The 2018 Summer Reading List: A Retrospective

Every year since 2015, I’ve posted a summer reading list in late spring. I deeply enjoy the ambitious feeling that comes from dreaming about what I want to learn about or engage with over the coming months, and I still feel a residue of excitement about the freedom from stressful semesters, even though I’ve now been finished with my undergraduate studies for a while. However, this was a hectic summer, and for some reason, I didn’t manage to publish the reading list. But I still made a list, and even did a passable job at working my way through it. So, here are some reflections looking back at the summer reading list: 2018 edition. For organizational purposes, I’ve divided them up into church history, spirituality, and theology, though the topics explored in these titles do of course bleed into one another.

1. Church History

The last few years have witnessed an upsurge in the publication of titles related to the era of the Protestant Reformation, thanks in large part to the Reformation’s 500th anniversary last year. Out of all these books, I think Lyndal Roper’s Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet stands a fairly good chance of enduring as a significant contribution to the study of Luther’s life and work. Roper’s background as a historian of early modern Europe at Oxford gives her the ability to paint a textured portrait of Luther’s world. In the pages of this book, Luther comes across as a gregarious, intelligent, passionate, as well as deeply flawed individual. Roper makes it clear for her readers that she wants to neither idolize or denigrate the German Reformer. Rather, she wants to understand the development of his inner world and the nature of his internal contradictions. This was a vivid, in-depth book that successfully avoided being reductive in its portrayal of its subject, which is something one always hopes for in a biography. Continue reading

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The Roots of Slaveholder Religion: A Review of “Christian Slavery” by Katharine Gerber

*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.

Katharine Gerbner’s Christian Slavery is a meticulously researched, insightful, and at times haunting read—haunting because it feels like the past is always with us. First and foremost, this is an academic work of religious history, but as Gerbner goes into the historical roots of, to use Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s phrase, “slaveholder religion,” the book’s significance doesn’t seem confined to the past. Throughout its pages, Gerbner endeavors to trouble accounts of this historical period that overly-focus on searching for possible early precedents of the 19th century antislavery movement. She argues that it’s significant to acknowledge and recognize that the history of early Protestant missionary efforts unfortunately includes both ideological accommodation to slavery as well as struggle against it (3-4).

In terms of scope, Gerbner spends most of the book’s pages exploring the dynamics of Atlantic Protestantism in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, tracing especially the entanglement of Anglicans, Quakers, and Moravians in the African slave trade (3-4). Near the heart of her subject is an examination of the changing ways in which people in these societies thought about the relationships between Protestant identity, freedom, and slavery. In these societies, Gerbner tells readers, owners were often deeply set against allowing slaves to become Christians and participate in religious rites such as baptism or communion. She explains that this was the case because, “In these colonies, Anglican, Dutch Reformed, and Lutheran slave owners conceived of their Protestant identities as fundamental to their status as masters” (2). This ideology of “Protestant Supremacy,” as she calls it, was undercut by the conversion of African slaves to Christianity. Gerbner suggests how this helped lead to the formation of White Supremacist ideology by noting that: Continue reading

Wesleyan Theology that Yearns for Justice: “A Review of No Religion but Social Religion”

*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.

Liberation theology is often seen largely as a Roman Catholic movement born out of the socioeconomic struggles of the 1960’s and 1970’s in Latin America. There is, of course, much truth in this characterization, though liberation theology’s scope now extends well beyond Latin America when viewed in contemporary global perspective. In his introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology, Christopher Rowland echoes the words of pioneering Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez when he points out that part of the significance of liberation theology for the wider Church has been its willingness to take on the challenge of “speaking of God in a world that is inhumane.” And in a world marked by so much suffering and injustice, this is clearly a necessary task.

It isn’t immediately obvious, though, how liberation theology, in all its contemporary diversity, should be related to the Wesleyan theological tradition, which began with the rise of the Methodist movement in 18th century England. Are liberation and Wesleyan theologians kindred spirits? Or do the differing historical roots and concerns of these two movements raise difficulties for those who seek to bring them together? In No Religion but Social Religion, Joerg Rieger, along with Paulo Ayres Mattos, Helmut Renders, and José Carlos de Souza, reflect on this topic with true passion and helpful clarity. In their eyes, these two streams of theology have the potential to draw out the best in each other as they speak of God’s presence among those experiencing poverty in a world marked by both grace and persistent injustice (5-7). They also seek throughout the book to highlight Methodist voices around the world working out of the liberation tradition to demonstrate that liberation theology has roots beyond the world of Roman Catholicism. Continue reading

Encountering Luke’s Portrait of Jesus: A Review of John T. Carroll’s Commentary on the Third Gospel

“Luke,” Richard Hays remarks in one of his books, “is above all a storyteller” (2016, 275). This characterization, brief as it is, highlights what might be the most important dimension of the lens that Union Presbyterian Seminary professor John T. Carroll brings to the table in his book, Luke: A Commentarywhich was published in 2012.

A number of New Testament scholars—maybe most prominent among them James Dunn—have highlighted the importance of remembering that the materials we read in the Gospels were in all likelihood first passed on as oral traditions by the earliest communities of Jesus followers. This insight is important at the very least because it prevents contemporary readers from making anachronistic assumptions about how the canonical Gospel texts were formed, but it doesn’t take away from the fruits that can be gathered by also exploring their literary shape and texture. Recognizing the predominantly oral origins of the Gospels and studying the narrative dynamics of their final forms aren’t mutually exclusive tasks. After all, the Gospel writers, in their own distinctive ways, were creative theologians in their own right, not merely haphazard compilers of community traditions.

This gives us one helpful way of framing how Carroll’s commentary fits into the ongoing stream of scholarship on Luke: while some commentaries devote most of their pages to reconstructing the historical world behind the text, and others delve most deeply into the twists and turns of interpretation history that have developed in front of the text, Carroll focuses his critical efforts on narrative analysis on the nuances of meaning in the text itself (9). Continue reading

Tracing the Reformation’s Unintended Legacy: A Review of “Rebel in the Ranks” by Brad S. Gregory

*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.

It’s now been five hundred years since Martin Luther sparked off the Protestant Reformation with the publication of his Ninety-Five Theses. Whether or not he actually pinned them to a church door in Wittenberg or just sent them to Archbishop Albrecht, the ensuing movement of reform and protest against aspects of Roman Catholic practices and beliefs that began with him ultimately shook the foundations of the Western church and led to both religious renewal—for both Protestants and Catholics—and sadly also centuries of strife, division, and bloodshed. To say the least, the legacy of the Reformation era that we’ve inherited is a complicated one.

In Rebel in the Ranks, University of Notre Dame professor Brad S. Gregory argues that this legacy was also for the most part unintended. He thinks many of the long-term outcomes of the Reformation would have surprised and even dismayed the Reformers themselves (1-2). The book begins with a rather narrow focus, exploring Luther’s inner religious struggles and what happened when he acted on them. By the end, though, the book’s horizon has expanded to a consideration of how the Reformation era as a whole shaped the emergence of modern Western society, focusing specifically on the eventual secularization of public life (13-14). Continue reading

Election and Reversal in Genesis and Romans: Exploring Robert B. Foster’s “Renaming Abraham’s Children”

Paul’s Letter to the Romans deals with themes central to the Christian faith, which helps explain why, even after being read and reflected upon for nearly two millennia, lively conversations about how to best interpret it continue to take place. In his dissertation on Romans 9, Renaming Abraham’s Children, Robert B. Foster joins the time-honored tradition of “trying to think Paul’s thoughts after him,” to borrow N.T Wright’s turn of phrase (2009, p.x), attempting to show how Paul’s understanding of election was shaped by his prior engagement with the foundational stories of the patriarchs in Genesis (pp. 1-2). By tracing Paul’s interpretation of these narratives, Foster aims to help uncover a level of theological coherence in chapters 9-11 more frequently sought after than actually found (p.3).

The attention Foster gives to Paul’s usage of the Abrahamic narratives places him within a larger school of thought in scholarship, represented by figures like Richard B. Hays and N.T. Wright. These writers emphasize the idea that many of the more puzzling elements in Paul’s letters can be clarified when viewed as being undergirded by a deeper narrative-driven substructure (for an interesting set of essays examining this trend, see Narrative Dynamics in Paul, edited by Bruce Longenecker). Narrative approaches to Paul are often insightful, but they are sometimes criticized for being too subjective, unable to adequately deal with questions like, “when is a passage’s narrative substructure deftly submerged below the surface, and when is it just not there?” To make his proposal compelling, Foster has to show that he isn’t deaf to these concerns in Renaming Paul’s Children. Continue reading

Putting Paul in his Place? A Review of “Steward of God’s Mysteries” by Jerry L. Sumney

How should we understand Paul’s significance as a leader in the early Christian movement? He was a passionate, strong-willed man, and his legacy has been deeply influential. In his missionary efforts, Paul was remarkably successful at planting and fostering communities of Jesus followers in towns and cities scattered across the Roman Empire, and in the course of these efforts, he was no stranger to disagreement or conflict. Remarks in his own letters and other New Testament passages like Acts 21-22 give ample evidence for this.

But how did Paul’s theological convictions stand in relation to the rest of the early church? This is the basic question probed by Jerry L. Sumney, who currently teaches at Lexington Theological Seminary, in his new book, Steward of God’s Mysteries: Paul and Early Church Tradition. It’s not surprising that there were some differences between Paul and his contemporaries, given the real theological diversity present in the first-century church. That strikes me as a fairly uncontroversial statement. However, some go further and take a somewhat more radical position, contending that Paul more or less “invented” Christianity as we know it today. It is with these thinkers that Sumney engages in most of his book’s pages. Continue reading