Posted by: Dan | November 6, 2008

October Books

Well, since breaking my ankle and going through surgery, I’ve had quite a bit of time off work. That means that October was a pretty good month for reading. When I was all doped up, I even managed to read some fiction I wasn’t expecting to get to for awhile. Good times.

1. Reading Paul by Michael J. Gorman (Cascade Companions. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2008).

Well, I know that this has been said in a lot of other places, but this is a really excellent introduction to Paul and his (theopolitical) gospel. In many ways, this book acts as an handy summary of Gorman’s earlier (and equally excellent) books, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross of the the lengthier Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and His Letters. However, there is also a good deal that is new in this book, as Gorman continues to develop in his own thinking; hence, we see new emphases upon resurrection, multiculturalism, and nonviolence/peacemaking, within Paul’s life and experience.

This book also offers the best one sentence summary I’ve ever read of Paul (which, by the way, also acts as a summary of the book at hand). Here it is:

Paul preached, and then explained in various pastoral, community-forming letters, a narrative, apocalyptic, theopolitical gospel (1) in continuity with the story of Israel and (2) in distinction to the imperial gospel of Rome (and analogous powers) that was centred on God’s crucified and exalted Messiah Jesus, whose incarnation, life, and death by crucifixion were validated and vindicated by God in his resurrection and exaltation as Lord, which inaugurated the new age or new creation in which all members of this diverse but consistently covenantally dysfunctional human race who respond in self-abandoning and self-committing faith thereby participate in Christ’s death and resurrection and are (1) justified, or restored to right covenant relations with God and with others; (2) incorporated into a particular manifestation of Christ the Lord’s body on earth, the church, which is an alternative community to the status-quo human communities committed to and governed by Caesar (and analogous rulers) and by values contrary to the gospel; and (3) infused both individually and corporately by the Spirit of God’s Son so that they may lead “bifocal” lives, focused back on Christ’s first coming and ahead to his second, consisting of Christlike, cruciform (cross-shaped) (1) faith and (2) hope toward God and (3) love toward both neighbors and enemies (a love marked by peaceableness and inclusion), in joyful anticipation of (1) the return of Christ, (2) the resurrection of the dead to eternal life, and (3) the renewal of the entire creation. (Hey I didn’t say it was a short sentence!)

Over the last year or so, I have surveyed many books on Paul, and many introductions to his life and thought (by ‘many’ I mean something like 200-300), and this is definitely one of the best. I would recommend it to any reader interested in Paul, and especially recommend it to non-professional readers who are willing to read thoughtfully.

2. The End of the Age Has Come: The Theology of Paul by C. Marvin Pate (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995).

Many thanks to Chris from Zondervan for this copy.

In this book, C. Marvin Pate develops Oscar Cullmann’s thinking related to Paul’s understanding of eschatology. That is to say, Pate, like Cullmann, argues that Paul believed that in Jesus’ death and resurrection, and in the bestowal of the Spirit, the Old Age of sin and death has begun to end, and the New Age of Christ’s universal Lordship and God’s new creation of all things had begun. Hence, the present is a time of eschatological tension between the “now” and the “not yet” — for one lives between the ages, neither fully in one nor fully in the other.

What is especially helpful about Pate’s study of this topic is (1) the way in which he demonstrates how this sort of thinking makes sense for Paul in his context; and (2) the way in which this eschatological framework is then demonstrated to be the foundation Paul’s entire life and thought. Thus, it is this eschatological tension that shapes everything that Paul says about theology (the doctrine of God and God’s triumph), christology, soteriology, anthropology, pneumatology, ecclesiology, engagement with society, and eschatology (more narrowly defined as last things). Pate devotes a chapter to each of these subjects and their intimate link to Paul’s eschatological framework.

I enjoyed this book and found it’s thesis to be convincing. I would especially recommend it to those who fail to see the central importance that eschatology (properly understood) has within the Christian life.

3. Put Down Your Sword: Answering the Gospel Call to Creative Nonviolence by John Dear (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

Many thanks to Bill, at the Regent College bookstore, for this review copy from Eerdmans.

This is a somewhat eclectic collection of essays written by John Dear, a famous American peace activist. The essays are divided into five sections. In the first section, Dear reflects upon the Gospel vision of nonviolence, as embodied especially by God in Jesus Christ. In the second section, Dear relates personal stories from protests against the Los Alamos Nuclear Weapons Laboratories, the School of the Americas, and the U.S. war on Iraq. In the third section, Dear provides his readers with excerpts from journals he kept while on peace-missions to ‘Gandhi’s India’ and ‘war-torn Colombia’. In the fourth section, Dear reflects upon peacemakers who have inspired him (many of whom he has known personally, and been imprisoned with) — the people included here are Dr. King, Ignacio Ellacuría , César Chávez , Philip Berrigan, Ten Nobel Laureates, Henri Nouwen, Denise Levertov, Joan Baez, Bill O’Donnell, Thich Nhat Hanh, Sophie Scholl, and Franziska and Franz Jägerstätter. In the final (and most scattered) section, Dear reflects upon care for the earth, the teachings of Thomas Merton, and ‘the vision of a new world without war, poverty, violence, or nuclear weapons.’

For those who have read of or about any of the folks listed in above, there is not much content that is particularly new here (except for Dear’s personal angle on things, of course). However, rather than reading this book as some sort of scholarly resource to be plumbed for it’s contribution to my own thinking (or whatever… which, come to think of it, is how I read too many books these days… I need to change that), I chose to read this book as a devotional, and I was quite surprised with how, in its gentle and yet persuasive way, it soothed my heart and offered me new hope.

You see, I have found myself increasingly hopeless these days. Specifically, I find myself with little hope that I (or we) will see any of the change for which we long. So, I find myself putting my head down, and trying to remain faithful, even though much of what I do ends up being pointless (say advocating for youth at my workplace or whatever else). However, reading Dear’s words, and the words of the people he quotes, breathed new life into me. What he writes is a beautiful, inspiring, and compelling call to persevere, not ploddingly or heavily, but to persevere with joy and with hope (this combination of perseverance in hard times, while simultaneously being full of peace and joy is also especially evident in the New Testament and in the writings of liberation theologians… and often notably absent in my own life. How does one get to, and remain within, this place?). For example, Dear quotes a conversation that often occurred between his friend Pete Seeger, and other parties:

“In the early 1970s, did you ever expect to see President Nixon resign because of Watergate?” “No.” “Did you ever expect the Pentagon to leave Vietnam the way it did?” “No, we didn’t.” “In the 1980s, did you expect to see the Berlin Wall come down so peacefully?” “No, never.” “In the 1990s, did you expect to see Nelson Mandela released from prison, apartheid abolished, and Mandela become President of South Africa?” “Never in a million years.” “Did you ever expect the two warring sides of Northern Ireland to sign a peace agreement on Good Friday?” “Never.” “If you can’t predict those things, don’t be so confident that there’s no hope! There’s always hope!”

Man, that is water to my soul. Furthermore, it made me revisit my own thoughts on protest movements, letter writings, public marches, all that stuff. Maybe all of those actions aren’t nearly as pointless as I concluded when I walked away from them in 2004. I must think some more about this… and maybe I’ll start joining a few more protests and trying to look at them with new eyes.

4. A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey by Brian D. McLaren.

Many thanks to Mike from The Ooze for this review copy.

Well, it was high time I read some Brian McLaren, so I was very grateful to receive this review copy (and I look forward to receiving the next two books in this trilogy). To my own surprise, I enjoyed this book quite a lot (which, once again, goes to show that you can’t judge an author by his groupies — or at least by the groupies I personally ran into who totally put me off McLaren and a lot of the so-called ’emergent conversation’). So why did I like this book so much? Because it allows people to ask questions. It creates an environment that allows people to genuinely and deeply struggle with their faith. Alas, this is something that has been almost totally absent from the experience of a lot of McLaren’s target audience — those who grew up in American Evangelicalism. Therefore, it is no wonder that this book hit some many people like an oasis in the desert. McLaren lets people know that you can still be a Christian and question where you came from; you can still be a Christian and have unresolved doubts; you can still be a Christian and not be like the other Christians with whom you grew up. From my own experiences working with young people who are not allowed to ask questions, raise doubts, or be different, I can see the value in this book (after all, I almost got fired from a camp — where I was leading staff bible studies — because I was asking open questions, and honestly trying to struggle with tough issues of the faith; I mean, a concerned mother wrote into the camp and said that the devil was speaking through me because I stated that universalism could be a Christian alternative, and because I said there might be times when swearing doesn’t matter all that much!).

Of course, there are some issues I would want to raise with McLaren — his stereotyping of modernity as almost entirely negative (or ‘inappropriate’ as he would say), and of postmodernity as almost entirely positive (‘appropriate’) is pretty superficial. Even worse, he labels modernity the age of consumerism and states that postmodernity is, or will be, postconsumerist and I think that this is a very, very serious error. As those like Frederic Jameson have argued, postmodernity is not post-capitalist. It is, in fact, the cultural logic of late capitalism. This then suggests that McLaren might have a blindspot in this regard, and opens him to the criticism that much of the emergent church is precisely an expression of this consumer mentality.

However, there was one point where I thought I would disagree with McLaren… but I didn’t. You see, I expect him to present “a new kind of Christian” as a better kind of Christian. After all, this is the vibe I have gotten from a lot of emergent folk — that they are leaving the rest of the Church in their dust as they carve the Christian path into the future. However, McLaren is explicit that being “a new kind of Christian” is not a better way of being a Christian, nor is it a worse way. It is simply another way. As one of the characters in the book states: “We’re talking about a new kind of Christian, not the new kind or a better kind or the superior kind, just a new kind”. Excellent.

There are other areas that I think McLaren needs to fill out more carefully — in particular, I think he needs to fill out some of his thoughts (and maybe he has elsewhere?) on what it means to “be a Christian and yet be culturally Buddhist, Muslim, or Navajo”. I can agree with the examples he provides (Navajo Christians engaging in sweats, etc.) but I would want to hear more from him on this point. By an large, it seems like McLaren takes a largely positive view of the dominant culture within which one finds oneself, and this does strike me as a wee bit optimistic.

Another point that I think is a bit objectionable, is the way in which McLaren seems to repeat the idea that Christians do far more harmful things to each other than non-Christians. Now, granted, since McLaren has lived in a largely Christian milieu, it’s not surprising that he would have this personal experience, but the fact is that Christians and non-Christians alike do harmful things to each other, and it isn’t helpful to suggest that one group is worse than the other. Christians aren’t the only ones to shoot their wounded. Everybody shoots the wounded.

However, leaving these sort of objections aside, I was very happy to have read this book, and it is exactly the sort of book that I would love to work through with a group of Christian high-school, or college-age, students.

5. Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile by Rob Bell and Don Golden (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008).

Many thanks to Chris from Zondervan for this review copy.

In many ways, this book reminded me of Claiborne and Haw’s recent book. Like Jesus for President, this book engages in a theopolitical rereading of the biblical narrative in order to inform and inspire a Eucharistic socio-political vision of what it means to be and do Church today. Thus, the authors begin with the bondage of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt — which, they are correct to note, is the true starting point of of the biblical narrative (for more reasons than the one they mention) — and move through the exodus, to Sinai, to the corrupt kings of Israel, to exile, to Jesus, Pentecost, the Church, and America today. What we discover in the process is something of a cyclical pattern. We start in bondage in Egypt — a place of oppression and bondage — we move to Sinai — the anti-Egypt place of liberation and active care for others — we then come to Jerusalem where the oppressed forget their roots and become oppressors — thereby restoring a sort of Egypt — and this results in a new bondage — exile — which then leads to a new form of liberation — Jesus — and a new Sinai — the eucharistic community of faith — which has now lost it’s way in America — resulting in a new Egypt and a new exile — and requiring the recovery of one’s identity in order to bring about a new liberation (hmmm… is that a run-on sentence?).

Now this is all well and good, and I am very sympathetic with what Bell and Golden are doing in this book. I think that their criticisms of empires are pretty bang-on, and I think that they call they issue to contemporary Christians is equally bang-on. In fact, I would want to push them further down this road and argue that they are too generous to the American empire. For example, they argue that the American empire has been ‘blessed by God’ and should, therefore, share that blessing with others. However, when you get down to the material economic details of all this, you will find that America is actually wealthy because she is plundering less powerful people, both at home and around the world. I wouldn’t call that a divine ‘blessing’, I’d call that theft and murder. (Before people charge me with being anti-American, let me say that the same criticism is true of Canada.)

However, I would like to challenge the way in which the authors understand ‘exile’, one of their dominant motifs. According to the authors this is what exile is:

Exile is when you forget your story.

Exile isn’t just about location; exile is about the state of your soul.

Exile is when you fail to convert your blessings into blessings for others.

Exile is when you find yourself a stranger to the purposes of God.

Therefore, according to the authors, the solution is to remember your story, begin to care for others, begin to live back in line with God’s purposes, and in this way be liberated from exile. It is to begin to cry out to God, so that one’s life can be turned around. For (and this is perhaps the most repeated assertion in the book), the God of the Bible is the God who always hears and responds to the cry of the suffering (like those suffering under exilic conditions).

However, what this misses the true depth of the biblical understanding of exile. Exile, at its core, is the experience of godforsakenness. Exile is when God stops answering our cries… because our hands are covered in blood and because we are members of a people who are up to their necks in the blood of others. Hence, we hear the laments of the prophets in the Old Testament — the laments of Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel and others — aren’t just that Israel is being dragged out of the land. The primary cause of their lament is that God has abandoned them. All of them. Not just the corrupt arms-dealers and power-mongers. God had also abandoned his prophets and all the citizens of the nation (except, as 2 Kings 24 reminds us, the very poor, whom God remembers and permits to remain in the land). Therefore, if the authors think that we are living in a time that could be described as exilic, I think that they need to wrestle far more seriously with this core aspect of exile, instead of glossing over it with lines about how God always hears and responds to our cries and the cries of the oppressed. Both history and Scripture teach us otherwise.

I have two further objections to raise. I have already alluded to the first when I talked about how the authors refer to America’s wealth as a sign of God’s blessing. My objection here is that the authors, despite their ‘revolutionary’ stance, might be more complicit in the structures of empire than they imagine (since, after all, they see blood money as a sign of blessing). A further sign of this is when they talk about practicing Eucharistic forms of charity, and describe this practice in this way:

The Eucharist is not fair.

Giving to those who cannot give in return, that’s not fair.

Serving those who have no way to serve in return, that’s not fair.

Two things need to be said in response to this. First, when we give to the poor, we are restoring to them that which is rightfully theirs. Thus, the only thing ‘not fair’ about this is that we had what belonged to them in the first place. Second, what one discovers when one begins to give to, and serve, the poor is that one takes, receives, and ends up being served even more. This has been my own experience, and it has been the experience of many others — Vanier, Nouwen, Day, Maurin, Mother Teresa, Sobrino, etc. Again, this might not be ‘fair’ but it’s not fair because we don’t deserve such grace, not because we’re doing so much or whatever.

My second further objection to what the authors say, is the way they talk about guilt. They write:

Guilt is not helpful.

Honesty is helpful. Awareness is helpful. Knowledge is helpful.

Guilt isn’t.

Again later:

And when we listen and go, it will never be about guilt.

It will never come on the heels of “Well, I guess I’m supposed to.”

I’ve noticed this sort of thinking seems to be fairly common in counter-cultural Christian movements. Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand the motive. I understand that it is important to be operating out of grace, and I understand that movements premised upon guilt are usually unsustainable and short-lived. However, my concern is that we then take away the Spirit’s role of convicting us of our sins and spurring us to repentance. The truth is that there is a proper place for guilt (for example, it is appropriate to feel guilty after sinning against another person) and guilt might be precisely what we need to feel to start us onto a new path. Of course, guilt won’t sustain us on that path, but if we never feel guilty, we may never get on it.

So, all in all, I feel as though Bell and Golden have begun a good process and a good conversation, and I hope that they continue to follow it through and explore the depths of some of these things.

6. Sixteen Satires by Juvenal.

These satires, on a number of topics, offer a great glimpse into civic and social life at the end of first century/start of the second century CE. After spending the last year and a half reading about the Graeco-Roman world at that time, I found that these satires really came alive for me. In fact, I even found myself chuckling at parts, which I think means that I’ve crossed some sort of geek line of no return. Oh well. I regret nothing!

However, as with the satires of Petronius and Seneca, my impression is that these satires actually reinforce the values and interests of the elite and the powers-that-be. The particular objects of Juvenal’s scorn tend to be freedmen, the nouveau riches, hangers-on, and other would-be social climbers. Hence, although Juvenal may appear to be speaking quite critically of Roman society, he is actually criticising those who would change Roman society into something else (something less beneficial for Juvenal!).

7. The Gods Will Have Blood [Les Dieux Ont Soif] by Anatole France (not sure why the title was changed so much in translation…)

I’ve kind of been on French literature kick lately. Well, I’ve wanted to be on a French literature kick, but I haven’t had the time for it. Hooray, then, for my broken ankle!

Based on what I had read about this book, I came with fairly high expectations. However, much of what this book is praised for is the mastery France shows of the French language in which it was originally written… so maybe a lot was lost in translation.

That said, this is a story focused upon an idealistic young artist, Gamelin, who lived in Paris during the French Revolution. It demonstrates the ways in which a stringent allegiance to lofty ideals can lead to terribly inhuman actions (hence, Gamelin develops from a youth full of ideals into a Jacobin magistrate who sends some of his own family to the guillotine). In contrast to Gamelin, is the Epicurean Brotteaux — a former nobleman now reduced to humbly living in an attic and selling puppets in order to survive. Brotteaux offers the reader with a character who doesn’t place much confidence in ideals, or in those who hold them, and who much prefers to try and enjoy life without hurting others.

I won’t give away how all of this plays out in the end, but I was somewhat disappointed in the presentation of the characters. I did, however, find this window into the French revolution to be quite captivating, and it made me think I should go and read some history books.

8. Shouts From the Gutter by Chris Walter.

Chris Walter writes like somebody with a Grade 7 education. That’s because he only has a Grade 7 education. So, the fact that Chris Walter is a successful Vancouver author, and the founder of his own publishing company (Gofuckyerself Press), despite the fact that he was a gutter-punk, street-involved, drug-user (and whatever else) for so many years, makes him something of an underground punk icon around here. Of course, not everybody feels this way about Chris. When you read the blurbs on the back of this book, two stand out more than the others. “Quill & Quire” writes: “Chris Walter? Who the hell is Chris Walter?” and Margaret Atwood, one of Canada’s most famous authors, writes: “Chris Walter is a fucking asshole.”

This book is a collection of short stories, which blend real life experiences with fictional events and characters. As I implied above, given Walter’s background, you shouldn’t expect to find another Don DeLillo here. Instead, you can expect to find an insider’s perspective on street life. And that makes this book a real gem.

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Responses

  1. Dan,

    I always appreciate your monthly book reviews. The idea of McLaren’s book opening the door to ask questions was a big part of its appeal to me, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that you liked the book. I have been meaning to read the Rob Bell book as well, but can’t seem to find it over here.

    I was wondering if you know of any good books on the topic of discipleship. I think that’s an area that I am going to focus on in my studies this year. I have some Bonhoeffer of course, but I wasn’t sure if you had come across some good stuff in that area throughout all your reading.

    If you could pass along a few titles that I could check out, I would greatly appreciate it.

    Cheers,

    Ian

  2. Dan,

    I’ve appreciated and respected your writing off and on for a while now. As I was reading this post (specifically the part on godforsakeness)I was reminded of the biblical accounts of God seemingly commanding the Israelites to go to war. My readings of this are quite shallow and I was hoping for some suggestions on books and articles relating to these texts. Or maybe you’ve written on it in the past.

    Thanks for your help,

    Michael

  3. I appreciate all your reviews. My ‘extra-curricular’ reading time is so limited, but your reviews have helped me choose material once or twice.

    Ah, to be a childless student again and have so much time for reading!

    I hope that a year from now I might start to see some reviews of children’s stories as they become a much larger proportion of your reading list. :)

  4. Plase check out jesuswantstosavechristians.blogspot.com. It’s an intro to an alternate reality game (ARG) based on the message of Bell’s and Golden’s book. Very intriguing.


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