Seeing the Bible Through the Eyes of the Artist: a book review

C.S. Lewis famously said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”By that, he meant that the contours of the Christian story shaped his perception of the broader world. It gave him eyes to see. And with imagination, he helped many of us to see the Christian story (and everything else) through evocative works like the Chronicles of Narnia and the Space Trilogy. What is true of Christianity is true of the Arts and the artist, no less the Christian artist, could also say “That through art and because of it, she sees everything else.”

9781498217330If the biblical story is the lens through which we as Christian see, the Arts have the ability to sharpen our focus.  In Imagining the Story (Cascade Books, 2017), Karen Case-Green and Gill C. Sakakini, engage the biblical story, bringing it into conversation with poetry, the visual arts, and creative enterprise. Intended as a coursebook for artists in community, they retell the bible story through a series of ‘C’ words, helping us to see implications for art and faith: Creation, Crisis, Calling, Conception, Coming, Cross & Comeback, Charisma, Community, Church, Consummation.

Case-Green and Sakakini bring pastoral, theological and aesthetic insight to the biblical story. Case-Green is a Baptist preacher and writer, who has lectured in English at the University of Surrey. Sakakini is an artist and teacher, a faculty member of the Grunewald Guild, and has taught at Carey Theological College. I met her when we were students together at Regent College. She is presently training as an Anglican priest. Her depiction of Christ’s incarnation provides the cover art for this book.  These two women meld their insights into the biblical narrative, with their appreciation and engagement of visual arts and literature.

Each chapter cycles through four components, we as readers are invited to engage. First, we read a passage of scripture (e.g., chapter 1, on Creation has us read Genesis 2:4-20, p 2-3). Second, we are invited to respond to the passage, through a series of questions on the text. Third, we reflect, bringing the passage, and the chapter of the story we are in, into conversation with works of art or poetry. Here also, Case-Green and Sakakini give their own reflections on the implication of the biblical story for them as artists and believers. Finally, we are invited to make—”a chance to playfully participate in the story by creating something—either visual or verbal—in response to the particular theme of the chapter” (xxii).  As this book is intended as a coursebook, the reflections, and creative projects work best in group discussions and contexts, though the book can be read, as I read it, on one’s own. However, in order to fully appreciate what Case-Green and Sakakini are doing, this book ought to be read slowly, and each of the four components engaged fully.

In the forward, W. David O. Taylor, recalls the words of Calvin Seerveld, “God’s Spirit calls an artistic practitioner to help their neighbours who are  imaginatively handicapped, who do not notice there are fifteen different greens outside their window, who have never sensed the bravery in bashfulness, or seen how lovely an ugly person can be” (xiv). Taylor writes:

For the Christian the twin gift of coherence and attentiveness afforded by good works of art comes as welcomed news. In fact, it’s nothing less than gospel stuff. It’s the sort of things, I’d hope, that we ought to be making and promoting and patronzing ourselves. And, in a sense that is exactly what Gill and Karen offer the reader in their book, Imaginging the Story (xiv).

This is the gift that this book offers. Case-Green and Sakakini invite us to contemplate the old, old Story and to reflect on evocative works of art. They have produced an accessible guidebook to a whole new way of seeing the Bible, the Faith, Creation and Creating—and everything else. The book is chock-full of images, though the printing of the book I read, is in black and white. However, a tech-savvy reader can find many of theses images online (including Gill Sakakini’s own gallery). Sometimes, they include web links to artist web pages in their footnotes. To me doing the extra step of looking for full-color and larger renderings, enhanced my appreciation of what Sakakini and Case-Green were doing through this book.

I recommend this for small groups, classes or anyone interested in seeing the Good, True, and Beautiful through the eyes of Scripture and the Arts. Four Stars ★★★★

Notice of material connection, I received this book from Wipf & Stock in exchange for my honest review. I was not asked to write a positive review.

A Christianity Immersed in Empire: a book review

It is fashionable, in some theological circles, to speak of the Constantinian compromise. Constantine’s victory (and conversion?) in 312 CE issued in an era of religious freedom for Christians which they previously had not enjoyed. But it also started the ball rolling in terms of the centralizing of the power of the bishops, and eventually Rome in the West, and led to doctrinal compromises as the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic church sought to accommodate itself to the demands of Empire.

9781626981942Wes Howard-Brook does not doubt that this trajectory toward Empire replaced the spirituality and prophetic critique of Jesus in the life of the Church. His previous book, Come Out My People! ( Orbis, 2010), was a reading of the biblical narrative which contrasted Jesus’ liberationist movement—the ‘religion of Creation’ called the Kingdom of God—with the religion of Empire—imperial readings of the Bible which wink at (state supported) violence and shave off Jesus’ radical, prophetic edge.  However, Howard-Brook doesn’t envision this shift happening within Constantine’s lifetime or afterward but sees the genesis much earlier. In Empire Baptized (Orbis, 2016), he traces the shift toward Empire (and creation abstracting & denying spirituality) developed in the writings of Christian thinkers in the 2nd to 5th centuries and the ways their thought still hold sway today.

In his first chapter, Howard-Brook provides an overview of the Roman imperial context,  its social and economic structures and religious life. In the next six chapters, he examines how the Christian movement developed along imperial lines, focusing his study on the cities of Alexandria and Carthage, Greek and Latin centers of Christian thought. Chapter two looks at these cities’ histories and their key Christians in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Centuries.

In chapter three, Howard-Brook describes how the developing biblical hermeneutic of the Fathers, while rejecting Marcion and Gnostic readings, embraced a Neo-Platonism which abstracted physical life. This had the effect of weakening Jesus’ political and social critiques. Speaking of Origen, who held sway over the developing Biblical hermeneutic both East and West, Howard-Brook writes, “Origen (and the church around him) proclaims a “gospel” about a “soul” whose fate was separate from the body. Could a Jewish man like Jesus even understand what it meant? With this claim, any Christian concern for the human body, for the physical creation, and for the whole social-economic structure of society is put aside in favor of the question of the “soul’s fate in the afterlife” (88).

The rest of the book traces how Christian writers like Tertullian, Clement, Origen, Cyprian, Athanasius, Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine continued to abstract the Christian life from creation and physical life, while at the same time imbibing the cultural values of Empire (evidenced by a misogyny which paralleled Roman cultural values and unwillingness to challenge the status-quo).  Constantine does have a significant impact on the church, as bishops began to adopt ceremonies and raiments of the imperial court and revise their image of Christ along royal lines (i.e. icons of Christ as Lawgiver and Judge sitting on a jeweled throne) (198).

Howard-Brook does his homework and his book is thoroughly researched. Yet he does not offer here, a sympathetic reading of the Church Fathers (their voices most often mediated through secondary sources). He frequently faults the Fathers for the way they catered toward elites and the how they adapted their theology to fit their own circumstance (such as Jerome’s preaching against riches while assigning a higher place in the afterlife to ‘the Christian scholar’, 247).  Surprisingly, he does end up saying nice things about Augustine, the frequent whipping boy of all that is wrong in Western Theology. He describes him as a theologian who ‘took a path of moderation between the extremes promoted by others in his context’ (265), though of course, he goes on to fault him for his handling of the Donatists, his promotion of ‘state-sponsored violence,’ and Pelagius.

I enjoyed this book and I think Howard-Brook offers an important perspective on the development of Christian doctrine. Jesus did challenge the kingdoms of this Age in the way that later generations of Christians did not. There is a trajectory toward Empire, Neo-Platonism, and the status-quo in Church history. However, by profiling particular thinkers, through particular lenses, he is able to construct his narrative and parse the evidence in a certain way. He doesn’t highlight prophetic and counter voices to Empire throughout this period or pastoral aspects of his chief interlocutors. I wished at times he applied a more of a generous reading of the patristic period, though I appreciate the critique he levels and think it is substantive. I give this five stars. ★★★★

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

C-C-Catch the wave: a book review

Why call your movement Blue Ocean Faith? Maybe it’s because the name Blue Oyster Cult was already taken and it sounded too exclusive (plus oysters are so shellfish). Whatever the reason, Dave Schmelzer, founding pastor of Reservoir Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts founded and leads Blue Ocean Faitha network of churches which strives to be post-bad-news, alive in Christ, diverse, inclusive, politically nuanced and attractive and comprehensible to outsiders.¹ He wrote a book about it, which he creatively called Blue Ocean Faith. As a religious insider, I don’t really get the name, but the book is pretty great.

51zrlk3ejel-_sx329_bo1204203200_Schmelzer is trying to ignite a new Jesus movement. He offers six distinctives, each of which is an invitation to follow Jesus. He advocates a post-fundamentalist, post-culture-war way of being faithful to Jesus.  But before Schmelzer really gets into it, Brian McLaren writes a preface. And Peter Wallace writes a forward. Adney Wassink writes an introduction. Then Schmelzer gets in the act and writes the second preface.  A lot of prolegomena, but front matter matters.

The book has eight chapters. In chapter one, Schmelzer talks about what it would mean for us as people of faith, to leave the bad news behind and be sold out on the idea that all people were created to experience the good news which Jesus brings.  Writing of the network he helped found, he says, “‘Blue Ocean’ has become a descriptor of these churches—both because these churches tend to ‘fish where other churches don’t fish’ and because it’s the blue oceans that connect all people (10). (Okay so I do kinda get the name). The next six chapters describe and expand on the six distinctives of what it means to have this connected, Blue Ocean style faith:

  1. Our primary framework is SOLUS JESUS.
  2. Our primary metaphor is CENTERED-SET.
  3. Our approach to spiritual development is CHILD-LIKE FAITH.
  4. Our approach to controversial issues is THIRD WAY.
  5. Our approach to other churches is ECUMENICAL.
  6. Our approach to secular culture is JOYFUL ENGAGEMENT.

A closing chapter issues a summons to kick off this new Jesus movement.

I appreciate so much of what Schmelzer has to say. He is thoughtful in how he presents and unfolds the implications of each distinctive and stokes our excitement for a more compelling, engaging and inclusive faith. I especially like his comments on navigating religious squabbles (i.e controversial issues). Schmelzer draws on insights from M. Scott Pecks four stages of emotional and Spiritual development and  Paul’s words from Romans 14 (see chapter 5).  Schmelzer defines disputable matters as those which are not dogma or doctrine, an issue which brings two biblical truths into dynamic tension, and an issue where otherwise faithful believers disagree (89-90).  Following Paul’s advice, Schmelzer urges us to hold to our personal convictions, shun contempt and judgment of others, have the humility to allow different views from our own, and never exclude those you disagree with from full participation in the community (90-92). This approach has allowed LGBT+ Christians and more conservative believers, continue to be the church together as part of the Blue Ocean Faith communities.

We are at a cultural moment where many feel ambivalent about the evangelical church and what the label signifies. Schmelzer offers a vision of Christianity which is still Christ-centered, active and engaged in mission. I recommend this for anyone who is frustrated with the church and is looking for something more refreshing. 4 stars.

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this from SpeakEasy for my honest review.

Where’s Mikey? a kids book review.

I have heard the stats that only two in ten millennials attend church regularly. Why? I blame Martin Handford, creator of the Where’s Waldo series (Where’s Wally in the UK). Because of him, a generation of kids, in the late 80’s and 90’s, stopped looking for Jesus and instead asked ‘Where’s Waldo?’ It was more detrimental to childhood faith development than Bill Nye the Science Guy explaining away theism.

978-1-4964-2243-9Thankfully, we now have Bible Sleuth: New Testament. Mike, an adventure-loving little boy, sporting an orange and red painter’s cap, a red and white striped t-shirt and yellow overall shorts (an outfit which was last seen in 1991 worn by R&B sensations TLC) explores the New Testament. Unlike Waldo, who trekked across the globe, urban centers, and visited other cultures, Mike restricts his exploration to Bible Stories alone. So when you hunt for Mike and other figures in each scene, you are sure to only learn the Bible and not any new, subversive ideas. Doesn’t that sound much safer?

I’m kidding. There are tons of kids’ search books of a wide variety, and Bible Sleuth stands in a long tradition of Christian children’s books making use of the same idea. Bible Sleuth illustrator, José Pérez Montero has previously illustrated Seek & Find Bible Stories (Zonderkids, 2008, with author Carl Anker Mortensen) and I have reviewed similar kids books here before (see here or here).

Here is the thing though, when it comes to kids book reviews, my critical faculties pretty much go out the window and I end up saying things like, “My kids like it, so I like it.” And this is true again. My oldest, who is nearing ten, my seven-year-old, my six-year-old all enjoy it. My two-year-old likes the pictures though hasn’t demonstrated the patience required to find everything (though he is really great at Where’s Elmo).  All of us get annoyed that invariably one of the people we are looking for in the picture is barely cresting out from the center crease. But such is life.

But one of the things I always try to pay attention to in Children’s Bible books, “How white is everybody?” I remember a friend observing that Jesus’ family once hid in Egpyt, so you know he must have had some color. And yet Little Mike and his pasty legs blend in pretty well to these pages, because of how white all the middle Eastern Palestinians seem to be. At least Jesus has brown hair and not blonde locks, that is until he is surrounded by a crowd of ONLY white people in John’s Revelation 19 vision (and the final scene in the book). Hair color throughout ranges from red, to brown and blonde.[The Tyndale site identifies the author of this book, as Scandinavia Publishing House, which may explain some this].

My kids like it and that means something, but on cultural accuracy and sensitivity, I find this book wanting. I give it a middle of the road review. -3 stars.

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

From Bud to Blossom: a book review

I am a faith blogger, meaning I blog about the Bible, theology, and the intersection of faith and life. I also review books (which you know if you’re reading this). I discovered the Redbud Writers Guild several years ago and immediately wanted to join. Then I discovered I couldn’t, all because it is a group of women writers and I am ill-equipped to join such a group.¹ That didn’t stop me from reading their blogs and following their authors everbloomon social media.  

I am not that broken up about not being able to join. I don’t actually need to break the faith blogger gender barrier, and the blogosphere is replete with other writers groups that my voice fits well in; however, I was impressed by the quality of writing I repeatedly encountered from members of the guild, bloggers and authors I’ve appreciated, women like: April Yamasaki, Margot Starbuck, Leslie Layland Fields, Jen Pollock Michael, Emily Gibson and others. This is a diverse bunch of women (not all of whom would feel at home in a Woman of Faith tour with geraniums in their hats). These are pastors, theology students, homemakers, activists, poets, novelists, theologians—women of color and anglos, Boomers, Xers and Millennials.

A new book project, Everbloom (Paraclete Press, April 2017), compiles stories, poetry and reflections from the women of Redbud (quite a few who were new voices for me). These stories speak of grief, anxiety, pain, loss and redemption.  These women share personal stories of difficult and grace-filled moments and the freedom found in Christ. The book is at turns vulnerable and full of good humor. Each author shares their story, closes with a brief prayer and a writing prompt for personal reflection.

This book is written by women, rooted in their experience, and the intended especially for a woman audience. Some of the writing prompts make this explicit: “What has been painful and necessary for you to grow as a woman and in relationship with God?”(16); “Reflect on your own ideas of motherhood using this statement: mother knows best.” (140); “Describe a strong influential woman in your life.” (202), etc.. But honestly, this is just a solid collection of writing, full of varied and poignant stories and guys would be encouraged by it too. I always feel sad when I visit a Christian bookstore and thoughtful women authors are quarantined in the ‘woman’s interest’ section (lest they have authority over a man or something). Sometimes us male readers will have to adjust these reflections to our experience, but women readers are accustomed to making adjustments for male authors everyday (or anytime their pastor throws Braveheart into their sermon). So guys: this is well written, man up and don’t be scared!

But with Mother’s Day just around the corner, this is a great gift idea for a mom or special woman in your life, It is a rich storehouse of stories, prayers and opportunities for reflection. I give this four stars.

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

Happy Easter!

Seven Stanzas at Easter

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

-John Updike

Z is for Zarathustra (an alphabet for penitents)

When Zarathustra was alone, however, he said to his heart: “Could it be possible! This old saint in the forest hath not yet heard of it, that GOD IS DEAD!” (Thus Spake Zarathustra, 3)
“DEAD ARE ALL THE GODS: NOW DO WE DESIRE THE SUPERMAN TO LIVE.”—Let this be our final will at the great noontide!— Thus spake Zarathustra.
Z. We’ve reached the end.  A journey that began with ash, a reminder of our mortality, ends in the death of God. When Jesus had died, about the middle of the afternoon, they took his limp body off the cross and laid his body in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (Matthew 27:57–61).
The gospel writers are silent about the events of Holy Saturday and the emotional state of the disciples. Certainly, they were raw with grief and carried shame for deserting and denying their Master—the man they had invested three years of their life following. They likely didn’t visit the Temple on that Sabbath. It is difficult enough to pray and share space with other worshippers while in the midst of grief (who wants to sing happy-clappy songs of God’s deliverance when you are hurting?). It is all the harder when we consider that they believed Jesus would be God’s deliverer and they mulled over his strange sayings about how he embodied the Father (John 14:9-10). Now Jesus was dead.  My guess is that they holed up in the same room we find them on Sunday morning.
Zarathustra was the ancient, Iranian founder of Zoroastrianism. A man by the same name is Fredrick Nietzche’s mouthpiece in Thus Spake Zarathustra. 19th-century philosophers, like 19th-century novelists, could seldom write anything without preaching at their readers.  Zarathustra is Nietzche’s  preacher and the populizer of the phrase, “God is dead” (along with the madman in Nietzche’s The Gay Science). He preaches a new way of being in the world, freed from the confines of religious belief in a god. Kathleen Higgins suggests that:
“Nietzche’s basic goal in Zarathustra is to explore the question of the meaning of individual life. . . .The perspective that renders life meaningful is the tragic perspective, Nietzche contends. The tragic perspective does not denigrate individual life by urging the individual to associate meaning with notions of survival or perfect contentment. Instead it finds individual life to be meaningful in the way that art is meaningful—meaning emerges from the artist’s arrangement of limited material (“Reading Zarathustra” in Reading Nietzche, OUP, 1988, p146).
Nietzche has his fans, especially among athiests, philosophers and the children of Christian fundamentalists in teenage rebellion. Christian apologists love to quote Nietzche and use him as a foil for theism. But if truth is contextual, then today of all days we say with Nietzche and Zarathustra, “Gott ist tot.” God is dead.
Can we inhabit this space? The disciples are hiding out, wrecked with grief. Their religious illusions, beliefs about God, and hopes for a Messiah were dashed on the previous day. We may not, with Zarathustra, do away with God and put our faith in our own human potential. But the prophet and the madman understood the death of God has far reaching consequences. How now shall we live?