Here We Are, Slaves to This Day: A Review of “Exile: A Conversation with N.T. Wright” Edited by James M. Scott

*This review was originally published over at The Englewood Review of Books. If you have a few minutes, please go check out some of their other reviews.

At their best, good conversations are lively, wide-ranging, and sometimes even surprising. They push us to consider ideas from new angles and hammer out with fresh clarity why we see things the way we do. It’s not always easy to find these kinds of discussions, but the essays that make up Exile: A Conversation with N.T. Wright demonstrate for the most part what thoughtful scholarly discussion is meant to look like. The contributors are generally successful at avoiding the twin pitfalls of uncritical acceptance and blunt rejection in their responses to N.T. Wright’s influential (and controversial) proposal regarding the notion of ongoing exile as an influential “controlling narrative” for many Second Temple Jews and early Jesus followers (8).

The book opens with a lengthy essay by Wright himself giving a fresh articulation of his thesis. He delves into passages like Deuteronomy 27-33, with its sequence of sin-exile-restoration, and the great prayers of Daniel 9 and Nehemiah 9, as well as other literature from the Second Temple period like the Dead Sea Scrolls, all in order to demonstrate that many Jews saw themselves as continuing to live in a state of exile, even though a large number of them had geographically returned to the land of Israel (21-22). Turning to his critics, Wright asks:

Would any serious-thinking first-century Jew claim that the promises of Isaiah 40-66, or of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or Zechariah, had been fulfilled? That the power and domination of paganism had been broken? That YHWH had already returned to Zion? That the covenant had been renewed and Israel’s sins forgiven?… Or—in other words—that the exile was really over? (35)

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Apocalyptic Readings in Romans: Reviewing “Apocalyptic Paul: Cosmos and Anthropos in Romans 5-8”

What does it mean to read Paul as an apocalyptic theologian? This isn’t exactly an easy question to answer, and for some the term itself can feel a bit off-putting. If nothing else, though, it means contextualizing Paul by placing him in conversation with the many apocalyptic texts produced during the Second Temple period—such as 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra—and looking to see what these writings reveal about the underlying shape of his theological convictions.

In another (related) sense, reading Paul with an apocalyptic lens has to do with highlighting theological emphases such as, among other things, understanding the death and resurrection of Christ to be primarily a redemptive event that marked the overthrow of Sin and Death. In the words of prominent Pauline scholar Martinus C. de Boer, an apocalyptic construal of Paul’s gospel has “everything to do with the invasive action of God in this world to deliver human beings from this present evil age” (2002, p.33).

Pride of place for sparking off this line of scholarship is generally given to the distinguished Lutheran theologian, Ernst Käsemann, who was deeply impacted by his experience of the German church struggle and the Second World War. Following Käsemann, the ranks of those studying Paul’s writings through an apocalyptic lens continued to grow throughout the rest of the 20th century, and currently all signs point to it remaining a lively part Pauline studies in the years to come. The essays that make up Apocalyptic Paul: Cosmos and Anthropos in Romans 5-8 come together to give readers a deeply interesting and well-rounded introduction to most of the major ideas and figures currently shaping this way of reading Paul, with essays by contributors like de Boer himself and Beverly Roberts Gaventa, along with a thoughtful afterward by J. Louis Martyn.   Continue reading

Seeking Reunion for Christ’s Sake: A Review of “Catholics and Protestants: What Can We Learn from Each Other?” by Peter Kreeft

*This review was originally published over at The Englewood Review of Books. If you have a few minutes, please go check out some of their other reviews.

I should probably blame my interest in ecumenism on books. Reading theology introduced me to the voices of genuine and deeply learned men and women living out their faith in a wide variety of Christian traditions, and while I happily worship as part of a United Methodist congregation, I know my spiritual life wouldn’t be the same without the writings of Catholics like Thomas Merton, Anglicans like N.T. Wright and Rowan Williams, and Presbyterians like Eugene Peterson, just to name a few. This experience has given me a deep-seated appreciation for the depth and breadth of common ground shared by believers of all stripes—whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant—and it’s made me rather wary of works that exhibit more sectarian tendencies, arguing either explicitly or implicitly that only certain parts of the Church are “real” followers of Jesus.

Given all these things, it’s understandable why I felt a spark of excitement upon finding out that Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft was working on a book exploring the question of how Protestants and Catholics can learn from one another. In terms of structure and style, Catholics and Protestants: What Can We Learn from Each Other? is inspired by Blaise Pascal’s Pensées, and it shows (117). Kreeft is a gifted communicator, writing in a direct style that for the most part stays away from overly-technical theological language. Continue reading

Loving All Our Fellow Creatures: Exploring William Greenway’s “Agape Ethics”

We inhabit a world slowly coming to grips with the increasingly urgent challenge of climate change. In this time of ecological crisis, daring to believe that God’s love extends to all creation, not just humanity, and that the value of the surrounding world doesn’t depend wholly on its usefulness to us, is a costly yet necessary risk. It’s a time for remembering that we are part of a vast, complex, and remarkably interconnected world.

This is the sort of perspective offered up by the agrarian writer Wendell Berry. In one of his essays, he writes, “All, ultimately, are of a kind, belonging together… in this world,” adding that, “From the point of view of Genesis 1 or of the 104th Psalm, we would say that all are of one kind, one kinship… because all are creatures” (2015, p.96).

In his 2016 book, Agape Ethics, William Greenway echoes this affirmation and gives it deeper philosophical justification by drawing on the works of 20th century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (p.39). Both the substance and even language style of Greenway’s writing reflect the deep imprint of Levinas on him. Throughout the book, he seeks to nudge readers towards coming alive to “having been seized by love for every creature,” without, of course, overlooking the pain and suffering that is also present throughout creation (pp.4-7).  Continue reading

The Meanings of our Words: Reviewing Anthony Thiselton’s “Doubt, Faith, and Certainty”

doubt faith and certaintyIs faith mainly intellectual assent or heartfelt trust? Does the presence of doubt signify unbelief, or is it a sign of honest, mature reflection? Will certainty always remain elusive? In Doubt, Faith, and CertaintyAnthony C. Thiselton takes up a host of questions like these for the sake of developing more nuanced and healthy ways of understanding these closely related theological concepts. 

Of course, crafting better definitions sounds like a rather dry exercise, and Thiselton does stray into the weeds at times, but for him it’s done out of a practical desire to provide some help and solace for those grappling with these concerns in real life. Though Thiselton seeks to address all kinds of readers in this book, some will most likely struggle with his writing style. At times it can be quite dense and technical, so nonspecialist readers shouldn’t be surprised if they happen to find themselves turning to a dictionary of philosophical terms every once in a while. The book’s structure is fairly straightforward, though, and his overarching thesis isn’t too hard to grasp:

This book carries a simple message. On doubt, it argues that while some degree of doubt in some circumstances may perhaps be bad, in different situations doubts may stimulate us to fresh thought and questioning. In fact, the message remains the same for doubt, faith, and certainty: none of these terms has a uniform meaning, or has a uniform function in life. They have a variety of meanings. (p.vii)

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The Summer Reading List: 2017 Edition

Summer is once again almost upon us. For students and professors, this means a collective sigh of relief—a short but nevertheless real break from grappling with papers and stressing over deadlines. While I may not currently be in school, I still love summer reading lists. There’s something refreshing about the ambition, hope, and unabashed bookishness that goes into making them. Therefore, just as I’ve done for the last few years (here are the 2016 and 2015 lists), I’ve put together a stack of titles to work through before autumn sets in. My eyes are usually too big for my literary stomach, but I figure there’s no shame in failure if that means the summer was still full of great books and interesting conversations. So, without further ado, let’s look at this year’s list:

Three Subjects and a Favorite Voice

1. Wesleyan Studies. 

The Cambridge Companion to John Wesley is an edited collection of essays that gives readers a solid, wide-ranging survey of John Wesley’s life, work, and theological legacy. It also puts Wesley and the rise of Methodism in some historical context by introducing readers to different perspectives on relevant topics like the state of the Church of England in the 18th century, the nature of the British Enlightenment, and examining early Methodism as a movement within the Anglican Church. For those who are curious about the Wesleyan tradition but don’t have much background knowledge, this volume seems like a useful starting point. Continue reading

Jesus, Messiah of the Poor: A Review of “Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said about the Poor” by Liz Theoharis

*This review was originally published over at The Englewood Review of Books. If you have a few minutes, please go check out some of their other reviews.

Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared in his famous speech “A Time to Break Silence” that, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” I think these words, challenging as they are, express the conviction that undergirds the efforts of Liz Theoharis in her timely new book, Always with Us?: What Jesus Really Said about the Poor. Her contention is that Matthew 26:11, one of the most influential passages on poverty in Scripture, has often been twisted out of context in order to give red-lettered justification for viewing poverty as inevitable and pitting Jesus in opposition to the poor (13, 97). In her eyes, these conclusions have obviously damaging consequences.

Therefore, she seeks to show that, far from giving Christians reason to ignore calls for economic justice, this passage actually makes “one of the strongest statements of the biblical mandate to end poverty” (15). Reading Matthew 26:11 in this way may strike some as strange or odd. In part, this might be due to the unfortunate fact that Christian conversations about poverty in the Bible all-too-frequently fail to adequately include the voices of those actually experiencing poverty. Thankfully, Theoharis avoids this pitfall. She should be commended for intentionally giving space for the thoughts and ideas of poor people and grassroots antipoverty organizers to be heard (often in their own words), allowing their perspectives to help shape her development of an approach to reading Matthew 26:11 that allows the text to once again challenge, encourage, and inspire those working in their communities to end to poverty, rather than casting a shadow of indifference on their efforts (31-32). Continue reading