Category Archives: History

Rebuilding the Feltboard World of Childhood

The World of the New Testament: Cultural, Social, and Historical Contexts (Baker Academic, 2013) $35.61

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For those paying attention, Joel B. Green (newly appointed Dean of Fuller Seminary’s School of Theology) has become the preeminent name in collecting great scholars of New Testament studies under one cover. His previous titles are a compendium of established names or those destined to become “The” expert on any given subject. The World of the New Testament proudly joins Green’s previous works, offering profound yet digestible essays rivaling if not exceeding seminary offerings.

From chapter 25 & 26, “Jewish Identity, Beliefs, and Practices” by Archie T. Wright and “Jewish Education” by Kent L. Yinger

A strength of The World of the New Testament is the collection of essays on Judaism. This is, one imagines, thanks to the work of N.T. Wright’s energetic effort towards refocusing our understanding of Christianity’s indebtedness to Second-Temple Judaism. Archie Wright’s essays, however, fall short as he focuses on the tried-and-true summary of Jewish identity based on temple, purity rituals, and diet. This is a large and tragic flaw in the collection. An astute reader would have hoped for more attention to the ways that post-exilic prophetic writings constructed Jewish identity, rather than the strong whiff of Pharisaism present here. I’m sure there is a joke to be made about how Archie and N.T. are at opposite ends, but I’ll bypass that cheap shot. Moving on, Yinger’s essay on Jewish education is quite sharp (thought painfully brief), summarizing methodology, the role of the family, and the rabbinic anachronistic effort to find personal and national identity as a literate race.

From chapter 31, “Homer and the New Testament” by Thomas E. Philips

Philips focuses on the indirect influence of the Homeric epics on the New Testament period by first pointing out their prominence in constructing societal expectations, then the individual’s pursuit of “honor.” By illuminating these key points, Philips conclusively dismisses all efforts to write Homer back into biblical sources while also affirming a classical education which might be able to extract more from Homer as NT studies move forward.

From chapter 39, “Syria, Cilicia, and Cyprus” by Mark Wilson

While reading The World of the New Testament on geography, I found myself wishing that a book such as this had been available when I was much younger. Before attending seminary, the best I could find was a gap-filled pictorial of Paul’s missionary journeys with elementary sketches of what Jerusalem “may” have looked like. Wilson’s essay on Syria, Cilicia, and Cypus not only gave a great summary of where Paul went – what the cultures were like, the local trades and so on – but also explained why Paul was “led” to these “obscure” places. In reconstructing the culture, a wealth of new insight begins to flesh out what the challenges and strengths of the Early Church were so long ago.

All told, I can hardly imagine a greater supplement to introductory New Testament studies than Green, et al.’s The World of the New Testament. This truly has become one of my great summer reads, keeping me fresh on my theological studies while unpacking much of what I have already learned in seminary. While I am not a fan of Green in the classroom, finding him insulting and dismissive (why do the great minds of our time feel a need to beat those below them?), his expansive knowledge permeates this work in a way that makes the mind light up. In the last month, I have become inseparable from The World of the New Testament — it is what I have read when I lay down, and what accompanies me across the city during idle moments. Unlike other academic works which seem tedious or horribly dry, each of the essays here are entirely accessible and is a a treasure for those seeking to better understand Christian scripture.

Randall S. Frederick is a recent graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary. He writes for The Huffington PostState of Formation, and Theology & the City.

Culture According to de Botton

The News: A User’s Manual by Alain de Botton (Pantheon Books, 2014) $26.95

NewsAlainEmbedFounder of the School of Life, Alain de Botton’s latest work The News: A User’s Manual aspires to be “the ultimate guide for our frenzied era” of news and is a good introduction to seeing news outlets as culture-making machines.

De Botton excels at presenting competing ideas and showing how both have equal merit. One of his recent works, How to Think More About Sex (2012), is an excellent summary of how culture presents ideas around sex and how individuals express that with each other. Surprisingly, he concludes that work by suggesting that Christian morality can “redeem,” even “save” pornography from it’s excess. That he is an avowed atheist of the loose French variety, and names Christian morality as the main suppressor of art, beauty, and sex further emphasizes this claim.

In reading his previous works, I have been impressed by how even-handed and fair he is. Which is why, knowing de Botton as a keen observer and precise writer, he disappoints with The News by creating hypothetical scenarios and broad cultural critiques rather than engaging with the world as it is. This may have served him well in the past while discussing religion and sex, but The News succumbs to it’s own grand vision of shaping a reader shaped by information informed by the reader. Think of the book as holding up a row of mirrors to one another. The reader walks through and, for a moment it is perhaps fun, perhaps disorienting, until higher functioning brain activity reminds them that this is a parlor trick. As a (sometimes) journalist, I found myself wishing he would have explained either more of how newsroom decisions are made or interviewed editors and journalists rather than focusing on his own pseudo-objectivity, inflating the reader’s sense of self, or congratulating the reader for looking down their nose at another. Case in point, in the middle of the book he discusses financial reporting and states:

It isn’t only the scale of the economic machine that can silence us, but also its complexity. On a miniscule percentage of the populations of developed economies have any solid understanding of the workings of the economic system they exist within. Most of us will struggle to grasp quite what might be going on within essential terms like arbitrage, Basel 1 and 2, cyclically adjusted current budgets, price/earnings ratios or quantitative easing. As we follow financial events in the news, we may ask, and not for the first time: ‘What is the growth rate of money?’ ‘How do hedge funds operate?’ ‘What does the LIBOR rate determine?’… Those kindly commentators occasionally employed by news organizations to help us with our confusions certainly try hard to offer us explanations, but perhaps because the concepts that dizzy us lack connection with anything in our day-to-day lives, their explanations have a habit of leaching from our minds just hours after we have heard them. (130-31)

In a chapter titled “Celebrity,” de Botton educates the reader on ancient hero-worship practices before naming the way that envy cripples individual expression. Then he makes a telling statement:

Too many random reminders of other people’s success may simply terrify us into inactivity and unwittingly prevent us from putting any single plan into practice. In order to achieve anything on our own, we need to be free for extended stretches from the psychological pressures exerted by news of others’ feats. We require periods of inner seclusion and calm if we are ever going to finish off something worthwhile: that is, something that we may ourselves one day be envied for. (173)

de Botton makes a case in each of the six areas of examination – politics, world news, economics, celebrity, disaster, and consumption – that it is insecurity which compels us to have our favorite 24-hour news source in the background, to constantly check social media to see what friends are up to, and to somehow form our own identity in light of the deluge. Some, like Noah, become despondent and retire to happy hour. Others, like the children of Noah, gradually forget What Happened and move out to their own entitlement.

Still, de Botton is true to form in that he raises incisive and implicit questions. Do we really want the news to tell the truth? Or would we prefer to self-medicate with distraction? These are good questions, and he excels at framing them in a digestible way. But as a former journalist, I can’t help notice that de Botton dwells on identity formation instead of “the hard news” of an event. In concluding the work, he notes that individuals select their news sources to assist in identity construction but does not really dwell on his initial inkling that news outlets actively seek to shape their audience. Notice the contrast between his initial thoughts and conclusion.

The news knows how to render its own mechanics almost invisible and therefore hard to question. It speaks to us in a natural unaccented voice, without reference to its own assumption-laden perspective. It fails to disclose that it does not merely report on the world, but is instead constantly at work crafting a new planet in our minds in line with its own often highly distinctive priorities. (11) 

Far from helping us develop a rich and complex individuality, ‘personalized news’ might end up aggravating out pathologies and condemning us to mediocrity. Imagine how personalization would have worked for, say, Marie Antoinette – someone temperamentally squeamish about distressing Political news and who would have been drawn to turning up the dial on Fashion and Entertainment… Personalization would be an improvement over the current editorial system if, and only if, users had a highly mature and complex sense of what sort of news they needed to hear. But this would require them, before they could be let anywhere near the dashboard used to program the news-stream, to get to know their own souls extremely well. (244-45).

One critiques the newswriter for failing to present their effort to shape an audience, the other critiques the audience for being incapable of properly choosing to know that which is best for them. In like kind, de Botton’s The News: A User’s Manual offers six poor case studies in areas of news which likely interest us but fails to explicitly disclose the kind of person it seeks to create – the self-knowing contemporary individual whose individual pursuits and preferences create a bubble of individualized self-actualization “ready” to take the world as it is… but who is entirely unprepared to notice others.

Randall Frederick is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. He has just finished his second M.A. at Fuller Theological Seminary, writes for The Huffington Post, and does religious consulting.

God is Red: A History of Christianity in Communist China

God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China, Liao Yiwu. (Harper One 2011) $14.99

God Is RedIn God is Red, historian Liao Yiwu tells the story of Christian missionary workers and the house church movement throughout the twentieth century in China under totalitarian government. For his previous writings, Liao has been imprisoned and his books banned. “But what if we, as a nation, collectively lose our memory of the past?” Liao asks.

This question haunts the entire book, a fear that is reminiscent of Orwell’s perennial classic. Liao delves “into the past and present experiences of a particular group of people in search of clues about China’s future,” interweaving and linking several interviews conducted in the Yunnan province of southwest China between 2002 and 2010. Albeit a particular story about Christianity in China, God is Red takes on the political dragon to record the country’s moment of faith crisis in the wake of a push for modernization.

Readers will find this an easy book to get lost in: Liao recounts the interviews cleanly without losing the humor, as well capturing the Chinese way of telling a story poetically,

I followed Brother Yang, clutching both hands in front of my chest, tears streaming down like raindrops. I tell you, I wasn’t overcome with grief. I felt grateful. For the first time in my life, I didn’t think about myself or about human beings. I was thinking about God, who is above us, above all living things, above the highest mountain, above Erhai Lake. My parents gave birth to me, but God gave me life. I didn’t know that before. Cancer helped enlighten me, giving winder to my heart, which had been downtrodden in the mud, and made it fly and feel the bliss of heaven. Continue reading

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History of the World Christian Movement, 1454-1800

History of the World Christian Movement, Volume II: Modern Christianity from 1454-1800, Dale T. Irvin and Scott W. Sunquist (Orbis Books, 2012) $40.00

history-world-christian-movement-vol-iiDale T. Irvin and Scott W. Sunquist changed the academic game of Christian history in 2001 with the publication of History of the World Christian Movement, Vol I. That previous tome reaped several awards and almost unanimous critical praise for its comprehensive look at all facets of Christianity—Latin and Greek, male and female, orthodox and schismatic, from Spain to China, from Scandinavia to Ethiopia. The second volume continues the series with all the vitality and thoroughness of its predecessor – little surprise, as Irvin is President of New York Theological Seminary and Sunquist was recently appointed as Dean of Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of Intercultural Studies. Their scholarship is impeccable.

Volume II begins with the immediate aftermath of Constantinople’s fall to the Ottomans in 1453. It is a tipping point in world history; Latin Christendom, previously preoccupied with a great deal of infighting—politically and theologically—realizes that its sister-state, the Byzantine Empire, is dead at the hands of the Turks. Though Byzantium had long been in decline, its complete disappearance provokes a new and fearful mindset for Rome. The Vatican suddenly is very interested in recent technological developments in seafaring, and the two greatest kingdoms of Christendom—Portugal and newly-birthed Spain—find their navigating experiments for the sake of commerce backed by the Pope. The Age of European Exploration begins with the hope of finding spices, cloth, and the far side of India, but perhaps most importantly—a way to outflank and surround Islam. Ships are equipped with soldiers and missionaries for just such an opportunity as Catholic priests are sent into Islamic territories, looking for Orthodox survivors. Continue reading