Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Book Review: Ben Witherington's "Priscilla" and Paula Gooder's "Phoebe"

Two of the most recent contributions to the burgeoning collection of novels written by biblical scholars are worth reading. Historical fiction about the Bible is not a new genre. What's new is that reputable scholars, with PhD's in New Testament and an impressive array of other academic publications, are harnessing their training for this unique genre and publishing these works with academic publishers (in this case IVP Academic).

Ben Witherington III fills out the story of the biblical Priscilla, or Prisca, mentioned in Acts 18 and Romans 16. The New Testament does not tell us much about her -- she's a tentmaker and church leader with her husband Aquila, both of whom work with the apostle Paul, and mentor the young evangelist named Apollos. Witherington weaves these facts about Priscilla into a coherent narrative in which the aging church leader tells her story to her adopted daughter, who is coming of age.

Witherington's story is well researched and loaded with historical and theological insight. Each chapter begins with an excerpt from a historical document (e.g. Pliny the Younger). And yes, this novel has footnotes. Historical fiction is an enjoyable way to learn about life and culture in the first century, making history more accessible to students and laypeople. The chapters are short. The plot is believable. His interpretation of scripture and its context is plausible.

We're introduced to the apostles Peter and Paul as well as Apollos, the emperors Nero, Claudius, and Domitianus, seasons of persecution and pressure for the young church, the tension between Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus, the gladiatorial games, and even the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. We're given Witherington's conjecture about Paul's mission to Spain, his return to Rome, and his death -- none of which are recorded in the New Testament but are matters of great curiosity for biblical scholars. 

If I have one complaint, it is near the end of the book, as Priscilla and her daughter discuss the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. Their re-reading of Paul's letter to the Romans (chapters 9-11) is surprisingly flat. I've not read much of Witherington's voluminous contribution to New Testament scholarship, so perhaps his interpretation here is in keeping with what he has said elsewhere. For a stronger reading of that passage, see N. T. Wright's work. Still, my disappointment with this one chapter should not detract from the overall quality of the book. It remains a solid introduction to the contributions of women in the earliest churches.

Witherington's other books of this genre include A Week in the Fall of Jerusalem (IVP, 2017) and A Week in the Life of Corinth (IVP, 2012).  

Another outstanding book in this genre is Phoebe, by Paula Gooder (IVP, 2018) which reconstructs the life of the female deacon who delivered Paul's letter to the Romans. It's a page-turner and well worth reading!

How does a woman with a slave name end up delivering Paul's letter to the Romans? How does she have the means to undertake such a journey? How was she educated to the point that Paul chooses her to explain his letter? What did she think of the church in Rome? Gooder answers all these questions in a compelling way. She kept my attention from beginning to end. Friends who are not biblical scholars have enjoyed the book, too. Highly recommended. 

One of these days, biblical scholars need to start writing historical fiction on the Old Testament . . .

Monday, July 8, 2019

Foreword by Christopher J. H. Wright!

I'm so grateful that Dr. Christopher J. H. Wright agreed to write the foreword for my new book, Bearing God's Name: Why Sinai Still Matters (IVP)

Chris Wright is the author of my all-time favorite book, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative (IVP) as well as many other helpful books on the Old Testament, including the just-released The Old Testament in Seven Sentences (IVP), which I plan to read soon. Wright has a special gift for making scholarship accessible to the church, and he's devoted his entire career to cultivating biblical scholarship around the globe. One book I've recommended countless times is The God I Don't Understand:Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith (Zondervan).

Wright's IVP author page gives an impressive list of published works and ministry roles:

Christopher J. H. Wright (PhD, Cambridge) is international ministries director of the Langham Partnership, providing literature, scholarships, and preaching training for pastors in Majority World churches and seminaries. He has written many books including commentaries on Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Ezekiel, The Mission of GodCultivating the Fruit of the SpiritOld Testament Ethics for the People of God, and Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament. An ordained priest in the Church of England, Chris spent five years teaching the Old Testament at Union Biblical Seminary in India, and thirteen years as academic dean and then principal of All Nations Christian College, an international training center for cross-cultural mission in England. He was chair of the Lausanne Theology Working Group from 2005-2011 and the chief architect of The Cape Town Commitment from the Third Lausanne Congress, 2010.
When I first read The Mission of God, I was beginning my doctoral work on the concept of bearing Yahweh's name under the supervision of Dr. Daniel Block at Wheaton College. I found that Wright had already zeroed in on this biblical theme and explained it beautifully, but he had not connected the wider theme with the command "not to bear the LORD's name in vain" (Exodus 20:7). I'm delighted that Wright found my interpretation convincing, and that he was willing to let this project bear his name as well. It's an honor to have his partnership in introducing my new book to the world!

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Book Review: Oden's Hope for the Oppressor

You are part of the problem. So am I. But there's hope for us.

In this daring book, Patrick Oden invites us to step outside of the systems we've relied on for our identity and enter a different kind of community.

To cite just one example of oppressive systems among many, the world of white privilege is waking up one person at a time. That's a good thing. But often those who benefit from systemic injustice are left feeling awkwardly helpless. What can be done? Is everything I attempt just another iteration of oppression or paternalism? Oden opens the door and lets in a fresh breeze, inviting us to another way of doing life together. He draws on the diverse voices of men and women from around the globe as he makes his case.

I had the opportunity to read this book before it went to print. I'm so glad I did. Here's my official endorsement:
Hope for the Oppressor is a brave undertaking. Patrick Oden suggests that efforts to liberate the oppressed will never be successful until oppressors experience liberation, too. Without true liberation of all parties, new cycles of coercion result. But there's hope. He locates that hope in Christian community, where our notion of selfhood can be reconceived and our fractured selves healed in light of God's holy love. Oden's thesis is grounded in theologically rich readings of biblical texts and skillful engagement with historical and systematic theology. His book issues a life-giving invitation for all of us — those with privilege and those without — to participate in a different kind of kingdom. His book has the potential to fuel a revolution for those who dare to reexamine their lives in light of his claims.
Much more could be said about Oden's book than what could be fit on the back cover. The following synopsis of each chapter will give you a sense of his breadth of engagement, from classic theologians to systems theory, from spiritual psychology to lived experience, from the Bible to the early church to pastoral theology -- there's something for everyone!

Chapter 1: The Crisis of Social Identity
Oden introduces Luhmann's systems theory, showing how systems seek to define everything, but in the process they anonymize participants who depend on them. This chapter is illuminating.
Chapter 2: The Crisis of Self-Existence
Here he introduces Kierkegaard's concept of sin, namely, an expression of our anxiety in seeking selfhood as part of these systems.
Chapter 3: The Crisis of Becoming
Loder's spiritual psychology argues that oppressive behavior develops from a false notion of self tied to systems that perpetuate false intimacy. The solution is a reconstituted self in relation with other whole selves.
Chapter 4: The Liberating Way of God
Oden looks at biblical selfhood in the Old Testament to illustrate how oppression has always been the result of a selfish quest for self-fulfillment apart from community. The creation pattern and the exodus narrative hold out the possibility of a different way.
Chapter 5: The Liberating Way of Christ
The New Testament contributes a vision of a new way of life opened up by Christ, one defined by self-giving love in community.
Chapter 6: The Way of the Early Church
Oden introduces the writings of Clement as a window on early Christian communities. They understood that Jesus redefines personhood, calling the wealthy to radical generosity rather than participation in oppressive economic systems.
Chapter 7: The Liberating Way of the Desert
The desert fathers and mothers, such as Anthony, taught that we become who we were meant to be when we participate in the life of God and see ourselves in him.
Chapter 8: Hope from God
World War II-era theologians help us reconsider the classic attributes of God, showing their relevance for the Christian vision of the good life. Pannenburg demonstrates that only God provides a coherent basis of identity. As we're drawn into God's holy love, we become coherent, loving beings. Moltmann teaches that Trinitarian relationality opens up a liberated way of life, free from coercion.
Chapter 9: Hope with God
Jean Vanier models the relinquishment of systemic power. He embraced his own brokenness by living with the disabled, and he suggests that we become fully ourselves in messy and loving community characterized by mutuality. Sarah Coakley broadens the notion of systematic theology to include the arts and to insist on the value of contemplation and the primacy of desire as a signal of our true theology. 
Chapter 10: Hope for Transformation
Oden considers how the resurrection introduces a powerful hope for transformation that is grounded in this life. It rightly orders our passions for participation in the mission of Jesus.
Chapter 11: Hope in the Kingdom
Participation in God's kingdom requires vulnerability and the relinquishment of our need to derive identity from others. Honest prayer, love that flows from holiness, cultivation of belonging, exercise of forgiveness -- all these make possible the re-orientation of our disordered loves.
Chapter 12: Hope among Community
Participation in loving community provides a way forward. Self-denial, forgiveness, and openness to others makes possible a new kind of life. We can only be our true selves in this kind of community.
Chapter 13: Conclusion
Oden's concluding chapter gives a retrospect of the book's argument, weaknesses, and challenges. 
Patrick Oden deserves our thanks for his careful scholarship, pastoral sensitivity, and illuminating vision of Christian community. You can pre-order his book here. If your personal budget is strained at the moment, encourage your school's library to purchase a copy.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Book Award "Interview"

Richard Middleton presenting me
with the R. B. Y. Scott Award
(Photo: Shannon Stange)
Last week I was interviewed by Dan Callaway for Prairie Radio. You're welcome to listen in on the interview as we talk about my background, how I ended up at Prairie, and what I'm working on this summer. The interview was so much fun that I decided to continue it right here on my blog...

In this post, I interview Dr. Carmen Imes on the R. B. Y. Scott Award she received from the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies for an outstanding book in Hebrew Bible. (Wait, isn't that you? Yep. So you're interviewing yourself? Um, also yes.)

Carmen, how did you feel when you learned you were receiving this award?
Genuinely shocked. If you read the list of past recipients, you'll see that I'm joining an all-star list of Canadian biblical scholars. 
Why was that so surprising?
When you go through the entire process of producing a book like this, you've seen so many drafts dripping with red ink that it can be hard to imagine that what you have to say is said well enough for others to appreciate. Don't get me wrong. I like the book. I'm convinced by my argument. But each time someone in the wider world finds it helpful I am surprised and delighted all over again.
What was the occasion, and who presented you with the award?
The award was announced at the reception of the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies annual meeting. This year's meeting was held at the University of British Colombia. The incoming president of the society, J. Richard Middleton, presented the award.
Why was your book chosen?
I'll let the anonymous judges answer that question.In the words of one reviewer, It is a persuasive, careful, and enlightening book, with implications far beyond its apparently limited subject.” 
Another reviewer said the book “shows remarkable engagement of the question, displaying a breadth of scholarship and very fine command of several methodological approaches (lexical, historical, literary, and metaphorical). The thesis is argued with logic, clarity of expression, and judicious treatment of opposing views. A long-overdue reassessment of a crux interpretum. It is deft, compelling, and convincing in the presentation of its conclusions. . . . .  its expression is clear: meticulous and well argued, with creativity of expression (even some drawings!) and the amassing of supportive ANE and biblical texts and parallel metaphors. The work of a new scholar, it shows maturity of thought and expression.” 
Did you get a plaque or something you can put on your wall?
No, but I did get a check for $500, which is far more useful.
If someone wanted to buy your book, where could they do so?
Bearing YHWH's Name at Sinai is available on Amazon or directly from the publisher. Right now Eisenbrauns is offering a celebratory 30% off because of the award. Use the discount code NR18 to take advantage of the sale! 
Are you busy writing another book?
Four, actually. I'm especially excited about my next book, which is coming out in December with InterVarsity Press. It's called Bearing God's Name: Why Sinai Still Matters, and it's already available for pre-order. I've reworked all the key ideas in my (award-winning!) published dissertation so that normal people can read it. Dissertations are technical for good reason, but my goal was to make my research more accessible for a wider audience. You can read about my other projects here. I currently have two book projects in the works on the Psalms and I'll soon start another one on Exodus.
What inspires you to keep writing?
I have always enjoyed writing, even as a child. As a professor, I see writing as a way for transformational ideas to spread beyond the classroom to a much wider audience. Books have changed my thinking in so many areas and fueled my passion for biblical studies. I hope that my books do the same for others. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Academic Prayer Series

As a regular contributor for InterVarsity's blog for Women in the Academy and Professions, The Well, I've submitted several prayers tailored for academics. Here's a list for easy reference with a selection from each one, plus a bonus from my own blog:

A College Student's Back-to-School Prayer
Library at Regent College, Vancouver (Photo: C Imes)

Sharpen my mind,so that I can learn to think clearly and critically.
Melt my resistanceto new ideas that are good and right and true.
A Professor's Prayer
Grant me wisdom to manage my time well so that I can stand before my classes prepared.Grant me the grace to let go of misplaced guilt for what I cannot be or do.
Grant me discerning eyes, that I may see my students as you see them and that I may love them as you love, that I may anticipate potential mental blocks, that I may discover the key to unlock their desire to learn. Let me not get in the way.

A Scholar's Prayer
Quicken my mind, that I may discern what is right and understand more fully the complexities of the subject that is before me today. 
Grant me diligence to stay on task and ignore distraction. At the end of this day may I be able to stand before you unashamed of the work I have done and left undone.

A Prayer for Academic and Professional Conferences
Help me to choose wisely between the myriads of options available to me — papers, seminars, conversations, exhibits, work, play, rest. May I discern what is best and let go of what is not.
Above all, may I bring you glory today as I bear your name in the academy and among all those whose talents and energies make this conference possible.

View from University of British Colombia Campus
(Photo: C Imes)
An End-of-Semester Prayer
Lord, here I stand at the end of another term. I have poured into my students — ideas, questions, caring, comments, time.
Now I entrust them to you.
Take what I have taught them and separate wheat from chaff. Blow away what I said that was empty or worthless. Help them to treasure the truth. May it nourish them in days ahead as they move into new contexts.

I hope these prayers inspire you to embrace your vocation as a Christian professor, if you are one. If not, perhaps they'll inspire you to craft your own prayers for your own vocation.

Friday, May 17, 2019

The Sound of Music and the Audacity of Praise

I've been working on the "ugliest psalms" lately, the imprecatory psalms, which call upon God to bring harm on the psalmist's enemies. These challenge our sense of what belongs in the Bible and what are appropriate ways to pray. "Break my enemy's teeth" certainly seems an audacious prayer.

We might imagine that praise psalms are much more innocuous. With all their attention on God, they steer clear of the mud-slinging of human conflict and simply celebrate what we like about him.  Perhaps we think of praise psalms like a Mother's Day card ("Best Mom Ever!" . . . not to mention the only mom we've ever had) or like a standing ovation at the end of a an orchestra concert (Well done!). But praise psalms are much more audacious than that. I've written a piece for the Political Theology network on the audacity of praise, but here I'd like to offer a further illustration of what I mean.

To dial in to what's really at stake, we must consider their context.

Have you seen The Sound of Music? I think it offers an analogy that will help us with the significance of praise psalms. Captain von Trapp is a retired naval officer in Austria raising his 7 children with the help of one governess after another. The children are hard on these substitute mothers, so the captain turns to a nearby Abbey for help -- maybe a nun can keep his children in line! The Abbey sends him a novitiate, Fräulein Maria, who wins the hearts of the children as well as their Father. Their romance is set against the backdrop of a growing threat of occupation by Nazi Germany in 1938. They return home from their honeymoon to a Nazi flag flying over their front door, a summons to serve in Hitler's navy, and an (unrelated) invitation to perform in the Salzburg Music Festival. They attempt to escape to neutral Switzerland as a family that very night under the cover of darkness, but are caught in the act. Thinking quickly, the family pretends they are heading to perform in the music festival instead.

The joyous evening of music is strained by the presence of Nazi soldiers guarding the exits. In the front row sits the Nazi officer who was sent to escort Captain von Trapp to his new post in Hitler's navy. While the judges evaluate the results of the competition, Captain von Trapp regales the waiting crowd. Alone in the spotlight, he sings "Edelweiss," a simple song about a white alpine flower native to Austria. The lyrics are not in themselves seditious, but sung in this context, his audacity is plain. The lilting melody evokes for the crowd a longing for Austrian independence. The Captain is overcome with emotion, unable to finish the song. Maria, the children, and the entire audience join him for the finish, ending with the hopeful plea, "Bless my homeland forever!"

The psalms are like this. On their own, they don't strike us as rebellious, but set against the backdrop of Assyrian or Persian rule, they are a form of insurrection. Psalms of praise exalt Yahweh above all human rulers and rival gods, diminishing their claim to power.

To see what I mean, head on over to the Politics of Scripture blog to read my post.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Projects in the Works . . .

My blog has been quiet lately, but not because I haven't been writing. Some longer-term projects took priority over the past few months. Here are some of the highlights:

Bearing God's Name: Why Sinai Still Matters (InterVarsity Academic)
This book is slated to release December 10, 2019, just in time for Christmas! It distills the key insights from my doctoral studies in non-academic language. If you've ever wanted to sit in on some of my classes, this book is for you. Together we'll journey to Sinai so that I can show you why Christians can't afford to ignore what happened there. From Sinai we traverse the rest of the Old Testament and into the New, seeing how Jesus and the early church found their identity and vocation at the mountain where they met God.
I can't reveal his name yet, but just wait until you see who has agreed to write the foreward! If you'll be in San Diego in November for ETS, IBR, or SBL, you can pick up copies there for all your friends. I'll carry a pen on me in case you'd like your copy signed.

Essay on the high priestly garments for Dress and Clothing in the Hebrew Bible (T&T Clark)
This book is the culmination of four years of research and collaboration with other scholars in the Pacific Northwest Region of the Society of Biblical Literature. My essay explores the theological and symbolic significance of Aaron's high priestly garments.
Our second cycle of research is already underway, with eight papers slated for presentation this weekend at our regional meeting. My contribution this time around is on clothing metaphors in the imprecatory psalms.  
Illustrated Psalms in Hebrew (GlossaHouse), co-authored with Matt Ayars
Like my Illustrated Exodus in Hebrew, this volume will pair the unedited Hebrew text with beautiful illustrations by Keith Neely and a fresh English translation for easy reference. It will be a great way to practice Hebrew while experiencing the theological riches of the Psalms. Watch for it in November.
Reading the Psalms with Augustine and friends (Sacred Roots Christian Classics Series)
Funded by the Lily Foundation, this new book series helps under-resourced pastors to access classic works in biblical studies, theology, spirituality, and mission. I'm editing the inaugural volume on the Psalms. The book will include devotional comments on each psalm from early Christian writers in updated language, with a special focus on Augustine.
Exodus (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament: Pentateuch series)
I've just agreed to take on this major 5-year project, a 700-page commentary on the book of Exodus for pastors, students, and scholars. Bill Arnold will serve as editor.
Watch for the Genesis volume in this series by John Goldingay. My contribution will be out by the time our youngest is in college.

As you can see, these span the range from accessible writing for the church to technical writing for the scholarly community, with resources for pastors and students in between. I love having a foot planted in both worlds and bridging the gap between them. It truly is the #bestjobintheworld!