The Art of Christian Reflection: A Review

Ellen Davis suggests that an interpretation of Scripture should be judged by its beauty. She writes,

Interpretations of scripture are not just right or wrong, although at times such categories are useful and necessary. A more adequate way of judging our readings might be the way we judge works of art—according to the standards of beauty. To what extent do our readings reveal the intricacy, the wondrous quality of what the biblical writers call maasei Adonai, “the works of the LORD”?

Ellen Davis, Christian Century, “Beyond Criticism”

I think this is an important insight. “Right” and “wrong” are “useful and necessary” at times but they are insufficient for grappling with the biblical writings. This is something, I think, that great artists who’ve taken up the task of interpreting the Bible with brush or chisel have always intuited more ably than those of us who write our interpretations. Someone like me, who works mostly in prose, is tempted toward explanation, toward epistemic concerns. Artists working in images and other mediums are not so concerned with what way of understanding the story is right or wrong but how the story itself might lay hold of us. What detail, what peculiarity, what character might prove gripping when seen in a fresh light? The artist reads a story with a different guiding question than the common biblical interpreter, namely, “What about this story is so beautiful that it must be rendered?”

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Willie Jennings on Education

Willie Jennings on Education

“There is nothing inherently good about gathering people together,” writes Willie James Jennings, a professor at Yale Divinity School, “but there is something inherently powerful.” His new book After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging names the distorted powers at work in Western theological education (and Western education more broadly). More than naming the distorted powers, he tries to describe a way, a vision, a hope for a theological education healed from this distortion.

Jennings has written a book the academy and the church need right now.

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Hebrew for Life: Strategies for Learning, Retaining, and Reviving Biblical Hebrew

Hebrew for Life: Strategies for Learning, Retaining, and Reviving Biblical Hebrew

A confession. In my undergraduate studies, I only took one semester of Hebrew. The professor ruled. I enjoyed the language, scoring well on assignments and quizzes. But I found learning Greek and Hebrew simultaneously very hard. I didn’t need the credits from Hebrew to graduate, so I chose to do semester four of Greek (translating Ephesians!) instead of another semester of Hebrew. “I can always come back to it,” I told myself.

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The Triune Story

The Triune Story

Kent tells me that John Webster once described another notable theologian as a swashbuckler, who swings into an orderly room, waves his sword around, before diving off the ship, leaving everyone else to wonder: “What just happened?” In a brilliantly insightful podcast with Lincoln Harvey, the same swashbuckling theologian is described as getting things wrong almost all the time, “but for all the right reasons.”

Who is this disruptive and, potentially, off-base theologian? None other than the late Robert Jenson.

I’ve not read enough Jenson to say he is almost always wrong. But I have read enough to admire the way he turns things about in ways unexpected and fresh, and with a determination never to let theology become less than it ought to be. This is on full display in the book reviewed below.

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Hearers & Doers: A Review

Hearers & Doers: A Review

How does a pastor help Christians become “fit for their purpose” as disciples, citizens of the Kingdom of God? This is the question that drives Kevin Vanhoozer’s recent book Hearers & Doers. The answer he offers is not more programs, more staff, or more lights and screens. Instead, he suggests a deeply Protestant “diet”: Scripture and doctrine.

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Preaching Through a Pandemic? Read These Four Books

Preaching Through a Pandemic? Read These Four Books

The last four months have undoubtedly raised new questions for pastors, questions about ministry in general, and the tasks of ministry in particular. One of the most pressing questions for me has been about preaching. In my specific context, we’re emerging from fully digital worship to a hybrid with outdoor, in-person worship, and a livestream for those who need to maintain social distancing. Another significant change is the need to include children as part of the hearers of my preaching since we are no longer offering children classes during the sermon. What should my preaching look like? How must I adapt to this new situation? How do I think about who I am preaching to? And what might I say to people in this strange season of life?

Fortunately, I am not facing these complicated questions on my own. Four books, kindly sent by their respective publishers for review, have provided wisdom for these odd times.

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Cultivating a shared Christian imagination

My latest review for Christian Century is live on their website. It’ll be out in print with the next edition. This time I’ve gotten a chance to read Garrett Green’s news book Imagining Theology.

The concept of imagination has been a focal point for me because it’s been a focal point for many of my teachers. I’d not read Green before, but he’s been working on this stuff for years. This book spans his career and, while I found some of his essays less compelling than others, I found his faithfulness and his creativity to be a great joy.

From the review: “Paul tells the Corinthians to be of the same imagination just before he de­scribes how God turns wisdom and foolishness inside out: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God” (NIV). Imagining Theology tells the story of one theologian who allows his imagination to be captured so that he may see the power of God at work in the world.”

Enjoy!

What does “God is Love” mean? A Short Reflection

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.

1 John 4:16

What does “God is love” mean? Ian McFarland frames this question by reminding us that Scripture does, in fact, say God is other things—spirit, light, etc. He raises another concern by noting that humans “are before they love.” Is God’s love similar? If not, what is distinct about God’s love?

Like an ancient commentator, McFarland responds by observing a small thing in the Gospel of John’s epic opening hymn about the Word who was with God. Like a ghost note that catches the hearer’s ear, that word “with” captures McFarland’s eye. “Significantly,” he observes, 

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Theology for a World in Peril

The old quip that we should read the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other is increasingly relevant for the church today. Reading the story of Scripture apart from the story of today’s world is, in a sense, to practice the ancient heresy of Gnosticism: salvation through escaping (in this case, by ignoring) embodied, worldly existence. But reading the newspaper without the Scriptures may push one near the edge of despair. Jürgen Moltmann’s new book The Spirit of Hope: Theology for a World in Peril models for us a variety of approaches for engaging deeply in both the Word and the world, especially its “peril.”

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Paul and Pastoral Ministry

Are there metrics for defining the task or success of pastoral ministry? I’d venture to guess those metrics change from tradition to tradition, and congregation to congregation. Scot McKnight’s new book Pastor Paul makes a compelling case for why one metric is the cornerstone for all the rest. You can read more about it in my newest review on Christian Century.

From Jesus Creed, McKnight’s blog.

While you’re over there, you really need to check out two other pieces from next week’s print edition. Sarah Jean Barton–one of the kindest people I’ve ever met–has a beautiful review, “When Liturgy Embraces Difference,” on The Disabled Church by Rebecca Spurrier. Jason Byassee has an outstanding profile on Katherine Sonderegger (whose Systematic Vol. 2 releases soon!).

Overall, this is one of my favorite issues of the Century since I started reading. I’m proud to have contributed to it.

Enjoy!

Want to Give Good Books for Christmas?

Unsplash / Sharon McCutcheono

Christmas isn’t about the gifts we give. It is about the gift, a singular gift, of God choosing to become what we are so that we might become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1.4). But, in thankfulness and imitation of God’s gift-giving, we share gifts with others. So, what better gift could we give than books that help people come to know this gift-giving God better? (Yes, yes, the sacraments are the first and the true Christ-koinonia gifts, but lighten up! ‘Tis the season, right?)

These are mostly books that straddle the fine line between devotional reading and academic reading, with some poetry and practical theology in there for good measure.

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An interview with Ellen Davis

A Conversation With Ellen Davis on Opening Israel’s Scriptures

Unsplash / Mick Haupt

Whenever a congregant or student asks me what to do with the Old Testament, I recommend Ellen Davis’s book Getting Involved With God. It exemplifies the kind of careful, creative, and genuine reading that the Old Testament—and New Testament—expect of any reader. That Ellen Davis wrote such a book is no surprise. Throughout her career, she has written with critical rigor for the sake of the church. 

In her most recent book, Opening Israel’s Scriptures, Davis offers us, in her words, “the grown up version” of Getting Involved With God. It is grown up in two ways. First, the writing requires a bit more from the reader; second, the book covers a much wider range of the Old Testament writings. Nonetheless, for professors and pastors, this book gives us a joyful taste of theological, canonical, literary, and ecclesial approaches to exegesis.

Ellen Davis is the Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School. She has graciously agreed to respond to some of my questions related to Opening Israel’s Scriptures. (Thanks to Oxford University Press for the review copy of this book.) Enjoy the conversation below. Join in by commenting!

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Spiritual Rhythms for the Enneagram

I turn 44 this year, and, despite my best efforts, in many ways I’m still a mystery to myself.  A younger Spiritual Rhythms for the Enneagramversion of me imagined that I’d hit some milestone of adulthood and be settled about all that. False.

The longer I live, the farther into my marriage I reach, the deeper into myself I’m taken by my role as father, the more intently I pursue a truer relationship with God—through all of this I keep discovering that I don’t know myself as well as I’d like. Frustrating.

Cue the Enneagram. Over the last several years it’s been immensely helpful to me as a tool for naming the persistent motivations and default reactions that I experience but struggle to quantify, much less do anything redemptive about. (If you feel lost in the Enneagram conversation, read Allie Brown’s  brilliantly clear introduction here). For instance: why do I wake at 4am worrying about a book manuscript that isn’t due for years – why the tight stomach now of all times? Why do I buy 10 books about any new thing I’d like to engage – why is intellectual understanding my default for the unknown? Why do I always migrate to the perimeter of social gatherings – not at all unhappy, but content and comfortable along the edge? And why do I retreat to my “mind castle” when things go wonky in relationships? On and on I could go. My mysterious self.

Before my introduction to the Enneagram, I never had a useful personality tool for processing these questions, much less move toward wholeness in Christ. I found other personality tools entirely unsatisfying. They closed me down rather than opened me up; making me feel like a smaller, shrunk, oversimplified version of me. The Enneagram, however, helped me see how my deep motivations and default reactions come together within a particular kind of complex person. Me.

But where do I go from here? Even after reading several books about it (yes, my approach) and using it in relationships with close friends, my nagging question concerned life with Christ. How do I apply Enneagram wisdom for life with God? How could knowing my number (5 with a 4 wing) help me partner with the Holy Spirit as I seek to live into my true, Christ-like self? More specifically still, what spiritual practices are best suited for my unique wiring as a 5? How can I live toward integration as a whole, complex, often mysterious self with the help of Enneagram wisdom? Where do I go from here?

So I was thrilled to discover IVP’s most recent book on the Enneagram, Spiritual Rhythms for the Enneagram: A Handbook for Harmony and Transformation, coauthored by Adele and Dough Calhoun and Clare and Scott Loughrige.

The book is structured around an approach to the Enneagram called the “Harmony Enneagram.” In this model, the authors link Enneagram numbers together in a novel, triangular way  to show how a person draws upon their gut, head, and heart intelligences. Continue reading