I was at a lecture recently where New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III was talking to the audience about the formation of the New Testament canon. Ben made a comment about how important knowledge of the Old Testament and Israel’s theology is essential to understanding Jesus, to which an audience member responded with the question, “You mean we should think of Jesus as a Jew and understand Judaism in order to be clear about who we are as Christians?”
“Yes,” said Ben. “Duh!” thought I.
Growing up in the evangelical world we didn’t talk a lot about the Jewishness of Jesus. The Old Testament was primarily reserved for moralistic stories and lessons about biblical characters that we learned about it Sunday School and VBS. It wasn’t until I went to seminary that I began to see that understanding Jewish theology, practice, and worldview is essential to having a clue of what Jesus (and Paul, for that matter) was talking about and doing in the pages of the New Testament. Covenant, exodus, exile, resurrection hope, are all embedded themes that act like reflexive lenses through which to view the mission and work of Christ.
The work of N.T. Wright really influenced me in learning to use those lenses, and several trips to Israel have sharpened their focus. Opening up the Hebrew Scriptures alongside the Gospels and the Epistles was central to the early church, and it continues to be a critical need for us as well.
Continue reading →
Every once in awhile something pops up on Facebook that intrigues me after having waded through the usual political rants and videos of cats doing algebra (or something like that). A few weeks ago I noticed that book publisher Doubleday was offering a chance for those who blog or otherwise add our verbosity to an already crowded cyberspace to receive an advance reading copy of Bill Bryson’s upcoming book One Summer: America, 1927. Having been a Bryson fan since spitting my coffee across the table while laughing out loud (the real kind of laughter, not the LOL kind) at his memoir of hiking the Appalachian Trail in A Walk in the Woods, I jumped at the chance to enter the Facebook contest to land the book. Last Friday, quite unexpectedly, the book arrived on my doorstep (thank you, Doubleday!).
One Summer: American, 1927 isn’t a laugh-out-loud sort of Bryson book, but there are moments of wit (“For Warren G. Harding, the summer of 1927 was not a good one, which was perhaps a little surprising since he had been dead for nearly four years by then.”). Instead, Bryson offers us a snapshot of one of the more intriguing summers in American history, where celebrities were truly larger than life (Babe Ruth) and began to learn how to wrestle with worldwide fame (Charles Lindbergh). It was the summer when Al Capone ruled Chicago, but probably never beat anyone with a baseball bat (a la The Untouchables). Talking pictures were the hot new thing at the movies, while the lights of Broadway began to fade while New York was captivated by the ’27 Yankees; arguably the best team in baseball history. It was a season of salacious tabloid murder cases, an epic Mississippi flood, and the rise of the capable but irritatingly vain Herbert Hoover. Prohibition was in force, but not the practical law of the land for the public whom the U.S. government essentially tried to poison in an attempt to keep the nation dry.
Continue reading →
Just received a newly published collection of The Sermons of John Wesley edited by Ken Collins and Jason Vickers. This collection is unique from the ones I’ve collected over the years (including an 1847 two-volume set I got from a retired pastor when I started in ministry) in that it’s not ordered chronologically, as most volumes tend to be. Instead, Collins and Vickers have put the sermons together according to the Wesleyan Order of Salvation, starting with Original Sin, progressing through Justification by Faith, New Birth, and Christian Perfection, and all the way toward New Creation. Each sermon comes with a commentary and a helpful outline that makes for easy study.
It’s always been interesting to me that Wesley focused much less on the traditional question-answer catechism that I grew up with in the Reformed tradition, and instead relied on the Anglican Articles of Religion and this collection of his own sermons as the theological grounding for the early Methodist lay preachers. Every Circuit Rider would have had a volume of these sermons next to their Bible in the saddlebag and he rode from town to town either in the English countryside or the American wilderness. Wesley’s theology was inherently practical, designed to be preached and lived out more than memorized or debated.
It’s also interesting that while most of us Methodist preachers study Wesley’s sermons in seminary, rarely have we leaned into them as a framework for our own preaching in the Methodist tradition. As I look at the way this collection is put together, it strikes me that it provides a great outline for a preacher to use in putting together a sermon series on the theology of Methodism, updating Wesley’s 18th century language and style for the 21st century.
Grab a copy of The Sermons of John Wesley and you’ll see what I mean!
A deeper look into the world of Scripture…
I picked up Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes after seeing it a few times on my Amazon “recommended list” as I troll about for some new books to read. This one struck me as being eminently practical for those of us who teach Bible studies. For years I’ve been teaching people in churches that one of the major challenges we have in reading Scripture is that we tend to view it through our own 21st century, highly individualistic, pluralistic, and me-istic culture while the writers lived with a very different set of cultural values. Reading and interpreting an ancient text through a postmodern lens can lead to a lot of misunderstanding and misinterpretation unless we first spend some time studying what it meant to those who cracked open the original scrolls and read them for the first time. When we first know what it meant to them, then we can start discerning what it might mean for us as we look over their shoulders some 2,000+ years later.
Randy Richards and Brandon O’Brien have given us a primer on some of the key cultural differences between our contemporary Western worldview and the worldview of the biblical writers. “We can easily forget that Scripture is like a foreign land and that reading the Bible is a crosscultural experience,” they write. “To open the Word of God is to step into a strange world where things are very unlike our own. Most of us don’t speak the languages. We don’t know the geography or the customs or what behaviors are considered rude or polite.” For Richards and O’Brien the subtext of the culture(s) of the biblical world are as important as the text itself. “The most powerful cultural values are those that go without being said,” is the key thesis of the book. To read and study the Bible well means that we need to understand the subtext of the culture within which it was written.
Continue reading →
Bible Stories vs. The Story of the Bible
A couple of months ago, my associate pastor, Joe Iovino, and I were invited to a rollout event for the new miniseries “The Bible” on History Channel which premiered this week. On first glance, the series didn’t look like the usual Christian-y kind of film with cheesy production values, lousy acting, and simplistic theology. We left the event with high hopes that this could be something we’d be excited to use as a teaching tool in the church, particularly for those who are more visual learners.
After watching the first episode of The Bible on History Channel, however, I have to admit that it’s really a mixed bag that leaves me somewhat disappointed (Note: as a historian, I am usually disappointed in historical dramas. My nitpicking drives my family nuts!) The production values for the series are ok, the acting is a little better than your typical biblical film, and no film or series can fully capture every story and nuance in the biblical text (unless, of course, it was written by biblical historians–in which case the movie would take as long to watch as the Bible’s own 3,000 year time line!). The main problem, as I see it, is that this “epic miniseries” suffers from the same problem that most people have when they read the Bible itself–the problem of reading Bible stories instead of reading the story of the Bible.
Continue reading →