Books, Covers, and Genesis

On the back of The Grand Canyon: Monument to an Ancient Earth, one the latest books coming out of Kregel publications about the age of the earth, boasts a Paul Copan quote recommendation on that back that goes like this: “Irenic in spirit, scientifically informed, and biblically sound.” Dr. Copan is one of my favorite apologists out there at present, and a genuinely nice guy. So when he states that a book is aimed at peace and the reconciliation of denominational differences, I do not hesitate to pick it up.9780825444210

On the surface, The Grand Canyon looks like a work of great care and consideration. As scientific textbooks go, it is by far the most readable I have encountered in some years, interspersing the scientific lingo with beautiful pictures and engaging diagrams. The eleven authors mentioned on the first page demonstrate a breadth of knowledge that is impressive. They present the case that the Grand Canyon serves as irrefutable proof that the Earth cannot be young, and that Noah’s Flood cannot possibly have created something like the gorge surrounding the Colorado River. The book showcases remarkable lucidity with a topic that is often tedious or difficult to understand. Having read several books on the topic, including Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies and Francis Collins’s The Language of God (to name a couple), and find there is a fine line between scientific tedium and understandable theorizing. But the authors work hard to make the subject even enjoyable.

All of that being said, I think to call this book irenic is a bit misleading. While there are authors out there genuinely working to bridge the gap between Christians who disagree (like Kenneth Wheately and Alvin Plantinga), but the bulk of this book is dedicated to converting Young Earth Creationists. Now, I understand that books are frequently written to make an argument. This can be done in a tasteful way, however, and much of the shots taken at YEC proponents through the book detract from would otherwise be an insightful contribution to the larger discussion. Such a dismissive attitude limits the book’s potential.

While the book is one I recommend, I do some with a caution. Coming to this book for a genteel and fair-minded discussion will not go far. But if you are already in, or leaning towards, an Old Earth view which congeal with Christianity, then this book is definitely for you.

The Joy of Exegeting the Psalms

Ask most high school students what kind of literature the enjoy the least, they’ll likely say poetry. Its symbolism and patterns often create a sense of tedium for many readers. Of course, poetry is a beautiful form of writing, and as I say to my own students when we memorize poetry throughout the school year, appreciating the mastery of a single word can bring joy and satisfaction far beyond  merely reading a poem.

I have noticed a tendency of Christians, myself included, to sometimes take the same perspective on the Psalms. Originally written in Hebrew, English translations of the Psalms appear in different forms and try to encapsulate the beauty of the original language in a number of ways. A helpful way to explore these Biblical songs and poems is through an exegetical study, clarifying some of the ways the Hebrew text stresses and highlights ideas and concepts. If, like me, you’re not a Semitic languages scholar, then a nice commentary is a good place to start.

Dr. Allen P. Ross has 9780825426667authored a three-volume set of exegetical commentaries on the Psalms for Kregel Academic. I have reviewed two other entries in the Kregel Exegetical Library (Exodus and I & II Chronicles), and was fortunate enough to get my hands on the final entry in Dr. Ross’s trilogy. While I do hope to eventually acquire the rest, examining Psalms 90-150 proved a great adventure in and of itself.

The format is simple, with substantial background and contextual information before each psalm that demonstrated the immense amount of study that has been spent on the poetic parts of Scripture. I will use Psalm 119 to detail some of the highlights of Ross’s work.

While it is the dominant psalm of the Biblical collection, Psalm 119 has cause some to despair over its apparent repetition of ideas and words. Ross, however, concludes that this is the result of a poor reading of the text. First, the Psalm should be seen as a literary work. In terms of dating, Psalm 119 seems to have been written prior to the Exile (461) and is written in such a way that a preacher could approach the text from various ways to preach through it either by stanza or theme or both (463). After drawing the background information together, Ross works through the Psalm using its acrostic format as the outline. Each section is translated, followed by a brief content summary and exegetical outline. This outline also serves as the main points for the commentary, which is delivered in an expository form making it easy for pastors to work through the content in small sections.

As a result, Ross gives a work that any Christian could pick and work through, while also being a wonderful aid to a pastor who wants to lead their congregation through the Psalms.

Historical Jesus Primer

91Yadw-FeZLIt seems that every year, right around Easter, a host of arguments find traction in some bastion of so-called objective journalism where Jesus is suggested to be misrepresented, or sometimes even non-existent. As the usual attacks are lobbed, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed by what (on the surface) appear to be legitimate concerns. Enter 40 Questions About the Historical Jesus from C. Marvin Pate.

The book is a part of Kregel Academic’s line of apologetic survey works that take the form of 40 questions. I’ve previously reviewed their entry regarding creation, and commented on the benefits of this approach to such discussions. While these books cannot be exhaustive, they serve as excellent introductions to difficult material that is often weighed down with emotional appeals and mistrust on both sides. Pate’s foray into the quest for the historical Jesus is a welcome addition to the larger discussion and would serve as a great starting point for any Christian interested in the topic.

That being said, there are two particular points of, what I hope will be, constructive criticism. The first is a comparative element. In Kregel’s book regarding creation, there was a marked effort to be generous to differing viewpoints because it was a mostly “in house” debate. This book, however, is primarily a discussion between the orthodox and the heterodox, the believing and the non. As such, the tone should be different in some areas, at times calling for sharp rebuke and other times gentle correction. But it would appear to me that Benjamin Merkle, the series editor, would like the tone of each work to be the same. I think this is noble, but an ultimately ill-fated attempt to keep the conversation civil. If I hadn’t read a companion work to make the correlation, then I might not have even noticed, so take that for what it is.

The second issue is minor, but I think important still. The book has a wonderful set of indexes, which give guidance when something like The Gospel of Thomas specially comes up. But what happens when Bart Ehrman gets mentioned? Since so much of this topic is generated from 19th, 20th, and even 21st century scholars, an index dealing with such men and women would be not only appropriate, but perhaps essential for someone who is really trying to dig in to the subject.

These are small quibbles, and should not dissuade anyone from purchasing the book. It is a great resource for Christians of all stripes, regardless of age or denomination. I hope Kregel continues to put out great works like this.

Studying the Greek Gods

This post originally appeared on the Trinitas Christian School blog.

olympian

In his book, The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly About the Arts, Leland Ryken asks a simple but provocative question: “Why do people hang paintings on walls?” There is of course the straightforward response: “because they enjoy said paintings.” But there is another level to the response worth considering, and its implications ripple out beyond the singular notion of picture hanging. Creative expressions have been how humanity thought and considered the reality around it for all recorded history. We don’t write or tell stories or sing just because we enjoy it; we also do these things because we must.

How does this fit into the Christian life? For starters, the Bible is chock full of stories, and not all them seem pristine on the surface. The Christian Scriptures affirm the idea that we are a people in need of creative expression, with complex heroes like Samson and theologically rich poetry like the Psalms. The Christian, then, engages with the artistic world every time he or she opens their Bible, and this exercise helps the believer interact with opposing worldviews as well. We read the literature of other cultures and eras, mining for gold or dropping lead lines into the water, always expecting to find something of value.

Though the Christian has much to reject in the worldview of the Ancient Greeks, there are also things worth a closer examination. Is there significance to Pandora’s perseveration of Hope that the Christian can understand? Do we weep with Helios when Phaethon is struck down due to his impudence and inexperience? Are we sometimes rattled by the idea that life is out of our control, like Achilles or Oedipus? The Greek myths are not only good stories (though they are that), for they contain in them a way of understanding the world that should and can be reckoned with by any thoughtful Christian.

As we head into Zeus’ Family Reunion at Trinitas this week, we consider the truth and beauty found in the archives of the Greek imagination. Join us as we try to explore these stories together. Perhaps there are still depths to be mined, still deep waters to be sounded. And when it is all said and done, you’ll have a new mosaic to hang on your wall.

The Right Questions for “The Force Awakens”

This post originally appeared at the Trinitas Christian School blog.

Star-Wars-The-Force-Awakens-still-10Every quarter, our students are invited to participate in our Classic Film Society. We gather, eat popcorn, watch movies, and then spend time discussing the ways these films wrestle with the Gospel, even if they do it inadvertently. This is more than just an excuse to watch good movies, because movies are one of the primary way our culture searches for the Gospel. Directors aren’t necessarily looking to imbed the content of Christianity in their film, but they cannot escape the shape of Christianity.[1] Films made in the past demonstrate this, as do those that continue to come to a theater near you.

And this is one of the beauties of our Classic Film Society: what we do connects with current movies as well. In fact, it’s probably most helpful to understand the word classic like this: “Here is the body of work which sets the standard for all subsequent achievement.”[2] If the box office numbers are any indication, Star Wars: The Force Awakens will set the standard for years to come. So does Episode VII wrestle with the Gospel? I think it does, by dealing with specific elements of the Gospel shape found in so much of our world’s media.

For instance, the universe Star Wars inhabits is a moral one, dealing with good and evil.[3] There is a clear villain (Kylo Ren) and a clear hero (Rey). There is transformation, as Finn becomes less of a selfish character, and even risks his life to save someone else (not once, but twice). And all of this surfaces in the midst of a story that often advocates “balance.” But make no mistake, there is good and there is evil; there is light and there is dark. Even the cinematography embodies this concept, with the light being extinguished at the pivotal moment of choosing the light or the darkness.

These ideas provide excellent conversation starters. For instance, if this morality is driven by feelings, how are viewers to understand the problems that so often arise from characters pursing their feelings? A Jedi must feel the force, but must also avoid attachment. Is it because our feelings are so often wrong (Jer. 17:9)? And if feelings are to be the guide to the Force, as Obi-wan instructs Luke in Episode IV, what happens when a character feels the draw of the dark side? The questions abound, and the answers aren’t always airtight, but these are the kinds of things that Christians should think about when engaging with contemporary film. The Force Awakens should be a segue to a bigger conversation about Truth and Beauty and Goodness. Just like those we have at Classic Film Society.

[1] If you’re interested in reading more about this idea, Gavin Ortlund has a nice introduction here: http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/3-ways-movies-are-searching-for-the-gospel.

[2] This definition comes from J. Budziszewski, a professor of law at UT Austin (http://undergroundthomist.org/classical).

[3] I have explored this before, particularly in relation to the Lord of the Rings movies (http://humanepursuits.com/a-world-where-feelings-are-king/).

History, Exegesis, & Hebrew

When I think about books of 9780825425592the Bible that automatically engage my imagination and senses, I & II Chronicles does not immediately jump to mind. Eugene H. Merrill’s commentary does not change that, but it does offer a thorough perspective with loads to appreciate. Another addition to the Kregel Exegetical Library, a series I have explored previously, Merrill’s work is expansive.

Merrill reminded me that these books are more than mere history, serving as “a theological or ‘sacred’ history, recounting not only Israel’s past, but in a truncated sense a history of the world since Adam,” (pg. 22). And this is the lens that Merrill proposes to understand the book and its place in the Christian tradition. Merrill deals honestly and forthrightly with issues of chronology and source material, but offers a traditional, orthodox perspective that is edifying.

A highlight of the commentary, for me, was the “Theology” sections at the end of each chapter. After a thorough analysis of the Hebrew for a given portion, Merrill sets aside space to wrestle with the implications of such linguistics. It is these sections that helped the book to be more than a bland exegetical book on a standard historical work. Merrill ties everything together in these sections, making the exegesis practical and pertinent.

Still, the book is not as cumbersome as other commentaries. It’s 640 pages do justice to the topic at hand, and would serve and pastor or student of the Bible well when digging deep into the historical part of the Old Testament. Kregel has produced excellent commentaries in this Exegetical series, and Merrill’s contribution is no exception.

Putting Marduk in the Right Perspective

517I9RrDE7L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Admitting I am a geek about certain things is a necessity up front. When given the opportunity, I thoroughly enjoy pouring over varying ancient religions, looking for comparisons with Christianity and deviations as well. So while the title may be off putting, excitement bubbled up in me like the waters of the deep when Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology arrived on my doorstep. The chance to expand my understanding of the Ancient Near East, particularly in light of religious texts and concepts? What is not to love?

I wasn’t overly familiar with Jeffrey Niehaus before this book, doing most of my exploring under the guides John Walton and Alexander Heidel. But I had encountered his name in a few articles and looked forward to his two cents on the matter. His book is laid out in a particular fashion, that I sometimes found distracting, unfortunately. His premise, however, I think is sound. Niehaus essentially asserts that most ANE religious texts follow a particular outline, as seen below (30):

NiehausSchemaHis primary argument is that this process occurs in numerous ANE texts, including the Bible. In fact, he suggests that this is inherent in the entire Biblical narrative, and that the ANE texts illustrate a fallen example of how this concept played out in the pagan world (32, 177-181). With this in mind, Niehaus structures each chapter around a single concept (Chapter 2, “God and the Royal Shepherd”), and then unpacks how each of the major cultures explored this idea. Throughout, he maintains his thesis, and constantly reminds the reader how God was the real fulfillment of each part of the ANE process.

Undoubtedly, the material he covers is vast and informative, and I would recommend this book at every college student or pastor who is likely to encounter this material. Universities are filled with people who choose to focus on the similarities of the Bible with its ANE parallels, and consequently ignore the drastic ways in which the texts differ. Niehaus brings this concept to the forefront in an expert way. I do wonder if the text would be better suited to be broken out by culture, with a concluding chapter drawing everything together. Boyd Seevers’s Warfare in the Old Testament is put in such a format, and I found it easier to follow.

Despite this complaint, this book is worth the time. It is a short introduction to some of the major themes that scholars debate, and is handled in a gracious way. The book has earned a permanent spot on my shelf, and I suggest any interested readers do the same.

 

Commenting on the Text(s)

9780825443404As a student of the Bible, it is difficult to have enough resources for study. And when it comes to studying the Biblical languages, the problem seems to multiply exponentially. There are so many options for studying Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic that an individual can be easy overwhelmed. Kregel Academic’s Commentary on the Manuscripts and Text of the New Testament is something different though. Rather than another Greek manuscript (of which editions are numerous) or an exegetical guide (which are sometimes redundant), this text is a commentary on the actual manuscripts.

Comfort’s work is to note accurately and thoroughly those pesky places in the texts of the Bible where variants create problems. Having recently completed 9 hours of Greek training, I can genuinely say I wish I had owned this book earlier. The notes on the variants or difficult to translate portions are outstanding. “Why are there brackets in my NASB copy of John 8?” Comfort’s Commentary delves into that. “So do other commentaries…” While it is true that you could pick up D.A. Carson’s tome in the Pillar series, you would have to wade through some dense prose and lengthy exposition to find the simply answer to the question. This Commentary cuts through such matters and takes you straight to challenging portion of the text with minimal critical notes. For pastors and students or Greek, I cannot imagine doing Bible study without this little tool.

The flipside of that benefit is that the average Christian probably has little need for this book. In a word, it is a specialized tool. If you are a preacher, or a student, or a motivated layman, then I cannot recommend this book enough. However, if those brackets in the text or those tiny footnotes don’t bother you, then a more traditional commentary is probably where I’d point you.

When Religion Looks Like Tires

the-ancient-path-talbotThe postmodern world is a confusing one. What are all these narratives people keep blathering on about? What does “power is knowledge” mean? For most folks, this flabbergasting effect creates a strain that results in doubt; doubt of all shapes and sizes and creeds. And for some, this leads to the past. How did people get on way back when? Its not a new question, although there may be a renewed interest in it of late. Enter John Michael Talbot’s The Ancient Path: Old Lessons from the Church Fathers for a New Life Today.

Talbot’s book is a biographical account of his journey towards Catholicism, primarily through is own study of the earliest Church Fathers like Cyprian and Tertullian. It is a winsome story, that treads many of the paths familiar to modern evangelicals. References to characters like Francis Schaffer and Talbot’s time at L’Abri brim with all the ecumenical flavor one should expect from such a book. After all its in the title: we need old lessons. This postmodern world needs an old faith. The aimless 60s and 70s gave us revolution…but unto what? Talbot asserts that it was in Church Fathers (and subsequently older Christian manifestations like Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism) that the solution to his angst was solved.

There are commendable aspects of Talbot’s book, but they are outweighed by the hackneyed concept. A story of how someone swam the Tiber? Been done (and then some). How many times can the same path be retread? In this regard, I’d even say the title is misleading. It is not a theological discourse on the Church Fathers, but rather a personal testimony about why you should get familiar with them. If one is looking a for a devotional book, or a study guide, you’d have to look elsewhere.

And all of this seems like so much white noise after the recent Pew Research study that demonstrated far fewer evangelicals are converting to Roman Catholicism and Orthodox branches than previously believed. Talbot’s efforts to point Christians back to ancient sources in Church history is a good goal, but I don’t think necessitates the kind of conversion-esque approach that his story lays out.

In the end, The Ancient Path is an interesting biographical journey told in a friendly prose. But that is about as far as it goes.

The Toughest Part of the Text

9780825443633I teach students how to read their Bibles, basic exegesis skills, and broad application of God’s Word. Despite this, I still have a hard time nailing down the Prophetic Books. Some of the smaller ones (e.g. Jonah, Nahum, Malachi) present less challenges than the major books (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel). Trying to unpack the dense theological meaning and complicated historical contexts of these books is tough when you’re staring at fifteen seventh graders. They typically respond in one of two ways: 1) discouragement when reading the Prophets, or 2) refusal to understand them without some “hidden” meaning.[1] That’s why I was so excited when Kregel Academic put up Gary Smith’s Interpreting the Prophetic Books: An Exegetical Handbook. Although the book is designed to be used in sermon creation, it has use in a number of educational settings.

The format of the book is perfectly laid out to maximize your engagement of the text. While each chapter deals with the individual prophets as they’re laid out in the Old Testament, the main chapters in Interpreting the Prophetic Books follows a different format. The first chapter is a brief (but excellent) engagement with the nature of prophecy. As one of the most easily misunderstood, and sometime abused, genres of Scriptural writing, this section is vital. Old Testament studies can be dry, but Smith writes winsomely so that the reader doesn’t come away feeling stuffy or dusty. His section on “Deciphering the Imagery” was the highlight of the chapter, making access to such a difficult aspect clear and concise. Smith goes on to deal with themes from each book (chapter 2) the context of each prophet (chapter 3). “Issues in the Prophetic Texts” is a wonderful exploration of the problems plaguing interpretations of the books, but Smith is careful not to alienate his readers here. Chapter 5 serves as a very brief advisory section on how to preach these texts, and while interesting, primarily is crafted for preachers of the Word. Chapter 6, “From Text to Application” is also designed for the preacher, but it has wonderful implications for the classroom. It is a sampling of the steps outlined in the previous chapters, using two specific passages from the OT. Seeing Smith’s process actually laid out reveals its import for settings beyond the pulpit. Specifically, his explanation of how to create a thematic outline for an individual lesson is one of the most lucid examples of teaching the Prophetic literature I have read.

I don’t think this is a book I would necessarily recommend to everyone, however. Teachers and preachers would benefit greatly from its insights, but because it is a brief exploration of some of the more complicated aspects, it will probably leave the laymen without any background knowledge still lacking for understanding the context and interpretive complications. It is without a book that I will be using in my own Bible classes in the future.