The Strange and Difficult Testament: a book review

The Old Testament is Scripture, but not easy reading. It is full of disturbing passages, strange laws and unsavory characters. Anyone who would dare take up and read will be faced with questions, interpretive challenges and hard texts. Matthew Richard Schlimm has written an entertaining and informative book exploring the difficult questions and  how to read the Old Testament well. This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Wrestling with the Old Testament and Its Oddities is basically a undergrad level exploration of the First Testament. It was as fun to read as David Lamb’s God Behaving Badly, though far more comprehensive. Schlimm doesn’t cover the wisdom literature or prophets much, but he does a good job of exploring law, narrative and various themes that run through the Hebrew Bible. His purpose is not to make the Old Testament simple for us to digest, but to help us grapple with it in a more substantial way.

Schlimm’s twelve chapters take us through various issues that relate to the Old Testament. Chapter one discusses the uneasy history Christians have had with the Old Testament. Chapters two and three explores the creation account. Chapter four describes the ‘R-rated’ stories of the Old Testament’–the messy reality that the scriptures inhabit where even the saints behave badly. Here Schlimm describes how stories work on us as readers. For example, many failed attempts at reading through the Bible have been wrecked on the shoals of the book of Numbers. Schlimm is worth quoting at length:

As we read Numbers, we shouldn’t expect to feel uplifted. We shouldn’t look for inspiration. Instead, we should expect to feel like the Israelites did out in that desert wasteland. Ironically, you’re reading Numbers well if you’re sick of the characters and want to stop reading. You are reading well because in that moment you begin to understand in new ways what things were like for the Israelites and for God.

Through the trials of reading Numbers, we can emerge as better people. Someone might rattle off a cliche like “Count your blessings.” Or we might admit, when we stop and think about it, that complaining is not a great way to go through life. However, many of us need something more to put our grumbling aside.

When we read Numbers, something interesting happens. We are exposed to constant complaining. We are forced to suffer alongside Moses and the people. We grow sick and tired of their bitterness. And hopefully, complaints in our own mouths begin to taste like ash. (56)

Chapter five explores the violence in Old Testament texts, such as the imprecatory psalms and Joshua and Deuteronomy. Schlimm addresses several faulty premises that Christians bring to interpreting these texts: (1) that we should imitate Bible characters’ actions, (2) that we should imitate God, (3) that we should apply every text to our individual life, (4) that we should read individual passages in isolation from one another, and (5) that we should have an answer for every question raised by disturbing texts. Against these, Schlimm invites us to a way of interpreting passages that is humble, communal and dialogical.

Chapter six tackles gender and the role of women. Schlimm admits that the Old Testament is androcentric and sometimes misogynist; however he refuses to give up the sacredness gender or the sacredness of the Bible. He reads egalitarian texts like Genesis 1:26-27 in tension  with texts like Leviticus 27:1-8 where women are valued as less than men. Far from ignoring these texts, he grapples with the contradiction and asks God why a text like Lev 27:1-8 is in Bible. Schlimm goes on to explores the nature of Biblical law (chapters seven and eight), the multifaceted nature of truth (chapter nine), sadness and anger of God expressed in the Old Testament (chapter ten), God’s wrath (chapter eleven) and the authority of the Hebrew Bible (chapter twelve).

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Schlimm imparts his love for the Old Testament. His prose is winsome. He doesn’t provide i easy answers on how to sort through genres, horrifying tales and difficulties. Instead he invites us to a conversation with the Old Testament where we name the exclusion of Ezra, place it conversation with the inclusion of Ruth (and the apostle Paul). Schlimm isn’t bothered by contradictions and the sometimes disparate witness of the Old Testament. For him it is bringing these texts into deep conversation and wrestling with them that we begin to see the truth about God and ourselves. Rather than avoiding strange and difficult texts, Schlimm posits that the texts that are most difficult for us, may be the texts that we most need to hear.

If you find the Old Testament difficult and are not always sure what to do with certain passages, this will be a good book for you. Of course by focusing on oddities and interpretive difficulties, Schlimm doesn’t spend as much space exploring covenant, mercy, and justice as he may otherwise. This would be a lopsided introduction to the Old Testament if read as a stand alone treatment, but for those who have read and struggle, this is pretty great. I give it four stars.

Notice of Material Connection: I received this book from Baker Academic in exchange for my honest review

There is a Wideness in God’s Presence: a book review

Christians are found of saying that God reveals himself in two books: the Bible,God’s special revelation, and creation, God’s general revelation. While there is some baseline recognition that ‘the heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim the work of his hands’ (Psalm 19:1), Protestants are generally suspicious that we can apprehend or trust much truth ‘out there.’ Robert K. Johnston, professor of theology and culture at Fuller Seminary, and author of Reel Spirituality: Theology of Film in Dialogue, here tackles the issue of general revelation with God’s Wider Presence: Reconsidering General Revelation.  Johnston sees ample evidence of God’s Presence in the world in nature, culture and even world religions; however this is not a capitulation to some sort of universalist pluralism, but an acknowledgement that God’s Spirit works in mysterious ways and places.

Johnston’s eight chapters are a romp through modern theology, Bible passages and the world of film and fiction. In chapter one, he argues that our problems with general revelation and lack of theological reflection on it, stems from several causes. First we have too narrow of a ‘definitional’ focus. Johnston observes:

Rather than understand general revelation as any encounter with the Transcendent that occurs outside the believing community and that is not directly concerned with redemption, many have wrongly reduced it to a perceived ‘lowest common denominator’ by limiting ‘general revelation’ to those general truths that are communicated by God to all persons at all times and in all places” (8).

This understanding plays out in our biblical theology as well, “Theology’s bias toward the redemptive over the creational, and toward the propostional over the narrative is perhaps the second explanation for the relative paucity of theological thinking on general revelation” (10-11). Thirdly, Johnston sees a dim view of human receptivity to divine revelation in much of conservative evangelical theology. Against these objections, Johnston suggests a way forward that invites a theological dialogue about “God’s revelatory Presence outside the church and without direct reference to Jesus Christ” (15). Johnston calls us to have a robust two-way conversation between Scripture and the theological tradition and the realm of culture and  personal experience (15).

Chapter two describes the growth of spirituality in contemporary times and some of the challenges that face this discussion. Johnston points to God’s revelation in creation, conscience and culture (which he will return to later). He gives testimonials from a number of people of where they sensed God. He also refers to the work of Rudolph Otto and Peter Berger for their significant generalizations about the observation of Presence in the world. Otto observed the human experience of the holy in a variety of religious contexts (34). Berger’s observations led him to the conclusion that ‘there were experiences of the human spirit that pointed beyond that reality, that had “an immediacy to God”‘(35). Johnston acknowledges the cautionary words of other theological explorers of culture, that we can be self-deceived in our fallen human reasoning, but he sees an equal danger in failing to look for God (any)where he may be found:

The danger of self-deception, if not outright blasphemy, is ever present and must be taken seriously. . . As I will argue this is why it is crucial for one to have a full-orbed theological hermeneutic, a robust methodology that includes scripture, tradition, and community as well as experience. One does not whisper “God” by shouting “man.” The witness of God’s revelation in Scripture is authoritative and the testimony and reflection of Christians through the ages foundational. But the danger for Christians is also on the other side. We can exclude by an overemphasis on sin and salvation the real, revelatory Presence of God through his Spirit that is the clear testimony of the vast majority of Westerners today (37).

These two chapters set the trajectory for the rest of the book. Chapter three looks at the experience of transcendence in film by Johnston’s film students (in a variety of styles of films). Chapters four and five illustrate how scripture itself testifies to the Presence of God outside of the covenant community. This includes the borrowing of sayings in Proverbs from Egyptian origins, Yahweh speaking through Pharoh Neco to ward Josiah off of battle. King Huram of Tyre sends Hurumbai as a skilled artisan for the construction of Solomon’s temple,  Cyrus of Persia in Chronicles and Ezra is seen as God’s instrument, Additionally, Johnston highlights two creation psalms (19 and 29) that speak of the revealing nature of creation (and not just reflecting on the creation as described in Genesis). Other examples include Melchizedek, Elijah’s hearing God on Mt. Horeb, Balaam, various non-covenant peoples in the prophetic literature, Paul’s use of natural theology in Acts 14 and his use of Roman poetry and religion in Acts 17. He makes a strong case that the Bible leaves open the possibility of God speaking through unlikely vessels.

In chapter six, Johnston engages the theological tradition.  Johnston examines three different thinkers who were influential on twentieth century Christian thought and takes his cues from them on revelation. With Barth he affirms that natural theology cannot happen from below (recalling his famous answer to Brunner) but “that revelation always needs the Spirit as Revealer–it is event” (127); with Schleiermacher he affirms that general revelation is not accessible through rationality “but through an intuition of Something or Someone beyond us and our feelings that result from that encounter” (127-8); from CS Lewis he gets the idea that general revelation is more than just an insignificant trace in comparison to the glory of Christ but “an experience of the wider Presence of God through his Spirit mediated through creation, conscience and human culture” (128).

In chapter seven Johnston tracks this wider Presence of God through the writings of John Taylor, Elizabeth Johnson, and Jurgen Moltmann. Taylor tackled the reality of real Spiritual encounter in the realm of experience in mission and world religion. Feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson explored how the Spirit was “God’s livingness subtly and powerfully abroad in the world” (174). The social-trinitarianism of Moltmann, releases the Spirit from  his subjectivity to the Son, acknowledging the Trinity as a co-equal community. This allows for more freedom for the ‘wind to blow where it may,’ and the Spirit to show-up outside of the tale of our redemption. The final chapter continues to examine the Spirit is at work in the realm of creation, conscience and culture.

Without a robust understanding of general revelation, we have to remain skeptical of any spiritual experience, or moment of transcendence anywhere outside of the Word of God.  That means a moving book or a film, a orchestral piece that brings you to tears, or any cultural achievement is at best merely a human endeavor, at worst demonic. If Johnston is right about the operation of God’s wider Presence, this gives space to critically engage other traditions and perspectives, allowing us to not be dismissive and suspicious of everything, while still acknowledging that aspects may be destructive, delusional and in conflict with the gospel. This gives us a different starting point in our conversations with non-Christians, one where our hunt for common ground reveals God’s Spirit already at work in the life of the world. Throughout this book, I appreciated how seriously Johnston takes the experience of Transcendence as a revelatory event. Even Barth, who was suspicious of  human ability to apprehend God unaided, affirmed that Mozart, a non-practicing Catholic had heard the harmony of creation and captured it in his music (137).  God’s wider Presence sings if only we hear the music. five stars: ★★★★★

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

When Christ Calls a Man. . .a book review

As part of my Lenten reading, I have been working through Bryan Litfn’s Early Christian Martyr StoriesThe book is, as its title suggestions, a collection of early Christian martyr storie, culled together by Litfin and translated with his scholarly notes. Litfin is professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute whose previous works include Getting to Know the Church FathersAfter Acts: the Lives and Legends of the Apostles, articles on Tertullian and (curiously) a series of medieval era Christian fiction.  Here he turns his gaze toward the life and witness of martyrs, offering a fresh translation of ancient texts. While this is a work of scholarship, his footnotes and introductions explain elements of ancient culture which make this book accessible for the general reader.

Litfin begins by examining the pre-Christian Maccabean Martyrs and the literature on the martyrdom of Peter and Paul. While there are elements in each account that seems more legend than historic, LItfin points to the influence of these on later martyrs. The more historic accounts include the writings of condemned bishop Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Justin “Not-Just-A-Clever-Name” Martyr, the martyrs of Lyons and Vienne, the Scillitan martyrs, Perpetua and Felicity, and the martyrs of the Great Persecution. Additionally Litfin examines the writings on martyrdom by Tertullian and Origen, the historical account of the Peace of Constantine and the Edict of Milan that put an end to Christian persecution. The book closes with a sermon from Augustine (one hundred years after the Edict of Milan) honoring the memory of the Martyrs (especially Perpetua and Felicity).

Litfin wrote this book both as a work of historical study and as an attempt to inspire Christians toward greater faithfulness (2). In an epilogue on the ‘meaning of the martyrs’ he praises the martyrs for refusing to make Jesus into just another God (to be worshiped alongside the Roman pantheon of gods), for their witness in counting the cost and giving up everything, and their confidence in their eternal hope in Christ. Further, he argues that the martyrs call us to the unity of the ancient-small-c-catholic faith (173-5).

I appreciate how accessible this book is to the general reader. Litfin is not writing an account of martyrdom, he is sharing their stories in their own words (in translation for our context). While the global church still faces the threat of martyrdom in our age, these ancient accounts offer a compelling critique on modern, western Christianity. These were men and women who counted the cost and willingly faced torture and death for their belief in Jesus. To read is to be challenged and inspired. I give this book four stars.

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