Category Archives: Book Reviews

Reflections on the Power and the Glory by Graham Greene


Time Magazine Top 100 Novels
Book 74: The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

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.

The Power and the Glory is set an unnamed state where the persecution of the church is similar to the Mexican state of Tabasco in the 1930s. The governor of the state attempting to eliminate the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in his state by either eliminating the priests, closing the churches, eliminating alcohol, and punishing those who aid or hide clerics. The main character is a priest who has been traveling around the province conducting services for the past eight years and is the only non-married and still practicing priest remaining. His antagonist is a police lieutenant who zealously believes in the reforms of the government and spends the book chasing this final priest through the villages and countryside, eventually taking hostages in each village to deny the priest places he can return to.

The priest, who remains unnamed throughout the story, is also dealing with his own broken past where he as a ‘whisky priest’ had numerous sins which he could not confess to anyone: a daughter he had fathered in one of the villages he served, a fondness for alcohol, and his own questions about the church and the pious. Yet, even though the priest does not have a pristine past, he continues to attempt to carry out his ministry and even in the end knowingly walks into a trap to hear the confession of a murder. The lieutenant who has tracked him zealously and has an avid hatred of the church finds he can no longer hate the priest once he is captured and they speak. The book ends on a defiant note with the priest’s death, but in the aftermath another priest appears in town. The church and the priesthood somehow endured.

The land and the crippling poverty that many of the people face become characters in the book. The descriptions of the land with its heat, mosquitos, and beetles and the poverty of most of the villagers in the book make the environment appear almost hellish. The loss of the church has not alleviated the suffering of the people and in the minds of many of the characters it has made things worse. The church is not depicted as perfect nor and the priest has some of his harshest thoughts for the pious of the church. Yet, many people desire the services of the priest even in the midst of the danger until they begin taking and executing hostages from the villages to attempt to capture the priest.

The environment of the book and the slow pace of the priest’s movement from town to town gives the story a bit of an arid feel. It is hard to love the land as it is described, but it does evoke compassion for the people who live in this harsh place. The lieutenant is not an evil man, nor is the priest a saint and I found myself wishing both characters could find themselves in a different story.

Reflections on The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

Time Magazine Top 100 Novels

Book 26: Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust (1939)

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.

The Day of the Locust is a book that mocks the perfidious nature of Los Angeles in the 1930s. There is something in the tone of this book that reminds me of the writing of Flannery O’Connor: the ugliness of the characters and the desire to illustrate the worst characterization of reality. I can see why people enjoy this work, but it is not something I would choose to read. There is something almost postmodern in the work’s desire to choose the absurd as a focus of art, the medium is used to mock the message. Perhaps it is appropriate that throughout the book the primary narrator is working on a painting called “The Burning of Los Angeles.”

Tod, the primary character in the book, spends much of the book lusting over his neighbor Faye, but his primary desire throughout the book is to rape her, not to cultivate a relationship with her. Tod, like the author apparently, is bent on exposing her as a representative of all that is fake in Hollywood, along with her multiple relationships and some of the absurd situations. The orientation of Tod towards Faye, which continues throughout the book, was a major deterrent from being able to enjoy the work. Each character is a crude stereotype of various groups, and while this may be faithful to the way people in the 1930s viewed other groups, and perhaps it is to shine a light on this part of society, to read this book for me was to enter into characters that I couldn’t find anything redemptive in a slow-moving plot full of absurdity. It is a story of people caught in their ideas of themselves and never finding anything real, but the book itself seemed very contrived and fake to me. Others have found this work very powerful and delightful, so please make your own decisions, these brief reflections are merely a collection of my thoughts on each work.

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.

Reflection on C. S. Lewis’ the Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956)

Time Magazine Top 100 Novels

Book 50: C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950)

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.

If you have read Lev Grossman’s the Magicians, it should clear of the influence of the Chronicles of Narnia on his writing since Narnia is slightly modified to become Fillory in his trilogy. I first read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a child and have read it multiple times both as a child and as an adult. Although it is a children’s story and can be read, on one level, as a simple fairy tale where four children find themselves in a magical world that they enter through a wardrobe, it also has moments of real profundity.

Since I own the Chronicles of Narnia I plan to add a brief reflection on each volume as I complete it:

The Magician’s Nephew:

Although it may be the sixth book written in the series, it is the beginning of the Narnia narrative. This is a creation story for Narnia and explains the origins of several features of the world and the entrance of the witch into Narnia. I listened to the audio version with Kenneth Branagh which is very well done. This is a well-done prequel to the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

This story of a magical world and a conflict between good and evil also in a fable like manner touches in an allegorical way (whether C. S. Lewis intended or not) on many themes of Christianity, which C.S. Lewis also writes about explicitly in many of his other works. Even after many reads it is still an enjoyable story with many great images which I have been able to pull from at various times.

The Horse and His Boy

This story expands the world beyond Narnia by introducing the kingdom of Calormen. The Calormen are obviously based on Middle Eastern stereotypes, but setting aside the derogatory view of other cultures which are characteristic of Lewis’ time, the basic story of a talking horse from Narnia and a boy who are quickly joined by another talking horse and noble born young woman in their flight to freedom in Narnia. A simple but enjoyable story if you can set aside the stereotypes.

Prince Caspian

The fourth novel in the timeline of Narnia (2nd written) occurs in a time well after the time of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe where Narnia is now ruled by the Telmarines, a group that invaded Narnia and has tried to eliminate the stories of Narnia. Prince Caspian, nephew of the current king, summons Peter, Susan, Edmond and Lucy back to Narnia as he struggles with the ‘old Narnians’ to end the Telmarine rule. This also is a simple but enjoyable short story where good triumphs in the end.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Fifth novel in the timeline of Narnia which occurs a couple years later in King Caspian’s reign where he sets out on a voyage to find seven friends of his father that were sent east as a punishment during the time preceding Prince Caspian. Edmond, Lucy and their relative Eustace are brought into Narnia for the voyage. I found some parts of the story directed towards younger children (like the Monopods) but overall an enjoyable voyage.

The Silver Chair

The penultimate novel in the timeline of Narnia now has Eustace and a girl from his school, Jill Pole arrive in Narnia once King Caspian is an old man. This was my least favorite of the chronicles so far, partially because neither Eustace or Jill are particularly likeable characters for much of the book. There is also an element where C.S. Lewis’ criticism of the secular direction of schooling and culture becomes very pointed in this work in an almost petulant manner. There are elements in the story where the dialogue involves C.S. Lewis’ characters knocking down ‘straw-man’ arguments. There are some very imaginative features of this walk through Narnia and the Under world but the story didn’t seem as imaginative or mythical as the other volumes.

The Final Battle

It starts out a little slow, but this is a fitting end to the series. The deception of the people of Narnia by an ape and an unwitting donkey dressed up as Aslan sets the stage for a final scene where characters from all the books are reunited in a final ending of the world of Narnia and the stories.

Reflection on Judy Blume, Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret (1970)

Time Magazine Top 100 Novels
Book 7: Judy Blume, Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret (1970)

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.

I had read several of Judy Blume’s books as a child and read several of her books, particularly the Fudge Books and Pickle Juice to my own children when they were younger. I had never read Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret prior to this, but I remember seeing it as assigned reading for some of the gifted and talented classes when I was in middle school. I knew it was a coming of age story of a young girl but was surprised that a story for a younger audience was on the list.

It is a very quick read and Judy Blume does a great job introducing you to the world of a preteen girl named Margaret, the social network of girls and schools she is transplanted into, a complex family narrative which is revealed as the book progresses, and the struggle for identity in the midst of competing forces. For its simplicity there are some deep themes that underlie Margaret’s story, particularly in attempting to define who she is in relation to her friends and classmates and in religion. Margaret’s parents move her immediately before sixth grade from New York City to Farbrook, New Jersey. Her father continues to commute into the city to work while her mother stays home, which is reflective of the society of the late 1960s, early 1970s white suburbia where the story takes place. Margaret is quickly brought into a circle of girls who become important in her quest for belonging in this new environment but who also set boundaries around who is acceptable to be friends with and who is not. Margaret never fully ‘fits in’ with this group of girls and one of the differences is that she does not belong to either a church or synagogue due to friction in her family between her parents and her grandparents. Margaret’s father, who grew up Jewish, and Margaret’s mother, who grew up Christian want her to choose a religion for herself when she grows up, but this is a source of struggle for Margaret as she seeks exposure to both worlds. As the story continues it reveals both the continuing wound that both parents have with Margaret’s grandparents and the way this continues to impact their relationship with their children, their spouses, and their grandchild.

I enjoyed the book, it is designed for younger readers but it also addresses some important questions of identity, of discerning what is true and navigating peer relationships, attempting to find a place for one’s relationship with God amid different religious options and pressure from family and friends. It is a coming of age book for girls and so questions of body image and early curiosity about sexuality are present and form the background of issues of jealousy and exclusion.

Perspectives from the Past-Reflections from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Writings in 1932-33

One of the gifts of reading more deeply into the lives and experiences of people in the past is the perspectives they can give us into our own time. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor during the critical time leading up to and including the Second World War in Germany. In his collected works we can see not only the evolution of a thinker but we can also read in his letter, preaching and teaching the impact of the events on his teaching and thought. For example, in the critical time of 1932-33 (represented by DBWE 12) we see Bonhoeffer struggling with the Aryan paragraph and how the church can respond (especially in the context of a state church). While Bonhoeffer would consider this statu confessionis (an item that if adopted the church ceases to be the church) many of his colleagues, even in the Confessing Church, would not agree. Perhaps two of his most telling quotes come out of this time. First from his Christology lectures:

There are thus three possibilities for action that the church can take vis-à-vis the state: first (as we have said), questioning the state as to the legitimate state character of its actions, that is making the state responsible for what it does. Second is service to the victims of the state’s actions. The church has an unconditional obligation toward the victims of any social order, even if they do not belong to the Christian community…The third possibility is not just to bind up the wounds of the victims beneath the wheel but to seize the wheel itself. (DBWE 12:365)

And the second from immediately before the Reichstag elections where the Nazi party would emerge as the strongest party preaching on the letters to the churches in Asia in Revelation 2:

The church is doing a tremendous amount, very seriously and even sacrificially. But we are all doing so many things that come second, third, and fourth; the church is not doing the works it did at first. And that is precisely why it is not doing what is crucial. We celebrate; we attend the events where we should be seen; we try to be influential; we set up a so-called Protestant movement; we do Protestant youth work; we provide social services and care for people; and we have anti-godless propaganda—but are we doing the very first works, the one that epitomized what we are all about? Do we love God and our neighbor with that first, passionate, burning love that is willing to risk everything except God? (DBWE 12:444-445)

Anfechtung

Roland H. Bainton’s classic, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, is one of several Luther biographies I have on my shelf and it is a classic work, even if it is a little dry to read. I want to focus in on an insight from one of the last chapters called ‘The Struggle for Faith’ in most of what I write below but first I’m going to indulge a bit of nostalgia since this was also the first book on Luther’s life that I read many, many years ago while I was in middle school. I remember giving a presentation, it was required that we do a biography on a historical figure, and since I knew very little about this person so important they named the denomination I grew up in (and continue to be a part of) I remember finding this book and choosing it from the library. I also remember my verdict on the book, it was boring (to a middle schooler much of the impact of the theological debates was lost). Still over three decades later I find myself once again returning to this classic bio of Luther and finding a new insight from it.

Anfechtung, the spiritual struggle that Luther endured throughout his life which included both elements of depression and self-doubt combined with a struggle for faith, was a continual if frequently unwanted partner in Luther’s life. Luther’s struggle to find a gracious God would provide strength and hope for many people but it also came at a high cost for Luther. Luther’s impact and talent were prodigious and he became an inspirational figure of faith for countless people and yet in his personal life he was in a continual struggle for faith. He proclaimed that God was always good and yet he struggled to accept this gospel for himself. He until the very end felt unworthy of the grace he proclaimed. A quote from Luther and then Bainton that I found helpful:

 

If I live longer, I would like to write a book about Anfechtungen, for without them no man can understand Scripture, faith, the fear or the love of God. He does not know the meaning of hope who has never been subjected to temptations. David must have been plagued by a very fearful devil. He could not have had such profound insights if he had not experience great assaults. (Luther)

 

Luther verged on saying that an excessive emotional sensitivity is a mode of revelation. Those who are predisposed to fall into despondency as well as to rise into ecstasy may be able to view reality from an angle different from that of ordinary folk. Yet it is a true angle; and when the problem or the religious object has been once so viewed, others less sensitive will be able to look from a new vantage point and testify that the insight is valid. (Bainton, 283)

 

I have sometimes admired those for whom faith is simple, who seem to be unquestioning in their trust but that is not my experience of faith. I have often questioned my own struggles of faith, depression and have occassionally viewed them as crippling to my ministry. Yet, perhaps what may be an excessive emotional sensitivity may also be a critical part of my hermeneutical insight, my pastoral presence and my preaching’s relevance. Perhaps it is the vulnerability that allows questions and doubt that allows grace to enter in through my own weakness. Perhaps it is this quality that makes the Lutheran theological tradition resonate with me even today.

Theological Influence: Miroslav Volf

One of the projects I have decided to do is to catalog in some small way the influence of

Miroslav Volf, Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale University

Miroslav Volf, Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale University

some of the major thinkers who have influenced my growth as both a Christian, a pastor and as an individual as I reengage some of their work in my reading. Since I just finished rereading After our Likeness by Miroslav Volf I will use him as the first, (well other than my beginning of a similar document of the work of Martin Luther). I have only met Professor Volf once in Tulsa, Oklahoma where he was speaking and yet as an author his works from the first one I picked up in my final year of seminary in 2004 (Exclusion and Embrace) have probably done more than any other modern theologian to challenge and shape me over the past twelve years. I have not read everything Volf has published but what I have read has been very fruitful and thought provoking.

after-our-likenessAfter our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity. (1998) This works started out as a Habilitationsschrift, one of the dissertations that Volf had to submit for his doctoral degree from the University of Tübingen. This is probably the hardest to read of Volf’s work and the most abstractly theological. He attempts to bring a Free church ecclesiology into conversation with a Roman Catholic and Orthodox ecclesiology represented by Cardinal (Joseph) Ratzinger, who would after the publication of this be elevated to be Pope Benedict XVI, from the Catholic Church and Metropolitan John D. Zizoulas from the Orthodox church.  Volf’s ambitious project attempts to deal with issues that deal with both the concrete forms of individual churches as well as the catholicity of the church. He begins his contribution to this dialogue with John Smyth’s position (based on Matthew 18:20) that where two or three or more saints are joined together that there is the church.  The individual church in his model is joined by the action of the Triune God to the church universal.

work-in-the-spiritWork in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work, (1991) This volume also evolved out of Volf’s doctoral studies, this one out of his dissertation evaluating Karl Marx’s understanding of work from a theological perspective. Within Work in the Spirit he takes this dialogue with both Karl Marx’s understanding of work and Martin Luther’s concept of vocation and tries to apply these to our context where work is far more dynamic than in Luther’s or even Marx’s time. Volf highlight’s the idea of charisms or gifts of the Spirit as a departure point to attempt to imagine a theological view of work that is not limited to Marx’s view of the alienation of work or Luther’s more static view of vocation. Because this flows out of his doctoral work this still is a little more formal than some of Volf’s later works.

exclusion-and-embraceExclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (1996) This is the volume that introduced me to the work of Miroslav Volf and from the first page of the preface, where he lays out what is at stake in this theological exploration, through the final chapter on Violence and Peace it is a passionate and articulate formulation of a theology of the cross for our time. Volf is able to be both honest about the challenges of reconciliation while holding before the reader the dream and hope of embrace as the end for which we are called to work. He powerfully weaves together theology, scripture and personal experience into a work that I have gone back to multiple times in my own ministry.

free-of-chargeFree of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (2005) This was written for a less academic audience but keeps Volf’s profound insight into the nature of forgiveness and his honest reflections about the struggle to forgive. Volf addresses many false views of both God and forgiveness in this beautiful little work that continues to delve into the vision of reconciliation he began in Exclusion and Embrace.

end-of-memoryThe End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (2006) Volf continues his reflections on reconciliation by exploring memory and the way our identities are formed by what we remember. Bringing together theology, psychology, sociology as well as personal experience and reflection into a cohesive reflection on how memory and forgiveness can live together. Another profound work that continues to work towards the goals of reconciliation laid out in Exclusion and Embrace.

against-the-tideAgainst the Tide: Love in a Time of Petty Dreams and Persisting Enmities (2010) This is a collection of short essays, many originally appearing as a column in Christian Century. Like all collections there is benefits and challenges: this is not a cohesive work like his other volumes but it is a collection that you can pick up a three-page reflection and then put down without losing a train of thought. There are some gems in this work and it probably would be best as more of a reflection type reading rather than a volume to read straight through.

captive-to-the-word-of-godCaptive to the Word of God: Engaging the Scriptures for Contemporary Theological Reflection (2010) I don’t remember this volume as well as many others of Volf’s. Like Against the Tide it is a collection of (longer) essays from a span of sixteen years on how to read the scriptures. Volf presents a way of not only reading scriptures theologically in a pluralistic world but also makes the point that ultimately theology should lead beyond a way of thinking to a way of living.

flourishing-volfFlourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World (2015) One of the things I love about Volf’s writing is that he asks good questions that need to be wrestled with. The question for this book is fairly simple: What is a life worth living? And what does religion (specifically but not limited to Christianity) have to contribute to the answer of this question? This is a measured and wise beginning of the answers to those questions. Volf engages both the ancient wisdom of books like Ecclesiastes and Job and the questions they prompt that still resonate in our lives.

Review of Reading Backwards by Richard B. Hays

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READING BACKWARDS: FIGURAL CHRISTOLOGY AND THE FOURFOLD GOSPEL WITNESS, by Richard B. Hays. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014. 155pp $34.95

Richard B. Hays began his work of examining how the earliest followers of Jesus were interpreters of scriptures in 1989 with his work The Echoes of Scriptures in the Letters of Paul. Twenty five years later, after changing the dynamic of the way many people view Paul’s engagement with the Hebrew Scriptures Professor Hays now gives us a short introduction into what he states he hopes will be a much larger projects examining each of the evangelist’s engagement with the scriptures, but this short and provocative work should help continue the conversion of the imagination he challenged his readers to see in Paul now in the voice and words of the authors of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. The book is the adaptation of the Hulsean Lectures presented at Cambridge University in the fall of 2013 and the spring of 2014 and is a work that will encourage its readers to understand the manner in which these early evangelists use the Hebrew Scriptures prefigure their experience of Christ.

The relationship of the Hebrew Scriptures to the New Testament is an important question for the church, but one that has often been overlooked. Richard B. Hays invites us into an exercise in learning to place ourselves in the evangelists’ places and see these scriptural texts that they used through their own eyes. Dr. Hays is convinced that “the Gospels teach us how to the OT, and –at the same time—the OT teaches us how to read the Gospels.”(4, emphasis author’s) Rather than seeing the evangelists as proof-texting pieces of the Hebrew Scriptures to make a certain points but rather invoke a set of rich and intertextual relations between the experience of the words of Jesus and the experience of his followers with the vision and world presented by the portions of scripture that the evangelists cite or allude to. The readings of each of the four gospels that are presented in Reading Backwards provide a rich and concise with the way in which each gospel distinctively uses scripture to paint its picture of Jesus.

The Gospel of Mark tells a story that is more suggestive and allusive in its narrative style and likewise many of Mark’s uses of the scriptures are allusive as well. Mark rarely quotes scripture but frequently uses language that alludes to how Jesus’ work and God’s work are mysteriously linked. Mark intimates that Jesus is, “in some way that defies comprehension the embodiment of God’s presence. Mark never quite dares to articulate this claim explicitly; it is too scandalous for direct speech. For Mark the character of God’s presence in Jesus is a mystery that can only be approached by riddle-like allusions to the OT.” (19f.) By looking at the way Mark creatively cites and alludes to scripture from the beginning of the story in Mark 1: 2-3 and running through the crucifixion narrative examining the way the larger context of the scriptural allusions to open the readers to the mystery of Jesus’ relationship with the God of Israel. Mark’s characteristic tension holds this identity in suspension as well, never overtly coming out and claiming Jesus’ identity but rather in a poetic way hides this answer in order that it might be revealed to those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Mark attempts to lead his readers into an exploration of the mysterious way in which Jesus is recognized as the embodiment of the God of Israel.

The Gospel of Matthew is much more explicit in its claims and the ways in which it uses scriptures. Matthew quotes scripture explicitly more than any of the other evangelists and from his first citation of Isaiah 7.14 in the birth narrative where Jesus is titled God is with us until the end of the gospel where all authority has been given to Jesus who will be with them forever Matthew presents, in a much more direct way, that Jesus is the presence of God among the people and the appropriate response is to worship the living presence of God who is present with them. Matthew uses a combination of scripture quotations as well as allusions to the Old Testament stories, like Herod in the slaughter of the innocents certainly would be heard as echoing Pharaoh’s decree in the Exodus narrative, to show how Jesus comes to embody not only God’s presence but also comes to be the fulfillment of the hopes of the law and the prophets. Where Mark encourages us to explore the mystery of the way divine presence of the God of Israel is present in Jesus, Matthew wants us to see this presence in order that we may worship God where God has now been found.

Luke reads the scriptures in a way that points to Jesus being the one who is the hope of Israel. From the prophecy of Zechariah, where God is praised for having “looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.”(Luke 1.68) to the journey with the two disciples on the way to Emmaus where these disciples, in their sadness, say, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” (Luke 24. 21) Hays invites us to read again how Jesus might be seen in Moses and the prophets and how Luke might use the scriptures to help us see who Jesus is. Luke uses language and events that reflect the type of things that happened in the stories of the scriptures while never simply the same. The effect is to create a powerful but indistinct relation between the saving acts of God in the story of Israel and the liberating acts of fulfillment in the story of Jesus. (59)

For John’s gospel the fundamental hermeneutical claim is that the scriptures are the ones that bear witness to Jesus, but to understand those same scriptures one must first come to Jesus to receive life. This retrospective reading of Israel’s scriptures allows John to use a more visual set of images and figures from the narrative of the people where Jesus through verbal echoes and direct quotations link Jesus with both the wisdom of God as well as the images of the temple and sacrifice. Through these images John wants to illustrate that Jesus is not only the temple—but also the place where God’s presences comes to meet us and deliver us into union with the divine presence. (82) Since John understands Jesus as the Logos of God the entire narrative, the temple, sacrifice and the festivals of Judaism are a rich set of signs and symbols of God’s activity in the life and presence of Jesus.

In this short work with numerous illuminating explorations of the way the evangelists read their scriptures and the scriptures provide a fuller meaning to the telling of the story of Jesus, Richard B. Hays invites the reader to discover a gospel shaped hermeneutic. This, he argues, involves a complex poetic sensibility that pays attention to the narrative arc of the scriptures. Hays argues that the more we explore the way the evangelists explore the scriptures the more clearly it is apparent that each of the evangelists in their own unique portrayal point to Jesus being the embodiment of the God of Israel.  This short work, which continues Richard B. Hays long work with intertextuality and the art of reading scripture, is a very generative and helpful introduction to the deep question of how the evangelists became interpreters of the scriptures and how the experience of Jesus reframed their reading of scripture while scripture gave them the language and symbols to express the mystery of who Jesus is to their communities.