Book Review: Exodus Church and Civil Society

ExodusChurchandCivilSocietyTitle: Exodus Church and Civil Society: Public Theology and Social Theory in the Work of Jürgen Moltman

Author: Scott Paeth

Bibliographic info: viii + 223 pp.

Publisher: Ashgate, 2008.

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With thanks to Ashgate for the review copy!

As the title of this volume indicates, this study examines the relationship between theology and social theory in the theological project of Jürgen Moltmann. The author, Scott Paeth, explores Moltmann’s concept of the “exodus church” (a concept first discussed by Moltmann in the final chapter of his Theologie der Hoffnung / Theology of Hope), and how the church can engage in public theology in our (pluralistic) civil society. What is meant by public theology and what does it entail? These words from the author may be helpful:

It is because the church exists as an entity within civil society and also as a community set apart through its faith in the promises of God, that it can act in anticipation of the coming Kingdom of God in ways that have the potential to make genuine political and social progress in modern society.

The book is divided in four parts.

In the first part, Paeth takes a look at Moltmann’s public theology. Part of this entails a look at a possible distinction in Moltmann’s writings between his “public” theology and “political” theology. Paeth rightly, in my opinion, notes that there is continuity between the two, with political theology being subsumed under the larger rubric of public theology. This part also encompasses a helpful examination of the role of Moltmann’s concept of the “exodus church” in civil society.

In the second part, Paeth goes further into Moltmann’s public theology, specifically in regards to ethical engagement. He draws upon Walter Rauschenbusch’s ethics of the kingdom of God, H. Richard Niebuhr’s theology of social responsibility, and Reinhold Niebuhr’s theology of sin and human social relations (these three theologians could be considered as having provided precursors to public theology). Other theologians Paeth draws upon are David Tracy, Ronald Thiemann, Max Stackhouse, Miroslav Volf, Hans Küng, James Skillen, and Karl Barth.

With the third part of this book, Paeth discusses Moltmann’s relation to thinkers of the Frankfurt School in the 1960s, Max Weber and Max Horkheimer, as well as Jürgen Habermas (and his “recovery of emancipation through communication”). By exploring the themes of civil society and the public role of the church, Paeth is attempting to make up for a missing aspect in Moltmann’s writings on civil society as it appears in history.

For the final part, Paeth ties together everything he has discussed so far with the hope being to provide an approach to public theology in a pluralistic society. There is substantial interaction with Moltmann himself in this section, particularly his Theology of Hope, The Crucified God, and The Way of Jesus Christ. Paeth sees the political engagement of the believer to be essential in Moltmann’s theological project.

This study is more of a theoretical examination of the topic, rather than one which draws upon actual case-studies of the church’s engagement with civil society, yet despite its focus on theory it is written in a very accessible manner. The author shows an in-depth knowledge of Moltmann’s oeuvre and this study will definitely be beneficial for anyone interested in Moltmann, and will also be enlightening to anyone interested in the relationship between church and modern society. It is a touch on the expensive side (~$100), so you might have to take a trip to your local seminary!

Book Review: Linguistic Analysis of the Greek New Testament

linguisticanalysisTitle: Linguistic Analysis of the Greek New Testament: Studies in Tools, Methods, and Practice

Author: Stanley Porter

Bibliographic info: 448 pp.

Publisher: Baker Academic, 2015.

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This volume is a collection of studies, many of which are papers that the author has delivered at past conferences (e.g. SBL and SNTS), though which have until now remained unpublished. The author, Stanley Porter, is a name that I am sure is familiar with those acquainted with studies on linguistics of the Greek New Testament.

The studies in this volume are divided into three sections: (I) Texts and Tools for Analysis; (II) Approaching Analysis; and (III) Doing Analysis. Each of the studies tackle matters of the Greek New Testament in various linguistic perspectives.

The four chapters in the first section discuss matters necessary for the linguistic analysis of the Greek New Testament, including topics such as lexicography and computer-related issues. An interesting conclusion of Porter’s in this section is that the “Louw-Nida lexicon is an underutilized resource in New Testament studies, while the Bauer type of lexicon is probably best seen as reflecting an earlier day and age in lexicography.”

The eight chapters in the second section discuss the way of approaching linguistics analysis of the Greek New Testament, including discourse analysis, verbal aspect, sociolinguistics, and ideational meta-function within a register. As an aside, Porter is the only person I’ve come across (as far as I can remember) who really brings the subject of register into conversation with studies on the Greek New Testament (there are two chapters in this volume where Porter discusses the concept of register).

The nine chapters in the third section provide specific examples of linguistic analysis, such as a register analysis of Mark 13, verbal aspect in the Synoptics and extrabiblical texts, a study on the grammar of 1 Tim. 2:8, and the utilization of the Prague linguistic school of thought to examine the opponents in Romans, Philemon, and Colossians. The final chapter in this section looks at hyponymy as a possible instructive interpretive device for discussing the Trinity in the New Testament (hyponymy refers to how a word’s semantic field is included within that of another word). While various models and analogies have been provided in recent theology to explore the concept of the Trinity (e.g. narrative, process, social), Porter offers up his own linguistic model that draws upon the notion of hyponymy in order to explore the relationship between the biblical usage of terms such as “God” and “Lord.” It was a brief study but an interesting approach.

This volume is a technical discussion of various linguistic aspects of the Greek New Testament, so considering that most biblical students typically just learn the Greek language and learn next to nothing about linguistics in the process, I think it is fair to say that this volume will be mostly inaccessible to the average biblical studies student. However, those who study the Greek New Testament and have some knowledge of linguistics will no doubt benefit from this volume and, I imagine, it would make a useful supplemental tool for an advanced Greek New Testament course.

Brief Book Review: The Transformative Church

thetransformativechurchTitle: The Transformative Church: New Ecclesial Models and the Theology of Jurgen Moltmann

Author: Patrick Oden

Series: Emerging Scholars

Bibliographic info: 352 pp.

Publisher: Fortress Press, 2015.

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Patrick Oden’s The Transformative Church is a revised version of his doctoral dissertation completed at Fuller Theological Seminary.

You might be wondering what the author means by the “transformative church.” This term refers to the type of church that participates in the surrounding context, bringing life in the process. This is opposed to both the conventional type of church that looks more or less identical to its surrounding context, and the disconnected church that desires to completely separate itself from its surrounding context. The transformative church takes a third way, a way which involves itself in the surrounding context, yet does so without simply becoming a part of the system. The transformative type of church is seen in various ecclesial models, such as missional, emerging, or neo-monastic.

What the author does in this work is to put such transformative churches in dialogue with the theology of Jürgen Moltmann. Three chapters discusses eight points that Moltmann outlines in his Experiences in Theology that offer up a life-affirming hermeneutical approach to the Bible. Oden takes these eight points and discusses them by drawing upon other key works in Moltmann’s large corpus of writings: Theology of Hope, The Crucified God, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, The Coming of God, God in Creation, The Trinity and the Kingdom, The Way of Jesus Christ, and The Spirit of Life.

There are three more chapters in which Oden discusses various practices in relation to transformative churches. The practices are:

  • identifying with the life of Jesus
  • transforming the secular realm
  • living highly communal lives
  • welcoming the stranger
  • serving with generosity
  • participating as producers
  • creating as created beings
  • leading as a body
  • taking part in spiritual activities.

I’m quite familiar with Moltmann’s theology and I think Oden has provided a well-informed and constructive examination of Moltmann’s ecclesiological thinking that is seen throughout his works over the decades. Oden provides a useful and knowledgeable understanding of Moltmann’s theology. He provides a compelling study that can inform churches and lead to a transformative messianic life taking shape in the community. If you’re interested in Moltmann or in ecclesiology, I would recommend this work without reserve.

More Thoughts on Religion and Violence

Sacred Scripture and Violence

A potent source of power to be found within religion is its ability to excite the imagination, whether it be through liturgy, preaching, or the reading of sacred texts. The sacred scriptures of the major world religions contain violence in a variety of manners, inviting a confounding array of interconnected theological, moral, and hermeneutical questions. Some of the more voracious critics of religion are seemingly unable to appreciate religion outside of an absolutist understanding, opting to search a sacred text or religious history for any piece of barbarous activity that can be found and then using that to generalize about the ultimate cause of suffering in the world.

Yet despite the fact that sacred texts have been interpreted by many groups and individuals to sanction violence (of whatever form), it is foolhardy to use isolated texts and historical events in order to categorically label a religion as being violent or more prone to violence. All religions are vulnerable of being (mis)interpreted in a malicious manner so as to lead to violence, but in the end it is the interpretive apparatus employed by the reader that makes the difference. Not everyone, of course, agrees with this assessment, including Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer who says, “religiously justified violence is first and foremost a problem of ‘sacred’ texts and not a problem of misinterpretations of the texts” (emphasis in original; Is Religion Killing Us? Violence in the Bible and Quran [New York: Continuum, 2003], p. xiv).

Some Christian denominations, such as the Quakers, Mennonites, and much of the entire Anabaptist tradition, interpret various teachings of Jesus, such as “But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer” (Matt. 5:39), as prohibiting violence and employ such verses as a guiding principle for their social lives, including the impossibility of killing in war. Nevertheless, another powerful stream of thought in Christianity is that of the Just War theory which, by drawing upon the depictions of God as Divine Warrior and Israel as a warring nation in the Hebrew Bible, postulates the validity of war under certain strict conditions (though Just War theory seems to be utilized to give a blessing to any military conflict).

Similar differences can be seen in other religious traditions. For instance, while the Qur’an issues the command to “slay the idolaters wherever you find them” (Qur’an 9:5), it also states that “whoever slays a soul … it is as though he slew all men” (Qur’an 5:32). The interpretation of the Qur’an that leads to acts such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks is certainly different from the conventional interpretation of the Qur’an by those not taken to violent extremism. The diversity of interpretation that exists within each religious tradition must be taken into consideration in the discussion of the relationship between religion and violence.

There are things in the Bible (and other religious texts) that are not worthy of imitation. Even in reading the more peaceful New Testament, one runs into the problem of the eschatological violence found in some parables of Jesus (Mt. 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:41) that might even be construed by some to legitimate violence in the here and now. [For an in-depth response to the violent eschatological passages in the New Testament, see David J. Neville. A Peaceable Hope: Contesting Violent Eschatology in New Testament Narratives (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013)].

I do not think, however, that such disconcerting material should be simply excised or ignored. The question remains as to whether religious texts themselves can provide a way to overcome this. I think that sacred texts certainly hold this power and that it in order for it to be unleashed, it is imperative for non-violent perspectives to be emphasized by religious leaders and teachers, thus challenging and countering readers who could potentially read the text as legitimizing violent actions and behavior. In reading the Bible, I think it is vital to realize that it presents a frank depiction of human nature, with all of our quirks and iniquities. John J. Collins says that the Bible provides us with “an unvarnished picture of human nature … [and] of religion and the things people do in its name” (“The Zeal of Phinehas: The Bible and the Legitimation of Violence”, Journal of Biblical Literature 122 [2003], pp. 3-21 [20]). While the Bible does not demythologize itself, neither does it assert that all its tales provide the standards and exemplars for human action across all eras. The violent verses of the Bible become destructive when they are invested with authority and imagined to uncritically reflect the will of God for our lives today. Religion and theology must up for interpretation and reinterpretation. If they are not, then they can all too easily become dangerous totalizing ideologies leading to violence. Collins rightly notes that “the Bible has contributed to violence in the world precisely because it has been taken to confer a degree of certitude that transcends human discussion and argumentation” (ibid, p. 20).

While religions all tend to have a center that at least somewhat revolves around love and other life-affirming notions, this isn’t a guarantee that religion will always act as a force of peace within society, for religion can exacerbate conflicts and be used to justify violence. The interpretative apparatus one employs, which is itself impacted by one’s socio-political context, will dictate the influence that certain concepts from the Bible (or any sacred text) will have on one’s own beliefs and behaviors. My readings in the literature on religion and violence have shown me that while a case can be made that religion legitimates violence (to whatever degree) or that it is even a main source of inspiration for violent acts, it is crucial to keep in mind that religion and religious texts also operate as a transformative power that are capable of inducing tranquility, peaceful relations, and social harmony, and that they can be an overall potent life-giving source rather than just a death-dealing one.

Thoughts on Religion and Violence

Religion can be a dangerous affair. Not only has it inspired great deeds of compassion but also atrocious acts of violence. Practically all religions contain acts and words of a bellicose nature scattered throughout their history and sacred texts, whether it be the Canaanite genocides of the Hebrew Bible, the crusades and inquisitions of Christianity, the violent jihad of Islam, or the ancient tales of battles in the Buddhist Pali Chronicles and the Hindu epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. More recently, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the London bombings of July 7, 2005, placed a spotlight on the connection between religion and violence in the Western world.

The tragic events of 9/11 also caused a proliferation in the literature available on religion and violence. A couple of recent examples are Andrew R. Murphy (ed), The Blackwell Companion to Religion and Violence (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), and the Journal of Religion and Violence which had its inaugural issue published in 2013. For a bibliography of literature on religion and violence in the immediate years after the 9/11 attacks, see Charles K. Bellinger, “Religion and Violence: A Bibliography”, The Hedgehog Review 6.1 (2004): pp. 111-19. For a more recent survey, see the bibliography in Jeffrey Ian Ross, Religion and Violence: An Encyclopedia of Faith and Conflict from Antiquity to the Present (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2010).

The “Arab Spring” that began in 2011 inspired a time of optimism about the future of that region of the world , yet that optimism has given way over the past year to the reality of the violent movement known as the Islamic State, or ISIS/ISIL, which has expanded its territory to include large swathes of Iraq and Syria, capturing not only military bases, but entire cities.  The Islamic State arose from the ashes of the Syrian civil war and a series of predominantly Sunni jihadist insurgent groups that operated in Iraq between 2003 and 2013. It has demonstrated an increasingly sophisticated social media communication and recruitment strategy, which has lead to a number of primarily young people in the USA, UK, and Europe, joining it or being caught attempting to do so. Some of the atrocities perpetrated by members of ISIS include the abduction, rape, slavery, and trafficking of women and children, the religious targeting and mass killings of Yazidis, Christians, Shi’ite Muslims, and captured Iraqi and Syrian soldiers.

It needs to be kept in mind, however, that violence should be identified not solely as inflicted physical harm, for there are also other forms of violence, such as structural and social violence (e.g. patriarchy, racism, and sexism), which may also be buttressed by religious texts (including the New Testament). Some authors on the topic of religion and violence note that due to the conventional understanding of violence as being physical in nature, the promotion of peace in New Testament studies has led to the neglect of the parts which promote a social type of violence, e.g., dehumanization produced by the insider-outsider mentality and the construction of identities that justifies the oppression of outsiders. For example, see Michel Desjardins, Peace, Violence and the New Testament (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997).

Implicating Religion

There are many writers out there who see a very strong link between religious belief and violence, not in a direct causal connection but in the sense that religion is especially inclined to produce violence or is a crucial factor in the exacerbation of violence. Some of these works—such as the works of Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2007), and Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004)—are primarily polemical diatribes that demonize religious belief as a whole and do not add much to the conversation. Others, however, offer up more learned discussions. For example, there is the sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer, who argues that “[r]eligion seems to be connected with violence virtually everywhere” (Terror in the Mind of God: The Rise of Religious Violence [Berkeley, CA: University of California, 2000], p. xi). He considers religious violence to be increasing due to the threats of modernity and globalism, and that this clash of cultures and identities can be viewed as a cosmic war with religious faith providing an ideal means of stoking this conflict.

Other useful authors on the topic of religion and violence, though at the other end of the spectrum as Juergensmeyer, are William Cavanaugh and Oliver McTernan, neither of whom are convinced that religion plays the decisive role in violent acts. McTernan sees religion as having some responsibility for religious violence but that its cooperation is forced, while Cavanaugh goes so far as to contend that there really is no significant difference between religious violence and secular violence. See Oliver J. McTernan, Violence in God’s Name: Religion in an Age of Conflict (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2003), esp. pp. 20-43; William T. Cavanaugh, “Killing in the Name of God,” in Carl E. Braaten and Christopher R. Seitz (eds), I Am the Lord Your God: Christian Reflections on the Ten Commandments (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), pp. 127–47; idem, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); idem, “The Myth of Religious Violence”, in Andrew R. Murphy (ed), The Blackwell Companion to Religion and Violence (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), pp. 23-33.

Out of the authors I have read on the issue of religion and violence, Cavanaugh makes the most salient point, which is that the discussion of only religious violence is an attempt to focus attention on only this type of violence, neglecting secular or non-religious violence in the process. An example of secular violence is the willingness to kill for concepts such as freedom, democracy, patriotism, capitalism, Marxism, and so forth. These non-religious ideologies are no less prone to generating absolutist and divisive mindsets than religion.

The works mentioned above—and many others could be discussed—contain plenty of data on various religious ideologies and the manufacturing of violence. Yet despite there being ample empirical research to show that groups and individuals of various religious faiths produce violence, and that there is no good reason to automatically exempt religious faith from being an important factor in this violence, it is nonetheless erroneous to jump to the conclusion that religion is the primary factor that instigates violence to the exclusion of other factors. I think that much of the violence that occurs in the name of religion has more to do with demographic, political, economic, cultural, and social factors. Even in cases where religion does play a role in the production of violence, those carrying out the violence may have little actual knowledge of the religion in which they enter the conflict. In such cases, it is the religious identity that plays a role in the violence, which itself is borne more out of one’s socio-political context than something inherent to religion itself.

Book Review: Jesus and the Politics of Roman Palestine

jesuspoliticspalestineTitle: Jesus and the Politics of Roman Palestine

Author: Richard Horsley

Bibliographic info: 212 pp.

Publisher: University of South Carolina Press, 2013.

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I enjoy reading books by Richard Horsley because his work is always provocative, stimulating, and iconoclastic towards traditional historical Jesus research. A key feature in Horsley’s rendition of the historical Jesus is that he was not apolitical. It is not uncommon for Jesus to be understood as a religious figure, with the political ramifications of this being underplayed. Yet this picture is due to our modern partition of religion and politics into two different spheres, while Horsley sees the socio-political world as inseparable from the religious world in Jesus’ day. This, in a nutshell, is what Horsley discusses in Jesus and the Politics of Roman Palestine.

This book is comprised of seven chapters: Chapter One discusses how the field of historical Jesus studies tends to lack a focus on the politics of Jesus and the emphasis on an individualistic paradigm for viewing Jesus and the Gospels. Chapter Two then examines the political-economic-religious life in Palestine in the first century. Chapter Three provides a look at other messianic/prophetic movements that occurred in the first century. Chapter Four discusses demonic possessions and the link between demons and illnesses. Chapter Five contains Horsley’s understanding of Jesus’ mission for a renewed covenant community. Chapter Six then discusses the relationship between Jesus and the Scribes and Pharisees in the Gospels. Chapter Seven contains Horsley’s understanding of how Jesus’ crucifixion empowered the fledgling Jesus movement.

Horsley sees historical Jesus research as being misdirected by a form of social individualism, seen in how historical Jesus scholars attempt to find individual sayings of Jesus that can be authenticated by various criteria, in the process divorcing the sayings of Jesus from the narrative of the Gospel account. Horsley says:

Individual sayings of Jesus may be precious artifacts to the scholars who sort them out and categorize them. As isolated artifacts, however, they do not have or convey meaning, and they beg the question of context. The result is Jesus as a dehistoricized “talking head”, devoid of life circumstances.

Instead, Horsley sees the Gospels as “represent[ing] Jesus not primarily as a teacher and healer of individuals but rather as a teacher and healer in the context of village communities”, and he offers up an alternative which is to see the sayings of Jesus in light of the entirety of each Gospel in which they are found. When this is done, Horsley finds (among other things) that Jesus vilified the Scribes and Pharisees due to their serving the temple-state whilst mistreating villagers. This criticism that Jesus directed against the Scribes and Pharisees is based on a message of “Mosaic covenantal commandments” that Jesus preached, which was a “discourse of justice rooted in the Mosaic covenant into a program of renewal of local village communities.”

Parts of this book I particularly enjoyed were the author’s discussion on the socio-cultural pressures that Judeans faced in light of the Roman occupation, Jesus’ miracles and exorcisms, and his mission of covenant renewal. For instance, in regards to Jesus’ miracles, Horsley examines them in light of anthropological studies. An intriguing point he makes is that demon possession was a means for villagers to protect themselves to imperialism (seen in the rise of demon possession in Africa during its colonization by Western powers). One aspect of this study that I found particularly problematic is the final chapter on crucifixion. Here he attempts to argue that it was the crucifixion of Jesus which really set in motion the early Christian movement, which seems to make the belief in Christ’s resurrection of no importance for the vigorous rise of the early Christian movement. Even though the death of a notable figure by an oppressive power could spark a movement, is it really appropriate to point to the ignominious death of Jesus being crucified as the impetus for the early Christian movement over the belief that God resurrected him from the dead? Horsley’s position seems counter-intuitive and didn’t convince me.

Overall I quite enjoyed this latest offering from Richard Horsley, though I wish he had of spent more time explaining how he arrives at his position regarding the authenticity of Jesus traditions to be found in the Gospels. I would recommend this book for anyone interested in historical Jesus studies. Horsley is one of the more interesting authors in New Testament and historical Jesus studies and he delivers a thoughtful and provoking study in Jesus and the Politics of Roman Palestine.

Quick Book Review: Understanding Early Christian Art

earlychristianartTitle: Understanding Early Christian Art

Author: Robin Margaret Jensen

Bibliographic info: xii + 234 pp.

Publisher: Routledge, 2000.

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The author, Robin Margaret Jensen, is Associate Professor of the History of Christianity at Andover Newton Theological School.

It wasn’t until early last year that I came to appreciate art. I was one of those people who never really got art. However, I did a bit of study in the history of biblical interpretation through art and was instantly hooked. One aspect of this field I came to appreciate was how art served many purposes in churches: decorative, liturgical, didactic, iconic, symbolic, and so forth.

This small volume aims to further our understanding of the art of the early Christian era. There are sixty-six black and white images in the book, with most coming from sarcophagi and catacombs. The author provides a valuable analysis of the images that helps in comprehending the context and theology of early Christian art, for as Jensen says, early Christian art was “a highly sophisticated, literate, and even eloquent mode of theological expression.”

The first chapter is the standard introductory chapter. In the second chapter, Jensen discusses early non-narrative Christian art, such as in how Christ was depicted in the guise of pagan deities (e.g. the lamb-bearer, Orpheus, Helios) or other forms (the fish, which is either a reference to the “living waters” that Christ provides or to the IXTHYS acrostic – “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”). In the third chapter, Jensen turns to art that depicts biblical narratives (predominantly scenes from the Old Testament). The fourth chapter discusses portraits of Christ as the incarnate God. The fifth chapter discusses the depictions of Christ crucified, which, strangely enough, came onto the scene later in Christian art. The sixth and final chapter discusses art that depicts resurrection typologies (e.g. Ezekiel’s dry bones).

Overall, I would say that Jensen’s viewpoint on the art she discusses is more theological than historical-contextual or stylistic. An aspect I would have liked to see in her analysis is the putting together of a whole piece of art, rather than just discussing each element on its own. For example, Jensen discusses the depictions of Christ as Orpheus and the image of Lazarus that occur in the same catacomb room, yet they were not discussed in terms of how they occur together and what this could signify.

All in all, this book will be a helpful read for anyone interested in early Christianity or art history. Jensen has made this an accessible study, so it doesn’t matter even if you have no background in art.


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