Worthy of God and Useful for Us: a book review

One of the challenges of biblical interpretation is the way that the Bible describes God. In some places in the Bible, God is above the heavens and there is none like him. In other places, God seems like any other earthly ruler–sitting on a throne,waging ware, standing, laughing, getting angry.  The difficulty of sorting out God’s godhood from his human descriptions has been an issue that theologians have wrestled with from the early centuries of Christianity. We have a lot we can learn from the Ancient theological approach to Scripture

Mark Sheridan is a Benedictine monk and vice rector and dean of the faculty of theology at the Pontifical Athenaeum of St. Anselm in Rome. He has written several monographs and edited the Genesis 12-50 volume of the ancient Christian Commentary on the Scripture. In Language For God in Patrisitic Tradition:  Wrestling with Biblical Anthropomorphism, Sheridan examines ancient biblical interpretation, exploring what the church fathers have to teach us about reading Scripture and their theology of God.

One of the hallmark’s of patrisitc tradition is the commitment to interpreting the Bible in a manner “worthy of God”  and “useful for us.” Anthropomorphism and anthropopathism in the Bible, make God seem “too human.”  Sheridan demonstrates that the general patristic consensus was that God was wholly unlike humanity; however where the Bible involves human matters, ‘it carries the human intellect, manners and way of speaking’ (30). Thus the otherness of God is preserved, but the fathers had a way of parsing those places of scripture where God seemed all-to-human.

Sheridan’s eight chapters form a tight and compelling argument. In chapter one, Sheridan reads Numbers 23:19,”God is not a man nor as the son of man to be threatened,” in tension with Deuteronomy 1:31.” [He] carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place.” This illustrates the way in which the Bible talks about God differently, in reference to Godself and in relationship to us in the economy of salvation. Sheridan shows how the fathers picks up this distinction.

In chapter two through four, he illustrates the major influences on the patrsitic interpretive tradition. Chapter two explores the way the Greek philosphical tradition handled the capricious, too-human pantheon of gods in the Homeric epics. Ideas about what is ‘worthy of God’ in Plato, have their influence on the theological development of the church’s early centuries.  Chapter three describes the Hellenized Jewish interpretation of scripture (especially Philo) and they handled passages where God was too human and too passionate. Chapter four examines the New Testament interpretation of the Old Testament and the manner in which the patristic tradition saw their interpretive strategy in continuity with Paul and the gospels. Chapter five surveys major early Christian writers  and the various ways they employed the “worthy of God” strategy in interpreting the Bible. While there are differences between early theologians, and regions (Alexandria and Antioch in their approach to ‘allegory’), there is a broad consensus on what is worthy of God and what isn’t. Passages whre God ‘gets angry’ are placed inside a larger theological frame where God is impassible and divine emotional outbursts are merely connote the human experience of God’s wrath.

Chapter six highlights three cases which exemplify patristic interpretation: Genesis 1-4; Genesis 16 (the Hagar  and Sarah story); and the conquest narratives. The creation story (and fall) has a number of anthropomorphisms. Sheridan demonstrates the way ancient interpreters bracketed out any biblical interpretation that would be demeaning to God’s dignity.  The Sarah/Hagar story presented a different challenge. Because this story related Old-Testament saints behaving badly (i.e. Sarah and Abraham using and abusing Sarah’s slave), it was interpreted variously as an allegory or a morality tale. The conquest narratives were allegorized because of  patrsitic discomfort with the way God commanded the total destruction of the Canaanites (and what that implied about God’s character). Chapter seven shows how the Patrisic tradition handled he imprecatory Psalms.

Chapter eight, Sheridan’s final chapter, describes what he thinks modern interpreters ought to learn from our ancient counterparts. Sheridan holds up as sound, the patristic ‘rule’ of interpreting anthropomorphisms and difficult texts in a manner that is ‘worthy of God and useful to us.’ At various points our interpretations will diverge with patristics because we bring a different set of questions and assumptions to the text (i.e. ancient interpreters sought to defend the Bible against ancient mythos whereas modern interpreters seek to set the creation story with in the context of Ancient Near East literature). Yet Sheridan also challenges us to learn from patristics how to move beyond what the narrative of scripture describes to ask what it means for our lives (i.e. differences in contemporary and ancient approaches to Genesis 16).   At other points, Sheridan thinks that we ought to listen keenly to the questions that patristic scholars are asking. Contemporary evangelical scholars read the conquest accounts literally, seeking to minimize their destructive nature (i.e. hyperbole in the text, reading the destruction in Joshua alongside the gradual conquest in Judges, etc). Sheridan argues we have a lot to learn form the ways the fathers asked what divine conquest says about the character of God, and how to interpret these sections in a worthy manner.  He sees similar value in allowing patristics to inform our understanding of the imprecatory psalms (and how we are to pray them).

Sheridan offers a great overview of patristic interpretation and is incisive in his analysis of the way the ancient church interpreted scripture. The notion of interpreting in a manner ‘worthy of God’ seems a noble aim and certainly ancient authors as diverse as Origen, Tertullian, Augustine, John Chrysostom, Ambrose and Gregory of Nyssa each helped untangle anthropomorphisms for us.

Yet as valuable as I find this study and patristic interpretation I am not totally convinced. First off, and this may just be my evangelicalism talking, I am suspicious of where allegory ignores or replaces the literal meaning of the text. In pastrictic interpretation the literal meaning sometimes provides clues to the deeper meaning of the passage. At other times, the deeper, allegorical meaning is used to  replace or explain the literal sense away. I have less problem when the text is metaphorical in its anthropomorphisms (i.e. God walking in the garden, etc) but feel the rub a little more when a whole section of sacred scripture (like the Canaanite conquest) is spiritualized because the early interpreters saw this piece of Israel’s history as beneath God. I admit that the literal interpretation of Canaanite destruction opens up questions about God’s character and goodness that are difficult; yet I think employing allegory is too easy and too readily shirks the difficulty of wrestling with the text.  Additionaly, I worry about the ways in which the Greek philosophical tradition informs the patristic understanding of what is ‘worthy of God.’ I applaud the way the fathers  sought to guard the image of God from seeing God as a capricious person; however I am uncertain that ancient Christian understanding of Divine immutability always does justice to the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

My caveats name where I sit loose to some patristic conclusions, but. I think we have a lot to learn from them and Sheridan provides a great and accessible overview of their interpretive approach.  I would have found this a helpful book in seminary as I sought to untangle historic interpretation. This book is sufficiently non-technical for the the general reader. I give this 4.5 stars and recommend it for anyone interested in theological interpretation,  historical theology or spiritual exegesis.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.

Lectio Divina and Spiritual Exegesis: a book review

When I first picked up a book from Enzo Bianchi, I had no idea who he was. As the founder and prior of the Bose Community (a lay monastic community in the Benedictine tradition) and as consultor of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (appointed by Pope Francis in 2014), he is a major voice in monastic and Christian spirituality. Lectio Divina: From God’s Word to Our Lives is now the third book I have read from him (and the third book translated to English and published by Paraclete Press). In each book, Enzo has challenged me to new depths in my spiritual life.

Bianchi’s treatment of Lectio Divina was more than I  expected. Most other Lectio Divina books I have read, either give simple practical guidelines and a method for the practice, or are gleanings from the author’s private devotional life. Bianchi does give practical advice on how to practice (especially in part two of this book) but he also gives a fuller treatment of the hermeneutics of spiritual interpretation. He references Ratzinger, De Lubac, Urs von Balthasar and others, as well as a range of patrisitic sources (Augustine, Origen, Ambrose, etc). For Bianchi, the practice of Lectio is not a subjective, privatized word from God, but an attentive reading (attending to the Spirit, to Christ and the text). He uses critical methods; yet reading in this way, is always about spiritual encounter.

In part one, Bianchi commends spiritual interpretation. In chapter on,e he describes Origen’s exegetical method. Origen is representative of the Christian biblical exegesis practiced until the sixteenth century, before the critical era  began and we had ‘simply one possible way of reading the Bible’ (9). So chapter two explores the relevance of spiritual exegesis for today, arguing for the Bible’s centrality in the life of the church, and the way it testifies about Jesus throughout the canon; however this isn’t a repudiation of critical gains in reading the Bible, though historical method is dethroned of ultimate importance.  In chapter three, Bianchi explores God’s Word–Jesus Christ–and helps us think through how the Bible is also God’s word ( both inspired and human, reflecting the incarnation). Chapter four examines the unity of scripture and the way both testaments testify about Christ its center.  In chapter five, Bianchi connects spiritual interpretation with the classic  four-fold sense of scripture (literal-historical, allegorical, tropological, and anagogical). He relates each of these four levels of meaning to the four stages of Lectio Divina (Lectio, Meditatio, Oratio, and Contemplatio). This was a new insight for me.

Part two is less conceptual and more practical. After giving a brief overview of the history of biblical interpretation in chapter six, Bianchi spends chapter seven walking his readers through the practice of Lectio Divina: (1) set aside a time and a place,  (2) pray for the Spirit to open up the Word to us, (3) Read with an eye to the literal-historical meaning of the text, meditating and investigating the scripture to get at its deeper meaning, (4) pray and enter into the dialogue with the text in order to make more room for the Lord in your life, and finally (5) contemplate the passage and and have our gaze transformed into God’s way of seeing. Chapter eight describes challenges during Lectio Divina (i.e. that Catholics have experienced a ‘long estrangement from the Bible, the need for dailiness, and failure to read the Bible critically, engaged and Christologically. Finally chapter nine describes other challenges to practicing Lectio Divina (the text’s otherness, the need for community, etc.).

Of the three books I have read from Bianchi, this may be my favorite. Bianchi takes us on a journey through patristics, spiritual theology, exegesis, contemporary Catholic theology and hermeneutics. Bianchi synthesizes these disciplines well and I came away with some fresh insights. I appreciate the way Bianchi connected the practice of Lectio Divina to the theology of  spiritual exegesis operating in the church for centuries. I loved that he incorporated critical insights and study into meditation. In Bianchi’s approach, the Lectio part of Lectio Divina involves reading with sensitivity and accuracy, discovering the intent and message of the original text (the literal-historical meaning). Meditatio involves study–checking commentaries, study notes, etc–in order to discover the theological and canonical connections. This, and Bianchi’s insistence that Lectio Divina is a communal discipline, guards from its practice becoming purely subjective and private. Bianchi’s approach is theologically sophisticated.

And that is perhaps the weakness of this book.  I tracked my way through Bianchi’s theology of scripture, Revelation, biblical exegesis, patristics and Christology. Had this been my first trek through these disciplines, I would have found this a hard read. Okay, I still found it a hard read, but I think a complete neophyte would be a little lost in places. I recommend this book highly to readers of theology and Christian spirituality, but I think Bianchi’s Echoes of the Word (Paraclete, 2013) may be more accessible for the general reader. I give this book five stars!

Notice of material connection, I received this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.

Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars: a book review

Sometimes we approach issues ready to do battle. Talk-radio warns us of a subversive liberal agenda while the rest of the media caricatures conservatives as money-grubbing, hate-mongering xenophobics.  Often faith gets co-opted in debate. Evangelicals are defined, in many eyes, by their stance on abortion and traditional marriage. Progressive Christians are  written off for their lack of theological substance. Is there a way to ‘stop taking sides’? Can we approach issues without drawing battlelines? Is it possible to listen and hear the good on all sides of an issue and still offer a critique? This is the approach that Scott Sauls commends in Jesus Outside the Lines.  He aims at approaching issues and people in ways that are generous and tolerant and with clarity and conviction.  This doesn’t mean watered-down niceness anymore than having strong beliefs means we have licenses to be jerky.

Saul’ has two parts to his book. In part one he focuses on issues that divide Christians from one another. These include Red and Blue politics, abortion and justice for the poor, personal faith versus the institutional church and our different approaches to money. Sauls can find things on both sides of these issues to affirm. I liked his chapter on money because he points to a middle way between pursuing financial blessing and feeling guilty about our enjoyment of money. I appreciate that the extremes of prosperity and poverty are to be avoided (though I still weigh sacrificial giving/living a little more).

In part two, Sauls promotes a generous response to those ‘outside the lines of Christianity.’ He argues that Christians should be quick to affirm the good in culture while still offering our critique. He gives a plea for us to emphasize both accountability for oppressors and compassion for victims. He challenges us to not write off each other as mere hypocrites but to see that we are all works in progress. Sauls gives a traditional defense of human sexuality but one that is sensitive to the LGBTQ community and the ways that they have sometimes been treated by the Christian community. He showcases how Jesus imparts hope for a brighter tomorrow and allows us to take a realistic look at the suffering of the world.  Saul also takes us beyond Self-Help culture, helping to see ourselves how God sees us (which affirms the individual without enthroning her).

This is a readable and sensitive book. I appreciated the way that Sauls navigated the cultural polarities and highlighted a third way. His opening chapter, begins with an anecdote where one of his sermons caused one person to dismiss him as a right-wing extremist while another congregant thought he was a left-wing Marxist (3). Often the way of Jesus is unsatisfying to all parties on the battlelines. But it is a better way!

Sauls does not offer an exhaustive treatment of every important issue. Nor does he name every battleline.  Two big issues that I think white, conservative evangelicals need to approach with generousity are systemic racial injustice and climate change. The past few years has highlighted ways in which our legal system treats minorities. Think Ferguson and similar tragic encounters between African Americans and police and the  ongoing problem of minority mass incarceration. The dismissal of  climate change by those on the Right and the alarmism of the Left reveals the way special interest has sometimes framed the contours of debate. Sauls can’t cover everything, but given the current significance of these issues, I wish they were handled head-on.

Sauls isn’t the first author to explore the way Jesus defies our polarities. I think of Shane Claiborne’s Jesus For President, Tony Campolo’s is Jesus a Republican or Democrat? or Sojourner magazine’s “God is Not a Republican . . .or a Democrat” campaign. But these represent attempts from progressive evangelicals to bring balance to the force. Sauls  is a conservative voice with strong convictions who has listened well to those across the aisle from him.  This book promotes a generous conversational tone with Christians who are different from us  and those outside the faith. I give this four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the Tyndale Blog Network in exchange for my honest review.

Testifying Teens: a book review

Testimony has a significant impact on the faith development of adolescents. As young people learn to tell their story of faith, it cements their understanding of God, fosters identity formation and allows the wider community to feedback into their experience and when necessary offer a critique. Amanda Hontz Drury explores what happens for youth as they testify, and puts forward a theology of testimony and offers practical advice on how churches can incorporate intentional, public testimony into youth ministry.

Drury has fifteen years of youth ministry experience and is professor of practical theology at Indiana Wesleyan University. In Saying Is Believing: The Necessity of Testimony in Adolescent Development, Drury offers a similar case for testimony as Thomas Long’s Talking Ourselves into Being Christian, though she is much more sophisticated in her use of sociological research and theology than Long (cementing for me, yet again, that the most interesting work being done in the area of practical theology comes from the youth ministry world). Having read both Long’s and her book, I would say this is the better book. I also see a similarity between Drury’s project and Brandon McCoy’s Youth Ministry from the Outside In which builds off social construction theory and helps youth ‘thicken’ their connection to God’s story as they learn to share their own. There are differences between their approaches but I think enough of an overlap that these books are worth reading side by side.

Drury draws on her experience in youth ministry and her holiness heritage (where a mic in the aisle meant we’d hear from more than just the pastor). As you would expect, she has anecdotes about the telling our particular faith story, but at its core this is a book that is well-researched, sophisticated and theologically thoughtful. Drury doesn’t simply make claims of the necessity for testimony but engages serious research. Her chapter on a ‘Theology of Testimony’ synthesizes the perspectives on witness in Phoebe Palmer (the Nineteenth century, Holiness evangelist) and Karl Barth. This is a creative and thoughtful treatment on testimony.

The book’s five chapters lay out Drury’s case for testimony. Chapter one forms her introduction. Chapter two discusses the findings of the National Study of Youth and Religion which illustrated that young people are inarticulate about their beliefs. Drury argues that teaching youth to speak about their faith strengthens their understanding of Christian truths and their grasp on where God has been active in their lives. Chapter three utilizes the insights of narrative psychology to illustrate the importance of telling one’s own story for identity formation. Chapter four outlines a theology of testimony. Here Drury creatively synthesizes Phoebe Palmer and Karl Barth in attempt to give a full account of the role and function of testimony for the Christian life. Palmer considered herself a ‘Bible Christian’ and had little use for ‘theological technicalities.’ Barth for his part, would be dismissive of Palmer’s subjectivity (95); however Drury points out that Barth corrects Palmer in offering a Christocentric spirituality focused on Jesus rather than the individual self (97) and Palmer corrects Barth in placing personal testimony within the domain of biblical witness (98-9). Drury places these thinkers in dialectic and illustrates that testimony is a Christian call, an expression of gratitude for what God has done, and is enabled and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Her final chapter offers her pragmatic approach to implementing testimony with North American adolescents.

The theological core of this book is applicable far beyond the realm of youth ministry. All ages and stages would benefit from intentional space for testimony; however the way that learning to tell our story impacts our grasp on reality and our self-understanding is of peculiar importance for adolescents. Drury offers practical insight in how to incorporate testimony into youth ministry. As a pastor who is concerned that the youth of my church grow in their knowledge of Jesus and in relationship to Him, I appreciate Drury’s take.

This book is more ‘theological’ than your typical youth ministry book. Drury isn’t offering a “How to” so much as providing a conceptual framework and a re-orientation around the theme of testimony. Obviously this is a good ‘student’ book for those who are learning and thinking about youth ministry but I hope it finds itself in practitioner hands. I also think her theology chapter is widely applicable beyond youth.  I give this book four stars!

Notice of material connection, I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.

A Growing Church is a Dying Church


Timely post for me.

Originally posted on The Theological Wanderings of a Street Pastor:

Whenever a congregation goes looking for a new pastor, the first question on their minds when the committee interviews a new candidate is: Will this pastor grow our church?

I’m going to go ahead and answer that question right now: No, she will not.

No amount of pastoral eloquence, organization, insightfulness, amicability, or charisma will take your congregation back to back to its glory days.

What then can your pastor do?  She can make your board meetings longer with prayer and Bible study.  She can mess with your sense of familiarity by changing the order of worship and the arrangement of the sanctuary.  She can play those strange new songs and forget about your favorite old hymns.  She can keep on playing those crusty old hymns instead of that hot new contemporary praise music.  She can bug you incessantly about more frequent celebration of Communion.  She can ignore your phone…

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Tracing the Trinity: a book review.

Peter Leithart is a fun theologian. As professor of theology and literature at New Saint Andrews College, contributing editor for Touchstone and president of Theopolis Institute, his books often wed theology with cultural, literary or historical connections. Traces of the Trinity showcases the kind of creative theological thinking I’ve come to expect from Leithart as he probes creation and the human experience to see signs of the Triune God.

Leithart picks up on the tradition of looking for vestiga Trinitatis–traces of the Trinity–clues to the Triune life, the imprint of perichoresis (vii). He is not trying to  argue compelling evidence for the Christian concept of God apart from special revelation. Leithart takes special revelation as his starting point, affirming that the God revealed in scripture is revealed as Trinity. He then works backwards, and seeks to trace God’s presence in His creation.

The themes of perichoresis and mutual interpenetration runs straight through this book. In chapter one, Leithart picks up on the Cartesian distinction between the Self and the outside world and shows how though these realms are distinct, they overlap and penetrate one another (i.e. our bodies are outside our mind but part of the self, we need to consume matter and eliminate to remain alive in ourself, etc).  Chapter two describes the individual and her relationship to society. As with Cartesian dualism, Leithart affirms the distinction between individuals and society but shows how each domain contributes to and defines the other.  Chapter three discusses the visceral interpenetration of sex and the accompanying physical, spiritual and psychological intermingling. Chapter four examines the way the past and the future inhabit the present (the past through memory, through structures and culture making, the future through possibility and the telos of things).  The inter-textual nature of words and languages also evidences an interplay between shared language and individual expression (chapter  five), as does music (chapter six). Chapter seven implies an ethic of hospitality–making room for the other–which underlies human community and chapter eight probes concepts, logic and relationship further. Chapter nine is where Leithart speaks specifically about Trinity and also the perechoretic unity in the thing called church.

This brief summary points at the breadth of Leithart’s survey (all within about 150 pages) but the beauty of this book is in the details:

The world is not patterned by mutually opposing things that need to be kept in “balance.” Things are much more intricately interlaced. The world is designed according to a pattern I’ve called “mutual indwelling” “reciprocal habitation” “interpenetration.” I’ve used words like “intertwining” and “interleaving” and “twists” and “swirls, whirls, curves and curls.” I’ve written of how things circle back on themselves, of Mõbius strip and Celtic knots. I claim to see the pattern everywhere–in physical reality, in language, sounds, sex, personal relations, ethics, and the concepts we form to understand the world. (129).

This romp through philosophy, politics, culture, music, sex and ethics highlights the interconnection between the alleged poles. This is poetic theology and an enjoyable read. Leithart is at times concrete and in other places abstract, which makes this book somewhat complex in its execution, but it is tightly argued and well thought through. It is worth tracing Leithart’s argument all the way through.

Leithart is careful to call these instances of perichoresis ‘traces.’  Leithart’s project doesn’t appear to be another Thomist attempt at ‘analogy of being’ (at least how I understand it). This seems far less ambitious than that. Leithart starts with the Divine life (as described in the Bible and the theological tradition) and argues that the inter-relationship between Father, Son and Spirit gives us a window into the nature of creation.  That creation images God is discernible only to those who know the God whom they seek.  I give this book four-and-a-half-stars and recommend it for anyone interested in the nature of revelation.

Notice of material connection, I received this book from Brazos Press in exchange for my honest review.

Artisan Bread, Broken for You: a book review

The synthetic, the industrialized, and the mass-produced have fallen on hard times. Everywhere you look there is a rediscovery of natural and sustainable methods. People love local, organic vegetables, artisan bread, real chocolate, good coffee, craft-brew and good music.  John Joseph Thompson explores this cultural shift away from mass-production toward more wholesome fare and asks what the implications are for the spiritual life. Is this a re-discovery of something important here that will re-enliven our vision of the Christian faith?

Jesus, Bread and Chocolate is much more than an exploration of three of my favorite things. Thompson explores a range of plastic-y products ranging from twang-less pop-country music, bread for the masses, chocolate that is more chocolaty than chocolate, bad coffee, and cheap beer.  Alternatively, he holds up honest, raw music which has a healthy dose of reality (twang), artisan bread crafted with love and care and good ingredients, pure chocolate, the perfect cup of coffee and a cultivated taste for the local and the small. Interwoven with these chapters on less-industrialized fare are reflections on justice, gardening and Thompson’s story.  This book chronicles his personal journey from consumer to enjoy-er. Thompson explores how the turn away from the industrialized, commodified, and mass-marketed prepares us to drink deeply from the real Jesus.

I think two different groups of people will appreciate this book. Because Thompson is attentive to justice (i.e. environmental impact, farming practices, etc), he presents a vision of faith and life that is responsible and responsive to the world around him. Thompson adds his voice to a chorus of evangelicals who are starting to be thoughtful about creation care, especially in his chapter on organic gardening. Secondly, this is a sensual book. Thompson really enjoys good sounds (music), good smells, and good eating. This is a foody-faith-buffet, inviting others to come and enjoy the feast. In both regards, Thompson imparts a thoughtfulness about what we consume and what nourishes us.

I like Thompson’s reflections and where he calls me to enjoy the good things in life. I also think he is appropriately attentive the way industrialized food (and faith) fail people. Certainly there are other domains of the Christian faith that Thompson leaves under or unexplored, but I appreciate this book for what it is.  The link to biblical theology could be clearer and Thompson’s cultural analysis could be more incisive (though he points in good directions). In the end, this is a personal journey and Thompson’s own reflections around food and faith. It is also a popular level book. For that, I give it four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the publisher via the booklook bloggers program. I was not asked to write a positive review, just an honest one.