Category Archives: Religion

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.

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Reading Theologically

Reading Theologically: Foundations for Learning, ed. Eric D. Barreto (Fortress Press, 2014) $14.00

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How we read scripture is potentially one of the most divisive issues in theological studies. The essays that Eric Barreto, assoc. prof. of New Testament at Luther Seminary, collects here are by no means a replacement for graduate study of hermeneutics at seminary, but he certainly offers an excellent introduction to those seeking to determine whether seminary is for them.

Each chapter engages topically with how we read scripture (basically, meaningfully, biblically, generously, critically, differently, digitally, and spiritually) and what the interaction of the lenses have to do with one another. As Barreto says in his introduction, theological reading “is about the formation and cultivation of a particular posture towards texts, whether sacred or profane. Reading theologically is not just about building your academic skills, but about your formation as a ministerial leader who can engage scholarship critically, interpret scripture and tradition faithfully, welcome different perspectives, and help lead others to do the same. That is your call as a student of theology.” (11)

With these words, Barreto locates the primary (though not exclusive) audience of his book – new seminarians and those discerning a call to ministry. As a recent graduate of religious studies, I wish I had read something like this to make the transition into my program easier!

But the “average reader” won’t feel left out. Any member of a church – laity, Sunday school teacher, or interested pew-sitter – will find here a collection of approachable. All of the chapters are directed to and for those in “community” with people of faith, how to understand fellow parishioners, how to articulate what you see in scripture in an informed way, and how to encourage fellow believers toward something more than passivity. At under 150 pages, Reading Theologically offers an excellent opportunity for students new to theological discussion.

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

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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Lamin Sanneh: Culture, Translation and the Life of Faith

Summoned from the Margins: Homecoming of an African, Lamin Sanneh  (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company 2012) $24

Summoned from the MarginsMy claim is that no one language can substitute for the truth of God, that as children of God we learn and speak the language of faith always imperfectly and provisionally, and that the divine perfection is beyond cultural advantage or disadvantage.

This is the heart of the book, Summoned from the Margins, by Lamin Sanneh, Professor of World Christianity at Yale University.

Born in Gambia, trained at Edinburgh and Harvard universities, Dr. Sanneh has made the transition from Islam to Christianity, from Methodist to Catholic, over the space of half a century. His book is the exploration of a conversion from unlikely places to unimagined ones: summoned by a Savior to a religion about which he had little knowledge, and a marginal one in a society where the everyday came into tangible contact with, and was largely dictated by, Islamic thought.  Along the way, Dr. Sanneh explores how Christianity dialogues with Islam, and why the two religions often clash in dialogue, coming as they do from two paradigms that often speak past each other.

Following a post-secondary education in The Gambia, Sanneh decided to apply for the full scholarship offered to students at that time by the United States government for enrollment at an American university. He arrived in Virginia in 1963 into the turmoil and conflict of the civil rights movement. “…Nothing in our background prepared us for America: we had no value system to deal with race, and no fund of personal experience to draw on for understanding or self-preservation.” Nevertheless, he continued on in pursuit of his studies, realizing along the way that his interest in history matched up with his religious interest. Continue reading

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Literary But Not Literal: Spong on the Gospel of John

The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, John Shelby Spong (HarperOne 2013)  $26.99

fourth gospelJohn Shelby Spong is something of a legend within the contemporary Christian thought leadership. Through a 24-book writing career and two-and-a-half decades as bishop to New Jersey Episcopalians, Spong is known for trenchant comments in interviews, dismantling the claims of evangelical orthodoxy, and furious pushback from those who deem him a heretic and a threat to the Christian flock.

A Gentle Testimony

Given Spong’s reputation for boundary-pushing and dangerous thinking, I was a bit surprised to see this gentle testimony in the preface:

Jesus walked beyond the boundaries of his religion into a new vision of God. I think that this is what I also have done and that is what I want to celebrate. God is ultimate. Christianity is not. The only way I know how to walk into the ultimacy of God, however, is to walk through Christianity. I claim not that the Christian path is the exclusive path, but that it is the only path I know and thus the only path on which I can walk. (x)

This sentiment, not wolf-like at all, represents the book’s deep, non-creedal commitment to Christianity as “the way of Jesus” that inspires life. It’s also a foundational component of the book that might resonate with readers who want to hear more from non-literalist Christian writers, teachers, and lay members. The Fourth Gospel is designed for that audience; it’s a thoroughly Christian literary reading of John, and emerged from a five-year study of the gospel text, translations, and all major commentaries on John’s gospel published since the 1800s. Continue reading

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A Little Borrow, a Little New, What’s Scriptural to You?

A New New Testament, Ed. Hal Taussig (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) $32.00

NewNewTestamentOne of the primary questions you will need to ask yourself before picking up A New New Testament is whether you are comfortable reading religious texts at all. For many Christians, there is a strong compulsion to categorically reject “extra” texts – the Book of Mormon and the Apocrypha being the most readily known examples.

Collected here are a handful of documents that challenge, even at times subvert, conventional doctrine and what we think we know about the Christian Scriptures. Are we comfortable with Paul being a celebrity, even (arguably) a heartthrob to young girls as he is in The Acts of Paul and Thecla? Editor Hal Taussig is one of the world’s foremost scholars on worship and culture of early Christian communities and his scholarship is most evident in the introductory notes to each book (even the globally accepted standard 27 with which you are most familiar). It is there, in the notes and commentary rather than the 10 “new” texts that Evangelical thought will be most challenged. Taussig makes no apologies for his scholarship but presents a more well-defined constellation of beliefs that were being discussed after the death and supposed resurrection of the Christ. Continue reading

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Postmodern Apologetics?

Hillhurst Review Editor-in-Chief, Ryan Bell, has joined a group of bloggers at The Spectrum Blog to reflect, chapter-by-chapter, through Christina M. Gschwandtner’s book Postmodern Apologetics? (Fordham University Press, 2012). His post on chapter 2, “Emmanuel Lévinas and the Infinite,” is online now. Read it below and join the conversation at The Spectrum Blog.

postmodern apologeticsJust over two years ago I got a tattoo on my left forearm. It is a single word in Hebrew: hineni. In English, hineni means, “Here I am.” It is what Abraham says to God when God calls his name, asking him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. It is what Samuel says after discovering that it is God, not Eli, calling his name. It is what Isaiah says when he is overcome by the glory of God in Isaiah 6—“Here I am.” In Lévinas’ native French, it is easy to see that the expression is in the accusative. The speaker is not the actor but is rather the acted upon, the called upon, the “accused.”

For Lévinas, this is the appropriate response when we are encountered by the other. He departs from Heidegger in a fundamental way in his approach to phenomenology. For Heidegger, the emphasis was on the knowing subject, concerned with Being and apprehension of the things themselves. Lévinas argues that this desire to apprehend and understand objectifies the other—particularly the human other—and reduces them to “the same.” This approach to philosophy collapses what Lévinas sees as the irreducible alterity of the other. This difference must be maintained, otherwise we do violence to the other.

In a telling statement, Gschwandtner writes:

What is other or different or strange or incomprehensible is scary, unsettling, and fearful. The stranger has always been a threat on some level. So what do we do when something or someone is “strange” or “different”? Either we destroy: try to eliminate the scary stranger, to wipe out anything that induces fear. Or we assimilate, comprehend (encompass), make like us—so the stranger really becomes merely another version of the self. Lévinas calls this “reducing the other to the same” (42).

Read the rest here.

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A Call to Faithful Creativity

Manifest: Our Call to Faithful Creativity, ed. Nathan Brown & Joanna Darby (Signs Publishing, 2013) AU$ 24.95

ManifestAs cultural and economic shifts continue to take place, more people are calling themselves “Creatives.” It seems almost anyone, doing anything, can be a virtuoso, cultural kingmaker, filmmaker, or the catchall “artist.” But whether these people are formally trained, self-taught, or simply seeking value for their uniqueness, the Church has not yet begun to tap into the energy and creativity of congregants who are pursuing their passions. Pews and folding chairs both remain empty as religious leaders persist in thinking that the biggest creative choice they will make this year concerns the color of the carpet.

Genuine creativity is, in many ways, absent from our sacred spaces. The evidence is all around us. More churches are turning to portable buildings and weekend rentals that discourage decoration, stained glass, or anything that might develop into differences of opinion. What is it about congregations, committees, and Christians that sidelines ingenuity, given how many of us are designers, painters, musicians, and creative in some many profound ways? And what if the choice were not always presented as creativity or faithfulness?

Manifest: Our Call to Faithful Creativity is a collection of essays addressing those kinds of questions. Continue reading

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Seeing God in Surprising Places

When “Spiritual but Not Religious” is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church, Lillian Daniel (Jericho Books, 2013) $19.99

spiritualnotreligiousIf nothing else, Lillian Daniel has a breadth of experience in her years of ministry! In her book, When “Spiritual but Not Religious” is Not Enough, Lillian takes us along for the ride as she chats with random strangers on the bus, visits prisons and monasteries, philosophizes with her dog about late-night TV evangelists, and deals with family crises as she takes on the task of “Seeing God in surprising places, even the church.” Her quirky anecdotes draw the reader into her inner thought circle, giving the book the feel of a rambling campfire rant among friends. With each section divided into bite-sized chapters, the author challenges many commonly-held beliefs, both in and outside the church, and shows us through her stories that we need to look deeper into the every day fabric of life than we are accustomed to, in order to find the answers to the big questions.

You won’t find quick and easy theological answers to the questions she poses. You won’t find loosely superimposed object lessons, and you won’t find hum-drum do-it-yourself suggestions for cultivating a lifestyle of prayer or confession or communion. The author resists giving you the answers to the test at all costs. Instead, she tells you about her experience with these aspects of spiritual life, and lets you fill in the blanks. In her discussion of communion, for example, one moment, you’re sitting in her financial planner’s office discussing tithing, and the next minute, you’re whisked off to O’Hare airport to discover the joys of impromptu road trips with strangers in snowy weather—and then you’re in her mother’s dining room, waiting to be served roast duck! And, while there is a conclusion to be drawn from her sharing each of these stories in short succession, the author leaves us to draw that conclusion on our own.

The abruptness of her transitions, interjected with the odd chapter where she can’t resist jumping up onto her soapbox, can be disconcerting. Even the conclusion of the book is abrupt. Yet, there is an endearing quality to the way the author tells her stories. A keen mind and gentle heart shine out of every chapter. It is obvious that Lillian Daniel is actively engaged in wrestling with the deep, unsettling questions of spirituality, and even more impressive—she’s comfortable with the patchwork gaps in her knowledge of God, assured that her faith and her experience will continue to fill the gaps. Indeed, it would seem that from her perspective, the only way to allow the gaps to be filled is to continue to experience life through the lens of faith.

If you’re looking for a book that will encourage introspection, challenge complacency, and make you laugh all at the same time, pick up a copy of When “Spiritual but Not Religious” is Not Enough. You never know where you’ll find God.

Holly Messenger Aamot studied philosophy and botany at the University of Alberta, and now work as the Business Manager for the Chokka Center for Integrative Health in Edmonton, Alberta. When she is not working or reading she enjoys writing, crocheting, and making music. She lives in Edmonton with her husband and daughter.

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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