The Ascent of God

This coming Thursday is Ascension Day–the day in the church year when we celebrate Jesus’ post-resurrection-trip-to-heaven. While this is a significant event in Christ’s life and the life of the church, it doesn’t get much play in today’s churches. Growing up in church I remember 2D disciples and flannelgraph feet, but I don’t remember much else said about Jesus’ Ascension. If your church recites the Creeds  then it  is affirmed: “he ascended into heaven.” However it is little emphasized in worship, in readings, or preaching. Only Luke records the event (though he does it twice) and we may wonder what the big deal is.

In another age the Ascension was celebrated as the crowning  glory of  the Incarnation. Listen to St. Augustine:

The Ascension is the festival which confirms the grace of all other festivals put together–without which the profitableness of every other festival would have perished. For unless the Savior had ascended into heaven, His nativity would have come to nothing . . . and His passion would have borne no fruit for us . . . and His most holy resurrection would have been useless. -St. Augustine, quoted in Tim Perry & Aaron Perry, He Ascended into Heaven ( Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2010) 3.

The following observations are my musings on the significance of the Ascension. I affirm the event as a historic reality. Jesus stood with his disciples somewhere near Bethany where they witnessed him taken to heaven. While the events of Jesus’ Ascension are only described by Luke in Luke 24 and Acts 1, there are a number of passages  assume its reality.

So why does it matter? Here are three observations:

  1. The Ascension means Jesus is absent.  In another sense, us post-Pentecost believers know Christ’s presence with us through the ministry of the Spirit. We cling to Jesus’ promise to be with us, even to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). But let’s not gloss  over Jesus absence. One moment Jesus was with his disciples, the next moment he was taken up into heaven and they were told that in the same way he departed, he would one day return.  Because  of the Ascension we are people between times: Jesus is no longer with us bodily, Jesus will one day return. We pray and work toward the Kingdom of God but as post-Ascension people we live in the ‘already but not yet’ tension of the Kingdom of God. 
  2. The Ascension means that Christ’s Incarnate work is finished. We love Christmas with all its fanfare and we walk with Jesus on the road to Calvary through Lent and Holy Week. On Easter we proclaim Christ’s resurrection with shouts, songs and chocolate bunnies. As significant as Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection are, they lose their meaning unless they are sealed by his Ascension.  If Jesus the incarnate one does not return to the Father, than we are left with a fractured deity. If the words of dereliction on the cross resulted in Christ’s eternal separation from God, then there is no hope for humanity.  The Ascension is Christ’s vindication and proof that God’s favor rests on Him. Philippians 2:5-11 describe how the Ascension is the telos of Christ’s Incarnation:

    In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

    Who, being in very nature God,

    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

    rather, he made himself nothing

    by taking the very nature of a servant,

    being made in human likeness.

    And being found in appearance as a man,

    he humbled himself

    by becoming obedient to death—

    even death on a cross!

    Therefore God exalted him to the highest place

    and gave him the name that is above every name,

    10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

    11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,

    to the glory of God the Father.

  3. The Ascension means that Jesus is sitting at the right hand of God.  Jesus is exalted and that means Jesus reigns! This is good news, especially in a world with marathon bombings, political and social unrest, bloodshed.  Things on earth are not all as they should be (or will be!), but we can be confident that the risen and ascended Christ, sits with God and intercedes on our behalf.

So Thursday night  celebrate the Ascendant one and give thanks that the Christ who is absent will one day return, that his salvific, incarnational work is completed, that he reigns in glory and holds you in his hands.

Truth Told Slant: a book review

i told my soul to sing: finding God with Emily Dickinson  by Kristin Lemay

Emily Dickinson is a poet warmly appreciated for her wit and insight, remembered both for her prodigious output (mostly published posthumously) and her eccentric  manner. She lived to age 55 but never left her yard after her late thirties.  When she passed away her sister found nearly eight hundred poems in the bottom drawer of her dresser (as her poems were collected, nearly 1800 were discovered).  Her poetry is colloquial–punctuated with dashes,full of slant rhymes, irregular meters and unconventional capitalization.  A cursory read of her poetry does not reveal their full meaning. Her poems were meditations on various themes and therefore require a slow meditative reading.

But what are we to make of Emily’s spiritual life? Her poems touch on God, on Christ, on death, on immortality,  on beauty. She is sometimes claimed as a doubter and skeptic but her poems show her as a an occasional believer who did not so much eschew faith as easy faith and formulaic spirituality. Emily is more complicated than her portrait as a rebel, spinster waif. Her faith is also more complex than it may seem at first brush.

In i told my soul to sing: finding God with Emily Dickinson, Kristin LeMay explores the nature of Emily’s search for God. Emily claimed that she ‘could not pray,’ but LeMay mines twenty-five poems to see what they show us about the spiritual life as they relate to five broad themes: Belief, Prayer, Mortality, Immortality, and Beauty. LeMay is both analytical and intuitive in her reading of Emily and intertwines her exploration of theses poems with pieces of Emily’s biography and her own.

In discussing Emily’s Belief, LeMay explores Emily’s ‘conversion’ which meant for Emily letting go of her own life. She failed to have a ‘conversion experience’ but her poems reveal the process by which she continued to wrestle with God and the ways that her poetry were her working out her  own salvation. Likewise LeMay  delves into the way Emily wrestles with her understanding of Scripture (the Center not the Circumference), the way Doubt is a form of Faith, and the way that belief brings understanding.

As LeMay explores the theme of Prayer, she observes that while Emily claims she cannot pray, her poems are a means of prayer (what Emily eschews is prayer as a scientific experiment).  LeMay also reflects on the influence of hymn meter on Emily, the way she addresses the Divine and her understanding of God’s presence.  When so much prayer is technique and formula designed to force God’s hand, Emily’s critique is a good one.

Emily is sometimes described as overly morbid and obsessed with death. But Dickinson was surrounded by the death of loved ones and LeMay argues  that  Emily’s poems plumb the depths of human experience. And she does not regard death as a grim finality but holds out the hope of Immortality. However it is her exploration of Beauty where Emily speaks most profoundly about the ineffable.

I appreciate LeMay’s exploration of Dickinson and the homage she pays to her poetry.  LeMay is a teacher of writing and adept at analyzing these poems(i.e. the way Dickinson uses meter to enhance meaning, and her unique syntax and vocabulary).  While LeMay is sometimes intuiting what she feels is the best explanation of Emily’s faith, her observations are based in a detailed reading of Emily’s poems. She finds a kindred spirit in ‘saint Emily Dickinson’ as one who has struggled to come to terms with belief, Christian creeds, the experience of faith and the church. That being said, her own story and experience of faith is somewhat different from Dickinson’s and she is more forthright in sharing her own journey.

This book is a good introduction to the spirituality of Emily Dickinson and bears a certain similarity to Susan Vanzanten’s Mending a Tattered Faith: Devotions with Dickinson (Cascade Books, 2011). Dickinson was not an orthodox Christian and it is unclear how much of the creeds she could affirm. However, what Dickinson models is the honest struggle with faith and doubt. She doesn’t resort to pious formulas but asks hard question and irreverently balks at tradition which she cannot square with her own experience. But she isn’t so much a mocking skeptic as an honest seeker.   I would commend this book to those who are interested in exploring Dickinson’s faith or to her fellow strugglers. May we wrestle with God and not let go.

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.  Below is a link to a book trailer for this book, which has a reading from a chapter called “Grasped By God” in the Beauty section of this book.

Hospitable Grace: a book review and recommendation

Paraclete Hospitality My exploration of the Christian practice of hospitality changed the trajectory of my life. My exposure to hospitality came when I read Christine Pohl’s book Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition. Before that I had no concept about what it meant to welcome and love people on the margins. From my church experience, all I knew about hospitality as a Christian practice is that involved bad coffee, saying, ‘hi’ on Sunday morning and forcing people to wear name tags. What I discovered was a robust vision of welcoming the stranger drawn from the Bible and the monastic tradition. Pohl demonstrated convincingly the need to recover the richness of the tradition, the way hospitality operated on the margins and gave sage advice as to how to practice it. I also read Daniel Homan, OSB and Lonni Collins Pratt’s Radical Hospitality which drew heavily on the rule of St. Benedict. Less than a year after first exploring the theme, I found myself living in community in inner city Atlanta seeking to love my neighbors and neighborhood and put hospitality into practice. I was able to share the love of God with people, by welcoming them into my life.

The Paraclete Book of Hospitality is a small but thoughtful volume which treats this theme. If you want to learn about hospitality as a Christian practice, one of the best place to start is the Benedictines. Paraclete Press, a Benedictine publishing house staffed by the membership of an ecumenical Christian community, The Community of Jesus, has produced a short book to help people explore hospitality and ‘deepen their lives with Christ.’ Drawn from their experience as a community in offering hospitality, the wisdom of the Rule, and generously peppered with quotations of Paraclete’s many fine books which treat the theme, this book inspires and gives practical advice about how to live more welcoming lives.

There are stories here about how the simple act of welcoming, or offering something special touched someone’s heart in a special way. there are also ideas, and practical advice about incorporating the rhythms of hospitality in your daily life. There is advice about meals, seasons, prayer for enemies and people we find difficult to welcome. The many quotations, scriptures and passages of the Rule of St. Benedict (and other communityrules) invite reflection on how we can incorporate hospitality into daily life.

My Hospitality Shero, Christine Pohl says of this book, “Grace-filled, wise, beautifully written and practical, this book welcomes readers into the life-giving practice of hospitality. It’s a treasure!” I couldn’t agree more and warmly commend this to any one who wants to discover (or rediscover) this practice. This book brought me back to my first encounter with this Christian practice and got me to reflect anew on the ways I can be more welcoming with those around me and the context I currently find myself in. We who are recipients of God’s hospitality in Christ Jesus need to grow in extending welcoming love for others. This book is helpful toward that end.

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

The Spirit You Didn’t Know: A Book Review of Who is the Holy Spirit? A Walk with the Apostles

Who is the Holy Spirit? YongThis is my fourth review of Paraclete Press‘s series of guides on the Holy Spirit. The other books I reviewed, each of the authors seek to articulate their understanding of the Holy Spirit from their own theological tradition (Jewish, Orthodox and Protestant). While the author of Who is the Holy Spirit?, Amos Yong, is deeply formed by the Charismatic and evangelical tradition this book examines the Holy Spirit by providing a close reading of the book of Acts and supplemented by material from Luke. The effect is that Yong is able to draw out some of the social and political implications of who the Spirit is and his activity in the world.

Right now, some of you may be saying, “the Holy Spirit I know, but who is Amos Yong? Why do I need to read this book?” Amos Yong is one of the most well-known and respected Pentecostal scholars working today. He is the J. Rodman Williams Professor of Theology at Regent University School of Divinity in Virginia Beach (as a graduate of Regent College, we call this the other Regent). Because Regent University was founded by Pat Robertson some may be tempted to write it off as a ‘right-wing institution’ but Yong’s analysis has implications for people on both the right and the left (note: I actually have no idea what Yong’s politics are, I just want to make sure you don’t think you know what he’s gonna say before you read the book).

This book came to fruition when the acquisitions editor at Paraclete Press read an article by Roger Olson in Christianity Today entitled, “A Wind that Swirls Everywhere: Amos Yong Thinks He Sees the Holy Spirit Working in Other Religions Too (note: the back of the book mistakenly attributes the article to Yong, but it is an article about Yong).” In response to this idea, Amos Yong went to work on exploring the material on the Spirit in Luke and Acts for a Sunday School class at his church. Who is the Holy Spirit? is divided into 39 chapters covering all of Acts and selections from Luke, and a discussion guide for each chapter.

Acts has been fertile ground for Charismatic reflection. Personally I have read through Acts to see evidence of the Spirit, miracles, to discover how to do (be) the church and to explore missional implications. What sets Yong’s book apart is that he focuses not only on where the Spirit is invoked, but what the Spirit evokes. He doesn’t just point out the Spirit’s presence but he asks us to open our eyes to discover that the scope of the Spirit’s work is bigger, more inclusive than we sometimes imagine. Yong writes:

I now believe that the Spirit is at work not just at the level of the individual but also at the level of society and its various political and economic structures; not just the otherworldly, spiritual level but also at the this-worldly level of the material and concrete domains of our lives; not just in and through the church but also in and through wider institutional, cultural and religious realities. In other words, I now think the world of the Holy Spirit is much wider than I’d guessed, and that the work of the Spirit is to redeem and transform our world as a whole along with all of its interconnected parts, systems and structures (x).

And so, Yong sets out to answer the question of Who is the Holy Spirit? not by giving us doctrinal formula and propositional truth, but by paying careful attention to the narrative of Luke-Acts and showing us the Spirit’s work. He explores how the Spirit brings and is bringing about the full promise of the Kingdom of God, how the Spirit overcomes divisions of language, ethnicity, nationality, gender and class, and how the Spirit brings about new freedom and liberation. This isn’t a denial of the Spirit’s individual and personal work within the human soul, but he probes the narrative also for wider socio-political implications. Acts provides rich fodder for reflection as he explores how the church is born through the Spirit’s work in overcoming divisions of language and culture at Pentecost and the Spirit keeps impelling their witness outward from Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Each chapter explores a text (or set of texts), discovers what it is saying, the implications of the Spirit’s work, and explores the implications for our own context.

I found this book refreshing! Too often confessional scholars examine spiritual realities in the text while critical scholarship focuses on the political aspects of the early church. It is exciting to read a Bible study which explores both of these poles. Yong’s bibliography, while only showing the references he deems ‘accessible,’ displays his willingness to tackle the issue and draw on a wide range of scholarship. As this is not a scholarly book, there are no footnotes. Most people probably like this better, but I missed them and my reading would have been enriched by knowing where he drew various aspects from and being able to chase things back. But lucky for me, this isn’t the only thing Yong has written on the topic, and I will get my chance.

Yong’s critics (even Olson) point out that his views weaken the need for evangelism by de-emphasizing Christian particularity and paving the way for pluralism and syncretism. This seems hardly fair. By rooting his reflections in the book of Acts, Yong is able to affirm both the continuities and discontinuities between other religions and the gospel. Yong says:

If the work of the Spirit brought about renewal, restoration and re-appropriation of all that was good and true in the social, cultural, and religious spheres of human life, it could also be seen from another perspective that the coming of the Spirit turned the world upside down in each of these domains of human endeavor. Continuity or discontinuity, when and how? These are questions that require ongoing discernment of the Spirit’s presence and activity(160)

This has implications for how we engage in mission. We do not dismiss other religions out of hand as utterly false; we do look for evidence of where the Spirit is at work (like Paul in the Aeropagus).

This book would be great for personal reflection, or as a curriculum for a small group Bible Study. I certainly think it would inspire a rich discussion of the Spirit’s role, presence and work in our lives and in the church. I am not sure that Yong answers, or intends to give us a firm answer to the question: Who is the Holy Spirit?. Instead through his calling to attention the widening scope of the Spirit’s work, he helps us to see that the Spirit is bigger and more wonderful than we have previously imagined.

Thank you to Paraclete press for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

The Holy Spirit in the Orthodox Tradition: A book review of the Giver of Life

This is the third book in Paraclete Press‘s Holy Spirit series which I have reviewed. I now feel like I can say a little bit about the series and what I have appreciated about it (you can read previous reviews here or here). If you are really only interested in the orthodox tradition, skip the next few paragraphs and my review there.

First of all, each of the authors in the series embody their particular tradition. Rachel Timoner wrote Breath of Life to present a Jewish understanding of the spirit of God and she continually references the rabbinic tradition and Jewish history to explicate her points. In presenting Protestant views of the Holy Spirit, Edmund Rubarczyk describes individual thinkers, how they challenged prevailing views (protested) and their impact on our understanding of the Spirit. I didn’t see how each of their approaches embodied the traditions they were describing and representing until I read Fr. John Oliver’s description of the Holy Spirit in the Orthodox tradition. A prayer from the orthodox liturgy frames the entire structure of the book and Father Oliver’s reflections. Not only do each of these authors describe the Spirit through the lens of their tradition, but the unique spirituality of each tradition informs their approach.

Secondly, I applaud the ecumenism of each author. They write from their own spiritual tradition, and do not sacrifice their own identity. It is in offering the insights of their own traditions that each author has contributed to a deeper understanding of the Spirit for us all. Too often ecumenical dialogues and discussion of God devolve into what we can all minimally affirm and doesn’t value the unique contributions. It is so refreshing to read a series on the Holy Spirit where each author is true to their theological convictions but presents them in a winsome and engaging way, offering them to the wider church (or in the case of Timoner, beyond her own religious faith). When unique visions are offered, they are given here without polemics.

Third, all of these books are thoughtfully engaging but accessible to the general reader. This is sometimes a hard balance, but each of the author manages to convey something of substance without getting mired in academic discussions and over complicating the matter. Nor do they retreat to shallow waters. I commend the whole series to you, on to the review:

The Giver of Life: The Holy Spirit in the Orthodox Tradition

Father John Oliver is priest of St. Elizabeth Orthodox Christian Church in Murfreesboro, TN and is a graduate and (former?) faculty at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary as instructor of Old and New Testament and American Religious History. My first exposure to him was through the Hearts and Minds podcast. John Oliver Here he explores what the Orthodox church’s understanding of Spirit, exemplified by quotations and stories from the Christian East. But more than that, this book is an exercise in prayer. Maximus the Confessor (580-662 C.E.) somewhere said, “Theology is prayer and prayer is theology-Theology without prayer is demonic.” Thus it is fitting that reflection on the Spirit in the Orthodox tradition is given within the context of prayer. Each chapter begins with this epigram:

O heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things; Treasury of good things and Giver of life; come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every impurity,and save our souls, O Gracious Lord.

This ancient prayer to the Holy Spirit, often uttered for Morning and Evening prayer, frames the reflections in this book with each chapter reflecting on a phrase from the prayer. Here is the table of contents which shows how Oliver breaks the prayer up:

1. O Heavenly King
2. The Comforter
3. The Spirit of Truth
4. Who Art Everywhere Present and Fillest All Things
5. Treasury of Good Things
6. Giver of Life
7. Come Abide in Us
8. Cleanse Us From Every Impurity and Save Our Souls
9 O Gracious Lord

By probing this prayer, Oliver is able to both probe Orthodox reflection on the Spirit and the grandeur of all the Spirit is and does. In these pages the Spirit emerges as creator and king, God’s comforting presence, the Spirit of Truth who exists in unity with the Father and Son, as both transcendent and immanent, as giver of gifts and God’s abiding gift, the one who brings life, as the one who cleanses our sins and brings us to perfection in God, the gracious God who leads us from our depths to new heights. Along the way, Oliver quotes some of the great saints of the eastern church, quotations and stories and shares how the sacraments nourish life in the Spirit for the faithful.

There is a lot to chew on. I personally love patristics and was pleased to read many quotations from the early church (Cappadocians and desert Christians are well represented). I am not Orthodox, at least with a capital ‘O,’ but loved the prayerful framework and the Spirt in which Oliver offered this to the wider church. There is little I would disagree with in the book, even if my own emphasis would be somewhat different. Oliver stays clear of theologically contentious matters (i.e. he discusses the Nicene Creed but doesn’t pick a fight with the West for changing it) but gives us something that is both true to his theological tradition and instructive for us all. Thus far, this is my favorite book in the series!

Next week I will review the final book (to date) in Paraclete’s Holy Spirit series: Amos Yong’s Who is the Holy Spirit? I am very excited about this because Amos Yong is one of the most well respected Pentecostal scholars and I am sure that his exploration of the Spirit will widen our vision for who the Spirit is and all he does for us!

[Thank you to Paraclete press for providing me with a review copy of Giver of Life and the other books in this series in exchange for my review. I was not instructed to write a positive review but an honest one, which I have done here.]

The Holy Spirit in the Protestant Tradition: Book Review of The Spirit Unfettered

After reviewing Breath of Life: God as Spirit in Judaism, Paraclete Press graciously allowed me to review other books in their Holy Spirit series (You can read my original review of Breath of Life here). For my second review from the series, I read a book reflecting on protestant views of the Holy Spirit. As a Protestant, this is where I live, so some of it was familiar terrain. Yet I appreciated Edmund Rybarcyzk’s guidance in exploring the history of Protestant thought on the Spirit.

http://ep.yimg.com/ca/I/yhst-38174537758215_2191_74440273Rybarczyk

Rybarczyk, an ordained Assemblies of God minister, Associate Professor of historic and Systematic Theology at Vanguard University and former managing editor of Pneuma: The Society for Pentecostal Studies, presents here a broad overview of protestant understanding of the Holy Spirit by profiling different protestant theologians. With the exception of chapter two (which focuses on the 16th Century Anabaptists), each of the chapters profiles different protestant theologians and examines their contribution to our understanding of the Holy Spirit. The chapters are as follows:

1. Martin Luther
2. The Sixteenth Century Anabaptists
3. John Wesley
4. Friedrich Schleiermacher
5. Abraham Kuyper
6. Karl Barth
7. J. Rodman Williams
8. Jurgen Moltmann
9. Wolfhart Pannenberg
10. Clark Pinnock
11. Michael Welker

This list, though not exhaustive or comprehensive does hit many key theologians who reflected on the reality of the Spirit. Personally my list would have also included Calvin (whose understanding of the sacraments was that the Spirit mediated the presence of Christ in the ecclesia), Pietists and some Anglican theologians, and Miroslav Volf, but as a whole, Rybarczyk’s group has a nice balance between Lutherans, Reformed and free church theologians and so provides a nice balance overall.

Rybarczyk’s outline traces the history of Protestant pneumatology. In the first half of the book (Luther to Barth) traces the story from Luther’s musing on the nature of salvation, protestant accounting for subjective ‘spiritual’ experience, and reflection on God’s personhood and sovereignity. The second half of the book shows how in the late 20th Century, Pneumatology explored different avenues and directions.

The Story Rybarczyk tells begins with Luther’s musings on the nature of salvation and sanctification and the Spirit’s role. The Anabaptists, Wesley and Schleiermacher each, though in significantly different ways, talked about how the Spirit mediated the felt, subjective experience of the faith (i.e. Spirit guiding believers, sanctifying us, and ‘God-consciousness). Kuyper responded to this subjectivity by emphasizing the cosmic scope of the Spirit’s work in transforming culture for the common good. He also emphasized the historicity and objective elements of the Christian faith and argued that the Spirit made these ‘subjectively alive.’ Barth in turn, also reacted against the subjectivity of Schleiermacher by approaching theology from above, focusing on God and Trinity and God’s sovereignty in salvation. According to Barth, believers share in God’s story by being baptized by the Spirit into Jesus’s identity and story, His community and his mission.

In the late 20th Century saw the maturation of pentecostal and Charismatic scholarship as exemplified by the Reformed Charismatic theologian J. Rodman Williams who explored the experiential dimension of life in the Spirit. Moltmann further probes the cosmic and contextual understandings of the Spirit’s work in this world. Pannenberg’s approach upholds the Spirit’s creative work his approach is more rationalistic and far less subjective than any of the other theologians in this study and he cautions an over emphasis on the Spirit to the exclusion of Jesus (both are central). Pinnock’s approach blurs categories and draws an expansive vision of the Spirit’s work in creation and redemption. Welker doesn’t restrict his reflection on the Spirit to Biblical revelation (as would Barth) or theological literature, but seeks to discern the Spirit’s presence with science and philosophy. Moltmann, Pannenberg, Pinnock and Welker are all ecumenical and expansive in their exploration of the Spirit.

This book provides quite a survey of protestant visions of the Spirit! I found it helpful, even though the size of the book and accessibility of its prose, dictated that the exploration of each thinker was much more general than it was in-depth. At times I found Rybarczyk’s theological eye oversimplified historical matters (as in the case with his brief chapter on the wildly divergent 16th century Anabaptists). But in the main, he was fair and judicious in his analysis of each thinker’s theology of the Spirit. Certainly I have flagged several of these theologians to delve into more deeply as I seek to deepen my understanding and experience of the Spirit.

holy spirit in the Hebrew Tradition: a book review and reflection

Breath of Life CoverAs a somewhat disgruntled (wounded) charismatic and committed evangelical, I am always searching for an intelligible depiction of life in the Spirit; however I have never read a book exploring the Spirit of God in the Judaic tradition (despite having an M.Div with an emphasis in the Old Testament). Rabbi Rachel Timoner does a fine job of illuminating the role of the Spirit in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Rabbinical tradition. She writes of the Spirit in hopes to speak meaningfully to both Jews and Christians. Certainly as a Christian I affirm the Trinity and have a different list of religious authorities to appeal to than Timoner does; still there is much here that is fruitful for Christians to grasp and grapple with if we are to do justice to our shared scriptures and lay hold of the gift of God’s spirit (through out this review I will try to respect Timoner’s lowercase usage of spirit to denote it as God’s possession rather than triune person; that I believe more in this regard, does not mean I don’t respect her integrity to her tradition and think that it has something to teach us).

Timoner received her B.A. from Yale University, was ordained at Hebrew Union College, has won several awards, is an advocate of justice and the Assistant Rabbi at Leo Boeck Temple in L.A. She grew up as a synagogue-drop-out with no particular interest in God or religion. That was until she began to pay attention to life and had the growing sense of the transcendent, a reality she names as God. The Hebrew words for spirit, ruach and neshamah, name God’s immanence and transcendence. Timoner traces the role of the spirit of God through the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition exploring three themes which correspond to the parts of this book: Creation, Revelation & Redemption. Rachel Timoner

Creation
The Hebrew Bible begins with ‘the spirit’ hovering over the waters breathing life into the cosmos. Humanity is enlivened by the ‘Breath of life-nishmat chayim. Our life is sustained by the spirit of God. Timoner’s picture of sustaining power of God’s spirit giving us life, underscores the relationship between God’s spirit (breath) and our own. I think any pneumatology which strives to be Biblical should start here.

Revelation
As protestant, I am comfortable talking about specific and general revelation. General revelation, is God’s self revealing through creation. Specific revelation is God’s historic self-revelation through scripture (and as a Christian I think ultimately revelation through Jesus). What Timoner does with the term revelation does not fit into the neat boxes of my protestant systematic theology. She uses the examples of the spirit’s revelation in the Hebrew scriptures, but she uses these evocatively to speak of a universal outpouring of God’s Spirit. Thus she points out the gift of the spirit to enable leaders, artists, the wise and courageous and the eloquent; yet the spirit of God is also what is given to each of us in all walks of life. It is God’s gift of the spirit which helps us clarify our life’s calling. Because ultimately the gift of the spirit of God is given in the context of covenant, a special relationship where we live out God’s purposes for the world.

Again there is little I would disagree with here. I would personally push for more clarification on the nature of covenant than Timoner offers (i.e. obligations and conditions, how you enter covenant with God, who is excluded). But certainly seeing all of our lives, our gifts, talents, insights, proclivities as gift from God seems good and right. Timoner insists that God gives gifts and has an agenda in the world in which we are called to participate. I would not want to say less than this. Her attentiveness to the gift of the spirit takes aim at the practical Deism of our age.

Redemption

In exploring this theme, Timoner has a rich heritage to draw upon. Of course the story of the Exodus is paradigmatic for God’s rescue. But there are also the prophets that talk about redemption, restoration, reviving dry bones and re-dedication. It is the spirit of God issues in an age which is characterized by where God’s people live out God’s redemption for all of humanity. This means advocating for the redemption of the poor and marginalized. The Spirit that creates, sustains, gives and guides directs us to treat our fellow humans with justice and love.

Here is another point where I think Christians can learn from this very Jewish reading of the new age of the Spirit. Sometimes Christians use the same prophets Timoner used to speak of redemption as though they were fulfilled with Jesus and the New Testament (i.e. Redemption, the outpouring of the Spirit on all flesh). The Judaic tradition is a living tradition which holds the same texts sacred; they long for their fulfillment in the same way that we Christians long for God’s kingdom to come in fullness. That our approaches are necessarily different doesn’t obscure the common ground. Jews and Christians both draw on the resources of God’s spirit as we seek to live out God’s redeeming presence in the world.

So I really liked this book and found it helpful. Admittedly it harder reading as a Christian because it draws on a number of sources which are not as readily familiar. Yet it talks of the God of the Hebrew scripture with wonder and reverence and illuminates aspects of the holy spirit (our Holy Spirit) which should help us to understand more fully.

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of Breath of Life in exchange for this review