Simply Pray: a book review

There are lots of books on prayer, but reading them doesn’t necessarily make you a better pray-er. Developing a prayer life (or just knowing what you are ‘supposed to do’ while you are praying) can be difficult. But does it have to be? We know that ‘the prayer of a righteous man availeth much’ (James 5:16, KJV), but is it only those people with heroic prayer disciplines whom God listens to?

4481Charlie Dawes is a pastor in the DC Metro area and the former vice president for student development at South-eastern University. In Simple Prayer: Learning to Speak to God with Ease, he describes how to develop intimacy with God through praying short sentence prayers, or sometimes just a single word, which calls to mind God’s presence. In his introduction, Dawes says:

This book is for those too busy to pray and those who found their prayers to be lifeless. This is a chance to connect our prayer with historic prayers that have carried believers for centuries, and for those prayers to create space in our inner life for us to be with God(10).

Many of the prayer sentences Dawes points us to, are drawn directly from Scripture—a phrase from the Lord’s prayer, or a plaintive cry of someone Jesus encounters. However, Dawes also draws on the wisdom of the Christian tradition—the desert fathers and the Jesus Prayer.

Simple Prayer is divided into eight chapters. Chapter 1 discusses what simple prayer is. Dawes doesn’t just offer a simple definition. Instead he describes how prayer shouldn’t be transactional or ‘a performance.’ He describes the goal of prayer as ‘union with God’ and gives the example of praying Your Kingdom Come—a line lifted from the Lord’s prayer—as a short, focused prayer that reminds us (and Jesus’ disciples) that the powers we around us are not the ultimate powers. In this way, Dawes invites us to find ways to pray phrases from our Bible reading as a way of entering deeper into what the Spirit of God is saying. That is basically his method. Dawes writes, “Simple prayer is not about making prayer easier or reducing the amount our lives are devoted to prayer, it is about making it more accessible and more precise” (20).

The next seven chapters give various examples of simple prayer, and describes how to pray particular sentence prayers. Chapter 2 is devoted to describing the theology and practice of the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner). Chapter 3 discusses the simple prayer of faith, using the prayers of the Roman Centurion who told Jesus, in faith, “Say the word (and my servant will be healed),” and the desperate father who cried, “I do believe, help me overcome unbelief.” Dawes sees these sentences (“say the word” and “Help me overcome unbelief”) as simple prayers we can each pray, to teach our hearts to trust, even when faith feels feeble. Chapter 4 explores the simple prayer for forgiveness; chapter 5, prayer for unity; and chapter 6 prayers for restoration. These chapters each follow the same pattern: description of phrases drawn from the Bible and instructions on how to pray each.

In chapter 7, Dawes discusses the history of monologistos—prayers that consist of a single word or phrasein the desert tradition (notably, in John Cassian’s Conferences, and John Climicus’s Ladder of Divine Ascent (103).  Dawes, then discusses several words and phrases in scripture which have been meaningful to his own spiritual life (selah, You know me, and Hosanna)The closing chapter explores simple prayer of finding your way, or more precisely prayers that align our lives with with the things God wants to accomplish.

As you may expect, Simple Prayer is a simple book.  It is just 130 pages and is mostly devotional reflections on Bible verses with invitations to pray the phrases. Dawes has done the ground work and it is possible to use this book as a prayer guide, praying the phrases which Dawes has highlighted for us. Yet simple prayer is not simply limited to these particular words and phrases, and you can take the method Dawes employs and pray other Biblical phrases.

As with other books on prayer, reading this book does not guarantee we will become better pray-ers, but Dawes does invite us to pray and gives us an accessible and focused way to do it. There is no formalic method here like centering prayer or stages to lectio divina (though this is a form of it). As someone who hates formulas and can over-complicate things, this instructive for me. It doesn’t have to be hard, simply pray.  I give this four stars. ★★★★

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

Joel: An Introduction

The book of Joel is an enigma, smothered in mystery, wrapped in a tortilla and served to someone, somewhere. Maybe not a tortilla, but some sort of flatbread. Maybe no wrapping at all.

Its superscription identifies the book’s contents as, “The word of the LORD that came to Joel son of Pethuel” (Joel 1:1). However, it does not give us any historical indicators or points of reference. Joel’s name is a combination of the Divine names YHWH and Elohim, his father’s name means ‘youth of El.’ This is loaded with symbolism for ‘a prophet of the LORD.’ But at least in the superscription, we are given no indication if Joel prophesied to the Northern or Southern Kingdom (later references in the book and mentions of the temple indicate Judah).

This lack of historical indicators and the vagueness of the prophet’s origin make it difficult to know when this book was written. Scholarly opinion ranges from the early monarchy to the post-exilic period. An early date points to references to the temple (Joel 1:9, 13,14,16; 3:18). A late date points to the fact that there are no references to any monarchs, north or south. The early part of the book describes a locust plague  (1:1-2:27), the latter part of the book (2:28-3:21) is apocalyptic with a post-exilic flavor. So some critical scholarship questions the overall unity of the book. I don’t have a firm opinion on the date of Joel either way. I do think there are strong thematic links between the first and second halves of the book. The whole enchilada is meant to be read together regardless of the different tastes of its ingredients (thus, wrapped in a tortilla).

This lack of specific historical indicators serves us well as contemporary readers. When we read of the ecological crisis brought on by an army of locust and the ravages of war, we can enter into Joel’s metaphor. We can identify in our own personal and corporate lives, ‘the years the locust have eaten’ (Joel 2:25). When we read its apocalyptic promise of renewal, restoration, vindication, and God’s spirit poured on all flesh, we are filled with the hope of God’s work in our own contexts. As Christians, we read Joel’s promises through the lens of Jesus—the Word-made-flesh who inaugurated the coming of God’s kingdom, and Pentecost (cf. Joel 2:28-32, Acts 2), but we press forward toward the day when God’s kingdom comes in fullness and his justice reigns on the earth.

So as we look at Joel, pay attention to the ways in which the crises of Ancient Israel mirror our own economic and ecological context. These three short chapters have something to teach us.


References

Fuhr, Jr., Richard Alan & Gary Yates, The Message of the Twelve. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2016.

Garrett, Duane A. Hosea, Joel. Vol. 19A. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997.

Stuart, Douglas. Hosea–Jonah. Vol. 31. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002.

Lessons of a Good God (Hosea)

Hosea was a bad husband who publically shamed his spouse and a bad dad who saddled his children with awful names. He did all this to make vivid the message he had for a bad people, with bad leaders practicing bad religion. The final decades of Israel were marked by violence as new leaders deposed previous dynasties. They put their trust in trans-national partnerships with Egypt and Assyria. And the people followed the gods of the nations. Their idolatry was adultery, they forsook YHWH and their covenant relationship with Him. They forgot that was God that brought them into the land and gave it to them as a gift. Their practice of false religion and fertility rites (9:1-6) would not stave off famine and exile. Times of economic prosperity had led them away from their  God (10:1-2).

Because of Israel’s idolatrous heart, they were under God’s judgment. They sowed to the wind and would reap the whirlwind (8:7). Israel would be swallowed up by the nations they trusted, carried off to Assyria (8:8-9).  Hosea hoped that his people would turn their hearts back to God but they didn’t. The result was that perverted justice and coming judgment:

Sow righteousness for yourselves,
    reap the fruit of unfailing love,
and break up your unplowed ground;
    for it is time to seek the Lord,
until he comes
    and showers his righteousness on you.
 But you have planted wickedness,
    you have reaped evil,
    you have eaten the fruit of deception.
Because you have depended on your own strength
    and on your many warriors,
the roar of battle will rise against your people,
    so that all your fortresses will be devastated—
as Shalman devastated Beth Arbel on the day of battle,
    when mothers were dashed to the ground with their children.
 So will it happen to you, Bethel,
    because your wickedness is great.
When that day dawns,
    the king of Israel will be completely destroyed. (Hosea 10:12-15)

God’s judgment hangs like a cloud over the prophets’ writings. But judgment was never the final point. Revealing badness was always a secondary concern for the prophet. The primary prophetic task was to reveal knowledge of God (daath Elohim), His goodness, and turn the hearts of people back to Him. Using the analogy of marriage, Hosea reveals God’s heart—the love he had for his people.
Throughout his book, Hosea describes the Lord in heart language. When he speaks of the knowledge of God (cf. Hosea 6:6), he is describing the intimate sharing between He and his people (like the intimate knowing which marriage partners possess of one another). “The general sympathy which Hosea requires of man is solidarity, an emotional identification with God” (Abraham Heschel, The Prophets Vol. 1, New York: Harper & Colon, 1962, p60). So emotive language describes God with emotive language: “When Israel was a child  I loved him. .. (Hosea 11:1). Hear the yearning of God in this passage and the promise of restoration:
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
    How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah?
    How can I make you like Zeboyim?
My heart is changed within me;
    all my compassion is aroused.
 I will not carry out my fierce anger,
    nor will I devastate Ephraim again.
For I am God, and not a man—
    the Holy One among you.
    I will not come against their cities.
They will follow the Lord;
    he will roar like a lion.
When he roars,
    his children will come trembling from the west. (Hosea 11:8-10)

It isn’t just a prophets purpose, it the Father’s longing for his people to return to Him. He loves and longs for his people. God loves his people and even though they spurned and rejected Him, and like an adulteress chased after other lovers, God longed for their return to Him.  So while Hosea 12-13, like much of the book, describes Israel’s sin and God’s judgement for their adultery it ends with the promise of future blessing.
 I will heal their waywardness
    and love them freely,
    for my anger has turned away from them.
I will be like the dew to Israel;
    he will blossom like a lily.
Like a cedar of Lebanon
    he will send down his roots;
    his young shoots will grow.
His splendor will be like an olive tree,
    his fragrance like a cedar of Lebanon.
People will dwell again in his shade;
    they will flourish like the grain,
they will blossom like the vine—
    Israel’s fame will be like the wine of Lebanon.
Ephraim, what more have I to do with idols?
    I will answer him and care for him.
I am like a flourishing juniper;
    your fruitfulness comes from me.” (Hosea 14:4-8).
The wayward and rejected Israel is promised that God would  heal them, love them freely, That his anger toward them would cease, and he would renew his Covenant love and blessing.
When we consider our own context, Hosea has a lot to teach us. As a prophet of God he spoke God’s truth. He told his nation of their wandering heart, idolatry and their failure to follow God. And yet as God’s prophet he told the whole truth. Beyond their national apostasy stood a loving God, longing to restore his people who had good things in store for them. God who would not be angry forever and would restore, and renew covenant life with Him.
So whatever your read is of America’s social and political landscape—its decadence, the pandering to special interest and oligarchy, our tenuous relationships with other nation states, the winking at injustice when it suits our interests,  the hypocrisy of leadership, the need to drain the swamp, the subversion of Christian values, the lies of the media, the treatment of the vulnerable, and the violence or whatever other ways we’ve sown to the wind and reaped the whirlwind—God’s good news for us is this: He loves us with a faithful love and longs to turn hearts back to him. His anger doesn’t burn forever and he will restore those who turn to Him.
Who is wise? Let them realize these things.
    Who is discerning? Let them understand.
The ways of the Lord are right;
    the righteous walk in them,
    but the rebellious stumble in them. (Hosea 14:9)

Lessons for a Bad People (Hos. 4-5)

Abraham Heschel observed, “The striking surprise is that prophets of Israel were tolerated at all by their people. To the patriots, they seemed pernicious; to the pious multitude, blasphemous; to the men in authority seditious” (The Prophets: An Introduction, 19). Hosea’s message was not a popular one. The  prophet had hard words for Israel. He had to tell them they were wrong.  After the third chapter, Hosea never mentions his wife’s adultery and prostitution again, though adultery and prostitution remain his major theme. He focuses his prophetic critique on Israel’s adultery—their unfaithfulness to God.

Chapter four opens with this charge against the Israelites:

Hear the word of the LORD,  people of Israel,
for the LORD has a case
against the inhabitants of the land:
There is no truth,  no faithful love,
and no knowledge of God  in the land! -Hos 4:1 (HCSB)
A three part charge: (1) no  truth, (2) no love, (3) no knowledge of God in the land. The next two chapters, “Chapters four and five evoke courtroom imagery as evidence of these charges set forth.” (Richard Alan Fuhr, Jr. & Gary Yates, The Message of the Twelve, 73). Hosea describes Israel’s guilt—they were a bad people; however we can’t listen to Hosea’s declamation dispassionately. We too are implicated in Hosea’s threefold charge.

אֱמֶת

emet-truth, trustworthiness, and faithfulness. There was a lack of truthfulness in Israel. The people abandoned the truth and failed to act truthfully.  “There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery” Ho 4:2. The princes of Judah (the leaders of the Southern Kingdom) are also guilty of the same lies as the Northern Kingdom in moving the boundary markers (cf. Hos. 5:10).  The truth is short-shrifted as Israel chooses to chase the lie of idolatry.

What about us? Wouldn’t the prophet indict us as well? We are only a decade past the types of predatory sub-prime lending that led to a global economic collapse and the 2016 US election ended with the Electoral College disagreeing with the Washington Post about which major candidate’s lies were most significant. We decry fake news but we are each skilled at finding media outlets which gives us our preferred version of events. Untruth rules the age. Most of us are more worried about being taken in then we are about trustworthiness, and while “truth in advertising” may be the law of the land, doesn’t that sound more like a punchline?

חֶסֶד

hesed-faithful love:  The Hebrew word hesed is a covenant word. It is variously translated as loyalty, loving-kindness, faithfulness (or faithful love, as above), graciousness, goodness and mercy. This is the word used throughout the Old Testament to describe the relationship that Yahweh has with His people. Sally Lloyd-Jones’s The Jesus Storybook Bible gives one of the greatest descriptions of  hesed, “a Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love” (JSB,36).

But despite God’s covenantal commitment to his people, there was no hesed in Israel—no faithful, covenant love for God. When Hosea uses the language of adultery, he is describing  Israel’s broken covenant in chasing after other gods. Because Ancient Near East religions utilized temple prostitutes in their worship, Hosea’s language is a metaphorical description of Israel’s spiritual idolatry, and a literal fact. Baal worship involved “participating in Canaanite fertility rites and worship” (Fuhr & Yates, 74). Israel broke their relationship with God by chasing foreign gods and wanton sex:

    My people consult a piece of wood,
and their divining rod gives them oracles.
For a spirit of whoredom has led them astray,
and they have played the whore, forsaking their God.
They sacrifice on the tops of the mountains,
and make offerings upon the hills,
under oak, poplar, and terebinth,
because their shade is good.
    Therefore your daughters play the whore,
and your daughters-in-law commit adultery.
I will not punish your daughters when they play the whore,
nor your daughters-in-law when they commit adultery;
for the men themselves go aside with whores,
and sacrifice with temple prostitutes;
thus a people without understanding comes to ruin. ( Ho 4:12–14 NRSV).
Again:
    17Ephraim is joined to idols—
let him alone.
18When their drinking is ended, they indulge in sexual orgies;
they love lewdness more than their glory.
19A wind has wrapped them in its wings,
and they shall be ashamed because of their altars. (Ho 4:17–19, NRSV).
Also:
    Their deeds do not permit them
to return to their God.
For the spirit of whoredom is within them,
and they do not know the LORD. (Ho 5:4, NRSV).

Sex and religious ritual may no longer be intertwined to the same degree in our Post-Enlightenment age; but we too have forsaken our relationship with God to chase idols. This is, in Hosea’s phrase, the spirit of whoredom. It manifests itself in three ways (at least!):

  1. Alternative spiritualities– Dissatisfied with what we encounter in churches, we chase new spiritual options. For some this means choosing another religion, for many it means a choose-your-own-religion spiritualism. We blend aspects of Eastern religion, humanism, New-Age-mysticism and therapeutic pop-psychology. We end up rejecting a relationship with the God of the Bible, for some nebulous god of our own making.
  2. Materialism- Believing what we see, touch and feel, and feeling angry about injustice done in the name of religion, we deny the reality of anything that can’t be measured. We declare the supernatural a farce. We stand on evidentialist grounds (and we know that there are angles all around).  We no longer have a relationship with God, because, for all practical purposes, we live like He doesn’t exist.
  3. Whatever gets us through the night- Good old American individualism and pragmatism encourages us to find whatever it is that works for ourselves. Certainly consumerism feeds into this (retail therapy!). As does the pursuit of all kinds of pleasure, and our self-medicating strategies of distraction. If we think of God at all, it is not because we love and honor Him. We want to know what He can do for us.

Whatever causes us to sever our connection to the Triune God is adultery/idolatry. Hosea could name the god that Israel chased (Baal). Our gods are called Legion for they are many.

דַּעַת

da‘at-knowledge: “There is no knowledge of God in the Land.” They do not know the LORD (Hosea 5:4b). Israel was ignorant and lacking in a basic understanding of God:

    My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge;
because you have rejected knowledge,
I reject you from being a priest to me.
And since you have forgotten the law of your God,
I also will forget your children. (Hosea 4:6, NRSV).
Ignorance is not bliss. Israel was supposed to represent the LORD to the nations, declaring to all peoples the goodness and greatness of God. They could not mediate God’s presence to the world because they no longer knew who this God was.
Coming to terms with our own ignorance and lack of knowledge may be the most difficult charge for us to grasp; Yet where there is no truth, and no love, there is no knowledge of the Other.

❇❇❇❇


What is the lesson Hosea had for his bad people? Heschel writes, “The words of the prophet are stern, sour, stinging. But behind his austerity is love and compassion for mankind” (Heschel, 12). On Hosea in particular, he writes,”It is Hosea who flashes glimpses into the inner life of God as He ponders His relationship to Israel. In parables and in lyrical outbursts the decisive motive behind God’s strategy in history is declared. The decisive motive is love” (Ibid, 47). Hosea writes to make vivid God’s broken heart for Israel (and us) and call us to return to him. The charge has been spoken and our guilt laid bare. Yet this accusation is not meant to compound our sense of alienation. It is spoken with restorative intent:

    I will return again to my place
until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face.
In their distress they will beg my favor:
Come, let us return to the LORD;
for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us;
he has struck down, and he will bind us up. Hosea 5:15–6:1, NRSV.
The word for Israel and for us is love.

Hosea: An Introduction

Jeroboam II was king in Israel. His  purpose as leader was to “Make The Northern Kingdom Great Again!™” His own name hearkened back to Jeroboam, the leader who had wrested control of the ten tribes from the oppression from Solomon’s son, Rehoboam  (1 Kings 12).  Like all the northern leaders, the book of Kings describes Jeroboam II as evil. Listen to his-reign-adapted-refrain, “He did evil in the sight of the LORD; he did not depart from the sins of Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, which he made Israel sin” (2 Kings 14:24). But in terms of his aim at Making Israel Great Again™ he was a great success. It is too bad his restoration project never took him beyond the flawed leadership of his nation’s past.

Jeroboam II reigned for 41 years (though some of his reign may be a co-regency with his father Joash). He was able to restore, through war, land which had previously been taken from it—territory from the entrance of Hamath as far as the Sea of Arabah (2 Kings 14:25). Jeroboam’s success came because God saw Israel’s suffering, and saved them by through his hand (2 Kings 14:26-27). It was still some decades before the nation of Israel would succumb to Assyrian might and Jeroboam II’s reign was a prosperous one.

Enter the prophet.

hosea
18th Century  Russian Icon of Hosea, source: Wikimedia commons

Hosea son of Beeri, father of three and married to  a prostitute, arose sometime in Jeroboam II’s reign and called the nation to task for their sin. What were Israel’s sins? Unlike his contemporary Amos, Hosea did not single out the rich for their oppression of the poor (Abraham Heschel, The Prophets, 13).  Hosea issues sweeping allegations against the entire nation; however while it is possible to distinguish the sins of Israel from those of the common man, the state—its institutions and political and religious leaders—are explicitly critiqued in Hosea’s condemnations. He exposes the violence of kings, the lack of knowledge of God, idolatry, and Israel’s dishonest dealings.

Prophets warn of judgement, but as Abraham Heschel notes, doom and destruction are never the point. “The words of the prophet are stern, sour, stinging. But behind this austerity is love and compassion for mankind” (The Prophets Vol. 1 , 12):

The prominent theme is exhortation, not mere prediction. While it is true that foretelling is an important ingredient and may serve as a sign for the prophet’s authority, his essential task is to declare the word of God to the here and now; to disclose the future in order to illumine what is involved in the present. (ibid.)

In other words, the prophets articulated judgement, but the hope was that their words lead to the people’s repentance. As we’ll see, hope has the final word in Hosea’s presentation.

What does Hosea have to teach us?

He is a voice from the past with a troubled family life. He comes across as a jerk. He married a prostitute to teach the nation a lesson and then shamed her for being a prostitute. He purposely named his kids awful things which caused them to be made fun of on the playground. Total jerkface.

And yet, Hosea exposed the lies of the culture. He spoke truth to power and exposed the dangers of systemic violence, injustice and idolatry. We, like Hosea, have a leader committed to making our nation great again.™ Perhaps the parallels end there. But if we too are a nation marked by violence, idolatry, injustice and exceptionalism, then the prophet has a lot to teach us. . .

Blogging prophets and more, 2017

 In the great New Year’s tradition, here is my obligatory post telling you my blogging plan for the coming year.

This blog is a hodgepodge of my (mostly) religious musings. In the past I have posted poems, prayers, posts on Christian spirituality and the liturgical calendar, my thoughts on music and culture, politics and of course reviews. Most of these are searchable , though I’ve removed my two most popular posts ever. The first was a tongue-in-cheek call to boycott Christian contemporary music, with considerable snark. I pressed some real issues but many people who stumbled across my blog couldn’t get past the boycott rhetoric. The second post was considerably more vulnerable. I had a post in the aftermath of being asked to resign from a pastor position I held in Florida. My denominational conference superintendent said it made me sound like a victim and that I came across like I was blaming the church. He warned me to not blog about my failings (unless they were in far, far past) if I ever hoped a search committee to hire me as a pastor. I heeded his advice, and took the post down.

So what shall I blog about in the 2017?  Some theology bloggers are  more ambitious than I, blogging their way through Barth’s Dogmatics or some other theological tome. I don’t have the discipline or inclination for all  of that (as much as Barth is my theological man-crush). Others may be more diligent about focusing on a particular theme. This blog will remain the hodgepodge it is but I do have one idea I’d would like to work into my blogging plans: the minor prophets.  I’ve been inspired by my mad dash through the minor-prophet-sticky-pages to finish my Bible-in-a-year-reading plan and a book I blurbed through another venue this fall: The Message of the Twelve.  

The minor prophets are neither unimportant or underage, despite their collective English moniker. They have an important message for us. They call us to love mercy, do justly and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). Yet their voices remain, too often, unheard. My own spiritual journey has led me to heed their call to biblical justice, but I want to press in a little more. So here is my plan: 12 months, 12 prophets. Each month I will work into my blogging plan posts about one of the Twelve. A modest proposal to help myself (and maybe you) listen well to these prophets of old. I expect some of these guys, I will have more to say about than others.

Beyond that, expect what you expect from this blog. Occasional reflections on culture or spirituality, occasional real-life updates and reflections, thoughts, prayers & songs. And more books. I am a biblioblogger and I will continue my steady stream of book reviews and recommendations.

Happy New Year!

 

It’s Unclobbering Time!- a book review

When I hear the word clobber, I  always think of  Ben Grimm—the rock-giant dubbed “The Thing” from the pages of Fantastic Four. Ben would arrive on the scene in his blue Speedo, pummel the hoards of evil henchmen and shout, “It’s Clobbering Time!” Ben Grimm or his speedo has very little to do with the book I’m reviewing here.  Colby Martin’s Unclobber was not written as an answer to comic book violence, but to the so-called clobber passages—the six passages in the Christian Bible that directly address homosexuality used by conservatives to prove the sinfulness of the gay lifestyle.

unclobberMartin is the founding pastor of Sojourn Grace Collective , a progressive Christian community in San Diego; yet Martin didn’t start out as a progressive. He grew up conservative  and was ordained as the worship arts pastor at a conservative evangelical Bible church. However, he became increasingly uncomfortable with the traditional view of the LGBTQ community as his passion for justice, mercy and grace grew. Then his tenure at the church ended  because of one Facebook post.

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed and Martin expressed joy on social media for what he felt was the end of a discriminatory policy. This sent shock waves through his faith community. Martin was called on the carpet and asked whether or not he believed homosexuality was a sin. He presented the elders with a ten-page paper explaining his position and reading of Scripture. He was fired even though his church had never taught publicly on homosexuality. In the aftermath, the clobber passages were quoted to him ad naseum.

Unclobber is one part memoir and one part exegetical survey. The even-numbered chapters walk through the clobber passages, unclobbering them, and providing an affirming interpretation; the odd chapters describe Martin’s journey from conservative pastor to LGBTQ ally. Martin is still very much evangelical, the Bible bleeds into his story, and his testimony informs his reading of scripture. Martin wrote this book for anyone who has felt the dissonance between head and heart in their response to the LGBT community (i.e. believing the Bible clearly teaches homosexuality is a sin, but feeling affirming toward for LGBTQ neighbors and uncomfortable with some judgmental rhetoric).

Martin is an attentive reader of scripture and it is his reading of the Bible which leads him to the affirming position (when he is fired from the church, he doesn’t actually have any close gay friends). In his handling of the clobber passages he engages in narrative and canonical criticism of Genesis 19 (the one narrative clobber passage), historical criticism, rhetorical criticism and linguistic analysis. The clobber passages Martin discusses are Gen 19, Lev. 18:22; 20:13; Romans 1:26-27, 1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:10.

I like this book, in part because I like memoirs of pastors getting fired. They make me feel good. Martin’s story is a compelling read, he is funny and vulnerable. Martin also makes several strong cases in his handling of the clobber passages. He does a good job demonstrating Genesis 19 (the destruction of Sodom) has little to say about homosexuality (i.e. gang rape and inhospitality are much bigger issues in the text). He ascribes the Levitical prohibitions to a cultural, covenantal moment where Israel (possibly just the Levites) were  instructed on how to be radically different from the nations by repudiating Canaanite practices (many of the Levitical restrictions no longer apply to us, or at least not in the same way). He sets the Romans passage within the larger argument of the epistle and asserts it is possibly a Jewish quotation which Paul uses rhetorically before addressing where his Jewish readers likewise fall short of the glory of God.  With the other epistles, he discusses the nature of arkenokites and malakos  (the active and passive members of a male gay relationship, or prostitute and the John?) as describing a type of homosexual practice which bears little resemblance to committed, monogamous same-sex relationships. He opens up the possibility that some types of homosexuality are condemned in scripture, though not all.

Martin doesn’t dismiss these clobber passages, so much as offer an account of them which is self-consciously inclusive and gracious. I appreciate his commitment to wrestling with the scriptures he finds difficult rather than simply jettisoning the hard stuff. But conservatives and traditional interpreters won’t likely find Martin’s arguments compelling. He traverses similar ground similar to other pro-LGBTQ hermeneutical approaches (i.e. William Countryman, Dale Martin, Matthew Vines) which conservatives are well aware of. Occasionally I found his arguments convoluted (especially in the case of Romans). I also felt like Martin did a better job with the Old Testament passages than he did with interpreting the Pauline Epistles. Still, this remains an intelligent case for reading the Bible inclusively  from a Bible-believing cisgender, heterosexual pastor. You don’t see that everyday.

This is a worthwhile read whether you agree with Martin’s biblical interpretation or not. Conservative Christians ought to examine these clobber passages and discover what they say (or don’t say) about sexual orientation and gender. To that end, Martin is a good dialogue partner because he takes the Bible seriously and engages these texts. LGBTQ allies will appreciate Martin’s story and commitment to understanding the Gospel of Grace inclusively. Those on the fence will find plenty of food for thought. So put on your blue Speedo and attack this book. “It’s Unclobbering time!” I give it four stars ☆☆☆☆

Note: I received a galley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.