Monthly Archives: December 2020

Review of Reading With The Grain of Scripture by Richard B. Hays

READING WITH THE GRAIN OF SCRIPTURE, by Richard B. Hays. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020. 467pp. $55.00

Richard B. Hays is a phenomenal interpreter of scriptures and a provocative thinker whose writing and teaching over the past thirty-five years demonstrate a deep passion for a close and careful reading of scripture. Professor Hays’ writing has broken new ground and unearthed often overlooked treasures for decades and his persistent and careful work has helped reshape the discipline of biblical studies. This collection of essays which span a wide range of topics from the past twenty-five years of his writing and speaking, collected after his retirement from Duke Divinity School, reflect the efforts of the author who in his own words has:

“For the past forty years I have been seeking to learn how to read closely and faithfully the testimonies of the early authors who wrote about these world-shaking events. The essays gathered here are the fruit of my effort to listen carefully to their testimony-bearing texts.” (2)

The collection covers topics including: interpretation of scripture, dialogues between Hays’ canonical approach to Jesus and the quest for the historical Jesus, the writings of the apostle Paul and their theological importance to our faith, and how the New Testament might shape the theology of its hearers. Hays lists six unifying themes among the diverse articles which make up the collection:

  1. The importance of narrative as the “glue” that holds the Bible together.
  2. The retrospectively discerned figural coherence between the Old Testament and the New.
  3. The centrality of the resurrection of Jesus.
  4. The hope for new creation and God’s eschatological transformation of the world.
  5. The importance of standing in trust and humility before the text.
  6. The importance of reading Scripture within and for the community of faith: the ἐκκλησίᾳ τοῦ θεοῦ. (3)

Richard B. Hays’ career began looking at the apostle Paul’s writing through both a narrative and as an interpreter of Israel’s scriptures. His classic works The Faith of Jesus Christ: An Investigation of the Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11 and Echoes of Scriptures in the Letters of Paul began his career of illuminating the importance of narrative and refining his retrospectively discerned figural coherence between the Old and New Testament. For those who have followed Hay’s writing through the years, many familiar themes will emerge in these essays on interpretation including the narrative and figural coherence mentioned above as well as the importance of reading from the perspective of faith using what Hays’ has coined a “hermeneutic of trust” and the centrality of the resurrection for understanding the scriptures.

Hays’ essays in the historical Jesus engage a diverse set of dialogue partners, from the Jesus Seminar to Joseph Ratzinger and N.T. Wright and concludes with his own modest sketch of what can be known about Jesus of Nazareth. Hays evaluation of the Jesus presented by the Jesus Seminar is summarized when he states:

Does the passive, politically correct, laconic sage who speaks in the red type of The Five Gospels have the capacity to remake our imaginative world and provde a new fiction within which millions might find meaning for their lives? Surely not. (102)

While Hays’ views their method of this entrepreneurial scholarship which provides easy sound bites is decidedly negative and their arrival at a non-Jewish Jesus is “one particularly pernicious side effect of the Jesus Seminar’s methodology.” (99) His response to N. T. Wright is far more favorable as they have been dialogue partners in New Testament scholarship for decades, but even in a paper where he appreciatively but critically engages the work of N. T. Wright he can bring his critical insights to refine and improve the work of his colleague and friend. His engagement with Joseph Ratzinger’s Jesus of Nazareth can demonstrate both respect for the author and his perspective while pointing out that most of Ratzinger’s dialogue partners are scholars of a previous generation and that much of New Testament scholarship has revised its methods and opinions as well as highlighting Ratzinger’s “pervasive tendency to treat the texts as transparent to the historical facts about Jesus.” (128) Hays’ conclusion of this section with his own modest proposal on what can be known about Jesus illustrates his careful approach which seeks coherence with first century Judaism, some relation of continuity with the church that would come after Jesus, a narrative that can explain both the emergence of the church as well as the crucifixion and which aims to include within its description of the canonical gospels including, as much as possible, John’s gospel.

Continuing his long career engaging with Paul’s writings continues with essays delivered at various times dealing with major topics of Christology, Soteriology, Pneumatology, Israel as well as his engagement with Stanley Stower’s A Rereading of Romans and engaging the relationship between the Pauline letters and Acts. Hays’ essay on Paul’s Christology is constructed around narrative identity of Jesus presented in the letters of Paul from Christ’s preexisting glory to his cruciform abasement, transformative exaltation and finally will conclude with Christ’s eschatological consummation. Hays’ brief examination of Paul’s narrative soteriology focuses on two texts: 1 Corinthians 15:1-28 and Romans 5:6-11 in response to Francis Watson claim the Paul’s is essentially a non-narratable vertical incursion of God’s grace. (178) The essay on the apocalyptic reviews themes in Galatians which highlight Paul’s insistence on divine initiative to bring about the conclusion of the present evil age and the genesis of the new creation. Hays returns to Romans to examine how Paul envisions the Spirit of God which gives life, leads God’s adopted children and groans and intercedes for us. His dialogue with Stanley Stowers Rereading of Romans and N.T. Wright’s reading of Romans 11: 25-27 in Paul and the Faithfulness of God to argue that Paul’s gospel is for both the Jewish people and the Gentiles. The final article in this section demonstrates some overlaps between Luke and Paul in explicit citations of the Old Testament to begin seeking an intertextual common ground of theological themes and convictions shared by Paul and Luke’s portrayal of Paul’s gospel in Acts.

The final section on New Testament theology brings together a diverse set of articles dealing with the portrayal of Jesus in the book of Revelation, examination on the idea of covenant in the book of Hebrews, and engagement with the Rudolf Bultmann’s reduction of Pauline theology to anthropology in his classic Theology of the New Testament, a lecture on what Christian theology could offer the world of law, an essay examining the Holy Spirit in light of Paul’s letter to the Romans and the Nicene Creed, and an essay which examines various perspectives on eschatology to discern how Christians may continue to engage the in light of the eschatological witness of the New Testament. The conclusion lifts up Hays’ recommended hermeneutic of trust, rather than the dominant hermeneutic of suspicion that is prevalent in biblical studies.

This collection of essays is a gift to the broader church after years of labor. I have read everything I could find of Professor Hays for the past sixteen years of my ministry and every piece is tightly written and brings new insights into whatever text or topic he presents. If you have followed Richard B. Hays work this work will bring forward both familiar themes and engagement with topics that may not have figured as strongly in his other works. For those unfamiliar with Hays’ work these essays could form an entryway into the major themes of his thought and writing. Like all of his previous works it will force you to think critically and enrich your appreciation of the treasures, new and old, that can be brought out by a faithful student of the scriptures.

Reflections on A Dance to the Music of Time: 1st Movement by Anthony Powell (1951, 1952, 1955)

Time Magazine Top 100 Novels

Book 25: Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time: 1st Movement (1951, 1952, 1955)

This is a series of reflections reading through Time Magazine’s top 100 novels as selected by Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo published since 1923 (when Time magazine was founded). For me this is an attempt to broaden my exposure to authors I may not encounter otherwise, especially as a person who was not a liberal arts major in college. Time’s list is alphabetical, so I decided to read through in a random order, and I plan to write a short reflection on each novel.

A Dance to the Music of Time is a massive twelve-part reflection on the social life of the wealthier class of citizens in England between the first and second world wars, the first movement contains the first three of these novels: A Question of Upbringing, A Buyer’s Market, and The Acceptance World. Many people have found Anthony Powell’s work both entertaining and compelling, and I can understand why it was a part of the Time magazine list, yet these first three novels were an incredibly slow read for me. In fairness this is not a time period or a genre I normally find compelling.

The protagonist and narrator, Nicholas, is a part of the portion of English society that has access to travel, college, and some amount of wealth and it portrays the overlapping social circles he encounters in education, art, and society. His perspective points out the vanity and formality of a society that is unraveling and while the book can look at many of the interactions (and rejections) within this society in a humorous light, Nicholas still tries to live in this nexus of the business and art world. The portrayal of the world that Nicholas encounters seems a dry and while the various characters may navigate it with different degrees of success there is very little joy in the characters. I’m guessing that the remaining volumes continue to observe the unravelling of the society and morals of the previous Victorian and Edwardian Ages in this Interwar period of economic, political, and societal upheaval but the first movement was enough for me. Again, others have found this work incredible powerful so please make your own judgments, these brief reflections are merely my consolidation of my thoughts on each work.

Hearing the Monsters’ Fears

Some desire a dance with their demons

awakening the monsters that lie within

Embracing their deepest darkness

Drinking away the inhibitions

Silencing their consciences

Entering the darkest night

Without the searching of the soul

I’d rather sing a lullaby for my demons

To listen to monsters’ fears by candlelight

Hearing their stories and regrets

Learning what they were afraid to see

Tending the scars of the soul

Walking through the darkest valley

Into the morning beyond the mourning

Monsters of the Mind, by

Matthew 23: 37-39 Lament over Jerusalem

Image from

Matthew 23: 37-39

Parallel Luke 13: 34-35

 37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 38 See, your house is left to you, desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

The focus shifts from the religious leaders to the city of Jerusalem in this brief lament for the city. This passage has received renewed attention from feminist readers who have pointed out that here the traditional image of being sheltered under God’s wings is now set within a female metaphor for Jesus doing a traditionally feminine task of mourning. This brief, poignant image which mourns for a people and city which have been led astray and have rejected the messengers of God and have resisted God’s continual desire to gather the people together only to find themselves lost in the wilderness and homeless. The loss of Jerusalem, the loss of the temple and the loss of the land have occurred before in Israel’s story (under the Babylonian empire for Judah, under the Assyrians for the northern kingdom of Israel) and these focal portions of their identity were shattered. If Matthew’s community is hearing this in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Rome, they (and other Jewish communities) are probably trying to make sense of the destruction while they seek the peace of the city they find themselves within.

The image of God’s wings as a refuge is used frequently in the Hebrew Scripture[1] but the image of God is frequently described using masculine metaphors. That Jesus uses a feminine metaphor to describe his desire to gather together the people of Jerusalem is not unique, but it is noteworthy. Instead of an eagle or hawk, a bird often associated with strength, now Jesus casts himself as the anxious mother hen trying to gather her young birds together and shelter them. The Apocryphal work 4 Esdras 1:30 also uses an identical image when referencing the Lord Almighty, and although 4 Esdras may be later than Matthew’s gospel they both capture the desire of God or Jesus to shelter God’s people. From the beginning of Matthew’s gospel part of Jesus’ vocation has been to save his people from their sins (1:20) but here the very people he desires to rescue resist that saving.

The house becomes a wilderness[2] and in the aftermath of the Jewish War many people who considered Jerusalem either their physical or spiritual home find themselves homeless and having to make their peace in whatever city they now make their life. The previous exile was a time where the people of Israel had to rediscover what it meant to be the people of God without the promised land, a Davidic king, the city of Jerusalem and the temple. In the previous exile the written scriptures became central to their new identity. For these followers of Jesus, they have now centered their identity on Jesus as the writing of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry become attempts to reorient their identity around a new center in a new land. Jesus is the awaited Davidic king, but he is a crucified messiah, Jesus is greater than the temple and will be with these disciples where two or three are gathered, and this people who may be homeless now await for the day when they can proclaim with all creation “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” at the arrival of their new home when the kingdom of heaven comes. They live oriented towards a hope that can move them beyond their lament because even in their desolation their Lord desires to gather them together like a mother gathers her children or a hen gathers her brood.

[1] Exodus 19:4, Ruth 2:12, Psalm 17:8, 36:7, 57:1, 61:4, 63:7, 91:4

[2] The Greek eremos means wilderness, desert and can have the connotation of being abandoned/desolate as most translations render.