Open to Every Which Way the Spirit Blows: a book review

Being open to the Spirit once meant, for me, attending a charismatic church. There the works of the Spirit were front and center—prayers for healing and deliverance, prophetic words, ecstatic utterance. It was good for me to be there, to cultivate an experiential openness and allow the winds of the Spirit to blow where they would. Unfortunately, not everything I’ve experienced and witnessed at that church was the move of the Holy Spirit. I witnessed poor discernment, unhealthy dynamics, and psychological manipulation. It took me years to sort out the difference between being open to the Spirit and just being weird.

McknightOpentotheSPiritScot McKnight’s Open to the Spirit is a great overview of how to cultivate an openness to the Spirit’s movement, that attends to the Spirit’s purposes for us. McKnight is a New Testament scholar, and professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary, author of a gazillion Christian books and is a popular blogger at Patheos. This is a popular level book designed to help ordinary readers enter into and appreciate what it means to be open to the Spirit. Nevertheless, McKnight is a New Testament scholar and he seeks throughout to root his description of the Spirit’s work in the biblical text, and where appropriate, he interacts with various other biblical scholars (notably, Gordon Fee, Jimmy Dunn, Jack Levison, NT Wright, Daniel Wallace, Monica Coleman), but this remains a non-technical book, with plenty of personal examples from  McKnight’s faith journey.

McKnight explores being open to the Spirit in five areas. In Part 1, he describes being open to the voice of the Spirit (e.g., the Spirit’s witness in pointing us to Jesus, in the written words of Scripture, in prophetic utterance, and in the Spirit’s wordless, groaning intercession for us). In Part 2, he discusses being open to the Spirit’s new creation in us (e.g., God’s presence in our lives, in the Pentecost, in a new baptism, in our transforming inner self and in giving us new power).

Part 3 talks about being open to the Spirit in Christian community, in inspiring the cruciform style of Christian leadership in the way of Jesus, and in an other-oriented spirituality of love. Part 4 explores what it means to be open to the Spirit’s sanctifying work—the assurance of life in Christ, our growth in freedom and holiness (e.g. the ‘fruit of the Spirit) and living towards the good.

Finally, part 5 explores being open to the victory the spirit brings over sin, victory in communication (e.g. tongues, prayer, and evangelism), victory over sin and death, victory over demonic powers, structural evil and victory in worshipping God.

Because McKnight focuses on the role of the Spirit in the Bible (with a special focus on the New Testament), he acknowledges and describes charismatic phenomenon without laying the emphasis on the strange and esoteric. McKnight’s emphasis is always on what the Spirit of God wants to accomplish in us if we allow ourselves to be open to the Spirit’s multifaceted work in our lives. Each chapter explores a dimension of the Spirit’s work and closes with a question asking if we are open to the Spirit’s work (e.g. “Are you open to the Spirit who speaks in the Living Word and takes you to Jesus?” – pg 27; “Are you open to the Holy Spirit who brings you new power?”- pg 95; “Are you open to the wild freedom of the Spirit?” -pg 147; “Are you open to the Spirit who grants victory in communication, sometimes in miraculous ways?” -pg 179.

Three times McKnight includes a prayer of openness to the Spirit for readers to pray as they read (in the introduction, on page 70, and on page 204):

Lord, I am open to the Holy Spirit.

Holy Spirit, Come to me, dwell in me, speak to me

so I may become more like Christ.

Lord, give me the courage to be open,

Lord I am open to the Holy Spirit.

Come Holy Spirit

Amen.

McKnight’s goal is that in reading the stories he shares (his own and others) and in reflecting on the Spirit’s movement throughout the biblical text, we will be open and the Spirit of God would move in us. This is a good book to read prayerfully and expectantly. Are you open to the Spirit? Sometimes the Spirit moves in weird ways, but always with the purpose of bringing us into a deeper experience of the Kingdom of God. McKnight names the way the Spirit directs, intercedes, inspires, renews, brings intimacy with God, knits Christian community together, and compels us to work toward healing and justice, to the glory of God.  I give this five stars. – ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from the blogging for books program and Waterbrook Multnomah in exchange for my honest review.

 

Spirit Body Mind Health: a book review.

We all want thrive at life. Certified nutritionist, co-pastor, poet and playwright, Laura Harris Smith wrote The Healthy Living Handbook to offer a holistic approach, helping us thrive in our spirits, minds and bodies. Building on her previous book, The 30-Day Faith Detox, Smith describes 30 healthy habits, to put and pray into practice over the course of  30 days. She organizes these habits into habits for the Spirit (i.e. the Christian life, and having a healthy spiritual life), habits for the mind, and habits for the body. Smith has some decent life advice to dole out, but I had issues with much of her approach.

9780800797881Smith begins her survey of life habits with a focus on the spiritual. Because her background is Pentecostal/Charismatic movement, this is where this section begins. The first three habits describe being open to miracles and the supernatural, praying in a prayer language (AKA tongues) and the experiencing the baptism of the Holy Spirit. She next focuses on cultivating habits such as: daily bible reading, respect for authority, weekly church attendance, guarding our personal salvation, trusting in Christ, choosing faith and ‘dodging doubt’, and having the assurance of salvation.

The charismatic emphasis (and the Arminian emphasis on working out your salvation) may be off-putting to some readers. But my issues begin with her ideas about honoring authority. For example, in describing how spiritual healthy people crave opportunities to show honor, she writes, “I would rather be physically ill than to dishonor a pastor or other spiritual mentor, and I trust I will continue to reap honor from my own congregants as a result” (59). This sort of sentiment is really common in the charismatic movement, and sometimes results in an unquestioning obedience and reverence of the senior pastor. In a #metoo/#churchtoo age, I think this message of honor and respect needs to be balanced with a message of holding leaders to account. There are rebels without a cause, but just as often, and far too often is there abusive structures that need to be called to account.

But another troubling side of the spiritual advice that Smith gives, is how me-centered it all is. I know, not a fair critique of self-help book, but following Jesus is a life on mission, announcing the Kingdom of God and transforming the culture. The charismatic signs and wonders side of the spiritual life, is framed by Smith, as entering fully into all God has for us. And she gives advice about practices that cultivate our spiritual lives (reading the Bible, praying, going to church, knowing we’re saved). The section on knowing we are saved, does briefly talk about sharing our salvation story in evangelism, and that would be the whole emphasis on mission in the whole ‘spirit’ section of the book. If I wasn’t reviewing this book, I probably would have quit reading this book at this point. It isn’t that I don’t value the spiritual aspect to life and faith in Jesus, it is that the message of the Kingdom of God is short-shrifted by Smith’s approach to Spiritual health.

But the other sections of the book did have some useful life advice to offer, however. The mind section focused on cultivating organizational habits, being kind and courteous, smiling and laughing, avoiding stress, ‘refusing’ discouragement, cultivating good boundaries, healthy relationships, and forgiving others. The ‘mind’ section didn’t have much to say about cultivating the intellectual life, but there was practical tips for navigating life and keeping a positive outlook. Yay.

The final section, draws more heavily on Smith’s expertise as a nutritionist. She describes the journey of improving personal nutrition (e.g. eating a rainbow of fruit and vegetables, limiting meat, sweets and wheat, avoiding fast food, getting a good night’s sleep, exercise and watching your weight, using essential oils, and drinking plenty of water. This is the section that is the most practical and helpful, and found myself far less disgruntled in this section than I was in other sections of the book.

I am totally on board with healthy living, and like that Smith takes a holistic approach. However there was too much in this book I found problematic for me to feel like recommending it to others. I gave it 2 stars.

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

 

The Pain of Labor and the Birth of Hope: a ★★★★★ book review

Pain marks our journeys. Pain is borne alone. 

Rachel Marie Stone is an English teacher and the celebrated author of Eat with Joy (IVP, 2013), the 40th Anniversary edition of the More With Less Cookbook (Herald Press, 2016), and numerous articles on justice, faith, food, public and maternal health. In her new memoir, Birthing Hope: Giving Fear to the Lightshe opens up about the ways pain has shaped her journey, alongside risk, anxiety, tenderness, and hope.

4533Stone describes the birth of her children (she is the mother of two boys), her family and personal history with osteogenesis imperfecta (O.I) (a genetic condition, she also passed on to her children), her teenage diagnosis of Scoliosis and the anxieties which have plagued her through life.  She opens up about a painful chapter when she and her husband Tim were in Mawali teaching at a Presbyterian Seminary that was marred by scandal, and the anxiety-ridden weeks after Stone caught the newborn baby of a HIV positive mother with her ungloved, cuticle-chewed and papercut fingers (Stone is an American doula who was in a Mawali hospital to observe).  There were also life-threatening illnesses in Mawali that affected her and her family (e.g. the dehydration that accompanies malaria). Later, she described to a group of beer-drinking-hipster pastors that her whole time in Mawali felt like a miscarriage.

Stone is open and vulnerable about the painful parts of her story, and the particulars of her story are pretty different from my own. As a man, I will never know what it is like to carry a tiny, invasive being inside my own body, much less the pain of labor. I have never gone to Africa or been exposed directly to the threat of HIV. Though I have had my own anxious encounters and painful life chapters that have felt like miscarriages. There are worries I carry and episodes I can’t put a pretty bow on. As different as our stories are, Stone opens up for me a space to reflect on the ways pain and fear have shaped my own journey.

But Stone’s book is not just a book about the pain and anxiety, but about hope. Hurt and joy come intertwined. And so the osteogenesis imperfecta that plagues her family story, also reveals a rootedness—a connection to her mother, grandmother, and great-grandparents. The pain of birth and bearing children is intermingled with the joys (and travails) of motherhood, and the special, physiological and psychological attachment between her and her children. Even the painful feeling of miscarriage in her time in Mawali comes commingled with relationships and connections she and her husband made there. While the pain was hers alone to bear, she was strengthened in her journey by sympathetic guides, a supportive family, and joyful encounters with others.

Hope is born as Stone risks, faces down the pain, endures and emerges. Birthing is a poignant image. I underlined several passages. I particularly loved the “Blood” chapter when Stone describes the messiness of birth, relating it to the incarnation of Christ (calling the often misogynistic Christian tradition to task for the ways they sanitize Christ’s birth).  I also loved how her own experience of pain and bringing life into the world gives her compassion and extend forgiveness toward’s mothers facing hard choices who chose to abort, even those in her own family history.  Perhaps one of the gifts of pain is it gives us empathy and compassion for the painful journeys of others.

This is a great book. Read it. I give it 5 stars. – ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received an electronic copy of this book from the author and publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Imagine True Religion: a book review

Most of us don’t like religion. Instead of having religious vocations like monks and nuns, we are the nones-and-dones. The ranks of exvangelicals swell as people leave churches marked too often by unhealthy power structures, patriarchy, prejudice, and a near lack of inclusion. But even among those of us still in the Evangelical Christian sub-culture, there is little enthusiasm about religion, as such. Evangelicals decry “Religion” as a human attempt to please God which had very-little-to-do with the Jesus revealed in the Bible. Religion, we say, is spelled D-O; Christianity was spelled D-O-N-E. Religion is a set of rules. We have a relationship. But for all our religious handwringing and bad spoken word poetry about how we aren’t in any way whatsoever religious, we had just as many rites, rituals, and dogma as everyone else.

978-1-63146-666-3Greg Paul doesn’t buy this evangelical antireligious rhetoric.  In his introduction to Resurrecting Religion, he recounts listening to a speaker at a large missional Christian conference rage against religion and thinking, “What is it we’re doing here? Isn’t all this, umm, religion? Wouldn’t anybody else say this is religious activity? Simply saying that we’re not religious doesn’t make it so. Are we fooling ourselves?” (xiii).  Rather than rail against religion, Greg Paul sees bad religion as our real problem: combative, legalistic, hierarchical, soul-numbing and functionally irrelevant, bad religion.

In the book, Greg probes how true religion calls us to care for the widows and orphans and keep ourselves from corruption(James 1:27). In retooling religion, he makes use of the book of James to show us how true religion compels us to care for those on the margins (not the center and the status quo). As a pastor, and therefore career ‘religious guy,’ he has plentiful examples of how he has tried to live this out within the context of the urban church he pastors in Toronto, Sanctuary.

I first became aware of Greg Paul’s work through his book God in the Alley (Shaw, 2004). That book described Paul’s seeing Christ’s presence among Toronto’s inner-city homeless population. Simply Open (Thomas Nelson, 2015) and Close Enough to Hear God Breathe (Thomas Nelson 2011) were about the cultivating our awareness of God in pray and in all of life. These all point to a contemplative awareness. In this sense, Greg Paul is kind of what I would call an evangelical mystic. The religious spirituality he describes in Resurrecting Religion is a spirituality of the Beatitudes—one that makes space for the oppressed and the vulnerable in the life the faith community, a spirituality of listening and a spirituality of submission to God in the face of life’s trials.

Greg Paul calls us not to throw off our religious chains, but toward a new reformation where our ideas of religion are overhauled and renewed as we seek to care for the vulnerable, show equal regard for all people regardless of their socioeconomic status, and follow Jesus. Because the epistle of James is G. Paul’s guide, he doesn’t focus on liturgy and ritual like other pro-religion books might (such as James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom). His focus, and in large part people’s problem with religion, is how we are to relate to one another. His closing chapter, “a twenty-first-century reformation” sets the trajectory he thinks our religiosity ought to take:

  •  Following Jesus away from the place of power, privilege, and security to the margins and the vulnerable.
  • An integrative approach to the gospel that holds up both a comprehensive theology of the Kingdom of God and pursues a vibrant, living relationship with Jesus.
  • The pursuit of justice and speaking up on behalf of the oppressed.
  • Directing our energies and resources outward not on our own church building and culture.
  • Commitment to community and to the values of the Kingdom of Heaven beyond our own economic interests, political affiliations.

Greg argues for a recovery of a religious, prophetic witness:

We would not keep silent when people who are poor are blamed for their poverty; when another young black man is unjustly shot and killed by police; when another First Nations woman goes missing and no investigation is begun; when supports for people who are addicted, mentally ill, or homeless are slashed again,; when unjust laws that target the poor are passed .We would claim those people as our brothers and sisters and raise our voices in support. We would abandon political-party allegiances and vote according to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Those of us who are politicians or police officers or social workers or employees of banks and large corporations or military personnel or church workers would stand and speak loudly, if necessary as ones crying in the wilderness, about the injustice that infects the cultures within which we work and spreads to the world around us. (200).

When I picked up this book I expected it to be a sort of apologia for religion for our spiritual-but-not-religious age. Instead, this book is more of a manifesto for Christians to pursue True Religion in the way of Jesus. There are lots of stories from Greg’s ministry and the community of Sanctuary. I give this four stars and recommend it for pastors and ordinary readers who are tired of the same old bad religion and long for something more life-giving. -★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from NavPress and the TyndaleBlogNetwork in exchange for my honest review.

Putty in Christ’s Hands: a book review

Putty Putman, AKA “Heart-throb” Rob Putman (okay, maybe just Rob Putman, I don’t know), was finishing up his Ph.D. in theoretical physics at the University of Illinois when the reality of the Holy Spirit came rushing into his life. Today. he is the founding director of the School of Kingdom Ministry (SoKM) in Urbana, Illinois, as well as serving in leadership roles in preaching and executive teams for the Vineyard Church of Central Illinois. He wrote Living Like Jesus: Discovering the Power & Impact of Your True Identity to help Christian’s experience more fully the presence of the Kingdom of God in our midst, and the experience of forgiveness, righteousness, and authority Christ offers as we share in his Divine Presence and are transformed into His likeness.

9780800798529Putman aims at enlarging our vision of the gospel of Jesus (chapter 1). In chapter 2 he describes the gospel he thought he knew—Jesus the sin sacrifice for humanity. He acknowledges that this is part of the gospel, but he posits that this doesn’t give us a full picture of the life in the New Covenant which Jesus ushered in.  In chapter 3, he examines how the Fall (Genesis 3) turned humans into broken image bearers, caused our loss of dominion (because we handed it over to Satan), and broke our relationship with God (61-62).  Chapter 4 discusses how the problems present in the Fall were addressed in Jesus (our identity and authority restored, and we now live with Christ in us.

These first four chapters, provide kind of the theoretical framework for what follows. In chapters 5 through 7, Putnam describes how the gospel transforms us: makes us new, gives us a new nature,  and forgives us and frees us from the demands of ‘the law.’ In chapter 8, Putnam explores the reality of the Kingdom of God as a demonstration of God’s power, made evident primarily through signs, wonders and the driving out demons. In chapter 9 through 10, he encourages us to walk in the reality of Christ living in us, transforming us into his likeness, us living from this new center, and bringing God’s presence with us wherever we go.

There are a number of things about this book I want to commend. First off, one of the ways Charismatic Christians challenge me, in a good way, is to be expectant about seeing God’s supernatural activity in this world, now. Putnam, expects God to act in his life. He expects Christ’s presence to transform a believer’s life. This kind of expectancy is really good. Secondly, I think Putnam names the problem of a too narrow definition of the gospel (e.g., sin management and getting into heaven when you die), and posits a bigger, more expansive vision of what life in Christ is like—a lifestyle characterized by Christ’s righteousness, Christ’s authority, and Christ’s divine presence. There is something inspiring about that! Third, I think Putnam’s emphasis on our transformation into Christ’s likeness is profoundly right. Fourth, there is a missional awareness in Putnam’s writing of how we carry Christ’s presence to the world. This is all very good.

Nevertheless, I had some issues with the book. While I applaud Putnam’s widening of the gospel, from a Shekinah-Pie-in-the-Sky-when-you-die promise to something more expansive and transformative, he doesn’t interact with much biblical scholarship, some of which would have sharpened his case. For example, N.T. Wright, Matthew Bates, Scot McKnight, Dallas Willard have all wrote important books widening our understanding of what the gospel is. The only one of these guys referenced is Scot McKnight, briefly, in a Christianity Today article (not The King Jesus Gospel or a Fellowship of Differents). These scholars would sharpen his vision of the New Covenant we are called to live in. In fact, Putnam’s book is almost wholly lacking in any substantive references.  His biblical languages references are Thayer’s Lexicon, Strong’s, and The Blue Letter Bible, with no more recent or comprehensive scholarship in biblical languages, theology, or biblical studies. There are 5 good quotes from church fathers on page 168, though, sp I guess that’s something.

Also, I find it problematic that he prioritizes signs and wonders, and deliverance as ‘the Kingdom of God.’ Clearly these are meant as signs of the kingdom which demonstrate God’s authority, but by seeing them as the central, and fundamental demonstration of the Kingdom (in opposition to Satan), Putnam spiritualizes and depoliticizes the kingdom language of the Gospels (Gospel is also political language in the first century, but not covered here). He calls on Christians to pray for healing (which I do), but social concern seems to take a back seat to these more otherworldly, supernatural demonstrations of power. He does eventually get to social transformation:

The Kingdom is bigger than healing, deliverance, or prophecy. It  includes financial breakthrough and social equality. It involves people growing in the wisdom of God and finding innovative solutions to the problems of society. It includes people coming into relationship with Jesus and broken familes and relationships made whole. (154).

But while the end result may be social change, “The first link in the chain is the miraculous, and the miraculous is meant to be woven through all facets of the Kindom of God, redefining our world” (154). Perhaps, but Jesus wasn’t crucified for healing the blind and the lame. He was crucified for chasing the money lenders out of the temple, for challenging the status quo, and unsettling the powerful from their thrones. There is a political dimension to the Gospel of the Kingdom that is under-represented here.

Thirdly,  I am occasionally troubled by the direction Putnam goes with his theology. For example, he argues that the Law (Torah) was not God’s original intent for Israel but was given to them as an afterthought when the Exodus community was too afraid to approach God (Ex 20):

The Israelites asked for a different relationship from what God intended. They basically told Moses, “We don’t want to be priests. We want you to be priests. we want you  to be the priest. We don’t want direct access to God. We want something between God and us to protect us because He’s scarey” (125).

So, according to Putnam, God gave Israel Torah as a concession and it was not part of his intent. The Law brought wrath and Israel now needed a redeemer because the Law introduced the notion of keeping score (128). If you follow the logic, Putnam makes it sound like the cross because of a necessity because of something God did, and not fundamentally because of God’s plan for human redemption. This is antinomian and it problematizes Jewish spirituality. Jesus came not to abolish the law but fulfill it (Matthew 5: 17). I can’t follow Putnam too far down the road.

Fourthly, I simply don’t buy every charismatic experience that Putnam describes in this book. It is not that I don’t think that God can’t or does not heal. But when Putnam describes how he felt his vertebrae come apart while he was playing with his daughter, and was healed at the moment he thought: Jesus lives in me, I call B.S. (Bible Study) on his whole anecdote (170). This sounds too Word of Faith-ish for my tastes.

So while I liked elements of this book, I still found enough that bothered me. In the end, I could only give this a middle of the road review, three stars. – ★★★

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

Do You Mind? a book review

My own interest in mindfulness is spiritual. Sure, it has its roots in Buddhism and I am very much on the Jesus-y Christian end of the world religious spectrum, but as my spiritual director observed, “All prayer begins with something like mindfulness”— paying attention to yourself, your world, and God. So, I picked up Mind Your Life: How Mindfulness Can Build Resilience and Reveal Your Extraordinary in the hopes that it could help me move past my own anxious feelings and my Spiritual ADHD.

mindyourlifecoverMeg Salter is a mindfulness coach and Integral Master Coach™ who explores how mindfulness can help each of us experience life more fully, be more present and have greater resilience. She tells the story of her own mindfulness journey, and shares stories of how others journeyed toward greater mindfulness, discusses its benefits. She also offers a “Unified Mindfulness System” composed of three attentive skills, three types of practices and a variety of practices, related to the three types (83). The three skills are (1) concentration, (2) sensory clarity and (3) equanimity (allowing experiences to come and go without a push and pull or trying to manipulate them). The three types of practices involve appreciating ourselves and our world, transcending our self and world and nurturing our positive selves and our world (95). Three chapters (chapters 7 to 9) describe a variety of practices as they relate to each of the practice types.

There are some super-duper benefits to mindfulness. When you begin to practice it, you are more alert, more resilient, less anxious, less stressed and you get a good night’s sleep because you have no insomnia. You even smell better. Okay, I made up that last one. People who practice mindfulness may still smell bad, but because of their non-judgmental stance toward themselves, they feel a lot better about it.

I appreciated this book. Mindfulness practices (e.g. cultivating awareness of our breath and body in sitting practice, or taking note on our internal experience throughout the day) easily maps upon a variety of Christian practices, even if this is not an explicitly Christian book (it isn’t explicitly anything, except integral spirituality™). I made several notes in the margins and flags some of these practices to try to press into later. Her sitting practice aims at about 10 minutes of intentional practice (which is more doable than the 20-25 other mindful authors tell you to aim for).  I also appreciate that Salter pulls out of her coaching arsenal an exercise of creating a ‘mindfulness topic statement’ to help clarify both our future hopes for mindfulness and our present discomfort (there is a worksheet in the book, to create one, three different times). I give this book three-and-a-half-stars ★★★½

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from SpeakEasy in exchange for my fair and honest review.

 

Rediscover and Recover Paul: a book review

I previously reviewed David Capes, Rodney Reeves, and E. Randolph Richards’ Rediscovering Jesus  (IVP Academic, 2015) That book was an evocative and whimsical look at both biblical images of Jesus in the New Testament and later cultural portrayals of Jesus (e.g. Gnostic Jesus, Jesus in Islam, Mormon Jesus, the cinematic Jesus, and American Jesus, etc).

5191However, that book was not Capes, Reeves and Richard’s first collaboration. Way back in 2007 they published Rediscovering Paul: an Introduction to His World, Letters, and Theology I did not have the privilege of reading the first edition, but there is now a second edition (Nov 2017), which has been expanded to include recent Pauline research, and new material for the “So What?” and “What’s More?” sections (I’ll explain what these are below). This is a non-technical, introductory textbook which examines the life and thought of the Apostle Paul.

Capes is the associate dean of biblical and theological studies and professor of New Testament at Wheaton, Reeves is the dean and biblical studies professor at the Court Redford College of Theology and Ministry, and Randolph is provost and professor of biblical studies at Palm Beach Atlantic University.  In addition to their collaboration, each has penned monographs on Paul (Capes’s The Divine Christ: Paul, the Lord Jesus, and the Scriptures of Israel, forthcoming from Baker Academic; Reeves’s Spirituality According to Paul, IVP Academic, 2011; and Randolph’s Paul Behaving Badly, IVP 2015). 

Each of the book’s twelve chapters includes two types of text boxes. The “So What?” discusses why the topic being discussed (e.g. an aspect of Paul’s life, theology or interpretation of his letters) should matter to us. The “What’s More” sections provide supplementary information to aid our rediscovery of Paul. Additionally, each chapter (except for the last one), closes with suggestions for further reading, and there is a Pauline studies glossary and bibliography at the back of the book.

Chapter 1 describes Paul’s thought world—his Jewish Diaspora, Mediterranean Greco-Roman context and his understanding and his use of Greek Rhetoric. Chapter 2 delves deeper into Paul’s biography and his ‘Christophany’ as described in Acts and Galatians. Chapter 3 discusses Paul’s letter writing (i.e. his format, literary devices and writing process). Chapters 4 through 9 provide brief overviews of each of Paul’s letters. Chapter 10 describes the influences on, and influence of Paul’s theology and spirituality. Chapter 11 explores Paul’s literary legacy and the journey his writings took toward canonization. Chapter 12, concludes the book with reflections on how Paul has been read through church history and what contemporary issues he peculiarly speaks to.

Because this is an introductory textbook, Capes, Randolph and Richards do not break a lot of new ground. However, they give you an overview of Pauline studies from a scholarly, confessional perspective. That doesn’t mean they don’t engage critical scholarship though they tend to favor a more traditional and New Perspective sympathetic approach to Pauline research (though they will critique both traditional and New Perspective approaches gently along the way)

One of the places where it may matter is in terms of Pauline authorship. They begin their survey of Paul’s letters with the uncontested books: Galatians, Thessalonians, Corinthians, Romans before turning to more contested Prison letters (Philippians, Colossians, Ephesians) and pastorals (Timothy and Titus). (Philemon is also clearly Pauline, but discussed with the later Prison letters because of its relationship to Colossians). However, Capes, Reeves, and Randolph argue, along traditional lines, that Paul is indeed the author of all the books in the New Testament which bear his name. They account for the stylistic and grammatical differences between the various books by the occasional nature of each letter, the communal process of ancient letter writing and Paul’s use of secretaries for preparing each of his letters (103-105). They note:

Apollonarius’s secretaries clearly accounted for the considerable stylistic differences in his letters. Scholars of Cicero indicate that Cicero’s letters varied considerably in vocabulary and style. In fact, some letters are stylistically more similar to the letters of others than to his own. Since secretaries often caused minor differences in the letters of other writers, we should allow this for Paul’s letters. Letters may vary because the secreatries varied. (106).

They review some of the arguments against Pauline authorship in their discussion of the Prison and pastoral letters, as it relates to each of the letters, but they maintain Pauline authorship in each case.

Critics of Paul malign him as chauvinist, sexist, homophobic and judgmental. Capes, Reeves and Randolph note that “Caricaturing Jesus as loving and Paul as judgmental is incredibly misleading because they are so distorted: for example, more than anyone else, Jesus is the one who preached about hell. Paul never mentions it” (402). They note Paul’s opposition to homosexuality but note the differences between Ancient Rome’s sexual practices and our own (and that Paul doesn’t signal same-sex practice out in particular but lists it alongside other sins, like gossiping). They contextualize Paul’s comments about women. This book doesn’t answer any of these questions to my satisfaction, but the authors take care to read Paul well and point at some of the inherent issues in interpreting the text.

In general, this is a pretty solid introduction to the writing and thought of Paul, appropriate for college undergrads. It leaves off the more technical discussions and summarizes the contours of debates. The surveys of the letters may also be useful for those who are preaching or teaching through one of Paul’s epistles and would like a birds-eye-view of the letter and its theology. Unfortunately, at 462 pages, this book is likely to scare off the general reader, though it is certainly accessible enough.

It is unsurprising that I liked Rediscovering Jesus more than Rediscovering Paul. After all, if I had to choose between those two, it would be Jesus every time. Still, while this book lacks some of the whimsy of their Jesus volume, this book does a great job of describing Paul’s thought and impact. I give this four stars. ★★★★

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