Book Reviews

review of the really, very, holy, Dr Tilling

My review of Chris Tilling’s monograph,, Paul’s Divine Christology is now published (in SCJ).  If you click the SCJ link, you can gain (free) access to all of the book reviews in the current edition.  There’s more than 60-pages worth, so you’ll certainly get your fill.  Happy reading.

more smelly fish

Early last year, I did a piece on Jack Kinsella and suspected plagiarism. The gist of the first half of that post was that I occasionally have a sense for when something is not right in someone’s writing. When that sense overwhelms me, I will follow up on and check things out to see if they’re kosher. In the case of Kinsella, my suspicions were proven correct (see the second half of that post).

Earlier this week, I did a post on the recently published, Middle of the Earth by Allen Austin, where I (admittedly) critiqued the premises and assumptions in a rather blunt fashion. This afternoon, Mr Austin offered his feedback to my post (see the comments in the aforementioned link). I can appreciate his objection to my critique, one formulated without having read the book; thus, I offered my time to read through his arguments if Xulon Press would graciously send me a review copy. Since I had my doubts that such graciousness would be extended to me, I decided to have a look-see on GoogleBooks. Thankfully, GB had a preview of it.

I made my way through the Preface, and I honestly found myself confused at what Mr Austin was advocating and where he planned to go with it. Since one of his main contentions is that what he argues in the book is founded on biblical truths (revealed to him via God’s leading [p. viii]), it was no surprise to find a discussion about the nature of the Bible. However, it was here that something didn’t seem right. The writing style changed, and the level of argumentation was markedly different from what preceded it. I smelled fish. After a quick search, here is what I found.

First, read Mr Austin’s comments on page xiv of his Middle of the Earth (found here, you’ll have to scroll down a bit)–beginning with the phrase: ‘Much of the Old Testament . . .’ Go ahead, I’ll wait for you. Now that you’re done with that, go here and scroll down to the fourth paragraph. Once there, begin reading from the third sentence –the one that starts with: ‘Much of the Old Testament . . .’ Look familiar? It should. Either Mr Austin moonlights as ‘Steven Solomon’ (i.e. it’s Austin’s pseudonym) or Austin lifted his material from Solomon without permission. Not a wise move.

So far so good

I have finally started reading Peter Enns‘ book, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (2005).*  I have been meaning to read this book for some time now, but I have simply not had the time to give it the attention it deserves.  That time has changed (obviously).  Admittedly, I am only a preface and one chapter into the book, which means I will not be able to speak fully at this point.  However, I can say that what I see so far is reasonable and quite good. 

The first chapter lays the groundwork for the approach Enns seeks to take as he explores the manifold nature of the Bible, especially the Old Testament.  Specifically, Enns wants to examine the (striking) similarities between what is found in the Bible/OT and what appears in similar genres and texts from the ancient Near East (ANE).  Two seemingly contradictory things stand out for me in this regard: 1) Enns is not denying the unique quality of the Bible/OT by doing this comparison; 2) Enns wants to understand how to deal with the similar form and content between the Bible/OT and texts from the ANE in a way that maintains the uniqueness of the former.  Or to oversimplify: Enns want to understand how the Bible/OT is like other texts from the ANE but at the same time unlike those texts.  When I was working on my MA thesis in Seminary, I found myself wrestling with the same sorts of questions/issues and wanting to come out of the stuggle in a similar way.  While I am not entirely sure how well I came out in that process, I do know that I have a greater sensitivity and respect for this type of discussion.  (I now wish I had Enns’ book during that writing stage). 

One final thought on the opening of this book deals with something just below the surface–something easily overlooked if one is not paying close enough attention.  I have read a few articles by Enns and they carry with them a deep sense of clarity and what I would call a ‘humble boldness’.  In other words, Enns is ‘to-the-point’ and incredibly insightful but not in a way that reeks of academic smugness.   In his book (at least the preface and first chapter), there is a slight sense of vagueness and what could be termed, ‘humble reserve’.  I get the the impression that Enns knows his argument is controversial and even difficult to address in an honest fashion.  However, that he expresses himself with this humble reserve tells me that he is not dealing with this material lightly nor is he wanting to be seen as a ranging liberal bull in a quaint little conservative china-shoppe.  At the very least, Enns should be commended for that; and I do.

* As many will know, this book was the shot heard ’round the world in that it ultimately (and sadly) led to Enns losing his position at Westminster Theological Seminary.

(Soon-to-be) Published review of Michael Gorman

243239451If all things go according to plan, I am set to have a book review published in the upcoming issue of the Stone Campbell Journal.  Because the review has not yet been published (to my knowledge), and because I am not 100% certain on the rules of republishing reviews in different venues; I will give only the highlights of my original submission.  

The book in question is the newest contribution by Michael J. Gorman–a notable professor at St. Mary’s Seminary & University (Baltimore).  The book is, Reading Paul, and it is an excellent introductory work on understanding Paul’s gospel message.  What is of primary importance for Gorman, at least at the start of the book, is the need to see Paul as a contemporary “spiritual guide” (p.2)–a guide whose influence is just as relevant today as in his own day.  However, just like in his own day, Paul, as a “spiritual guide”, is still a controversial figure and the controversy revolves around the implications of his gospel.  

The core of Gorman’s book (chapters 5-12) explores–albeit in condensed form–the main themes that run throughout the gospel message that Paul delivered during his career.  What is absolutely commendable about this portion of the book is the recognition of so many distinct theological themes working together to create a unified whole.  Two of these themes stand out in my mind: 1) justification by faith, and 2) end-times theology–or, eschatology.  Gorman handles both of these themes with incredible clarity and his arguments need to be considered with the respect they deserve.  Gorman rightly notes that all of the themes in chapters 5-12 are not meant to be read only within religious settings, for the gospel was not meant to be so confined.  The gospel, both in Paul’s day and in the modern world, speaks to the areas of theology, politics, philosophy, sociology, etc. 

For those of you who might be interested in getting a broad-brush view of Paul’s gospel, I would highly recommend this book.  Even though it is newer, I would also recommend reading this book as a sound introduction to Gorman’s other books.  These earlier works expound upon the larger implications of Paul’s gospel with a depth expected from a seasoned scholar and a scholar who is committed to living what he calls a “cruciform life” (p. 146).

Scot McKnight review (1)

41ewim5wwcl_ss500_First of all, I owe a massive apology to the wonderful people at Zondervan simply because I have not been able to post any sort of review as promised.  I hope to remedy that in this series of posts.  

The book in question is by Scot McKnight, who is a professor, student of the Bible, commentator (on many things), public speaker, writer, avid coffee drinker, a prolific blogger, and a family man.  The book, as should be apparent from the nice little picture, is entitled, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible.  

In some ways, from what I’ve gathered thus far from my reading, this book is a book on hermeneutics (i.e., the study of interpretation).  However, it is unlike most hermeneutical texts available, which tend to be quite dull simply because of the technicalities and are geared toward a particular audience.  Where McKnight’s book differs is not only in its liveliness but also in its approach.  

McKnight addresses the discipline of hermeneutics at a more fundamental level by dealing with the basic (and sometimes overlooked) questions of: “what are we doing?” and “why are we doing it this way?”  Most hermeneutical texts assume the answer to the first question, and most will slide right past the second; but McKnight (rightly) points out that both have to be understood before any adequate interpretation can happen.  (After all, part of the interpretation process is making available for a modern audience what was a near priceless gem for an ancient audience).  More importantly, McKnight’s audience is much more practical–he is addressing anyone and everyone whose life has been shaped by the Bible and who continue to seek to live by it.

What I hope to do in this series of posts is review the larger “Parts” of the book (and there are four) in order to understand not only the contents of each part (which varies) but also how the parts fit together as a whole.  This first review-post will look at the two introductory chapters that precede the first Part of McKnight’s new book.  These two chapters are the broad-brush strokes of what McKnight is doing.

*NOTE: the page numbers used in this posting reflect the sequence I have in my “advanced reader copy”; the actual page numbers might be different in the final, printed edition of the book*

CHAPTER 1:  While McKnight’s conversion story is quite different than some, the commonality between his story and those of others needs to be noted: when God is allowed to change a person, in many ways, the effects of that change are beyond comprehension.  Yet, and this is another commonality, there is sometimes the nagging question of: what hasn’t changed, and why?  The answer, for McKnight, is that some things have not changed partly because of the assumptions with which people read the Bible and partly because the Bible is perceived to be a book that is to be obeyed and not necessarily lived.  But even the obedience side of things is not fully and faithfully practiced by those who claim to have their lives governed by the Bible.  

McKnight addresses all of these problems simultaneously with the overarching problem of people “picking and choosing” which bits of the Bible are read and/or followed (see, 13-17).  Sabbath-keeping, tithing, foot washing, charismatic gifts, giving up one’s stuff, and what he calls “contentious issues” (17) prove to be examples of things that are inconsistently lived out by those claiming faithful obedience to the Word.  The underlying issue with these examples is the modern tendency to say, “That was then; things are different now, so we have to interpret them differently”.  However, McKnight is not comfortable with this response for the simple fact that no (consistent) explanation is given for how and why these things have to be interpreted differently (see, 18-21).  This lack of consistency seems to be the reason for why varying interpretations on individual texts are given by so many different people; and it is the problem that McKnight wants to confront (and hopefully solve).

CHAPTER 2:  McKnight begins the second chapter with a seemingly tangental story about a blue parakeet in his back yard, which initially disrupted the status-quo maintained by the other birds in the same yard.  This apparent tangent becomes foundational to McKnight’s purposes when he describes what took place after the other birds got over the initial shock of the newly arrived blue addition.  The story serves as a reminder (or, a heads-up) for what happens when we–as readers, students, and followers of the Bible–are caught off guard by something that seems to alter our world.  For McKnight, such experiences are not to be avoided, let alone explained away with combative arguments (see, 24-25).  However, there are (at least) three ways in which most people have responded to such experiences, and these responses affect how the Bible is read and understood.  McKnight gives a good summary to each of these three ways:

1) Reading to Retrieve: this is the idea of returning to the time and culture in which the biblical ideas were expressed and bringing them forward into the present so that consistency is maintained (see, 25-27).  This winds up being based on a rather literalist reading of the text, which, in some cases, can create serious problems.  McKnight is also reluctant to accept the practice of returning to the time of the Bible and only bringing forward what is culturally relevant for the modern world (see, 27).  The problem here is that an ever-changing culture determines what is good and useful.  The key for McKnight is that students and followers of the Bible need to listen to and be guided by God’s Spirit so as to be relevant to a modern world (see 27-29).  

2) Reading through Tradition: this is the idea of safeguarding oneself from individualistic readings (and interpretations) of the Bible that are later claimed to be just as valid as someone else’s individualistic reading–even when the conflict (see, 29-33).  For McKnight, we as students and followers of the Bible need to acknowledge not only the indebtedness we have to the great minds of the past but also the reality that these minds never intended the Bible to be read in isolation.  It was generally the case that these isolation readings wound up creating variant and even heretical ideas.  However, McKnight rightly notes that there is a delicate balance between respecting tradition and revering it (see, 31-32).  The six-step progression that comes with overly revering tradition is definitely worthy keeping in mind (see, 32).

3) Reading with Tradition: this is the idea that neither God nor his truth are static.  In this regard, McKnight has a great comment with noting:

“Anyone who stops and wants to turn a particular moment into a monument, as the disciples did when Jesus was transfigured before them, will soon be wondering where God has gone” (33)

The notion of reading with tradition is the answer to how students and follower of the Bible are able to listen to and be guided by God’s Spirit so that they become relevant to a modern world.  This notion of reading with tradition is also the way in which the balance between respecting and revering tradition is maintained (see, 34-35).  By maintaining this balance, the truth of God can be transmitted (effectively) to any and every culture in ways that radically (re)shape cultural identity.

Hans-Georg Gadamer review (2)

My time has recently been spent packing our house so that we can move home to Atlanta, and then make move to Cheltenham (England) as soon as possible.  My time has also been spent reading a much larger book by David Ford (Christian Wisdom: Desiring God and Learning in Love) so that I can right a “proper” review of it for possible submission.  As a result, my free time for reading other books has been somewhat limited, and my posting on such texts has been equally affected.  This post will (obviously) continue my review of Gadamer’s work, The Beginning of Philosophy, which I began here a short time ago.  I also hope to return to Kyle Fedler’s text on Christian ethics, which I started here last month.  Until then, here is more of Gadamer.

Chapter 2: “Hermeneutic Access to the Beginning”
In this chapter, Gadamer, building on the established semantic and conceptual range of the term “beginning” (German: Anfang), extends the discussion by assessing the methodological tendencies generally associated with his sort of quest.  Since Gadamer is concerned with abstractions (i.e., the history of ideas), he rightly introduces (and critiques) the default Hegelian approach for plotting the trajectory of such abstractions.[1]  In what appears to be an intentional move, Gadamer adopts his own methodology–the one he seeks to employ for his Presocratic investigation–and applies it to understanding the development of Hegelian logic.  He does this by critiquing the contributions made by two philosophers who stand in Hegel’s wake: Eduard Zeller and Wilhelm Dilthey–the former being more Hegelian than the latter.  

Zeller, Gadamer maintains, is one who is at once part of the Hegelian tradition and not entirely bound to it–his “conceptual basis is a moderate Hegelianism” (p. 21).  Zellar’s allegiance can be traced to his implicit dependence on Hegel’s (modified) dialectical approach, which is found in the insistence that all ideas are interconnected and are in a state of constant, dependent change.  This simple–almost unconscious–allegiance is what Gadamer finds difficult, because it implies a rigid commitment to a methodological approach that is fraught with obstacles and whose (universal) application is generally forced onto historical ideas and texts.  

Dilthey, Gadamer suggests, is one who appears (to change Gadamer’s metaphor) to be standing on the shoulders of Friedrich Schleiermacher and Immanuel Kant.  This dependence is most clearly seen in Dilthey’s structuralism, which professes to be a system that sees ideas (or, the effects of ideas) as organic rather than hierarchical (see, pp. 22-23).  In this way, the harmony of ideas and the interplay shared between them are quintessential, and the reality that such a harmonious interplay exists necessarily implies structure.  Gadamer rightly questions this approach as it pertains to the investigation of the Presocratics, simply because locating a harmonious interplay between the Presocratic writings is nearly impossible.  

Gadamer intriguingly–though implicitly–points out that Hegelian dialecticism and nearly all forms of structuralism share one thing in common: each are dependent upon the Cartesian methodological revolution, which spawned the (fairly rigid) scientific formula for conducting experimental investigations.  For Gadamer, foisting these pre-Enlightenment (and later post-Enlightenment) developments onto the methodological framework of the Presocratics is simply misguided and reveals a tendency of not distinguishing between science and philosophy (see, pp. 25-27).  Thus, to understand the Presocratics and the development of their thought, one must investigate such things on their terms and by using their categories–not ones anachronistically applied for the sake of convenience.

The methodological approach that Gadamer espouses for his critique of the Presocratics is at the same time sober and ambiguous.  The ambiguity is that no clear system is mentioned–there are only admitted presuppositions; but that may be the heart of the issue.  Within these admitted presuppositions are the points of sobriety: he confesses that there is no objective position from which anyone is able to conduct a historical investigation–especially one oriented toward the development of ideas (see, pp. 28-29); and he also suggests that the very term “method” should be understood in its ancient form–a form that allowed flexibility and incompatibility with respect to dialogical concepts (see, pp. 30-31).  The investigator must situate himself or herself right in the midst of what is being surveyed and also express a willingness to dialogue with the cultural, social, and ideological milieu about which he or she desires to learn.  

Or, to allow Gadamer to state it more succinctly:

We are not observers who look at history from a distance; rather, insofar as we are historical creatures, we are always on the inside of the history that we are striving to comprehend (p. 28 )

[1] To oversimplify matters, the Hegelian approach for plotting the development of ideas is threefold: first, determine a given, controlling idea (thesis); second, locate the competing–if not contradictory–idea (antithesis); third, determine the outcome (synthesis) that arises from the clash between the controlling and competing ideas.  What is vital to note is that the “synthesis” that emerges itself becomes a new “thesis”; thus, the entire approach becomes a practice in a type of conceptual evolutionary theory.