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

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A More Nuanced Form of Canonical Interpretation? Gary A. Anderson’s “Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament”

Reading the Old Testament with contextual sensitivity and theological depth can be difficult. It’s all too easy for people to assume they already know what the text is saying or to treat the Old Testament as a mere backdrop for the New Testament. University of Notre Dame professor Gary A. Anderson is well aware of these dangers, but he doesn’t let them dissuade him from reading the Old Testament with doctrinal reflection in mind.

On the first page of Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament, he reveals the admittedly ambitious aim of the book: to demonstrate that “theological doctrines need not be a hindrance to exegesis but, when properly deployed, play a key role in uncovering a text’s meaning” (p.xi). In the world of biblical studies, this can be seen as a pretty provocative claim. Some scholars worry this type of approach inevitably overlooks the continued place of these scriptures in the Jewish canon and leads to the error of triumphalistic supersessionism. Anderson himself acknowledges the importance of these concerns, and he reassures readers that his Old Testament studies “take the Jewish character and integrity of the text with utmost seriousness” (p.xii). Continue reading

Pursuing Wisdom: A Review of “Interpreting Old Testament Wisdom Literature”

*This post is by guest writer Chris Wermeskerch. Chris is currently a M.Div. student at Northern Seminary. He loves memes, theology, Star Wars, and God. Not always in that order. 

Collecting essays from an eclectic range of scholars and theologians, David Firth and Lindsay Wilson have created a unique package in Interpreting Old Testament Wisdom Literature. The title is, in a way, a bit of a misnomer. More than a straightforward commentary on the four traditional wisdom books, this collection discusses a wide range of scholarship on the canon as a whole, really. This is part of the book’s overall strength, but unfortunately, it stands as a weakness toward the end of the book.

The book starts with an overview of the study of Old Testament Wisdom literature today. As a seminarian, I felt like this would be too much of a review for me. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to see which avenues were explored in this section. Questions were raised related to the genre of the books, the definition of wisdom, and a history of the study of the wisdom books. I found this part to be interesting, being both well-paced and well-researched. Continue reading

Encounter, Rememberance, and Anticipation: A Review of Ronald P. Byars’s “The Sacraments in Biblical Perspective”

When followers of Jesus gather in worship to perform a baptism or celebrate the Eucharist, these occasions can become moments when believers are immersed in sacramental means of grace that make the Christian faith tangible and help them “feel the truth of the resurrection,” to borrow a phrase from Ellen F. Davis (2016, p.282). It seems to me that there is something formational about these practices. In both of them, the whole self participates in the worship of God.

Presbyterian scholar Ronald P. Byars echoes this sentiment near the beginning of The Sacraments in Biblical Perspective when he observes that the sacraments “testify to the conviction that the knowledge of God involves the mind, indeed—but not only the mind” (p.4). Byars’s wide-ranging and conversational exploration of the relevant biblical texts grows out a lifetime spent teaching liturgical theology and being a lectionary preacher. In light of these experiences, he finds it only natural for Christians to eventually reflect on their participation in the sacramental life of the Church and ask themselves, “What does this all mean? What do these words and actions say about God’s redemption of creation in Christ?” These are deep questions, and developing well-rounded answers takes some time and patience. For those taking this journey, though, Byars makes for a helpful traveling companion. Continue reading

Should I not Pity…?: A Review of Phillip Cary’s Commentary on Jonah

The book of Jonah is short, but its brevity does nothing to reduce the significance of the theological questions it raises. In Phillip Cary’s 2008 commentary on Jonah, he shows that those who have the courage and humility to let Jonah’s story confront them will be challenged to deepen their understanding of God’s mercy and wrestle once again with the meaning of the proclamation in Exodus 34:7 that the LORD is “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (NRSV).

Cary approaches Jonah with both literary and theological sensitivity, pointing out relevant storytelling and rhetorical features, bringing the rest of the Christian canon into conversation with the text, and reflecting on how the book of Jonah might have challenged those who first encountered it. He also explores ways in which Jonah can continue to challenge Christian readers today.

Unfortunately, some studies of Jonah get tangled up in questions of historicity to the degree that the heart of the story—the expansive depth of God’s patience and mercy—can be missed. While some read Jonah as a historical narrative, there are a number of reasons for thinking that this is a misunderstanding of Jonah’s genre. Regardless of one’s position on the historicity of Jonah, though, most readers can hopefully agree that the main focus of the story is on the nature of God’s forgiveness and mercy. Continue reading

Getting off the Tourist Path: A Review of Beverly Roberts Gaventa’s “When in Romans”

when-in-romansFor many Christians, Paul’s letter to the Romans is one of the more intimidating parts of the New Testament. This is both understandable and unfortunate. Romans is, after all, an undeniably complex letter, with both occasional and systematic dimensions. And in case we forget its historic significance, the Pauline scholar Michael Gorman reminds us that “Romans has spawned conversions, doctrines, disputations, and even a few reformations” (2004, p.338).

A feeling of slight trepidation when embarking on a study of Romans might then actually be entirely appropriate. It’s a shame, though, when this causes Christians to shy away from reading the letter at all. “[While] it is clearly a book that challenges the best minds in the community,” Eugene Peterson points out, “The scholars are here to help us read it, not read it for us” (2009, p.261).

Hopefully, these introductory comments can help us better appreciate the usefulness of Beverly Roberts Gaventa’s brief and illuminating book, When in Romans: An Invitation to Linger with the Gospel according to Paul. In it, she reflects theologically on the significance of Paul’s letter for those who might not otherwise know where to start. As Gaventa explains in the preface, “This book on Romans is intended for people who would not normally read a book about Romans” (p.xiii). Continue reading

Taking a Developmental Approach to Paul: A Review of Garwood P. Anderson’s “Paul’s New Perspective”

pauls-new-perspectiveIn recent years, a growing number of Pauline scholars have sought to push beyond the bitter debates that have taken place over the last few decades between proponents of the so-called old and new perspectives on Paul. In Paul’s New PerspectiveGarwood P. Anderson makes a substantial contribution to this quest for a more nuanced via media by introducing a relatively unexplored proposal to the conversation: an ambitious developmental approach to Paul’s soteriology.

In Anderson’s eyes, “Paul’s letters show evidence of both a contextually determined diversity and also a coherent development through time” (p.7). This conviction enables him to say that “both ‘camps’ are right, but not all the time” (p.5). He begins Paul’s New Perspective with a survey of the sprawling landscape of recent books on Paul. Anderson’s impressive familiarity with the relevant works of well-known “new perspective on Paul” (NPP) luminaries like Sanders, Dunn, and Wright is evident. He also introduces readers to the more recent contributions of other scholars like Bird, Gorman, and Barclay. To call Anderson “well-read” seems like a real understatement, and his nuanced engagement with an intimidatingly large pile of Pauline literature is both helpful and at times illuminating.  Continue reading