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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.

Yawning at Tigers by Drew Dyck

I am a bit of a sucker for cheap books on my Kindle. And lately I have been on something of a theology/faith kick (so much so that I am now hopelessly behind in my reading).

So when I saw Yawning at Tigers: You Can’t Tame God, So Stop Trying by Drew Dyck temporarily on sale for less than two dollars I had to click.

Yawning at TigersWhen was the last time you were overawed by God’s majesty? Have you ever stood in stunned silence at his holiness and power?

In our shallow, self-centered age, things like truth and reverence might seem outdated, lost. Yet we’re restless. And our failed attempts to ease our unrest point to an ancient ache for an experience of the holy.

Drew Dyck makes a compelling case that what we seek awaits us in the untamed God of Scripture—a God who is dangerous yet accessible, mysterious yet powerfully present. He is a God who beckons us to see him with a fresh, unfiltered gaze.

Yawning at Tigers takes us past domesticated Christianity, into the wilds where God’s raw majesty, love, and power become more real and transformative than we could ever imagine.

One again I found myself torn about my reaction to a book touching on faith, theology or the Bible.

I really like what the author is getting at here: that we domesticate God and make him safe and tame. And I think the first half of the book does a good job of getting us to think about why and how we attempt to tame God and what the repercussions of that are for our lives and our communities.

But then in the second half of the book I felt like he slowly slipped back into rather conventional approaches to Christianity with a focus on Jesus and God’s love. Not that there is anything wrong necessarily with this approach (although I have certain nits to pick) but it seemed at times a little disconnected from the larger topic.

Dyck is trying to show how God is both holy, awesome and transcendent but also deeply loving, present and personal. I get that. And the incarnation is the pivot on which this well told tale turns.

I have been trying to figure out why I didn’t enjoy the book more than I did.

I liked the way he frequently touched on the narrative or storyline of scripture and brought in prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Hosea to illustrate his points. I liked the section dealing with suffering and how different cultures and time periods view(ed) the crucifixion very differently. And he used the tearing of the temple veil effectively to illustrate the impact of Jesus death. There is a blend of anecdote, personal experience and theology that makes for easy reading.

But in the end, I feel like Dyck is making some theologically loaded arguments without unpacking them or going into much detail. I guess I feel like he is stealing a few bases rhetorically.

Basically, he views the story of God and Jesus through the lens of the first chapter of John. The Incarnation, in the doctrinal sense, becomes the point of the Gospel, the remainder of the New Testament, and the rest of history for that matter.

The point of Jesus’s suffering is so God would know what it feels like to be human. The answer to evil and pain in the world is “God with Us” in Jesus. The missional movement is modeled after the incarnation, etc. The whole of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is shrunk down to God coming to earth to show us how much he loves us.

Now, I know what you are saying: “Kevin, this is rather standard evangelical stuff.” Yes, I know. But having wrestled with these issues, and tried to sort out many of the underlying questions, and approach scripture with fresh eyes and/or less doctrinal baggage or presuppositions, they too often come across as easy answers. A spiritualized, universalized approach that neuters the Biblical story in important ways. But I am pretty confident that is my rather unique hang-up these days (shocking, I know).

If you are looking for a book that seeks to highlight the awesome holiness and majesty of God and yet connect that to his infinite love and pursuit of His people you will enjoy this book.

As I said, Dyck blends theology, anecdote, and personal experience in an approachable and engaging way. He looks to make scripture come alive instead of fade into stale flannel-graph stories.

Although well written and organized, however, I am not sure there is much in the later half of the book that isn’t standard fare in evangelical Sunday School classes and sermons on Sundays. But perhaps I have just heard this approach frequently and there are swaths of American Christianity where it has not been discussed or embraced.

And I will admit that it is easy to embrace one side at the expense of the other; to focus on God’s sovereignty and judgement at the expense of his love and dogged pursuit of the lost; or to focus on God’s love and compassion while ignoring his transcendent, all-powerful and holy nature. This is certainly frequently evident in discussions of these and related topics. We tend to pick a side rather than live with tensions. And Dyck rightful explains the danger involved in this temptation or tendency.

That said, I think the story of scripture is a bit more complicated than what is presented here; but perhaps that is asking too much of a book of this nature.

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.

Scripture and the Authority of God by N.T. Wright

I am a big fan of N.T. Wright and he has had a big impact on my faith and approach to faith. So when I saw Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today on sale for $3 on Kindle I scooped it up.

Here is a rather lengthy synopsis:

Scripture & Authority“But what does scripture say?”

That question has echoed through a thousand debates in the life of the worldwide church. All churches have officially endorsed strong statements about the centrality of scripture and its authority in their mission, life, doctrine, and discipline. But there is no agreement on what this might mean or how it might work in practice. Individuals and churches struggle with how to respond to issues such as war, homosexuality, and abortion, and especially how to interpret biblical passages that discuss these topics. These disagreements often serve to undermine our confidence in the authority of the Bible.

Bishop and Bible scholar N. T. Wright delivers a new model for how to understand the place of scripture and God’s authority in the midst of religious confusion. Wright gives new life to the old, tattered doctrine of the authority of scripture, delivering a fresh, helpful, and concise statement on how to read the Bible today, restoring scripture as a place to find God’s voice.

In this revised and expanded edition of the previously titled book The Last Word, Wright provides two case studies that delve into what it means to keep Sabbath and how Christians can defend marital monogamy. These studies offer not only bold biblical insights but also showcase Wright’s new model for how to interpret scripture and restore its role as the church’s main resource for teaching and guidance. Removing the baggage that the last 100 years of controversy and confusion have placed on this doctrine, Wright renews our confidence in the Bible and shows how it can once again serve as the living Word of God for our lives.

I found it to be an interesting and thought-provoking look at the subject of the authority of scripture. Wright gives a history of Christian thinking on scripture and its authority down through the ages; comparing and contrasting approaches and arguing for his own.

I read this in fits and spurts and I feel like I need to go back and re-read it to get greater clarity. But, not surprisingly given my appreciation for Wright, I think Wright is correct to see the proper approach in narrative and context within the church as the people of God. Anyone wrestling with the place of scripture in the life of the church and in the wider world would do well to read this book. 

Those looking for more of Wright’s views on scripture can check out the newly released Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues which I hope to be able to read soon.

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