Book Review – Faith Formation in a Secular Age – Andrew Root (Pt. 2)

I want to “extend and revise my remarks” regarding Andrew Root’s challenging work, Faith Formation in a Secular Age. For my initial response, see the previous review Book Review – Faith Formation in a Secular Age (Andrew Root)

I suggested at the beginning of that review that, as I was reading this work, I could not help but feel like I had been there before, I guess sort of a deja vu moment. More than once after digesting some of Root’s conclusions, I thought, “Reading this book is like returning to a place I have never been before.” Then something hit me – I had been somewhere close before, but not exactly in the same place. Let me explain.

Many years ago three professors within the family of the Churches of Christ created a minor firestorm with the publication of a deceptively short book, The Worldly Church: A Call for Biblical Renewal (C. Leonard Allen, Richard T. Hughes, Michael R. Weed, ACU Press, 2nd ed. 1991, 107 pages). While so much of the book needs to be reviewed here, just a couple of quotations will suffice:

We see the church floundering between two equally disastrous paths. On the one hand are those who advocate a rationalistic orthodoxy which arrogantly imposes its own limited scheme upon the Bible and places human restrictions upon God. On the other hand are those who are increasingly attracted by a generic Protestant pietism – sprinkled generously with therapeutic terminology – which eagerly caters to the shifting whims of the surrounding society. We have little sympathy with either of these secularizing options. We plead for a return to our historic roots in the central message of the Bible. (p. x)

We seek to reaffirm the great biblical truth that authentic Christianity stems from faith in God, not self; from worship of God, not self; from reliance on God’s power, not on the power of self; and from living out Christ’s teaching that ‘whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it’ (Lk. 17:33) (p. 3)

The secular church’s adaptation to modernity, and particularly its wholesale adoption of the utility principle, leads directly to fundamental theological problems. The most far-reaching of these is a loss of the sense of transcendence. (p. 17)

When Christians forget who they are and who they are called to be, no amount of technique or programming will restore lost integrity. The church does not simply need more experts in communication, counseling, or church growth. It does not need more leaders who are clever and successful. But it desperately needs more leaders who are wise and faithful to the crucified one. (p. 22)

I really could go on for quite some time, but these themes are precisely what Root analyzes in Faith Formation. In going back to Worldly Church, I am struck by the phrases, “therapeutic terminology,” “secularizing options,” “authentic Christianity,” “transcendence,” and “faithful to the crucified one.” You do not even have to be a careful reader of Root’s work to hear those concerns being raised again and again. Now, I grant you that the audience to whom Allen, Hughes and Weed wrote is much more narrowly defined than the audience to whom Root addresses, but I just cannot get past the similarity in themes, and in the underlying similarity in the solution(s) they present.

There are differences in the two works, to be sure. For one thing, Allen, Hughes and Weed are primarily historical theologians, and, from my perspective anyway, Root is a philosophical theologian. What I mean is that, while Allen, Hughes and Weed reference some non-theological works, they do not attempt to locate the problem of “modernity” in anything close to the precision that Root is able to do. Root provides in his first 6 chapters the equivalent of a semester of university studies in a survey of the philosophical underpinnings of modern thought. (Aside here – the footnotes Root incorporates are prodigious, and provide an additional wealth of material and thoughts to consider, in addition to his main line of argumentation). The two works converge at a central point, however – the cross of Christ, and, I might add as a second point of convergence, the transcendence of God.

C. Leonard Allen and Richard Hughes followed The Worldly Church with a number of other works, each fleshing out in some greater degree a specific emphasis that they considered to be critical for the Churches of Christ. Allen called for the church to return to a cruciform nature. Hughes, for his part, called on the church to return to its apocalyptic heritage – as viewed primarily in the writings of Barton W. Stone and David Lipscomb. (Allen also shares in this call to an apocalyptic worldview). Andrew Root has studied and written about the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who, in his own way, offered an apocalyptic vision of what the church is called to be (although, perhaps, not in the same terminology that Stone or Lipscomb would use).

So, in what can only be described as a very powerful, but in some ways very discomforting way, so many threads of my Christian journey have met in a mighty confluence of parallel themes. Going back 200 years to Stone, about 125 years to Lipscomb, about 75 years to Bonhoeffer, and now to my contemporaries Allen, Hughes, Weed – and now Root – I keep hearing the same voices, the same concerns, the same “prophetic” response. The church is caught – in fact always seems to be caught – in a vortex of secularizing powers that batter from without and corrupt from within. The answer today, which appears to have been the answer for Stone and for Lipscomb and for Bonhoeffer, is not more adept analyzing of the contemporary world so that the church can copy what is successful, but a total and unrelenting return to the basics of discipleship in Christ. Stone, Lipscomb, and Bonhoeffer might have expressed it differently, but the core concept is what Root identifies as an emphasis on biblical faith.

I have much more to say about Root’s book – it has utterly captivated my imagination. But I just had to unload this particular observation first. I apologize if it has been far too personal, but maybe will help explain some later remarks I make about Andrew Root’s powerful study.

Book Review – Faith Formation in a Secular Age (Andrew Root)

Andrew Root, Faith Formation in a Secular Age, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 211 pages.

I was first introduced to Andrew Root through his book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer as youth worker. I had seen several references to this book after reading his work on Bonhoeffer, and so I thought I would give it a read (after all, if someone writes on Bonhoeffer, they can’t be all bad, right?). I can honestly say that from a philosophical/theological perspective, it has been a long, long, time since I have had my foundations as shaken as they have been by this book – if ever. But I mean this in a good way – it was a constructive shaking, and in a strange sort of way, it was also re-affirming for some ideas and conclusions that have been latent, but that I have not had the mental acuity to put into concrete expression.

This post will not be all that I have to say about Root’s book – it is just too deep for one little review. What I intend to do here is to just give a brief overview, add some reflective comments, and suggest that I will be looking at a number of Root’s conclusions in greater depth in later posts.

In summary, Root asks one question, “How can we form faith in a secular age,” but in so doing he actually raises a far more basic question – “What is faith?” You might think that is a silly question, because everyone knows what faith is. But for Root (and I think he is spot-on correct here), what we have come to accept as “faith” is really nothing more than assent to a doctrine or set of doctrines. This understanding has had all kinds of negative effects on the church, and is the primary reason why the church is so frantic to discover why so many people are leaving “faith” and to discover what to do to reverse the exodus.

Faith Formation in a Secular Age is divided into two main sections: Part One (chapters 1-6) is basically a philosophical explanation of how the culture and the church have arrived at the place where we stand – the “secular age.” Part Two then addresses how faith can be formed in that secular age, and more fundamentally, addresses the content of what we call “faith.”

I will say with no hesitation that this is NOT an easy book  to read unless you are conversant with (1) philosophical terminology and (2) academic theological terminology. While I would never discourage anyone from purchasing a book, I have to be honest and say that unless you are willing to exercise some synapses and look up some technical vocabulary, this book might be above the head of many readers. I’m pretty sure Root lost me in all the verbiage, and that is unfortunate – this book needs to be read at the non-specialist level, and it just comes across as more of a university level (or maybe even graduate level) philosophical/theological work.

With that caveat in place, the real genius of this book is that Root traces the development of our “secular” world and puts his finger squarely on a problem that has bedeviled the church for decades – the rise of our infatuation with “youth” and “youthfulness.” He openly confesses that he is following the writing of a philosopher whose work Root believes is the “first philosophical book written in the twenty-first century that will be read in the twenty-second” (p. x). Part one is, hopefully not to be too dramatic, a devastating examination of our infatuation with youth, the youth culture, and how that fascination has utterly changed the teaching and behavior of the church. I would suggest that part one is the most easily understandable section of the book, and is worth the price of the book by itself.

In part two, Root then tackles the main question he raises (what is faith), and suggests there is a way for the church to form that faith in this secular age. It is in chapter 7, however, that the real heavy lifting of the book begins (at least for me – others may have different opinions). In chapter 7, Root identifies three different levels, or modes, of secularity. The rest of the book is difficult if not impossible to understand if you miss, or misunderstand, these three modes of secularity. I cannot begin to explain them here (I will discuss chapter 7 and its importance in a later post) but suffice it to say that the “secular” age in which we live today is one that eliminates the possibility of any experience with a transcendent being – God, as a personal being, is simply eliminated from the picture. Faith, in Root’s understanding, is the experience of this transcendent being in our lives, and therefore to form faith in this secular age we must open ourselves up to the indwelling presence of this transcendent God. The key for Root is the apostle Paul’s phrase “in Christ.” Root’s development of the importance of this expression, and the relationship of this concept to faith formation, is deep, and his terminology frequently gets in the way, but I will suggest that Root is on to something here – and his conclusions make far, far more sense to me than the other “solutions” to the faith problem that I have seen.

As with any book that is this heavily philosophical, and theological, I do have some serious concerns. For me, the biggest problem lies in the final two chapters of the book where Root attempts to align his conclusions with the (primarily) Lutheran concept of “faith only.” My issues with this attempt are two: (1) Paul never says “faith only” – it is a purely Lutheran creation, and (2) Root seems to go out of his way to “reconstruct” common Lutheran understanding, and, not being a Lutheran scholar, I am just not convinced he is entirely successful.

I will have much more to say about this particular issue, but the most glaring failure of this book is Root’s (intentional?) refusal to acknowledge one of Paul’s most profound emphases – that of the necessity of baptism for his understanding of faith. I kept waiting for Root to discuss this point and it just never comes. I think Root is basically correct in his understanding of faith in Paul’s thought, but by neglecting the event of baptism he short-circuits his entire argument. In short, Root is just entirely too Lutheran to admit that baptism is critical for the formation of faith – even as he as gone to such great lengths to prove that faith for Paul is being “in Christ.” The omission just boggled my mind.

It is not often that I find a sentence at the end of a book that serves as one of the greatest in the book, and as an advertisement for the purchase of the book. However, I will close the “review” section of this post with just one such quote from Root – and one that I hope will spur you to consider buying, reading, and even studying this book:

The church will never be able to convert an atheist through argumentation but can only invite that person to experience faith by experiencing the action of ministry. (p. 210-211).

If you are a minister, elder, youth leader, or other church leader, you owe it to yourself to buy this book and invest in some time to read it. As I said above, it will not be the easiest book you read this year – but it may be the most significant! You will not agree with everything Root says – I never agree with everything an author says. But, and I say this cautiously, you will learn more about the culture in which you live and will be challenged to review some of your previously held beliefs, more by this book than perhaps any you might read this coming year.

P.S. – This is volume one in a three volume “trilogy” – and the second volume is in the pipeline for delivery some time this year, I believe. I look forward to reading it as well.

Book Review – A History of Western Philosophy (C. Stephen Evans)

A History of Western Philosophy: From the Pre-Socratics to Postmodernism, C. Stephen Evans (Downers Grove: IVP Academic Books, 2018), 585 pages.

Not too very far in my past I was blessed with the opportunity to be an instructor at the university level (personal rant here – a Professor is one who has attained a level of tenure and is a title bestowed by his or her peers. An instructor is one who instructs. I was an instructor, not a professor!!) One course that I was assigned was the subject of Philosophy of Religion. I have always been quasi-interested in the field of philosophy, and this course whetted my appetite to understand the intersection of philosophy and religion as no other assignment might have done. Alas, I was utterly adrift as to what to use as a text, and the text that was suggested to me was an anthology of writings, not an explanation of the topic of Philosophy of Religion. The first time I taught the course was an absolute disaster (as far as I was concerned, and I apologize profoundly to my students who were subjected to my ignorance!). The second time revealed some improvement, but not much. What I needed was a brief, yet as thorough as possible, treatment of the major strands of the field of philosophy. What I needed, in brief, was this book – sadly not published until long after my instructorship days were concluded.

In many respects, C. Stephen Evans has pulled off what I consider to be a minor miracle. He summarizes the vast ocean of material in the field of philosophy, and manages to do in a relatively brief (if 585 pages can be called brief) amount of space. In my estimation he also does this in a very readable and understandable manner – something that is critical for my decidedly less-than-prodigious ability to understand philosophical concepts. In other words – Evans wrote in a way that I can understand him. That, my friends, is truly a five star, two thumbs up recommendation for this book.

The book is arranged with 24 chapters, each chapter focusing on one (or sometimes two or three) major characters/writers in the field of philosophy (Socrates left no writings of which we are aware). All the “biggies” are discussed – Socrates, Plato and thus and such until he concludes with Friedrich Nietzsche. The outline is basically chronological, although he does break at one point to cover one time period from two different angles – European (Continental) and British. Each chapter discusses how the particular philosopher under discussion accepts or rejects previous philosophical movements, and then goes on to provide a brief explanation of that philosopher’s contribution to the field of philosophy.

(By the way, if you are wondering, his explanation of why he stops with Nietzsche is brilliant! I was wondering why he did so, and it is because he does not feel that it is possible to evaluate which of the 20th century philosophers will be critical enough to the future of philosophy to effectively evaluate them. Any evaluation, he believes, is for a future volume, one that I personally hope he writes. But, he does not want to view 20th century philosophers from the vantage point of “history” quite yet.)

There are, to be sure, some drawbacks to the author’s methodology. First, it is truly impossible to summarize the philosophy of Socrates, Augustine, Spinoza, Kant, or Marx in 25-30 pages. Yet, given this limitation, Evans does a remarkable job of maintaining his “meta narrative” (to borrow a philosophical term) throughout the book. Second, (and this is a criticism I have of virtually every “summary” type book regarding philosophy) – the authors of such summary style books are so educated, so well versed in their topic, that they can (and do) understand their characters in a manner deeper than they are able to summarize. Thus, they may write what they think is an acceptable summary of the thinking of Leibniz, but in a subsequent chapter they refer to an obscure (or not fully developed) aspect of Leibniz’ philosophy as if the reader fully understood Leibniz, and especially in my case, I don’t fully understand Leibniz’ philosophy. However, I must quickly add that this is a minor quibble, and in no way is meant to be a negative criticism of the value of this book. It simply is a consequence of what the author attempted to accomplish – provide a summary of a character’s philosophy and relate it to later philosophers’ writings.

Among all the positive attributes of this book that I could mention, perhaps the one that stands out to me right now is the fact that Evans writes from the position of a Christian philosopher, and he relates the contributions of each major character in terms of Christian thought. His favorite philosopher is Soren Kierkegaard, and his exuberance concerning Kierkegaard, and his explanation of Kierkegaard’s methodology, has kindled a real desire in me to read more of Kierkegaard’s writings (I only own one of Kierkegaard’s books). I offer just one snippet of Evan’s concluding chapter to illustrate his perspective:

The reason religion cannot be completely divorced from philosophy is that philosophy is done by human beings, and human beings are incorrigibly religious . . . If Christianity is true, then humans were made in God’s image, and their intended destiny is to have a relationship with God. If humans are deeply religious by nature, it is hard to see how philosophy can be sharply segregated from religion, or why it should be. (p. 577)

Now, to be sure, Evans view of Christianity differs from mine. He will make dogmatic statements that I do not necessarily agree with (he repeatedly refers to “original sin” as a universally held Christian belief, something that I do not ascribe to). But – show me a book in which I agree with everything the author says, and I will point out that book is one that I wrote.

As a deeply personal aside here, one of the real joys that I discovered in this book is that it helped me understand more of the background to one of my favorite theologians – Dietrich Bonhoeffer – and he never references Bonhoeffer once (boo!). Bonhoeffer’s two academic dissertations were written in response to a number of the philosophers discussed by Evans – Kant, Fichte, Husserl, and to a degree, Heidegger. What slowly dawned on me as I read these chapters is that in addition to being a brilliant theologian, Bonhoeffer was a profound philosopher. Maybe that one reason I find Bonhoeffer so challenging – and so valuable even almost 75 years after his death. Statements like, “Only those who believe can obey, and only those who are obedient can believe” are not only deeply theological, they are profoundly philosophical. Bonhoeffer was doing (albeit without consciously attempting to) what Evans described as what Kierkegaard was trying to do – speak to his culture in a way that they could hear the message of Jesus without being beat over the head with it. Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer were both attacking what they believed to be a dead church – so it is not surprising that their methods might have been so similar!!!  Maybe not, I’m not that much of a Bonhoeffer scholar, and he was clearly writing as a Christian scholar and pastor. But, the parallels between Bonhoeffer’s theology and philosophy became crystal clear to me through the pages of Evans’ book.

If you are interested in philosophy, especially if you do not consider yourself a professional philosopher and if many of the major philosophers are difficult to understand, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. The cumulative length of the book is prodigious (the afore mentioned 585 pages), but the chapters themselves are 25-30 pages on average, and, once again, Evans writes to non-specialists. This is a very accessible book for philosophical neophytes like me.

Buy this book, brew yourself a big pot of tea (or coffee if you prefer) and give yourself a real treat. You will not regret investing in yourself – and hopefully grasping a little greater understanding of yourself and your world.

Book Review – The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic (D. S. Russell)

D. S. Russell, The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1964) 405 pp., including two appendices, and a comprehensive bibliography (at least through 1964).

As I responded to a correspondent a few weeks back, I make it a priority to stay abreast of the latest books and trends in theology. Thus, I just finished reading C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity. And, in my latest endeavor to stay on top of the latest and greatest, I am reviewing a book published in 1964.

I am nothing if not contemporary. Oh, well.

Actually, I stumbled onto this book as a part of my last ministry. I was given the opportunity to peruse the congregation’s library and take a book if I thought it would be useful. When my eye fell on this title I almost flipped. I was disappointed to learn of its early publication date, but only for a moment. Many theological books – those related to apocalyptic especially – become dated rather quickly because of the exploding research into the Dead Sea Scrolls and other related archeological discoveries, many of which were just beginning to be studied in the 1960’s. However that might be, this is an extremely valuable addition to someone’s library if they are interested in understanding this bewildering, some might say mystifying, aspect of the biblical record.

First, a little personal background. My first class on the book of Revelation came in the early 1980’s. I have had a love affair with that book ever since. More recently I was blessed with the opportunity to teach the book of Revelation twice as a part of the faculty on the Eastern New Mexico University religion program. Counting congregational series, I have taught the book of Revelation five times over the past 9 years. Every time I teach the book I get a little deeper, find another commentary, find another resource to help me understand the book. By far the one single aspect of my research that has helped me grasp the meaning of the book has been my study of the topic of apocalyptic literature. So, for me, finding this book by D.S. Russell was like finding a diamond ring on the sidewalk.

This particular volume does not address the book of Revelation at all. It is focused on Jewish apocalyptic literature, arising during the three centuries between 200 B.C. and 100 A.D. As such, if you want to apply the book to the N.T. book of Revelation you have to do so by analogy and parallel, but by understanding the thought world, and the process, and the message of apocalyptic literature as it was being produced both before and after the writing of the book of Revelation, it is easy to make those parallel connections.

This book is divided into three sections: Russell began by identifying the Nature and Identity of Jewish Apocalyptic; then discussed the Method of Jewish Apocalyptic; and finally concluded with the Message of Jewish Apocalyptic. I wish I could say that I found “X” to be the most valuable section, or to identify a particular chapter as being especially valuable, but to be honest, I found everything to be valuable (whether I necessarily agreed with Russell’s conclusions or not!) I guess as an over-all statement of value, what I took from the book was the idea that apocalyptic is not just a type of literature, or just a conglomeration of weird images and symbols, but it is a realm of thought processes, it is a method of seeing the world that transforms one’s perspective on every aspect of life. In John J. Collin’s arresting title, apocalyptic is an imagination – but a life changing one at that.

Speaking of John J. Collins, I went back and looked at Collin’s book (The Apocalyptic Imagination, 2nd ed., William B. Eerdman’s 1998) to see how he viewed Russell’s work. Not too favorably, I am sad to relate. But, Collin’s book first came out twenty years after Russell’s (with a second edition coming out in 1998). Between the two, I would recommend Russell’s book as being the more accessible, and Collin’s book as being the more comprehensive (and, a little snooty, but that is my limited opinion). There is a third book on apocalyptic literature on my shelf, Apocalypticism in the Bible and It’s World by Frederick J. Murphy, but I would not recommend it at all. If you are going to buy one book on the subject of apocalyptic, I would equally recommend either Russell or Collins. Collins is more recent, and has some distinct advantages over Russell, but honestly, I would have you buy both. Russell explains some things Collins does not even address, and especially at apocalyptic literature relates to the book of Revelation, I would strongly recommend Russell over Collins.

Now the standard, “don’t swallow everything you read as God’s truth” as it relates to a human production. I disagree with Russell (and Collins too, for that matter) as to the dating of the book of Daniel. They both have Daniel being written after the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes, and cast as being a prophecy foretelling Antiochus’ reign. I think that betrays a serious presupposition about the limitations of biblical prophecy – and raises some real questions about the textual record of the Old Testament as we have it (if the book of Daniel was written in the mid 100’s  B.C., how was it that it came to be studied, copied, and preserved among the Dead Sea Scrolls?). As with any scholar, Russell’s biases are going to peek through at times. However, if we are going to learn anything from anyone, we are going to have to set aside our own presuppositions long enough to be challenged by other thoughts and ideas. As with any book, let the reader beware.

As I have suggested, my attraction to this book, and to its subject, all relates to the biblical book of Revelation. If you want to understand a little more of not only what John was attempting to say in this highly symbolic book, but also of how and maybe why he was using the symbolism of apocalyptic, then you need to learn more about the Jewish roots and usage of apocalyptic. It is just my opinion, of course, but I think you will come to understand and love the book of Revelation even more once you understand the literature, and the imagination, of apocalyptic.

P.S. – on a totally unrelated yet sort-of related note, the worldview of Barton W. Stone and later of David Lipscomb has been described as being “apocalyptic” in nature. That, my friends, provides a TON of explanation about why I regard Stone and Lipscomb so highly. Without being technicians in the field of apocalyptic, I think they just “got” the message that Jesus, and later John, was trying to communicate. Ergo and therefore, I think one of the huge failures of the Restoration Movement in general, and the Churches of Christ specifically, is the loss of this apocalyptic imagination from our worldview. In a word (and to invite all kinds of wrath from certain quarters) we are just too Campbellite in our outlook. Ah, but that is the topic of other blog posts, and this one is already much too long.

Book Review – Spiritual Disciplines Handbook (Adele Ahlberg Calhoun)

Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us,  revised and expanded, (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2015), 332 pages.

It seems that there is a renewed interest in learning about and practicing “spiritual disciplines” today. That is a good thing – as a people we can never draw too close to God or have too strong of a spiritual appetite. How one goes about learning about the spiritual disciplines can possibly be problematic, however, and that is where a certain amount of discernment is critical in measuring this expanding field of Christian literature.

To be brief to the point of possible obscurity: spiritual disciplines are simply those practices which draw us closer to God. That’s it – there is no magic, no smoke and mirrors, no incantations or potions. Christians have been practicing these disciplines for millennia, most times probably not even thinking that what they were doing was a “spiritual discipline.” Practices such as prayer, fasting, Bible reading, meditation – all of these (and many, many more) are all spiritual disciplines. This is not rocket science, and no special amount of knowledge is required.

However, as with any discipline (music, painting, playing a sport, etc) it is always beneficial to learn from others who have progressed further in that discipline than we have. So, purchasing and reading books about the spiritual disciplines is not a bad thing – with one very important caveat: in evaluating books on the spiritual disciplines, it is critical to keep in mind whether the goal is to draw closer to God, or to have a better feeling about the attempt to draw closer to God!

I will illustrate that last sentence with a quote from my father. When I was a little boy I read just about everything I could about fishing for trout – especially fly fishing. Somewhat amused by my earnest endeavor, my father (who was an artist in the skill of understatement) wryly said to me one time, “Paul, I don’t think I have ever seen one trout that has read that book on how to catch trout.” His point was that there are a staggering number of books written about how to catch fish – most of which are written to catch the eye of the fisherman and to create income for the author.

Which brings me to this book on the spiritual disciplines by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun. Actually, this edition is a revised and updated edition, and I had previously owned her first edition, and enjoyed it quite a bit. I was curious how she could revise and expand it. To her credit the earlier work is largely unchanged, to her discredit she added some sections that, in my most humble opinion, have moved her book from “moving closer to God” to “feeling really good about acting super spiritual.”

Calhoun arranges her book (this one as well as the last) to follow the acronym W.O.R.S.H.I.P. That is she begins with a section on “Worship” proper, then moves on to “Open Myself to God,” “Relinquish the False Self,” “Share My Life With Others,” “Hear God’s Word,” “Incarnate the Love of Christ,” and finally “Pray.” Within each of these sections there are some instructions, observations, and practices that are real gems. And, within a number of the sections there are some practices that I believe are designed more to “catch the fisherman” than to catch the fish.

Whether she is self-conscious about the accusation of being “new agey” and that her practices might be considered more far-eastern than Christian, she repeats in a number of locations that what she is describing goes back to the earliest centuries of the church. This might be true – but just because a practice is old does not make it true or correct or a path to draw closer to God. Living in caves and sitting on poles are also ancient practices – but thankfully we have learned that sitting on poles was not necessarily a healthy practice for spiritual development. So, I genuinely question her emphasis on iconography for example, and her section of “labyrinth” prayer, which has the smell of manufacturing emotions rather than deepening the well of spirituality.

That is simply my reaction, however, and in this field of Christian literature there is a broad, almost indescribably broad, measure of what is healthy and what is not. I tend to be very conservative, and so as I read this literature my mind goes to the question, “is this practice taught or illustrated in Scripture” far more than “does this practice make me feel good.”

I do not want to cast too negative a pall on the book – her section on “Relinquishing the Self” is very good – and there are far more good sections and practices than questionable ones all throughout the book. From my own perspective, the original Handbook was much better, but that opinion and a couple of dollars will buy you a cup of coffee just about anywhere you go.

Bottom line, one qualified thumb up – but let the reader beware. I don’t think God has read many books on how to draw close to him either. After all, he wrote the best one on the market.

Book Review – The Literary Structure of the Old Testament (David A. Dorsey)

The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis – Malachi, David A. Dorsey (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1999) 328 pages.

I find out about books in a variety of ways – I belong to a book club, I read blogs, I follow Twitter accounts of fellow ministers who drop hints occasionally. I discovered the above book (now getting a little long of tooth) in the process of researching a lesson on Jonah. I came across an old outline from a good friend, and he referenced this book (snarky aside – imagine that, a minister who actually gives credit for someone else’s work!!) The insight my friend gave me made me purchase this book. I am so grateful!

First, let me note that the book is both accurately and inaccurately titled. It clearly is a study in the literary structure of each of the books of the Old Testament, but it is not a study of the literary structure of the Old Testament in its entirety. And, the subtitle should note that it is primarily a commentary on the literary structures found in the books of Genesis-Malachi. The author does include sections on the meaning that is conveyed by these structures, but the book is not a verse-by-verse study, as is commonly understood by the word “commentary.” Very small quibble, to be sure, but the title could potentially be misleading.

We twenty-first century, western, technological and linear thinking Americans tend to read Scripture in twenty-first century, western, technological and linear ways of thinking. We want our stories to begin, continue, and end in a very definite format – as in a straight line. Thus, our minds tend to latch onto narrative sections of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, the books of Samuel – Chronicles, the gospels, Acts) and we tend to struggle with or dismiss non-narrative sections (the law codes, the poetic sections, we do a very, very poor job with the prophets!) What this book does is to illuminate how the ancient authors may (and I emphasize that word) have structured their writings to appeal to their audiences (non-western, non-technological, non-linear, and definitely not 21st century!).

The first five chapters of the book are worth the purchase price alone – Dorsey explains his thesis and further explains the value of literary structural analysis. For someone who really struggles with understanding the Old Testament, those chapters are a great eye-opener – there actually IS a method to the overall structure of each book, and of the Old Testament in general.

The remainder of the book (a total of 39 chapters) is devoted to an examination of the various books of the Old Testament, through chapter 38, and then a concluding chapter. A concept that might be of interest to some is that Dorsey does not believe the traditional division of the first five books of the Bible (Genesis-Deuteronomy) and then followed by Joshua and Judges to be structurally correct. He sees the “Book of the Law” continuing through Joshua 24. His defense of this suggestion is interesting, to say the least, and definitely has merit.

I read the book cover-to-cover without stopping to examine each chapter carefully against the text. This process has its advantages, but also comes with some drawbacks. On the one hand, it is fascinating to see how certain structures are repeated throughout the Old Testament. On the other hand, the book does tend to get ponderously repetitive, and I found myself skimming some sections because it seemed that the author was just repeating himself too much.

However, and I must stress this emphatically (not to be redundant), I am a much more careful reader of the Old Testament texts now after having read this book. Books, or sections of books, that made no sense to me at all now have come to life. Whether Dorsey is 100% correct in his analysis or not, I now see with my spectacles just a little cleaner. For what it is worth, I think Dorsey is spot-on correct in some of his work (the aforementioned analysis of Jonah just makes the book leap out of the binding!). Some of his work is highly speculative – and to Dorsey’s unending credit – he actually points out when he feels his analysis is speculative! When I read an author say, “this is what I think, but I could be wrong, and more study needs to be done here” his credibility level goes through the roof with me.

As I mentioned, Dorsey’s fascination with some structures can become monotonous – get ready for a lot of sevens! At a number of places in the book I found myself wondering if the biblical authors could have possible been aware of the intricate structures that Dorsey identifies – and then Dorsey himself asked that question in the conclusion (another tip of the ol’ Fedora to the author). As a neophyte in this field, I am just not educated enough to decide how correct Dorsey is in all of his conclusions, but this I will say with no hesitation whatsoever – I am deeply indebted to his study, and I feel that I am a better reader of the Old Testament for having read through this book.

Ultimately, this is a book that must be studied in conjunction with the biblical text (something I did not originally do), and, as with every commentary ever written, the reader must hold the author’s conclusions in suspension pending further study and personal research.

Bottom line – two thumbs up and five gold stars!

Book Review – Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (John H. Walton)

John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006) 334 pages plus and appendix listing Ancient Near Eastern gods.

I like some books because they are rich and satisfying. I like some books because they challenge and goad me. I like some books because they explain in far greater detail or provide the evidence for what I already intuitively believe to be true. I like some books because when I finish with them I consider myself to be a wiser, or at least more knowledgable person. This book by John Walton elevates each of those reasons to heights I rarely experience.

In phraseology of common digital conversation, My. Mind. Is. Blown.

Many books written on subjects as esoteric as Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) thought can be, and are, so specialized that they are virtually opaque to the average reader. Thankfully, this is NOT one of those books. I do have to admit to a certain degree of eyes-glazed-over and bewildered response to part 2  of the book (a summary of the literature of the ANE) because in my very limited exposure to such literature, it all seemed so repetitive. However, the remaining sections of the book (and the first, for that matter) are simply wonderful in terms of content, ease-of-reading, and application.

A couple of disclaimers are appropriate: first, if you are looking for a book that simply equates the Old Testament with ANE literature, you will be horribly disappointed. Second, if you are looking for a book that proves the Old Testament has nothing in common with ANE literature, you will be horribly disappointed. What Walton sets out to do, and in my opinion accomplishes with great success, is to demonstrate both the similarities and differences between the Old Testament and ANE thought. Here the reader must take careful notice of the title: this is book that examines the Old Testament in light of the conceptual world of the ANE.

I believe one way modern people view the Old Testament is through the idea that the Israelites lived in a protective bubble – that God’s covenant with Abraham through Moses and extending through David and the monarchy somehow protected and insulated the writing of the Old Testament from any outside influences. What Walton demonstrates is that while there are marked differences between Israelite culture and the surrounding nations, the authors of the Old Testament were fully aware of the thought world in which they existed, and that this familiarity shows up in in the text of the Old Testament. By more fully understanding the conceptual thought world of the ANE, both the similarities and the differences between the pagan cultures and the Israelites becomes more explicit.

While my “book reviews” are not actual reviews in the technical sense of the term, I do want to share one aspect of the book that I thoroughly appreciated. Walton devotes the majority of each chapter to the thought world of the ANE (hence, the title of the book). However, within each chapter he pauses to draw attention to a specific aspect of the Old Testament that has a bearing on the subject at hand. These discussions are set off in a grayed-out “side-bar” type of arrangement, and come with their own footnotes. In a pure lecture format, it is as if Walton is stepping back from his main topic and saying, “Okay, that is what the thought of the ANE is, now let’s see how the Old Testament either reflects, or does not reflect, this particular aspect of ANE thought.” While the basic text provides the meat and potatoes of the book, these shorter illustrations provide the icing on the cake, so to speak.

I have honestly rarely been so engrossed in a technical book to the point that I did not want to put it down, and actually looked forward to continue my reading. Maybe I am a nut (okay, that point is not up for debate), but this book was just that good. If I was an instructor in a course of Old Testament study, this book would be mandatory reading. I assure you, if you take Walton’s thesis seriously, you will never read the Old Testament the same way you have always read it (unless, of course, you already accepted Walton’s thesis without knowing it.)

Do not be put off by the technical nature of the subject. This book is easily understandable. All foreign language words are transliterated into English, and if I can follow the author’s train of thought with my embarrassingly limited understanding of ANE literature, anyone can. With all of the usual caveats duly noted (“you are not going to agree with everything the author says,” etc., etc.), I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I so wish I had this material presented to me when I was either in my undergraduate or graduate studies. But, I am thankful I have it now, and I plan on making further examination of this material a point of emphasis in my continued growth in biblical studies.