Category Archives: Theology

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.

Women Are People Too

Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of WomenSarah Bessey. (Howard Books, 2013) $14.99

Jesus-Feminist-Cover-copyIn recent years, there has been a backlash against egalitarianism and Christian Feminism emerging from what could be described as the “young, restless, and reformed” segment of the Church. Fortunately, the voices coming from the other side have been equally loud, calling for mutual submission in the household and full participation of women in ministry. In this conversation, Sarah Bessey’s book Jesus Feminist (2013) stands out. She addresses the Church’s treatment of women with the end goal of “exploring God’s radical notion that women are people too.” At first, I thought this subtitle seemed almost satirical, but in light of the more outspoken complementarians who have published recently, it is perhaps more warranted than my initial impression would have allowed.

Bessey’s gentle and humble tone sets her book apart. From the very first pages, it reads as a letter from a dear friend. In a debate which is fraught with conflict, mud-slinging, and name-calling, Bessey looks for the positive, encouraging women to live into their God-given potential. Rather than spending time debunking arguments on the other side (as many egalitarians do with Wayne Grudem and John Piper), Bessey spends most of the book talking about what women have done, and are currently doing in service to God, the Church, and the world. Her book reminds me of The Junia Project in that it seeks to equip and empower rather than to argue.

The core of Bessey’s argument is that her Feminism is a response to what she cares the most about—following Jesus. The best way for Christians to pursue women’s equality is for us to pursue Christ. “We must remember that all of those efforts are ultimately frustrating, sometimes even misguided, without Christ” (184). Moreover, Bessey makes the claim that “the Feminist Agenda” is, indeed, God’s agenda, because God cares about justice.

Nothing changes in a true, God-lasting way when we use people or push agendas or make finger-pointing arguments or accusations of heresy. The justice we are seeking is God’s justice—justice that leaves no one out, no one left behind. His justice breaks chains, rids the world of injustice, frees the oppressed, cancels debts (184).

As a young woman working for a church, Bessey’s writing speaks to me though I am perhaps not her intended audience, as she debunks the myth that church work is the ultimate calling. However, as a woman and a Christ-follower, I have wrestled with the questions that Bessey wrestles with in her pursuit of Jesus. As such, Bessey’s experiences and hopes resonated with me. The only thing I would change about this book would be to use gender-inclusive language for God. I understand that within the Christian world, understanding God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is our bread and butter but using masculine pronouns for God becomes a stumbling block for some Jesus Feminists as they seek to understand God at work in their lives.

More than anything, I hope that young and old women read this book and feel empowered to pursue God’s calling on their lives. I hope that my seminary professors, who have done so much to encourage my pursuit of ministry, read it and keep doing what they are doing. I hope that complementarians read it, and, at the very least, hear Bessey’s prophetic voice to begin reconsidering their positions.

Naomi Wilson is the Director of Christian Education at Faith Presbyterian Church of Valley Village, nestled between North Hollywood and Studio City in beautiful sunny Southern California. She loves coffee, sunshine, books, and running.

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A Thicker Jesus

A Thicker Jesus: Incarnational Discipleship in a Secular Age, Glen H. Stassen (Westminster John Knox Press, 2012) $25

a-thicker-jesusFrom my days at Fuller Theological Seminary, I so enjoyed the perspective taught and embodied by Dr. Glen Stassen.  His ethics course and seminal text, Kingdom Ethics, gave useful language for budding young seminarians like myself on how the teachings from the Sermon on the Mount must infuse every part of our ethical decisions.  His stories about marching with Dr. King inspired me about the value of civil disobedience and political actions today.  His teachings on just peacemaking, gender roles, and the death penalty deeply guided me into the methodology of forming ethical convictions with the narrative of Scripture as a framework. And more than that, his faithfulness as an educator and a follower of Christ gave life to his teachings and proved an authentic model of deeply reflective pastoral engagement in the world through the power of the living Christ.

Though it had been years since my time with Dr. Stassen, I was eager to dive into his newest text, A Thicker Jesus and the book did not disappoint. I was immediately struck by how helpful this text would be for the field of practical theology as it matures as an academic discipline.  As a academic, Stassen only wants to deepen the conversation about Christian discipleship rather than water down any convictions for the sake of accessibility.  Stassen’s work serves as a robust text for defending a Christian ethic of incarnation and engagement in social inequalities.  Building upon the shoulders of his major influencer, theologian and activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Stassen propones that one of the primary challenges for the Church today is to confront secularism with a costly discipleship that will provide the resources for renewal and revival. Incarnational discipleship, as defined by Stassen, will represent three spheres: a thicker interpretation of Jesus of Nazareth, the holistic sovereignty of God, and the Holy Spirit moving the church to what Stassen calls a “repentance from ideological entanglement.”  I could not agree more.  He looks to utilize such a formula as a model to help resolve some of the many challenges facing the Church in the 21st century.  Heroes of the faith throughout Christian history, in his assessment, all share the common trait of a ‘deep and specific interpretation of the apostolic and biblical witness to Jesus Christ.’ 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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Talking About God

What We Talk About When We Talk About God, Rob Bell (HarperOne, 2013) $25.99

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Rob Bell is in a new place with a new book. What We Talk about When We Talk about God is his first publication since leaving Mars Hill, the off-beat mega church near Grand Rapids, MI, that he founded in 1999. Bell is now writing, teaching, surfing and working on media projects in Southern California.

Despite these changes, people who are aware of Bell’s earlier material—books, speaking tours and Nooma DVDs—will find themselves in familiar surroundings within these newly printed pages. His signature cadence, humor and minimalism remain. Beyond these stylistic cues, major themes from previous works find new traction—the scientific wildness of Everything is Spiritual[i], the moral trajectory of The Gods Aren’t Angry[ii], the assumption from Velvet Elvis[iii] that all truth is God’s truth.

Readers of theology and philosophy will also find continuity with Bell’s established method of interacting with heady theology in subtle ways. Bell avoids the jargon of academia, and he rarely quotes the theologians he is wrestling with, but these thinkers are quite present just below the surface. From a communication perspective, this is one of Rob Bell’s greatest gifts. He guides readers over the difficult terrain of theodicy, epistemology and moral philosophy—all covered in this latest book—in ways that focus us on the important issues without the distraction of opening a theological dictionary. Bell demonstrates that wrestling with life’s most important questions does not require esoteric terminology. Only a certain type of reader can appreciate Peter Rollins’ style of writing in How (Not) To Speak of God, but anyone can understand Bell’s reference to Rollins as “my friend Pete” (95).

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Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?

Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World, Brian McLaren (Jericho Books) $24.99

Brian McLaren has a gift for putting his finger on the challenges and opportunities facing the Christian church. Or, some may say, he relishes the chance to put his finger in the eye of the church. A close reading, however, reveals the heart of the author which betrays his deep love for the church and faith in her potential.

Published 11 years to the day after the tragic events of September 11, 2001, McLaren invites us to consider afresh a theme that has consumed him for years: generous orthodoxy. [1] Along with many who have been involved in interfaith partnerships and friendships, he is concerned that Christians are hung on the horns of a dilemma: we can either be generous to those outside the boundaries of the Christian faith or we can be orthodox in our beliefs, but not both. McLaren insists there is another way and it’s more than a nice balance of the two extremes. He calls it “strong/benevolent faith;” something many people consider impossible to achieve, not least the main stream commentators and scholars of American social and political life, some of whom argue that monotheism, in particular, is inherently violent. [2]

How can we arrive at this strong/benevolent faith? He proposes a “Great Reformulation” and His prescription is three-fold: doctrinal, liturgical and missional. The generosity McLaren so often speaks of is found in the tone with which he challenges some of the church’s most serious failings. Nevertheless, as with many of his books, this most recent contribution will push many people past their comfort zone. Continue reading

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The Cross and the Lynching Tree

The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James H. Cone (Orbis) $28

As soon as I read the title of this book it was instantly obvious to me. Human beings have an uncanny ability to miss what is right in front of their eyes. Particular narratives frame reality and admit or reject certain truths based on those narratives which run, like software, in the background, unexamined. But when our imaginations are opened to a truth, it is impossible to go back; impossible to not see it.

Such is the case with The Cross and the Lynching Tree, the latest volume from renown black liberation theologian and Union Theological Seminary professor, James H. Cone.

In this brief and engaging read, Cone highlights the problem of an anemic theological and social imagination on the part of some of our best thinkers. Cone begins, in the introduction, with these words,

The cross and the lynching tree are separated by nearly 2,000 years. One is universal symbol of Christian faith; the other is the quintessential symbol of black oppression in America. Though both are symbols of death, one represents a message of hope and salvation, while the other signifies the negation of that message by white supremacy (xiii).

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Simply Jesus: An Interview with N.T. Wright

Simply Jesus, N.T. Wright (HarperOne) $24.99

Dr. Tom Wright is a prolific author of both popular and scholarly works about the historical origins of Christianity, focusing especially on the Gospels and the Pauline writings. We spoke to Dr. Wright from his home in Scotland about his new book, Simply Jesus.

—The Editors

Your work has been tremendously helpful. I think because some of us were just so frustrated, sort of being car salesmen for the church, trying to simply get people into the pews, and then after about five or six years of that you begin to wonder, “Why am I doing this? What’s this for?”

Yes. Yes, that’s absolutely right. And of course a lot of folk in the church have simply said, “Well, it’s basically the more people we get in the pews the more people we get to heaven at the end of the day.” And, though obviously, as you know from some of my other works, the whole question of the long-term future and the new world and the new creation and resurrection is absolutely vital—you can’t do without that hope, but that plays back into the present life precisely because of the resurrection of Jesus. God has actually started this new creation project right now and when somebody becomes a Christian and starts to worship God in Christ, and join with others in doing so in the power of the Spirit, then things are supposed to be happening both in that community and through that community, in and for the world all around them. Of course the church has always basically done this and if you go back into the second and third centuries and so on, that’s the reputation that the church had, “Who are these funny people who go around being kind to everybody even though they don’t need to be?” And that’s how Christianity spread, rather than just the communication of great ideas or whatever, though they matter too. So I think the church at its best has always done this, it’s just that in the Western world we have forgotten the rationale for it.

When I picked up Simply Jesus my first question before I even opened it was, “How is this going to be different than The Challenge of Jesus?” So, is there new material here, and also maybe more importantly, what is the audience for this book? There’s a part of me that just can’t help but be curious if you had kind of an evangelistic intent about the book, given that it’s published by a very popular publishing house? Who is this for and what is your hope for it and how is it different than The Challenge of Jesus?

The Challenge of Jesus grew out of a conference at which I was speaking to last-year fellowship graduates twelve years ago, I think it was in Chicago. And as the last two chapters of that book bear witness to the fact that it’s very much aimed at the kind of the bright young graduate market who are thinking, “What difference does my faith make to my computer science, to my music theory, to my this, to my that?” And I know it had quite an impact in those circles, but perhaps those chapters particularly may have also got into a much wider circle.

I think what’s happened is, that over the twelve years between the two books, I have—well, scholarship has moved on and I have moved on because I spent most of the twelve years, of course, working in the Church of England as a bishop, and when you go around and actually work with ordinary church communities, in my case in a very impoverished area of the country, all sorts of questions about how you actually preach from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, what you say about Jesus to folk in those communities—they have become really second nature to me and so I decided that I wouldn’t actually go back and even re-read The Challenge of Jesus, but I would sit down and map out what I most wanted to say about Jesus right now. And I think one of the things which is most clear to me is the close integration between Jesus preaching of the Kingdom and Jesus himself as the surprising, shocking presence of the living God, honored and amongst his people. And I think the sense of the Jewish people—of the time waiting for God to come back and then getting Jesus as the one who arrived. . .

(Laugh)

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Speaking Christian

 Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning & Power and How They Can Be Restored,  Marcus Borg (HarperOne) $25.99

Marcus Borg, scholar and leader in progressive Christian thought, takes on the language of faith in his recent publication, Speaking Christian.  He declares in the outset that the purpose of this book is to ‘redeem and reclaim Christian language,’ to help us ‘read, hear and inwardly digest Christian language without preconceived understandings getting in the way.’  But the articulated purpose that most resonates with this reviewer is his objective to ‘exposit an alternative understanding’ of the Biblical text and Christian tradition.  In this endeavor Borg achieves his goal of illuminating the language we have inherited, both from text and tradition, within an alternative framework that pulses with life and possibility.

Early into the work, Borg notes the two greatest obstacles to rightly understanding the Christian language; one is a matter of narrative and another the literalism with which so many read and hear the text.  The former is one that I have witnessed from my time in both North America and across east and southern Africa – what Borg calls the ‘heaven-and-hell framework.’  The four pillars of this framework, as he sees it, are the afterlife, sin and forgiveness, Jesus dying for our sins and believing.  The way one understands this narrative, believing that Jesus died for our sins so we can be forgiven and enter heaven, shapes how these words and many others are understood. One observation he notes first is that framing the story this way makes the death of Jesus the most important thing about Him.  This comment alone made me feel like I was not amiss in my own stance, having long thought most Christians care more about the death of Jesus than the life He lived.  But the truth is that this framework has far-reaching affects for how we understand much of our Christian vocabulary, often in distorted ways.  This is the case Borg makes throughout the book: we need to change our frame!

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Naked and Not Ashamed: A Conversation with Brian McLaren

Brian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, activist, and public theologian. Brian helped form and then pastored Cedar Ridge Community Church, an innovative, nondenominational church in the Baltimore-Washington region. During his time at Cedar Ridge, the church earned a reputation as a leader among emerging missional congregations. He has been active in networking and mentoring church planters and pastors since the mid 1980s, and has assisted in the development of several new churches. He is a popular conference speaker and a frequent guest lecturer for denominational and ecumenical leadership gatherings—across the US and Canada, Latin America, Europe, Africa, and Asia and was listed in Time as one of American’s 25 most influential evangelicals.

I met Brian in 2008 during a tour for his book Everything Must Change and we were able to connect again later that year at the Amahoro Africa Gathering in Rwanda and during a subsequent—and for me, quite life-altering—trip to Burundi. We have since run into each other at several global gatherings and share many good friends. I’ve had the privilege of  seeing Brian encourage and challenge both Christians (myself included) and the not-so-religious around the world with genuine grace and humility.

McLaren is primarily known as a thinker and writer. He has published several well-know and award winning books, beginning with The Church on the Other Side: Doing Ministry in the Postmodern Matrix, (Zondervan, 1998, rev. ed. 2000) up to his most recent 2011 HarperOne release, Naked Spirituality, which offers “simple, doable, and durable” practices to help people deepen their life with God. Brian and I corresponded by e-mail about his new book.

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It seems, in the past, that your primary audience has been the Evangelical church. Who was this book written for and why?

I think many Evangelicals have often thought that I was writing mostly for them. But I think many Mainliners have thought I was writing mainly for them. My hunch is that I’m writing for all of the above – Evangelicals, Mainliners, Catholics, the “spiritual but not religious” – who share one thing in common: a desire for a deeper, more honest, more vibrant faith and spirituality. So I try to make points of contact with each group and build a bridge from where they are. In the end, I think we human beings have more in common than our differing labels might suggest; the deeper we go, the more in common we share. So to the degree I can address those deeper human needs, while avoiding exclusive jargon and so on, I think it’s possible to connect to a broader audience than just one tribe.

What caused you to write such a deeply personal book and how does it address the often-dichotomized realms of Christian thought and spiritual practice?

One of the ironies of my life is that I’ve been known publicly as a thinker/writer on theology and contemporary issues, yet I spent 24 years of my life as a pastor in a suburban church, preaching, leading Bible studies, leading in the eucharist, planning worship services, performing baptisms and weddings and funerals, leading retreats, and so on. For me, the theological and philosophical issues I’ve written about emerged in the context of the local church … and my work in theology and contemporary issues has always been deeply spiritual for me, not just an intellectual exercise. So for me they’ve been deeply integrated.

Yet I realize that’s not the case for everyone. For a lot of people I meet on the road, when their theological system crumbles, there’s little left … little spiritual vitality apart from a belief system, little in the way of sustaining, doable, durable spiritual practices. So I wanted to address that vacuum. I think to talk about the spiritual life in a pastoral way, we have to be personal. We have to speak from “what we have seen, what we have heard,” as 1 John says. So it felt necessary and right to share in the book some of my own struggles and breakthroughs on a very personal level, even though it’s also a little scary to do so – scary in the sense that if someone mocks your idea or trashes a concept, it doesn’t hurt in quite the same way it does when someone disregards a story that comes from your gut, so to speak. Continue reading

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