Some Overrated Theology Books

Here are a few of the most overrated theological books I have had the pleasure (?) of reading. Keep in mind that when I say “overrated” I am not saying that these books are not important and have not been influential. All I mean by saying “overrated” is that while these books have had nothing but praise lavished upon them, I myself have found them to be not particularly helpful at illuminating the good news of Christ (the decisive criterion for determining a theology book’s usefulness). These are a few overrated books that immediately spring to mind:

  • The City of God, Augustine of Hippo
  • Römerbrief, Karl Barth
  • Pensées, Blaise Pascal

At the popular lay level, the most overrated theology book is:

  • Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis

I know that this book has been beneficial for millions of Christians (my teen-self included), but considering how it is often hailed as one of the most brilliant theological book written in the twentieth century, I have to say that it is waaaaay overrated, especially considering the level of argumentation put forth (e.g. Lewis’ trilemma apologetic of “Lord, liar, or lunatic”). Someone once correctly said that C.S. Lewis was a first-rate literary theorist, a second-rate fantasy writer, and a third-rate theologian.

If I was to use other criteria for determining overrated theology books, such as whether the praise a book has received is commensurate with its actual influence, then I would have to put these books on the list (both of which I loved):

  • The Crucified God, Jürgen Moltmann
  • Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Moltmann’s The Crucified God–with its patripassianist and theopaschite theology–seems to be more highly rated than his Theology of Hope, yet it was the latter that had more of an immediate and lasting impact (and, in my opinion, is much more interesting). In regards to Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship, I suspect it is like Barth’s Römerbrief in that while everyone lavishes praise upon it, few actually read (and understand) it. Also, I think that both Discipleship (and Römerbrief) occupy that hazy realm where it’s considered famous simply for being famous.

In fact, maybe that is a better way to measure how overrated a book is: whether the amount of applause a book receives measures up to how many people actually read it. In that case, wouldn’t Barth’s Church Dogmatics have to be the most overrated theology book of all time? No, wait, I think that honor would have to go to the Bible itself! (I know what you’re thinking… He said the Bible is the most overrated theology book? Wow, he is so avant-garde!)

A Few Books I’m Reading

Looking at my Kindle it appears I am currently reading a couple dozen books. Here are a few of the most recent ones I started to read:

They are all quite captivating reading (especially the MLK volume).

Quick Book Review: Ethics – A Liberative Approach

ethicsliberativeapproachTitle: Ethics: A Liberative Approach

Editor: Miguel A. De La Torre

Bibliographic info: 264 pp.

Publisher: Fortress Press, 2013.

Buy the book at Amazon.

This book takes a look at theological ethics defined as liberationist is currently expressed amongst various racial and gender groups. The studies in this volume were written from the perspective of various marginalized groups, each being a different expression of liberation theology (originally a Latin American Catholic manifestation). There are four studies from a global context, four studies from a U.S. racial and ethnic context, and five studies from a U.S. gender, sexual identity, and disability context.

Each study in this book approaches its own subject-matter using the same format. First the author discusses basic tenets of liberative ethics within a specific community, which is followed by explanations for why the liberation from the structure actually exists, followed by the issues and themes that each community deals with, and then notable figures in the movement and the potential for future trends in the movement. Each chapter finishes with study questions and a select bibliography.

The twelve chapters are on the following topics:

  1. Latin American Liberative Ethics
  2. African Liberative Ethics
  3. Asian Liberative Ethics
  4. Economic Liberative Ethics
  5. Hispanic Liberative Ethics
  6. African American Liberative Ethics
  7. Asian American Liberative Ethics
  8. American Indian Liberative Ethics
  9. Feminist Liberative Ethics
  10. Women of Color Liberative Ethics
  11. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Liberative Ethics
  12. Disability Liberative Ethics

As a person born with a lot of privilege –I am white, male, with a good education– I am not one who has to endure any marginalization, ostracization, exploitation, and other forms of oppression in my everyday life. Yet I am aware that there are many –e.g., the poor, persons of color, the LGBT crowd– who do experience these things on a daily basis. As a follower of Christ a part of discipleship is solidarity with those who are marginalized and helping working for liberation amongst the oppressed and the powerless. Yet coming from a position of privilege can make it hard to even realize that you are in a position of privilege, let alone to understand the various struggles that the marginalized and oppressed experience. This book, Ethics: A Liberative Approach, helps in this regard by informing the reader of how various disenfranchised faith traditions have dealt with marginalization, the theologies that have arisen from this and their contribution to the formation of an ethical discourse. A great read!

Reason #24 Why I Dislike Evangelicalism

Evangelical apologetics. Those popular apologetical books are utterly appalling.

I remember back in my zealous high-school days thinking that Norman Geisler’s Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics Nonsense and Josh McDowell’s The New Evidence That Demands A Verdict Refund were the definitive answer to any and all skeptical arguments about Christianity and the Bible. Poor naive young me.

Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ and Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God  are two very popular books to have come out over the years. These books are supposedly aimed at convincing skeptics of the veracity of Christianity, yet while these books may help you successfully argue against people who hang out in the high-school cafeteria, don’t look to them for help against any serious skeptic over the age of eighteen. Why? Because these books are filled with falsehoods, sloppy logic, and inexcusable arguments. Of course, the average evangelical (who is the real audience that these books are aimed at) probably won’t see the glaring deficiencies in these books, but actual skeptics should easily be able to see them.

For instance, Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ attempts to answer the contradiction between the Gospels of Matthew and Luke in regards to the timing of the birth of Christ. The Gospel of Matthew claims Jesus was born while Herod the Great was alive, while the Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus was born during a census of Judaea when Quirinius was governor of Syria. However, actual history tells us that Quirinius became governor of Syria in AD 6 and that Herod the Great died in 4 BC. See the problem?

Now, of course, since The Case for Christ arises out of Evangelicalism, it is of utmost importance that the Bible can not contain a single error because somehow the veracity of the Christian faith is contingent upon the Bible being inerrant! Leaving aside the absurdity of that line of thinking, let’s look at how Strobel deals with the problem of Quirinius and the Gospels. Strobel suggests that there was a second Quirinius or that there was one Quirinius who ruled twice. Strobel uses two different arguments. One is the refuted argument of Sir William Ramsey that Quirinius ruled twice. The other is this gem:

An eminent archaeologist named Jerry Vardaman has done a great deal of work in this regard. He has found a coin with the name of Quirinius on it in very small writing, or what we call ‘micrographic’ letters. This places him as proconsul of Syria and Cilicia from 11 B.C. until after the death of Herod.

Vardaman’s findings of coins with micrographic letters is fantasy, pure and simple. He is a crackpot. Vardaman supposedly found coins with microletters etched on them (less than half a millimetre in height). Now forget the fact that no one has ever seen these except Vardaman (and he didn’t produced any photos of them), so of course none of this has been subjected to the rigors of peer review. And forget the fact that these microletters are still somehow legible after millennia of exposure. What is most absurd about these coins is that Vardaman’s hand-drawn pictures of them depict the coins as using the letter “J”. So instead of “REX IESUS” appearing on the coin, it actually has “REX JESUS.” This is very strange considering the fact that the letter “J” didn’t appear until sometime around the 14th-15th century! Vardaman’s claims are as crazy as saying you found a letter written by George Washington in which he says how much he loves his new iPad.

This is just one of many problems with Strobel’s “case” for Christ. Another problem is that the entire book is pretty much based on interviews with evangelical scholars! But this is typical of evangelical apologetics: the author solicits opinions only from the people that the author wants to promote. If there is a scholar who can be used to prop up the author’s claims, then they’ll lavish praise upon them and mention that they went to Princeton or Oxford. Even if the person is in reality a crackpot, they’ll just slap a label like “eminent” on him and that should be enough to make their argument carry weight. All the deficiencies of The Case for Christ book are indicative of this key problem: Strobel is not the self-proclaimed cynical journalist who asks the critical, hard-hitting questions and “refuses contrived, simplistic answers.”

The entire endeavor of evangelical apologetics is bankrupt. The books this industry produces masquerade as books written to answer the objections of skeptics, but they are safety blankets for Christians who are simply looking to have their own beliefs reaffirmed. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate a general rule of thumb applicable to all Christian books: if they make the New York Times Bestsellers list, then chances are the book is full of shit.

I will finish with a couple of quotes on apologetics from Jacques Ellul’s Living Faith: Belief and Doubt in a Perilous World:

Apologetics tries to prove that Christianity is true, that it’s superior to other religions (which of course leaves us arguing on the religious level), and that it answers all human questions … These debates among intellectuals are utterly sterile: nobody ever succeeds in persuading anyone else.

There is no intellectual road to the altitude (and more than the altitude – the life) of faith. The logical, intellectualist approach winds up in a ditch. Even the person who may have been convinced by your reasons can’t make the transition from intellectual demonstration or even intellectual acceptance of a proposition to the deep life of faith. These are two different worlds and the intellect does not call forth or show the way to faith.

New Book by Moltmann

Jürgen Moltmann released a new book earlier this year titled, Der lebendige Gott und die Fülle des Lebens: Auch ein Beitrag zur gegenwärtigen Atheismusdebatte (“The Living God and the Fullness of Life: A Contribution to the Current Atheism Debate”). Hat tip to Moltmanniac.

Hopefully an English translation will also be released in the near future, but for right now I am going to slowly make my way through the German edition. It should be a good exercise that will help my ability in reading German. The opening paragraph of the foreword:

Early Christianity won the ancient world with the message of Christ: “He is the resurrection and the life.” This is the Christ, who came into this world, and it is this life before death, which is eternal, because God is fulfilled in joy. Because with Christ the living God came to this earth, “that they may have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).

The Myth of the ‘Mission Trip’

While I usually cringe whenever I browse the contents at Jim West’s blog Zwinglius Redivivus, yesterday he posted a fantastic piece on mission trips (I guess it goes to show the veracity of the saying, “even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while”).

Youth groups and their leaders love ‘mission trips’ but it’s time for a bit of honesty among the practitioners of such enterprises.  First, they exhibit a kind of colonialism and an attitude of superiority.  That is, the mission trippers leave their affluent homes (mission trips are expensive) and they travel to some impoverished area and spend a few days or a week or a couple of weeks to help out the ‘less fortunate’ because they can’t manage without outside help.  This is really nothing besides imperialism- a holdover from the 19th century era of American expansionism and ‘manifest destiny’.

Second, ‘mission trips’ are thinly veiled vacations for the participants.  To be sure, a few hours each day are spent in a sort of ‘community service project’ or an ‘evangelistic enterprise’ (because, again, the poor wretched natives have never heard the Gospel and they cannot get by without the help of their betters).  But the majority of time is spent by trippers in the usual touristy things.  Along with plenty of photo-taking.

Third, and most importantly, such trippers tend to ignore or overlook the real needs of their own neighbors and communities and instead opt for the more ‘spiritual’ ‘missionary field’ far afield.  To say it bluntly, many mission trippers have never bothered to mow their elderly neighbor’s yard or worked to evangelize the local housing project or bothered to take their unwed mother neighbor a box of diapers or some cans of formula.  They prefer, tragically, to do their ‘gospel living’ far from home, for a brief period of time, and so allow themselves to feel, ironically, quite spiritual about their neglect of their 355 days a year flesh and blood neighbors.

I’ve had dealings with enough mission trippers to know how these kinds of ‘adventures’ are viewed and perceived.  They are not founded on substantial theological reflection.  Rather, they are yet one more manifestation of the self serving pseudo-Spirituality now passing itself off as ‘Christianity’ or ‘Christian Ministry’.

When Jesus issued the Great Commission he said ‘as you go, make disciples’…  There’s nothing about discipling in short term mission trips.  Disciples aren’t made overnight- they are an investment measured in years, not days.  When Paul was in Ephesus, he was there two years.  He didn’t drop into town, repair a few roofs, throw some tracts around, see the sites, and leave.  He settled in and served his neighbors.

That’s evangelism.  Lifestyle evangelism- not mercenary evangelism which seeks to get more than it gives and of which mission trips are the primary modern example.

Youth leaders and young people need a substantial dose of honesty here in this matter.  If you want to take the kids on a roadtrip to the nearby amusement park, have at.  But don’t call it a mission trip just because you left a tract on the table at the Cracker Barrel (while neglecting to leave a tip for the overworked underpaid underappreciated server).

In sum- if you really, really want to be a missionary- start with your next door neighbor.  Start with your own ‘Jerusalem’ and then go to your own ‘Judea’ and ‘Samaria’ and finally, only when you have expended every ounce of energy you have in those fields, strike out for the ‘uttermost parts of the earth’.

Book Review: Paul and Mark

paulandmarkTitle: Paul and Mark, Comparative Essays: Two Authors at the Beginnings of Christianity

Editors: Oda Wischmeyer, David Sim, and Ian Elmer

Bibliographic info: xi + 695 pp. + 13 pp.

Publisher: Walter de Gruyter, 2014.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to Walter de Gruyter for the review copy.

This volume is one of a pair, with the other being Mark and Paul: Comparative Essays for and Against Pauline Influence on Mark.

Paul and Mark is a volume consisting of twenty-one studies written in either German and English. These studies focus on the question of whether the Gospel of Mark has been influenced by the theology of the apostle Paul. The idea that Mark was influenced by Paul was a common one back in the nineteenth century, but hasn’t been as popular in twentieth century scholarship, though there have been a few notable voices in support of it (e.g. Joel Marcus, William Telford, Michael Goulder). The table of contents can be found here, and I will provide here a summary of only a few of the studies.

Michael Theophilos provides a study titled, The Roman Connection: Paul and Mark (pp. 45–71). Here he argues that “there are strong theological overtones within a plausible Roman historical context to suggest that the author of Mark’s Gospel knew and drew upon the Pauline Roman connection.” After beginning by laying out some definitions and assumptions (e.g. Romans was composed in mid-50s CE; Mark was composed in Rome towards the end of the 60s), the author lays out a case for a connection between Romans and Mark. He analyzes how they use the term ευαγγελιον (its frequency, importance, and meaning), and the theological continuities and discontinuities in the Gospel of Mark and the Epistle to the Romans. He notes that there are several distinctive theological kerygmatic elements shared between Mark and Romans, such as the concepts and terminology of atonement and redemption in Romans are compellingly echoed in Mark’s presentation of the soteriological significance of Jesus’ death” (62). A few other continuities between Romans and Mark are that they shared a theological vision of the inclusion of the gentiles in the mission of the church, the placement of Israel in the chronology of the divine Heilgeschichte, and an emphasis on the abrogation of food laws. A dissimilarity between Romans and Mark is the latter’s emphasis on suffering discipleship.

David Sim provides a study titled, The Family of Jesus and the Disciples of Jesus in Paul and Mark: Taking Sides in the Early Church’s Factional Dispute (73-99). This study examines how Mark treats what was one of Paul’s major opponents: the leaders of the Jerusalem Church. The thrust behind Sim’s thesis is this: in writing a biography of Jesus, Mark was presented with an opportunity to depict the family of Jesus and disciples of Jesus, and he chose to make a somewhat negative depictions of these groups. Why? Because Mark was influenced by Paul and had pro-Pauline tendencies (and reveals these tendencies in other ways). Sim discusses the Jerusalem Church’s view of Paul, Paul’s relationship with the Jerusalem Church, Mark’s relationship with the family of Jesus, and Mark’s relationship with the disciples of Jesus.

Sim notes that while Paul accepted that these groups of people, especially James and Peter, were authoritative figures who had seen the risen Lord, he was nevertheless critical of them for “their denial of his independent apostleship, their rejection of his Law-free gospel and most important their interference in his own Gentile churches” (95). Therefore, in writing a biography of Jesus, “Mark was forced to adopt a completely new strategy. He obviously could not defend Paul and criticize the actions of the Jerusalem leadership during the time of the church, so he did what he could to question the leadership credentials of the disciples and the family of Jesus by emphasizing their many shortcomings during the mission of the historical Jesus. In writing or perhaps rewriting many aspects of the history of Jesus’ ministry, Mark betrays his impeccable Pauline credentials” (97).

Jesper Svartvik provides an interesting study on the concept of Torah in Paul and Mark. He says that “there is a cloud of misunderstanding of the entire research are of ‘paul and the law’ that obscures the theological simiarlities between Mark and Paul.” Included are discussions of the old and new perspectives of Paul, as well as the newer (or “renewed”) perspective.

Elizabeth Dowling argues that there is a linkage between the Last Supper traditions of Mark and Paul. This connection is, as Dowling contends, seen between Paul’s Last Supper account and Mark’s story of the woman anointing Jesus (Mk 14.3-9). If Dowling is correct in this connection then while it would affirm that Mark was familiar with the  Last Supper tradition of Paul (or one similar to Paul’s), it would also cut against the notion of a direct usage of Paul by Mark.

The final study in this volume is from Ian Elmer and provides an assessment of Papias’ comments on Mark. The central question Elmer seeks to answer: “Is Papias’ information about Mark’s association with Peter trustworthy, and if not, is it mere hagiography, or intentional misdirection.” He concludes  that the “fragmentary nature” of Papias’ tradition makes it “extremely difficult to draw any firm conclusions about the ultimate source of Papias’ information.”

All the studies in this volume provide strong support for the idea that Mark may have had more in common with Paul than with Peter. While I’m not entirely convinced by the book’s thesis, I do think it is a reasonable enough position to say that Mark may have very well known of Paul. I think that some of the passages where Mark is said to have been influenced by Paul could reasonably be used to support the thesis of this book, but others seem reliant upon concepts or words that would have been widespread in early Christianity, thus making a direct connection between Mark and Paul hard to definitively identify. Nevertheless, this volume is a cogent and fresh contribution to the question of the relationship between the Gospel of Mark and the apostle Paul. Hopefully it will be warmly welcomed and the studies will be thoroughly interacted with to see if the central thesis of the book does indeed hold weight.

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