Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Best Books of 2021

As usual, I've compiled a list of the most important books I read this year. The only criteria are that I read them in full and found them well written, helpful, and worth sharing. I read 42 books this year, ranging from youth fiction to published dissertations. Many of them were very good! These are the ten books I recommend most highly across several genres. (You can find brief reviews of all the books I read on GoodReads).

Children's Picture Book

The Story of God with Us is luminous and profound, grounded yet winsome. This is a children's book for a new generation of discerning parents and grandparents. Today more than ever, our world craves a unifying narrative and yet expects excellence. Aedan Peterson's illustrations bring delight to the biblical narrative so thoughtfully retold by Kenneth Padgett and Shay Gregorie. The Story of God with Us is a gift to behold! Best of all, this book is the first of many from a brand new publisher, Wolfbane Books. I love their Bible Project-esque vision of teaching biblical theology to kids in a captivating way.


Young Adult Fiction

Everything Sad is Untrue (A True Story) is the well-told true story of a 12-year-old Iranian refugee in Oklahoma. It's a gift to see the world through his eyes. You'll discover the beauty of Persian culture and become more aware of aspects of your own culture that you take for granted. Reading this book will help you develop empathy for the plight of those who are forced to leave their homes because of religious persecution. We listened to the audio book narrated by the author on a long drive. The book has won multiple awards, and it's no wonder why!

Adult Fiction

All the Light We Cannot See is a Pulitzer Prize winning work of historical fiction set in France during WWII. I listened to the audio book on our move from Canada to Southern California, and it made the hours fly by. Such an intricate plot and compelling characters!





Books in Biblical Studies

Abraham's Silence is the most important book I read this year in biblical studies, and I was so honored to have been able to endorse it. Richard Middleton revisits a familiar Old Testament story -- the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 -- and turns it on its head. What if Abraham is not the hero of this story? What if this story demonstrates his failure rather than his faith? Middleton pairs a close reading of Genesis 22 with the book of Job and the lament psalms, suggesting that Abraham fell short of truly knowing Yahweh and what he desires. God invites prayers of protest, not silent and unquestioning obedience. I will never read this story the same way again!

Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? was a rich read from one of my favorite Old Testament scholars. Michael Morales unlocks the book of Leviticus, showing its literary design and tracing its themes. I'm so grateful for his careful work.

Books on Christian History

Kristin Kobes Du Mez' Jesus and John Wayne ought to come with a gift certificate for therapy. As a child, I had a book by Ann Jonas called Round Trip. It is a picture book that you read from start to finish, then flip over and read upside down back to the beginning. All the images in the book work right-side up as well as upside down. Jesus and John Wayne turned my childhood narrative upside down. Du Mez resituated household names like James Dobson and Ronald Reagan -- even Billy Graham -- in a wider field of view to show me the shadows they cast. Christian retail, "family values," "law and order," homeschool networks, and men's retreats all changed shape, too, under Du Mez' careful scrutiny. For those (like me) who thought that Evangelical support for Donald Trump was a puzzling anomaly, Du Mez demonstrates that it fits squarely in the Evangelical narrative as it has developed over the past 50 years. She guides readers through decades of religious and political leadership to highlight the emergence of a militant, masculine version of Christianity that has captured the imagination of white Evangelicals. I'm thankful for Du Mez' careful work to expose the abuses and imbalances of white Evangelicalism. Her voice contributes to a collective day of reckoning. I pray it's not too late.

Robert Chao Romero's Brown Church approached the history of Christianity from a different angle, outlining centuries of Latina/o Christian social engagement and theological reflection. For Latinos who feel there is little room for them in the brand of evangelicalism described by Du Mez in Jesus and John Wayne and for others who long for authentic Christianity, Romero recovers a rich heritage. For those of us who have thought only of Latin America as a mission field rather than a model and source of inspiration, this book offers an invitation to flip the script and begin learning.

Books for Academics

The Flourishing Teacher was my companion through a year of teaching. I've written about it before, but it bears repeating. Christina Bieber Lake has an uncanny knack for knowing just how I'm going to feel at any given point in the academic year. She offers sage advice for professors with lots of grace. In this book, I gained a mentor and friend.

Another treasure this year was a book Lake recommends, The Courage To Teach by Parker Palmer. Palmer goes beyond technique to nourish the soul of educators. I read through it with a group of colleagues and found it inspiring and practically helpful.

BONUS: New Reference Tool

I must admit that I have not read all 1000+ pages of Gary Schnittjer's new exegetical resource, but I expect to keep turning back to it for years to come. The first of its kind, The Old Testament Use of Old Testament catalogues and discusses exegetical allusions, that is, places where the Old Testament unpacks or develops other passages from the Old Testament. Schnittjer has carefully assessed the strength of each potential passage and highlighted key issues for busy professors, pastors, and students.  

I have a tall stack of books I'm hoping to read in 2022. What's on your list to read?


Monday, December 6, 2021

Best Books on Historical and Cultural Backgrounds of the Bible

Although I had already been through four years of Bible College, in seminary a whole new world opened up to me. As an undergrad I developed a deep committment to reading the Bible as literature and on its own terms, without the potential distortion of outside sources. This was a wonderful season of training for me as I became sensitive to the literary contours of biblical stories.

In seminary, under the guidance of different professors, I discovered the value of studying the historical and cultural backgrounds of the Bible. Here's why: the Bible did not drop from the sky, leather bound, with our names embossed on the cover. Reading the Bible is a cross-cultural experience. We are guests in an ancient context, where people speak other languages, where people's hopes and dreams are profoundly shaped by their own contexts, and where society as a whole operates under different values and assumptions. 

In order to be competent readers of Scripture, we must attend to the contexts in which is was written. Every passage has a literary context, a historical context, and a theological context. Neglect of any of these dimensions results in a "flat" reading. In particular, if we ignore the historical context of a passage we run the risk of distorting it. Without interrogating our own cultural lenses, we are likely to impose modern values and assumptions on the text. I see this happen all the time in class, as students encounter stories that strike them as strange.

This is why I'm particularly passionate about training students to attend to both the literary and historical dimensions of the text. We practice developing skills in narrative and poetry analysis and we also consider the historical and cultural contexts of the Bible. We live in a wonderful era in which resources are more readily available than ever before! 

Here are five resources that I find myself repeatedly recommending:

The Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible - Available in the NIV, NRSV, and NKJV translations, this full-color study Bible includes a wealth of information at your fingertips, right where you need it when reading the Bible. It is not designed as a devotionally inspiring study Bible, but a reference tool to help readers understand the cultural context of Scripture. I require it for my Bible classes so that students have a solid resource for a lifetime of study.

The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary - This is a more extensive (and of course, more expensive) resource than the study Bible above, with full-color photographs, charts, and insightful notes on every book of the Bible. Every church library should have this resource on hand for Bible studies and sermon prep.

The Dictionary of Daily Life - This gem is a more recent addition to my library that I've already used many times. It contains an alphabetized collection of articles on aspects of daily life in ancient Israel (and the Greco-Roman world). For example, if you're studying Exodus 2, you could read articles on Bathing, Midwifery, Infanticide, and Adoption. The articles are well researched and written.

The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery - This tool is more on the literary side of things (rather than historical/cultural), but it helps with precisely those images that are unfamiliar to modern readers. For example, if you're reading along in Daniel and want to know the significance of the beasts with horns, you could read the article on "horns" in the Bible. Each article traces the use and development of a particular image across the biblical canon, with sensitivity to cultural context.

Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament - I read this book in graduate school while taking a class on ancient Near Eastern Backgrounds with John Walton. It was immensely helpful in reshaping my imagination so that I could see what ancient people cared about. It's written for graduate students read, but even if you're not in school, if you're serious about understanding Bible backgrounds, it is well-worth your time.

If this list is two long for you, then I'd recommend this dynamic duo which should prove helpful no matter what part of the Bible you are studying: The Dictionary of Daily Life and The Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. Both are well worth the sticker price, and both are currently on sale.




Sunday, November 14, 2021

Reflections on The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill

It's likely that I'll remember 2021 in part as the year in which Mike Cosper narrated my solo drives and weekend walks. Often I wondered if I could take yet another heart-sickening story of the abuse of power in the church, but I kept coming back, like a moth to the flame. 

If you're not familiar with it, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill is an audio documentary sponsored by Christianity Today about the Seattle mega-Church called Mars Hill pastored by Mark Driscoll -- its origins, rapid growth, M.O., and the toxic culture of leadership that lead to its messy end. 

I have never met Mark Driscoll, never listened to one of his sermons, and never read one of his books, so why did I invest over a dozen hours listening to this podcast?

In the first place, it's well produced and well articulated. The sound design is fantastic and the stories are compelling. Christianity Today set a high bar with this one.

More importantly, it helps to explain a movement I could not understand at the time -- among other things, how a conservative pastor could say such crass things about sex, gender roles, and manhood from the pulpit and get away with it. Like most evangelicals with an ear to the ground, I had seen and heard clips of inflammatory things that Mark Driscoll said from the stage (around 2012), and I was deeply concerned. I later learned about his highly unethical ploy to get one of his books on the New York Times bestseller list. It was hard to miss the news about the raft of plaigiarism found in his books. And I knew that in spite of his church elders' attempt to lead him through a disciplinary process, Mark had resigned and headed to Arizona . . . where he planted a new church.

The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill shines a spotlight on abusive power dynamics that are too-often operative in Christian churches and institutions. Cosper traces various threads to help us see the origins of unhealthy ideas and the ways that they hurt people. At the same time, he highlights the stories of those who experienced radical transformation in their lives in the early days of Mars Hill. 

I believe God calls the church to bear his name with honor. In the case of Mars Hill, the quest for growth-at-all-costs was paired with Mark Driscoll's growing refusal to be accountable to seasoned leaders in his church network or even to his own board of elders. We can learn a lot from this story. It stands as a modern day parable of sorts, warning of the dangers associated with a leader having too much power, too fast, without godly character and life experience to prevent that leader from going off the rails. Unlike a parable, this one has real collatoral damage. So many former members are still trying to pick up the pieces and make sense of what happened.


Ironically, the podcast has been a sensation of its own. Today it's ranked #2 in religion podcasts in the US. This probably says something about our our collective desire to hear grizzly tales of others' demise. It probably also points to how widespread these problems are in the church. I'm guessing it appeals to a lot of people who would like to understand a conservative brand of Christianity that prides itself on fidelity to Scripture but puts up with a bully in the pulpit. Probably all of these reasons. (As a side note, it's in very interesting company on the top 5!)

I've listened to The Rise and Fall in part because of its popularity. As an educator and lover of the church, I want to be in the loop about what people are hearing and how they are processing. If you've listened to at least part of the series, how has it personally challenged you? Leave me a note in the comments below.

Personally, I've been sobered by what well-meaning people will tolerate when a strong personality is at the helm. The podcast has given us much to lament. It renews my appreciation for institutional structures that have rigorous checks and balances in place. It's also a reminder that character matters a whole lot. For Driscoll, his popularity became the "proof" of his effectiveness and the "fruit" of "his ministry" -- but how many of those metrics could be traced to people who tuned in because they were incredulous? Just because people are listening, that doesn't mean the teaching is sound. The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah warned against false prophets who told people what their itching ears wanted to hear (Jeremiah 6:14).

If the podcast series has left you disillusioned about the church, a good next step might be to read Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer's book, A Church Called Tov (tov is the Hebrew word for "good"). It's on my short list of books to read next. McKnight and Barringer write about how to cultivate a healthy church culture where stories like this one will not keep happening. May the overwhelming popularity of this podcast awaken the church to stop tolerating abuses of power and instead cultivate communities marked by faithful and humble service!

Monday, October 11, 2021

Thankful and Not-So-Thankful: Reckoning with Our North American Legacy


Imagine this: 

You are a young mother nearing her due date living just outside of Seattle, Washington, but you fear going out in public. You know that if you give birth in a hospital, the US Government will likely confiscate your newborn and put it up for adoption. You want your baby. You are prepared to love and nurture it in your family home on the land of your great grandparents.

Sound far-fetched? 

This happened with regularity in my lifetime, in the 1970s. I learned about this travesty by listening to a children's audio book as we traveled this summer. I Can Make This Promise, by Christine Day, is the story of a girl who discovers that her mother was put up for adoption at birth, even though her birth mother wanted her and was prepared to care for her. Simply being "Indian" and unmarried resulted in the confiscation of her child. Although this particular story is fictional, it is based on history.

Imagine this:

You are a young family in British Columbia, raising your children in the community where your parents and grandparents and their parents and grandparents have always lived. One day, police arrive and take your children by force, citing the need to educate them properly. They are taken to a residential school run by the Church, where they are forced to  cut their hair, wear a uniform, and speak only English. They never return home -- not for holidays or funerals. You never hear from them again. You suspect that they are dead, but you are told nothing.

Sound far-fetched?

This happened with regularity in my Dad's lifetime, throughout the 1900s as late as the 1990s. I mention my Dad because he was born in the small town of Enderby, British Columbia to recent immigrants from Europe who spoke broken English. Just 90 minutes away was one of Canada's largest residential schools, which boasted 500 students in the 1950s and operated until after I was born. You might have seen the Kamloops Indian Residential School in the news this summer, when 215 unmarked graves were discovered there, most of them children.

Before her death, my grandmother told me a story about my Dad's birth, when the nurses whisked him away to perform an elective surgery without so much as asking for her consent. She had no intention of circumcising him because in Europe only Jews practiced circumcision (keep in mind that this is on the heels of WWII, when circumcision could be a matter of life or death). That was bad enough, but if she had been a Native American, she may never have have seen him again. My own father could have grown up in a residential school. 

Stories from these schools are nauseating -- regular beatings and repeated rape by residential school staff, starving children as punishment, and a stated policy to "kill the Indian in the child." This happened in North America. This happened in living memory.

Having recently moved from Canada to the US, my holidays are still feeling jumbled. Today is Thanksgiving Day in Canada, but Indigenous Peoples Day in the US. So today, on Canadian Thanksgiving, I'm reflecting on things that I am thankful and not-so-thankful for in relation to the history of indigenous peoples.

  • I'm thankful for my students at Prairie College (Three Hills, Alberta) who studied the history of residential schools and presented their findings to our class. You can learn more about the important work of Canada's National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation on their website.
  • As painful as it was, I am thankful to have had my eyes opened to the darker side of North American history, whose effects are still felt today.
  • I'm thankful for growing awareness of this issue, which creates space to grieve together and imagine a different future.
  • I'm not thankful for the role the church played in the confiscation of "Indian" children in the US and Canada. Mostly well-meaning folks perpetrated cultural genocide, seeing their own way of life as superior and failing to recognize how the gospel is good news for every culture, not just their own.
  • I'm not thankful for how church leaders were able to abuse children with impunity for so long. Lack of accountability put thousands of children at risk, and the generational effects of that trauma on survivors are still being felt. 
  • I'm not thankful for decades of cover up in white spaces that has continued to silence the voices of indigenous people as they cry out for justice.

Reckoning with our shared history is no easy task. Both the US and Canada have a legacy of violent oppression toward indigenous peoples. Most difficult to swallow is the church's role in that legacy. I am not equipped to outline all the ways this has been expressed, but these snapshots offer a glimpse of what I've learned in recent years.

I leave you with this new song by my friend, Brian Doerksen. Brian lives in British Columbia (and worked with me at Prairie College). In the wake of this summer's discovery of unmarked graves in Kamloops, Brian wrote this song. He recognized the need for us to sit with this hard news, to feel its sorrow, and to weep with those who have been weeping for generations. I'm thankful for his courage.





Wednesday, July 7, 2021

A Personal Announcement: My Biola Story

Choosing which college to attend is a big decision. I remember back in high school as I was wrestling through my options, the guidance counselor at my Christian school went on a trip to California to visit several schools. When she returned, she sought me out to say that she had found the perfect place for me: Biola University.

That was 1994.

I was stubborn. I had already made up my mind to go to Multnomah Bible College in Portland, where I planned to study Greek and Missions so I could become a Bible translator. I had my future all planned out.

Fast forward to 2021. 

I've finally come around. I've accepted a job offer from Biola University. I'll be joining their faculty this fall as Associate Professor of Old Testament. This summer we're moving from Alberta, Canada to Southern California. It's a wee bit warmer and a whole lot more crowded. We're in for quite a change!

We have loved living in Canada. Three Hills is a friendly town with a lot of charm. Prairie College is a harmonious place to work, with eager students, devoted colleagues, and a solid mission. We've loved our church and our kids' school. But by the time you read this, we'll have said our tearful goodbyes and headed south. We're feeling drawn into this new work. In so many ways, the timing is right.

You see, I left out the middle of the story.

In 2013, I was on the home stretch of my doctoral program. Biola was looking for a professor of OT for the graduate school division of Talbot School of Theology. They specifically wanted someone to teach Hebrew. They urged me to apply. I did, and made it all the way through the process to the campus interview, but felt unsettled about it. Hebrew is not where I shine. I love teaching English Bible classes. And I'm especially fond of freshmen. We also weren't sure about living in California. Our hearts were in Oregon. Precisely then, my dissertation hit a brick wall. I had more work to do than I could possibly finish in time, so I pulled out of the process. But Biola didn't forget about me.

That was seven years ago. Since then I finished my dissertation, taught at two of my favorite schools in Oregon (neither of which offered me full-time work), and spent four years investing at Prairie College. When Biola approached me last year about a possible tenure-track position in Old Testament teaching undergraduates, we were ready. Friends, I'll be the first woman in Biola's 113-year history to hold a full-time faculty position in Old Testament. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know my new colleagues during the lengthy application process, and I'm excited to join the team. 

Biola is a world-class institution offering a robust liberal arts education. Biola says this about its academic reputation:
U.S. News & World Report ranks Biola as a first-tier national university and on its selective list of universities with “Best Undergraduate Teaching.” The Princeton Review includes Biola on its list of “Best Western Colleges.”
I am thrilled to get to participate in their mission of providing "biblically centered education, scholarship and service -- equipping men and women in mind and character to impact the world for the Lord Jesus Christ."

Other fun facts: 
  • Biola (1908), Prairie (1923), and Multnomah (1922) were all birthed as part of the Bible College movement. Did you know that BIOLA started as an acronym? It used to stand for Bible Institute of Los Angeles. Biola still offers a strong 30-credit Bible core for every student.
  • Biola has nearly as many faculty (200) as Prairie College has students (250), and Biola has more undergraduate students (4000) than Three Hills has residents (3400). In fact, California has more residents (39.5 million) than all of Canada put together (37.5 million)! Quite a change of pace!
  • Biola is farther from "home" (Portland, OR) than Prairie is. In case your Canadian geography is rusty, Alberta is directly east of British Colombia and north of Montana. Three Hills, Alberta, is 14.5 hours northeast of Portland, while LA is about 16 hours south. However, we no longer have an international border to cross.
  • Because of the pandemic, both of my "campus visits" were online. Biola is very thorough, and there were more than 15 steps to the process, including lots of interviews on Zoom. Thankfully, I spoke in chapel at Biola 18 months ago, before the pandemic hit. I also took our oldest daughter there for a college visit 4 years ago, so I have a pretty good idea what the campus and surrounding area are like.
  • Half of my teaching load (two classes each semester) will be BBST 209: History and Literature of the Old Testament. The rest of my classes will be electives, which will allow me to teach in my areas of current research.
  • Our home in Three Hills sold in less than 24 hours, with no realtor, no listing, no sign, and only one showing. The new owners had been praying for us for months and felt called to come to Three Hills to work with young adults.
  • God provided a condo for us to rent month-to-month while we look for a house to buy. It's in Cerritos, which means "Little Hills" -- so we're moving from Three Hills to Little Hills! This condo will be our 12th address in 23 years of marriage.
  • We are STILL eating cherries from our 2017 bumper crop. I wonder what kind of fruit God will provide in our next home? (Update: lemons and tangerines!)

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

A Note To Subscribers

If you received this blog post in your email inbox, that's because at some point you subscribed to my blog. Thank you! Blogger tells me that the automatic email subscription service is going away. Supposedly, I can access the subscription list, but I haven't been able to do it successfully, so it will be up to you to re-subscribe using the new subscription service links on the side of my blog instead.

Photo by Kaitlyn Baker on Unsplash

I've been blogging for over 10 years. 

I've written over 500 blog posts. 

And this blog has had well over 215,000 views.

YOU are the reason I keep writing. 

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Summer Sale on Seminary Now: 40% Off!

Last year, just before the pandemic started, I filmed a series of teaching videos for Seminary Now to go along with my book Bearing God's Name: Why Sinai Still Matters. As one of the contributors, I was given access to all of the other content. I went through Ruth Haley Barton's course, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership. I had read her book several years ago with a group of women in leadership, and it was great to go through her content again.

Our family has loved Seminary Now! For family devotions, we've gone through John Walton's Lost World of Genesis One, Sandy Richter's Stewards of Eden, and David Fitch's Faithful Presence. Our 12-year-old has genuinely enjoyed these courses.

Looking for high-quality resources to equip your leaders and disciple your church? If you haven’t subscribed to Seminary Now yet, take advantage of their biggest sale of the year! 


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