

In Lucky, Glenn Packiam, a pastor at New Life Church in Colorado Springs and a songwriter, takes a fresh look at the good news of the coming of God's kingdom through an exploration of the four beatitudes of Luke 6. His reflection, as the title makes plain, centers around rethinking the familiar (and probably too-familiar) term "blessed," instead asserting that those to whom the kingdom comes are "lucky" (he gets some impetus for this move from Eugene Peterson's effective use of the term in the Message). He nuances the term nicely, to point out that though it may have the connotations of a random chance occurrence, it also caries the sense in modern usage of one who is fortunate, one for whom good things have happened. And it makes for a powerful restatement of the beatitudes that helps to convey their sense.

So what is the sense of the beatitudes? Packiam briefly explores some of the historical approaches to what this list signifies, but spends the bulk of his time crafting an approach to the four beatitudes in Luke that focuses both on the sense in which Jesus is declaring that the unlikely and unlucky people described by them (the poor, the hungry, the mourning, the rejected) have become lucky precisely in the fact that the kingdom has come, and in the sense in which this goes beyond just the physical conditions described to the conditions of heart that these conditions may help to create. That means he constantly keeps his exposition tied to the historical setting of Jesus' address even as he allows for a fuller spiritualized sense that doesn't leave behind the concrete setting but works it out more fully.

I really enjoyed Packiam's approach to the beatitudes, and I think it does a great job of giving a readable and informed approach to this well-known but often-misunderstood passage of Scripture. He uses the metaphor of "luck" to great effect to explore the nature of the kingdom of God and its application in our lives, both as recipients of this overwhelming luck and as bearers of God's luck to an unlucky world. I have come to recognize afresh that I am lucky because of God's great work in Jesus Christ, and further, that I'm called to participate in spreading that luck to the world. I expect I will refer back to this book frequently when thinking about the kingdom of God or the beatitudes, and I also think the metaphor of "luck" is pregnant with possibilities for translating the Christian message to an unlucky world.

Thanks to Amazon's Vine Program and the publisher for the review copy.