Reading the Prophets of the Apocalypse: a book review

Evangelicals have a history of misinterpreting the apocalypse. Some of us mine the ancient texts for clues to our march toward destruction. Some of us throw up our hands and prefer to speak of the eschaton in general terms.

9780825427619Kregel Academic has these helpful exegetical handbooks which walk pastors and students through a genre of Scripture with some suggestions for digging deep into the text—studying, interpreting and proclaiming. I have reviewed a previous volume of the Old Testament Exegetical Handbooks before in a related domain,(Interpreting the Prophetic Books, 2014). But Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature is different because there is no apocalypse section of the Old Testament but  it is in parts of the prophetic books and extrabiblical literature. Richard Taylor highlights where apocalyptic appears in the Prophets (especially the latter half of Daniel and Joel but also passages in Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Malachi) and other Apocalyptic literature (e.g. The Book of Enoch, Jubilees, 4th Ezra, 2nd Baruch, the Testament of Moses, etc).

Taylor is the senior professor of Old Testament at Bethel Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota. His research interests include Aramaic studies and Syriac literature. He is well acquainted with these texts and the thought world of the Ancient Near East.

As with the other Kregel handbooks, Taylor walks readers through the exegetical process necessary for understanding and teaching . Chapters one through three provide background, orienting us to apocalyptic literature. Chapter one discusses what apocalyptic  is, what are its distinctives, and what we know and don’t know about the Jewish communities which produced it. Chapter two examines major apocalyptic themes in biblical and extrabiblical sources and discusses the characteristics of the literature in more detail (e.g. literary expression, revelatory content, dreams and visions, symbolism, pseudonymous authorship). We see in the apocalyptic literature a developed angelology, dualism, cataclysmic, Divine Judgment and eschatological hope. Chapter three discusses preparing for interpretation (such as understanding metaphor and knowing what linguistic resources and secondary literature are helpful).

Chapters four through six describe the exegetical process, and how to preach from these texts, respectively. Taylor focus is on helping exegetes come with the right orientation toward the text. So he helps us attend to the genre and metaphorical language, to look for interpretive clues and a focus on the macrostructure instead of minutia. He also warns us of the pitfalls of ignorance, misplaced certainty, our tendency to manipulate certain details (to make our current experience fit the text, or read the signs of the times)(128-131) In chapter five Taylor walks through an exegetical and homiletic outline for Daniel 7. The final chapter examines sample texts, Daniel 8 and Joel 2:28-3, discussing difficulties, structure, and application.

As with the Prophets volume, this book is great for students and working preachers. I have used the Kregel Prophets volume in my own personal study and in communicating about the text. This resource helpfully augments that.  I give this book four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Kregel Academic in exchange for my honest review

Ecumenical Aesthetics: a ★★★★★book review

Over the last few years, there has been a flowering of Christians of all stripes engaged in the visual arts. This has been a vehicle for shared communion between Christians of different ecclesial traditions—Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox. The Ecumenism of Beauty reflects the deepening and mutual dialogue across denominational lines. Each tradition brings their own peculiar emphasis and theological understanding to the arts.

ecumenism-of-beautyI’ll note my brief criticism from the outset: this book is missing a page with contributor bios. Maybe I am an odd duck, but when I pick up a multi-author volume, I always turn to the contributor page first. Often this only has where they were educated and their current position, but it helps me place their perspective, tradition and what each brings to a topic. Luckily a few of these names were familiar to me and a few paragraphs into each chapter, I knew, in general, what discipline and tradition each author were writing from. There was Timothy Verdon, the book’s editor and eminent historian of Christian, religious art, JérômeCottin and William Dyrness, both active in the theology of arts and culture, Vasileios Marinis, an expert in Byzantine iconography, artists Susan Kanaga and Filippo Rossi and Martin Shannon, an ordained Episcopal pastor and devotional author.

Verdon’s introduction sets the stage. He describes the difference between the classical Catholic and Protestant aesthetic, as depicted two 16th century paintings. Pieter Neefs the Elder painted Antwerp Cathedral full of ornate iconography, priests and parishioners and sacramental flourish.  Pieter Jansz’s painting of the interior of St. Odulphuskerk reveals an austere sanctuary where the pulpit alone looks grand. Verdon comments on how the interior of these two churches reflect the beliefs and practices of both Catholics and Protestants—Catholic belief in salvation through ecclesial signs and the solo Scriptura of Lutheranism (ix).

Protestant and especially Calvinists (enthusiastic iconoclasts that they were) are faulted for their lack of religious aesthetic. See, for example, Andrew Greeley’s Catholic Imagination (which in memory argued that everything beautiful created by Christians came from Catholics, whereas Protestants were just good at analyzing stuff). However the first two chapters of this volume expose how much this is a gross oversimplifiation. Cottin points out that Calvin had no problem with images, only images used as props for devotion (@) and he points to accomplished Western artists influenced by Calvinist culture (i.e Jacob van Ruysdael, Vermeer, Pieter de Hoock, Vincent Van Gogh) (9). Dyrness’s points out that Calvin’s concern about idolatry caused him to put a moratorium on religious imagery, but he asks “Why after 500 years, when Protestants are learning again from medieval practices—praying the labyrinth, practicing lectio divina, and embracing Igantian spiritual practices and retreats—are their worship spaces, and their corporate prayer, so often devoid of visual beauty?” (19) He argues that the time is ripe for an aesthetical recovery.

Kanaga, one of the artist contributors describes her life as part of the Community of Jesus, and her commission (along with sculpter Regis Damange) to design elements of the Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans, MA and discuss her art and practice. Kanaga sees abstract sacred art as the perfect vehicle to communicate the indefinite and the ineffible (31-32). Marinis’s chapter opens up the spirituality of Byzantine iconography with insights from Fotis Kontoglou 1895-1965) Rossi describes how visual art is an act of contemplation, especially for the artist in the creative process. Shannon’s chapter describes the physical space of the Church of the Transfiguration and the way beauty draws the eccumenical, Benedictine community into worship. Verdon’s closing chapter reflects on the interplay between Art and liturgy.

As this book focuses on the relationship between beauty and ecclesiology as I read I kept thinking of what historical theologians call the Medieval transcendentals: the true, the beautiful and the good. In an earlier time, these were all held in tension, as each reflecting something important about God. Evangelicals of the protestant tradition, my tribe, were suspicious of beauty as ephemeral and idolatrous, but we emphasized truth and goodness (and two out of three ain’t bad).  However, we are in the midst of a recovery of Protestant theological aesthetics and religious art. This book extends the dialogue between Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants, while honoring the differences and contributions of each tradition.

Appropriately this book is also beautiful, with full-color images on glossy pages. I think Rossi and Kanaga’s chapters were my favorite contributions, not only because they showcased their beautiful artwork, but because they reflected on their spiritual experience as artists. I give this five stars and recommend it to anyone concerned about art and the church—★★★★★

Open Heart Surgery to Open Heart Life: a book review

Struck is Russ Ramsey’s story of his brush with death. He was struck with a bacterial infection which destroyed his mitral valve, the heart valve which prevents backflow in the left ventricle of the heart. He required open-heart surgery and gained a new perspective through his struggle with sickness, depression, chemical addiction to painkillers, a brush with death and his recovery.  As a father of four, pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville and author he reflects on how his brush with mortality affected his family and his faith.

4494Ramsey’s story unfolds in four acts. Part one describes the affliction, his diagnosis, operation and first month of treatment. Part two, Recovery, explores month 2-5, the early days of recovery, depression, and rehabilitation. Part three, Lament (months 6-22) describes Ramsey’s movement back into the ministry of soul care, with fresh insights and empathy from his own struggle. Part 4, Doxology,  shows death and suffering swallowed up in hope and praise, as Ramsey looks ahead to life and resurrection. An afterward, written by Lisa Ramsey, Russ Ramsey’s wife, tells of her journey as she stood by her husband in sickness, diagnosis, surgery, and recovery. There are ways in which her afterward is my favorite part of the book because she refuses to make a ‘life lesson’ out of her husband’s infirmity. She marks the time as significant and is grateful for the ways God sustained them. It is enough.

I love memoirs because they open up the reality of another’s experience. I appreciate Ramsey’s sometimes raw honesty and the way his diagnosis enabled him to forge deep friendships with and offer hope to co-strugglers (like Barbara, a woman he and his wife knew dying of cancer). There is no sentimentality here. There is pain, grief, depression, loss and sadness. There is also an enduring faith. Ramsey opens up about the depths of his experience. He underwent open heart surgery and learned to live open-heartedly.  I give this book four stars.

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

Singing Songs in a Strange Land

Last night, for Holocaust Memorial Day, I attended a remembrance service at Havurah Shir Hadash, a Reconstructionist Synagogue in nearby Ashland.  I had noted the service was happening when I posted a recent review for Rabbi David Zaslow’s Exodus (he leads the congregation). The service was jointly held with Temple Emek Shalom, the other Jewish congregation in town.  I knew that Rabbi Zaslow wouldn’t be there. He marked the day in a different way, spending the day at Auschwitz on a trip with thousands of youth.

5116a2dd8cff4_71360bThe theme for the service was the ‘righteous Gentiles’—those who hid Jews and aided their escape from the Shoah. I don’t know what age to introduce the horrors of holocaust to children, but  my girls recently read a book of notable biographies of ‘girls who changed the world,’ and one of the women profiled was Corrie Ten Boom, a Christian survivor of the Holocaust, who’s family was active in helping Jews escape.  Both girls were interested, so the plan was to take my daughters, ages seven and nine with me. Unfortunately, my older daughter was running a fever, so it was just me and my seven-year-old. She was by far the youngest person there.

It was a solemn service, recounting dark days, though not without hope. Some teenage girls lit candles remembering the names of victims that were assigned to them as part of their mitzvah project, children whose life was cut short by the Shoah. A few brief sentences recounted their names and ages. These were children as young as four, and a couple of them were seven-year-olds. I wondered how my own seven-year-old was processing this, but we still haven’t talked together about that part of the service.

After this, a sole holocaust survivor lit a candle remembering the fallen. and we were all invited to do the same. My little girl burnt her finger on the match while trying to get the candle lit. She later recalled that burning her finger was the part of the service she didn’t like.

Throughout the evening we sang Hebrew songs, and listened to chants, and prayed along with the Mourners’ Kaddish, but most of the evening was about hearing the stories of gentiles, some of whom sacrificed their lives to rescue Jews.  Several people read or shared accounts. A strange and unplanned confluence was that the first gentile profiled, Irena Sendler—a woman who had saved 2500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto—was responsible for rescuing the sole survivor who was with us last night. Some of the stories shared were of famous people. Other stories came from personal recollections and family stories of righteous Gentiles, names that are not well known beyond small circles.

The systematic extermination of six million Jews by the Nazis, as well as the death of five million sympathizers, Slavs, LGBT folk, and the disabled, is a vivid reminder of our human capacity for evil. Against those who would deny the Holocaust, or minimize its significance, remembering is important.  I am a Christian, not Jewish. Attending a synagogue on a day like yesterday feels a bit like singing the Lord’s song in a strange land, but the chorus and the cadence call us to compassion and solidarity.

It is over seventy years later and there is still so much hate in the world.  If it happened again would we be among the righteous? I want to say yes, but I am humbled when I consider that many European Christians participated in the Shoah and few who resisted cited faith as a determining factor in giving aid.

From Russia with Love: a music review

Sacred-Songs-of-RussiaSergei Rachmaninoff’s All-night vigil was not Gloræ Dei Cantores first Russian voyage. In 1990 the release of Sacred Songs of Russia showcased the liturgical and sacred music inspired by the Russian Orthodox church

They perform nineteen choral pieces from composers: Alexander Kastalsky, Pavel Chesnokov, Vasily Titov, d. Bortnainsky, Mikhail Glinka, Peter Tchaikivsky, Stepan Smolensky, Alexander Arkhangel’sky, Nikolai Kedrov and Rachmaninoff.

This is a diverse collection, many of these pieces composed for a liturgical setting, though Sviridov’s three choruses were composed for a play, and several pieces were created for the Russian Imperial court. Stylistically there is some rage, there are liturgical call and responses with a baritone deacon and choral response, there are unison chants, contrapuntal and harmonic forms, as well as the incorporation of Russian folk melodies.

This is a hauntingly beautiful collection. The first time I listened I put it on as background music, a soundtrack for my working life and once, only once while my son was napping. However, the Russian melodies and liturgical call demanded attention. It is dynamic with climatic elements. This is the sort of recording which is best if you put everything aside and just take it in. —★★★★★

Gloriæ Dei Cantores  (Singers to the Glory of God), of the Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans, Massachusetts, has an impressive repertoire ranging from Americana to Gregorian Chant, both contemporary masterworks, and the classics. Their newest recording, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, Opus 37 is produced by Richard Pugsley (their director) and conducted by Peter Jermihov, a specialist in Russian and Orthodox liturgical music. For this recording, they are joined by members of three other choral ensembles: St. Romanos Cappella, The Patriarch Tikhon Choir and the Washington Master Chorale. The seventy-seven singer ensemble also includes soloists Dmitry Ivanchenk and Mariya Berezovska from the National Opera of Ukraine and Vadim Gan, protodeacon under the First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox church.

The fifteen songs of Rachmaninoff’s Opus 37 are fifteen movements to prayer (these works are sometimes Identified as Vespers, but this only the first few songs. The whole collection is richer). In ten songs Rachmaninoff blends the Greek, Kievan and the Great Znamenny chant (from linear notes) He blends this with singable melodies, symphonic elements, and climactic flourishes. Rachmaninoff was not a regular church goer but this is profoundly Christian work, stamped by the spirituality of the Russian Christian East.

Gloriæ Dei Cantores, Jermihov, and the joint choir labored to be true to Rachmaninoff’s vision, inhabiting the sacred space he provides—devout and liturgical, neither theatrical or unresponsive.

I am no expert in Russian composers or choral music in general, I only know what I like. This is well executed and beautiful. I  already appreciate Gloriæ Dei Cantores fine recordings but this is amazing and definitely one of my favorites. —★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this music from Paraclete Recordings in exchange for my honest review

Word, Sacrament & Spirit: a book review

Gordon Smith’s Evangelical, Sacramental & Pentecostal begins with a couple of anecdotes. Smith tells about being on a bus heading to a theological conference in Lima, Peru, where he was to speak. He struck up a conversation with Chilean Anglicans and asked them what was distinctive about the Anglican church in their context. They responded,”The Anglican church in Chile is evangelical but not sacramental.” Smith silently mused, “but why do you have to choose.”(1) Later that year he was visiting a Baptist theological college in Romania before heading to a Pentecostal college. His Baptist host made clear the difference, “we are evangelical, they are pentecostal” (1-2).
5160Smith asserts that the Christian faith shouldn’t be forced into false dichotomies which place Word against sacrament or Word against Spirit. The fullness of Christian experience includes all three dimensions—it is evangelical, sacramental AND pentecostal.  Smith helps enlarge our vision and deepen our ecclesial and spiritual lives. If we are to know the grace of God fully, we need Word, sacrament, and Spirit.

Smith begins by exploring how evangelicals, sacramentalists, and pentecostals each have different approaches to Scripture.  In chapter 1, he examines John 15:4, “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” Smith points out, evangelicals  understand the abiding life as involving time in the Word—reading, studying, preaching and meditating on it (14), sacramentalists describe how abiding in Christ involves participating in the Eucharist with a community of the baptized (14-18), pentecostals emphasize the connection between God and humanity which comes through the outpouring of the Spirit’s presence (19-20).  Smith observes, “All three, taken together are the means by which the benefits of the cross are known and experienced. The three—the Spirit, along with Word and sacrament—are then the means by which the intent of the cross is fulfilled in the life of the church, the means by which we abide in Christ, as Christ abides in us” (21).

In chapter two, Smith walks through Luke-Acts, highlighting the immediacy of the Spirit, the devotion to the Word and the sacramental fellowship. Chapter three fleshes out how these three components belong together in a full-orbed Christian spirituality. The remaining three chapters consider in turn the evangelical, sacramental and pentecostal streams. Smith explores the insights, contributions, and practices of each stream and the ways in which they augment and inform one another.

Capital “P” Pentecostals will not be happy with everything Smith says here. He does emphasize dynamic spiritual experience—immediacy, and intimacy with God(98) and root this in Pentecost (the Spirit sent in Acts 2, and earlier in John 20:22); however, he looks to the insights of the broader Christian tradition and history in expounding on the pneumatological character of the Christian life, citing John of the Cross and Ignatius of Loyola, but no Pentecostals like Charles Parham, William Seymour, and Azuza street, or other contemporary Pentecostal voices. Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement are spoken of by Smith in broad, general terms. What Smith is attempting to do is hold up the charismatic/pentecostal nature of the Christian life, for Christians of all stripes and theological persuasions. Without the giving of the Spirit, there is no conversion, no Word of God, no sacramental efficacy and no intimacy with God. But if you expect to hear a commendation to charismatic revivalism, tongues speaking, and the ongoing place of prophetic utterance, you won’t find it here.

Smith doesn’t just dislike hard theological/denominational categories, he himself defies such categorization. He is ordained in the Christian Missionary Alliance and is president and professor of one of their institutions (Ambrose University, Calgary), but his Ph.D. is from Loyola. He is an Evangelical in the holiness tradition who upholds the sacraments. He is a spiritual director and lover of Jesuit spirituality committed to the evangelical mission, ecumenism, and global theological education for the church. This book draws together the various strands.

I was lucky enough to audit a couple of classes with Smith while I attended Regent College. I took a course on Conversion and Transformation and a class on the sacraments, highlighting, in turn, the evangelical and sacramental streams (though in both instances he expounded the pneumatological character of each).  He has become one of my favorite authors of Christian Spirituality and he never fails to make me see things in new ways. I recommend Evangelical, Sacramental, and Pentecostal for anyone who feels like their faith has become one dimensional and wants to deepen their understanding of the Christian life. —★★★★½.

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

Can We Get More Resurrection?

Yesterday we celebrated Easter, the day the resurrected Jesus broke forth from the tomb and broke the power of sin and death. If the Lenten season was about walking with Jesus the road to Calvary, the Christian life is about coming out the other end. We proclaim with the Apostle Paul, “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:54-55).  And yet . . .

And yet death still stings.  We feel it as we age, time decays and slows our pace. We feel it in the face of a troubling diagnosis or when we have to have our cat put down on Good-Friday morning. We feel its sting when we grieve the loss of a family member or close friend. Where O death is your sting? You don’t have to tell us. We feel it.

And yet death still looks pretty victorious. It still claims us all. We don’t need to look beyond last week’s news cycle to see the threat of death that looms over our heads. The Cleveland broadcast killer, Palm Sunday Massacres, Bombs dropped, another youth gunned down by police in Fresno, executions lined up for this week in Arkansas, and 45’s threat and show of strength against North Korea. Where O death, is your victory? Ubiquitous and persistent, we see death everywhere.

I know everything changed Easter morning. Death died and when love stronger than death broke its hold on our souls. We have hope because of Jesus’ resurrection and we await our own. Still, can we get a little more resurrection? We could really use it.