1. The Gospel of Luke (NICNT) by Joel B. Green.
Two or three years ago, I decided to begin reading my way through the New Testament (NT), by reading a commentary on each book. So, when it came time to choose a commentary on Luke (sometime around the end of ’07), I asked a friend of mine, who is a NT professor, for a recommendation, and he recommended Green’s 900 page behemoth of a book. So, for most of ’08, I was slowly chipping away at this book and, in the end, I found it to be a meaningful and rich experience to spend so much time moving slowly through Luke’s text with Green’s assistance (for example, at Christmas last year, I was reading Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth; at Christmas this year, I was reading Luke’s account of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension).
Green’s commentary slowly, steadily, and text by text, builds an irrefutable case, demonstrating just how deeply Jesus challenges the socio-economic, political, and religious conventions of his day. With steady blows, Green hammers into the reader the ways in which Jesus overturned (a) the standard conventions of an honour/shame based society, (b) the family values of his society, and (c) contemporary reflections upon the significance of wealth. B y the end of it all, it becomes impossible to imagine Jesus as anything but committed to deep, practical solidarity with the poor and marginalised — within an alternative, subversive community (of disciples) that becomes a new family (with all that implies) centred around Jesus himself. This, then, carries implications that cut to the core of what it means to live as disciples of Jesus today, particularly for those of us who are not amongst the poor and marginalised but rather (a) have high status; (b) are overly focused upon our biological families; and (c) possess property and wealth.
Therefore, Green’s study is an highly important contribution to our understanding of Jesus. Many other scholars (Ched Myers, Warren Carter, Richard Horsley, etc.) have also offered us images of Jesus that are deeply counter-cultural and politically, economically, and religiously subversive, but these scholars tend to be relegated to some sort of ‘radical’ fringe, and not taken as seriously as they should be. However, Green is not known as a member of this group — rather, he is known as a strong evangelical scholar, given especially to literary criticism and narrative-based theology — and so Green is able to bring this gospel message to audiences that would otherwise dismiss this sort of thinking without a fair (if any) hearing.
I highly recommend this book. If you can get over how large it is, and just work away at it slowly and steadily, you will be rewarded.
2. We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry by G. K. Beale (Downers Grove: IVP, 2008.
Many thanks to Adrianna from IVP for this review copy!
The thesis that Beale pursues throughout this book is this: What we revere we resemble, either for ruin or restoration. More specifically, Beale argues that worshipping the true God leads us reflect the divine image and be restored to truly human status; whereas worshiping idols (by which Beale means allowing anything else to take the place of God in our lives, and become that which we cling to for ultimate security) leads us to reflect the image of these (physically but especially spiritually) blind and deaf idols and thereby become ruined and less-than-human. In this regard, we are presented with a stark either-or. Beale argues that humans are ‘imaging’ beings, necessarily reflecting one image or another, and so it becomes crucial to determine who or what we are reflecting and to whom or what we are becoming conformed.
Having established this thesis, Beale spends most of the book supporting it by demonstrating how the Bible presents this argument, beginning with Isaiah 6 and moving through the rest of the Old Testament, the intertestamental literature, the Gospel, Acts, Paul’s epistles, and the book of Revelation.
As I mentioned in a prior post, I found a lot of Beale’s initial Old Testament exegesis to be fascinating. In fact, what Beale wrote about the Golden Calf incident, reminded me of why I fell in love with biblical studies in the first place — biblical studies has so much potential to bring life, light, intrigue, excitement, and coherence, to the many seemingly dead, dark, dull, and disparate stories, I grew up hearing about in Sunday school.
Unfortunately, biblical studies can also get quite dry and repetitive, as an author goes through text after text in order to make the same point over and over again. To my disappointment, I found the later half of this book going that route. This surprised me as I don’t think that Beale’s thesis is as new, or as in need of proving, as he imagines it to be. For example, in his writings on Paul (unmentioned by Beale), N. T. Wright has been making this same point about worship and idolatry, since at least the early 1990s.
Be that as it may, I still enjoyed this book a great deal, and I appreciated Beale’s more pastoral and applied conclusion (subtitled, ‘So What Difference Does it Make?’). Too often biblical scholars avoid such reflections, leaving the reader to make whatever connections he or she might make between the word at hand and the world at large, so I am glad for Beale’s effort to cross this divide.
3. The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Thought Questions of Faith by Christopher J. H. Wright (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008).
Many thanks to Chris Fann and now Andrew Rogers from Zondervan for this review copy! I will be posting a series (probably in five parts) about this book — hopefully engaging in a dialogue about it with one of my brothers (who is not a Christian) — in January, so I’ll simply mention this now, and save the review for later.
4. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire by William T. Cavanaugh.
This book received a lot of hype this year. And deservedly so. It’s a good book and an excellent introduction to practically thinking through with it means to be Christian within the world of global capitalism. Thus, Cavanaugh describes this book as a ‘theological microeconomics’ particularly focused on four issues: (1) so-called ‘free’ markets, and the Augustinian notion of freedom as the embrace of the telos of life in God; (2) the detachment of consumers from production, producers, and products, and Christian eucharistic consumption that attaches participants to God and others; (3) competing understandings of globalisation and the relation of the global to the local; and (4) capitalism’s narrative of scarcity and the Christian narrative of abundance.
Having said that, it is important to emphasise that this book is really introductory reading on this matter, and that there is much more that can and must be done if Christians are to properly engage with the local and global structures and ideology of capitalism. Indeed, I am half inclined to wonder if a book like this receives so much hype because most Christians aren’t doing any reading at all on this topic. If this is the case, then I can only hope that these readers will press on and continue to engage this topic in both their thinking and living — because I am convinced that it is global capitalism that presents the single greatest challenge to living Christianly today.
5. The Story We Find Ourselves In: Further Adventures of a New Kind of Christian by Brian D. McLaren.
Many thanks to Mike Morrell from The Ooze for this review copy!
Last month I read, and was pleasantly surprised by, the first book of McLaren’s ‘new kind of Christian’ trilogy. In this, the second installment, McLaren basically tries to retell the biblical story as a ‘redeeming story in which other stories can find their highest meaning and their truest fulfillment’ and not as an ‘exclusive story that seeks to vanquish, replace, or eradicate all other stories.’ It’s an interesting endeavour — one that I suspect is motivated by McLaren’s desire to distance himself, or emerge from, embittered and often hateful early modern and triumphalistic expressions of Christianity — but I’m not convinced that McLaren can succeed. It seems to me that he is trying to have his cake an eat it too. That is to say, he wishes to be distanced from Christians who focus upon exclusivity and a supposed superiority… while still maintaining a supposedly nicer or more palatable form of exclusivity and superiority (speaking of how other stories find their ‘highest meaning’ in the Christian story, and so on). It’s as though McLaren wants the biblical story to be ‘the first amongst equals’ — which, as we all know, was simply the ideology employed by the Caesars (the Princeps) in order to take the edge off of their dictatoral rule.
Now, I stress this somewhat tangential point because it seems to me that a good many post-Evangelical or emergent Christians are engaging in something similar. They are trying to renegotiate the exclusive and offensive claims of Christianity, not by making those claims less exclusive, but by making those claims sound nicer. Yet this strikes me as a dead-end, not least because this has all too often been the ideological means of continuing oppressive practices. I believe that we would be much better served if we confronted and confessed that which is exclusive and offensive about Christianity, precisely so that we can prevent those things from leading us astray into oppressive practices.
Of course, doing this doesn’t mean we automatically resist all other stories. Being clear about what Christianity does and does not claim, does make us more open to some other narratives (for example, as McLaren’s emphasises throughout this book, there is no fundamental or necessary contradiction between the Christian story of creation and some theories of evolution). However, as Paul reminds us time and time again, there will always be elements of Christianity that are deemed scandalous and deeply shameful and embarrassing, so, even as we embrace others, we must also embrace that shame.
That said, I should get back to MacLaren’s presentation of the biblical story. McLaren presents the bible as a coherent whole structured around the motifs and movements of creation, crisis, calling, conversation, Christ, community, and consummation. Along the way, McLaren addresses many issues — evolution science, the relation of a general absence of miracles to the maintenance of genuine free will, and even a sermon in response to the events in New York on September 11, 2001, Again, as with McLaren’s previous book, I could take issue with this or that point (pretty seriously at times) but I suspect that this book has a good many significant things to say to those who have been immersed in the Evangelical subculture and I don’t want to rush in and take away from that.
However, precisely because I am not a member of McLaren’s target audience (or of his ‘tribe’ as emergent people might say), precisely because I read McLaren’s book as a student of a genuinely and deeply liberating biblical theology, I consistently find that he does not carry his points far enough. That is to say, although McLaren may be building bridges between Liberals and Conservatives (especially in relation the false divide between science and faith) the whole endeavour still strikes me as entirely too bourgeois and, well, American. Thus, for example, the single most important and formative event of the Old Testament — the exodus — is hardly mentioned; or, to provide another example, McLaren speaks of one’s duty as an American, of America as ‘a nation extraodinarily gifted’ (as though plundering other nations can be taken as gifts from God!) and allows that ‘a military mission’ may be one part of an appropriate response to 9/11. All of this is deeply troubling to me.
At the end of it all, although McLaren may provide challenges to both those on the right and left wings, he offers a balm to the middle-class as middle-class.
6. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri.
In this, the truly exceptional follow-up to Empire, Hardt and Negri discuss the challenges (notably the perpetual state of war favoured by capitalism) to, and possibility of, developing a genuine form of democracy in our day. In this regard, democracy is understood as the ‘rule of the multitude’, where ‘the multitude’ takes the place of ‘the people’, because ‘the people’ has become a concept that obliterates differences within a unity, whereas ‘the multitude’ speaks of a multiplicity of singular differences working together for common goals (thus, a recovery of ‘the commons’ becomes a significant part of Hardt and Negri’s proposal). It is this form of democracy that the authors argue is not only necessary but possible.
I very strongly recommend this book. There is no way I can do it justice in this little ‘review’ — it deserves to be read and reread.
7. Memoirs of a Revolutionist by Peter Kropotkin.
This is the story of the first half of Kropotkin’s life (he wanted to give it the title Around One’s Life, was assigned a much flashier title by the publisher). These memoirs cover Kropotkin’s upbringing as a prince in the court of the Tsar, his conversion to anarchism, his time as an active revolutionary, and part of his exile. Unaddressed is the later part of his exile, as well as his return to Russia after 1917, which, although Kropotkin’s latter life had led him to more moderate views, led him back into unequivocal anarchism (opposing both the communists and those who favoured foreign intervention into Russia) up until his death in 1921.
I must confess that I find these memoirs to be absolutely captivating and inspiring. Kropotkin lived both an incredible life (from living as royalty, to engaging in geographical explorations in Siberia with Cossack parties, to smuggling revolutionary literature into Russia, to being imprisoned, exiled, and coming to work alongside of the Jura Federation and survivors of the Paris Commune!) and lived during an incredible time when a mass movement of young gentry in Russia were willing to give up their wealth and privilege in order to come alongside of the workers and (especially) the serfs in order to arrive at a more humanised society of the liberated. Absolutely incredible stuff. It makes me wonder what in the world is capable of creating this sort of movement today (although the aforementioned book by Hardt and Negri has some suggestions in this regard — notably change coming through the networking of the multitude — I still wonder how the prerequisite mass conscientisation and commitment can be brought into being).
So, this book is highly recommended. Amongst other things, it finally pushed me over the edge and made me accept the fact that I am, indeed, an anarchist of sorts (don’t crucify me yet, I intend to write a post about this in the near future).
8. rabbit redux by John Updike.
This is the second installment of Updike’s rabbit series, and it focuses on Rabbit’s mid-thirties when his son is in his pre-teens, his wife has run off with a lover, and a couple of young people, involved in the street and drug culture of the day, have come to stay with Rabbit. Once again, we have a stark portrayal of people as (I fear that) they really are — messy and broken and selfish and longing for love and sometimes wanting to be noble but mostly pathetic and petty and trapped. Certainly a novel, and a series, without any sort of hero. Just people here.
To be honest, this sort of book and others I’ve been reading lately — Nausea by Sartre, White Noise by Delillo, and even Crossing to Safety by Stegner — kind of scare me. They scare me because I think that they might be right; they might accurately reflect the world as it is, and us as we are. Each of our lives might actually be nothing more than a petty, broken moment of insignificance… and apart from lying to ourselves about ourselves (in order to try and create some sort of meaning or significance, goodness or value, that isn’t there), there is nothing we can do about it. I sometimes wonder if a strict reliance upon empiricism or materialism — what I actually see in the world around me, and what I actually see in myself (when I’m honest) — leads inevitably to this conclusion. So, yeah, scary stuff.
9. A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe.
For some reason, the great plagues of Europe have been on my mind a lot this last year. I’d been watching some documentaries on the subject, and then my wonderful wife surprised me with this book — Defoe’s account of what occurred in London in the plague of 1665. Defoe writes sixty years after the event, and bases his narrative upon actual accounts from survivors and official documents. As such it is something of a rambling and disjointed, but also totally captivating account as Defoe relates the stories of families boarded up in their homes and assigned watchmen (but still finding many ways to escape!), some who found a way to live on the river during the plague, others who went off and tried to survive by roaming the countryside (mostly unsuccessfully) and so on. A fascinating glimpse into our not too distant past.
So why has the plague been on my mind? Well, it seems to me that we’re actually living in a comparable time, only we’ve become numb to the plague that rages around us. Millions of the global poor are dying all around us, but we can’t even find it in our hearts to give a couple dollars to the beggar we meet at the bus stop. Thus, just as plague art revolved around macabre themes, and especially the triumph of death, I feel that our time is also one that is marked by the triumph of death. Furthermore, just as the plagues threw Europe into a deep crisis of faith and how one lives one’s life, I feel that the current triumph of death should result in a similar crisis in each of our own lives. I am amazed that it does not.
Bonus: A 15 Point Guide to Peeing in the City by Ray Tempus.
This fun little pamphet was a Christmas gift from a friend, and I promised that I would include it in my December books. Thanks to this, I now feel much more equipped to pee wherever I might find myself, so I guess I don’t have to worry so much about using the bathroom before I go out. Thanks, Robin (my favourite option is #11, the ‘faux trash pick’ which is effective because people think that it is rude to stare about a person picking through a dumpster… and so they don’t notice what you’re actually doing)!
1. The Gospel of Luke (NICNT) by Joel B. Green.