Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Book Review: Russell Moore, Onward

A short review of Russell Moore, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel (B&H Publishing, 2015), for NetGalley:

Having only recently learned of Russell Moore’s work, when I began wading through the post-Obergefell debate over questions of culture war and “exile” that the North American church faces today, I was excited to read his new book. Onward is, for the most part, a pleasant surprise: though I don’t consider myself a “liberal” Christian, I don’t often find myself agreeing with Southern Baptists, but I often agreed with what Moore says here. From his opening indictments of American civic religion (noting an atheist friend’s entrance into politics: “Finding Jesus was his way of asking America into his heart, as his personal lord and savior”) to the poke he takes at Joel Osteen (describing the Gospels’ rich young ruler wanting “a religion that would promise him his best life now”!) and his comparison of “pop-dispensationalist” depictions of the Rapture with American culture’s perception of the post-Christendom church, Moore’s critique of Christian culture is enjoyably wry and incisive. As Moore has blogged against the misuse of the “exile” trope as an excuse for nostalgia and despair, it’s good to see him expand that argument here. The church, he reminds us, “is never a majority—in any fallen culture—even if we happen to outnumber everyone else around us.” And elsewhere: “If the church believes the United States is a sort of new Israel, then we become frantic when we see ourselves ‘losing America.’ We then start to speak in gloomy terms of America as, at best, Babylon, a place of hopeless exile, or, at worst, Gomorrah, slouching toward the judgment of God. This leads to a siege mentality…”

Moore does make a few missteps. For example, yes, it’s important to see that the “world system around us, the cultural matrix we inhabit, is alien to the kingdom of God”; but it’s also vital, in learning to live into our new (or perhaps reclaimed) calling “to an engaged alienation,” that we remember that we are not in charge of our own alienation. God, through his gospel and his calling, is the One who alienates us—and the One who has the right to alienate himself, to absent himself, from us if he so chooses, if his seeming absence will help us to grow. So I agree, once more, with Moore when he says, “The church is not to be walled up from the broader culture but to speak to it (1 Pet. 2:12), but that can only happen if, as sojourners and exiles, we have something distinctive to say (1 Pet. 2:11).” I only want to make certain, in recommending this book, that we remember that it is not our prerogative to call ourselves into exile: God is the only One who may call or send us there. I think Moore knows this, but it should be a clearer point in this ongoing discussion.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Book Review: Kuhn's The Kingdom according to Luke & Acts

A short review of Karl Allen Kuhn, The Kingdom according to Luke and Acts: A Social, Literary, and Theological Introduction (Baker Academic, 2015) for NetGalley.

As I've been hunting for a good auxiliary textbook for an upcoming course I'll be teaching on Luke-Acts, I had dismissed Karl Kuhn's new book when I first saw it advertised, thinking it would not be able to provide a solid but accessible introduction to kingdom themes in Luke-Acts and a satisfactory introduction to the overall books at the same time.

I was wrong. I'm now seriously considering this book for that second textbook slot. Here's why, briefly. Kuhn skillfully uses Luke's view of the kingdom of God as his lens for understanding the evangelist's entire work, so the introduction to the overall content of Luke and Acts is gradual, methodical, and easily digested. In separate chapters, he also incorporates the background of both "Israelite Visions of the Kingdom" and Rome as an "Empire of Disparity and Want," repeating this latter description as a refrain throughout the book. Luke's social location as a member of the elite, calling his patron Theophilus and other readers to leave behind their commitments to the elite lifestyle, furnishes him with the narrative artistry he needs in order to tell his kingdom story with such evident pathos and (beautifully explained) rhetorical flair. At times, Kuhn's kingdom themes and the components of Luke's narrative become richly interlayered, so much so that they can be hard to keep distinct; but as Kuhn encourages us as readers, if we remember even some of these themes, he will have accomplished something helpful and enriching. Kuhn's role thus mirrors Luke's, helping readers to see what a life of kingdom-oriented discipleship begins to look like: "Such is part of the bold vocation of embracing the Kingdom in a world gone terribly awry -- it is not simply an unfortunate reality to be endured," but a cause for rejoicing, even in the midst of hardship and persecution.

So why am I still uncertain about selecting this book? Simple: it's the occasional moments where this remains, for all its accessibility, an academic text. Predictably and understandably, for a book from the Baker Academic imprint, words like "agonistic," "Hellenistic," "midrash," "ethos," and "inclusio" aren't explained; though a skilled and careful reader can pick up at least part of these terms' meaning from contextual clues, not all readers will be so skilled or careful -- or so patient. Then, too, Greek words are not transliterated, probably with the assumption that most readers will have at least a cursory knowledge of New Testament Greek. To his credit, Kuhn doesn't assume too much here, offering translations of all the Greek words and phrases he includes. But for my undergraduate students, most of whom will have a NT intro course as their only prerequisite, the un-transliterated language will prove a challenge. So if I do opt for this text, I'm thinking of drawing up and distributing a glossary (just a short page long, able to be fit inside the book) of the Greek and technical English terms employed here. My hope is that such a glossary would allow less advanced students to experience the full benefits of Kuhn's thorough -- and thoroughly enjoyable -- text.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Book Review: Guthrie's 2 Corinthians

Another short book review for NetGalley: George H. Guthrie, 2 Corinthians (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Baker Academic, 2015).

It's difficult to summarize a commentary as detailed as this in only a few words, so I will focus here on just a few short passages in this fine book from Guthrie. 

First, on Paul's use of triumphal imagery (a word-picture that draws from the Roman Empire's victory parades): Guthrie makes a strong argument that "Paul actually distinguishes himself and his ministry from those who 'are being destroyed,' who are spiritually aligned with death, a point that speaks quite loudly against the interpretation that he sees himself as represented by the captives in the triumphal procession." I'm not entirely convinced, as I think the "captives" interpretation agrees with Paul's theology of suffering in 2 Cor (and throughout his letters, for that matter) in ways that remain underappreciated in the church; but Guthrie's argument may yet change my mind as I continue to reflect on it.

Second, concerning Paul's statement that "as long as we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord" (2 Cor 5:6): I appreciate Guthrie's sensitive treatment of Paul's theology here. He skilfully unpacks what Paul is (and is not) saying by using words like endēmeō ("to be at home"/"in a familiar place") and its opposite, ekdēmeō (to be away, in an unfamiliar place; the alien-ness of this term could have used more elaboration): "So long as Paul is 'at home' in his mortal body, he is 'away from' the presence of the Lord. This does not mean that Paul doubts the presence of Christ, through the Spirit, in the believer's life prior to death or at the parousia [the return of Christ]," but rather that our relationship with Christ "will change both spatially and qualitatively at death and will be consummated at the resurrection from the dead." As I've been wrestling with this passage in Paul, personally and theologically, off and on for the past few months, I deeply appreciate Guthrie's thoughtful engagement with what Paul means by absence and presence. 

Third, one of Guthrie's introductory statements proves helpful throughout the reading of the commentary as a whole: "one approach to grasping the book's reason for being is to analyze the relational network reflected in its pages." This is put simply enough, but Guthrie unfolds this statement into the relationships between (1) Paul and his God, (2) Paul and the Corinthians (in keeping with the ministry and sphere of influence God assigned to him: 2 Cor 10:13-14, as Guthrie notes), and (3) Paul and his opponents at Corinth (including, of course, attendant disagreements about what true apostleship looks like). As he begins to chart the ways in which these relationships intertwine and inform one another, and the ramifications of each, we begin to suspect what the rest of the commentary goes on to prove: Guthrie is offering us a reading of 2 Corinthians that will keep us prayerfully reflecting -- and faithfully responding! -- for quite some time. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Book Review: Winner's Mudhouse Sabbath

Another short book review for NetGalley: Lauren F. Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline (Study Edition; Paraclete, 2015).

I've only read snippets of Lauren Winner's work before, so I was happy to read this new Study Edition -- some 50 pages longer than the 2003 edition, thanks to more endnotes, multiple sidebars, and reflection/discussion questions. In the introduction to this edition, Winner points out that although "study" itself could have been added on as a twelfth chapter, instead it "threads" throughout as a further invitation, echoing the book's new subtitle. It's a little difficult to tell from the advance proof, but I think this idea will work well, as it offers (there's that invitation again!) greater depth and opportunities to study, without overwhelming those who wish to read more sparingly. Winner even acknowledges this, noting that she herself, her students, and her colleagues don't necessarily ruminate on the texts that they purportedly "study," but race through and even "cannibalize" their readings. She doesn't condemn that practice, but wisely offers, again, the chance to read more deeply here.

Other than the sidebars and so on, the text of the book stands much as it did in the earlier edition. Winner guides us through eleven spiritual disciplines, each informed both by her Jewish upbringing and her conversion to Christianity: sabbath, "fitting food" (kosher), mourning, hospitality, prayer, body (i.e., embodied-ness), fasting, aging, candle-lighting, wedding, and doorposts (the making or setting-apart of Christian space, drawing from the traditions of Deuteronomy 6). Winner's decision to leave her original text largely unchanged gives her readers a bittersweet window to her past -- we know that her mother will die, and that the marriage she is about to begin will end -- but that adds a rich, honest poignancy to her earlier words. And the words she adds in sidebars bring additional warmth to her invitation, and occasionally some humor, too: having noted that sabbath-keeping entails rest from the act of creating, she asks us, "What do you make" of the weekly reiteration of this ritual? With this and other pointed but hospitable questions (many of which have both individual and communal applications), Winner shows us the best of what a "study" edition can be. I highly recommend this book as a welcome reminder that the rich heritage of spiritual disciplines is an integral resource for our practice of them.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Flash Fiction Wednesday: When Foxes Have No Holes

I'd already made plans for today when I saw East Coast Ink magazine's promotion of Flash Fiction Wednesday; so while I didn't have time to write a new story (600 words max., apparently), I'll post this one that qualifies, which I wrote pretty recently, as part of a much larger story cycle. The only disclaimer I'll add is that the use of meter is very deliberate: to convey a dog-like dissatisfaction with being enclosed, the narrator's voice slips in and out of (usually trochaic) meter -- and not just in the parts that are set in verse. 

“When Foxes Have No Holes”

            Bark! Bark, my kits!
            Bark across the empty space until it carries sound.
            Bark as if keen ears could hear your echoes coming home.
            Bark: the Farmers weren’t the ones who drove us from our dens, yet they fend us off and Fence us out into the dark.
            Bark! The Fence! It keeps us prowling, searching out ways In.
            Can’t you all remember how and when we met the Fence? Come! We’ll catch the tale in our paws so it can’t (yip!) escape. It begins:
            First Outfoxes saw the Fence
            (sitting there, all innocence!),
            Metal balls, misthrown and lost;
            Outside noses caught their scents:
            Lonely, shiny outcasts.
            Nosed and pawed, the balls bit back
            (in an unprovoked attack)
            There, Outfoxes learned, beware:
            Pouncing Fenceposts in the Black
            Punish those who trespass.
            And the sentries spied, we found,
            Those who sought out routes around
            Digging under, jumping o’er,
            Foxes tasted vacuum, drowned
            In the airless reaches.
            Then would all the Fenceposts speak
            In that whistling, rasping squeak
            Painful to Outfoxes’ ears,
            Squawking while we cowered, meek
            Animals, mere creatures.
            Stay, they whined. You can’t come in. There’s no controlling you. You’re uncivilized. You’re wild. You’re robbers. Now go home!
            Go home, kits? How could they?
            Driven from their planet-den by Vermin long ago, now the Fence had locked them out; they never could return. Days when kits could chase and play and loll in warm sunlight, growing into sandy-whiskered gentlemen: all gone. Even days of sauntering and hunting 'cross the stars, catching prey as chickens in their interstellar coops – never caring what it was or who it was we ate – all gone now, too, my kits!
            Soon they found that Fenceposts, like Outfoxes, like to move: discontent, unjust, their border migrates as they go. Piece by piece expanding, yip! so gradually it grew, spreading civilized space, shrinking ours; for we could sense larger predators out lurking, out beyond the stars’ firelight.
            Would the Fenceposts listen, when we whined of this?
            No, the biting toys squeaked, still you can’t come in, you dogs, good barbarians! (Bark!) Noble scavengers! Protect our border that we share. Guard our space. You’ll keep it safe from darker animals.
            What to do, my kits? What Fencepost knows nobility? Are we noble, living witless, carefree lives? And weren’t we more helpless than so many creatures, worrying bones of helplessness? But when we gnawed the problem down – so the caught tale tells – we saw what we must do to let our barks be free, be heard!
            Settle down! Now settle down! What taming irony: minding what the Farmers and their Fenceposts asked of us, settling down against the Fence, nomads no longer. Leashed our caboodles, panting ships, together, save for scouts sent to roam the Fence in search of holes or gaps, where Outfoxes might slip through. We bark! in savage protest, bark! Not so noble, but defiant: outside, barking in.
            So bark! bark! for our remembered home.
            Bark again! at those who Fence us out.
            Pant! with gnawing hunger for the day
            (Yip!) when hole is found, or hole is made,
            When Outfoxes find ways In,
            Lollop, hunt, and feast again.

            Bark, bark, my kits!

Monday, June 29, 2015

Z for Zcreepy

The Internet Movie Database seems tailor-made for "rabbit-trail" research: look up a particular movie, intending to find out who that actor is that you can't quite place, and you end up looking up someone else, and a movie she was in -- and before you know it, you're eight links away from where you started, and only your browser's search history remembers how you got there. So I approached IMDB's ad for Z for Zachariah carefully, intrigued by something new and post-apocalyptic, but not wanting to get drawn too far down the pop-culture rabbit hole. The synopsis didn't promise much in the way of originality, but the movie's based on a novel by a name I knew: Robert C. O'Brien, probably better-known as the author of the Newbery-winning Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (yes, it was adapted into The Secret of NIMH, but please don't judge the book by it, even if you liked it!), and a National Geographic contributor under his real name, Robert Leslie Conly. Thus ends the rabbit trail; but since I find it helpful to balance my nonfiction reading and writing with a novel, I picked up Z for Zachariah on my next visit to Mills Library (Thanks, McMaster, for free alumni library cards!). If you're a see-the-book-before-reading-the-movie geek like me, read on...

Yes, it seems weird that the same person who wrote an acclaimed children's book also penned something that could be readily adapted into a post-apoc love triangle. But it doesn't take long for the commonalities between Mrs. Frisby and Z to emerge. For one, they're both well-written for their respective audiences. The former puts its main characters (Mrs. Frisby, her family, and friends she makes along the way) in occasional jeopardy, both in their present and in the rats' backstory; this allows moments of empathy, tragedy, suspense, and joy, but never beyond what, say, a precocious six-year-old could cope with. Z, which won O'Brien a posthumous Edgar Award, takes the form of a journal, newly started by a lone teenager; it begins with beautiful, suspenseful simplicity ("May 20: I am afraid. Someone is coming."), appears to offer some promise of a hopeful future, then gradually steals that promise away, in ways that are definitely not for younger audiences. For another similarity, both books convey a healthy respect for the day-to-day details of farming -- not just as survival, but as the grounding of personal dignity, too.

That said, it's easy to see why Z lends itself to Hollywood adaptation, and why it does so now, when the novel is nearly 40 years old. Although the love-triangle aspect is added for the movie (after the first few pages of backstory, there are only two characters in the book), Z anticipates pop culture's current infatuation with ever-more-disturbing stories of young adults being forced, with varying degrees of nuance, to kill or be killed; The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Maze Runner series are only the most (in)famous examples. There are several moments in Z that read like Misery for young adults. The problem's not that it's not good storytelling (quite the opposite; I took a few mental notes for my own novel), it's just that it's also just plain creepy.

I'm not sure I'll see the movie, but I wonder if Z was also chosen for adaptation because it's subtly suited to post-Christendom. The title derives from the heroine's description of a Bible alphabet book: she remembers reasoning, as a child, that if A is for Adam, the first man, then Zachariah must be the last man -- foreshadowing the problems of encountering someone who may be the last man on earth. On the one hand, it would be interesting to see how (and if!) the title is explained in the movie, to an audience less biblically literate than the protagonist herself. On the other hand, it's more than interesting: it would illustrate just how well-matched the post-apocalyptic genre and post-Christendom culture are. Weirdly, they might be the perfect couple -- even if neither of them understands why that is. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Book Review: Nancy Jane Moore's Walking Contradiction

It's time for another embarrassingly late review, this time for LibraryThing Early Reviewers

Nancy Jane Moore's Walking Contradiction and Other Futures (Book View Cafe, 2014) is an entertaining collection of science fiction stories -- well outside the normal purview of my LibraryThing collection, but well worth reading. The common thread between these eight stories is the question of what it means to be human; in most cases here, that question centers on what role gender plays in identity. That question is front and center in the title story and in "Nohow Permanent," as both stories' narrators are "ambi" (or, as the latter narrator puts it, "mostly" female). "Walking Contradiction" itself is skillfully told, full of intrigue and estranged regret; if it's over-exposited at times, that's made forgivable by the narrator's film-noir profession and tone. Here and elsewhere, there are moments when Moore starts to sound like Robert Heinlein, whether in references to the "troubled" years or in sentences like "All the people -- and not people, and not quite people -- made Vlad nervous" (113), reminiscent of gender-bending stories like Heinlein's "All You Zombies." The stories "Borders," "Gambit," and "In Demeter's Gardens" are a little less memorable, all featuring female protagonists in (relatively) near-future military scenarios, but told capably. "Blindsided by Venus in the House of Mars" is a tragic love story that weaves a nice twist into interstellar travel; if it challenges gender assumptions, it's only because of assumptions the reader may bring to the text. "Or We Will All Hang Separately" completes the collection, with a post-apocalyptic tone that still manages to remain more hopeful than some of the other stories included here. Altogether, Moore's talent shines frequently in this book. I'll be sure to keep an eye out for more of her work.

Book Review: Sea Raven's Theology in Exile: Year of Matthew

Someday soon I will actually write a blog post that's not a book review. But that day is not today. For now, I'm continuing to clear out long-neglected projects, with another review for The Speakeasy: an ebook, Theology in Exile: Year of Matthew -- Commentary of the Revised Common Lectionary for an Emerging Christianity, by Sea Raven (Book 1 of Theology of Exile; Vol. 2 of Theology from ExileCreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013). ISBN: 9781491077320.

First, an apology: this review is badly late. I promised it before beginning renovations on our house, and that process had a predilection for torpedoing deadlines. But I hope that this review, late as it is, will still bring some welcome publicity to this book. As I'm supposed to do here, I'll also state that I was provided with a copy of this ebook in order to review it here on my blog, and that I was not required to give it a good review.

It's safe to say that Sea Raven, D.Min. -- an Associate of the Westar Institute and lay minister for worship of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland -- and I differ somewhat on our interpretations of Scripture. This didn't surprise me, as Speakeasy's initial description of her book promised a view of the Lectionary "through fresh eyes, providing compelling biblical study and insight for pastors and lay leaders ('believers in exile') who are drawn to Jesus' mandate for justice, healing and shalom, but who no longer find meaning in conventional interpretations of scripture." I'm sympathetic to the need to create, as she puts it, "reimagined rituals" of Communion and other rites (p. 9 of 364, according to my device). But having read her re-interpretation of the texts through the Lectionary year, I'm not sure that I find any meaning -- "conventional" or otherwise -- in Raven's commitment to "a non-theistic, 'kenotic God'" (9; "post-theistic," which she uses on p. 31, is more nuanced and might have made a better choice throughout). And though I share her desire to articulate and live out a "theology from exile" (11 and throughout) for a post-Christendom age, as my friend Lee Beach has done, I'm uncertain whether Raven sees the irony in uprooting this theology from its biblical and historical roots.

There are some features worth commending here. Raven will not let readers hide from uncomfortable truths of contemporary politics, noting, for instance, that "too much of Christian fundamentalism has become United States domestic and foreign policy" (17); nor will she let us forget that there are biblical texts that go unread as one works through the RCL (165, 168 and elsewhere). She excels at bringing the RCL's texts together, as here: "In Isaiah 35, the exiles -- redeemed -- return to Zion. They are redeemed because they return to the ways of the Lord. And what are those ways? Psalm 146 spells them out..." (28). And her exegesis occasionally produces memorable insights: "The pearl of great price is actually worthless to the one who sells everything to get it. In order to live in the normalcy of civilization, he would need to sell it. But nothing is needed for living in God's realm" (182).

Unfortunately, too often her interpretive skills end up serving a predetermined agenda -- which is inevitable in scholarship, yes, but need not be so to this degree. Raven cannot let herself stray far from the Jesus Seminar's findings, so when she doesn't like the meaning of a text, she simply changes it. For John 1:12, "Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God," she states, "Believing in the light is not a prerequisite for becoming children of God" (34). Unless, of course, the text actually says that it is! It's one thing for Sea Raven to take issue with those who created the RCL (as she often does), and to offer re-interpretations of biblical texts. It's quite another thing, far more destructive than the "cherry-picking" of passages (of which she finds the RCL guilty), to make those texts mean the opposite of what they say. If you enjoy "progressive" readings of Scripture, to the point of allowing your exegetical skills to regress, then this book is for you. Otherwise, it's best read as an example not of good exegesis, but of skilled eisegesis -- bringing the interpreter's meaning into the text, rather than bringing the text's meaning out.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Book Review: Sider's Nonviolent Action

Another Brazos Bloggers review: Ronald J. Sider, Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands But Most Christians Have Never Really Tried (Brazos, 2015).

Seldom has the case for nonviolent action -- which Ronald Sider defines in his new book as "an activist confrontation with evil that respects the personhood even of the 'enemy' and therefore seeks both to end the oppression and to reconcile the oppressor through nonviolent methods" (xv) -- been made so readable. For those only vaguely aware of the victories that nonviolent actions have won, this is an excellent primer: the book's first three parts detail some of the most memorable of those victories (e.g., Gandhi vs. the British Empire; Martin Luther King, Jr., in the fight for civil rights in the US; struggles against Communist control in Poland and Germany; and the "Arab Spring"). Its last section reminds us why the word action appears so prominently in the title, for this is not only a history but a call to engagement. Sider isn't shy about noting the problems and inconsistencies that have arisen in some of the struggles above, but he is clearly and justifiably proud of the campaigns in which he himself has played a role. (Indeed, these emerge as some of the book's best chapters, from his admission of fearing for his life while intervening with Witness for Peace in Nicaragua in 1985 [47] to his involvement in the formation of Christian Peacemaker Teams [147].) His challenge to readers comes through clearly in this last section, when he calls "just- war" and pacifist Christians alike to be more consistent and courageous in their actions, not just in their beliefs. The book would have been improved by adding a concise chapter on the theology of nonviolent action (hinted at but underdeveloped on 173, 177), but even as it stands, it's a volume that cannot and must not be ignored.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Book Review: Middleton's A New Heaven and a New Earth

A short book review of J. Richard Middleton's new book, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), for NetGalley. I'll be presenting an expanded version of this as part of a review panel, with a response by the author, at the spring meeting of the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association at the 2015 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

I'm always impressed by Richard Middleton's work, and this book is no exception. It's a difficult trick to write about eschatology without losing sight of the larger narrative of biblical theology, but Middleton pulls it off! He begins by showing how the book's concern fits within his story, noting his concern "to make the Bible's vision for the redemption of creation available to a wide audience" (16) -- many of whom might struggle with some of the same questions that he's wrestled with throughout his theological life.

The opening chapters place in narrative context "God's unswerving purpose to redeem earthly creation (rather than take us out of earth to heaven)," arguing that the image of "an ethereal 'heaven' is more traditional than biblical" (17, 23) and that humans bearing the image of God is at least as much about cultivation and culture as it is about conventional images of worship. Middleton shrewdly labels his thesis as "holistic salvation," which puts the onus on potential opponents to prove that their vision is as "holistic" as his -- as some Dispensationalists have previously done with terms like "biblical," "normal," and "literal." The upshot is that Middleton is able to note the Bible's interest in concrete details of creation and culture, including systemic oppression and deliverance from same in the Old Testament, without undermining divine transcendence and redemption. In Middleton's treatment of the New Testament, I particularly appreciate his re-interpretation of pivotal passages like Romans 8, where Paul "includes the nonhuman creation in God's salvific plan" but puts humans in Pharaoh's place: "we have subjected creation to...frustration, much as the Egyptian king oppressed the Israelites" (160). The book's two final sections, taking up "problem texts" for holistic eschatology and the reconstruction of "kingdom" ethics, are commendable for their systematic presentation and humour -- as when the author hopes that the "false teaching" of the annihilation of the present earth will itself be destroyed at Christ's return: " 'Left Behind' theology will finally be left behind!" (200) 

My own (not terribly eschatological) hope is that this book will take its place next to classics like Ladd's The Presence of the Future, though I'm not sure that those who most need to be convinced by Middleton's work will be patient enough to read it thoroughly. As I largely agree with his holistic eschatology, my two caveats concern the theology that supports it. First, I would like Middleton to clarify his definition of sin, as it shifts over the early sections: it's "our culpable mismanagement of our human calling" but does not simplistically drive "God's presence out from earthly life" (48); yet it's also "innovations in the misuse of power, which impede God's purposes for the flourishing of earthly life and prevent God's presence from fully permeating creation" (53; variously rephrased on 55, 71, and 165). I understand and agree that the definition can develop and vary according to different texts within the metanarrative, but again, I'd like some further clarity on the definition that emerges from that very development. Second, I was glad to see Middleton devote attention to 2 Corinthians 5:1-9 (216-17, 229-31), not just for the passage's eschatological importance, but because it's recently become devotionally formative for me. But I challenge some aspects of Middleton's reading of this text, as Walter Grundmann's interpretation (TDNT 2:63-65) supplies some needed nuance -- not least of which is the role of the Holy Spirit, which Middleton neglects.

My heartfelt thanks to Richard for writing this excellent book, and to Baker Academic for publishing and offering the opportunity to review it.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Book Review: Todd Billings' Rejoicing in Lament

Time for another Brazos Bloggers review: J. Todd Billings, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ (Brazos, 2015).
It's not always easy to see the connection between a theological book and real, everyday life. Some books seem to forget or ignore that connection; others try to address it by tacking an "application" section on at the end, often brief and unconvincing. This book isn't like that at all: every page reminds us that its author wrote it because of, and in the midst of, his diagnosis of and treatment for multiple myeloma. So it's straightforward and relentless in dealing with suffering and lament. But it's also a joyful, hopeful, and beautiful book.
The first two chapters explore Billings' cancer diagnosis as a sensation of "a narrowing, a tightening, rather than 'a spacious place' to dwell" (5, drawing from Billings' blog about his illness, dwelling here on Psalm 31), while introducing the need for lament as a response to suffering, the Psalms as "companions" for our journeys in joyful and well as lament-ful times, and the questions about suffering that Scripture sometimes leaves unanswered. The next three chapters probe deeper into lament as an exercise of paradoxical faith, trust, and protest -- an exercise made more difficult for the author by the trauma of chemotherapy. Billings excels here at helping his readers to see the bigger story beyond his own body and cancer: "we need to learn how to mourn for that which injures the body of Christ and leads away from Christ's kingdom" (39). In subsequent chapters on the role that death plays in the story of God and his church, and the problems of praying for healing, the author returns often to the words of Colossians 3 ("hidden with Christ in God") as a biblical touchstone. After an especially strong chapter that likens the poison of chemo and the "new life" of a stem cell transplant to the "strong medicine" of God's response to sin and death, Billings concludes with a sensitively articulated argument on divine impassibility and steadfast love, and a final meditation on our "displacement": even in rejoicing and lamenting, "our own stories are not preserved in a pristine way... [but] incorporated into a much larger story -- God's story in Christ" (170).
This book won't be for everyone. It tries hard to be accessible, and it often is, but at other moments it's more challenging, demanding more empathy and/or more patience for theology than some readers may want to bring to the table. For those who do -- and, perhaps better, for groups who might read this book together as a way of walking more sensitively and prayerfully with loved ones diagnosed with severe illness -- there's much to treasure here.