Quick Reviews of Two Books by Brueggemann

Sabbath_as_ResistanceTitle: Sabbath as Resistance

Author: Walter Brueggemann

Bibliographic info: 109 pp.

Publisher: Westminster John Knox, 2013.

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With thanks to WJK Press for the review copy.

This is a very small book containing a preface and six studies on the Sabbath. What is the Sabbath according to the purpose of this book? These two snippets should suffice:

Sabbath is the practical ground for breaking the power of acquisitiveness and for creating a public will for an accent on restraint. Sabbath is the cessation of widely shared practices of acquisitiveness.

Sabbath is a school for our desires, an expose and critique of the false desires that focus on idolatry and greed that have immense power for us. When we do not pause for Sabbath, these false desires take power over us. But Sabbath is the chance for self-embrace of our true identity.

An example of how Brueggemann explores the Sabbath is the chapter in which he draws upon Exodus, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and Amos to convey how the Sabbath is a resistance to the modern vices of anxiety, coercion, exclusivism, and multitasking. While I agree with some much of what the author says, there did seem to be a focus in the book on free-market economics to such an extent that one might come away thinking that anything associated with this (e.g. labor, competition, etc) is an inherently negative thing. While I don’t necessarily disagree with the picture painted of the wealthy banksters and the captains of industry as being the ones most resembling the slave-driving Pharaoh, this needs to be balanced out by the fact that we as consumers are willingly enslaved to such giants.

Additionally, I find it odd that people turn to the bureaucracy of government as some sort of panacea to the ailment. Brueggemann says that the “gods of commoditization for the most part go unchallenged in our world. As a result, the exploitative systems go unchallenged an unnoticed.” Sure, while the titans of industry, business, and banks may commoditize us all, you’ve got to be kidding if you do not see similar problems in the biggest possessor of power: government. I think this book needs to be a more balanced view of the exploitative systems that plague society. One can rightly argue, in my opinion, that the sort of governmental solution of a more redistributionist government is just a different means of bowing to the idol of covetousness. It isn’t tackling the heart of the problem: the covetousness of our own hearts. Despite some qualms I had with this book, it was an interesting study on the Sabbath.

truthspeakspowerTitle: Truth Speaks to Power: The Countercultural Nature of Scripture

Author: Walter Brueggemann

Bibliographic info: 178 pp.

Publisher: Westminster John Knox, 2013.

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With thanks to WJK Press for the review copy.

In this short work, Brueggemann aims to show the reader the subversive messages to be found within the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament by discussing various biblical narratives where the authority of power is undercut (often in unobvious ways). He begins with Jesus’ discussion with Pontius Pilate on the issues of authority and power, and then covers other figures such as Moses and Pharaoh, Solomon, Elisha, and Josiah. The underlying narrative that Brueggemann is intending to highlight is that the Church is to identity the moanings of the world and live out an alternative that leads people to freedom. Rather than limiting the Christian faith to one’s own private sphere, Brueggemann contends:

the church is, in my judgment, called to its public vocation to practice neighborliness in a way that includes both support of policies of distributive justice and practices of face-to-face restorative generosity.

In face of global inequalities, Brueggemann advocates a return to Scripture. In fact, he goes so far as to say this about Deuteronomy:

Indeed, it is not a stretch to say that Deuteronomy, in it context, became a charter for what we now call liberation theology, namely, the insistence that faith concerns the sustained enactment of public economic justice.

Brueggemann has been my favorite commentator/theologian to read when it comes to the Old Testament, and despite disagreements with aspects of both of these books, they are both good examples as to why I enjoy his writings.

Book Review: Understanding the “Imago Dei”

understandingimagodeiTitle: Understanding the “Imago Dei”: The Thought of Barth, von Balthasar, and Moltmann

Author: Dominic Robinson

Bibliographic info: 198 pp.

Publisher: Ashgate, 2011.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to Ashgate for the review copy.

This intriguing volume is based on the author’s doctoral dissertation submitted in 2007 at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. As the book title suggests, the author provides an examination of the imago Dei in three prominent twentieth-century theologians: Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Jürgen Moltmann. The author chooses these three theologians because not only do each of them provide a useful contribution to the topic in modern theology, but by placing them in dialogue an authentic ecumenical discussion can take place. However, Robinson is not interested simply in how these theologians interpreted the doctrine of the imago Dei, he specifically wants to tackle how these theologians relate this concept to human dignity in the presence of God.

The opening chapter provides a historico-theological background which looks at the main strands in the history of thought on our creation in the imago Dei. The concept of the imago Dei is then placed in the context of the Reformation and postconciliar Catholic theology, and Robinson introduces the life, times, and theological systems (in general) of Barth, von Balthasar and Moltmann. Robinson holds that the Reformation, as seen particularly in the theologies of Luther and Calvin, presents a clear shift in our understanding of the imago Dei:

They moved the doctrine’s point of reference from asking the medieval philosophical and scientific questions about the nature of the human being per se and focused instead first and foremost on the sovereignty of God in whose image humanity is made and, in particular, on Christ, who has restored us to this image.

Further along Robinson provides a helpful summation of the theological discourse of the Reformation in relation to its significance for this study:

[W]e might say that the sixteenth-century theological world became something of a battleground between this Reformation emphasis on human passivity in the face of Christ’s once-and-for-all restoration of the divine image after the Fall and the Catholic emphasis on our active participation in a relationship with Christ as we worked to achieve our divine destiny in heaven.

The subsequent chapters are detailed examinations of the thought of Barth, von Balthasar, and Moltmann. In a nutshell, Robsinson sees Barth as “aim[ing] to develop a more relational model of ‘imago Dei’”, while Balthasar presents “a more vocational model, expressing ongoing relationship with Christ who calls us as disciples in the world”, and Moltmann “present[s] a model which tries to hold together the centrality of Christ and our response in engagement with God, our fellow humans, and the whole created world with which we share a common dignity.” The aspect that Robinson focuses upon in their views of the imago Dei is twofold: the divine descent of grace and our ascent to God. In a way, one could say that it plays on the Protestant and Catholic emphases on justification (as seen in Barth and Protestantism) and sanctification (as seen in von Balthasar and Catholicism).

Overall, I would say that Robinson has a positive evaluation of the models of Barth and von Balthasar in regards to the imago Dei (with a decidedly more favorable view of the latter’s view), but he seems to have more a critical view of Moltmann, saying that his view is lacking in a sufficient foundation in Christ as the ideal image of God. Furthermore, Moltmann’s accent on God’s solidarity with human suffering takes away from God’s transcendence, thus negatively impacting our perception of what the descending movement of God’s revelation in Christ really means.

What the author finds most constructive about von Balthasar’s doctrine of the imago Dei is how he incorporates the descending movement of God’s revelation in Christ with the ascending human response. In contrast, Robinson sees Barth as emphasizing the divine descent at the expense of the human ascent. Robinson’s main criticism of Barth is in regards to his interpretation of Augustine and his denunciation of natural theology (because it disallows the possibility of Barth’s theology possessing an adequate view of the human response to God). Additionally, Barth’s doctrine of the imago Dei “stops short of developing a theological anthropology which expresses in itself the dignity of each human person.” This is where von Balthasar comes in handy, for his interpretation of Augustine allows von Balthasar to say that the imago Dei isn’t utterly lost but is only damaged, thus von Balthasar provides the best attempt at bringing together the descent of God and our ascent to God.

A couple of small quibbles. The dialogue seems to pertain more to Barth and von Balthasar, with Moltmann being the third wheel who doesn’t fit as snugly into the study as the other two. Additionally, I think that a fruitful area for further exploration in regards to Moltmann’s emphasis of the divine descent (as it pertains to the imago Dei) would have been his thought on the kenosis of the Spirit.

All in all, however, Dominic Robinson has provided quite a constructive and interesting study on the imago Dei, discussing related issues such as the role that Christ plays in communicating authentic human identity to us, and the possibility of a free human response to God’s revelation in Christ. I have actually studied Barth, von Balthasar, and Moltmann (to various degrees), so naturally I quite enjoyed this comparative analysis of their thought. Plus, I am a big fan of ecumenical endeavors and this study is a great exercise in ecumenical thinking that opens up possibilities for a rejuvenated Christocentric anthropology.

Review of “Theology for Armchair Theologians” Series

This review will be a bit different from my normal one. I will here be providing short reviews of three volumes in Westminster’s Theology for Armchair Theologians series. The titles which will be discussed are:

The volume on the Niebuhr brothers is from Scott Paeth. The Niebuhr brothers have been some of the more influential twentieth-century theologians that the USA has produced. Paeth provides a detailed introduction to Reinhold and Richard Niebuhr, with a particularly useful section on how their thinking was formed and changed by World War II. While the brothers shared a lot of the same background and experience, they of course diverged from each other on many matters of theology. Paeth is aware of this and rightly treats them as distinct theologians, noting places where they were at variance with each other (e.g. what they thought on whether God is involved in history or not). What I found particularly interesting was the brothers different views on the isolationism of the US in those days, and how they each opted to approach the issue of war: Richard seemed more interested in the idea of war and what it entails, while Reinhold was more focused upon what was to be done in light of war.

The volume on John Knox is written by Suzanne McDonald. Before reading this book, all I really knew about John Knox is that he was a turbulent reformer, a nemesis to Queen Mary, and a leader of the Scottish Reformation (and basically the founder of the Church of Scotland). In fact, McDonald says that, “You can’t trace the history of the Scottish Reformation – a defining moment in Scotland’s story – without placing the towering figure of Knox close to the center, theologically and politically.” Each chapter is divided into two sections: the first section discusses the historical context of a period of time in Knox’s life (e.g. providing details on the ruling monarchs), and the second section then providing details on works that Knox penned during this period. All in all, I learnt quite a bit about the Scottish Reformation and Protestantism in Scotland from this book. Also, I think McDonald does a fine job at presenting the complexity of Knox and the ambivalent figure that he was.

The volume on Dorothy Day is written by Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty. Day is my favorite Catholic theologian to read about. Though, she is not exactly a theologian in the traditional sense of the word, i.e., someone chained to their desk producing lofty academic works on obscure theological topics. Instead, Day was entirely about living with those on the margins and helping them. In short, she was a real theologian. And this is what the author focuses upon: she reveals Day’s deep dedication to living out the kingdom of God and her vision of what radical discipleship to Christ entails. This isn’t a book that romanticizes Day by providing a hagiographical retelling of her life, for Hinson-Hasty reveals the tumultuous history of Dorothy Day in all her imperfections.

Overall I enjoyed the Armchair Theologians series. I wasn’t expecting much because I think that introductory series all too often dumb things down to such an extent that they provide an inaccurate image of whatever issue they cover. But these three volumes that I read were quite good. If you want to learn about a theologian, but don’t want to read a theologian’s entire oeuvre, then I think Westminster’s Armchair Theologians series will be a useful (and inexpensive) tool.

Book Review: Violence in Ancient Christianity

violenceinancientchristianityTitle: Violence in Ancient Christianity: Victims and Perpetrators

Series: Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae

Editors: Albert C. Geljon and Riemer Roukema

Bibliographic info: 214 pp. + 37 pp. of indices

Publisher: Brill, 2014.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to Brill for the review copy.

While Jesus may have been a guy who taught such things as loving one’s enemies and to not resist an evil person, his followers over the centuries have had variegated ways of interpreting such ideas. This volume consists of ten studies that explore how violence played a role in early Christianity, both in how early Christians were its victims and its perpetrators.

The first chapter in this volume looks at religious violence amongst Greeks, Romans, Christians, and Jews. The author, Jan Bremmer, contends  that “religious violence” is not an accurate phrase to describe the relationship between religion and violence in Late Antiquity. A particularly interesting facet of this study is how Bremmer scrutinizes the oft-repeated claim that polytheistic religions are less nonviolent than monotheistic religions. In this regard, Bremmer interacts with the work of Jan Assmann who has connected violence and monotheistic religions. Bremmer argues that not only is this theory not supported by the data, but that it was actually Roman polytheistic religion that was the “inventor of the phenomenon of systematic religious persecution.” An example of pagan persecution against Christians that is discussed is Emperor Decius’ edict in 249 for all the inhabitants of the Empire to offer to the gods. The prosecution practices of the first Christian emperors are also discussed, which Bremmer says was “directed at practices like magic and divination rather than against pagan of Jewish beliefs” (29). Bremmer concludes that “the pagans certainly were less bloodthirsty than our modern movies and novels suggest.”

Next up is the study from Danny Praet. Here he employs the definition of direct and cultural violence developed by Johan Galtung to discuss the extent to which violence was perpetrated by Christians and against Christians in the first three centuries. This is followed by Fred Ledegang’s study on Eusebius and his view on Constantine’s religious policies. For anyone familiar with early church history, you will probably know that Eusebius has a favorable view of Constantine and his attempts to unify the church throughout the empire. However, Ledegang rightly argues (in my opinion) that Eusebius’ attitude towards Constantine and his Christian conversion is a bit too naive for various reasons, amongst which is the religious violence that was carried out under Constantine. One thing that struck me in this study was how enamored Eusebius was with Constantine, which Ledegang says goes so far that one can say that Eusebius sees Constantine as a “new Augustus” and a “second Moses, who even surpassed the first one.”

Hans Teitler then provides a study on violence against Christians during the reign of Emperor Julian (the Apostate) in 361-363. Teitler argues that while the pagans of the Empire may have dished out violence towards Christians during Julian’s reign, the Emperor himself did not actually condone such actions. Teitler then goes on to examine two specific instances where it is usually said that Julian ordered violence against Christians in Ancyra and Caesarea. By examining the sources for these persecutions in light of contemperaneous authors who detested the Emperor’s policies, Teitler concludes that Julian did in fact not lapse into violence against Christians in these cases.

Next up is F.J. Elizabeth Boddens Hosang’s contribution which examines the relations between Jews and Christians in the early church, specifically by looking at church council texts and pieces of Roman legislation from the fourth to sixth centuries. One of the conclusions reached is that, “The negative view of Jews and Judaism in church father writings resulted in a rise in hostilities and attacks: not on fictive, but on genuine Jews. Jews suffered as a result of the theology developed in this formative period and increasing violence and distance between the religious groups was the result” (106).

Hans van Loon then looks at Cyril of Alexandria’ episcopate in the period of 412-444. He investigates Cyril’s role in the violence that occurred towards Jews during this period, specifically taking a look at the murder of Hypatia (a philosopher), concluding that Cyril was not responsible for this murder except insofar as he cultivated an atmosphere of hostility. Then Joop van Waarden investigates the torture and decapitation of Bishop Priscillian of Avila in the fourth century. This is followed by Paul van Geest’s study on Augustine’s views on the relationship between church and state, specifically on the role he played in the approval of violence towards groups such as the Donatists. The penultimate study in this volume is from Gerard Bartelink and is on the language of rejection and suppression that rivals used to designate deviant religious groups in Late Antiquity. The final study is Riemer Roukema’s examination of how the early church (in the first five centuries) received and interpreted Jesus’ teaching of loving one’s enemies.

I find the topic of religion and violence to be a fascinating one. After all, most religions seem to have a core that somehow revolves around love and peace toward people, yet adherents to religions have managed to craftily manoeuvre and corrupt such teachings so as to justify violence. The fact that this happens should not be hidden nor minimized. This volume contributes to bringing to light the violence that has been perpetrated in the name of the one who was crucified by the political, religious, and moral authorities of the world. Judging from what I have read in this volume, my overall impression of early Christians relationship with violence can best be summed up in the word ambivalence.

Quick Book Review: Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker

bonhoefferyouthworkerTitle: Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together

Author: Andrew Root

Bibliographic info: 222 pp.

Publisher: Baker Academic, 2014.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to Baker Academic for the review copy.

The author of this short volume, Andrew Root, is the Olson Baalson Associate Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary.

The topic being explored in this short volume is Bonhoeffer’s ministry with children and young adults, with a focus on what Bonhoeffer’s theological vision can offer for contemporary youth ministry. The book is divided into two main sections. The first section is a theological biography in which the author discusses Bonhoeffer’s life and times, acknowledging figures and ideas that influenced him, as well as his early experiences in youth ministry. Then in the second section the author unpacks the implications of Bonhoeffer’s thought in regards to contemporary youth workers. The overall thrust of this book is that for those involved in youth ministry, Bonhoeffer is “the first theological youth worker”, and is the “forefather” of the “theological turn in youth ministry.”

The final two chapters is where the author discusses the thought in Bonhoeffer’s two most popular works: Life Together and Discipleship. This is a practical commentary on these works, discussing the realist understanding of community in Life Together and the difference between cheap and costly grace in Discipleship. Root reads Bonhoeffer as showing that youth ministry isn’t about cramming kids full of theological trivia and Bible verses, or even about making them good young Christian boys and girls, but is about ministry that “seeks to share in the concrete and lived experience of young people as the very place to share in the act and being of God.”

Bonhoeffer is one of the most hijacked theologians I have come across. By this I mean that everybody tries to claim him as their own, for whatever theological or ideological purpose they desire. I think the author is cognizant of this phenomenon and is only trying to honor the legacy of Bonhoeffer by highlighting the impact that his ministry has for youth. In fact, in reading this book I was surprised at how little I really knew about his involvement with youth. I would recommend this (inexpensive) book for anyone interested in Bonhoeffer studies or in youth ministry.

Left Behind

leftbehindI watched the latest version of Left Behind yesterday. You remember the original one starring Kirk Cameron? Well this one is a step up, for it has…. Nicolas Cage! But, of course, even the crazy antics of Cage wasn’t able to save this movie from sucking big time. At least the investigative journalist Buck Williams isn’t being played by Kirk Cameron in this iteration. So that’s a step up as well (I guess).

The movie is based on the idea of the pre-tribulational rapture. This is the notion that at any second Jesus is going to take all the true Christians (and infants and children of course!) up to heaven, while the rest of the world is left behind to suffer through a seven-year period of hell which would commence soon thereafter. This “theology” is rubbish and doesn’t have a biblical backbone or historical pedigree in Christian theology  (which I’ve briefly written about here). This pre-trib rapture idea was the premise for the best-selling Left Behind series of novels, a few of which were turned into movies during 2000-2005.

In this remake of Left Behind, the dialogue, characters, acting, and special effects were not good, but I wasn’t expecting otherwise (well, I was expecting good special effects, but there were very few of them and they were quite pitiful). An upside was that the script was better than that of the original movie (but that isn’t saying much). It was wisely decided to make the journalist a minor character and instead focus on the relationship between the pilot and his family.

The oddest thing I found about this movie is that neither “Jesus” nor “Christ” was uttered once in this movie (and I’m pretty certain about that). In a way I am thankful for this because it is embarrassing to associate the name of Christ with this trash, but there were plenty of references to the nebulous concepts of “God”, “belief”, and how the Bible predicted that millions of people would just suddenly vanish, so that association is still there unfortunately.

One last thought: what movie would be complete without the humor aspect coming from midget jokes and a confused old lady with Alzheimer’s. At least the sole Muslim character wasn’t portrayed in such a bad fashion as the one in the God’s Not Dead movie: at one point he was shown comforting the lady with Alzheimer’s (but then at the end of the movie he was shown kicking the little person off the plane). The thing that I thought was the funniest aspect was that the co-pilot being raptured up out of the plane. Why? Because now Nicolas Cage really can say that God is his co-pilot.

Quick Book Review: Theological Education at Finkenwalde: 1935-1937 (DBW 14)

bonhoefferTitle: Theological Education at Finkenwalde: 1935-1937

Series: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 14

Author: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Editors: H. Gaylon Barker and Mark Brocker

Bibliographic info: 1258 pp.

Publisher: Fortress Press, 2013.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to Fortress Press for the review copy.

This volume is part of the wonderful English translation of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works collection (originally published in German as Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke). This collection is the definitive point of reference for all things Bonhoeffer.

This volume is number 14 in the DBW set (out of 17 volumes total) and it covers the time Bonhoeffer spent teaching and training others at the underground seminary of Finkenwalde for the Confessing Church during the years 1935-37 (it was closed by the Gestapo after two years due to it being an illegal one). These two years at Finkenwalde was also the same period during which Bonhoeffer produced Discipleship and Life Together (both also available in the DBW series).

Theological Education at Finkenwalde: 1935-1937 is divided into three sections containing correspondence, lectures, essays, sermons, and meditations from Bonhoeffer. Part 1 contains 154 letters and documents containing letters to and from Bonhoeffer, Part 2 contains Bonhoeffer’s lectures and essays, and Part 3 contains his sermons and meditations written during the 1935-37 time period. There is also a useful introduction to this volume which situates Bonhoeffer and Finkenwalde in the appropriate context, cutting through some of the chaff one finds in the hagiography that has built up around him.

From what I have read of this volume so far, there is a lot of insight to be found here into how Bonhoeffer thought theology can be applied in the church under difficult political and social situations. Bonhoeffer’s pastoral-theological emphasis in Finkenwalde is interesting, particularly his understanding of sermons and their purpose. Other issues that Bonhoeffer discusses are church discipline, confirmation, theological education, and pastoral care.

At one point Bonhoeffer says that “the best sign of a good pastor is that the congregation reads the Bible.” And from the letters and sermons I’ve read in this volume, I’m sure he had no problem in getting people interested in reading the Bible, particularly the New Testament. In fact, something quite characteristic to Bonhoeffer’s teaching at Finkenwalde is his constant exegesis of the New Testament.

Some of the lectures are accompanied (in the footnotes) with the notes of some students who heard the lectures, with student Eberhard Bethge (unsurprisingly) contributing the majority of them. And as with every other volume I have read in the DBW series (so far I have 8 of the 17 volumes on my Kindle), there are a ton of footnotes that cross-reference the text with other writings by Bonhoeffer, thus providing some excellent insights into Bonhoeffer’s thoughts.

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