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.

May 17, 2011

E-readers, note-taking, and why I'm still a non-adopter

Over at Jesus Creed, Scot McKnight discusses a report of a University of Washington study regarding e-readers and higher education. One of the big results of the study is basically to show that an e-reader like a Kindle as some setbacks for study and learning. I found this article enlightening because it more or less reinforces my main reluctance to make the transition to e-books. I love to underline and mark up book as I read, and in fact that's one of the key ways I learn. Being able to flip through a chapter I'm in the middle of and scan the underlined or annotated sections helps me pick up an argument when I come back to a book, and being able to review all of these markings when I'm done reading helps me to review a book adequately. That's not even to mention the usefulness of these markings and annotations months or years later when I'm looking for an citation or a thought from a past reading. And I know that there are some bookmarking and notetaking capabilities built into most e-readers. But they can't replace underlining, marginal notes, arrows, etc. So, so far, I'm a non-adopter. And there are other reasons I'm not adopting on top of the mark-up reasons. One, my life doesn't need any more screen time, it needs less. Two, I love books, the feel of the binding, the turn of the pages, the movement of the bookmark through the book. And I love libraries! A kindle or nook on a shelf doesn't call to mind great ideas, exciting stories, or unexplored countries like a room full of beautiful bindings. And last, there is cost. I'm not interested in shelling out a rather sizable sum just for a reader, before paying for books, which I then only license instead of own. Instead I pinch pennies and buy used books.

The one way I can see using an e-reader is basically like a mass-market paperback, a way to read fiction that is purely for fun. But it's a pretty expensive vehicle for that. I'm still intrigued by e-readers, and watch the technology and its effect on the publishing industry with interest, but I'm not much closer to making the leap myself.