Naming the Son: a book review

Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette is well known for his cookbooks including Twelve Months of Monastery Cookbooks.  But he isn’t just a monastery chef, he is a Benedictine monk well versed in the Rule’s rhythm of work and prayer and the Great Tradition. In Christ the Merciful he skillfully weaves biblical, liturgical, monastic, ecclesiastical  and patristic sources together, providing forty-seven mediations on the many names of Jesus (not all are names, but titles, or modes of addressing and understanding Christ’s significance).  Brother Victor contends, “When we meditate on his names, Christ inspires us to revise our expectations of him. He invites us to move beyond our self-centered ideas of who we think he should be and focus instead on his ever-changing, ever-renewed presence in our lives” (introduction, ix).

christ-the-mercifulThese names for Christ are derived both from biblical source material and centuries of Christian reflection on who Christ is for us. While Br. Victor is firmly rooted in his own Benedictine tradition he draws generously on the insights of the ancient church and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Christ’s names are organized into five sections. In Part I, Brother Victor reflects on ‘Christ in Images, Names and Symbols’ Here, Br. Victor explores Christ’s divine and messianic titles—what it means to call Christ, God, the prophets’ fulfillment, the Messiah, the Incarnate One, Our Emmanuel, the Prince of Peace, the Lamb of God, Lord, Son of the Living God, Good Shepherd, Door and Keeper of the Gate. Part II  explores Christ in the gospel tradition, tracing the life of Jesus from Messianic hope and his Bethlehem birth, through His life, death, resurrection and ascension.

Part III describes some of the titles of Christ in the Byzantine (Eastern) tradition such as Christ the Pantakrator, And Christ the Philanthropos (Lover of Mankind). Part IV delves into the place of Christ in the Monastic tradition, (including the Jesus prayer and the role of Christ in a monk’s daily life and devotion). Part V explores Christ in the Human Family (Jesus the child of Mary and Joseph and his relationship to us, the poor, the angels and saints, and the Wisdom of God). At the end of the book Br. Victor has three appendixes exploring the prayers and mystical traditions of Syria, Russia and Romania, respectively.

Each of the meditations in this volume begins with relevant scripture passages, several pages of reflections from Br. Victor, and they usually close with a poetic prayer from a saint, a liturgy, or other writings from the Church’s rich theological tradition. Given the breadth of images and names and the thoughtful coherence of whole book, means that it is impossible to read through these meditations without enlarging your understanding of God’s grandeur revealed in Christ. Christians of all stripes (Catholic, Orthodox or low-roving Protestants) will find these reflections Christ centered and worshipful.

This isn’t to say that Br. Victor is exhaustive in his reflections on Christ’s many names. He doesn’t reflect on a couple of my favorite of Christ’s biblical titles, “Friend of Tax Collectors and Sinners (Luke 7:34), Great Physician (Luke 5:31), or Christ our Brother (Hebrews 2:11). His discussion of Jesus as Lord is apolitical, emphasizing the spiritual meaning but not Christ’s challenge to empire (as N.T. Wright reminds us, to say Jesus is Lord is to say Caesar is not). These omissions do not diminish Br. Victor’s fine prose. Christ is bigger than any of our reflections and all of us see now in part.

Because of the length of this book (forty-seven chapters) and its Christological focus, this would be a wonderful book to read throughout the season of Lent. Though it could really be read at anytime, by those who are interested in contemplating the Christ and  live their life in Him. I give this four stars

Note: I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.

I am Evangelical and So Can You!

Trump won and about 81% of white evangelicals helped make that reality. Translation: people who look like me, who share some of my cherished religious beliefs helped put Donald Trump in the White House. This is despite the fact he  was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, his locker-room talk normalized sexual assault, he is currently on trial for fraud, he fat-shamed a beauty pageant contestant, and admitted to going into dressing rooms while contestants were naked. Despite the fact he made fun of people with disabilities and let us not forget about the wall. He ran on a platform of xenophobia, promising to protect us from refugees, devout Muslims, bad hombre Mexicans and other widows, orphans and aliens in the land.

81% of evangelicals. Sigh. I’ve heard  progressive-minded evangelicals, disavow their evangelicalism in the wake of Tuesday’s results. It makes sense. It is easier to stop being evangelical than it is to stop being white or male (61% of white males voted for Trump and 63% of white women). Leaders who denounced Bill Clinton for his moral lapses overlooked Donald John Trump’s. Some for pragmatic reasons (i.e. Supreme Court appointments, pro-life concerns), others out of disdain for Hillary Clinton. I am part of the 19% of white evangelicals which voted the other way. I did so because Trump’s platform, tone and substance struck me as antithetical to the gospel, even if he gave lip-service to faith and pro-life concerns. Hitting a few Christian coalition talking points doesn’t transfer to a Christlike policy.

frabz-you-keep-using-that-word-i-do-not-think-it-means-what-you-think-c96affSo what does being an evangelical actually mean?

The word evangelical is so often, poorly defined. If you ask the mainstream media or the faculty of your local university, you may get the impression that evangelicals are just nicer versions of fundamentalists. Evangelicals may not boycott military funerals, hold up “God Hates Fags” protest signs like Westboro Baptist church or blow-up abortion clinics; yet some think they are cut from the same cloth. Others see ‘evangelical’ as  political speak for being ardently Pro-life and anti-LGBTQ rights.  And yes, the majority of evangelicals uphold traditional marriage definitions and the sanctity of life. None of this gets at the heart of what it means to be an evangelical.

At its heart, evangelicalism is a commitment to the ‘good news.’ (εὐαγγέλιον). This means both the good news about Jesus (John 3:16-17), and the good news he preached, “The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). The Kingdom good news was Jesus’ major theme. He announced God’s reign had come and was coming. Implicit in this was a call to live lives which reflect Christ’s reign and reconciliation:  a right relationship with God, with neighbors and enemies, and with all creation. The good news of Jesus meant good news for poor folks, freedom for prisoners, sight for the blind, and justice for the oppressed:

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16:21)

It is commitment to good news which provides the identifying marks of evangelicalism. Can you claim to be good news people and capitulate to hate and fear-mongering? Can you follow the one who tore down the dividing wall of hostility and advocate building a wall?

I am Evangelical and So Can You!

I call myself an evangelical because I believe in Jesus’ good news. Not just a little. I am sold out on it, trusting in Him for salvation and wanting to see his kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. I won’t give up the label ‘evangelical’ because the good news of Jesus Christ—his life, death & resurrection, his compassionate actions and challenging words—has shaped and is shaping who I am. I believe the Kingdom of God has come and is coming. My trust in Jesus marks me as speak_the_truth_even_if_your_voice_shakes_poster-r94702277266b4e28acece46e4bc383b0_w2y_8byvr_512a good news person. Can we call ourselves evangelicals if we have no good news right now for the frightened, disenfranchised,  the poor, the widowed, the alien and the orphaned?

My tribe didn’t vote the way I voted in this past election. Friends and family voted for Trump, some of them quite happily. Here is the thing: many on the margins are now frightened by the prospect of a Trump presidency. If you call yourself an evangelical, embrace it. Evangelical  become what you are! Because it is good news time! How are you bringing good news to the high school senior who is afraid president Trump will deport her undocumented parents?  What good news do you have for Muslim immigrants who now find this nation less hospitable? How about victims of sexual assault traumatized by this entire election cycle? People of color who fear Trump’s support of stop and frisks? The working man who is afraid he  will lose healthcare for his family when Obamacare gets repealed? It is over. Trump won (had Clinton won we would still be in desperate need of good news). Now is the time to bear good news to those who are struggling.

Half the nation celebrates, the other half mourns, the margins fear. What good news do you have for them? If you voted for Trump or Clinton, or Johnson or Stein there is room at the table.  Good news, people good news. Bring good news!

Beyond Partisan Politics

I want to begin by saying something that should be uncontroversial: Jesus is not a Republican or a Democrat. Jesus is a radical departure from politics as usual. He doesn’t endorse a candidate. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Fact-check it. And if Jesus is king, it calls into question every power, principality, party, political platform, or ideology. All of them fall short of the glory of God.

hillary_clinton_vs-_donald_trump_-_caricatures
image source: Wikimedia Commons

In the first century, Jesus had several political options available to him, but he didn’t join the party politics of his day. He came onto his own, but didn’t side with the elites (the Sadducees), the middle-class (the Pharisees), the purists (Essenes) or the radicals (the zealots). He challenged the legitimacy of Herod and he tacitly critiqued the politics of empire (in N.T. Wright’s happy phrase, “If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not”). He didn’t choose the lesser of two evils (or six evils?), he announced the game had been rigged and inaugurated a whole new way of being in the world (John 18:36-37, Mark 10:42-45 ). If we call Jesus our king, we need to follow his example in our own political engagement. Continue reading Beyond Partisan Politics

Answering Questions about the Historical Jesus: a book review

‘Q & A’ books are as good as the questions they pose and the answers they give. I enjoyed Marvin Tate’s book exploring Paul’s eschatology (Apostle of the Last Days, Kregel Academic, 2013), but I was uncertain what I would think of his take on ‘historical Jesus.’ Yet 40 Questions About the Historical Jesus does a great job of summarizing the quest for the historical Jesus and answering questions about Jesus’ life from a confessional perspective.

9780825442841The forty questions are organized under four headings, each with two sub-sections. Part 1, tackles background questions about the “historical Jesus.” The first subsection summarizes the quest for the historical Jesus. The second subsection examines the source material for Jesus (the Old Testament,  Jewish and non-Jewish sources, apocryphal gospels,oral tradition, the New Testament and archaeology). Part 2 explores the birth and childhood of Jesus, delving into Jesus’ birth, family of origin (i.e. questions about the virgin birth and Jesus’ siblings) and childhood. Part 3 examines Jesus’ life and teachings while Part 4 discusses Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.

This user-friendly book is a good apologetic resource for exploring the reliability of the Gospels and who Jesus was. Pate synthesizes insights of confessional scholarship (i.e. I.Howard Marshall, N.T. Wright, Craig Evans, Darrell Bock, etc). This is a quick-at-a-glance resource more than an in-depth exploration. I recommend this book for pastoral ministry and  campus ministries. I give it four stars.

Note: I received this book from Kregel Academic in exchange for my honest review.

Jesus Subverting Empire: a ★★★★★ book review

Craig Greenfield grew up with a ‘nice’ Jesus. The Jesus he learned about as a kid, had blond locks and the perfect beard. He was always kind, always polite. As he grew older, ‘nice Jesus’ morphed into respectable-good-citizen-Jesus: the Jesus that would save your soul -without challenging the status quo.

T240_360_book-1913-coverhen when he was twenty-two he went to Cambodia where an interaction with a beggar outside a Khmer Rouge genocide museum sent him on a path where he re-thought and re-examined who Jesus really was, why he came and what it means to follow Him. Subversive Jesus tells the story of Greenfield, his Cambodian wife Nay, and their family as they walked the subversive ways of Jesus. Greenfield journey takes him from New Zealand to the slums of Cambodia, to Vancouver’s Down-Town Eastside and to Cambodia again. Greenfield shares the insights he gained from other theologian/practitioners,  notably folks like Charles Ringma, Dave Diewert, and Dave Andrews; yet this book is primarily about what Greenfield and his family learned as they followed their subversive Jesus by challenging empire,  practicing radical hospitality, and loving and advocating for the marginalized.

Greenfield shares about hospitality and community, learning the place his children had in mission, living vulnerably and non-violently in the midst of a violent neighborhood,  and sharing with and including neighbors. Their family would have a community meals where participants cooked together and shared life around a table. Greenfield maintained a hospitable and welcoming stance toward neighbors and friends, yet he also recognized the need for proper boundaries to sustain life and ministry. Dave Andrews phrase, “Bizarre Behavior is okay. Abusive Behavior is not okay,” became a community rule (56). Greenfield observes that in the culture-at-large, the opposite is usually true (the bizarre are shunned and the abusive are praised for their strength).

Sometimes we may be tempted to think that being a Christian means being a good citizen of our country. Greenfield lives a more robust form of discipleship believing Jesus came to challenge empire and the powers of this age. This has led him to take counter-cultural (subversive) stances and the practice of resistance. Greenfield helps us see away to act faithful to God and governing authorities while resisting laws and aspects of culture that are unjust (submitting to the consequences of our resistance to unjust laws, is still submitting to government authority). For him this includes taking lemonade to drug dealers, organizing flash-mob-protests, starting community gardens, and building relationships among the marginalized.

I like this book a lot and loved hearing Greenfield’s story. This is a thoughtful, theologically rich and biblically sound account, but it is also a story of what it means to follow Jesus in broken places and a call or us also to live more courageously as we seek to follow our subversive Jesus.

One episode that was intriguing was the time, Greenfield’s community painted a pentagram as an act of worship to God and love for their neighbor. Yeah, It is terrible for me to give you that little detail without describing what actually happened or the events leading up to it. I guess you will just have to read the book yourself. I give this five stars. ★★★★★

Note: I received a copy of this book in exchange for my fair and honest review.

The Fullness of Christ in the Early Church: a book review

One of the theology profs at my grad school used to say something like, “All the new heresies are the old heresies with fresh make up and a mini skirt.” Leaving aside his troubling gendered association of apostasy, his point is a good one: there is nothing new under the sun, there are simply variations of an old theme.

9780830851270This is demonstrated in The Earliest Christologies: Five images of Christ in the Postapostolic Age James Papandrea, associate professor of church history at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary,  explores the various views of Christ in the second and third centuries (before Constantine and councils). Some thinkers in the area were Adoptionists, denying the divinity of Jesus; Others were Docetists, denying  Christ’s humanity. The middle position was Logos Christology—affirming Jesus Christ’s full  divinity and humanity and paving the way for Nicea and Chalcedon.

Papandrea explores five images of Christ in the early church. He distinguishes two different types of adoptionists: Angel Adoptionists and Spirit Adoptionists. The Angel Adoptionists held that the human Jesus was rewarded by God for his perfect obedience and given an indwelling angel. This happened proactively at the moment of his conception because of God’s foreknowledge (25-26).  Thus they accepted the Virgin Birth but neither the man (Jesus) or the indwelling angel (the Christ) were considered divine (27). They accepted the gospel of Matthew as canon and prominent teachers include the author of The Shepherd of Hermas and Lucian of Antioch (Arius’ teacher) (29-30). With this Christology, salvation is based on merit and human effort (31). Little is known about the actual lifestyle of the Angel Adoptionists (31).

Most adoptionists were Spirit Adoptionists, believing that Jesus became the Christ through the anointing of the Spirit at his Baptism (35). This gave Jesus power to perform miracles in his ministry; however the Spirit withdrew at Jesus’ passion (35). Thus the union of human to God was temporary, focused on the concept of anointing rather than indwelling (35-36). They likely used an edited form of Matthew’s gospel, excising the birth narratives (39)  The Spirit Adoptionists affirmed the preexistence of the Spirit, safegarding Jewish monotheism by removing Jesus from the realm of divinity (42). Jesus was just a man filled by the Spirit, and as such not unique (36).  Adherents of Spirit Adoptionism included Theodutus the Elder, Theodutus the Younger and Paul of Samasota (36-37). As with the Angel Adoptionists, Spirit Adoptionists were ‘optimistic about human nature’ advocating strict  adherence to the Jewish law (41). This manifested itself as a strict asceticism among adherents, vegetarianism and the use of water at the Eucharist (43).

The Docetists were also (broadly) of two types: those that denied that Jesus had a body at all (Docetism and Docetic Gnosticism),  and those that thought Jesus had a “ethereal” body which appeared human (Hybrid Gnosticsm. Hybrid Gnosticism (or quasi-docetism)  developed somewhat later, possibly in conversation with the mainstream church and a concession that Jesus did seem to actually have a body (70)  Both forms of gGnosticism demeaned matter in favor of the ‘spiritual,’ though in practice it manifested itself differently. Those who thought that Jesus’ body was an illusion, denigrated their bodies as evil and practiced asceticism (64). The Hybrids were more hedonistic, though possibly no-more than Roman society at large (82-83).  Neither type of docetist believe in Jesus humanity. Thus he has no birth,  or resurrection. Jesus was simply the offspring of gods in a polytheistic pantheon.

Papandrea presents Logos Christology as ‘the middle way’ between adoptionism and docetism:

Logos Christology, as the middle way between these alternatives, refused to allow either of Jesus Christ’s two natures to be diminished. Logos Christology embraces a full divinity that is preexistant and a true humanity with a real human body. This is a hristology of descent because the divine Logos starts out in the dine realm as equal to the Father and descends to humanity to take on our human condition (Phil 2:6-8). Furthermore Logos Christology refuses to separate Jesus from “the Christ” as though they were two separate entities, but rather consider the whole incarnate Jesus Christ as one person. (88-89).

Thus Logos Christology affirms Jesus humanity and that he is the divine Son of God, his bodily resurrection, his virgin birth, his incarnation. The practical payoff of this view is a belief in the doctrine of grace, and Christ’s atoning sacrifice, resurrection and the dignity of creation. Rather than legalism or a strict asceticism, Christians could have a more balanced approach to their bodies and matter (104).

Papandrea’s final chapter explores why Logos Christianity won, instead of these other alternatives. But he also show how these early heresies had a legacy. Adoptionism evolved into Arianism in the forth century (119). Docetic Gnosticism paved the way for modalism (120). In his final pages he observes the modern forms of Adoptionism and Doceticism (125-127). Modern day modalists and practical docetists in the church, continue to deny the dignity of embodied life. Adoptionism is seen in contemporary scholarship that draws a strong distinction between “the historical Jesus” and the “Christ of faith” (125). Old heresies remade for today.

Papandrea has produced an accessible guide to these early Christologies. It is an introductory overview, so could certainly be more detailed at points; yet Papandrea does give a good analysis of the controversies and the implications for sotierology and anthropology. This would be a good supplementary text for a systematic or historical theology course. It also has the advantage of describing the significance of these histories for today. As a pastoral leader, this book clarified my understanding of the roots of contemporary issues facing Christology in the church.  I give this four-and-a-half stars.

Note: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.

 

 

Revealing the Hidden Things: a book review

Christian films, books and TV preachers give their take on the last book of the Bible, Revelation. Speculation about end times is a Christian cottage industry with theories bandied about on things like the identity of the beast, the rapture, the role of Israel, or the nature of the judgments poured out on the earth. Revelation is written in highly metaphorical language, so there are tons of speculations. Other Christians read through Revelation once or twice but unsure of what to do with it, so they ignore it.  In The Heart of Revelation,  J.Scott Duvall offers a third way of of reading revelation. He attends to the vision of hope in the book without devolving into personal speculation about what we may or may not suffer.

TheHeartOfRevelation_hires+spine.inddAfter a brief introduction discussing the cultural context, Duvall explores the book’s message through the lens of ten themes: God, Worship, the People of God, the Holy Spirit, our enemies, our mission, Jesus Christ, judgment, new creation, and perseverance. By attending to Revelation thematically, Duvall provides a overview of the book rather than a detailed walk through the text (elsewhere he has published a commentary on revelation in the ‘Teach the Text Commentary Series).

In his introduction Duvall offers these guidelines for understanding the book: (1) attend to the meaning of the book to its original hearers in Asia Minor, (2)  Be aware of the symbolic nature of its language and (3) a focus on the main theological message of each vision (9-10).  The result is a historical-literary sensitive reading which doesn’t get caught up in theorizing about locust in smoke or Russia’s role in Armageddon (Sorry Hal). This isn’t to say that what Duvall says isn’t compatible with various eschatological options. He allows for the book’s future orientation without speculating about the minutia. His focus remains on the major themes through out the book and I think that mild Preterists, Millennialists and Dispensationalists can all read this book profitably.

The picture he paints is of a loving God who is the true center and source of life, a worshipping community drawn from every tongue, tribe and nation, a Holy Spirit who is living and active among us, an oppressor who is defeated by the cross and enemies we will overcome as we take up our cross and suffer. We also see our calling to be faithful witnesses to Jesus, the coming judgment against sin which takes seriously God’s holiness and  our human freedom, a new heaven and new earth where God will dwell with his people,  and the challenge and promise for those who persevere until the end.

If Revelation mystifies you and you want a book that helps you see the meaning and purpose of the book, this is a great place to start. Each chapter ends with a list of key texts, a reading plan and community group questions for exploring Revelation in a small group setting (or personal study).  I give this book four stars.

Note: I received this book from Baker Books in exchange for my honest review.