Take up and Breath: a Book Review

When I picked up Fresh Air: The Holy Spirit For an Inspired Life and saw endorsments from N.T. Wright, Eugene Peterson, Walter Brueggemann, Scot McKnight, William Willimon and Phillyis Tickle I got excited. I am always on the hunt for a good book on the Holy Spirit so seeing this one endorsed by some of my favorite authors made me want to take up and read.  Much of what is written on the Holy Spirit has an ‘anything goes’ feel to it with low-level discernment, but these people don’t endorse those books. So I had high hopes that this book would thoughtfully present the reality of the Spirit in a way that was fresh, insightful, inspiring and eye-opening. I was not disappointed.

Jack Levison is professor of New Testament at Seattle Pacific University. He’s written an engaging book with each of the chapters profiling  people from the Bible and illuminating aspects of the spirit’s activity. Through out the book he speaks of the   ‘holy spirit’ rather than “Holy Spirit” because he is trying to be attentive to the way the biblical language functions (he is not denying the Trinity). The Greek word pnuema and the Hebrew ruach both mean wind, breath or spirit (ruach means wind fifty times in the Hebrew Bible, but the rest of its nearly four hundred occurrences refer to the spirit from God). Levison wants to preserve the way a single word in the Hebrew or Greek ‘could encompass stormy winds and settled souls, the rush of the divine and the hush of human holiness(17).’ And so he attends to where he hears the spirit in the text and shows us the way God’s spirit is powerful and unsettling,  life-giving and good.

Levison does not always go to the most common passages people use when speaking of the spirit. But each of the people he profiles and the passages he chooses reveal who this spirit is. Here is a taste of some of the things I learned as I read this book  and the biblical passages it alludes to:

  • With Job I reflected on how life is a gift and God’s spirit sustains us all (yes, all).  Job is confident that though he is on the verge of death, he still has life from the spirit-breath of God is in him.
  • From Daniel we learn that the gift of the spirit’s wisdom comes from a lifetime of decisions and habits (i.e. Daniel’s resistance to royal rations, his repudiation of royal ambition, his rejection of power, practice of prayer and simplicity, etc.).
  • Simeon‘s spirit-inspired-song was not just ejaculatory praise but bears the evidence of someone who has studied and searched the scriptures for a lifetime. Simeon unfolds for us Isaiah’s expansive and inclusive vision.
  • Joel‘s dream (the one that is  recounted by Peter at Pentecost) speaks of a day when the spirit is not poured into individuals only but is poured out on all flesh and all societies. It is a radically inclusive vision that is not fully realized in Acts.
  • Chloe‘s complaint to Paul (reported in 1 Cor. 3) was of the divisiveness in the Corinthian church.  Paul’s tells the Corinthians about the way that the spirit inhabits communities.
  • Levison takes us to Ezekiel‘s valley of dried bones and discusses the spirit’s promise of restoration for the exiled and broken community of Israel. He contrasts this with the Spirit’s work in the healthy thriving church of Antioch (who sent Paul and Barnabas out) where the Christians exhibited a love of learning, an ear for prophecy, were nurtured by the practices of worship and fasting, were extremely generous, had multicultural leadership and in all these things, were a source of grace. The spirit is at work in communities which feel dead and lifeless as well as in lively ones.
  • The spirit is not always gentle. The same spirit that descended like a dove on Jesus at his baptism, propelled him into the wilderness for a time of testing.  Levison also notes that in Mark’s gospel, the only time that Jesus promises the spirit to the disciples was so that they could testify when facing severe persecution (but not escape!). The spirit will lead us to the heart of our vocation (just like it did Jesus) but this doesn’t mean that what the spirit brings is always easy.
  • Levison talks about Peter‘s Pentecost sermon and Paul’s passages on spiritual gifts and tongues in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 (this is where many treatments on the Spirit begin). In this chapter he contrasts the craziness of revivalism and snake handlers with the somewhat subdued mainline perspective and the book of Common Prayer. He concludes that there is no evidence in the Bible that we should avoid spiritual experiences but that the thrust of these passages also compels us to engage the Biblical text so that we could see more clearly the ways the spirit is moving in us. Levison’s vision of the spirit makes room for both spontaneity and serious study.

I loved the solid exegesis and the many insightful gems I found in this book (I didn’t share all of them, Elihu plays the foil for the first three chapters). My one small complaint is that Levison never got around to treating my own ‘go to’ passages on the Holy Spirit (John 14-16, 20). But I do love that the passages he chose to focus on are often neglected ones (and he put a fresh spin on some old favorites).

I would recommend this book for anyone who want to understand more of the spirit (or Spirit). This is a popular level book and is accessible for most people (he has an earlier  scholarly volume  called Filled With the Spirit). Levison is an great teacher and opens up these passages in exciting ways (often sharing stories of his own family life to illustrate his points). In each chapter you read several passages of scripture so I read this devotionally and really found that it helped nourish my spirit during a busy week. This one gets a high recommendation from me.

I received this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for this review. This is my fair and honest review.

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6 thoughts on “Take up and Breath: a Book Review”

  1. Thank you, James, for such a thoughtful and thorough review of Fresh Air. I hope it proves to be of enduring value to you. Now to address, happily so, your one small complaint. I have written a lot on John 14-16 in Filled with the Spirit, to which you referred. Check out pages 380-406. I’m happy to scan or copy them for you when I am on campus next week; not quite an equal exchange for your fine review, but a small token of gratitude. Just say the word. There’s plenty in those pages you’ll find fresh and challenging. Plus, I interpret all of John and 1 John, including John 20:19-23, which I understand to be a scene in which Jesus kisses his disciples to inbreathe the spirit into them (think Godfather or the famed Brezhnev-Honecker kiss–easily googled). Even some of my German scholar-friends are warming to this idea; I consider that quite an accomplishment! Again, thank you for the generous review of Fresh Air!

    1. Thank you for your book! I figured you would have discussed the John passages in Filled With the Spirit. I understand the need to be selective in what to include in a shorter popular book (you just can’t discuss every text), I only flagged the John passages because they are personal favorites and I have spent sometime exegeting them (particular the John 20:19-23 passage). I likely will get hold of Filled with the Spirit in the near future and work through it, so not to worry about copying that section. I was just happy to read a book on the Spirit that I could so enthusiastically endorse!

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