Reading, Re-reading and Reinventing Paul

I have something of an obsession with the idea of reading more deeply in a subject and thus coming away with a deeper knowledge of one specific topic, idea or area of thought.  Please note that I said “the idea of” as I have pursued this idea in theory a great deal more than I have actually practiced anything like it.

This is why I have a rather large collection of books on conservatism for example.  Or the entire American Presidents Series.  Why I purchased a number of books that act as primary documents of sorts for Black History Month.  Oh, and shelves of books on myths, legends and fairy tales.  I often act as if collecting books on a subject will force me to read more deeply in a topic and thus gain knowledge (see yesterday’s post).

Alas, I rarely get beyond a book or two and soon the collection stares at me from the shelf mocking me… (I never got to the primary source books for Black History Month).
a stack of books on Paul
But I am here not to castigate myself, but to report on my current assignment which I am actually managing to stick with so far: reading books on Paul (another of my mini-obsessions).

Read so far:

Currently (re)reading:

Planning to read:

Stretch Goals:

What about you?  Any themes to your reading this summer? Any obsessions in your book collecting?

100 books in 2020, Big Books in 2021

My big picture reading goal in 2020 was to finally crack the 100 books in a year mark which I have been approaching for a few years. I was able to accomplish that and so look for a different approach in The Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Twenty-One.

Side note: I always feel a little guilty about counting graphic novels, novellas and other forms of very short books in my books I have read count. But this is in tension with my desire to read 100 books and to track every book I have read. And to be fair, I listened to a number of audio courses which are equal to quite large books given the number of hours involved. So I will call it even.

I will admit to sometimes being put off by very large books for two reasons. 1) hard to get to 100 if you are reading large tomes 2) I struggle to stay engaged and get a lot out of large books because I don’t always have the large blocks of time required to read such books well. I started thinking about this even as I was on track to read 100 books in 2020.

But as a way to challenge myself and read some books that I have had on my TBR pile for some time and have had recommended to me multiple times, I decided to declare 2021 the year of big books.

I also want to attempt to focus on some key interest areas in my reading: classics, books on conservatism, books on writing and books on faith and/or theology.

Continue reading

Job: A New Translation by Edward L. Greenstein


I will admit I bit off more than I could chew with Job: A New Translation by Edward L. Greenstein.

The book of Job has often been called the greatest poem ever written. The book, in Edward Greenstein’s characterization, is “a Wunderkind, a genius emerging out of the confluence of two literary streams” which “dazzles like Shakespeare with unrivaled vocabulary and a penchant for linguistic innovation.” Despite the text’s literary prestige and cultural prominence, no English translation has come close to conveying the proper sense of the original. The book has consequently been misunderstood in innumerable details and in its main themes.
 
Edward Greenstein’s new translation of Job is the culmination of decades of intensive research and painstaking philological and literary analysis, offering a major reinterpretation of this canonical text. Through his beautifully rendered translation and insightful introduction and commentary, Greenstein presents a new perspective: Job, he shows, was defiant of God until the end. The book is more about speaking truth to power than the problem of unjust suffering.

Hard Cover Front Piece

I lack the knowledge to truly judge the translation and while the issues raised were in some ways fascinating, I really only finished it because I had invested time and energy in reading half of it. It is a provocative book by an eminent scholar but I think the line between scholar and educated lay person is a tricky one.

However, the meanings of many words and expressions in Job are based on guesswork. One if often hard pressed to reconcile the language and translations with the traditional Hebrew text. There is no delicate way to put it: much of what has passed as translation of Job is facile and fudged. Translators have for the most part recycled interpretations that had been adopted earlier, dispensing with the painstaking work of original philological investigation that might lead to new and proper understandings. Modern commentators have made use of the ancient translations, but these were themselves all too often in a quandary. Accordingly, traditional interpretations have often held sway, and translators have usually followed suit, imposing their notions of what the book is presumed to be saying on their largely unsuspecting audiences.

Introduction, xviii

I found the translation readable and the introduction thought provoking but I was constantly distracted by the footnotes and a sense that Greenstein was flipping the understanding of Job on its head and I was in no position to judge the result in any definitive way absent significant study and reading.

Consequently, Job is parodying God, not showing him respect. If God is all about power and not morality and justice, Job will not condone it through acceptance. This response may not accord with the image of pious, Bontshe the Silent-type Job that most interpreters have wanted to find in this biblical book. However, Job’s defiance, a product of absolute integrity, is not the only radical or surprising feature of the book in the read presented and defended here.

Introduction, xxxi

If you are a person of faith or have an interest in the theological ramifications of the book of Job, to read it is to wrestle not with the challenges of translation but with the nature of faith and of scripture.

Gloria Dei est vivens homo, wrote Saint Irenaeus: The glory of God is a living man. Might not the Author of Life look with favor upon this brilliantly resistant creature, this unappeasable critical thinker, this supremely lonely and dissenting figure, this Bartleby with boils—unswayed by the sublime, scratching his scabs in the land of Uz? That might be the rankest heresy: Let me know, bishops. But consider what Greenstein’s nonpenitent, polarity-reversed Job has done to the ending of the book. As before, with the experiment over, Job is blandly restored to a state of health and wealth; as before, God upbraids the sententious friends, the Bildads and the Eliphazes and the Zophars, and sends them off to make some burnt offerings, “for you did not speak about me in honesty as did my servant Job.” The quality or valence of this honesty, however, has turned upside down. It has become a kind of white-knuckle existential tenacity, a refusal to disown oneself even in the teeth of the windstorm. Maybe that’s what this God, faced with this Job, is telling us: Bring it all before him, the full grievance of your humanity. Bring him your condition, loudly. Let him have it.

James Parker’s review in The Atlantic

This review by Patrick T. Reardon is a good place to start to get a sense of the challenge and the consequences.

Greenstein’s Job is a bold, highly original challenge to centuries, if not millenniums, of scholarship and theology.  It is a no-holds-barred assertion of a new way of looking at Job, the honest, upright gentile who, in the biblical book, is afflicted with waves of misery from God and asks the Deity: Why me?

As with so much when it comes to reading, your mileage may vary but if you like challenging approaches to scripture this is that. the very least you understand the immense challenges involved in translating a work such as Job.

Review: Listening to the Bible: The Art of Faithful Biblical Interpretation

Goodreads:
Listening to the Bible: The Art of Faithful Biblical Interpretation by Christopher Bryan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Quick Take:

I picked this book up at Half Price Books because it seemed like an interesting, and short, exploration of an important subject. I did enjoy Bryan’s approach: an acknowledgement of the contributions of historical criticism and a return to reading scripture in its context but with it an understanding that we read from a position and from within a community – the community of faith.

The author brings a strong literary perspective and even has an appendix focused on liturgical readings that truly bring out the literary or rhetorical element of scripture. There is a lot of academic “name dropping” and references, and the author is British, so if you are not familiar with the debates within the academy this might be distracting and confusing. I felt like I knew enough to get through it but probably would have gotten more out of it if I had a deeper knowledge.

I didn’t make the connection until writing this post, but I have Bryan’s Render Unto Caesar on my bookshelf and have been meaning to read it for some time. And his novel Siding Star has been on my Amazon wish list for a couple of years. Hmm, might need to dive a little deeper into Bryan’s work.

Any who, if you are interested in approaches to scripture and have some knowledge of the debate this is an interesting and readable volume.

Review: Listening to the Bible: The Art of Faithful Biblical Interpretation

Goodreads:
Listening to the Bible: The Art of Faithful Biblical Interpretation by Christopher Bryan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Quick Take:

I picked this book up at Half Price Books because it seemed like an interesting, and short, exploration of an important subject. I did enjoy Bryan’s approach: an acknowledgement of the contributions of historical criticism and a return to reading scripture in its context but with it an understanding that we read from a position and from within a community – the community of faith.

The author brings a strong literary perspective and even has an appendix focused on liturgical readings that truly bring out the literary or rhetorical element of scripture. There is a lot of academic “name dropping” and references, and the author is British, so if you are not familiar with the debates within the academy this might be distracting and confusing. I felt like I knew enough to get through it but probably would have gotten more out of it if I had a deeper knowledge.

I didn’t make the connection until writing this post, but I have Bryan’s Render Unto Caesar on my bookshelf and have been meaning to read it for some time. And his novel Siding Star has been on my Amazon wish list for a couple of years. Hmm, might need to dive a little deeper into Bryan’s work.

Any who, if you are interested in approaches to scripture and have some knowledge of the debate this is an interesting and readable volume.

Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues by N.T. Wright

I am a big fan of N.T. Wright and have read a number of his books. So I was excited about getting my hands on Surprised by Scripture:

Surprised by ScriptureAn unusual combination of scholar, churchman, and leader, N. T. Wright—hailed by Newsweek as “the world’s leading New Testament scholar”—is not only incredibly insightful, but conveys his knowledge in terms that excite and inspire Christian leaders worldwide, allowing them to see the Bible from a fresh viewpoint. In this challenging and stimulating collection of popular essays, sermons, and talks, Wright provide a series of case studies which explore how the Bible can be applied to some of the most pressing contemporary issues facing us

[…]

Helpful, practical, and wise, Surprised by Scripture invites readers to examine their own hearts and minds and presents new models for understanding how to affirm the Bible in today’s world—as well as new ideas and renewed energy for deepening our faith and engaging with the world around us.

The problem is that, as I have stated ad nauseam at this point, I really struggle with posting non-fiction reviews; and theology perhaps most of all.  So sorry for the delay in posting my thoughts on this interesting book.

If you have read much of N.T. Wright nothing in this collection is likely to surprise you as it really involves the themes and perspectives he has been developing in his last few books (How God Became King, Simply Jesus, etc.). It is, however, interesting to see him use this lens to explore a variety of topics in smaller chapters.

Wright’s theme throughout is how Western Christians have allowed the modern mindset of rationalistic and epicurean approaches to culture and knowledge shrink their faith into an internal personal belief disconnected from public life and history. Conservatives/fundamentalists have attempted to lock everything down into totalistic doctrinal systems and then use that as a cudgel in the culture wars. Liberals have so disconnected the faith from historical context and events, and from the specific stories of scripture, that their spiritualized, personal approaches threatens to float away into vague moralism.

Wright, in contrast, wants to use what historical research might teach us, and read scripture as its authors intended rather than with the philosophical assumptions of the modern age. He seeks to navigate between the fundamentalism of the right and the vague spiritualism of the left. Sometimes this comes off as a nearly impossible threading of the needle, while at other times as if only Wright has tried to find this balance, but I think Wright is largely on track in that the future lies not in rejecting either history or meaning but a more historically informed, culturally engaged, and story driven faith.

The First Time We Saw Him by Matt Mikalatos

I enjoy reading Matt Mikalatos. Even when I don’t particularly care for one of his books, or feel like he didn’t quite succeed in what he set out to do, I still find him worth reading.  He is creative and tackles interesting subjects.

So when I saw that he had a new book coming out, First Time We Saw Him, I was interested. I was even more interested when I found out what the book was about:

9780801016301Scripture tells us that the words of Jesus made people uncomfortable, confused, angry, repentant, worshipful, and riotous. Today, we read the words of Christ in a steady, even tone and find ourselves wondering if maybe we’re missing something. Could it be that we’ve lost the emotional power of Jesus’s words simply because we’re too familiar with them?

Having read it, however, I really struggled with how to review this book. On the one hand Mikalatos writes with energy and honesty; and he is willing to challenge the passivity of many Christians. I think he is correct to note that far too many have been desensitized to the power of scripture and the story of Jesus, his life, and his message.


But in seeking to re-introduce Jesus he mostly just dresses up conventional perspectives and theology in modern language and setting. With a couple of exceptions I don’t think his approach presents much of a challenge to current evangelical understandings of Jesus or his message.

And this won’t come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with my recent theological obsessions explorations, but the lack of historical/narrative reference or perspective is rather troubling. Mikalatos, like the vast majority of evangelicals, universalizes Jesus to the point of abstraction so that his Jewishness and his connection to his people, culture, and time are nothing more than a setting to be replaced by modern versions so that we might see Jesus in our time and place.

As far as these modern re-tellings go, Mikalatos does a fine job. He is after all a writer and story-teller. The story of the prostitute who pours expensive perfume on Jesus/Joshua’s feet and the story of Lazarus are particularly well done and effectively translate the stories into our modern perspective; our time and place. And they challenge our comfortable judgements about Jesus.

The problem is that, in my opinion, you can’t simply take Jesus out of his time and place without losing critical aspects of the story. The narrative and historical aspects are necessary parts of understanding what Jesus was saying and doing. They are not just illustrations for application or a devotional.

In the discussion of why the disciples left everything and followed Jesus there is no reference to their conception of what it meant to be the Messiah and why they would have seen Jesus as a potential fulfillment of that role.

Instead there is a focus on individual spiritual motivation. Sure, when discussing the triumphal entry and his death the tension between a political messiah and spiritual one is discussed in passing. But how can you talk about the disciples following Jesus without discussing what being the Messiah or the Christ would have meant? There is a context, a history, here that means something and we have lost it. (see N.T. Wright)

I believe this is largely an outgrowth of a focus on Jesus as God to the exclusion of all else. In fact, Jesus as human is barely touched on in these stories except in relation to his dress or social class. Jesus doesn’t come off as a human being so much as God made man; the man aspect is a form not an identity with all that goes along with that. The story, again incorrectly in my opinion, is about how the disciples came to understand that Jesus was God and then were confused when he was killed. I simply don’t believe this is the story the synoptic gospels tell (John is unique).

What also undermines the story’s power ironically is the completely different historical setting. As Mikalatos leaves out most of the context of the tension filled Jewish desire for independence and the resulting clash with Rome, and the equally strong and disastrous temptation to make peace with pagan empire, when he seeks to move these stories to modern America it sounds off-key.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the stories surrounding Jesus’s death. It is nearly impossible to transpose the crucifixion into modern America (and Mikalatos admits this).

The answer lies, in my opinion, not in universalizing and spiritualizing but in scraping away the abstract theology, Christian psychology, and bad Sunday school stories and getting back to the narrative embedded in scripture. A prophetic and apocalyptic story about coming judgement on Israel and a suffering servant who would give birth to a community that would survive the end of the age and into the age to come.

If this comes across as harsh, I don’t really mean it to.  If you are interested in a creative and well-intentioned attempt to place the life of Jesus into the language and culture of today, you will enjoy this book. Mikalatos is an engaging writer and The First Time We Saw Him is a quick read.

But if, like me, you are looking for something a little more ambitious or challenging you might be disappointed.

The First Time We Saw Him by Matt Mikalatos

I enjoy reading Matt Mikalatos. Even when I don’t particularly care for one of his books, or feel like he didn’t quite succeed in what he set out to do, I still find him worth reading.  He is creative and tackles interesting subjects.

So when I saw that he had a new book coming out, First Time We Saw Him, I was interested. I was even more interested when I found out what the book was about:

9780801016301Scripture tells us that the words of Jesus made people uncomfortable, confused, angry, repentant, worshipful, and riotous. Today, we read the words of Christ in a steady, even tone and find ourselves wondering if maybe we’re missing something. Could it be that we’ve lost the emotional power of Jesus’s words simply because we’re too familiar with them?

Having read it, however, I really struggled with how to review this book. On the one hand Mikalatos writes with energy and honesty; and he is willing to challenge the passivity of many Christians. I think he is correct to note that far too many have been desensitized to the power of scripture and the story of Jesus, his life, and his message.


But in seeking to re-introduce Jesus he mostly just dresses up conventional perspectives and theology in modern language and setting. With a couple of exceptions I don’t think his approach presents much of a challenge to current evangelical understandings of Jesus or his message.

And this won’t come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with my recent theological obsessions explorations, but the lack of historical/narrative reference or perspective is rather troubling. Mikalatos, like the vast majority of evangelicals, universalizes Jesus to the point of abstraction so that his Jewishness and his connection to his people, culture, and time are nothing more than a setting to be replaced by modern versions so that we might see Jesus in our time and place.

As far as these modern re-tellings go, Mikalatos does a fine job. He is after all a writer and story-teller. The story of the prostitute who pours expensive perfume on Jesus/Joshua’s feet and the story of Lazarus are particularly well done and effectively translate the stories into our modern perspective; our time and place. And they challenge our comfortable judgements about Jesus.

The problem is that, in my opinion, you can’t simply take Jesus out of his time and place without losing critical aspects of the story. The narrative and historical aspects are necessary parts of understanding what Jesus was saying and doing. They are not just illustrations for application or a devotional.

In the discussion of why the disciples left everything and followed Jesus there is no reference to their conception of what it meant to be the Messiah and why they would have seen Jesus as a potential fulfillment of that role.

Instead there is a focus on individual spiritual motivation. Sure, when discussing the triumphal entry and his death the tension between a political messiah and spiritual one is discussed in passing. But how can you talk about the disciples following Jesus without discussing what being the Messiah or the Christ would have meant? There is a context, a history, here that means something and we have lost it. (see N.T. Wright)

I believe this is largely an outgrowth of a focus on Jesus as God to the exclusion of all else. In fact, Jesus as human is barely touched on in these stories except in relation to his dress or social class. Jesus doesn’t come off as a human being so much as God made man; the man aspect is a form not an identity with all that goes along with that. The story, again incorrectly in my opinion, is about how the disciples came to understand that Jesus was God and then were confused when he was killed. I simply don’t believe this is the story the synoptic gospels tell (John is unique).

What also undermines the story’s power ironically is the completely different historical setting. As Mikalatos leaves out most of the context of the tension filled Jewish desire for independence and the resulting clash with Rome, and the equally strong and disastrous temptation to make peace with pagan empire, when he seeks to move these stories to modern America it sounds off-key.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the stories surrounding Jesus’s death. It is nearly impossible to transpose the crucifixion into modern America (and Mikalatos admits this).

The answer lies, in my opinion, not in universalizing and spiritualizing but in scraping away the abstract theology, Christian psychology, and bad Sunday school stories and getting back to the narrative embedded in scripture. A prophetic and apocalyptic story about coming judgement on Israel and a suffering servant who would give birth to a community that would survive the end of the age and into the age to come.

If this comes across as harsh, I don’t really mean it to.  If you are interested in a creative and well-intentioned attempt to place the life of Jesus into the language and culture of today, you will enjoy this book. Mikalatos is an engaging writer and The First Time We Saw Him is a quick read.

But if, like me, you are looking for something a little more ambitious or challenging you might be disappointed.