The Lost Message of Paul by Steve Chalke

Probably only the closest of readers of this blog would be aware of my theological leanings which are unique; some might even say heretical. Influenced by N.T. Wright, intrigued by Rob Bell, eventually finding Andrew Perriman I have come to adopt a narrative-historical hermeneutic rather than the dominant historical-grammatical approach of modern evangelicalism.

So when offered a chance to review The Lost Message of Paul I was excited.

We have misunderstood Paul, badly.

We have read his words through our own set of assumptions. We need to begin with Paul’s world view, to see things the way he saw them.

· What if ‘original sin’ was never part of Paul’s thinking?
· What if the idea that we are saved by faith in Christ, as Luther argued, was based on a mistranslation of Paul’s words and a misunderstanding of Paul’s thinking?

‘Over the centuries,’ writes Steve Chalke, ‘the Church has repeatedly failed to communicate, or even understand, the core of Paul’s message. Although Paul has often been presented as the champion of exclusion, he was the very opposite. He was the great includer.’

Given my theological journey, if anyone is open to a book about the misunderstanding and misinterpretation of Paul, I am.

But this book was a disappointment. Perhaps it was because at first I was only able to read it in fits and starts, but it struck me as just not well organized or written. Despite my avid interest in the subject, it did not grab or hold my attention. I almost had to force myself to read it.

It is an attempt to popularize certain academic understandings or scholarly debates, particularly what is known as the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), but does so at a superficial level and in one sided fashion. The style is discursive and meandering jumping between theology and devotional and social issues seemingly at random. It just didn’t flow for me.

There really isn’t anything particularly new here for anyone who has been following this debate. Which brings two challenges: 1) I have a hard time recommending such a meandering and hard to follow book to someone who wants to learn about this approach as there are much better books out there for those who want to understand the debate surrounding Paul and 2) if you are already familiar with the debates I am not sure what this adds.

Those who want to use NPP to reject evangelicalism and who embrace a progressive, for lack of a better term, approach this book will be embraced. And for those who reject either NPP, progressive theology, or both this book won’t change anyone’s mind. And as a few of the critical reviews note, Chalke writes as if his approach is obvious and a given rather than a highly controversial one.

I agree with Chalke on NPP and I agree that many in the church have flattened the story of the Bible into over-simplified theology (accept Jesus or go to eternal torment in Hell). He highlights the importance of Second Temple Judaism and the problematic nature of Luther’s approach. But again, he then assumes that the only logical end result is progressive Christianity stripped off almost all its credal beliefs. It is not a humble wrestling with the challenging issues of faith today but a rather arrogant proclamation that Chalke has it all figured out and has discovered true Christianity.

When I went to look at other reactions to compare to my own, I found mostly negative reviews. Here is a sampling:

There are useful things in this book about reflecting on Paul’s context, central purpose and primary target audience – but Chalke’s actual reading of Paul is highly selective and leads not to clear understanding but further lack of clarity.

The rest of the book is mainly taken up with an attempt to rewrite the theology of heaven and hell; including a lengthy excursion into Dante’s architecture of the afterlife.

I found the arguments more emotive than compelling. They are based on a selective use of Paul, a long line of straw men and a failure to interact with a wide range of evangelical scholars who have written on the subject.

I cannot recommend this book; there are better popular treatments of Paul’s thinking. Try Tom Wright’s Paul: A Biography.

Inspire Magazine review

David Robertson’s initial reaction was pretty harsh (see below) but he offered a more tempered but still critical review in Christianity Today.

This is an easy to read, and well-written book – much better stylistically than the earlier work. As always with Chalke the book will be described as ‘controversial’ and will delight some (like Rob Bell and Brian McLaren) and appall others. From a personal perspective I found that The Lost Message of Paul contained some interesting information, provocative arguments, challenging questions and old heresies.

Steve argues that ‘all the old narratives are dead’ and that we need a ‘new story’. He blames Augustine, Luther and Calvin for getting Paul’s message wrong. But his new story suffers from some major defects.

David Robertson in Christianity Today

He appreciated the writing more than I did but I did not read his previous book so have nothing to compare it to.

This is a better-written work than his previous…but after a slightly promising start, it quickly went downhill.  You will discover very little about the Apostle Paul here – and his lost message.  But you will learn a lot about what Steve Chalke thinks – and lo and behold, it appears that all along Paul and Jesus were really 19th Century Protestant liberals, who spoke in an evangelical code – which remained hidden – until Steve came to reveal ‘the lost message of Paul’.   Overall, whilst there are some insights, this is a shockingly bad book.  Chalke speaks as though he is an expert in Greek, Hebrew, History, Theology, Psychology, Science – whereas in reality he just cherry picks and quote mines sources which support his pre-determined destination – and amazingly he arrives there.   A Bible that is not the word of God, a Jesus who didn’t exist, a heaven and hell that are only on earth….a cross that did not atone and a God who fails….This is about as far as it is possible to get from Christianity whilst still claiming to be a Christian. 

David Robertson at The Wee Flea

Tom Creedy offers a very thorough and critical review and helpfully offers other, and better, sources for those who want to learn more.

As you can probably tell, I can’t recommend this book. Steve seems to be surprisingly unaware of a number of books and positions on Paul, as well as unwilling to take his own advice in reading and interpreting Paul. Of this almost 300 page book, some of it is helpful (some reminders on hermeneutics, and an acknowledgement that Paul and Scripture have been abused in the past and present), but it is like trying to pick only Minstrels out of a pack of Revels (an english chocolate that is, quite literally, a mixed bag). In fact, I’d go further: I think Steve should ask SPCK, his current publisher, for the rest of Tom Wright’s back catalogue, as well as dig into Paula Gooder, John Barclay, etc. It should be revealing that for a book purporting to open up a conversation about Paul, it simultaneously isn’t endorsed by any Pauline/New Testament scholars, and in my limited knowledge doesn’t engage with some of the key voices in the relevant discussion. For interested readers, New Testament scholar Michael Bird has a really helpful list of some of the best recent books on Paul

Thomas Creedy review

Chris Goswami at 7minutes has a much more positive view and gets at the challenge of the book. It has some valid points but always pushes the arguments to the limits and beyond and thus undercuts its ability to persuade.

 “We all know the stories of the pain caused by the misreading of Paul through the centuries … to justify some of the most brutal and repressive episodes in human history  … including apartheid, subservience of women, abuse of the environment and oppression of gay people”.

Steve Chalke is right about that and at the very least this book might soften some of the hard edges of the church. And he is right about the church at times being preoccupied with personal salvation: “go to church and get into heaven” is a cheap gospel as he makes clear.

On the other hand, Chalke’s “everything you know about Paul is wrong” proposal is built on selected scriptures and will be upsetting to ordinary church-goers. So, to conclude, this book is a helpful contribution, it takes some of the recent technical discussions on Paul (including NPP) and makes them more understandable to the ordinary church-goer, but I would not recommend it widely.

7minutes review

I didn’t dig into progressive reviews but clearly those who side with Chalke embraced this book.

THIS is a book that every preacher should read. Why? Once you have had an opportunity to engage with St Paul’s message as articulated here, it is “literally world-changing”. As its author confesses at the outset, the ideas presented are not his own: they represent a huge body of thought relating to Paul which has emerged since the1960s. The ideas are, though, brilliantly and very accessibly presented in this book.

[…]

This book could be seen as an extended meditation on the sentence “God is love”: “Once you understand that, everything else cascades from it. Every other category or concept in Paul’s thinking — the righteousness of God, the cross, the judgement seat of Christ, justification, anger.” Chalke quotes Barth: “If God exhibits characteristics of anger, judgement and the like they are never more than ‘repetitions and amplifications of the one statement that God loves’.”

“Love never fails,” Paul writes. Chalke speaks with the authority of someone who has dedicated decades, through the Oasis Trust, to attending to those who have been written off by society, seeking not to fail them. He argues that God in Christ does the same eternally, and Chalke quotes Barth again: “I don’t believe in universalism, but I do believe in Jesus Christ, the reconciler of all.” Chalke explains what this means to him in helpful detail.

Church Times review

Whew, that is a lot to digest! I hope I have given enough information for readers to get a sense of book, its approach and the pros and cons. For whatever reason, I did not enjoy it despite agreeing with much of the underlying issues Chalke is trying to highlight. In the end, I think there are better books out there to tackle this important subject.

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.

The Best of 2013 – My Top Five Non Fiction Books

On Wednesday we kicked of the new year by listing the top five fiction books I read in 2013. Today let’s move on to non-fiction. I read 24 non-fiction books last year and I picked five that stood out as my favorites.

I will admit I struggle a bit reviewing non-fiction.  I feel compelled to offer a much more detailed response to non-fiction for some reason and this results in procrastination and quite frequently to not posting a review at all (see the ill-fated November is Theology Month for an example).

One of my goals for 2014 is to break this habit and simply post my take on the non-fiction I read without feeling compelled to offer an academic type review.

Anywhoo, below are my favorite non-fiction books from 2013 a few of which I have yet to review.

The Reformation: A History by Patrick Collinson

In just a few hundred pages The Reformation: A History explores a fascinating and revolutionary (although some would dispute even that as Collinson notes and discusses) period in the history of the West. A period that still shapes the way we think and speak of Christianity, theology, politics, culture, etc. That it is done with wit and eloquence makes it that much more remarkable. I highly recommend it for those with an interest in religious history or Western Civilization.

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by chip & Dan Heath

I listened to this audio book and rally enjoyed it.  It is a great blend of the latest research and great examples to help you understand the ideas.  And the heath brothers make it easy to remember key aspects of their advice with catchy acronyms. Anyone with an interest in how change happens should read this book; it is full of insights and information about human nature, decision-making, and more.  Highly recommend for business and life.

Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work by Chip & Dan Heath

Which led me to listen to this book that is equally great.  I have yet to read a book by the Heath Brothers that wasn’t excellent.  This one  focuses explicitly on decision-making and, like Switch, is applicable to a host of situations ranging from career and financial choices to personal and relationship choices.

How God Became King by N.T. Wright

I am also a big fan of NT Wright and have been reading as much of his prolific output as I can.  This is a great book to get a real flavor of where Wright’s though has led him at a popular level.  It is focused on how Western Christendom has lost track of the original perspective and message of the gospels and instead view them very much through our own cultural, doctrinal and liturgical lenses thereby warping and distorting them in unintended ways. We amplify some themes and ideas while ignoring others and have lost much of the context and history involved. Wright aims to reinvigorate our understanding by helping us see scripture through the lens of the authors and their history and thus to return a more balanced and contextualized understanding.  Challenging and even difficult in some ways for those comfortable with what is labeled as orthodox evangelical theology but important and needed.

Re: Mission: Biblical Mission for a Post-Biblical Church by Andrew Perriman

Andrew Perriman is another of my favorite writers who is both building on Wright and heading in new directions.  He argues for a narrative-historical approach to scripture that, like Wright, helps us understand scripture in its proper context and aims while also coming to grips with where we are today.  Perriman is wrestling with what it means to be a Christian in a postmodern and post-Christendom world. I have really enjoyed his blog and have read a number of his books.  This book is a great primer for those wanting to know more and get a sense of where he is coming from and might be headed.

So there you have it, my top five non-fiction books of 2013. Some theology, history and business/psychology.  An accurate reflection of my eclectic tastes these days.

Anyone want to weigh in with your favorite books from 2013?

 

For All the Saints: Remembering the Christians Departed by N.T. Wright

I am a big fan of N.T. Wright. I find his writing engaging and thought-provoking and it has had a big impact on how I approach my faith.  So it is appropriate that we kick off Theology Month here at CM with one of his books For All the Saints: Remembering the Christians Departed.  I happened to stumble on this short work while trying out Oyster (a sort of Netflix for books). As luck would have it, it was a very topical choice as we are coming to the end of the liturgical season Wright is dealing with (Hallowmas) in the book and today is All Souls Day.

Publisher’s blurb:

For All The Saints“We have been drifting into a muddle and a mess, putting together bits and pieces of traditions, ideas and practices in the hope that they will make sense. They don’t. There may be times when a typical Anglican fudge is a pleasant, chewy sort of thing, but this isn’t one of them. It’s time to think and speak clearly and act decisively.”

With these robust words Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham, throws down a challenge to current liturgy and practice surrounding All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days, and sets out to clarify our thinking about what happens to people after they die. Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, what it means to pray for the dead, what (and who) are the saints, are all addressed in this invigorating and rigorously argued book.

It is an interesting, if very brief and somewhat limited, book.

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