Thoughts on Part I, Paul & the Faithfulness of God: Flipping the Bird at the Ancient World

Having waited years for the release of N.T. Wright’s major ‘Paul book,’ I’ve been pleased that, for me, it is living up to the hype. I have only finished part one (which is midway through book one of this volume). I have had plenty of ‘geek out’ moments along the way. I love the structure of the book.

Wright has organized his book into a chiasm which I think is  absolutely brilliant for exploring Paul: Part I introduces Paul’s world, Part II describes his mindset, Part III, his theology, Part IV places Paul in his World. Additionally, each of these sections is divided by the inclusion of poems by Michael O’Siadhail which illuminate the themes.At the close of Part I, is  O’Siadhail’s poem Collection:

Earlier three birds on a tree

But now only one

Imagine swoops of homing rooks

As evening tumbles in

Cawing and wheeling to gather

In skeleton brances

With nodes of old nest blackening

Into the roosting night.

 

Treetop colony

A rookery congregates.

Dusky assemblage.

 

Whatever instinct makes us hoard,

A desire to amass

Toys, dolls, marbles, bird’s-nests and eggs

We fondle and brood on

Or how we’d swoop like rooks to nab

Spiky windfalls stamping Open their milky husks to touch,

Smooth marvels of chestnut.

The collector’s dream

To feel, to caress, to keep.

A bird in the hand. (348)

 

I have no idea how O’Siadhail’s poetry functions later in the book, but this poem gives Wright an organizing image for presenting us the ancient world. After opening this book with an exploration of the book of Philemon (Wright’s own entry into Paul’s world when he was five. I am pretty sure when I was five, I was more enamored with The Little Engine That Could), Wright examines Paul’s Jewish context, his Greek philosophical context, his Roman religious context and his imperial context.  While Paul’s Jewish context does not have a named bird–it is the Spirit that broods here–the other three contexts each of an avian signifier: The Athenian Owl, the Cock for Asclepius, and the Eagle of Empire.

Part I is laying the ground for what Wright will do in the rest of the book. Wright’s exploration of Philemon illuminates how Paul was bound by his context and yet subverts many of the prevailing cultural values (i.e. he doesn’t overturn slavery but he does give dignity to Onesimus). Wrights exploration of Paul’s Jewish context, brings into sharper focus his discussion of the Pharisees in The New Testament & the People of God. The three birds of philosophy, religion and empire will each play apart in Paul’s articulation of the gospel. Wright is a good historian and most of his claims here are not particularly controversial. He is careful to say that the Pharisees were more than theological legalists (they were sincere believers in covenant trying to navigate occupied territory). The Greek-philosophical context illuminates points of contact with Paul, especially the similarity between some of his ethical claims, and that of the Stoics. Wright describes the religious landscape as both ‘pluralist’ and highly traditional. The public rites were expected and ‘new religions’ which challenged the status-quo would bring you into conflict with the wider culture. The Roman imperial context both allowed the free spread of the Gospel and represented a challenge: Jesus was Lord, which means Caesar is not. Also Paul’s background as a Pharisee already means he was formed by his opposition to the Empire.

This sets the stage for what Wright will say in the rest of the book (I’ve only sketched a few of themes that Wright explores here). Wright argues that for Paul, earlier there were three birds on a tree/ but now there is only one. While this is a book which describes Paul’s theological genius, it was Jesus that flips over these ancient birds. Wright says in the conclusion to this section:

The birds had hovered over Israel all those years had seen the story through. Instead of the wise owls of Athens, a descendant of Solomon would come who would see in the dark and bring hidden truth to light.  Instead of the sacrificial cock offered to Asclepius, a sacrifice had occured which, upstaging even the ancient cult and priesthood of the Jerusalem Temple, would bring healing at every level. Instead of the eagle with its talons and claws, Jesus summoned people to  a different kind of empire: peacemaking, mercy, humility and passion for genuine and restorative justice (346).

I look forward to how parts II-IV describe how Paul brought the news of this Jesus to the ancient world. Earlier three birds on a tree, but now there is only one (the three-in-one).  This book is so much fun!

Moore of Jesus in My Heart (A Book Review)

Straight to the Heart of Matthew Phil MoorePhil Moore may be a new name to you. It was for me when I signed up to review a commentary in the Straight to the Heart series. Any Londoners reading this review feel free to fill in biographical data if you think I missed something but here is what I got: Phil Moore is the pastor of Queens Road Church in Wimbledon, London, a Bible teacher and evangelist for the Newfrontiers family of churches (basically charismatic evangelical churches) and author of the Straight to the Heartseries I am reviewing. In this series of commentaries Phil Moore weds his passion for God’s word with a keen ability to communicate and challenge you on your faith journey.

Each of the commentaries in the series are divided into 60 ‘bitesize chunks’ making it an ideal format for daily devotional reading.
There are several volumes now available Genesis, Moses, Matthew, John, Acts, Romans, I&II Corinthians, Revelations from Kregel Publications (in the UK, Phil Moore also has a volume on I&II Samuel). I was able to read and review the Matthew volume. [Note, these commentaries are published by Monarch Books in the UK and distributed by Kregel in North America].

In Straight to the Heart of Matthew, Moore counters the popular storybook image of Jesus as ‘long-haired and blue-eyed…tame and domesticated.’ He argues that Jesus was a much more radical and incendiary figure. Announcing that Jesus was ‘King’ and his ‘Kingdom was coming’ was heard as a direct challenge to Caesar and Roman rule. But he also took aim at the religious establishment and where they failed to adequately enact God’s agenda in the world.

Central to Phil Moore’s interpretation is the Matthew that allegedly wrote the gospel. Matthew(Levi) was an eager employee of the Roman Empire who abandoned his post to follow King Jesus. He wrote this gospel so that you and I would do the same. Moore structures his commentary around Matthew’s internal structure (a prologue, Five acts composed of Jesus’ teaching blocks and subsequent action, and epilogue).

Moore’s personal style and illustrations bring the reader into a fresh encounter with Jesus and the message of this gospel. He is not content at merely describing what the gospel meant, but articulating what difference it makes to your life. So while this is a commentary, it is written in a relevant and challenging way aimed at connecting the Gospel to our lives.

But isn’t that just like Tom Wright’s for Everyone Commentaries? Yes, it is. I read through this commentary with Matthew for Everyone close at hand so I could compare the two. There is certainly some overlap in style and content. Here are some things I see that are similar:

    – Both are highly readable and engaging, full of illustrations and personal stories.
    -Both authors are trying to do responsible exegesis of the text. I trust Wright more, but Moore illuminates aspects of Matthew’s gospel and gave me fresh insights.
    -Neither of these commentaries or series are scholarly works (despite Wright’s scholarly status) and thus will not necessarily untangle every thorny issue in the text. This has to do with the limits of the genre. They tell you what difference the gospel makes for your life, but sometimes a more detailed commentary can help you sort out what the text is actually saying.
    -Both commentaries give you a picture of how the passage would ‘preach.’

Despite these similarities there are important differences as well. Obviously Phil Moore and N.T. Wright’s exegesis does not agree on every point. Moore is more in line with classical Evangelical theology while Wright is more apt to question conventional assumptions. As a pastor and evangelist I think Moore may be better than Wright at connecting the Word with everyday life. However Wright is much better at describing the Jesus story and the first century context. They both do an admirable job of exegesis and connecting it to life; yet their personal and professional strengths are evident in their writing as well.

For the most part, Moore’s reflections are based in a careful and close reading of the text. Occasionally he uses the text as pretext to talk about something else (a point of doctrine, the value of learning apologetics, etc). At these points he is using the text more than sitting under it, and his reflections are not as rooted (or if they are, not in Matthew). I think it is legitimate to read a text evocatively as long as you aren’t misusing the text for your own end; however in a commentary I think it is more valuable to your readers to remain under the text. I don’t think Moore wanders far or often, but he does wander.

This small caveat aside, I would recommend this book for devotional use. I found it personally challenging as I seek to live out the life of discipleship. So if you are shopping for a devotional commentary on one of the gospels I commend this volume to you. Thank you to Kregel Publications for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.