Everything Happens for a Reason

This book is worthy of every rave review it has already received. Everything Happens For a Reason by Kate Bowler, who wrote the first history of the prosperity gospel, is a captivating memoir of one women’s bitterly ironic journey with her faith and health. (Many thanks to Random House for sending me a copy to review.)

As of this post’s publication, the book is climbing Amazon’s charts (at #27 in print best sellers overall; #8 in Religion and Spirituality). Bowler writes beautifully, in a voice completely her own. She will make you laugh when you feel like you shouldn’t be laughing and she will carry you into the darkness she has faced until you feel its weight. Most of all, she will offer you hope. “Joy persists somehow and I soak it in,” she writes. “The horror of cancer has made everything seem like it is painted in bright colors. I think the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard” (p. 123). Continue reading

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Paul: An Apostle’s Journey [Review]

In a recent interview about his book Paul: An Apostle’s Journey, which Eerdmans kindly sent to Theology Forum for review, Douglas Campbell said, “This book is out to make disciples.” Lord willing, the book might do just that. I can say, with certainty, the book challenged me to be a better pastor.

As a student at Duke, I took Campbell’s “Life of Paul” class. He writes the way he speaks, with clarity and wit. The book is intended to introduce Paul’s life and theology to “people who have not been shaped by a seminary experience” (xi). Campbell has done a fine job of writing accessibly, with chapters broken into manageable subsections and concluded with review questions. He keeps his writing fresh by including metaphors and, the true heart of Campbellism, humor. (Even now, I can hear him laughing at himself after the “whole hog” pun on p. 127.) Though I was introduced to much of the content throughout his class, I found myself thoroughly engaged by the prose.

The book follows Paul’s life, but according to Campbell’s unique method.* Campbell starts with Paul’s letters in order to reconstruct the narrative according to Paul’s own account. This stands as an alternative to the conventional approach, which reads Acts first to discover the narrative of Paul’s ministry and then fills in blanks with Paul’s letters. Campbell assumes the details of the stories in Acts are mostly solid (he mentions only two minor details that Paul’s letters seem to correct). The trouble lies in the timeline (p. 5-6). From an inter-Gospel comparison, we know the author of Luke-Acts is willing to adjust the order of events. Why shouldn’t we assume he’s done some shifting in Acts? This way of reading is exciting. Like reading a mystery novel, the reader joins Campbell as he pieces together fragments into a cohesive story. What most readers see as inconspicuous remnants of a lost community, Campbell sees as answers to puzzles left unsolved. Continue reading

Creed as Critical Theory: Psalm 68 v. Ephesians 4

Ephesians 4:8 v. Psalm 68:18

In Ephesians 4:8, Paul seems to quote Psalm 68. “When he ascended on high, he led captive a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men” (NASB). This phrase is the foundation for Paul’s argument that Christians receive gifts from God “for the equipping of the saints” (v. 11). There is nothing unusual about a first-century Jew, who was trained as a Pharisee, quoting a Psalm to support his claims. But what are we to think if this first-century theologian revises the Psalm for a new use?

In Psalm 68, the phrase reads this way: “You have ascended on high, You have led captive Your captives; You have received gifts among men” (v. 18, NASB). In the Psalm, the subject is a second-person “you,” rather than the masculine third-person singular in Ephesians. But, more importantly, the subject is the recipient of gifts. When Paul references the phrase to progress his argument that God gives Christians spiritual gifts, he changes the verb from received to gave, which changes the recipient from God to Christians.

I bring this variance to the reader’s attention because I intend to offer a resolution. But, first, I owe the kind folks at Westminster John Knox a review of the book that has helped me make some sense of how to work with Ephesians 4:8. This review will consist of two parts: first, a brief summary of the late Robert Jenson’s Canon and Creed (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007) so the reader might know the structure of the book and, second, a reading of Ephesians 4:8 that takes one of the key ideas in Canon and Creed and puts it to work. Continue reading

Theology and the Experience of Disability (a review)

As a field of Christian thought, disability theology has never been more fertile and exciting. Disability theology, as John Swinton defines it in the Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology, is the “attempt by disabled and non-disabled Christians to understand and interpret the Gospel of Jesus Christ, God, and humanity against the backdrop of the historical and contemporary experience of people with disabilities” (140). It’s worth noting that disability theology is different than a theology of disability. The latter attempts to apply the resources of Christian thought and practice to the experience of disability, whereas disability theology works from the experience of disability toward Christian thought and practice.

Even now, four new books sit next to me as I type (and the stack would be a least two feet high if I was keeping up with the literature). At the moment I’m reading the one on top of that stack, Jill Harshaw’s God Beyond Words (2016). It’s a theological exploration of divine revelation related to those with profound mental disabilities. I often interact with the parents of young adults with developmental disabilities. More than once I’ve been asked, “Can I hope that my child can perceive God? Can they be saved?” It is a phenomenally important pastoral question, and Harshaw addresses it with grace and impressive theological wisdom.

I mention Harshaw’s book and Swinton’s definition because both are helpful for Theology and the Experience of Disabilityunderstanding the significance of the book I’m reviewing here: Theology and the Experience of Disability: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from Voices Down Under (many thanks to Routledge for the review copy). Disability theology is (as far as I can tell) nearly exclusively written by those without profound developmental disabilities. Harshaw, for instance, acknowledges that she writes as a theologian whose daughter has profound intellectual disabilities, but Dr. Harshaw herself does not (Amos Yong, Thomas Reynolds, and Frances Young are similar examples). Harshaw’s study is not unusual: scholarship is most often given from those who are many times in fellowship with people having disabilities, but much less often from those living with disabilities themselves and thus through their perspective.

In this volume, however, contributions are gathered from those with and without disabilities, and that makes it a wonderfully timely addition to the field. The collection originated as a conference in 2013, Theology, Disability, and the People of God, co-sponsored by Carey Baptist College and Laidlaw College in Auckland, New Zealand. Continue reading

“The beginning of the journey”: Barth’s Ephesians Lectures

A collection of lectures from 1921-1922, including two essays by prominent contemporary theologians, Karl Barth’s The Epistle to the Ephesians (kindly sent for review by Baker Academic) is an excellent addition to any pastor’s library for three reasons. I will get to those three reasons in just a moment. First, I want to offer a quote from the final paragraph of the book in order to frame the three reasons.

The conclusion of the letter, 6:10-24, makes us acutely aware that, humanly speaking, Christians are called to prepare, to contend, and to struggle each new moment as earnestly as if it were the first, the beginning of the journey. True theology is and will always be theology viatorum. But if all we can be is pilgrims, then pilgrims we should be (p. 146).

This selection is not unlike one of the methodological considerations with which Barth opens the Church Dogmatics. In the first volume, published ten years after the Ephesians lectures, Barth writes that dogmatics is in need of “criticism, correction, of critical amendment, and repetition…a laborious movement from one human insight to another” (I.1 / §1.2). Such is the nature of dogmatic theology, Barth says, because dogmatics is always “human appropriation” of “divine ascription.” As Barth resolves, “the theologian is what he is by the grace of God” (I.1 / §1.3).

I offer these parallel statements as a frame for this review because I am learning that one of the key tasks of pastoral ministry is to help Christians learn, against all odds in our Google-happy culture, that Christianity’s simple truth — Christ is Lord — leads to a lifetime of lived interpretation and reinterpretation. This collection of essays and lectures provides examples of how we might do just that. Here are three examples. Continue reading

So What? Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World [Review]

As October sneaks in the back door, I’m finding myself already in the third month of pastoral ministry. I’m preparing my eighth consecutive sermon; I’ve done several visits to homes and hospitals. The sum of people I’ve prayed with, laughed with, hugged or shaken hands with is well into the hundreds. What’s more, being in a small town means Jessie and I have even had dinner with the mayor!

One thing I’ve learned, quickly and sharply, is that things that impressed me in seminary don’t have the same dramatic effect on my congregants. People aren’t impressed when I offer some variation of a Stanley Hauerwas quip, such as: “the first work of the church is not to make the world more just but to make the world more the world.” It’s not gone over any more impressively when I attempt to do some Childs-ean canonical hermeneutical maneuver. No one has complimented my sermon’s works cited page.

But, my oh my, do they get riled up by a good answer to the question “So what?” It’s not at all the case that my beloved congregation doesn’t care about reading Scripture faithfully or theological interpreting culture. If I’ve made sense of the comments I’ve received, the reason they love a good answer to “so what?” is because, oftentimes, the line from sermon to discipleship is not always clear. Preaching on God’s “absolute difference” (to borrow a phrase from Rev. Warren Smith) does not directly translate into any meaningful action, whether an action of heart or soul or mind or body. They want to draw nearer to Jesus somehow and delight when the way is made known to them. Continue reading

Incarnational Ministry: A Review

In the seasonally-awkward month of September, it is difficult to know what to wear on any given morning. Fellow midwesterners know the trouble. Will what you’ve put on keep you sufficiently warm for the morning commute? Will it become excessive insulation by midafternoon? The question lingers: has the time come to swap out summer for fall? Seasonal transitions can be full of uncertainty.

It so happens that Samuel Wells’ new book Incarnational Ministry (kindly sent for review by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) arrived in my hands during a season-of-life transition. With a month of pastoral care to challenge everything I thought I knew, this lyrically-written book provided a theological reflection on ministry that, like choosing just the right sweater on a fall day, helped me to feel a little more comfortable in the life of ministry.  Continue reading