November 09, 2012

A Moment of Witness

As seems to be the case with every election cycle, we have just survived another contentious contest. I've been prompted over the last couple of days to think Christianly about the Christian life, political engagement, and particularly about the Christian stance regarding issues of homosexuality as a test-case and refining fire for these thoughts, or maybe more importantly, as a human face and immediate application of them. So what does it meant to be a Christian in a democracy (of course more properly, for us Americans, a presidential republic)? How does our Christianity inform our political engagement, and how is this related to our larger Christian witness in the world?

I wonder if Christians in the United States (I speak as an American, and that is thus where my situation gives me the best fodder for reflection) is approaching a watershed moment in terms of cultural engagement. That is, I wonder if the veneer of "Christendom" is beginning to fall (or well on its way to falling) away. We live, whether we like it or not, in a pluralistic country. Yes, Christian principles informed our founding to a greater or lesser extent, an interesting discussion I'd rather not belabor here because I am not entirely sure it's relevant. But, our country is made up of people from many cultural and religious perspectives. What does it mean to be a Christian in the public square in that type of setting. 

First, let me say that I think this is a genuine opportunity for Christianity and for Christians. I read a great blog post this morning by New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado in which he speaks of the importance of the second century for the development of Christianity. In reflecting on the development of Christian theology in this somewhat neglected century, and interacting with a book by Eric Osborne, he quotes, “This is one of those brief periods of human invention when earlier concepts become museum pieces.  Any such expansions requires at least four things:  some thinkers to think, new resources to use, questions to answer, and an opposition to challenge.” (p. 1) “Fortunately for posterity, Christian apologists [the second-century figures he studies] had to argue for their lives.” (p. 3)

I feel that we are approaching a place where Christians will need to argue for their legitimacy, if not their lives. Why is thinking about things in a biblical or Christian way a legitimate way of thinking? Does it have a legitimate place in a university setting? And, of course, this likewise comes to a head in politics: are Christian perspectives valuable or legitimate in political discourse? Gone are the days (if they ever truly existed) of saying that a law or policy is biblical and thus legitimate solely on those grounds. But, though not necessarily an "easier" context than that of the say fifty years past, I think this could provide a genuine opportunity for witness for Christians. For thinking Christianly about politics does bear startling fruit, and I think it does so particularly in a liberal democracy. For a Christian perspective values and loves the other, even those with whom we disagree (they aren't the enemy to be destroyed), and seeks the benefit of those in need and justice for the oppressed (even at great expense to oneself). These values could shine brightly in the face of the tyranny of the majority and the politics of self-interest. But Christianity also takes into full account the sinfulness of all people, those of "my" party as well as of "their" party. That can be a gateway to (if not a mandate for) genuine humility and substantive cooperative engagement not easily arrived at by other philosophical means. And exhibiting these Christian perspectives in the public square could be both beneficial for the being of the state but also a genuine opportunity for the church to let the light of Christ "shine before others, that they may see [our] good deeds and glorify [our] Father in heaven" (Mt. 5:16). 

So what of the Christian engagement with issues of homosexuality? I admit right up front, I'm reluctant to wade into these waters because so much needs to be said. And what follows is merely a sketch, so please take it as such. It seems every word requires nuance. But I think there are some larger contours that can be enumerated in a fruitful way, and that's what I'm trying for here. 

In preparation (remember what I said about nuance), I think there are numerous layers or facets making up the Christian engagement with issues of homosexuality, and I'd like to enumerate four of them here (there may be more). First, there is the interpersonal, direct engagement. How does an individual Christian or a body of believers treat a person who is a practicing homosexual? Second, or maybe part of the first, how does an individual or a church treat a fellow Christian who is a practicing homosexual? Third, how does a church respond to homosexual practice or homosexuality with regard to blessing of marriages and ordination of individuals for church leadership? And fourth, how do Christians engage with the wider culture on a political and cultural level about these questions? 

Even enumerating the list is hard, because there is interrelation between the facets. But I think understanding that there may be different responses at the different levels is absolutely essential to forming a robust Christian response. I don't want to sketch responses at each of the levels I've outlined, but instead want to outline an arc of engagement at three different levels, which I'll roughly construe as the interpersonal, the ecclesial, and the political. First, the interpersonal. Christianity has a lot to say about sin and the holiness of God, but the first word it speaks to the world is one of love, of invitation. For Christianity is first and foremost a live lived in Christ. I think Christians too often speak judgment first, and often judgment only, losing entirely the love of neighbor that is so fundamental to how a Christian embodies the image of Christ in the world. And in the engagement with supporters of homosexual practice and a homosexual way of life, this particular deficiency far too often comes to the front. We are all sinners, and those of us in Christ are redeemed sinners by the grace of God, a grace for which we are now ambassadors to a sinful, hurting, and hostile world. That's a gigantic truth, and one that Christians need to live into fully and enthusiastically. It certainly doesn't say everything that can or needs to be said regarding homosexual practice, but it needs, far more often, to be the place to start. Those practicing or advocating a homosexual existence should feel first and foremost the love of God in Christ flowing through us. We are called to love our neighbors as our selves, and the parable of the good Samaritan is particularly apt here. 

Second, there's the ecclesial aspect, particularly embodied in questions of blessing of unions and ordination. And it is here in particular that I hold more ground in common with traditionalists, in that these are arenas in which the church can and should advocate for strict and unfaltering adherence to God's will for human beings as we best understand it based on the Bible. I believe, at this point in my life and study and biblical engagement, that the church should not be blessing homosexual unions or ordaining practicing homosexuals as clergy. This isn't the post in which to delve further into that question, but I think and hope that stating a rather simple and traditional position here can help illumine how that position may differ (or maybe better, play out differently) in the ecclesial realm from that of the interpersonal and political realms.

So finally, on to the political realm, and what stimulated this overlong reflection in the first place. If we as Christians believe that God's will and desire for marriage is that it be between a man and a woman, and that sexual relations are meant to be within that man-woman bond, how would and should that relate to engagement in the arena of politics. I would like to assert, somewhat provisionally, that I suspect the best and most fruitful approach for the church is to support (or at the very least, not oppose) the creation of a civil union for homosexual couples. I say "suspect" because I am thoroughly aware that this is a thorny issue, fraught with wide implications. But I still suspect this is the best and most faithful route. 

One key barrier that I think stands in the way for many Christians is the felt need to have laws reflect God's revealed will and intent for all people. In short, the need to legislate morality. Obviously, the state is functioning best when its laws reflect the good and true and just, and when they proscribe the unjust, the harmful, and the false. But what does pursuing theses things in a pluralist society mean? I think it is essential that Christians come to understand that sometimes it is expedient and maybe even beneficial to seek to legislate something that is a good but yet falls short of the highest good (that being God's intent for all humanity on a particular issue). There are a few reasons for this. First is that states should be rights-honoring; that is, they should not harm their citizens. And I think this will often mean there will be areas where citizens have the right to make certain choices, and that empowering the state to remove those choices may be a greater harm than allowing (and thereby tacitly approving) what we understand to be detrimental choices. Obviously, this line of reasoning has a point at which it breaks down, in that there is a point at which the broad consequences of certain detrimental choices are viewed by society as being so harmful to the common good that the society must actively proscribe them and enforce that ban, and this is just where laws come in. But we must understand that we don't legislate all morality even as we seek to legislate morally. Second, I don't think marriage is particularly the purview of the state. The state benefits from strong family structures and stable family bonds, and thus has a vested interest (for the common good) of encouraging marriage, but the state does not confer a right to marry, nor does it truly enact a marriage (yes, it does so in a legal sense, in that it approves the conferral of certain civil benefits, but I would understand marriage first to be a religious institution, enacted before God in the presence of the church [this isn't meant to be a screed against non-church weddings--far from it; nor am I questioning the legitimacy of marriages performed by a civil magistrate without the presence of clergy; things may take place in God's presence no matter where they are, but I still want to maintain some type of distinction for the sake of my discussion here]). So I think the status of a particular union in the eyes of the state is different than in the eyes of the church (see the point above regarding the ecclesial aspect). Thus, there may in fact be reasons where thinking about the political and civil question regarding same-sex marriage differently than when we frame the question inside the confines of the church. 

I am quite sure these reflections don't say the last word on what it means to act Christianly in the public sphere, nor have I said all that could and should be said regarding the issues around and responses to homosexual practice and same-sex unions inside or outside the church. But I hope some of these developing reflections may prove to be a catalyst, for myself and others, to think afresh about what it means to be a faithful disciple of Christ in our time and place. 

November 03, 2012

Nicholas Wolterstorff, The Mighty and the Almighty

This book engages the important question of how God's authority is related to the authority of the state (2). It is a extended reflection in political theology, that is, thinking in a Christian way about the nature and authority of the state. The book comes out of lectures given by Wolterstorff in 1998, but, interestingly, he says he wasn't happy with the lectures in the form he delivered them (vi), so he set the material aside and returned to it occasionally over the intervening fourteen years, in the course of his other work, arriving at the product produced in this book. The book still retains much of the lecture "feel," in its direct tone and light annotation, but this isn't a deficit, and in fact makes what may otherwise have been overly technical accessible to the interested reader.

Wolterstorff's reflections are built on the character of Polycarp, one of Christianity's early martyrs, who exhibited an almost paradoxical allegiance to Jesus Christ and a recognition of the state. Out of Polycarp's situation, Wolterstorff recognizes two key dualities: "the duality of the authority of the state mediating the authority of God, and the duality of Christians being under the authority of both church and state." It is the exploration of these dualities that occupies the remainder of the book.

After looking at two possible objections to his framing of the situation (one from Yoder and one based on the "two-cities" understanding), he goes on to explore the nature of authority, of government, and of the specific authority to govern. These provide the reader with helpful summaries of what are obviously complex issues, laying important groundwork for the exposition to come. And after investigating Calvin's understanding of the relationship of God's authority and that of the state, he moves on to look at Romans 13, one of the key texts for Christian reflection on the stage.

The chapter on Paul really forms the heart of the book, both because of the historical prominence of this chapter in past Christian thought and because of the fruitfulness of his rereading of the passage. Without going into the details, two key points go together. This first is that most interpreters have looked at the passage and seen the first verse, emphasizing government's God-given authority, as the key to interpretation, whereas Wolterstorff asserts (not without warrant, I think) that verses four and five, which detail more specifically what government is and why it has been so authorized by God (emphasizing government's role as God's agent to curb wrongdoing). He asserts, "With verse 4 in mind, our immediate thought is that they [governing authorities] are not just instituted, period, full stop. . . . we know that they are instituted to do something, appointed to do something" (94, emphasis original). This interpretation is certainly not new, but what is more novel is that, in his argument, this dovetails with an earlier point regarding the nature of authority, where he differentiated between positional authority (that is, actions one possesses the power to enact by virtue of a position of authority) and performance authority (that is, actions that one has been given permission to undertake; 48). While many Christian interpreters have assumed something resembling the first understanding of authority when looking at Romans 13, Wolterstorff asserts that Paul has in mind the latter. This key interpretive move is at the heart of his argument. And he takes his conclusion one important step further. He asserts that the outline of government in Romans 13 would thus imply that government is to be a rights-honoring institution, since transgressing rights is in fact injustice and governments are tasked with punishing, not perpetrating, injustice. This leads him down a path he didn't fully expect at the outset of his own work: "I found a case for the liberal democratic state gradually emerging—albeit for a less individualistic understanding of the liberal democratic state than is common" (5).

 Wolterstorff's clearly written book does an outstanding job of formulating (or at least pointing toward) a theology of government, one that has potential to bear much fruit. Readers interested in questions of politics and theology will do well to take this work into account. Likewise, those interested in Pauline theology or Romans will likewise benefit from engaging with his reading of Romans 13. The book is scholarly, but also concise and direct, making it manageable for the interested general reader, and I hope many pick it up. I look forward to engaging more with his thoughtful writing, for I think it can illuminate why conflicts between religious and political spheres do in fact occur, and help us navigate a path through them that is true to the nature of each, all the while being ultimately faithful to the sovereign Lord who holds our full and ultimate allegiance.

Thanks to Cambridge University Press and the Amazon Vine program for the review copy of this book.

October 15, 2012

The Bible and the authority of the state

I'm reading an outstanding book on political theology by Nicholas Wolterstorff, The Might and the Almighty. And it has stimulated some fascinating lines of thought. I look forward to reviewing the book once I'm finished, but I wanted to wrestle with one nascent idea "out loud," as it were. A perpetual question for Christians in America (and the world, for that matter) today, is how the church should relate to the state, a question that becomes particularly acute in questions relating to morals. But in order to constructively engage any particular question, I think there needs to be some type of underlying understanding of just what the state is and what is role is. Wolterstorff does a great job of laying that out, emphasizing the state's role in curbing wrongdoing and promoting justice, a position built on Paul's argument in Romans 13.

But what does that mean in practice. What "wrongdoing" should be curbed? Does anything "wrong" constitute wrongdoing? One helpful thing Wolterstorff emphasizes is that the state is a rights-limited institution, based on the natural rights of individuals (and social organizations) within the state, and based on its own task of curbing wrongdoing and therefore not perpetrating wrongdoing itself.

My own reflection at this particular moment is this. Paul talks of the state as being tasked with curbing wrongdoing (Rom 13). Is there a sense in which this is similar in some (but certainly not all) was to the role God appointed for the Mosaic law: that is, to curb sin and organize society until the coming of the fullness of time (though for the Mosaic law, that time came with Christ, for the state as an institution, that time will come with the fullness of the kingdom). A particular component of the parallel I'm reflecting on is Jesus's candid assertion in Matthew 19 that the law of Moses allowed divorce because of hardness of heart. That is, there is a pragmatic element to the law that is meant to curb injustice while not always enshrining the full and highest good as a positive mandate. That doesn't mean that there isn't a higher good out there that can be identified, but maybe there are places for the protection of a lesser good (still a good but not the highest good) on account of pragmatic considerations. I wonder if thinking of the role of the state this way would enable Christians to both hold to the existence and value of the highest good, the good embodied in Jesus Christ and outlined in the Bible, while also advocating for a lesser and more pragmatic good on account of the sinfulness of humanity.

There are so many other facets to consider: the role of pluralism in a liberal democracy, the moral foundation for the making of laws, and the extent of the natural rights of citizens, to name but a few. But maybe Matthew 19 might help nudge Christians in a more constructive direction. Because in some fundamental sense, we do legislate morality, but I think there is also a live question of to what extent we do so.

September 11, 2012

Matthew Malcolm's new 1 Cor book

My cyber-acquaintance Matthew Malcolm is hosting a continent-inclusive book giveaway to celebrate the publication of his new "visual and literary source commentary" on 1 Corinthians. I've greatly enjoyed his deeply reflective posts on 1 Corinthians (and other things) over the past few years and look forward to delving into this unique resource.

July 29, 2012

Richard Longenecker, Introducing Romans

Longenecker provides an informative and in-depth survey of the major background issues to the study of Romans. It is basically composed of the material you'd expect to find in the intro of a commentary, but at greater depth. There is some repetition between the chapters, and some of the book could have been tightened up through more smoothly relating the various chapters to one another. It also seemed that his discussion interacted most with sources that were at least a decade or more old (at one point he refers to an article from 1997 as "recent"), though he does selectively draw on some recent studies. But his conclusions are well-reasoned and balanced. There isn't much that is earth-shattering. But I found one of his foundational insights rather fruitful. In his discussion of the recipients, he surveys Roman Christianity, and one of the assertions he makes is that, much like the Judaism in that city, the Roman Christians would have had a close connection with Jerusalem. This is fruitful because it means that it would not have only been ethnic Jews who may have held the law in high regard and may have held a key place for it in the plan of salvation. This insight comes up in a number of chapters and helps reread some of the evidence for what Romans is about in a fresh light. There is definitely much of benefit here, and it certainly whets the appetite for the full commentary (to which he defers discussions repeatedly). In all, a nice volume by a wise scholar.

June 22, 2012

On believing and being a Christian, or reflecting on one of the "hard" parts of the creed

I love to read blogs, at least most of the time, and I enjoy the academic aspects of the Christian faith: the questions of authorship of the various documents of the Bible, the theology the various authors exhibit, the scope and content of the gospel message first preached and passed down by the apostles, and it goes on and on. But every once in a while, I'm jarred by a post, jarred back to what it is all about. And a beautiful post by theologian Ben Myers over at Faith and Theology did that for me today. I'll get out of the way now and just say simply, "read it."

Striving to become young, and grateful to be found in Christ,

May 22, 2012

John Stott, Christian Mission

In 1975 John Stott published a little book, Christian Mission in the Modern World: What the Church Should Be Doing Now! I have heard it mentioned a time or two, and finally have taken the time to read through it, and I must say that it was well worth it. This is an outstanding little book, and is vintage Stott. I include the date because in some ways, the book reflects its setting. But this is largely in the context of ecumenical theology at that point in time, relatively shortly on the heels of the first Lusaunne meetings and also some years into the growth and development of the WCC. Stott references many theologians and church leaders with whom I wasn't familiar. But at the same time, Stott's words are breathtakingly prescient in our world. It is amazing how the trends he discusses from his own day continue on down to ours, and his wise and biblical judgments still warrant an attentive hearing.

The book is focused on the discussion of five words: mission, evangelism, dialogue, salvation, conversion. And in these discussions, which build off of one another, Stott paints a deep and integrated picture of what the gospel is and what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. A number of themes continually emerge, such as the centrality of Jesus Christ and the good news that reports the events of his life, death, and resurrection; the inseparability of the spiritual and social facets of the gospel message; the need for authentic and humanizing interactions with others, and particularly with those of other faiths; and the all-encompassing nature of the gospel for life. Stott's discussions of the encounter between Christians and those of other faiths strikes (in my mind) just the right balance between sympathetic listening and authentic speaking that accounts both for the significance and content of the gospel as well as for the value of the person to whom we speak. He likewise untangles the often distorted problem of the relation of evangelism to social action with great skill, asserting that "each is an end in itself" that should demonstrate an "unfeigned love" (27). He anchors this in Jesus and his ministry, with particular attention to the Great Commission and the Great Commandment (you really need to read the whole chapter to appreciate the wise course he plots).

In all, this short book is a gem. It is filled with wise and compelling words that still need to be heard in our churches today.

May 18, 2012

A little exegetical humor

I was glancing over Larry Hurtado's blog this morning and came upon this rather amusing quote:

Well, another dreadful “thought for today” on Radio 4 this a.m., this one ostensibly taking as its pre-text (and I use the word advisedly) that today is Ascension Day, and opining that Jesus’ Ascension (portrayed solely in Luke-Acts in the NT) means that Jesus has deaked out and we’re on our own!  So, children, the moral lesson is that we should just face up to it and learn to cope.  Hmm. Well, just goes to show you what the exegetical equivalent of a drive-by-shooting can produce!

I was trying to decide whether I'm going to add Hurtado's blog feed to my reader, and I've quickly decided that yes, I will.

May 15, 2012

A beautiful piece on an underappreciatedly beautiful life

I was blown away by this beautiful piece by George F. Will (HT: Scot McKnight). My favorite line, which I had to read at least two or three times to fully appreciate, comes about half-way through: "Judging by Jon, the world would be improved by more people with Down syndrome, who are quite nice, as humans go." Wow! There's some counter-cultural food for thought. Do read it all.

When Jonathan Frederick Will was born 40 years ago — on May 4, 1972, his father’s 31st birthday — the life expectancy for people with Down syndrome was about 20 years. That is understandable.
The day after Jon was born, a doctor told Jon’s parents that the first question for them was whether they intended to take Jon home from the hospital. Nonplussed, they said they thought that is what parents do with newborns. Not doing so was, however, still considered an acceptable choice for parents who might prefer to institutionalize or put up for adoption children thought to have necessarily bleak futures. Whether warehoused or just allowed to languish from lack of stimulation and attention, people with Down syndrome, not given early and continuing interventions, were generally thought to be incapable of living well, and hence usually did not live as long as they could have.
Down syndrome is a congenital condition resulting from a chromosomal defect — an extra 21st chromosome. It causes varying degrees of mental retardation and some physical abnormalities, including small stature, a single crease across the center of the palms, flatness of the back of the head, a configuration of the tongue that impedes articulation, and a slight upward slant of the eyes. In 1972, people with Down syndrome were still commonly called Mongoloids.
Now they are called American citizens, about 400,000 of them, and their life expectancy is 60. Much has improved. There has, however, been moral regression as well.
Jon was born just 19 years after James Watson and Francis Crick published their discoveries concerning the structure of DNA, discoveries that would enhance understanding of the structure of Jon, whose every cell is imprinted with Down syndrome. Jon was born just as prenatal genetic testing, which can detect Down syndrome, was becoming common. And Jon was born eight months before Roe v. Wadeinaugurated this era of the casual destruction of pre-born babies.
This era has coincided, not just coincidentally, with the full, garish flowering of the baby boomers’ vast sense of entitlement, which encompasses an entitlement to exemption from nature’s mishaps, and to a perfect baby. So today science enables what the ethos ratifies, the choice of killing children with Down syndrome before birth. That is what happens to 90 percent of those whose parents receive a Down syndrome diagnosis through prenatal testing.
Which is unfortunate, and not just for them. Judging by Jon, the world would be improved by more people with Down syndrome, who are quite nice, as humans go. It is said we are all born brave, trusting and greedy, and remain greedy. People with Down syndrome must remain brave in order to navigate society’s complexities. They have no choice but to be trusting because, with limited understanding, and limited abilities to communicate misunderstanding, they, like Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” always depend on the kindness of strangers. Judging by Jon’s experience, they almost always receive it.
Two things that have enhanced Jon’s life are the Washington subway system, which opened in 1976, and the Washington Nationals baseball team, which arrived in 2005. He navigates the subway expertly, riding it to the Nationals ballpark, where he enters the clubhouse a few hours before game time and does a chore or two. The players, who have climbed to the pinnacle of a steep athletic pyramid, know that although hard work got them there, they have extraordinary aptitudes because they are winners of life’s lottery. Major leaguers, all of whom understand what it is to be gifted, have been uniformly and extraordinarily welcoming to Jon, who is not.
Except he is, in a way. He has the gift of serenity, in this sense:
The eldest of four siblings, he has seen two brothers and a sister surpass him in size, and acquire cars and college educations. He, however, with an underdeveloped entitlement mentality, has been equable about life’s sometimes careless allocation of equity. Perhaps this is partly because, given the nature of Down syndrome, neither he nor his parents have any tormenting sense of what might have been. Down syndrome did not alter the trajectory of his life; Jon was Jon from conception on.
This year Jon will spend his birthday where every year he spends 81 spring, summer and autumn days and evenings, at Nationals Park, in his seat behind the home team’s dugout. The Phillies will be in town, and Jon will be wishing them ruination, just another man, beer in hand, among equals in the republic of baseball.

A snapshot of the value of Biblioblogs

I am a rather infrequent blog author, mostly restricting my posts to book reviews and some occasional reflections. But I am also a blog reader. I read this morning an interesting piece from Ben Witherington on his blog, an interview between Ben and Dr. James Charlesworth of Princeton regarding the Taploit Tomb discoveries and the contested readings of the inscriptions:

What is fun is that, not only is this a timely interaction between two eminent scholars, but in the comments, Dr. Mark Goodacre, Dr. Richard Bauckham, and Dr. Robert Cargill respond. It's fascinating to see interaction between such distinguished scholars in real time.

April 30, 2012

Discussion of Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam

I read Peter Enns' interesting and provocative The Evolution of Adam a couple months ago. It has a lot of interesting things to say about the important issue of how the science-and-religion dialogues (and the related issue of the rise of critical biblical scholarship) of the past century and a half (and beyond) come to an interesting head in the discussion of the historicity of Adam and Eve. Really, in my opinion, this is one of the key points at which, with regard to the larger science-and-theology dialogue, the rubber meets the road, so to speak. I found his book interesting, though not all-together satisfying. But others are engaging Enns as well.

Jamie K. A. Smith has recently published a review of Enns focused largely on methodology, specifically pressing him on what he sees as a "flattening" of Scripture by functionally excluding divine authorship. J. R. Daniel Kirk responds to Smith's review, and in the comments of his critique, Jamie Smith and also Alan Jacobs enter with some push-back. It makes for an informative conversation about the role divine authorship plays as we look at difficult interpretive issues in Scripture. Do read, and do read Enns's book, critically.

April 26, 2012

Scot McKnight's announcement, pt. 2

After yesterday announcing he was leaving North Park, today Scot has announced that he is taking a post at Northern Seminary. May his ministry there be blessed, and may he keep writing outstanding books.

April 25, 2012

Scot McKnight leaving North Park

Scot McKnight, whose books I have greatly appreciated and whose voice is a valuable one in evangelicalism today, has announced today that he is leaving North Park University. We have to wait until tomorrow to hear his destination. But this first announcement warranted some mention.

April 03, 2012

P. D. James, Devices and Desires

This twenty-year-old novel proves once again that P. D. James is truly a master of the mystery genre. In this installment of the Adam Dalgliesh mystery series, her protagonist finds himself on England's sparsely populated headlands to attend to matters of his deceased aunt's estate. Meanwhile England's latest serial killer is on the loose. And his latest victim is an employee at the near-by nuclear power plant that dominates the headland. Though Dalgliesh is off-duty while out in the country, his proximity to events, and his discovery of what seems like the latest victim while walking along the beach involves him in the mysterious events.

This book, like all of James's mysteries, is filled with well-developed characters that give verisimilitude to her stories, that give real humanity to the victims, to those touched by the killings, and even to the suspects. This serves both to give depth to the narrative and to heighten the tension of the mystery, as it makes suspects more interesting but also keeps you guessing as to who the real perpetrator may be. Devices and Desires also contains some great dialogue that probes deeper issues, such as the detective's relationship to death, or the possible continuing relevance of the category of sin, or the possibility of justice in a world full of twisted devices and desires that enmesh our lives. This mystery does not disappoint. It is well written, thoughtfull, and entertaining, and comes to a satisfying conclusion. I highly recommend it.

February 14, 2012

Review of NIV Life Application Bible

With the release this year of the updated translation of the NIV, Zondervan has released an updated version of their well-known Life Application 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 application and 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 application features. The Life-Application Bible has a nice mix of study and application features to aid in Bible reading. Each book is introduced with a two-page overview that helpfully positions the book in its historical context, looks at its main messages (referred to as "megathemes"), gives an outline of the text, and, not surprisingly, focuses throughout on the importance of these things for application, while also including the important components like author, date, and setting that prove helpful in reading. Throughout the text of the Bible itself, there are explanatory and application notes at the bottom of the pages, giving useful background or explanation where necessary, but focusing on how different events, exhortations, or teachings can be applied (for example, in Joshua 9, dealing with the opposition Israel experienced, the notes on 9:1-6 say, "We can expect similar opposition as we obey God's commands. . . . We must rely on God and communicate daily with him." These notes show a deep and sustained reflection on the relevance of the text for the lives of Christians today, and are an exercise in reading the Bible as Christian scripture, having relevance for life today. There are also brief outline markers and short descriptions interspersed within the text to mark major divisions in the various books to show the proposed outline structure as you are reading (usually not more than a head or short descriptor every few chapters). There are also other helpful study and application features, such as character studies, maps, and helpful discussions of major themes that pull in details from various passages throughout scripture.

Last, the aesthetics and layout. The Bible is nicely laid out in a one-column format which makes for easy reading. The study and application notes run across the bottom of the page in an easy-to-read sans-serif font, and there are cross-references at the center (gutter) of each page, pointing to other texts that would prove helpful in study. I am reviewing the full-size bonded-leather version, which borders on being too large to carry, but is still manageable; the cover seems relatively durable, though I know from past Bibles that bonded leather does wear out and can begin to flake after years of wear, but how this Bible will fare won't be know for a few years.

In all, I am quite impressed with the quality and usefulness of this Bible. It has lots of helpful study features to help orient the reader to the original meaning and context of the Bible, but it also has abundant resources for thinking through not only what a text means but how the reader can apply it and be challenged and changed by it. I expect to get much good use of of this Bible both in my own personal reading and also as a resource to prepare for teaching the meaning and application of the text. I can see it being of great use to a broad spectrum of Christians for both study and devotional use.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Program and the publisher, Zondervan, for the review copy. Also in the interest of full disclosure, I am an employee of a competitor of Zondervan.

On context and influence

Matthew Malcolm points to some of his own comments on Ciampa and Rosner's new 1 Corinthians commentary in the Pillar series, along with a response by Roy Ciampa. In reading the exchange, part of Ciampa's comment jumped out a me:

When a group understands itself in contrast to another group (whether a real group or a [sub-]cultural construction such as “paganism”) it has been deeply influenced by that context, beyond their own level of awareness.
It seems to present some sound wisdom for thinking about biblical writers and their contexts, but also some outstanding food for thought for our own day. I wonder how much our own formulations of doctrine or our positions on matters we hold dear are unwittingly influenced by the very people we oppose. The inerrancy debates, for one, often seem decisively shaped by the very categories "liberal" thinkers proposed for reading the Bible, even as conservative defenders seek to oppose the liberal positions. I can't help but wonder how my own thinking is shaped by my context (an interesting line of thought on its own), and particularly by contrasts I seek to hold. Hmmm.

January 21, 2012

Why I've been so silent . . .

I have been even more silent than normal here on the blog. I haven't posted any reviews in over a month. So I thought I would offer a little explanation and update. It's been a busy New Year. I am excited to report a that I've taken a new job, as an editor at Baker Publishing Group in Grand Rapids, Michigan (one of the four major Christian publishers headquartered within a few miles of each other here in Grand Rapids: Baker, Zondervan, Eerdmans, and Kregel; and they have book stores!). I have been at Baker two weeks now, where I am working on what they call "trade reference" books, which are academically inclined references that are meant for a wider "trade" audience. It has been a blast to get my hands on two new commentaries, among other projects. I love my job, and I am excited to be back in the publishing world full time. And working for such an outstanding company like Baker, and one that publishes so many of the great theology and Biblical-studies books that I love to read, is a huge bonus. So the last weeks have involved moving myself from Minnesota out here to Michigan, looking for a house to rent, getting those arrangements finalized, all on top of starting a new job, and now preparing for my family to come out here tomorrow in preparation for moving into the new house on Monday. So needles to say, I've had a few things on my plate. I am also spending a little time reevaluating my book-reviewing habit now that I am an employee of a major Christian publisher, as that might have implications for what and how I review. So more to come on that later, though I'll certainly be continuing to review in some form. So blessings to you all in this new year; I am excited for things to come.