Tag Archives: bible

Book Review: The Bible – A Very Short Introduction by John Riches

You might think that I’d be fairly familiar with the bible, right? I’ve read it cover to cover once and dip into it most days. But it’s never a bad thing to be reminded of exactly what it is we’re reading. Having earlier in the year looked at it through the eyes of an American fundamentalist, this is a take from “a white, male, European, English-born, Anglican Christian teaching New Testament in a Scottish University.”

Riches begins by comparing the most widely read and the most influential books of all time. While he cites Das Kapital as an influential book, few have read it. Popular crime thrillers and romances may be widely read, but have had little lasting impact on the shape of the world. The bible (I stick with the lower case, as usual) has the unusual quality of being both widely read and hugely influential. It is this combination that makes of great interest to the literary scholar, sociologist, historian and just about anyone else who operates in the spheres where the bible has had an effect. He cites the Koran as another similar example, but makes no further comment, so I would refer readers to the VSI on that work.

Part of the reason it is so widely read is the variety of audiences that it speaks to. Riches gives some examples, including pro and anti apartheid campaigners, a Benedictine sister in the Philippines, a bishop in Mozambique as well as American fundamentalists (here Riches uses Timothy La Haye as his example).

The book really gets going with a brief overview of how the bible was written. This is soon followed by how it came to be put together. These twin topics could never be covered comprehensively in just a couple of dozen pages. Interestingly, Riches takes the view that a fair bit of the New Testament could have been written after A.D. 70. Clearly this goes against the view of F.F. Bruce and is not as extensively reasoned as the latter’s viewpoint. It almost seems to me like an axiomatic assertion upon which one’s view of the bible is shaped.

In the chapter entitled ‘The Bible in the world of believers’ Riches looks at one passage in particular and tries to view it from several viewpoints. That passage is from Genesis, where Abraham took Lot up the mountain with the intention of sacrificing him. It’s quite pertinent, as that is one of the passages I struggle with the most. Riches doesn’t answer the moral dilemma here, but gives a brief look at a few possibilities. However, the length of the book prevents a satisfactory answer; for that the author can hardly be deemed at fault.

There follows a chapter on biblical criticism, which starts with Martin Luther and ends with later German higher criticism. This is a really a whistle-stop tour of what this reader finds a very interesting field of study. Again, there is really insufficient room to do justice to the subject, but for one who is unfamiliar with biblical criticism, this serves as a useful taster.

In a chapter on the bible in culture, we get to see some of the art that has been inspired by episodes from the bible and the ideas within it. The focus here is on so-called “higher” culture, so many who consider themselves connoisseurs of art may well find themselves on familiar territory, though no doubt they may mutter at the omission of their favourite artists. I certainly chuntered at the lack of Titian. However, there was a greater oversight here which I cannot let pass. The chapter doesn’t mention the destruction of artwork by some of the more over-zealous reformers. For me, an understanding of christian art cannot be anywhere near complete unless one understands the use of art as a means of education for the illiterate, the artistic license that was taken which gave rise to poor theological thinking, the basis for accusations of idolatry by the reformers and the centuries of regress and subsequent marginalistion of art as a means of worship.

The book finishes with a chapter on the bible in politics. Once again, Riches hit upon one of the themes that particularly interests me and it was good to see him give the anabaptists and Quakers a mention here. Riches gives a carefully balanced view which will likely both enrage and encourage people from all political backgrounds.

As I finished the book, I tried to think of what a certain reader might take away with them. This is a reader who is unfamiliar with the message of the bible but who is enquiring and wishes to gain an overview before embarking on the detail. Would they finish the book with a fair impression? I’m afraid the answer to that has to be no. There is much of some interest here, but it seems that the wood has been lost for a close examination of the shape of some of some of the leaves and the structure of the bark.

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Book Review: Hebrews for Everyone by Tom Wright

Of all the ‘For Everyone’ series of books, this one naturally provokes the most jokes, typically involving cups of tea. However, such frivolity is not the subject this book.

If you are unfamiliar with the concept of the ‘For Everyone’ series, they are commentaries on the bible. Tom Wright has written all of the New Testament commentaries whilst John Goldingay is making good progress with the Old Testament. In addition to providing commentary, Wright also gives his own translation of the book of Hebrews. The intention is to make it as accessible as possible. So while he discusses issues of great depth, he doesn’t go into all the depth that he could.

The format is such that you get a section of the text (say, 6-15 verses) followed by Wright’s take on it. Sometimes that interpretation begins with a radically left turn. We get little windows into Wright’s world, whether it be his family or professional life. But these are the mark of a preacher who wishes to relate to his audience an exposition of scripture that is firmly rooted in the life and world that people can relate to. Of course, this may be limited to 21st century British christians, but that happens to be a demographic into which I fit.

The overarching theme that Wright brings forth throughout the book is the idea of “better”. This is something that is prevalent throughout the book, and is by no means a unique insight that Wright brings. What he does bring is a gentle insight into the Jewish background against which Hebrews was written. For it was to a primarily Jewish-Christian audience. This was a somewhat more thorough approach than that adopted by my church, which began a series on Hebrews shortly after I finished this book. Their approach was to find 4 or 5 words scattered throughout the book that, in English, began with the same letter, and claim that these words form the key themes of Hebrews.

In Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Wright clarifies his particular nuances in relation to supersessionism, though here he doesn’t have the space to go into these, which may lead some to raise a quizzical eyebrow at his interpretation.

Another criticism I’d have is that there are times Wright goes off on a bit of a tangent, importing commentary that really belongs in other books, rather than concentrating on Hebrews. In other words, he incorporates some Lukan narrative as well as Pauline theology into his commentary, when he hasn’t established that either the Lukan or Pauline corpus was either available or known to the audience of the book of Hebrews. So while it may mesh with his other ‘For Everyone’ commentaries, it doesn’t always seem to stand up on its own.

My final critique is about the theme of priesthood. I’m not convinced Wright brings out the meaning of the text, and somewhat sidesteps the fact that Hebrews is not advocating an institution of a christian priesthood. I might suspect this is due to Wright’s own Anglicanism, which rather dilutes the radical nature of the text.

That said, it’s still a very worthwhile work and serves as a useful introduction to the book of Hebrews. That’s what it sets out to be, so it fulfills the brief.

Book Review: Being Christian by Rowan Williams

Disclaimer: This was gifted to me by the publishers, SPCK, as a reward for making a pun on Twitter. I think it was something about their authors to food, and I mentioned Rowan-berry Williams. I was not asked to review the book and do so, as ever, wholly of my own initiative.

This little book, subtitled Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer, is based on a series of sermons he gave in the final week running up to Easter, though the year wasn’t specified. Williams has identified what he sees as 4 characteristics of the christian life (a point for discussion may be whether these 4 are the best choice, though I wouldn’t say they are bad at all). This isn’t a deep theological treatise, but it has hints of depths for us all to explore. As an example, I might cite a single sentence where he sums up the entirety of liberation theology: “For many people in the 1970s and 1980s it was surprising to realize [sic] what the story of the exodus, for example, meant to people in deprived communities in Latin America.” The book is suffused with such sentences that hint that there is more to things than are shown here, even if it’s like walking down a corridor, being shown doors that are slightly ajar. We are given a fair impression of what may lay behind these doors, but we are left to explore them by ourselves.

This is aided by a number of questions at the end of each chapter which may be used either by oneself or as part of a group study.

It is worth noting the title carefully, or rather, what the title isn’t. One other review I read of it made a criticism that Williams said nothing about how to become a christian, particularly noting that there was nothing about repentance. This is not a fair representation. For starters, Williams does talk about repentance, even though it’s not a section in its own right. More than that, though, the book is not called Becoming Christian. This is not a piece of apologetics nor does it describe the ways by which one might come to faith. There is an assumption here already that the reader has some idea of what the 4 headers are about and of who Jesus is.

Baptism

Readers here should be aware that I grew up in a baptist church which had a very deep, developed theology of baptism. It is usually one area where I differ from my anglican brethren, though it was rather lovely to see that Williams didn’t advocate any of those aspects that I normally cringe at: specifically, the advocacy of infant baptism or a functional (as opposed to symbolic) view of baptism. Some of the latter is hinted at, but Williams doesn’t quite go so far as to say that baptism makes one a christian.

Rather, he gently looks at the idea of being buried and raised with Christ and what that means for the individual. Interestingly, he cannot resist jumping ahead of himself and writing about prayer at this point. What I found most interesting was a comment that prayer is not something that ought to be striven for, but is a natural reaction in the life of the christian, much the inevitability of sneezing.

Bible

This was a chapter I must say I found quite intriguing, not least because I found Williams’ take again quite unexpected. He makes a very sharp distinction between the Old Testament and the New Testament in terms of their historicity. Williams seems to view the whole of the OT as being an identity-creating narrative but whose historicity is unimportant.

For my part, I am unsure as to whether the historicity of the Old Testament can be downplayed quite so much. While I would agree with Williams that the primary purpose is that of a forming a cultural identity, I am less easily convinced that the historical basis is unimportant. The fact that there is a relative paucity of corroborating evidence, either in literature or archaeology should be something that troubles us. If it were somehow proved the Abraham never entered into a covenant with God then I believe that that would have a profound impact on New Testament theology.

Talking of which, Williams has no such qualms about the historicity of the NT. He emphasises the centrality of Jesus as being the primary means of revelation. For the christian life is one of listening and God’s own voice is not more clear than when speaking through Jesus. There isn’t space here for a huge discourse on source or form criticism, so please don’t come to Williams’ writing with that expectation.

Eucharist

Going back a bit to my baptist upbringing, one of the other areas I would tend to disagree with the anglican mindset regards what Williams calls here Eucharist (which I recall Roger Forster describes as being a fancy way of showing that you know a bit of Greek), but which in the low church is more often referred to as communion or breaking bread.

Williams does stick to the Anglican party line in this chapter, more than he did in baptism, by advocating a highly functional view of the eucharist, even going so far as to mention transubstantiation at one point. So you will not be surprised to read that I profoundly disagree with him on this point. That is not to reject the chapter entirely. Even for the nonconformist, there is a gentle richness here so that one can see the world through the eyes of one particular tradition. He reminds us that communion can be approached in different ways, as a remembrance of the sacrifice that Jesus made and as a celebration of the resurrection. All this, though, is enabled through the Holy Spirit. I wonder whether it occurred to him quite how charismatic this sounded.

Prayer

In this final chapter, Williams takes a slightly different approach, with the bulk of it taken from 3 figures from fairly early on in christian history: Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and John Cassian. I must admit, though reasonably familiar with Origen and having heard of, but been unfamiliar with, Gregory of Nyssa, I had never previously heard of John Cassian. As one might expect, the Lord’s Prayer plays a fairly prominent role here as a model by which we pray.

Williams has more surprises up his sleeves here. In emphasising the personal nature of prayer, Williams advocates the notion of a priesthood of all believers, again something not one might expect from a former Archbishop of Canterbury. Yet he also emphasises another aspect of prayer, whereby we do it as part of a community; a community who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion

Overall, I got the impression that the book tried to be a spiritual classic. There wasn’t an awful lot to tie it to the time and place in which it was composed. It didn’t speak to a particular demographic, but had a feeling of timelessness to it. However, that’s not universally true and a few hints here and there could become dated in years to come, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

I’m posting this review comparatively late to when I finished it, so can look back and see what stuck. The overriding sense I get now is that it is a book that I should have read much more slowly than I did. At less than a hundred pages, I thought I was going slowly to eek it out at one chapter per day. It isn’t a work of theology, but it should hold a mirror up to our theology and praxis and remind us of some of the basics of christian living that distinguish us from the rest of the world at large. Such reminders are no new thing in christian literature, yet I have a feeling that this will be read more times and recommended in years to come than many a more plain effort.

There is far more in this small volume than I could cover here, for to do it justice might require a page of writing to unpack each paragraph. So while it may not take you long to read, it will be hard to resist turning back to it and noting the quotes that the publishers highlight for the reader to ponder. If what I’ve touched on sounds interesting, then this is definitely a book for you.

Book Review: Whose Bible Is It? by Jaroslav Pelikan

This wasn’t a book that appeared on my reading list or that I picked up at random from wandering around a bookshop. It was a birthday present which I have only just got round to reading (my birthday was back in the autumn). My dad thought it seemed up my street as he had picked it for free in a clearance from a local Salvation Army centre.

The opening hypothesis poses this problem: a catholic, a Jew and a protestant walk into a bookshop and each says they want the whole bible and nothing but the bible. What does the bookseller provide to each?

Here, we come across a problem straight away which I must tackle. Pelikan regards catholicism and protestantism as two wings of one christianity, instead of being different faiths. For my part I always try not to conflate the two, so will hereafter refer to ‘catholicism’ and ‘christianity’ as being two distinct, though related, religions. (For more on catholicism, see here, for why I don’t use the term protestant, see here). He also uncritically uses the catholic (mis)understanding of Peter’s declaration of Jesus as being the Messiah as meaning that the church is to be founded on Peter, as opposed to the christian understanding that the declaration itself is what is foundational.

With that critique out of the way, what of the main substance of the book? For the most part, it is a history of how the bible has come about.  Having stated a critique, I must praise the writing style. Pelikan is great communicator and this is an excellently written book. It is well-researched and communicated in an engaging way. At no point did I feel bored or find the text to be turgid.

In terms of the details, what does Pelikan present us with? We open with “The God who speaks” where we note how the origins of the bible are in oral history and that to focus on written works is a relatively late development. Though it stops short of being a full-blown treatment of form-criticism, it serves as a useful reminder of the origins of belief where, unusually (but not unwelcome) for a nominally christian work, there is a highly sympathetic treatment given to the oral beginnings of Islam.

From here, the focus is the origins of Judaic writings, with a particular focus on the Torah and how it was used by the communities to which it related, along with the body of writings that accompanied it by way of interpretation. The challenge posed to the reader is an implicit dig at the notion of sola scriptura, though Pelikan is always quite sideways in his criticisms.

Moving from the Old Testament (including the Apocrypha) to the New Testament, there is disappointingly little with regards to the actual composition of the texts, with the focus more on how the canon of the New Testament slowly formed. Though the endnotes cite Bruce Metzger his work, monumental to this field of study, is never directly referenced; neither is F.F. Bruce, which seems rather odd. In the discussion itself, there is a distinct downplaying of the role of Marcion in the idea of forming a new canon in the first place. So while Pelikan presents a well-written account of the evidence he chooses to submit, this reviewer felt that the evidence was somewhat cherry-picked so as to suit the narrative that Pelikan had chosen.

Likewise, as he guides us through several centuries of work, with a particular (and right) emphasis on Jerome’s Vulgate, when we get to the reformation, we again find a distinct downplaying of the crucial modes of thinking that led to the more protestant views of the bible, not least as a reaction against the medieval catholicism that was prevalent at the time. So while we are presented with a vague discussion over Jerome’s poor translation, don’t expect many details and don’t expect an account of the murder of William Tyndale.

Up to now, we have been dealing with translations of translations. But even the most biased of historians could not avoid the influence of the renaissance on the reformation, where the cry of “back to the source” was shouted out loud. And so with reformed christianity came a desire to study the Greek and do the best justice to the original meanings, a task which continues to this day.

In conclusion, what we have is an incomplete account. Though well-written, I could not help but see massive gaps and an over-sympathetic treatment to the mistaken views of catholicism, though from a cursory reading about Pelikan it seems he adopted Eastern Orthodoxy about 10 years before writing this book. Though this has been a fairly critical review, I would recommend the book to you, not least to see how an anti-reformationist might think. Though for a more holistic take, I would recommend follow-ups with works of F.F. Bruce, Bruce Metzger and Alister McGrath.

The one point on which I would say I vehemently agreed with him was on the nature of prophecy not as being one of ‘foretelling’ but of ‘telling forth’ which he puts rather brilliantly.

Book Review: Blind Spots in the Bible by Adrian Plass

From the outset, I probably ought to declare that I am already a big Adrian Plass fan. His breakthrough books, The Sacred Diary and its follow-up, The Horizontal Epistles of Andromeda Veal, capture perfectly the real life expressions of christianity in everyday life. His collection of parables, The Final Boundary, is brilliantly written and highly thought-provoking. So I came to Blind Spots in the Bible with high expectations.

The book is laid out very simply. Plass gives us a short-ish passage which contains some aspect that he feels he has overlooked in the past. He then goes on to explain why it may have been overlooked and to offer his thoughts on the subject. What he doesn’t give is a neatly packaged, all-encompassing answer that leaves no room (or need) for further explanation; life isn’t that simple and Plass puts the reader in no doubt that that is his view.

These blind spots are only those that Plass has noticed; some of which I share, some of which I thought Plass may have omitted. But that’s sort of the point; our blind spots are our own. Though orthodox in his belief, he comes across a little more conservative than I had thought him to be. Consequently, I don’t always agree with him, but that’s ok. He acknowledges that there are some things we are unlikely to understand in this lifetime and that some revelations of understanding are awaiting us.

The book is broken up into approximate themes, though these get more and more tenuous as the book goes on. Each passage and Plass’ ponderings is quite short, but also quite thought-provoking. As such, this is not a book to be read in a hurry. I found it most helpful to just look at 2 or 3 passages a day, but never one straight after the other. Each of us could write our own version of this book. Indeed, I may well address some of my own blind spots on this blog later in the year.

I would recommend this book to you, not as a resource where you might come to have questions answered, but as a resource where questions are asked, prompting you to think for yourself.