Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

John Wesley’s Teachings, volume 4

May 31, 2014

This is something I picked up from NetGalley as it looked interesting. The book, John Wesley’s Teachings, volume 4 by Thomas Oden focuses on Wesley’s teaching on ethics and society. There is a lot of interesting material here. I haven’t read the first 3 volumes, so I presumably lack a bit of context (Oden occasionally refers back to earlier discussions). But most of this is freestanding. For those with a historical bent, it is interesting to see how Wesley works through various issues. Here is where one of the distinctive features of the book is worth noting. Oden finds key works (sermons or writings) and essentially summarizes them to lay out Wesley’s teaching on a topic. There is certainly some value in this. The individual facets of arguments are put in context. And we can begin to get inside Wesley’s thinking, his logic.

The topics covered are substantial and important. We get insight into how Wesley viewed the social nature of Methodism and the small group identity, along with how that shaped spirituality and character formation. Oden explores Wesley’s practical economics; it’s less a theory of economics than practical steps to take in using our money. Political ethics and issues of war and peace (including the war for independence) and slavery are also discussed, along with a number of other issues. So, if you want an accessible survey of Wesley’s thoughts on these type of issues, this book will generally work.

Having said that, there are some structural limitations to this approach. I’ll highlight several that struck me. First, we may miss aspects of Wesley’s thoughts that are mentioned incidentally or that are interwoven with other discussions. It may be that Oden doesn’t miss anything significant in approaching Wesley with this methodology – I’m not enough of a Wesley expert to know. But I know from my own historical research that key texts (especially contextual ones like sermons) are never comprehensive. And to be sure, the alternative is to get a pre-packaged summary where we can’t really engage all the relevant primary texts. It’s a choice Oden has made, and a reasonable one. Just not with its limitations. We just need to read with a bit of awareness of that issue.

A second, and more difficult one is that Oden allows Wesley to speak but doesn’t provide any real critical analysis or help with figuring out how to move from Wesley’s time to today. Again, I am probably commenting on something outside Oden’s intended scope (he is elucidating arguments, he notes in the introduction). But the work would have been enhanced by some opportunity to think about how to bridge these issues to the modern world. In some cases the issues were uniquely historically situated (e.g., the American revolution and slavery); in those cases some assistance in thinking about how to apply similar arguments in different contexts would have been helpful. In other cases, to be frank, Wesley’s views and arguments are rather dated and anachronistic if applied today. What do we do with those things? For example, how does Wesley’s approach to sports function in the modern world? How does his practical economics function in the world of the welfare state? Maybe they say something about failures in the modern church, or perhaps they are not issues any longer. But after a few of those issues I’m left wishing for some help in thinking through these topics.

So, a useful book and I learned some things about Wesley and his thinking, but was left wanting for more. I suspect I would want a sequel or another book to pair with this if I really wanted to understand Wesley’s ethics more deeply.

Paul Among the People

May 24, 2014

Just finished Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in his Own Time. A wonderful book in many ways. Ruden is a good author, and the background she provides from the classics sheds interesting and often helpful light on the cultural context of Paul’s letters and thoughts. For some evangelicals, there may be some hesitancy because she generally follows critical approaches to authorship of the letters and because not all of her personal conclusions match those traditionalist evangelicals (or Catholics, for that matter). And there are self-professed limits to the study; it doesn’t address much of the Jewish background for Paul, which I do think leaves some gaps. But still, I think it was well worth reading. And it’s a sympathetic reading of Paul which deserves some attention.

Strength to Love

May 13, 2014

This semester, the grad student group I help out with read Strength to Love by Martin Luther King Jr. together. Each week we read a chapter and then looked at the biblical passage from which Dr. King drew his sermons. The book was good to read in many ways. It’s a reminder of a different time; a time most of us are glad has to a large extent disappeared. A few general observations:

1) These sermons are rarely expositions. Some of them capture the idea of the surrounding text reasonably well. A few just are plucked out of nowhere. That doesn’t mean that the sermon may not have truth, but as I tell my students we ought to model good interpretation because those who hear us preach will take our bad habits and run with them!

2) The sermons are so much more literary and rhetorically polished (in the classic sense) than sermons today. It says something about our changed world and education, I think.

3) Whatever else one might say about Dr. King’s views on various topics (e.g., his sermon on communism or his approach to nonviolence), there is a deep and abiding supernaturalism in his sermons that I don’t see among as often among people on either side of the political spectrum today. King is certainly not an advocate of passivity, but he insisted on the necessity of a supernatural power if his crusade for justice and racial reconciliation was to succeed. I think we could use some voices like that today.

The sermons are fairly short, filled with interesting thoughts and ideas, and worth a read.

On Dispensationalism

May 10, 2014

I read a number of things on the topic this Spring preparing for a project, and want to highlight 2 books by Michael Vlach that were useful.

The first, Dispensationalism: Essential Beliefs and Common Myths is a solid introduction. Another benefit is that it is available as a “loan” ebook if you are an Amazon Prime member. So you can read it for free and see what you think. I admit to being skeptical about lists of “essentials.” They don’t always reflect the historical diversity of the movement and since none of the lists of essentials produced by various authors agree, I think there is reason to be suspicious. If you treat the “essentials” as something more like common features, I think what Vlach provides is quite serviceable.  I found the myths section to be helpful and would suggest this as a solid basic introduction. It’s short and there are lots of things he doesn’t cover, but if you just want a taste, that’s OK.

The second work is a bit more focused and substantial: Has the Church Replaced Israel? Again, I’d make a few adjustments here and there but Vlach does a very good job of highlighting many of the arguments against supercessionism. This doesn’t “prove” dispensationalism is correct, but it is a helpful piece of the overall puzzle. There is a helpful history of the supercessionist debate and Vlach is clearly in the mainstream of dispensationalism in his views. While not aligning himself with either more traditional or progressive dispensationalism, he is clearly open to some revisions. He argues the New Covenant is in effect for the church now and is open to some “both-and” approaches. He also defends a new creation eschatology as more biblically faithful (and I agree). I think this position sets up thoughtful dispensationalists to make allies with scholars in other traditions in important areas, while still having room to develop a distinctive dispensational response to a few issues (notably the Israel question). While I think a bit more hermeneutical flexibility than Vlach admits might be needed in a few areas, I appreciated his careful and thoughtful approach. I learned a a few things and a few different ways to put things. And that’s always good.

Two Books on the Trinity

May 8, 2014

I’m going to ramp up with some things I’ve read over the school year to fill in days I don’t finish another book.

Today I’m going to briefly mention two books about the trinity I read with and for a class.

The first is Fred Sanders’ The Deep Things of God. I and my students really liked this book. It is solid in discussing the trinity, of course. But it is also engaging and does an excellent job of connecting the trinity to evangelical life and practices. For example, he notes that a trinitarian mode of prayer, while not required, is praying “with the grain” (a great metaphor). Some lovely quotations. Here’s one: “Most evangelical Christians don’t need to be talked into the Trinitarian theory; they need to be shown that they are immersed in the trinitarian reality.” Highly recommended.

The other is Delighting in the Trinity by Michael Reeves. I liked this one too. A bit less specifically oriented toward evangelical practices and life, it still has lots of good material, including discussion of the ways the trinity specifically supports Christianity’s way of thinking about the world and God. For example, the trinity explains how God can be eternally loving, even before he creates anything. This one has some nice turns of phrases too. Here’s one: “once you puree the persons, it becomes impossible to taste the gospel.”  A different, but complementary approach to that in Sanders. Also recommended.

There are other books out there, and I’m working through some of them, but these two would be a great start for anyone.

A Reading List

July 24, 2012

Here’s a list of Christian Classics for reading.

The Evolution of Adam

May 12, 2012

Pete Enns’ challenging discussion of the Evolution/Adam question is titled The Evolution of Adam. I read it with some students for a class. A few quick thoughts:

1) Enns probably makes many of his evangelical readers uncomfortable with his handling of OT critical issues; it certainly did so for my students. I think even with a somewhat more traditional view on those matters, at least the basic point of the post-exilic canonical compilation would allow one to reach similar conclusions. But maybe not…

2) I felt really overmatched on the science questions – I just don’t know enough about some of the scientific issues (e.g., genome project stuff) to evaluate some of the claims made. So for the students I was discussing this with, we mostly bracketed the question. Let’s assume for the moment he’s right about that, what about the rest.

3) It was nice we had previously read (in the same class) several books on the New Pauline perspective issue. When Enns brought those in, it made it easier for students to prcoess.

4) It’s not hard to get most of us to agree to the basic principle about accomodation; it’s always how far this goes – and why not to go farther. Led to interesting discussions.

I wouldn’t hand this to a newbie – but for someone deeply in the scientific issues or someone interested in various options for dealing with these questions, it might be worth a judicious read.

Journeys of Faith

May 12, 2012

Summer is coming and so I’ll be posting more (since I’ll be reading more). A couple of clean ups from the last few weeks wills start things out.

First, Journeys of Faith. A collection of essays describing conversions between Evangelicalism, Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Anglicanism, with a response from the converted from tradition. Geared to an evangelical audience (all conversions to or [mostly] from evangelicalism), it provides insight for those wanting to understand what motivates such changes. Well worth a read.


March 21, 2012

Recently finished Manalive by G.K. Chesterton. An interesting parable about what it means to live. Enjoyable.

Reading Pilgrim’s Progress

March 8, 2012

If you want a reading project, here’s an online reading group with Tim Challies, reading Pilgrim’s Progress. Join in if you like!