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Posts Tagged ‘Bible

John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, A Startling Account of What We Can Know about the Life of Jesus, New York: HarperOne, 1994, 232 pp.

Crossan BiographyAs Holy Week approaches, I want to immerse myself in the story of Jesus, to walk with him and imagine his life and personality. I find myself looking many years for something to read that will further that effort. This book was originally purchased to read on my trip to the Holy Land in 2012, but I never got around to it. Too late for the Holy Land, but right on time for Holy Week six years later–24 years after its publication.

Crossan is a leading member of the Jesus Seminar and historical Jesus movement. This book was a shortened version of his more scholarly work examining what we can actually know and prove from history about Jesus of Nazareth. I suspected that I would discover much of the content of this book had been reshaped and rehashed in later Crossan works about Jesus, including God and Empire. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find much of the material was new to me, and the approach offered me a fresh, updated look at Jesus as I approached my Holy Week services.

Over the years, Crossan, Borg and other Jesus Seminar scholars have softened their approach. Their original attempts to segregate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith drew hard-edged lines, yet in spite of the fact that this book comes from that era, it is clear throughout that Crossan (himself a Catholic priest) is devout in his faith and dedication to Jesus. He seems less interested in destroying a traditional view than in painting a more accurate picture.

The hard scholarly edge remains in his sourcing. Crossan shapes a story of Jesus that relies on the biblical accounts as the least reliable sources, positing only those aspects of Jesus that are attested in non-biblical sources and situating him thickly within the politics and culture of first-century Roman Palestine.  While it is still disconcerting to read from time to time that Crossan believes some of my favorite New Testament narratives are pure fiction (including the Last Supper), I’ve heard those arguments many times now and breeze right past them to the more interesting elements–the consistent elements of Jesus’ identity, ministry and practices that are attested in both biblical and non-biblical sources, and make sense within the sociological and political world he inhabited.

Crossan’s Jesus is a peasant leader from Galilee, whose ministry is for the peasant classes of that region. One of the most interesting chapters is “The Jordan is Not Just Water,” in which he examines the political implications of baptizing people in the Jordan River, symbolic of entry into the Promised Land. He also articulates his well-known connection of Jesus and the Cynics, carefully charting what Jesus borrows and changes from their practices. Crossan affirms some core practices that remain central to both the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith: his dedication to a “kingdom of nobodies,” the sharing of radical meals free of social distinction, the breaking of boundaries.

The chapters on the body and the cross spoke to me powerfully during Holy Week. Both spoke to the harshness of life in the Roman colony, with rampant death from disease and violence alongside social death and expulsion based on fear and superstition. Both chapters spoke about human bodies and Jesus’ body–their real pain and suffering, the exposure and mutilation of the cross, and the social alienation of victims of state terrorism by crucifixion, whose bodies usually could not be buried and were left to the dogs. The stories made Jesus seem very small, vulnerable and invisible within his world, like thousands of others—yet thanks to his disciples, his witness was unique enough to have survived.

This was a good refresher for me on the Jesus of history, and offered insights and perspectives that were new to me, even though the book is more than 20 years old.

 

 

The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine, HarperCollins, 2006, 250 pp.

Misunderstood JewI had several seminary students and colleagues who raved about this book and the unique voice Dr. Amy-Jill Levine brought to Jesus scholarship as a Jewish scholar of the New Testament. I was surprised by how much of the book felt like old and familiar information, but also by the parts that felt new and intriguing. I found the first half of the book a bit boring, because it felt like something I have read many times in many places. However, the second half of the book covered new and interesting territory for me.

The introduction outlines Levine’s personal journey toward becoming Jewish scholar of the New Testament, and the unique project of this book to simultaneously illuminate the Jewishness of Jesus in the New Testament and the ways Christian interpretations of Jesus’ Jewish context continue to jeopardize interfaith relationships.

The first section of the book covers familiar territory recognizing that Jesus was faithful to his Jewish practices. While he occasionally broke the rules, he did not set up his ministry as a counter to the prevailing Jewish practices of the day. He wore tzitzit (fringed prayer shawl), kept kosher and Sabbath, drew on the Shema (Deuteronomy 6) for the Golden Rule. His parables and conversations over the meaning of the law follow Jewish rabbinical practices. In a commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, Levine makes an excellent case that Jesus’ use of the word “Abba” for God is not unique either, undoing an oft-repeated sermon topic. Her second chapter examines the unfolding division between Jewish and Gentile Christians, the missionary controversies between Peter, Paul and James, and why Jews did not perceive Jesus to be the Messiah.

The midpoint of the third chapter, for me, marked an entrance into newer and more interesting material. After a basic discussion of the difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism and a recounting of the most famous anti-Jewish passages in the New Testament, Levine begins to explore the separation between Judaism and Christianity. She undercuts theories that Christians were thrown out of synagogues beginning at the end of the first century, naming the Council of Jamnia as a historical fiction and arguing that, if Christians were ejected, it is because they were no longer Jews in any sense of the word, replacing the worship of Yahweh with the worship of Jesus.

The fourth chapter, entitled “Stereotyping Judaism,” was the most new and insightful for me, because Levine levels a stark criticism of liberal Christian interpretations of Jesus.

Christian skeptics thus have an enormous problem. Why remain Christian if Jesus is one of several wise individuals with good ideas for social improvement? The easiest answer to the question is to argue that Jesus does what no one else ever did or could do; he is distinct, special, better. This process means depicting a Jesus who stands out as unique in his Jewish context; it also usually means enhancing the distinction, and this is done by painting the Jewish context in noxious colors. (120)

Those of us who wish to paint Jesus as a social justice leader tend to portray his Jewish context as the exemplar of injustice. Levine deconstructs misunderstandings about the harshness or impossibility of following Jewish law and the perception that all Jews anticipated a warrior Messiah. She then goes on to issue a strong critique, on both historic and anti-Jewish grounds, against the claim that Jesus was a feminist, based on biblical stories of his interactions with the Samaritan woman and his teachings on divorce. As one who has admired Jesus as a feminist based on these arguments, I took Levine’s critique to heart. It’s not that Jesus wasn’t good to women, it’s that our arguments to make that case rely on shaky stereotypes and exaggerations.

She proceeds to offer a similar deconstruction of liberal interpretations of the parable of the Good Samaritan that rely on negative stereotypes of the Pharisee and Sadducee, instead seeing the “punch” of the parable in the animosity between Jews and Samaritans.

We should think of ourselves as the person in the ditch, then ask, “Is there anyone, from any group, about whom we’d rather die than acknowledge, ‘She offered help’ or ‘He showed compassion’?” More, is there any group whose members might rather die than help us? If so, then we know how to find the modern equivalent of the Samaritan. (149)

These deconstructions persist in Levine’s questioning of the characterization of the temple as a “domination system”(154) or “ethnocentric system”(159)  in the analysis of the widow with the two coins and the Syrophoenician woman.

The remainder of the book combs through volumes of contemporary liberation theology for examples of anti-Jewish rhetoric or New Testament interpretation. She indicts everyone from liberation icons Gustavo Gutierrez and Leonardo Boff to multiple publications from the World Council of Churches. Some of those WCC authors have not taken Levine’s critiques seriously, others have revised their arguments accordingly. The final chapters discuss contemporary Jewish-Christian relationships, including perspectives on the use of “Old Testament” or “Hebrew Bible,” the prevalence of Christian seders, and the conflicts around the plight of the Palestinian people.

My overall assessment of the book is that, while the first half was slow, the second half of The Misunderstood Jew was rich and thought-provoking, especially since Levine took aim at some familiar (and even beloved) interpretations of Jesus as feminist and exemplar of social justice. Her critiques of anti-Judaism will impact how I view and preach those stories in the future.

First Comes Love? The Ever-Changing Face of Marriage by John C. Morris, Pilgrim Press, 2007, 128 pp.

FirstComesLove.chosenMy denomination, the United Church of Christ, has been in the forefront of marriage equality for many decades, and I have been honored to officiate at many same-sex weddings myself. However, our congregational polity allows for each congregation to make its own decision, and my church is currently having conversations about whether to host weddings for same-sex couples. (As a pastor, I have authority to officiate weddings in outside venues for same sex couples.)

I picked up this book as a resource for that ongoing conversation. Since Pilgrim Press is part of the UCC, I expected it to address the topic directly. Imagine my surprise when Morris did not include anything about the subject of same-sex marriage until the epilogue, and then only a short explanation of the viewpoint of marriage equality he developed in response to the research for this book. While I remain disappointed that same-sex marriage did not get at least an equal treatment and recognition with the 21 other forms of marriage that he explores, the book otherwise accomplished exactly what I hoped it would: deconstructing the idea of “traditional marriage” altogether as a convenient fiction rather than a fixed notion in history.

Morris begins with biblical notions of marriage in the Hebrew Bible, starting in Genesis. After a short comparison of creation stories between Genesis and Olympus, he moves on to the first biblical couples actually described as married. He cites Isaac and Rebekah for the importance of marrying within one’s tribe; Jacob, his wives and concubines as a witness to polygamy; Levirate marriage, where widows marry their brother-in-law; and arranged marriages. He does compare these ancient texts to modern conversations about arranged marriage and miscegenation, although his choice to use the fictional Fiddler on the Roof as an example of Jewish life is questionable. Morris then adds marriage for political purposes and marriage for procreation to the list of Old Testament forms of marriage.

Early Christianity, Morris points out, actually offered revolutionary developments in understanding marriage. Christians opened the way for slaves and citizens to marry by proclaiming all equal in the eyes of God. They also declared that men and women were equal partners in marriage, and that the marital covenant should be a lifelong commitment, as Jesus himself spoke against divorce. Finally, early Christians argued for celibacy, even within marriage, as the ideal way to focus on God over the things of this world. (I’m doubtful that most people would still support that one as part of “traditional marriage!”)

Having looked over these various forms of marriage, Morris ventures into questions of what makes a marriage valid and how it is recognized in society, again overturning any notion that marriage has been an unchanging institution. He points to mutual consent, consummation and validation by an outside authority as the typical ingredients to validate a marriage. The fact that we can all quickly think of examples that contradict that construction (like a forced marriage, an unconsummated marriage or a common law marriage) only add to Morris’ argument that marriage has never been a fixed idea. Exploring marriage as sacred covenant and secular contract opens the conversation about the role of clergy in the United States today, in the uncomfortable position of acting as spiritual guardian and agent of the state.

After an exploration of the meaning and evolution of betrothal, Morris adds modern developments in the form of marriage: marrying for love, marrying for happiness, marrying for companionship, marrying as equal partners, marriage detached from property or procreation, and easy divorce. In the end, Morris makes a claim that all couples should be allowed to marry, both in civil and religious ceremonies–but that the two should be separate from one another in form, content and occasion.

This book was a very helpful, readable summary of the evolution of marriage throughout the bible and history, and it would make an excellent resource for congregational study. It does not have the depth of primary source research, historical analysis or scholarly precision that some might desire, but such a book would take nearly 1,000 pages, not a mere 128. I recommend this resource to any group struggling with conversations about the meaning of marriage, as this will ground your conversation in shared history, simply told.

Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire by Jennifer Wright Knust, HarperOne, 2011, 343 pp.

Unprotected TextsThis is a book I’ve been looking for a long time. In today’s polarized environment, every new book on the market is either making a case for the rights of LGBT people in the church (including marriage) or against it. Each side cites enormous amounts of scripture to support their case, but every book turns into a polemic.

Jennifer Wright Knust steps into the fray with an in-depth analysis of the many, conflicting perspectives on sex presented throughout the scriptures. Those who claim the Bible is inerrant and designed to be taken literally will not appreciate or approve of Knust’s work, but anyone who is open to even the most basic historical and literary biblical criticism will find a treasure trove of information. Knust’s style is full of transparency and frankness, an open, questioning approach to find out what the Bible really says about a host of topics related to sex and desire.

Her scholarship uncovers, very clearly, that the Bible has a lot to say about sex and desire. Most of what it says is in conflict with something else it says in another place. Little of what it says can be directly transferred to contemporary situations of sex and desire to provide clear moral guidelines. Much of what it says we have long ago dismissed.

One example is the analysis she gives to the idea of “biblical marriage.” Although it’s one of the hottest topics of contemporary debate, it is one of the shorter chapters in the book, because there is less direct comment about marriage than on many other topics, including circumcision. Knust begins with the two creation stories, which she identifies as stories about procreation rather than marriage.

For the land and the community to prosper, men must sow their seeds, both in the arable land and in a fertile female. To fulfill their appointed lot, Genesis suggests, women have no choice but to dedicate their bodies to this purpose. (55)

To get to any actual talk of marriage, Knust looks to the Hebrew law codes. Those laws, from Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, proscribe how the sexuality of women and slaves, both seen as property, must be carefully managed and controlled by men. The legal questions surrounding marriage are about “who will benefit from her labor and her sexuality.” (59) The law is designed for a man to maintain as many wives, slaves and concubines as he can afford to support. Knust finally moves into the New Testament, looking at Jesus’ familiar lines undoing traditional family relationships (Matthew 12:48-50), promoting celibacy over marriage (Mark 12:25) and prohibiting divorce (Matthew 5:32). She contrasts the perspective of each of the synoptic Gospels, identifying differences between them. In the subsequent chapter, which is about desire rather than marriage, she outlines Paul and differing Pauline perspectives, ranging from arguments supporting celibacy over marriage (Paul) to those insisting that everyone must fit within an ordered, male-headed household (the Pastoral Epistles).

Knust’s deconstruction demonstrates conclusively that there is no one idea of “biblical marriage.” While there may be some wisdom to uncover from these conflicting stories, there is no clear guidance to our modern questions. Knust then proceeds to conduct the same thorough biblical examination of other topics–the joy of sex, the control of desire, sex with angels and foreigners, circumcision and bodily fluids, demonstrating the same argument that the ancient texts do not translate into modern self-help books for sex, desire and relationships.

Knust refuses to pull punches. While she shows some personal support for the cause of equal marriage and the full inclusion of LGBT people in the church, she does not try to explain away biblical passages that do not support her opinions or dig up passages that do. Unprotected Texts is true to its title. Knust lays it all out, the mess that it is, and leaves it to us to sort through the chaos. I appreciate the way she trusts the reader to reason, and refrains from the danger of polemics.  Knust adds enormously to this ongoing conversation.

Chris Hedges, Losing Moses on the Freeway: The 10 Commandments in America, New York, Free Press, 2005, 206 pp.

This is the fourth in a series of four books about the Ten Commandments, which I purchased and read simultaneously, week by week, while I was preaching a sermon series on that topic. The sermons can be found here, June 22 through July 27. The rest of the book reviews will be posted sequentially here. 

Losing MosesThis was by far my favorite of all the Ten Commandments books I read for the sermon series. Chris Hedges is a powerful storyteller and critical thinker, and I enjoyed hearing his approach to the commandments.

Hedges approaches the commandments sideways, at an angle, in ways that make the connections sometimes less than obvious. The most memorable story, for me, came from his first chapter, where he told the story of his naive move into Boston’s Mission Hill with a heart for saving the neighborhood. As he found himself threatened and bullied by a group of young boys, he tried to hold on to hope and faith, but had to admit his failure, especially as his fear prompts him to respond with violence. It ends his relationship with the church, and shatters his faith.

It is knowledge of this darkness that alone makes faith possible. The church was my last refuge from God. In the shattering of that moral certitude I looked for forgiveness. Idols promise us power. God does not. Before God we all are powerless. We are all afraid. It is in this fear, this darkness, that I found God, even as I thought I was fleeing God. (36-37)

One of my favorite sideways approaches comes in a story Hedges tells about a private bar that attracts men who are immigrants. The bar is populated by women who make it their business to get the men to spend all their money there, with promises of love and words of affection. However, Hedges does not tie this story to the commandment about adultery, but to the one about lying.

These lies, the ones told in the bar, the ones told to us, create false communities. They weaken and destroy real communities. These false communities, which we must pay to enter, are a way to fight despair. We share this despair with these men. We share it with almost everyone around us, although we work hard to pretend it does not exist, this despair of living and dying, of not being the person we want to be, or what we want people to believe we are. (64)

Hedges offers one of the most nuanced and helpful accounts of what it means to “honor your mother and father” among all those I read. He grounds his analysis in the reality that our parents shape our lives, whether we want them to or not, by their action and inaction, presence or absence.

For to honor our parents is to honor our essence, the roots from which we sprung, and even the best parents have oppressive powers that must be broken. We must free ourselves from our parents to become fully formed individuals. The commandment to honor your parents is a commandment to honor yourself, honor the life force that created you, the good and the bad mingled within us, but not to honor abuse. (90)

I also appreciate the way Hedges connects the commandments about coveting not just to envy, but to greed, and, as is obvious if you know Hedges’ other work, his reflections on “thou shalt not kill” in circumstances of war.

As always, Hedges is a beautiful writer who tells stories that are compelling and evocative of the human condition. This time, he does so on the themes of the Ten Commandments, and Losing Moses on the Freeway provides reflections well worth reading.

Rachel S. Mikva, ed. Broken Tablets: Restoring the Ten Commandments and Ourselves, Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1999, 148 pp.

This is the third in a series of four books about the Ten Commandments, which I purchased and read simultaneously, week by week, while I was preaching a sermon series on that topic. The sermons can be found here, June 22 through July 27. The rest of the book reviews will be posted sequentially here. 

Broken TabletsThis anthology of reflections by some of the leading rabbis and Jewish scholars offered me a rich added perspective in my sermon series. It was compiled as a festschrift for Arnold Jacob Wolf, a leading Reform rabbi noted for his emphasis on peace and justice. However, the essays do not revolve around Wolf’s work, but around practical, justice-minded reflections on the Decalogue. Remember, the Jewish tradition divides the commandments differently from the Protestants (like Hauerwase & Willimon) and the Catholics (like Chittister)

Rabbi Mikva commences the reflection on each commandment with a few pages of commentary of her own, followed by a longer essay by another rabbi. All of the essays share a common attention to stories and rabbinic tales that shed light on interpretation, along with the Jewish scholarly pursuit of unanswered questions. It is always fascinating to me how different Jewish approaches, questions and even answers are from those methods used by Christian scholars.

For example, in her essay on the second commandment, Rabbi Mikva asks, “Is Judaism asserting itself as the one ‘true’ religion?” She answers thus:

It would be idolatrous to assert any human creation is the ‘one true religion.’ Judaism simply insists on faithfulness. A parable: A man who has to believe that his wife is the most beautiful woman in the world has no wife, for he is constantly looking at other women to be sure that none may be more beautiful. … The purpose of religion is not to learn what is good, but to learn to do what is good, not to disclose secrets but to achieve persons. This is the discipline of living in faithfulness. (19)

One of my favorite essays was by Rabbi Leonard Fein, and focused on the fifth commandment, to honor your father and mother. He raises the question of whether all parents deserve to be honored. We all know their flaws, and some parents can be quite terrible. He then posits not unconditional love for parents, but unconditional honor.

We honor our parents because it is they who gave us life. If they are loveable, we may love them. But whether or not they are loveable, we must honor them. (70)

I also appreciated the reflection by Rabbi Richard M. Levy on not stealing. He extends the prohibition against theft into a mandate for generosity.

Stealing is a serious crime in Jewish tradition. So is the sin of encouraging stealing by refusing to share the bounty God has temporarily entrusted to us. (108)

Because each essay was so tightly crafted and each argument so bound together, I found it difficult to pull excerpts or insights that directly informed my preaching, or to quote the rabbis, even at length. However, I know my thinking was deeply enriched and I found great joy in reading this volume.

Stanley M. Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, The Truth about God: The Ten Commandments in Christian Life, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999, 144 pp.

This is the first in a series of four books about the Ten Commandments, which I purchased and read simultaneously, week by week, while I was preaching a sermon series on that topic. The sermons can be found here, June 22 through July 27. The rest of the book reviews will be posted sequentially here. 

Truth About GodI posted this on Facebook midway through this book:

I keep reading their (Hauerwas & Willimon’s) books, but I need to stop. For every compelling and enlightening sentence, there are two that make me want to throw it against the wall. There’s some good stuff in there, but it’s all so tangled up with garbage. The chapter on adultery was ridiculously bad and out of touch. Oh, the arrogance! The arrogance of these two!

This remains my assessment of the book as a whole.

First, some of the good stuff. Hauerwas and Willimon’s take on the Ten Commandments is that they are a central showcase for God’s saving work in the world. True to their Methodist roots, they see obedience to the commandments as a path toward sanctification, a response to God’s grace with a willingness to follow.

We live by the commandments as a way of worshiping the true God. When we thus worship the true God, we show forth to the world the sort of people God is able to produce. (17)

This makes the commandments not a generalized set of rules that apply to everyone, but a unique covenant initiated by God in relationship to the people.

God knows that Israel, left to its own devices in the wilderness, is prone to reestablish Pharoah’s rule in different forms. So the commandments are given as a basis for a radically alternative society that is counter to all that the empire demands. (27)

We don’t need God–we worship God. That is the first commandment, to stop attempting to get something out of God and instead to bend our lives toward God. (34)

Unfortunately, this interesting chapter quickly becomes a screed against scholars who question how this exclusionary God can hamper interfaith relationships, against a major denominational leader who questions Jesus’ divinity, and even (somehow) against parents who help their teenagers access birth control. As I said, for every good point, there are two that make me want to throw the book into a wall.

There were two main reasons I kept reading. First, Hauerwas and Willimon did detailed research that saved me a lot of work. Each chapter addresses one commandment, and they quote extensively from Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther and other historical theologians. It is helpful to read those commentaries without having to track them down separately. Second, there remained regular appearances of good and insightful observations, like these:

On “Thou Shall Not Kill”: They (the Religious Right) seize upon the Ten Commandments as a universal, general code of conduct for every thinking American and forget how exceptional the community is rendered by the Decalogue. That our society is so terribly violent is in great part the result of the church’s failure to be a community of nonviolence as a byproduct of our worship of the God of peace. (88-89)

On “Thou Shall Not Bear False Witness”: The church must be a testimony that the truth is known by people who have learned how to trust one another through sharing goods, committing one another to lifelong fidelity, the practice of nonviolence, who do these things because they know they are creatures of a gracious God who would have them worship him in truth. (123)

However, you must also put up with obnoxious, arrogant and clueless conclusions they draw. The chapter on adultery is especially heinous.

The only good Christian reason to get married is the conviction that you can live out your baptismal vocation better within marriage than without. Furthermore, we believe that love is the fruit of marriage, the result of our faithful commitment to one another rather than its cause. (98)

The term “planned parenthood” doesn’t quite fit how Christians ought to have children, for children are not our choice as much as they are God’s choice of us. (100)

You have never had good sex until you have had it with a Christian. (100)

However, it’s not limited to that one. They make gross generalizations about the misery of rich people and call out whole congregations for spoiling their children. Then you get this commentary on government, which somehow emerges from their commentary on lying.

There can be no freedom that does not acknowledge God. The Constitution attempted to construct a government without God… Democracy is an attempt to get around the necessity for a hierarchy of virtue by majority vote. (126-127)

So, there you go. Hauerwas and Willimon being their usual selves. They are full of scholarship and insight into the meaning of the commandments, in their richness and connection to God. They are also full of themselves and their own arrogant and outdated opinions, which they then try to argue emerge from the biblical text. My original Facebook assessment stands.

Galatians Re-Imagined: Reading with the Eyes of the Vanquished, by Brigitte Kahl, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010, 413 pp.

Galatians Re-ImaginedThis is one of the most scholarly works I have endeavored to read in a long time. I heard Walter Brueggemann discuss it at a talk in February, and it sounded fascinating. Since I had a preaching challenge on Galatians during March (an ecumenical Lenten series with six preachers in consecutive weeks preaching on the same text in Galatians 4), I decided to give it a try. I read about two-thirds of the book in time for the sermon preparation, but it took another two months to finish the rest of it. It was intense reading, and completely worth it.

Brigitte Kahl aims to revolutionize our understanding of the letter to the Galatians by setting it in the context of the Roman empire and re-imagining the heated debate about followers of the Law and the Spirit. Her evidence and her argument are dense and complex, but compelling. It fits within the larger movement of biblical scholars to re-inscribe the New Testament books in their context of the Roman Empire, not just Judaism. By examining the Roman context of art, rhetoric and social status, Kahl connects the first century Galatians to the Gauls, the iconic vanquished people upon whom the Empire was built. The outcome is a reading of Galatians as a radical call from Paul for all subjugated peoples (Galatians, Jews, slaves, women and Others) to unite in the way of love and peace set forth by Christ, over and against the Roman way of power, conquest and violence. This has critical importance for understanding the idea of justification by faith rather than by works of the law.  That idea has been a bulwark of Protestant theology and a weapon against Judaism, and it traces its biblical roots to Galatians.

To put Kahl’s argument simply (and it is not a simple argument), what if the Law that Paul opposes so vigorously in Galatians is not the Torah, but the Roman law that governed every aspect of daily life in the Mediterranean? The opposition that he establishes, then, is not between various ways of following God, but between those who follow the path of violence and conquest as a means to power, and those who subvert the domination systems by forming allegiances among vanquished peoples, not to exact revenge or exercise power, but to show that the Law (of Rome) is powerless over them by living as one community together.

Kahl arrives conclusively at this interpretation through what she calls a “critical re-imagining.” This critical re-imagining examines the Roman context with breadth and depth—looking closely not just at written materials, but at the wider environment, including rituals, public spaces and works of art. Kahl dedicates much of the book to an analysis of the Great Altar at Pergamon, a giant mythological symbol of the Roman quest for power that she sees as key to unlocking the ideology at work in Paul’s environment. While she returns to the Great Altar as an image, illustration and interpretive key throughout the book, she builds her case in a variety of ways. She begins with a chapter on the images of Dying Gauls in Roman art, establishing the Gauls as the prototypical barbarian Other whose conquest gives life and legitimacy to Roman power. She then connects this need for a vanquished Other to the Galatians, tying them together with the Gauls through a shared Celtic history and reputation as ruthless, lawless and threatening order.

From there, Kahl dedicates an entire chapter to a semiotic analysis of the Great Altar at Pergamon, showing how its representations inscribe necessary hierarchies. She then dives deep into analysis of Roman imperial religion and imperial power in Galatia during the time of Paul, including civic construction projects and cultural manifestations intended to instantiate and legitimate Roman rule.

The fifth chapter tackles the issue of circumcision in Galatians. This chapter felt like the biggest interpretive stretch to me, but she won me over. Kahl returns to the Great Altar at Pergamon to discuss resurrection. How can the defeated Gauls find resurrection? By submitting themselves to the law of Rome. Circumcision for the Gentiles of Galatia, she argues, is a form of submission to Roman law, because it would give them protected status as Jews, the only religious minority not required to submit to imperial religion. It would be an obedience to the Roman law, an attempt for resurrection and new life in the Roman system.

The appropriate form of association and community between Galatians and Jews under Roman auspices is totally dependent on the imperial intermediary. The divine Caesar alone was entitled to set the terms and conditions for licit interactions between Jews and Galatians, not his crucified antagonist.
Messianic Galatians who still had their foreskins yet did not participate in civic and imperial worship because of their allegiance to a God other than Caesar were an anomaly that challenged the most fundamental principles of the imperial cosmos. (242)

Rome rules by dividing conquered people against one another, but Christ’s word of love unites them together to subvert Roman power and victory with unity and mutuality.

Only in Chapter 6, with this enormous background, does Kahl begin to comment directly on a reinterpretation of the book of Galatians, section by section. By her reading, Galatians is laying claim to an alternative way of life based on mutuality over against Roman law of conformity and conquest.

Justification by faith is the foundational proclamation that Christ-faith cannot coexist with the old separation between us/Jews and them/Gentile sinners, which builds up again what was torn down by and in Christ. … Faith, on the other hand, equalizes self and other and puts both into a horizontal relationship of community and solidarity without  “boasting.” (280)

The concluding chapter looks at the way Nero used Christians to replace the Gauls as the vanquished ones, blaming them for the great fires that destroyed Rome in the first century. Although she does not cite him, this argument reminds me of Rene Girard’s work on how community identity is built around a scapegoat, who is blamed for all the problems and whose sacrifice is key to establishing order and peace.

Kahl’s argument is dense, detailed and profound. I have not done it justice in this short review, but it is well worth your time and investment to read if you care about Pauline studies and New Testament interpretation. Her argument is absolutely compelling to me, but I struggle with how to make use of it in the context of preaching. How can I possibly undo years of preexisting ideas about Paul, justification by faith, the conflict between faith and law, and everything else, without resorting to a work as lengthy and detailed as hers? I’m not sure, but I’m trying even now as I preach a series on Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

 

Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks by Walter Brueggemann, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014, 165 pp.

9780802870728I adore Walter Brueggemann’s work, and I will confess to anyone who cares to listen that I think every sermon I have ever preached on a text from the Hebrew Bible has been influenced by his scholarship and pastoral insights. This is especially true of any sermons on prophetic texts, as his original outline in The Prophetic Imagination unlocked those obscure biblical books, with their poetry and lamentation, in ways that finally made them come alive for me.

I heard Brueggemann lecture on the content of Reality, Grief, Hope before reading the book, and recognized immediately the themes he had previously developed in The Prophetic Imagination, Hopeful Imagination and other books. His perspective on the prophets is that their first word calls forth the injustice, sin and loss in the community, prompting grief. Only after the people have experienced lament can they find their way to hope, the prophet’s second word. Reality, Grief, Hope adds a new dimension to the prophet’s task, a new first word before grief: reality.

Brueggemann has observed, both in the Bible and in contemporary culture, that the prophet must first pierce through the many layers of denial. Before the grief can flow, the people must acknowledge that something has been lost that cannot be regained. In both ancient and modern contexts, the royal ideology of chosenness (the conviction that God will protect the Jerusalem establishment and its leaders) persists long after facts on the ground demonstrate that the temple and its practices will not be protected. The ideology blinds the people from seeing any facts or reality beyond itself, and therefore traps them within a false and failing way of seeing the world, denying the change and the injustice around them.

Reality must be faced and not resisted. Their rhetoric is designed to break the bubble, to make contact with the facts on the ground—that God is here and neighbor is here—and to notice the links of chosenness in the present and future fates. (23)

Brueggemann describes this phenomenon in ancient Israel, then he describes it in the 21st century of the United States. The roots of the problem today lie in American exceptionalism, and our understanding of freedom as freedom to disregard the needs of our neighbors.

Grief is the path to piercing this ideology and its systematic denial of its own failure. Brueggemann offers an extensive catalog of biblical prophets who address this need, from Jeremiah to the Psalmist to Lamentations. He then summons preachers and prophets today to engage in the same work, naming and claiming the loss of American superiority, privilege and moral certainty.

This converging loss that is beyond denial, concerning loss of political-military hegemony, loss of economic dominance, loss of social-ethnic singularity, and loss of ecclesiastical propensity, has come to amount to a loss of moral certainty and a failure of nerve about the future. In sum, we watch as the world for which we had prepared ourselves and had learned to master is disappearing before our very eyes. (81)

When that sadness and loss remains unexpressed and voiceless, it gives rise to violence and precludes us from imagining new possibilities that might spring forth by the grace of God. The grief is necessary to move into reality and into hope.

Grief can easily give way to despair. The task of the prophet, after piercing denial with reality and unleashing the grief, is to offer hope, so that the people do not fall into despair. That hope comes always from outside the ideology, outside the system and empire. Hope comes from God.

It is rather, the tradition insists, an utterance that arises “from elsewhere,” from the God who indwells the abyss and who initiates a new historical possibility by resolve that is not disrupted by the city in shambles and is not restrained by the force of empire. (106)

Brueggemann concludes by insisting that the best possibility for prophetic work today lies in local congregations, where people are known and loved against the forces of empire.

One can see the same practice in the life of a congregation wherein people are known and named, who have birthdays and anniversaries remembered, who have their sicknesses and deaths honored, all gestures that call out an affirmed, empowered personhood. (145)

This counternarrative that disrupts imperial narrative focuses upon particular persons in daily crises, naming, valuing, and empowering persons who have been disregarded, reduced or summarized by the empire. (146)

The work of prophetic imagination has a calling, I do not doubt, to walk our society into the crisis where it does not want to go, and to walk our society out of that crisis into newness that it does not believe is possible. (160)

The church, Brueggemann claims, by living its ordinary life of caring for souls and holding out the good news, is the key to helping people and society move into hope.

Reality, Grief, Hope takes Brueggemann’s existing work to a new level, and lays a new claim upon us as pastors and church leaders to engage the prophetic work of piercing reality, opening grief and proclaiming hope in God. His insistence will not release us, and the scriptures he summons will not let us doubt. As always, Walter Brueggemann brings the Bible alive and with its vitality comes a summons to follow.

Inhabiting Eden: Christians, the Bible and the Ecological Crisis by Patricia K. Tull, Westminster John Knox, 2013, 193 pp.

Inhabiting Eden book jacketThere are Christians who are passionate environmental activists, those who are mostly committed recyclers, and those who doubt  that their faith has much to do with the concern for the earth. No matter what your current attitude, this book is a great resource for you. Hebrew Bible scholar Trisha Tull (who also happens to be a neighbor and friend) has written a thoughtful, scriptural book intended to stimulate conversation about the connections between our Christian faith and concern for the well-being of our shared planet.  It is Tull’s depth and approach as a biblical scholar and theologian that makes this book so rich and helpful.

Tull starts in the most natural place–the story of creation in Genesis. This is well-covered territory when connecting the scriptures to concern for the environment. While Tull’s analysis adds richness to the conversation on Sabbath and the imago dei, it is in the subsequent chapters that the book adds the most to the ongoing conversation. Most Christian authors on this subject stop after the simple implication that God created us to care for the earth, and therefore we should. Tull digs deeper, and uncovers many layers of biblical treasures that inform and impact our relationship with the natural world.

For example, she moves immediately beyond the story of creation into Genesis 3-4, the story of the expulsion from the Garden and the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. She sees in the text the subtle language implying that the soil, the earth itself is damaged by these wounds, and she talks about the way God created human life to exist within limits–and the way we are punish and the earth hurts when we break those limits.

The subsequent chapters take on particular examples from scripture that pertain to consumerism, food systems, animal care, environmental justice, and climate change. However, rather than launching into a polemic about the environmental crises at hand, Tull starts with the biblical narrative and constructs a scriptural worldview. This is not a proof-text or an attempt to make a scriptural case for environmental causes. Instead, it is a conversation between the proper relationships laid out in the Bible governing human relationships with the earth, and the relationships we find ourselves living out here in the 21st century. The results are insightful and arresting–but not without hope.

One of the best examples in the book is the story of Naboth’s vineyard. Tull reminds us that the story is one where the poor man (Naboth) has his few possessions stripped away by the rich and powerful for their own pleasure and acquisition. Then she places that story alongside the poor communities today whose land, clean air and clean water are stripped away by wealthy corporations. She writes,

While environmental justice takes many forms, this chapter will reflect specifically on the modern Naboths who lose property and even health and life to more powerful neighbors, specifically to industries nearby whose toxic wast invades their air, water, soil and bodies. (115)

The scripture serves to illuminate the unjust relationship in our own world, to draw a narrative parallel rather than making a finger-wagging case.

Just a few pages later, Tull summarizes her own work in the book this way:

The question here is not whether Scripture yields exact parallels to contemporary dilemmas. Rather it is the extent to which we are at least living up to Scripture’s best principles. If we find Scripture instructive, and even authoritative, how might we encourage better practices for our world? (117)

It’s that approach, from beginning to end, that makes Inhabiting Eden so worthwhile. The book’s intended audience is not people who care about the environment, but people who care about the Bible, especially those who take the bible seriously (though not literally) as a guide for contemporary life. Each chapter contains discussion questions and activities to try at home, making it a natural fit for small group conversations in churches. This is not a polemic, it is an invitation–to move closer to God, to study the Bible, and to understand ourselves, our roles, our limits and our responsibilities in relationship with the whole earth.

 

 


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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