Open to Every Which Way the Spirit Blows: a book review

Being open to the Spirit once meant, for me, attending a charismatic church. There the works of the Spirit were front and center—prayers for healing and deliverance, prophetic words, ecstatic utterance. It was good for me to be there, to cultivate an experiential openness and allow the winds of the Spirit to blow where they would. Unfortunately, not everything I’ve experienced and witnessed at that church was the move of the Holy Spirit. I witnessed poor discernment, unhealthy dynamics, and psychological manipulation. It took me years to sort out the difference between being open to the Spirit and just being weird.

McknightOpentotheSPiritScot McKnight’s Open to the Spirit is a great overview of how to cultivate an openness to the Spirit’s movement, that attends to the Spirit’s purposes for us. McKnight is a New Testament scholar, and professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary, author of a gazillion Christian books and is a popular blogger at Patheos. This is a popular level book designed to help ordinary readers enter into and appreciate what it means to be open to the Spirit. Nevertheless, McKnight is a New Testament scholar and he seeks throughout to root his description of the Spirit’s work in the biblical text, and where appropriate, he interacts with various other biblical scholars (notably, Gordon Fee, Jimmy Dunn, Jack Levison, NT Wright, Daniel Wallace, Monica Coleman), but this remains a non-technical book, with plenty of personal examples from  McKnight’s faith journey.

McKnight explores being open to the Spirit in five areas. In Part 1, he describes being open to the voice of the Spirit (e.g., the Spirit’s witness in pointing us to Jesus, in the written words of Scripture, in prophetic utterance, and in the Spirit’s wordless, groaning intercession for us). In Part 2, he discusses being open to the Spirit’s new creation in us (e.g., God’s presence in our lives, in the Pentecost, in a new baptism, in our transforming inner self and in giving us new power).

Part 3 talks about being open to the Spirit in Christian community, in inspiring the cruciform style of Christian leadership in the way of Jesus, and in an other-oriented spirituality of love. Part 4 explores what it means to be open to the Spirit’s sanctifying work—the assurance of life in Christ, our growth in freedom and holiness (e.g. the ‘fruit of the Spirit) and living towards the good.

Finally, part 5 explores being open to the victory the spirit brings over sin, victory in communication (e.g. tongues, prayer, and evangelism), victory over sin and death, victory over demonic powers, structural evil and victory in worshipping God.

Because McKnight focuses on the role of the Spirit in the Bible (with a special focus on the New Testament), he acknowledges and describes charismatic phenomenon without laying the emphasis on the strange and esoteric. McKnight’s emphasis is always on what the Spirit of God wants to accomplish in us if we allow ourselves to be open to the Spirit’s multifaceted work in our lives. Each chapter explores a dimension of the Spirit’s work and closes with a question asking if we are open to the Spirit’s work (e.g. “Are you open to the Spirit who speaks in the Living Word and takes you to Jesus?” – pg 27; “Are you open to the Holy Spirit who brings you new power?”- pg 95; “Are you open to the wild freedom of the Spirit?” -pg 147; “Are you open to the Spirit who grants victory in communication, sometimes in miraculous ways?” -pg 179.

Three times McKnight includes a prayer of openness to the Spirit for readers to pray as they read (in the introduction, on page 70, and on page 204):

Lord, I am open to the Holy Spirit.

Holy Spirit, Come to me, dwell in me, speak to me

so I may become more like Christ.

Lord, give me the courage to be open,

Lord I am open to the Holy Spirit.

Come Holy Spirit

Amen.

McKnight’s goal is that in reading the stories he shares (his own and others) and in reflecting on the Spirit’s movement throughout the biblical text, we will be open and the Spirit of God would move in us. This is a good book to read prayerfully and expectantly. Are you open to the Spirit? Sometimes the Spirit moves in weird ways, but always with the purpose of bringing us into a deeper experience of the Kingdom of God. McKnight names the way the Spirit directs, intercedes, inspires, renews, brings intimacy with God, knits Christian community together, and compels us to work toward healing and justice, to the glory of God.  I give this five stars. – ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from the blogging for books program and Waterbrook Multnomah in exchange for my honest review.

 

It’s Heaven, I Promise: a book review

Christians believe in Heaven.  It is our final destination at the end of life, our After-After-Life, our great hope for eternity. Nevertheless we don’t all believe the same things about it. Popular images of heaven depict a whole lot of harp playing up  there on those billowy white clouds.Our images of heaven and the after life are formed from pop-culture–movies, books, comics–and medieval art and literature. In contrast, Scot

The Heaven Promise
The Heaven Promise By Scot McKinght

McKnight wrote The Heaven Promise to give us a picture of our Christian final hope, drawn  primarily from the pages of the Bible.

It was perhaps only a matter of time before McKnight tackled the topic of heaven. Several years ago, this New Testament scholar and popular blogger and author, took on Reformed evangelicalism for reducing the gospel ‘to going to heaven when you die’ (See The King Jesus Gospel). However McKnight never repudiated heaven; his problem was with the ways the gospel (and heaven) were relegated to the afterlife.

McKnight divides The Heaven Promise into four sections. Part one is essentially an introduction to the question of heaven, our assumptions about the afterlife and where we got them. Part two looks deeper on what the Bible says about heaven: that it is promised to us by God, that this promise is sealed by Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, that a bodily resurrection awaits those who share in Christ’s resurrection, and that heaven begins wherever the reign of God is. Part three unfolds six promises about heaven:

  1. God will be God (present in all his glory, majesty and power).
  2. Jesus will be Jesus (central to everything as a reflection of the God of heaven).
  3. Heaven will be a utopia of pleasures
  4. Heaven will be eternal life
  5. Heaven will be a global fellowship
  6. Heaven will be the eternal beloved community

These six promises will have implications for what heaven will be like and for how we live our lives now.

Part four was the part of the book I read first. It is kind of a FAQ  section. McKnight tackles ten questions people have about heaven. He answers questions about near death/out of body experiences, heavenly rewards, ‘who get’s in,’ God’s fairness, family in heaven?, children who die, cremation, purgatory and pets. In his final question “Why Believe in Heaven?” he gives  a personal account of his belief in heaven.

I found this to be a well-written account of heaven grounded in biblical theology. McKnight has a gift for presenting complicated but important theological ideas in language that ordinary readers understand.  In a few places, McKnight challenged my reading of particular passages and what that tells about heaven (i.e. he gives a fresh interpretation of Jesus’ confrontation of the Sadducees).

McKnight doesn’t simply rehash Bible verses  about heaven. He talks about the implications of what our vision of heaven should have for our day-to-day life. For example, his chapter on the eternal beloved community (chapter 13) expounds on how the Bible’s last book describes the end of the exploitation and injustice of Babylon. McKnight knows we aren’t there yet. We live in a world with food deserts and unjust incarcerations (McKnight gives examples of each). He suggest that our heavenly vision of Justice and Shalom should cause us to seek to live out heaven now. For McKnight heaven isn’t just ‘pie in the sky when you die’ but a vision we live towards.

This is a popular level book, so not exhaustive. You may not agree with Mcknight on every point. But if you want a book that gets you excited about heaven and presses into the implications for life, this one is great! I give it four stars.

Note: I received this book from Waterbrook Multnomah and the Blogging for Books Program in exchange for my honest review.

 

 

King Jesus v. the Emperor: a book review

The influence of post-colonial approaches to biblical hermeneutics and other recent scholarship has meant that the New Testament has been read with an eye  towards its sociopolitical implications. Modern authors as diverse as Warren Carter, John Dominic Crossan, Richard Horsley, and N.T. Wright have observed that declaring that Jesus was the Son of God and Lord in a first century Roman context, offered an implicit critique of the emperor. If Jesus is Lord then Caesar is not.

Jesus is Lord Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph B Modica

While these readings have been insightful and instructive, Scot McKnight and Joseph Modica have gathered a team of scholars who offer a chastened view of the empire-critical approach.  All of the essays in Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not acknowledge that the Lordship of Christ would cause some degree of enmity with Imperial Rome.  So nowhere do the authors of this book suggest that there are not political implications to believing the gospel; yet they do point out  where the contemporary case against the emperor, waged in the academy, goes beyond the bounds of the New Testament witness.  An exclusively political reading of the Bible obscures other dimensions of the gospel proclamation.

Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not divides into ten chapters. The forward, introduction and first couple of chapters look at the broad theme of empire and the New Testament. The remaining chapters examine various New Testament books assessing what they say (and do not say) about empire and recent literature. Andy Crouch‘s forward teases out some of the implications of this study and sums up its insights. After a brief introduction by McKnight and Modica, David  Nystrom opens the book with a look at the Roman imperial cult and ideology.   Nystrom is a specialist in Roman History and examines how the Emperor used the imperial cult to consolidate his power and  re-enforced  the ‘entire compass of Roman civilization (36). Nystorm’s chapter illuminates the first century context, reveals some scholarly missteps (i.e. reading a contemporary context back into the text), and shows us where the gospel does challenge imperial authority. Judith Diehl‘s essay examines the Anti-imperial rhetoric of the New Testament and surveys recent discussions and approaches. Social scientific, post colonial and literary approaches reveals an imperial critique which until recently remained obscure.

Joel Willitts examines Matthew’s gospel. Willitts suggests that Matthew was not anti-imperial as such but describes how Jesus is the Messiah. Willitts writes:

 Matthew was hailing the coming of Israel’s Davidic Messiah and announcing the concomitant restoration of the kingdom of Israel. To the extent  that Israel’s restoration would be an assault on any earthly kingdom, Matthew’s gospel opposed Rome. But, and this is a significant point, Matthew was neither critiquing “empire” per se nor singling out Rome uniquely. To take this view would be to inappropriately diminish Matthew’s message. Jesus is not only or primarily God’s answer to Rome. Jesus is God’s answer to Israel’s unfulfilled story. A story, as it turns out, not only about Israel. It is a story that encompasses all the kingdoms and nations of the world (Mt. 4:8; 28:19-20)(97).

Dean Pinter‘s examination of Luke and recent scholarly literature reveals that the gospel is not simply a ‘pro-empire’ text. However he cautions that “questions of empire should not set the primary agenda for reading the Gospel of Luke either” (112).  There are points where Luke is critical of Imperial policy but he does not write ‘against Rome’ either.  Pinter writes,

Luke is a political thinker but the question is whether his primary polarity is between Jesus as Lord and Caesar as Lord. A more appropriate polarity would be construed this way: Luke is interested in social inequalities and how they are intertwined with demonic powers and their challenge against God’s sovereignty in the larger cosmic battles (113).

This allows for a much more nuanced view of Luke’s critique of Roman culture.

Similarly Christopher Skinner‘s exploration of John shows that its author is primarily concerned with the incarnate Logos. Nevertheless he goes to great pains to suggest that John does speak to the realm of Empire and contains an implicit critique of Rome. This is interesting because John’s gospel is not typically a ‘anti-imperial’ go-to text.

Drew Strait discusses Acts. Of particular interest is his discussion of the political implications of the Ascension. In the Greco-Roman world ascension into heaven accompanied the process of becoming a god (134).  Caesar Augustus himself  took advantage of the political ramifications f Julius Caesar’s ascent (proclaimed by Augustus at games held in Julius Caesar’s honor). While Strait cautions that you  cannot separate the ascension from its Judaic roots, he acknowledges that for Luke’s audience to make the association between Christ’s ascension and Caesar’s was thoroughly plausible (135).  Throughout Acts, Strait wants us to hear the implications of  Jesus lordship, but he suggests this is more a theological than revolutionary claim and in the first century and would be more offensive to Jewish listeners than Caesar’s agents (144).

Michael Bird‘s chapter is the standout essay of the volume. In discussion Romans, he demonstrates that while  Paul wrote his book more as a ‘pastoral theology’ than a ‘political manifesto,’ Paul was thoroughly cognizant of the sociopolitical realities of the Roman Empire (161).  Paul’s gospel was the antithesis of  all Rome stood for. Bird’s essay appears to give the most credence to empire criticism :

Paul’s euangelion is the Royal announcement that God’s dikaiosyne avails for believing Jews and Greeks, but bad news for the powers because of the concurrent revelation of God’s wrath against idolatry and wickedness (Romans 1:8).  Paul’s letter to the Romans is delivered to the heart of the empire with a bold thesis that there is only one true Lord, Jesus Christ. The violence of Roman military power and the foolishness of Roman religion will all collapse under the weight of the kingdom of Christ. Should a Roman official have read Romans, the letter would have appeared to be the ravings of a fanatical Eastern superstition, politically malicious at best and seditious at worst.

Two other chapters discuss the Pauline epistles relationship to Empire. Lynn Cohick examines Philippians and empire while Allan Bevere discusses Colossians (and Philemon). Cohick gives some great information on the imperial cult (the practice included the worship of Caesar’s ancestors not simply the living Caesar) but like other authors in this volume, she questions the assumption that the political reading (i.e. Empire criticism) does full justice to the eschatological dimensions to the text.  Bevere offers a stinging critique of Walsh and Keesmaat’s Colossians Remixed Certainly there are aspects of Colossians that call the Empire into question, but Walsh and Keesmaat also gloss over aspects of Colossians which do not cohere with their empire-critical reading (i.e. Jewish elements in the Colossian philosophy). I have read and enjoyed Walsh and Keesmaat’s text several times, but I think that Bevere’s critique carries some freight.

Dwight Sheet discusses Revelation, an apocalyptic book which has been read for its explicit critique of the  Roman Empire (likely during the time of Domitian).  Sheet argues that the language of Revelation  indicates an expectation of Christ’s imminent return.

Mcknight and Modica sum up the insights of this book with three observations:

  1. The reality of the Roman Empire needs to be reckoned with in New Testament studies.
  2. The Kingdom of God is not in opposition to the Roman Empire but the Kingdom of Satan.
  3. The New Testament writers show readers how to live in the ‘already but not yet’  daily realities of empire (212-3).

This is a worthwhile read and I found it challenging and insightful. I am personally sympathetic and enamored with many of the empire-critical approaches to New Testament studies.  I think the gospel does call into question the Emperor and the ruling hegemony, both in the first century and in the twenty-first. However reading the Bible with an agenda  obscures its message.  The New Testament is not uniformly critical of Empire and the authors have other concerns besides the imperial cult.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the sociopolitical implications of the Bible. These authors are even-handed in their presentation and demonstrate that Jesus’ Lordship does indeed call into question the Lordship of Caesar, at least in the ultimate sense. However the Kingdom of God is far richer and more interesting than a critique of earthly political regimes.  This book will enrich your study of the New Testament and help you evaluate current academic trends. I give this book ★★★★.

Thank you to InterVarsity Academic for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.