Approaches to Reading the Parables

fancy-treeIn each of the four canonical Gospels, extended attention is given to the events that led up to and culminated in Christ’s death and subsequent resurrection. It’s for this reason that the gospel accounts have sometimes been described as “passion narratives with extended introductions.” Without taking away from the obvious importance placed by the gospel writers on the cross and resurrection, though, I think it’s also worth pointing out how much space is given (at least in the synoptic Gospels) to Jesus’ parables.

Jesus was known for being a storyteller. In fact, Richard Lischer notes in Reading the Parables that in the synoptic gospels, “the parables constitute approximately 35 percent of everything Jesus is reported to have said” (2014, p.5). Mark even tells his readers that when it came to the surrounding crowds, “He [Jesus] did not say anything to them without using a parable” (4:34a, NRSV). Of course, the function of the parables in Jesus’ proclamation and enactment of the Kingdom is not without controversy. In some places—especially in Mark—it is uncertain whether the parables were told in order to conceal or reveal. Regardless, it’s clear that the telling of parables formed an important rhythm in Jesus’ ministry. Continue reading

What Does Worship Really Look Like?

forest-cottageWhen it comes to Christian worship, no shortage of images come to mind. Scenes both somber and vibrant. Sounds that can range from choral melodies to enthusiastic folk rhythms, depending on the stream of Christian tradition. All of these can emerge when the Church gathers together for worship—and that’s just in regards to music, much less other worship practices. For me, all of this brings up a larger question: what exactly is worship?

This is a question that has received a variety of responses. Therefore, it isn’t too surprising to find Andrew McGowan explain in Ancient Christian Worship that worship often means different things to different people in many Christian churches today (2014, p.2). For some, it refers to things like “communal prayer and ritual,” while for others it expresses something more like a deeply personal feeling of belief and inward orientation towards life. For still others, worship basically denotes a kind of Christian music (p.2). Continue reading

Reading Paul Missionally: A Review of Michael Gorman’s “Becoming the Gospel”

Gorman_ecoming the Gospel_wrk02.indd*Note: we previously looked at Cruciformity here, and Inhabiting the Cruciform God here.

Michael Gorman’s 2015 book, Becoming the Gospel, takes an illuminating look at Paul’s perspective on the Church’s participation in the mission of God (missio Dei). It forms the final entry in what Gorman calls a “partly accidental” trilogy—the first book being Cruciformity (2001) and the second Inhabiting the Cruciform God (2009) (pp.2-3). In Cruciformity, Gorman argued that the cruciform, self-giving love of Christ found in Paul’s writings, and especially expressed in the Philippian Christ Hymn (Phil. 2:6-11), formed the center of both Paul’s theology and spirituality.

Inhabiting the Cruciform God extended the main argument of Cruciformity by seeking to show that, “For Paul, to be one with Christ is to be one with God; to be like Christ is to be like God,” meaning that “for Paul cruciformity… is really theoformity, or theosis” (Inhabiting the Cruciform God, p.4). Starting from this premise, he developed a reading of Paul’s letters that weaved together the (sometimes) seemingly opposed frameworks of legal/forensic and participatory understandings of justification and salvation, arguing that far from being opposed to one another, these forensic and participatory categories are more like two sides of the same coin. Therefore, one can say that justification in Paul can also be understood as the beginning of “an experience of participating in Christ’s resurrection life that is effected by co-crucifixion with him” (Inhabiting the Cruciform God, p.40). Continue reading

Introductory Patristics for Regular People: A Review of Bryan Litfin’s “Getting to Know the Church Fathers”

church historyFor many of those cracking open the pages of Bryan Litfin’s book, Getting to Know the Church Fathersthis is their first real glimpse of the ancient Christian church. Rather than returning to old, familiar friends, they are embarking on an exploratory journey that will hopefully enrich and deepen their appreciation for the church fathers (p.1).

As the book’s subtitle indicates, it’s oriented towards evangelical readers who might not know much about the Patristic era. Litfin, who is himself an evangelical professor at Moody Bible Institute, has a task made more difficult by the suspicion and skepticism towards the early church fathers held by some parts of the evangelical community. It seems that keeping his audience in mind is important for properly understanding the purpose of Litfin’s efforts. He is striving to accomplish two main goals: acquaint readers with some of the early church fathers (and a mother), and dispel harmful misconceptions held about them by some (thought not all) parts of contemporary Christianity. Continue reading

Reviving the Church’s Imagination: A Review of Kevin Vanhoozer’s “Pictures at a Theological Exhibition”

pictures at a theological exhibition

In the eyes of a fair number of Christians today, the imagination doesn’t seem to count for very much—or at least that’s how Kevin Vanhoozer describes the current landscape in the introduction to his new essay collection Pictures at a Theological ExhibitionHe believes that many evangelicals unfortunately view the imagination essentially as “a factory for producing images of things that are not there” (p.18). “Maybe it’s important for telling good stories at night or writing gripping novels, but it’s not that important for theology,” they might say.

When the imagination isn’t considered theologically useful, it seems like the value of analytic activities like systematic theology tend to get over-emphasized while artistic expressions like poetry get marginalized. For Vanhoozer, though, both systematic theology and poetry have important roles to play in the Christian life. He writes, “We need both the clarity of crisp concepts and the intricacy of lush metaphors in order to get sound, life-giving doctrine” (p.13). His overall indictment is that many contemporary believers don’t think having a developed biblical imagination matters. In a world where “many Christians are [simultaneously] suffering from malnourished imaginations, captive to culturally conditioned pictures of the good life,” this is a sadly ironic state of affairs (p.20).

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Four Gospel Texts and One Christ: A Review of Francis Watson’s “The Fourfold Gospel”

fourfold gospelA few years ago, Francis Watson penned Gospel Writing, a mammoth-sized piece of scholarship that investigated the origins of how the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) became a fourfold collection placed at the head of the New Testament. In The Fourfold Gospel, therefore, Watson chooses to dwell not so much on the origin of the fourfold gospel as on its theological “form and significance” (p.viii).

The gospel narratives have long been considered by Christians to be both four individually distinctive accounts and yet also one unified whole. In other words, Watson explains, Christians can both speak of four gospel accounts and “of a singular ‘gospel according to…’ in four different versions” (p.vii). What is the significance of this? And what, theologically, does it mean to affirm that these gospels speak most truly of Jesus when read canonically, in conversation with each other? These are the kinds of questions Watson explores throughout The Fourfold Gospel. Continue reading

Reading as a Communal Activity: A Review of C. Christopher Smith’s “Reading for the Common Good”

reading for the common goodReading normally seems like a pretty private affair, something one does late into the night after everyone else has finally fallen asleep, or in order to better pass the time on a train. While it’s not that hard to find people (rightly) arguing for the importance of thoughtful reading habits when it comes to becoming more deeply rooted theologically on a personal level, it seems more unusual to find it regarded as something with significant implications for community life.

In his new book, Reading for the Common Good, C. Christopher Smith acknowledges this fact, but nevertheless develops a compelling case for why reading can (and should) play an important part in helping local church communities discern wisely how to take part in God’s work in the world (p.20). Near the beginning of the book, Smith makes clear one of his main points: when the practice of reading is done well, it can do much to help local churches and their surrounding neighborhoods flourish. He clarifies what he means by adding that:

The term flourishing comes from roots that mean “flower”‘ to flourish is to bloom, to emerge into the full glory for which God has created us… Thus in these pages we will explore the sort of reading that moves us toward flourishing in our churches, our neighborhoods and the world at large. (p.21).

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