bible-and-believer1Marc 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.

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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.

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James V. Brownson, Bible, Gender, and Sexuality: Reframing The Church’s Debate on Same Sex RelationshipsGrand Rapids: Eerdmans, February, 2013. 312 pp. Paperback, $29.00.

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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.

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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 Spotlighta 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.)

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C. Marvin Pate, Apostle of The Last Days: The Life, Letters, and Theology of PaulGrand Rapids: Kregel Academic, November, 2013. 320 pp. Paperback, $22.99.

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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.

Introduction

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.

Overview

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:

  1. Paul’s inaugurated eschatology
  2. non-merkabah non-Christian Judaism (consistent eschatology)
  3. non-merkabah Judaizers (inaugurated eschatology)
  4. the Roman imperial cult (realized eschatology)
  5. Hellenistic/syncretistic religion (realized eschatology)
  6. 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):

  1. The New Age has dawned
  2. It is cosmic and universal
  3. A Savior inaugurates the New Age
  4. The New Age/Savior is predicted in sacred writings
  5. 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.

Evaluation

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.

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John E. Phelan Jr., Essential Eschatology: Our Present and Future Hope, Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, October, 2013. 203 pp. Paperback, $20.00.

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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.

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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
  • Approach

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:

  • Reward
  • The Road Back
  • Resurrection
  • 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.

18167386Paul M. Gould & Richard Brian Davis, eds., Loving God With Your Mind: Essays in Honor of J. P. Moreland. Chicago: Moody, December 2013. 272 pp. Paperback, $19.99.

Buy it: Amazon

Visit the publisher’s page

Thanks to Moody for the review copy!

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but I love a good festschrift. If you’re not familiar with German, a festschrift is a collection of essays presented to a scholar on the occasion of his (or her) 65th birthday. Sometimes it’s also on the occasion of retirement, or some other milestone late in a scholarly career.

In this case, the honoree is J. P. Moreland, and the occasion is his 65th birthday (in 2013). The collection is edited by Paul Gould and Richard Brian Davis, and features contributions from Paul Copan, Doug Groothuis, Klaus Issler, R. Scott Smith, Scott B. Rae, and others. The contributions are divided into three parts which correspond with the broad divisions of philosophy. The first section is essays related to metaphysics (“The Building Blocks of The World”), and focuses on Platonism and the soul among other topics. The second section turns to epistemology (“Thinking For Christ in The World”) and deals with a range of topics from natural theology, to rational apologetics, to epistemic virtues. The final section closes with ethics (“Living for Christ in The World”) and discussion ranges from Jesus as a guide to spiritual formation to the importance of self-disclosure in cultural apologetics.

As a whole, this collection has much to offer people interested in philosophy in general and the development of J. P. Moreland’s thought in particular. The latter is seen both in the contributor’s engagement with Moreland’s ideas as well as the fact that he had a significant influence on the contributor’s themselves. I’m not completely on the same page as Moreland, but his Philosophical Foundations of a Christian Worldview significantly influenced my interest in philosophy. I’d like to go back and read it now whenever I get a chance (probably not happening soon), especially after reading some of the essays in this collection.

What I actually found most interesting, and challenging, was some of Moreland’s advice in the afterword. In a section called “The Christian Thinker, Spiritual Formation, and The Cultivation of a Tender Heart,” Moreland suggests that some Christian scholarship is “too self-promoting” and suffers from a deep seated spiritual problem. It seems like he is talking more about Christian scholars who “jump the shark” and try to court the mainstream unbelieving academy, but his advice applies to anyone trying to do Christian scholarship. In fact, it dovetails nicely with some recent blogosphere conversations (like here, here, and here).

Moreland suggests that we need “to engage in serious self-examination on two fronts: commitment to the Lordship of Jesus and the supremacy of His cause, and efforts to sustain one’s first love” (237). Toward this end, Moreland says he regularly looks at Matthew 16:24-27 to examine himself. He also seeks to examine a tender, affectionate heart toward God. He does this several ways:

  • Calling God Abba
  • Envisioning himself on a blanket in a field and picturing Jesus walking toward him, reaching him, and grabbing his face and telling him that he loves him
  • Talking to God hundreds of times a day whenever there is a minute here and there
  • Listening to and singing along with praise music in his car
  • Spending 5 years in good Christian therapy to learn to live in his heart and feel his feelings

In addition to this, Moreland says that he also tries to regularly practice the disciplines of solitude and secrecy. The solitude he practices 4-5 times weekly for short time periods. As far as the secrecy, he will often refrain “from sharing victories (e.g., a good lecture or something published) with others, even though it would be permissible to do so” (238). In the context of recent conversations on Twitter and blogs (see above), the question isn’t really whether or not you can retweet (or republish) compliments. Rather, I would say it is spiritually healthy to intentionally not share some of what you’re up to in ministry even if it’s really great. I’ve tried to practice this for the past year or more, and I’ve found it beneficial. I’ve had speaking opportunities that went un-Tweeted and un-Instagrammed. I’ve stopped commenting on every free book I get in the mail. Here and there I think I’ve overshared, but I never retweet compliments and don’t necessarily share everything I write online. Though it might be going too far to try to say everyone should try to see how much they can keep a secret, I’ve found that it has helped curb my impulse to share and say “look at me!”

This practicing of secrecy goes hand in hand with the last two considerations that Moreland mentions. The first is placing a priority on cultivating deep, intimate relationships with his wife and a group of safe Christian friends. This helps to keep his focus outward instead of overly inward. The second is practicing gratitude, which takes his focus away from his propensity toward anxiety and depression. The full effect is that you can tell Moreland is not a scholar who worships his curriculum vita, however impressive it might be. In the example he presents, I think we can all, especially those of us pursuing Christian scholarship, can follow.

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Today we finish up our journey through Four Views on The Historical Adam. Yesterday we looked William Barrick’s young-earth perspective on the historical Adam, and on Tuesday we looked at C. John Collins’ view. For the full table of contents, click here.

Rather than closing with additional editorial comments (like Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy did), this volume closes with two brief pastoral reflections. I suppose technically this makes it six views on the historical Adam. However, since these are pastoral reflections, the focus is much different than the views. Rather than defending whether Adam existed or not, the question is how pastorally relevant is his existence (or non-existence).

Interestingly, both Greg Boyd and Phil Ryken think Adam was a historical figure. Boyd is more tentative (“I am currently inclined to the view that Adam was, in fact, a historical figure”). Ryken is more dogmatic (“To deny the historical Adam is to stand against the teaching of Moses, Luke, Jesus, and Paul”). What they disagree on is how dependent our faith is on the historical Adam. For Boyd, our faith is secure either way. For Ryken, much like Barrick, it is a gospel issue.

This plays out in the tone and content of each essay. Boyd’s essay is more autobiographical. He too was once a young-earth creationist and had a significant faith crisis in college. The role his experience plays is his significant and informs the pastoral stance he takes on the issue. Honestly, though I am not inclined to agree with Boyd’s perspective, his essay was more pastorally sensitive to people wrestling with the issue.

On the other hand, Ryken’s essay reads more like a treatise on the doctrinal importance of the historical Adam. He gives an outline of seven doctrines connected to Adam as a historical person, and only briefly flirting with personal experience in an opening anecdote. His response is thorough and I imagine, hoped to be semi-definitive in the short space allowed. It is thankfully less combative than Barrick’s perspective, though Ryken clearly thinks a historical Adam is just as important as Barrick does.

In this sense, I think the strength of each essay is also the weakness of the other. Boyd is more pastorally sensitive and having wrestled with the issue, has an insider’s perspective. Ultimately, he does not take a real definitive doctrinal stand (e.g. “I am merely inclined to the view that Adam was a historical figure.”). His position on Adam, like his theism, is quite open. 1

Ryken on the other hand does take a clear doctrinal stand. Had he presented his view with a little more personal engagement with the issue, it might have been more pastorally effective. But at the same time, I realize there is a trade-off when you’re dealing with space considerations. The more personal experience he infused, the less space there would have been for sketching out the doctrinal importance. Perhaps it could have been balanced better in the essay, but I don’t know. I do know it could be better balanced in a real life conversation scenario, something I am still learning to do well myself.

My vantage point at the moment is that there is no significant reason to deny a historical Adam. I taught high school biology for a year and during that time explored the question of evolution from the perspective of a teacher. 2 In the time since then, life has considerably evolved, but not so radically that everything is traced back to lower life forms. Relations are somewhat provable, but lines of descent are harder to definitively establish. For that reason, I am highly skeptical that a) they could be proven, and b) that mankind can be brought into a provable line.

The reason I put it this way is that just based on scientific evidence, I don’t find the evolution of man compelling. I realize of course that mainstream science thinks otherwise, but I investigated the evidence for myself, and I found it wanting. I could see how someone could believe wholesale in evolution. But my background in philosophy and particularly philosophy of science influences the way I see the connection of evidence/data and theories. In this case, the connection seems to me, highly improbable.

Moving to Scripture, I think the case that Adam was historical is much stronger than the case that he wasn’t. I think this book more or less shows that since of the 6 voices, only 1 thinks Adam wasn’t historical. And he clearly has to do some revisionist hermeneutical gymnastics to still hold that Scripture is trustworthy and true. It seems that the predominant Christian intuition in this matter is to take the text at face value and believe that Adam is a real historical person who existed in the past. This isn’t to say someone who doesn’t share that intuition isn’t a Christian, but merely to say they represent a minority report within Christian thought. They also exclusively seem to do so for scientific reasons. That is, I don’t know anyone doubting that Adam was a real historical individual apart from also believing whole-heartedly in evolution. 3

Considering that there are ways of believing in much of scientific data regarding evolution and believing in a historical Adam, it doesn’t seem necessary to revise our interpretation of Scripture to fit something that is not conclusively proven as true (or really could be given the limits and scope of origin science). This book underscores that fact from a variety of angles. At the end of the day, I think we should read Genesis like Collins (and to some extent Walton), express the significance of a historical Adam like Ryken, and try to relate to people struggling with the issues like Boyd.

Notes:

  1. To be clear, I am making a joke about Boyd’s open theism. I am not questioning his belief in God or his being a Christian. I actually have not interacted much with his writings until recently. But, I have found myself enjoying my way through disagreeing with him. Considering the number of Spectrum Multiview books I have to read in which he is a contributor, this won’t be the last time I engage Boyd.
  2. In terms of my biological studies, I didn’t come across any compelling evidence to belief that humans evolved from lower forms of life (the “common ancestry” component of the definition of evolution). Even if we grant a billions of years old universe, Big-Bang cosmology, and even macro-evolution (evolution from one species to another), there is no hard evidence definitively proving man evolved from lower life forms. Now, there is evidence that points in that direction, but it only compelling for people who do not have any other options when it comes to origin stories. If you’re not a Christian, evolution in its totality has to be true, it’s the only game in town as Alvin Plantinga says. You could just as easily believe that the universe itself was created billions of years ago, but then God formed the earth we live on in six successive days. 4Keep in mind that even if you believe that creation took place in 6-24 hour days, the earth already existed as a watery planet (v.2) in the dark before Day 1 (v.3). How long it has been there is not something Genesis addresses, but on any “plain” reading of Genesis, the earth and space itself are not created on any of the days.
  3. Whereas I do know people who do not believe that the earth was created six thousand years ago in 6 literal 24 hours days and also do not believe whole-heartedly in evolution. One of those people is me.

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Yesterday, we resumed the series review of Four Views on The Historical Adam. C. John Collins provided an alternate old-earth perspective on a historical Adam to go alongside John Walton’s. Today, we’ll look at the final view, which is William Barrick’s young earth creationist perspective on the historical Adam.

Barrick opens with a section on the importance of a historical Adam for Christian thought. He says that “without Adam’s historicity many of the teachings of Scripture will look very different from common evangelical theological concepts or fail the test of logical consistency” (198). He goes on to affirm what all is at stake for maintaining the traditional view, and in doing so explains that young earth creationism and the historical Adam are “integrally related” (199).

This relationship is made plain by Barrick’s explanation of four assumptions the traditional view holds:

  1. God gave the Genesis account of creation to Moses by special revelation (199)
  2. The declarations of Genesis bear the stamp of divine truth, historical fact, and historiographical accuracy (200)
  3. The Genesis record does not limit its scope to one ethnic or national group (201)
  4. The biblical writers in both testaments appear to take for granted a common origin of all human beings in Adam whenever they touch on topics related to Genesis 1-11 (201)

Barrick then unpacks the biblical evidence for the traditional view. He starts with Genesis 1:1-25, and asks why it is structured the way it is. He then quotes David Cotter’s insights on the “orderly sequence of days”:

This storyteller must convince the reader that this account can be trusted; to achieve this, the storyteller creates the impression that everything is being told, that nothing is being held back. Therefore the narrator has to be omniscient. (202)

Barrick then makes an unwarranted jump and concludes, “In other words, by taking a detailed, step-by-step, objective tone the author reveals everything just as it actually happened.” Unfortunately, this is not what Cotter says. Note, Cotter says the storyteller “creates the impression that everything is being told,” which is quite different than revealing “everything just as it actually happened.” Accordingly, Barrick has a hard time with anyone pointing out similarities with other ancient Near East accounts. If we all agree those accounts are mythological, we shouldn’t use them to inform our understanding of Genesis. Especially if Genesis is recording events in exact detail.

As he transitions from Genesis 1:1-25 to 1:26-2:3, he mistakenly calls the entire story a metanarrative (206). He does it twice within the span of 4 sentences, and then again when referring to the fall in Genesis 3 (213). I could see why he might refer to Genesis 1-3 as a metanarrative. But it is a common word in philosophical discourse, so a consistent misuse is concerning. I don’t want to make too big of a deal out of it, but then again, he keeps using a word when I’m not quite sure he knows what it means. This doesn’t inspire confidence in trusting his presentation.

The rest of Barrick’s survey covers Genesis 4-5, the rest of the OT, and the NT). Ultimately, he concludes, that a historical Adam is a gospel issue (222). As he says, “Denial of the historicity of Adam, like denial of the historicity of Christ’s resurrection, destroys the foundations of the Christian faith” (223). When you look at the argument from this point of view, some of Barrick’s rhetoric makes more sense.

In his concluding thoughts, Barrick drives the point home by looking at interpretation itself. Here, he asserts that the reasons for re-thinking the historical Adam are first, evolution, and second, seeing ancient Near East myths as prototypes for the Genesis account (223). On the latter, he suggests a possible reverse flow (Genesis 1-3 is the original that has been corrupted in other culture). While plausible, there isn’t any evidence for this.

More problematic is Barrick’s understanding of interpretation itself. We can this in the first two of the four assumptions he presents for the traditional interpretation. If God dictated to Moses the events of Genesis 1, and it is also pure historical fact (with something similar to modern notions of historiographical accuracy), then it is by definition unlike any other ancient Near East creation account. Even if it looks very much like all of Israel’s neighbor’s creation stories (from a perspective of genre), it is still sui generis. This understanding of what the text is goes hand in hand with how we understand what the text means. Barrick says that “we should assume that the Scriptures are accurate until proven otherwise by equally accurate, equally authentic, and equally ancient evidence” (226). This is clearly impossible. But it is also conflating the Scriptures themselves with our interpretations of them.

Interpretations can be accurate until proven otherwise, and that is exactly what the debate is here. Barrick recognizes this with respect to science when he says “we must remember that declarations by scientists represent their interpretation of the evidence, not the evidence itself. Science changes, the Scriptures do not” (227). He should also recognize that declarations by biblical interpreters represent their interpretation of the Scripture, not Scripture itself. Interpretations change, the Scriptures do not.

Since I’ve somewhat embedded my response within the exposition, I’ll be briefer here with the other responses within the book. Lamoureux notes that he himself once used “roughly 90 percent of his [Barrick’s] arguments” (228). He then critiques young earth creationism itself, and then points out that while Scripture is inerrant, Christian tradition is not.

Walton’s critique is more devastating, and focuses on Barrick’s method and his rhetoric. Though he gives 10 specific points, the most damaging were Barrick’s slippery slope tactic, logical non sequiturs, frequent hermeneutical missteps, unnuanced readings of his areas of investigation, and treating his conclusions in places as the only possiblity and obvious to anyone. The result was an itemized list of problems that felt like a professor grading an underdeveloped undergraduate paper.

Collins is less brutal in his critique. But, interestingly, he notes that Lamoureux and Barrick essentially read Genesis with the same (overly) literal hermeneutic. He concedes Barrick has a point about the misuse of ancient Near East evidence. But points out that abuse does not negate proper use, and in Barrick’s formulation, there is no proper use.

In Barrick’s rejoinder, he doubles down and asserts that “only God witnessed the six days of creation, so no man can claim to speak of that series of events unless he has received revelation directly from the Creator himself” (254). When it comes to interpreting Genesis 1, this is clearly begging the question. He then concludes by further suggesting that any old-earth viewpoint “relies on human scientific authority to arrive at adherence to partial biblical inerrancy.” Or, to put it another way, the only way you can get to an old earth viewpoint is to reinterpret the “plain” reading of Genesis in light of modern science.

In the end, I agree with Barrick that a historical Adam is important for Christian theology. However, I don’t agree with his insistence that it is integrally related to a young earth perspective, and I don’t think he provides a convincing case for that perspective either. His rhetoric makes it hard to be sympathetic to his position, even if I once held it myself. Overall, his argumentation wasn’t very well developed and he seems to lack of a sophisticated understanding of the literary genre of Genesis 1-11 as well as the nature of interpretation. These aren’t necessarily decisive points against the young earth view, but to the extent that the view depends on these presuppositions, I don’t think it’s viable. We can have a historical Adam (important) without arguing a young earth (not important and not clearly in Genesis) and still believe in a fully inerrant Bible.