What do you think?
John H. Walton and D. Brent Sandy, The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority, Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, October 2013. 320 pp. Paperback, $24.00.
Buy it: Amazon | Westminster
Visit the publisher’s page
Thanks to IVP Academic for the review copy!
John Walton is professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, where D. Brent Sandy teaches New Testament and Greek. Together, they’ve written The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority. In a way, this book is a follow up to Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One, but not strictly a sequel (which is what The Lost World of The Word will be to this book). Here, Walton and Sandy are explaining the nature of ancient literary culture and how that affects our understanding of biblical authority. I suppose you might have guess that from the subtitle.
A less vague, but perhaps more revealing subtitle would have been “How the Orality of Ancient Literary Culture Impacts Inerrancy.” In other words, the primary focus of the book is on how ancient literary culture was primarily oral rather than written. This means that for many books, there was a preceding oral tradition. This tradition was not simply discarded once the book was put into writing, but rather continued on.
In chapters that are given propositional titles, Walton and Sandy try to explain in an accessible way the nature of an oral literary culture. The first part of the book focuses on the Old Testament background culture, while the second on the New. The third part applies this understanding to the different literary genres of the Bible. In the fourth part, they summarize the entire argument about ancient literary culture, and then draw some applications to our understanding of biblical authority in general and inerrancy in particular. The result is a book will potentially be a conversation changer when it comes to modern inerrancy debates.
Because of the oral nature of much of Scripture’s origin, Walton and Sandy use speech-act theory to explain where the authority lies. According to speech act theory, statements have three parts:
- The locution (the actual words)
- The illocution (the intended meaning)
- The perlocution (the intended effect)
Walton and Sandy propose that the authority of Scripture is in the illocution rather than the locution. This is a way of dealing with some of the issues related to science and history in the Bible, but primarily with discrepancies in the details of the Gospel accounts to give one example. If it is the locutions themselves that are inerrant, that doesn’t account for an underlying inspired oral account. But, if it is the illocutions (or the concepts/propositions) that are inerrant, and so also where the authority of Scripture is, then some of the issues that appear to threaten inerrancy at the exegetical level no longer do so.
In the end, I don’t know how many people will find this aspect of Walton and Sandy’s thesis helpful. I did, but I can also see how some might be less than quick to jump on board with it. To relate it to the Five Views of Inerrancy, I can see Franke, Vanhoozer, and Bird (maybe) more or less agreeing. Enns might agree but still say inerrancy doesn’t account for the biblical text. Mohler probably would not agree because he would want to tie inerrancy to the actual words of Scripture (making it therefore verbal and plenary). In that light, Walton and Sandy’s proposal might resonate with progressive accounts of inerrancy, rather than those more traditional ones.
I think it is a thesis worth exploring. And if much of what they are claiming about the oral nature of Scripture is true, then our understanding of how Scripture came down to us will need to be revised. The result will be an understanding in harmony with the background culture that the Bible was produced in and will help defend Scripture’s authority in a more nuanced way.
Here’s another episode of 8-bit philosophy:
Marc Brettler, Daniel Harrington, S.J., Peter Enns, The Bible and The Believer: How to Read The Bible Critically and Religiously. New York: Oxford University Press, September 2012. 224 pp. Hardcover, $27.95.
Buy it: Amazon
Visit the publisher’s page
Thanks to Oxford University Press for the review copy!
A Jew, a Protestant, and a Catholic walk into a bar…
…to talk about reading the Bible in light of their scholarly commitment.
Marc Zvi Brettler is the Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies at Brandeis University. Peter Enns teaches Biblical Studies at Eastern University. Daniel J. Harrington, S.J. was a Professor of New Testament at Boston College until his recent passing. Together, these three scholars have written a kind of multiview book on reading Scripture in light of critical and religious commitments.
The book opens with a concise history of critical biblical scholarship. Because Brettler is Jewish and Enns is an Old Testament scholar, the specific focus is on the Old Testament in modern historical criticism. After this context is established, each contributor offers an extended essay on his perspective of reading the Bible both critically and religiously. Then, the author gives an example of his critical/religious reading in action. The other two contributors then offer their responses as additional headings within the same chapter. The end of each chapter offers suggestions for further reading more or less in line with the author’s perspective.
In a horrible turn of events, the book has endnotes instead of footnotes. However, the valuable takeaway from this is that the publisher (Oxford) seems to be hinting that this is a book for laypeople. The underlying message is that the critical reading scholars from all perspectives use (Jewish/Protestant/Catholic) is compatible with the religious way the average person in the pew/synagogue reads. The writing is conversational and accessible, but doesn’t shy away from critical discussion. Since the three essays and responses taken together are about 150 pages (which gives you an idea how long each chapter is), it seems reasonable that the average person could make their way through the book and learn how to read the Bible the way the scholars do.
This way of reading though is not without problems. Perhaps the key one has to do with inerrancy and the historical value of the Old Testament. In these three scholars’ perspectives, the history of the Old Testament is minimized to say the least. Brettler says in his essay that “Jewish tradition is much less concerned with the literal truth and the historical accuracy of the biblical text than is the Protestant tradition (52).” Coming to terms with this says Enns, was what “set the course for much of my academic and spiritual thinking about the nature of Scripture (72).” Likewise, Harrington says that “Catholicism is not a religion of ‘the book,'” and “is more a religion of a person (85).” When it comes to the book though, “while inerrant in what pertains to our salvation, [it] is not necessarily inerrant in its worldview or chronology or what we currently regard as the province of the physical sciences (87).” As you can see, from a true critical perspective, there is no such thing as full inerrancy.
From my particular Protestant/Christian perspective, I think this book is a valuable read. I say this not because it provides actual insights I will use, but because it shows how what a critical reading of Scripture actually looks like from a religious perspective. I requested a review copy of this book mainly because Peter Enns was the Protestant voice and I wanted to see what he was up to. Also, I was intrigued by the format and thought it might be interesting to be a fly on the wall for a three-way discussion about Bible reading from three perspectives I don’t share. Enns does represent the Protestant perspective, but though I wouldn’t say he is a liberal Protestant (others might), he is definitely no conservative trying to maintain historical traditional orthodoxy when it comes to the Bible. More than originally anticipated, Enns seems right at home talk about reading Scripture with both a Catholic and Jewish scholar.
For readers who adopt this critical perspective, particularly evangelicals, Enns is a sort of Mosaic figure. After his own exodus from Westminster, he has been instrumental in helping others chart their way out of the Egypt of traditional inerrancy and into the Promised Land of critical, inerrancy-free Bible reading. Whether it’s his Evolution of Adam dealing with science and the Bible (mainly just deconstructing traditional understandings of Genesis), or explaining why he doesn’t think inerrancy works, Enns’ is progressively charting out a different approach to Scripture than Protestants have traditionally used. In this book, Enns offers a good overview of how he thinks we (Christians) should read Scripture critically and religiously. Since younger evangelicals who question inerrancy will likely find an affinity with Enns, it is probably good to know how Enns thinks we should read Scripture. In the midst of recent discussion of the future of Protestantism, this book provides an insight into how reading Scripture might look if views of Scripture like Enns holds win out. The result isn’t compelling to me, but I’m afraid it might be compelling to quite a few pilgrims on the way.
James V. Brownson, Bible, Gender, and Sexuality: Reframing The Church’s Debate on Same Sex Relationships. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, February, 2013. 312 pp. Paperback, $29.00.
Buy it: Amazon
Visit the publisher’s page
Thanks to Eerdmans for the review copy!
James Brownson is the James and Jean Cook Professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan. He is also an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America. In Bible, Gender, and Sexuality he is attempting to look at the issue of same sex from a fresh angle.
The reason Brownson wants to look at the issue from a fresh angle is twofold. First, there are “gay and lesbian Christians who exhibit many gifts and fruits of the Spirit and who seek to live in deep obedience to Christ (11).” While Brownson was able to engage this issue from a “moderate, traditionalist position,” he was unable to continue doing so when his son announced he was gay.The second motivating factor made Brownson realize his former work “had stayed at a level of abstraction that wasn’t helpful when it came to the concrete and specific questions” he now faced with his son. His own son didn’t seem to fit the typical narrative used by traditionalists to explain homosexual orientation (and divide orientation from behavior). Likewise, his son seemed to him like a normal and healthy high school senior, in need of the grace of God, but not particularly or deeply troubled (12).
As a result, Brownson wanted to discern “what the most central and truest message of Scripture” was for his son, and “not to justify a certain conclusion” but discern as best the truth as best he could. In other words, because of personal issues, Brownson felt the strong need to go back and ask “Does Scripture really say homosexuality is wrong?”
Predictably, Brownson comes to the conclusion that Scripture doesn’t really say that. Once Brownson shared his personal motivations in his book project, I knew immediately this was the conclusion he would come to. That I read the rest of the book, I didn’t need to in order to see that Brownson would conclude from his study that same-sex relationships would be ok if they follow the same guidelines as opposite-sex relationships (sexual activity only within marriage). Having spent time depressed “grieving the loss of the heterosexual future” his son would miss (12), it was only natural that Brownson would now envision a “healthy” homosexual one instead.
To get there, Brownson concludes that same-sex relationships are not condemned by Scripture primarily by digging into what he calls “the moral logic” of what Scripture means by what it says. To be honest, it felt very much like the idea was to see if we could get behind what the text plainly says in order to see if actually applies to our modern situation. Lo and behold, it we dig deep enough we find that behaviors that are condemned in no uncertain terms can actually be morally acceptable in a different cultural context (if you also think that context isn’t anticipated by the biblical authors).
To make this case stick, Brownson has to argue several things. To begin, he denies that Scripture teaches gender complementarity (chapter 2). He focuses almost exclusively on Genesis 1-2 to prove this. Interestingly, he does not interact with any major commentary on Genesis in his interpretive efforts, nor does he really present a case from biblical theology. He simply examines the text for himself and finds it wanting.
Having done this, he then proceeds to try to distance himself from revisionist interpreters (chapter 3).Though it might appear like he is distinguishing himself from both traditionalists (complementarians) and revisionists by critiquing both camps, as mentioned above, he is ultimately part of the latter. He just thinks he is not as extreme. But, since he comes to more or less the same conclusions, that is really a hard sell to the reader.
After this preliminary ground clearing in the first part of the book, Brownson turns to four crucial topics in the second:
- Patriarchy (chapter 4)
- The one-flesh union of marriage (chapter 5)
- Procreation (chapter 6)
- Celibacy (chapter 7)
To summarize briefly, Brownson argues that the rules of a patriarchal culture are not normative (this builds on the denial of gender complementarity). Then, he says that the one-flesh union of marriage is primarily a kinship bond (and so not necessarily sexual). Given this, procreation may be part of marriage but not the ultimate goal, and so is not necessary. Lastly, it is wrong to argue that all people who want to gay or lesbian and Christian must be celibate because it is a gift not given to all.
This is all done without really engaging Romans 1:24-27 because Brownson devotes the entire third part of the book to this passage. He is concerned to understand what Paul means by lust and desire (chapter 8), purity and impurity (chapter 9), the dishonorable use of the body (chapter 10), and finally the “unnaturalness” of homosexuality (chapter 11). Briefly summarized, Brownson concludes that Paul condemns homosexual behavior that is driven by unrestrained lust. Then he suggests that for Paul and the rest of the NT authors, purity moves away from actions toward attitudes and dispositions. Next, if gender roles evolve, certain sexual behaviors that violate those gender roles may be acceptable. Lastly, in light of all this, there is no objective basis on which to classify homosexual behavior as “unnatural” and hence in the proper moral framework (marriage or civil union), the church should be open to accepting it.
In all this, no major Romans commentaries are consulted in reference to Romans 1. It is frequently asserted that neither Paul nor the other biblical writers were aware of something like sexual orientation. Frequently, sociological and psychological research in the abstract is referenced if it helps make the point and overlooked if it doesn’t. Speculative background contexts are used to try to reframe what Paul is saying.
But all of that pales in light of what Brownson says way back in chapter 5:
The fact that the Bible uses the language of “one flesh” to refer to male-female unions normally does not inherently, and of itself, indicate that it views such linkages normatively. (105)
This allows him to later make the following expanded conclusion:
It is clear that Scripture assumes that this one-flesh bond only takes place between a man and a woman. Yet there is nothing inherent in the biblical usage that would necessarily exclude committed gay or lesbian unions from consideration as one-flesh unions, when the essential characteristics of one-flesh unions as kinship bonds are held clearly in view. (109)
In other words, “what is normal in the biblical witness may not necessarily be normative in different cultural settings that are not envisioned by the biblical writers.” This is essentially a denial of the sufficiency of Scripture. Scripture may depict certain cultural relationships as normal, but it is not our norm for understanding cultural relationships. That “norm” is whatever the deeper moral logic of Scripture is, which from Brownson’s point of view, seems to be an almost entirely cultural human product. Brownson is only interested in the moral logic of the biblical writer, as understood only as the text’s human author.
There is no concern for God’s moral logic and what might bring him glory through our sexual relationships. There is only the deeply personal experience of gay and lesbian persons that forces us to reinterpret what Scripture means by what it says. There is no recognition that we are all sexually broken in way or another and that homosexual patterns of desire represent one type of brokenness that needs the grace of God just as much as every other kind of brokenness.
In the end, there is book is a father’s attempt to affirm his son by re-reading Scripture and re-imagining a future for his son that can include a valid, church approved same-sex union. To do this, he must fight against the tide of traditional biblical interpretation and consult outlying sources to support the conclusion he was inevitably moving toward when he went back to “see what Scripture really means by what it says.” On the one hand, this book shows how tightly inter-related the case for traditional gender role is with the case for traditional marriage, and for that we should be grateful. But on the other hand, it shows what happens when experience becomes normative over and above Scripture, and for that we should take warning. Many people will find Brownson’s case compelling. Those same people may claim sola Scriptura, but approving the argument of this book requires affirming sola experientia instead.
A couple of weeks back, I joined Christ and Pop Culture as a staff writer. I’m mainly doing book reviews, but of popular and not necessarily theological works. My first post was on The Power of Habit.
Last week, Christ and Pop Culture launched a membership option as a way to show your support. Though the content has been free up to now, that needed to change. As editor in chief Richard Clark explains:
Let me be blatantly honest: while we believe wholeheartedly in what we’re doing here, we can’t consistently dedicate this much time and attention to a hobby. We’ve decided that without financial growth and sustainability, Christ and Pop Culture simply cannot continue.
We want Christ and Pop Culture to be something more than a hobby, because in our hearts, it already is. Lord Willing, that’s the future of Christ and Pop Culture. In a very real sense, that future is in your hands.
Should you decide to support Christ and Pop Culture for $5 a month, here’s what you get:
- Creator Spotlight: a rotating bundle of three or four offerings from creators we love and admire (see this month’s offering)
- A subscription to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine
- The CAPC Report: An inside look behind the scenes at Christ and Pop Culture.
- Podcasts: In addition to the regular podcast, members get a special podcast that skews longer than the standard one (and is directed by member input)
- Wallpapers: Access to an ever-expanding library with wallpapers from illustrator, Seth T. Hahne based on previous CAPC magazine illustrations.
- Access to a members only forum (on Facebook)
- Unlimited browsing on the website! (as of now, your views are counted and capped each month)
Obviously, I’m a little biased since I’ve been a reader for a while and am now contributing as a writer. But, that doesn’t mean this isn’t objectively a good deal if you’re willing to let go of a Lincoln on a monthly basis. The free book in the Creator Spotlight would cost you more than $5 if you wanted to buy it. That shouldn’t be your primary motivating factor, but if you’re like me, getting what feels like a free book is always a good thing.
If you value thoughtful interaction with popular culture (which is really all culture that is getting noticed by a broad audience), then you’ll value what’s going on at Christ and Pop Culture. And in this case, not only is the interaction thoughtful, it’s from a Christian perspective and seeks to think theologically about the culture in which we live and move and have our being. It might be a stretch to say the apostle Paul would approve, but since he innovated interacting with pop culture from a Christian perspective, I think he might. But, don’t just take my word for it. Go see what others are saying and consider becoming a member!
Here’s an excellent rundown on Plato’s theory of the forms in under 3 minutes:
Who knew philosophy could be so fun? (I did.)
C. Marvin Pate, Apostle of The Last Days: The Life, Letters, and Theology of Paul. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, November, 2013. 320 pp. Paperback, $22.99.
Buy it: Amazon
Read an excerpt
Visit the publisher’s page
Thanks to Kregel Academic for the review copy!
Today’s review is by Jennifer Guo. She is a bean counter by day and a book eater by night. She is passionate about the gospel and loves biblical and theological studies. Besides books, her other great love is the performing arts. She regularly posts book reviews and other goodies at her blog, and you can connect with her on Twitter.
I love the Apostle Paul. His life inspires me, his writings are some of my favorite in the Bible, and the theology of his corpus is my favorite to study. When it comes to monographs on Pauline theology, his soteriology seems to receive the most attention. Especially in the Reformed world, writings on Paul are dominated by studies on his ordo salutis. And with the advent and growing popularity of the new perspective(s) on Paul in recent decades we have seen a proliferation of response books from the “old perspective,” arguing for the traditional understanding of Paul and justification.
As important and precious as justification by faith alone is, there’s actually more to Paul’s theology and this doctrine does have a competitor for the coveted spot of “the center of Paul’s theology.” This contender is inaugurated eschatology, and in Apostle of The Last Days C.Marvin Pate surveys the entire Pauline corpus to demonstrate that this is indeed the theme that unifies Paul’s life, letters, and theology.
Pate begins by introducing how Paul was a product of the Greco-Roman, Jewish, and Christian worlds, which influenced him in increasing significance. Then he discusses the traditional attribution of thirteen letters to Paul, the liberal attribution of only seven of the letters, and the traditional response. Subsequently he surveys Paul’s life as documented in the book of Acts. Next, Pate summarizes the four approaches to identifying a center in Paul’s thought: justification by faith, the Tübingen school, the history of religions approach, and eschatology. Here he notes that while Jewish eschatology saw the present and the coming age as consecutive, in the New Testament the two ages overlap (inaugurated eschatology). “Thus, with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ the age to come/kingdom of God broke into this present age but without ending it” (16). In other words, the age to come was inaugurated with the first coming of Christ but awaits the second coming for consummation.
The last idea presented in the introduction is that of Paul’s ministry being characterized by conflict in eschatologies. Here (pp 20-26) Pate summarizes six types of eschatology that were current during Paul’s time:
- Paul’s inaugurated eschatology
- non-merkabah non-Christian Judaism (consistent eschatology)
- non-merkabah Judaizers (inaugurated eschatology)
- the Roman imperial cult (realized eschatology)
- Hellenistic/syncretistic religion (realized eschatology)
- merkabah-Judaizers (realized eschatology).
He then takes the five components of the realized eschatology of the Roman imperial cult developed by Helmut Koester and applies the model to all of the above eschatologies except that of the non-merkabah, non-Christian Judaism (which is a consistent, i.e. futurist, eschatology):
- The New Age has dawned
- It is cosmic and universal
- A Savior inaugurates the New Age
- The New Age/Savior is predicted in sacred writings
- The New Age is celebrated through rituals
The thesis of this study is that conflict erupted as Paul presented his apocalypse of Christ in the face of the various competing eschatologies. Chapter 1 sets things up by demonstrating from Acts, Paul’s letters in general, and especially Galatians 1 and Romans 1 that Paul’s conversion and call were eschatologically driven. The fourfold eschatological message proclaimed by Paul and rooted in his conversion/call is that “Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah of Israel, whose death and resurrection inaugurated the age to come, which is entered into by faith apart from the law, and which includes Gentiles” (49). These four components became flashpoints of conflict between Paul and opponents influenced by the competing eschatological constructs of the day, and the next ten chapters highlight this conflict in the different cities that Paul wrote to, surveying each of his letters and further expounding upon the competing eschatologies in each city.
The last chapter, Chapter 12, presents an overview of Paul’s theology by using the seven typical categories of systematic theology. For each category, Pate launches the discussion from a word count of a key word related to the topic at hand (e.g. “God” for theology proper, “Christ”/“Lord” for Christology, etc.) and then draws out the eschatological nature of each. God is viewed through an apocalyptic lens (theology proper); Jesus’s death and resurrection inaugurated the age to come (Christology); the presence of the Holy Spirit, received by faith in Christ alone, is a key sign that the new age has dawned (pneumatology); the first Adam is the head of the old humanity and the last Adam is head of the new humanity (anthropology); justification, sanctification and glorification span the two ages (soteriology); and the church is the beginning of the new creation of the age to come, the restored Israel of the end times, the eschatological temple of God, the eschatological flock of God (ecclesiology). Finally, the section on eschatology looks at the various signs of the end times and how Paul viewed them through the lens of the overlapping of the two ages.
Apostle of The Last Days is a valuable contribution to Pauline studies. The majority of the book is a survey through Paul’s entire corpus, demonstrating the eschatology of each epistle vis-à-vis the competing eschatologies of the respective cities. It’s written at a moderately academic level, with most Greek words untransliterated. This book is definitely a treat for anyone with particular interest in Pauline studies and/or eschatology; but because the thesis is advanced through a survey of all of Paul’s epistles, it would benefit any semi-academic student of the Word by imparting a greater understanding of each of Paul’s epistles.
John E. Phelan Jr., Essential Eschatology: Our Present and Future Hope, Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, October, 2013. 203 pp. Paperback, $20.00.
Buy it: Amazon
Visit the publisher’s page
Thanks to IVP Academic for the review copy!
Eschatology can be a divisive subject in some circles. I say “some” because in other circles, it’s not even a topic of conversation. It almost seems as if eschatology provokes only extreme reactions. Either you love it and have an end times chart on your wall that you consult often, or you avoid the topic whenever possible.
In reality, neither of these positions is correct. To simply ignore eschatology is to ignore a significant branch of Christian theology. It is also to ignore something that seems pretty important to guys who wrote big chunks of the New Testament. I am speaking of course about Paul and John, but you could see eschatological emphases throughout the New Testament. The Old Testament likewise is very eschatological, when you understand “eschatology” as “last and ultimate things,” not just “end-times scenarios.” On the other hand, to have an unhealthy fascination with end times scenarios and fret over the news reports from the Middle East isn’t a good approach either (they’ve been bad for thousands of years, it’s not new).
Into this discussion comes John E. Phelan Jr. with his book Essential Eschatology: Our Present and Future Hope. As he explains in the introduction,
This book is written to encourage individual Christians and churches to take Christian eschatology seriously. In it I argue that far from being an esoteric fringe doctrine, eschatology is a most practical and pastorally significant doctrine. Everything done in the church is, or should be, done in light of the presence of the kingdom of God in Jesus’ ministry, message, death and resurrection. The church’s message, ministry and communal life are all given shape by the promise of resurrection and judgment, and the coming of the new heavens and new earth. Christians are a people of hope. And our hope is not merely personal but corporate and universal. Christians are also people of mission, and that mission is motivated by God’s love and longing for the renewal and reconciliation of his creation to himself. The church lives in light of that coming renewal and in hope of the reconciliation of all things to God. By its worship and witness it anticipates that renewal and participates in that reconciliation (13).
With those bearings, Phelan then connects each chapter to the motif of “hope.” We start with an overview of hope and promise (chapter 1). Then, hope in cultural context (chapter 2), the hope of the resurrection (chapter 3), the hope for judgment (chapter 4), hope for the fullness of the kingdom of God (chapter 5), and hope for Christ’s return (chapter 6). Starting in chapter 7, Phelan gets into what most people think of when they think of eschatology. Here, he tackles the book of Revelation. In the final three chapters, he gets into detail about the millennium, the future of Israel, and the future of the church.
He does this from a postmillennial perspective, which honestly is probably the least mainstream in evangelical circles. There have been several recent books from an amillennial perspective, and the varieties of premillennialism get pretty good coverage. Postmillenialism on the other hand, not so much. If you are particularly interested in the different millennial views, this book is worth checking simply because it is a kind of minority report.
The real reason though is that Phelan does a good job of trying to focus on the essentials. The importance of this was reinforced for me while I was a student at Dallas Seminary. Interestingly, though Dallas is known for a certain eschatological perspective (dispensational premillennialism, in case you didn’t know), to graduate, you only have to affirm the literal bodily return of Christ. In other words, for orthodoxy, they only consider Christ’s second coming essential. Your view of the tribulation, millennium, rapture, etc., is not considered an essential of the faith (though they have particular perspectives on each that they think are correct). This helped me focus on being clear about essentials, and be open-handed about peripherals. I lean amillennial, but am open to a better postmillennial or premillennial argument. My hope though is not in an end times scenario, but in the promises of the coming kingdom that a King will bring here one way or another with all its fullness.
For the most part then, what Phelan offers should be essentials of escathology that people from different traditions and millennial vantage points can agree on. Probably not everyone will agree with what Phelan considers the essentials. But, he makes a step in the right direction by presenting the core issues first, and then exploring distinctive views on the millennium, Israel, and other sometimes divisive subjects. If you’re interested in a book on eschatology that focus on core issues, and offers postmillennial perspectives on the peripherals, then this book is for you.
Earlier in this movie mini-series, I talked about the need for a nuanced take on movies. Then, I started unpacking some basic perspectives that need to be in place. First, I explained the need to see movies as artistic creations. Second, I pointed to the moral messages woven into the fabric of most movies. Today, we’ll look at how most movies are essentially redemption stories, and what kind of implications that has for how we watch them.
As a leading screenwriter in Hollywood puts it, “The art of story is the dominant culture force in the world, and the art of film is the dominant medium of this grand enterprise” (15). Robert Johnston concurs stating, “the nature of film is story,” and “we go to the movies to see stories.” Stories however, are rarely just stories, but rather, “Storytelling from its inception was expected to be more than entertainment. Through their craft, the first storytellers were expected to teach the culture how to live and behave in their world.” (Godawa, 76)
Interestingly, this quite often takes the form of a character going on a quest to achieve some kind of redemption. As Craig Detweiler observes, “The most timely, relevant, and haunting films resonate with the shaping story of Scripture: from the beauty of creation, through the tragedy of self-destruction, to the wonder of restoration.” (Into The Dark, 257) One could easily say that “The essence of storytelling in movies is about redemption,” and, “Movies are finally, centrally, crucially, primarily only about story. And those stories are finally, centrally, crucially, primarily mostly about redemption.” (Godawa, 86, 89)
Stories are “universally perceived as the best way of talking about the way the world actually is.” (Wright, 40) This in turn implies something about reality itself: “Storytelling is meaningless gibberish unless reality itself is narratable. And reality is unnarratable in a universe without a transcendent narrator.” (Godawa, 70) In other words, the prevalence of storytelling across cultures is an apologetic for the existence of God. Without a being who fits the description of the biblical God, there is no unity that makes sense of the diversity of storytellers, nor is there a unity of world history itself. Assuming a grand narrator, it would make sense that there is also a grand narrative of which all the individual narratives told by human storytellers are analogical reflections.
Joseph Campbell, who formulated the idea of the Monomyth underlying all mythologies, was certainly on to something, but in the absence of a Christian perspective, he failed to notice that “Christianity is itself the true incarnation of the Monomyth in history, and other mythologies reflect and distort it like dirty or broken mirrors.” (Godawa, 70) This being the case, the story of redemption as exemplified in the Christian gospel is the ultimate story of redemption that the redemptive storylines in the movies analogically reflect. The individual redemptive stories that are displayed in the movies follow the same trajectory as the grand narrative of redemption told in Scripture. They are situational reflections of the divine norm of how redemption really works.
As the blueprint for all other redemptive storylines, “The Bible narrates the story of God’s journey on that long road of redemption. It is a unified and progressively unfolding of God’s action in history for the salvation of the whole world.” (The Drama of Scripture, 12) This is not to suggest that film-makers are consciously modeling their stories after God’s story of redemption. It is simply to observe that the prevalence of redemptive stories found in movies indicates not only that this type of story is the most satisfying, but that there is an innate human desire for redemption that leads to the creation of “gospel stories” that mimic the Gospel. (Frame,902)
To see this clearly, consider the stages of Christopher Vogler’s adaption of Campbell’s Monomyth that is used by numerous screenwriters. In the first act, called Separation, there are several stages. They are:
- Ordinary World
- Call to Adventure
- Refusal of the Call
- Meeting with the Mentor
- Crossing the Threshold
- Tests, Allies, Enemies
In the second act, which can be split into two parts itself, Descent and Initiation, there is the single stage:
- Central Ordeal.
In the last act, called Return, the stages are:
- The Road Back
- Return with Elixir
In his analysis of story, Vern Poythress breaks the story of redemption accomplish by Christ into three acts as well. (206-208) In the initial act (Challenge), Christ is in heaven (his Ordinary World) and is sent by the Father to redeem the world, which is a Call to Adventure that lacks a Refusal of the Call (Galatians 4:4-5; 1 John 4:14). At the outset of Christ’s public ministry there is a Crossing of the Threshold (Matthew 4:1-11). From there Christ makes Allies (the disciples) and Enemies (Satan, the Pharisees) and amidst the many Tests (challenges from Pharisees and demons) he breaks away often to meet with his Mentor (God the Father). All the while, Christ has set his face to Approach Jerusalem (for this emphasis, see Luke’s Gospel). In the second act, it is not a stretch at all to see Jesus’ crucifixion and death as the Central Ordeal of the gospel story (Matthew 26-27). In his death which is the start of the final act, Jesus was vindicated and received the Reward, completed the Road Back and was Resurrected from the dead. He then returned to his Ordinary World (heaven) having accomplished redemption and made the Elixir available to all who would believe (1 Timothy 3:16; Philippians 2:8-11; Romans 4:24-25). From a Christian perspective, even though it happened in the middle of history, the Gospel is the archetype for all stories with a redemptive trajectory. Film is no exception.
As God acts on the stage of world history to accomplish his purposes, so man acts on the stage of his own personal history to accomplish his purposes. Stories in their basic form are accounts of a main character’s purpose, action, and the result. In this basic sense, all stories are accounts of a man imaging God, who as Scripture teaches has purposes, acts in history, and brings about his intended results (Ephesians 1:10-11; 1 Corinthians 15:28; Revelation 21:1, 22-27). In a more specific sense though, God does not just act randomly in history, but as stated before, acts to accomplish redemption. This redemption “is at the heart of God’s purposes for the world, it is the one central story.” (Poythress, 206) If this is true, then “in the end, all the other stories about working out human purposes derive their meaning from being related to this central story.” If man in general derives meaning as a human from imaging God, at the particular level of stories told by man, meaning there would be derived from imaging The Story.
All stories then image the Christian story of redemption, which is another way of saying all stories are reflections of the gospel. This is not to say every movie has a gospel presentation. Rather, all stories, including those told in movies, are following a pattern that is woven into the fabric of storytelling by the Original Storyteller. That pattern is chiefly displayed in the Christian Gospel, and is imitated by every well told story in or out of the theater. The Gospel is the universal redemption story of which any given movie is a particular redemptive story. This means that almost any movie can be a starting point for sharing the gospel since it will connect in some way. Making that connection is difficult, and so that’s what I’d like to spend the summer sketching out.