Reading the Prophets of the Apocalypse: a book review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open Heart Surgery to Open Heart Life: a book review

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

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

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

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

From Russia with Love: a music review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Word, Sacrament & Spirit: a book review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Exodus to Freedom: a book review

As I write this, we are at the beginning of Passover, a celebration of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and the beginning of their long sojourn to the Promised Land. Israel’s Exodus wasn’t just its liberation of Egypt, but it encompassed the forty-year wilderness journey with forty-two different campsites and G-d’s covenant with Israel at Sinai.  Both Christians and Jews read the Torah, and the Exodus story,  as Scripture, looking for what deeper meaning it has for life. Christians describe Jesus as our Passover lamb and appropriate Jewish traditions of liberation and salvation. Unfortunately, we haven’t often paused to listen to how Jewish interpreters understand our shared scriptural tradition.

reimagining-exodus  Rabbi David Zaslow is no stranger to the interfaith discussion. His award-winning book, Jesus First Century Rabbi, explored the Christian gospel from a Jewish perspective (I review that book here). As the synagogue leader of Havurah Shir Hadash in Ashland, Oregon (not too far away from my home in Medford), workshop leader and media pundit, he has deepened the dialogue between Jews and Christians.

His newest book, Reimaging the Exodus: A Story of Freedom builds a bridge between Judaism and Christianity while respecting the unique features of both religious traditions.  Zaslow happily notes the common themes of Passover and the cross, Exodus and Easter. Yet, he also notes ways in which Christians have bowdlerized the Jewish tradition with a replacement theology that demeans the sacred history of the Hebrew Bible.

Zaslow’s book divides into five parts (so did his last book. Self-conscious patterning after the Torah?). Each section is distinct in style and purpose. In part one, Zaslow describes the significance of the Exodus for the Jewish tradition—G-d’s liberation of Israel and their forty-year, two-hundred-mile journey, learning to walk in freedom. Part two offers a Midrashic interpretation of twenty passages from the Torah (mostly drawn from Exodus, but also Numbers and Deuteronomy). Zaslow’s commentary on the passages is scholarly and rich, but suggestive and evocative. Part three explores the common themes and key differences between a Jewish understanding of Exodus and the Christian Easter. Part four discusses in more detail the ways Christians (and Jews) have historically appropriated and misappropriated the tradition to justify various agendas (i.e. Puritans settling the New World, American Colonialism, the American Revolution against British Tyranny, Civil War Southern’s against the North,  Mormons, Civil Rights advocates, etc). Part five has personal stories (and a poem) of where Zaslow has seen Exodus reimagined in interfaith contexts (including an interfaith Good Friday service with a Portland synagogue, and stories from a model seder Zaslow leads in a Catholic parish).

Zaslow has an irenic nature and looks for ways that Christians and Jews can connect with each other and find common spiritual ground. He is respectful of what is distinctive in Christian theology and practice, but he is not afraid to offer a sharp critique of Christian supersessionism and replacement theology. Too many Christians have treated the Old Testament and Jewish Tradition as a mere prequel and failed to listen to the insights of Judaism. In Zaslow’s early book (Jesus First Century Rabbi) he engaged the Christian gospel traditions. This book invites Christians to a similar engagement with Judaism. Beyond just mining the text for Christological insights, the Exodus has a lot to teach us about what it means to be human and to be spiritual. Rabbi Zaslow’s evocative Midrash reveals as much.

I give this book five stars and recommend it for Christians, Jews and those who are spiritual but don’t sit easily in either world.  Zaslow invites us to a journey toward freedom, ” Just as the Exodus began with a catastrophe of enslavement but led to a great redemption, so we pray to God that the catastrophes of our own era are merely preludes to an even greater redemption and the liberation of all humanity as well as the planet” (33). ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I recieved a copy of this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.

The Spirit in the Letter: a book review

There was a time I didn’t know who Henri Nouwen was. His name wasn’t bandied about very often in the church I grew up in. I was in my twenties before I discovered him. He had already passed away. I was in a Christian bookstore and saw a cardboard cut out of a middle-aged man with disheveled hair and aviator-framed bifocals. It was a display for a book of remembrances from those touched by Nouwen’s life.

I didn’t buy the book but I got hold of some Nouwen’s other books (they are called legion for they are many). I read Reaching Out, and a couple of his shorter works.  My appreciation for Nouwen continued to grow. Books like The Return of the Prodigal Son, The Wounded Healer, Making All Things New, and In the Name of Jesus have stamped themselves on my heart and I return to them each every so often. I’ve appreciated the depth of Nouwen’s spiritual insight, his warm pastoral concern and the vulnerability of his reflections.

NouwenLove, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life reveals a less public and polished Nouwen (the one with the disheveled hair).  This collection of letters, collected and edited by Gabrielle Earnshaw, reveal Nouwen at three distinct stages of life. The letters in Part I (December 1973-1985) are from the period where Nouwen taught at Harvard and Yale but felt called away from academia to L’Arche, a community of care sharing life with the profoundly disabled. Part II (1986-1989), has letters from Nouwen’s early days at L’Arche, his interpersonal struggles, and his fight with depression and anxiety.  Part III (1990-1996) contains letters from Nouwen’s final years where he felt freer and more at ease.

There is a big range in these letters. Some of them are addressed to readers or folks whom he led in retreat asking for spiritual life or overcoming struggles. Some letters were to friends whom he has shared life with and confidants he trusts. Some letters were from colleagues and fellow authors with whom he shares an affinity and mutual academic interest who he wished to encourage. Some letters were for people he was planning a retreat or conference with. Nouwen is attentive to each type of recipient. Several times he sent along a copy of one of his books.

I like books of letters and have read several. Letters reveal some of the thinking behind an author’s published works and clarify their ideas. They give us a glimpse of how a person cares for those in their sphere of influence. I really appreciate this collection for the way it reveals Nouwen to me and clarifies his thinking. Some of these letters describe the angst Nouwen felt as he struggled with his sexuality and his desire to remain faithful to his vocation (Nouwen was same-sex attracted but called to the celibate priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church). Other letters reveal Nouwen sharpening his thought in conversation with friends, or clarifying his thinking for inquirers.

One gem I unearthed reading this, was his response to Sister Anna Callahan (letter dated October 31, 1988). He clarifies his Wounded Healer concept in response to a paper she wrote, “You write, ‘Nouwen would agree that we minister best out of our needs and our wants[sic].’ This is incorrect. It doesn’t really represent my thinking. My opinion is not that we minister best out of our needs and wounds but that we minister best when we have recognized our needs and have attended to our own wounds”(195).

I highly recommend this book for Nouwen fans. Readers of Nouwen will be familiar with many of Nouwen’s ideas, but seeing how he responds to readers who contact them in the midst of their own dark night, or colleagues who are struggling with their vocation, showcase  Nouwen’s pastoral skill and deep love for people. I give this book five stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the publisher through the Blogging For Books program in exchange for my honest review.

A Disentangled Diety: a book review

Keith Giles is an Anabaptist in the house church movement.  His new book, Jesus Untangled is an attempt to disentangle Jesus from the political Right. He doesn’t advocate for wedding Jesus to the Left either. The problem with American Christianity is that Jesus is so enmeshed with nationalism that we fail to see Jesus on his own terms. In 186 pages, Giles offers his diagnostic of American Christianity and offers a solution: the recovery of Jesus as the central component of Christianity. The implication is that following Jesus chastens our nationalism, empire building, militarism, and violence.

Lju_mockupike others in the Anabaptist tradition, Gile harkens back to the early Christian community—the days before Constantine. He demonstrates how the early church saw a strong division between Church and the State, and how since Constantine (or around his time) we increasingly entangled political influence with Jesus message:

What we see when we looks back at the Christian church in the first 300 years of history is a uniformity of conviction that Church and State were opposite realms and that being a citizen of Christ’s Kingdom was to be uninvolved in the affairs of the kingdom of this world. They embraced this idea by living under a clear set of values that brought them in a near-constant conflict with the world around them.  The pagans couldn’t help but notice how different the Christians were. Those Christians couldn’t help but stand out from the crowd by the way they lived theif lives in stark contrast to those around them (55).

In the pages that follow, Giles challenges the wisdom of Christian political involvement, war, and American nationalism. He points to the bankruptcy of looking to politics as a solution to what ails the American soul. Giles calls the question on whether or not we are a ‘Christian nation’ and exposes the real politick behind many of our political and transnational dealings.

Let me say up front that I am sympathetic to Giles conclusions. I am a peace loving Evangelical who doesn’t have much use for the way the Christian faith is often co-opted by politics (usually the Republican party). I am deeply disturbed by Christians who say they love and follow Jesus and yet demonize and dehumanize enemies of the state (so as to justify killing them). Stanley Hauerwas’s axiom is apt, “The first task of the church is to let the world know it is the world” (or alternatively, “the first task of the church is to be the church). The gospel is not the American dream and does not inhabit the same spiritual space. In these pages, Giles describes the distinction between faith and politics and urges Christians to not conform to the ways of the world.

Nevertheless, despite my sympathy with Giles message, I found myself reacting a little bit. I think he is guilty of overstating things to make a point. For example. he describes his reading of Scripture as “Jesus-centric,” over against a ‘flat reading of scripture’ of everyone else.  The Jesus-centric are all about Jesus mission in the world. The flat Bibe readers argue that all scripture is equally authoritative, downgrade Jesus’ message of the kingdom *emphasizing instead grace and forgiveness (36-37). Giles argues that an emphasis on the whole Bible allows for the justification of torture, war, militarism, violence and nationalism (37). An emphasis on Jesus does not. Giles argues that a Jesus-centric approach by necessity marginalizes Old Testament texts.

I certainly agree with the Jesus-centric approach. Jesus the Word of God made flesh and the key to understanding the Bible—God’s written world. However, I think a number of his opponents (Reformed Evangelicals, Arminians, etc.) also try to read all scripture Christocentricty (there are a few thenomists out there but they’re kind of nuts).  I personally don’t know any thoughtful Christian that argues for the flat Bible reading he describes. While I am sympathetic to Giles’s readings, I think categorizing all Evangelicals who disagree with him as ‘flat bible readers’, does not win any sympathy from the opposition.

However, I applaud Giles’s commitment to the nonviolent ethic of Jesus and his sensitivity to the way Christ gets coopted in political discourse. This is a timely book. President Trump (who was elected with overwhelming white, evangelical support) just started bombing Syria. This is the time for Christians to press into what it means to follow Jesus (who’s answer to human violence was to suffer a cross). When America goes to war, Christians ought to ask, “who would Jesus bomb?” Giles (and the Anabaptists before him) point out us to the love ethic of Jesus and asks us to live for Christ’s kingdom (not the American one). I give this book four stars.

Note: I received this book from Speakeasy in exchange for my honest review