Sunday, July 28, 2019

Book Review: Richard Mouw's "Restless Faith"

Do you wrestle with your evangelical identity? Do you ever wonder whether it's time to throw in the towel and walk away?

If so, this book is for you.

As president of Fuller Seminary and former professor at Calvin College, Richard J. Mouw has spent many decades as an evangelical. All of them, he says, were restless years. This book is his explanation of why he's choosing to stay.

These are trying times for evangelicals. Cultural pressures from the outside and deep disagreements on the inside make evangelicalism an uncomfortable place for many Christians. The most recent national election in the US, to cite just one example, threatened to split families right down the middle.

Mouw takes us behind the scenes in the institutions where he has served to demonstrate that evangelicalism has always been this way. He reminds us of the core tenets that hold such a diverse group together, suggesting that these central values -- belief in the need for conversion, the authority of the Bible, the centrality of the cross, and an emphasis on daily discipleship -- cannot be found in this combination anywhere else.

He talks about Billy Graham, Christianity Today, Ann Voskamp, World Vision, and the National Association for Evangelicals on the one hand, as well as Norman Vincent Peale, Robert Schuller, Rob Bell, and the National Council of Churches on the other. We learn about his efforts to promote Mormon-Evangelical and other types of inter-faith dialogue without watering down his own Evangelical commitments. We read of his lonely engagement in the civil rights movement and politics during the 1960s when many Evangelicals' only concern was to "save souls." He wrestles with the individual and communal aspects of salvation and considers the value of both hymns and contemporary worship songs. In the end, he advocates "holding on while staying restless" as an Evangelical.

Speaking as an academic, I did not find the book to be heavy reading, but rather patchwork autobiography in accessible prose. Yet one does not have to know Richard Mouw to appreciate his reflections -- his wisdom shines through on every page and offers hope for Evangelicals who are feeling squirmy in today's politicized climate. He concludes,
"For me, the only way to be a properly functioning evangelical is to keep arguing about what it means to be an evangelical. Restlessness in claiming that label has long been the way I have kept moving. I hope that many of us can stay restless as we hold on while exploring together whether the best way to remain faithful to the legacy is to let go of the label. . . . For the present, I am inclined to go with the second option -- working for evangelical renewal, rather than simply allowing the movement's label to be co-opted by leaders who have departed from the best of the legacy." (174)
If you share his restlessness, this book may be just the thing you need to refresh your perspective and refuel your evangelical commitment. Mouw does not suggest that we hold doggedly to the label "evangelical," but he offers good reasons to keep it for the time being.

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.