What the prosperity gospel gets right

Image: Robert M. Worsham (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Financial Times this weekend has a profile of Joel Osteen, “a preacher for Trump’s America”, one of the most successful proponents of the “prosperity gospel” — which the FT describes as a “quintessentially American” blend of Pentecostalism and faith healing, and the only section of the US church that is currently expanding.

The writer, Edward Luce, picks up on Osteen’s ability “to keep sin and redemption out of a Christian message”. Osteen’s response:

It is not my aim to dwell on technicalities. I want to help people sleep at night.

Helping people sleep at night is good for business: Osteen’s church, Lakewood, had revenues of $89 million in the year ending March 2017, with more than 90 per cent coming from its church members. Most church members give at least one-tenth of their income to the church, but those interviewed by Luce seemed to consider it a good investment, one they’d seen repaid in promotions, pay rises, new jobs. “God works fast when you work for him,” one observes.

All this tends to leave most other Christians aghast. As one commentator observes, what the prosperity churches provide is a “deification and ritualisation of the American dream” rather than anything resembling the New Testament gospel. But, despite the evident (and understandable) appeal of such a message for the American super-rich, Osteen’s target market is “the struggling middle class”: a demographic experiencing stagnating incomes, precarious employment, family and community breakdown, a “crisis of loneliness”, addiction to prescription drugs. One congregant comments:

Here is a community that only offered love. Nobody told me that I was bad. The world already tells you that every day.

We don’t have to give any ground to the prosperity preachers’ theology to ask ourselves: is it really just false offers of wealth and security (for those who believe, and give, enough) that keeps people loyal to these churches? Or is there a message here about how the mainstream churches may be failing to address the situations faced by many people?

Which brings me to Fleming Rutledge’s book The Crucifixion, which I am currently reading. At the heart of Rutledge’s argument in this book is that the cross has to be understood in the context of apocalyptic theology. She describes the recovery of the apocalyptic perspective as one of the major developments in New Testament scholarship in recent decades:

[This scholarship] is still not well known in the churches, but it is becoming more prominent in academic circles, and this will begin to filter down to the pews.

(The Crucifixion, p.353)

It’s clear that Rutledge — a self-described “preacher and pastor” rather than an academic theologian — sees her book as part of this process of filtration.

The essence of the apocalyptic framework as outlined by Rutledge is that the gospel — and in particular the crucifixion of Jesus which lies at its heart — isn’t simply a matter of individual salvation from the penalty for our sins. Rather, it is God’s assault on the powers of Sin and Death that hold all humanity captive; a confrontation between two realms, two aeons: the reign of Sin and Death and Satan and the other Powers on the one hand, and the reign of righteousness and grace through Christ on the other.

Rutledge argues that, far from this perspective overriding or setting aside more traditional motifs such as sacrifice, redemption, substitution and so on, apocalyptic provides the framework within which those motifs can be better appreciated:

This book has been designed to highlight the whole cluster of images surrounding the death of Christ, within the overarching apocalyptic drama that consistently presents God as the acting subject while at the same time enlisting even the humblest Christian (especially the humblest Christian) in God’s band of resistance fighters.

p.393

This in turn can bridge the gap that has often opened up between the gospel of individual salvation and the call to social justice: to confronting the Powers of evil in the world. For Rutledge, the meaning of the cross is twofold: it is both God’s action in making vicarious atonement, and God’s decisive victory over the powers of Sin and Death. Too often, she argues, the former has devolved into an individualistic approach in which “my sins” are somehow “paid for”, giving me the prospect of life with God after death, but in the meantime leaving the wider world largely unchanged. This in turn can have an appeal to those for whom the wider world — however much they (we) may pay lip-service to the idea of societal sin — has shaken out pretty much OK. It has less appeal to those who have been on the receiving end of severe injustice, for whom an apocalyptic message of God’s incursion on a world under the control of alien powers has greater resonance: as Rutledge illustrates with frequent references to the US civil rights movement and the South African anti-apartheid struggle.

So, perhaps this shows us the one thing that the prosperity gospel gets right: its diagnosis that the “mainstream” gospel of individual forgiveness is inadequate to the plight faced by millions of people; that it is not good enough to tell people that they simply need to “bear up patiently” in the face of poverty or suffering or injustice, and certainly not good enough to cite the crucifixion of Jesus in support of this; that God really does want something better for his people, and that he really does intervene in a dramatic way to bring this about, to lay waste to the Powers that oppose him and oppress his creation.

Of course, the prosperity gospel gets pretty much everything else wrong from that point onwards: starting with the idea that how God goes about this is by individually enriching those who show their faith by tithing to Lakewood or whatever. But maybe the answer to this isn’t to be found in telling people that they are wrong to expect God’s intervention in the concrete circumstances of their lives, but rather in developing, at a pastoral and devotional level, the apocalyptic perspective in which the gospel is God’s dynamic assault on all the Powers that oppress us: Sin, Death, poverty, injustice and the rest.

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Books! (January to March 2019)

I’m experimenting with moving from an annual books round-up to a quarterly one – partly to make each post a more manageable length, partly to make this blog look slightly less moribund.

Anyway, this is a good quarter to choose, as it’s the quarter when I decided to try not to acquire any books, so as to work on my backlog of unread books. The effect of this on my “physical” backlog (I also read ten Kindle books over the three months) can be seen in the “before and after” shots of my to-read shelves, above.

So how did I get on? Well, the books I read are listed below. As for avoiding acquisitions: the only exceptions I made were Tom Wright’s Reflecting the Glory (bought on Kindle as a book for my wife and I to read during Lent) and, well, The Stone Table (which I could scarcely refuse…). The 25 books read break down as 16 novels, 5 theology, 4 other nonfiction (confirming the pattern I noted in my previous post); 15 physical books, 10 on Kindle.

Fiction

After a light Agatha Christie as an amuse-bouche, this was a strong quarter for fiction. I’d started The Goldfinch at the end of 2018 and finished it in the first week of the year. As I put it on Twitter, it’s “preposterous, yes, but gripping, and with characters who, if not ‘realistic’ as such, have a life to them that lifts them off the page as you read.” As Sam Leith said of The Secret History, if only “all literary fiction could be this gripping, and if all popular fiction could be this well written.”

My wife, E, gave me a curated reading list for Christmas, the “Marital Review of Books”. I read five of the 22 books during this quarter: The Warden, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Bonfire of the Vanities and Golden Hill. Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights were the first books I’ve read by the Brontës, and they were both an intense experience. It certainly came as a shock to realise that Kate Bush toned down Emily’s novel for her song.

I’m also loving Liu Cixin’s science fiction trilogy, The Three Body Problem, having read the first two books during the quarter. I don’t think I’ve ever read two books with such an exhilarating range and intensity of ideas. The countdown in The Three Body Problem is one of the most terrifying sequences I’ve read in a novel (even if the explanation turns out to be a little silly); but it’s possibly eclipsed by the climax to The Dark Forest. You’ll never look at humanity’s attempts to contact alien civilisations in the same way again. Interesting, also, to read science fiction written from a Chinese (PRC) perspective.

  • The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (Agatha Christie)
  • The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt)
  • The Warden (Anthony Trollope)
  • The Three Body Problem (Cixin Liu)
  • Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë)
  • Housekeeping (Marilynne Robinson)
  • Melmoth (Sarah Perry)
  • Golden Hill (Francis Spufford)
  • The Bonfire of the Vanities (Tom Wolfe)
  • The Dark Forest (Cixin Liu)
  • Judgment on Deltchev (Eric Ambler)
  • Solaris (Stanislaw Lem)
  • The Tiger in the Smoke (Margery Allingham)
  • The Rings of Saturn (W.G. Sebald)
  • The Stone Table (Francis Spufford)
  • Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë)

Nonfiction

As I noted in my post in January, my book-buying habits have, for a long time, been based on what turns out to be a largely delusional idea of how much nonfiction I actually read. “About one book a month” was my average last year, and that’s pretty much where things have pitched up between January and March.

Barnabas Calder’s Raw Concrete is a glorious and intelligent celebration of brutalist architecture as a unique and unrepeatable moment in architectural history: the brief period when architects were free able to exploit the fresh technical possibilities of modern building materials and seemingly limitless cheap energy; a period brought to an end by the backlash against brutalist architecture in the 1970s and 1980s, and made impossible to return to by 21st century concerns about energy efficiency.

Anne Stott’s memoir of Hannah More is a book I keep going back to as a reference point. More lived during a fascinating period of English history, encompassing the literary world of the mid-18th century, the Evangelical revival of the later 1700s, and then the growth of what would become the Victorian sensibility in the early 19th century. More’s life provides a window both into the world of the upper-class and gentry, and the often overlooked world of the poor working-classes and rural poor among whom More laboured to establish Sunday Schools to provide education. Stott is excellent on the contradictions of More: above all the tension between her antifeminist convictions and her life spent both exemplifying and enabling the opportunities available to women beyond their traditional roles. Stott rescues More from the oblivion to which history had consigned her, while avoiding hagiography.

  • Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism (Barnabas Calder)
  • The Death of Adam (Marilynne Robinson)
  • Hannah More: The First Victorian (Anne Stott)
  • A Field Guide to the English Clergy (Fergus Butler-Gallie)

Theology

Alert readers will notice a theme here: I’m focusing on books about Romans for the first part of this year, with Tom Wright’s biography of Paul providing some stimulating (if not always entirely convincing) background material. I’m currently reading Jonathan Grothe’s commentary on Romans, The Justification of the Ungodly – a book which deserves a better fate than the “self-published on Lulu” obscurity to which LCMS politics consigned it – and Fleming Rutledge’s monumental study, The Crucifixion.

  • Paul: A Biography (Tom Wright)
  • Your Confirmation (John Stott)*
  • Discovering Romans (Anthony Thiselton)
  • When in Romans (Beverly Roberts Gaventa)
  • The Message of Acts (John Stott)

(An asterisk indicates a book I’ve read before.)


So, a good start to the year. I’m looking forward to the third Liu Cixin volume, as well as (more immediately) reading the final volume in Becky Chambers’ enjoyable Wayfarers trilogy, Record of a Spaceborn Few. I’ll also be wanting to keep pace with the Marital Review of Books, especially with behemoths like Middlemarch and War and Peace waiting for me on that list. Perhaps something a little lighter first, though.

I’ve also assembled something of a hit-list of books to check out now my purchasing fast is over – especially having received a bunch of book tokens for my birthday. High on the list is Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus, recommended by (among others) Rowan Williams. I may also splurge a chunk of my book tokens on Jason Lutes’ Berlin and Simon Stålenhag’s Tales from the Loop.

Back through the wardrobe

Content warning: smugness, limited-availability swag.

Well, I’m not supposed to be acquiring new books till the end of March, “but for you I would make an exception.” 

E and I went to see Francis Spufford interview Andrew Miller at Daunt Books last night. During the Q&A, E stuck her hand up and asked Spufford if he could give an update on publication of The Stone Table

The what? Well, it all starts with a recent Tumblr post by Megan Whalen Turner in which she describes receiving a mystery package in the mail after her friend Francis Spufford asked if she’d like to see something he’d been working on:

Fun fact: N.W. Clark was also used as a pseudonym by a certain C.S. Lewis.

Anyway, E asked Spufford about The Stone Table, and he confirmed that at present he couldn’t say much about it, “but if you’d like to ask me afterwards, please come up and do so.”

Well, we weren’t going to take an invitation like that lying down, and we spoke to him for a couple of minutes about the, um, potential difficulties in getting the book published this side of the year 2033 (let the reader understand). Then, as we turned away, Spufford suddenly asked me, “Do you, by any chance, blog as John the Lutheran?”

When I confirmed I did, he opened his satchel, fished inside, and pulled out… this:

It turns out that Megan Whalen Turner had emailed Spufford to let him know about a couple of comments I’d left on her post:

As a result, he’d brought along a copy for us: number 39 out of 50 in the “second batch” he’s had privately printed. He even signed it for us. No pleading required!

For obvious copyright reasons I can’t post any more of the text than I have already, but I’ve shared the table of contents below just to tease/torture you all even more than I have already.

You’ll see that, for the second printing, Spufford has “come out” as the author of the book. I hope this is a sign that he’s making progress in overcoming those “copyright difficulties”, and that the book will see the light of day for everyone else sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, all I can do is say my astonished thanks to both Spufford and Turner, and apologise to the rest of you for the torment…

2018 books round-up

Time to blow the dust off this ol’ blog and post my annual round-up of books I’ve read during the past year. As in previous years (2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 | 2017), I’ve categorised them as fiction, non-fiction (excluding theology), theology, and “other” (mostly graphic novels and comic books). Asterisks indicate books I’ve read before, and my two favourite books in each category are highlighted in bold.

One difference is that, during the year, I decided I didn’t actually owe the world reviews of every book I read, so stopped posting these on Tumblr. So if you are especially curious to know what I thought of any book I’ve not singled out in this post, please ask me in the comments or on Twitter

Fiction

This year continued the trend, over several years, of reading increasing amounts of fiction. It’s hard to believe that as recently as 2013 I only read 11 novels (and described that as “a pretty good year by my standards”), and only 10 (or arguably 13) in 2014.

Science fiction and fantasy was one theme this year: among others, I read the entire Earthsea cycle by Ursula Le Guin, several Terry Pratchett Discworld books and the Ancillary Justice trilogy by Ann Leckie. Of the Earthsea books, I especially enjoyed The Tombs of Atuan: dark, sombre but also redemptive. Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things was an intriguing and enjoyable novel about a Christian evangelist sent to an alien world, whose inhabitants long to hear more about “the technique of Jesus” that they have learned from “the Book of strange New Things” (aka the Bible). More on Faber below.

A theme I’d set myself – and had partially set for me, through a gift for Christmas 2017 – was to read more postcolonial literature. Being a somewhat undisciplined reader, I didn’t make as much headway into this as I might, but books I enjoyed in this category included Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s evocative portrayal of rural and urban Kenya, Dust; the first volume of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, The Jewel in the Crown, which makes an interesting pairing with E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India; Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart; Brian Chikwava’s eye-opening account of life as an illegal immigrant in London, Harare North; and two great books by J.G. Farrell, Troubles (set in Ireland in 1921-22) and The Singapore Grip (set in Singapore shortly before the Japanese invasion in 1942). These last two completed my reading of Farrell’s “Empire Trilogy”, which I’d commenced a mere 30 years earlier with The Siege of Krishnapur. Like I said: undisciplined…

It was also a strong year for more general fiction. Toni Morrison’s The Song of Solomon deserves its status as a modern classic (and I’m told I should get round to reading Beloved this year). No, you were reduced to sobbing uncontrollably in an aeroplane toilet by Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name (look, you know what it’s like on long-distance flights: it’s airless, you’re tired, they keep handing you gin and tonics…). Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble with Goats and Sheep has been saddled with the “uplit” label but is more interesting (with its Girardian depiction of mob dynamics and its numinous closing chapters) than that makes it sound. Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo and Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall were also particular favourites. Michel Faber’s astonishing Victorian saga, The Crimson Petal and the White, narrowly misses out on a top-two slot.

However, when it comes to picking two favourites from the year, I’m going with The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt and Milkman by Anna Burns. I can’t describe The Last Samurai better than the Guardian review of its reissue last year: “bizarre, bold, brilliant … original both in content and form” – though I’d also add that it’s hilarious and moving in its portrayal of a woman struggling to raise her prodigy of a son, and then her son’s search for his father (or, failing that, a father). I bought the book after picking it up in a bookshop, idly flicking through a few pages and finding myself hooked. The account of the one-night stand in which Ludo is conceived (“the Drunken Medley”), and then Sibylla’s attempt to escape before daybreak by leaving a note (“I could not say thank you for a lovely evening because you can’t”), was one of my comic highlights of 2018. It’s one you have to read in print, incidentally: the typography is crucial, particularly in the first half.

Milkman, of course, won the Booker Prize this year, and had been a “controversial choice” due to its being regarded as “difficult”: mostly because neither the narrator nor any of the other characters is given a name. I was delighted to see that the public agrees with the Booker judges rather than the press, and the book has now sold over 300,000 copies (several times more than bought last year’s winner, Lincoln in the Bardo). Yes, you have to concentrate while you’re reading, but it’s worth it for its unique narrative voice, its depiction of a working-class Republican community in Belfast, its sense of claustrophobia and its humour. It’s also an easy book to recommend to people: just read the first page. If you’re not enjoying it by then, you never will; if you are enjoying it, I expect you’ll love the rest of the book. So give it a go!

Anyway, here’s the full list of fiction books read last year:

  • A Wizard of Earthsea* (Ursula Le Guin)
  • The Tombs of Atuan (Ursula Le Guin)
  • Silver on the Tree (Susan Cooper)
  • The Farthest Shore (Ursula Le Guin)
  • Tehanu (Ursula Le Guin)
  • Planet of Exile (Ursula Le Guin)
  • Dust (Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor)
  • The Jewel in the Crown (Paul Scott)
  • The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (Alan Garner)
  • Men at Arms (Terry Pratchett)
  • Call Me By Your Name (André Aciman)
  • Harare North (Brian Chikwava)
  • Troubles (J.G. Farrell)
  • The Last Samurai (Helen DeWitt)
  • The Trouble with Goats and Sheep (Joanna Cannon)
  • A Closed and Common Orbit (Becky Chambers)
  • Winter (Ali Smith)
  • Up at the Villa (W. Somerset Maugham)
  • Song of Solomon (Toni Morrison)
  • Ethan Frome (Edith Wharton)
  • A Passage to India (E.M. Forster)
  • My Name is Lucy Barton (Elizabeth Strout)
  • The Book of Strange New Things (Michel Faber)
  • Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie)
  • Thank You, Jeeves (P.G. Wodehouse)
  • The Crimson Petal and the White (Michel Faber)
  • Feet of Clay (Terry Pratchett)
  • The Seeing Stone (Kevin Crossley-Holland)
  • Ancillary Sword (Ann Leckie)
  • Lincoln in the Bardo (George Saunders)
  • Mort* (Terry Pratchett)
  • The 2020 Commission Report (Jeffrey Lewis)
  • Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe)
  • House of Cards (Michael Dobbs)
  • Ancillary Mercy (Ann Leckie)
  • Embers (Sandor Marai)
  • Persuasion (Jane Austen)
  • The Other Wind (Ursula Le Guin)
  • Milkman (Anna Burns)
  • Mortal Engines (Philip Reeve)
  • In This House of Brede (Rumer Godden)
  • Greenmantle (John Buchan)
  • The Singapore Grip (J.G. Farrell)
  • Lies Sleeping (Ben Aaronovitch)
  • Fox 8 (George Saunders)
  • Disobedience (Naomi Alderman)
  • Arthur at the Crossing Places (Kevin Crossley-Holland)
  • Ghost Wall (Sarah Moss)
  • The Word for World is Forest (Ursula Le Guin)
  • Something Fresh (P.G. Wodehouse)

Nonfiction

The usual mixed bag. Our eldest son’s application to study mathematics at university rekindled my own interest in maths: books in this category including Masha Gessen’s Perfect Rigour (the story of Grigori Perelman, the reclusive Russian mathematician who turned down a million-dollar prize for proving the Poincaré Conjecture), Eugenia Cheng’s charming mathematical memoir (and recipe book) How to Bake Pi and Edward Frenkel’s Love and Math.

A theme of both Gessen’s and Frenkel’s books was antisemitism in the Soviet Union. I’d known about this in vague terms, but hadn’t realised how all-pervading and sinister this was, right up to the collapse of the USSR. Both Perelman and Frenkel ran up against this from the very start of their mathematical educations and careers, denied the places they deserved at Moscow’s top mathematical university and then unable to pursue their postgraduate careers in a straightforward way. Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews shows how deep into history such prejudice goes, especially in his portrayal of the hideous anti-Jewish rhetoric found in the early church, and then the cruelty of persecution and expulsion in medieval England and Spain. (The book’s endpoint is 1492, not because that’s the year of Columbus’s voyage to America, but because that’s the year the Jews were expelled from Spain.)

Alex von Tunzelman’s Indian Summer is a highly readable account of the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, and of the intertwining personal relationships of those involved (Louis and Edwina Mountbatten, Nehru, Jinnah, Gandhi). John Preston’s A Very English Scandal is as entertaining as the BBC drama series based on it. I’d recommend Tony Connelly’s Brexit and Ireland, except we’ll all be living the dream this year anyway, alas.

I was uncertain whether to categorise Stuart Kelly’s The Minister and the Murderer as theology or as general nonfiction. Either way it only narrowly misses out on a top-two place. It’s an eccentric, self-absorbed but insightful book which intertwine’s Kelly’s own story of faith lost and refound with the story of James Nelson, who was ordained in the Church of Scotland in the 1980s having murdered his mother as a young man. Was Nelson genuinely penitent? What does the Bible have to say about murder generally and matricide in particular? What does it mean to speak of “forgiveness”?

My two top choices for nonfiction, though, are O Sing Unto the Lord by Andrew Gant and Ma’am Darling by Craig Brown. O Sing Unto the Lord is a fascinating account of English church music from the middle ages to modern times. Among the many things I learned from it: the popularity, which I’d never guessed at, of metrical psalms in the Church of England from the 16th to 18th centuries. Only in the 19th century did hymn-singing (and the use of “Anglican chant”) supplant the use of metrical psalms. The book will have you scurrying back to Spotify time and again to check out the forgotten classics of church music that Gant recommends along the way.

Ma’am Darling is Craig Brown’s not-quite-biography (“99 glimpses”) of Princess Margaret. Its subject is only partly Margaret herself: it’s as much a portrayal of a certain segment of mid-20th century British society where the old glamour of royalty and its upper-class (and would-be upper-class) hangers-on met the new glamour of celebrity: hairdressers! photographers! pop stars! – both of which combined to cause untold damage to the hapless “spare” princess at their intersection. No one could claim that Princess Margaret comes out of this book well, but she comes out looking better than most of the people around her.

  • The Diet Myth (Tim Spector)
  • Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction (Robert J.C. Young)
  • The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words (1000 BCE – 1492) (Simon Schama)
  • Are Your Lights On? (Gerald M. Weinberg, Donald C. Gause)
  • I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, James Baldwin)
  • What is Populism? (Jan-Werner Müller)
  • Perfect Rigour (Masha Gessen)
  • The Minister and the Murderer (Stuart Kelly)
  • O Sing Unto the Lord (Andrew Gant)
  • Geometry, Relativity and the Fourth Dimension (Rudolf von Bitter Rucker)
  • Modern Japan: A Very Short Introduction (Christopher Goto-Jones)
  • How Do We Look / The Eye of Faith (Mary Beard)
  • How to Bake Pi (Eugenia Cheng)
  • Indian Summer (Alex von Tunzelman)
  • The Indian Ideology (Perry Anderson)
  • Love and Math (Edward Frenkel)
  • Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret (Craig Brown)
  • A Very English Scandal (John Preston)
  • So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (Jon Ronson)
  • Kingdoms of Faith (Brian A. Catlos)
  • The U.S. Constitution: A Very Short Introduction (David J. Bodenhamer)
  • Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Jeanette Winterson)
  • Brexit & Ireland (Tony Connelly)
  • The Bowkers: A Moravian Family (Susan Stonehewer)
  • A Line in the Sand (James Barr)
  • The Isles: A History (Norman Davies)
  • Introducing Game Theory: A Graphic Guide (Ivan and Tuvana Pastine)

Theology

No particularly strong or clear themes this year, though last year’s reading of Alec Ryrie’s Protestants may be partly responsible for the resurgence in evangelical authors, including John Stott, N.T. Wright, J.I. Packer, J.C. Ryle and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Re-reading Mere Christianity and The Bible According to Peanuts took me back to the days of my return to faith at university, and Knowing God by J.I. Packer – a book no young evangelical’s bookshelves were complete without, back in the day – was a similar blast from the past.

“Books about the Bible” is an ongoing theme over the past couple of years, and I have enjoyed the “Discovering [x]: Content, Interpretation, Reception” format of what you might call meta-commentaries, providing an overview of how different books are read and interpreted. I read Ian Boxall’s volume on Matthew and Ruth Edwards’ on Luke this year, and have Anthony Twiselton’s Discovering Romans lined up for this year. Pheme Perkins’ Reading the New Testament: An Introduction was solid and helpful.

For this category, I’m singling out two books on the Bible: Reading the Bible with Martin Luther by Timothy Wengert and Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch by John Webster. Wengert argues that Luther provides a model for how to interpret the Bible in a way that avoids the errors of both fundamentalism and liberalism: in particular Luther’s emphasis on the question of “Was Christum treibet?”, “what drives Christ?”: a dynamic view of scripture, not as a static book of doctrines but as “God’s Word that kills and makes alive”.

Webster’s Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch has some similarities with Wengert’s, in particular the emphasis on God’s living Word in proclamation as being both prior to and founded upon the written Word of scripture. Webster argues that it is more useful to think of scripture as a “sanctified” word, a word whose use by God in our salvation does not override its humanness. “It is as – not despite – the creaturely realities that [these texts] are to serve God” (p.28). More conventional categories such as “authority” and “inspiration” need to be understood in that dynamic context rather than as static properties of the text. Similarly, to ask whether it is the church that created scripture or scripture the church is to miss the point: both church and scripture are products of the living Word as employed by the Holy Spirit.

  • Discovering Matthew: Content, Interpretation, Reception (Ian Boxall)
  • Naming the Powers (Walter Wink)
  • The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls (James VanderKam and Peter Flint)
  • Readings for Holy Week (Moravian Church)
  • The Radical Disciple (John Stott)
  • Lent for Everyone (N.T. Wright)
  • Paul: Fresh Perspectives (N.T. Wright)
  • Reading the Bible with Martin Luther (Timothy Wengert)
  • God, Sexuality and the Self (Sarah Coakley)
  • The Bible According to Peanuts* (Robert L. Short)
  • Spiritual Depression (Martyn Lloyd-Jones)
  • You Are What You Love (James K.A. Smith)
  • The Lord and His Prayer (Tom Wright)
  • The Catholic Faith (W.H. Griffith-Thomas)
  • On Being a Theologian of the Cross* (Gerhard Forde)
  • Discovering John: Content, Interpretation, Reception (Ruth B. Edwards)
  • Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (John Webster)
  • Echoes of Exodus (Alastair J. Robert and Andrew Wilson)
  • Searching for Sunday (Rachel Held Evans)
  • Who Wrote the Bible? (Richard Elliott Friedman)
  • Knowing God* (J.I. Packer)
  • Reading the New Testament: An Introduction (Pheme Perkins)
  • Mere Christianity* (C.S. Lewis)
  • Expository Thoughts on John’s Gospel* (J.C. Ryle)
  • Quakerism of the Future (John Yungblut)
  • Geneva Catechism (1545) (John Calvin)
  • Advent for Everyone: A Journey Through Lent (Tom Wright)
  • Moravian Daily Texts 2018 (Moravian Church)

Other

Only one book of poetry completed this year: Inside the Wave, Helen Dunmore’s final collection of poetry, published posthumously.

Comic books and graphic novels were similarly thin on the ground, though I continued working through the Saga series, and also enjoyed Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina (which was longlisted for the Booker Prize).

  • Inside the Wave (Helen Dunmore)
  • Saga: Volume 7* (Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples)
  • Saga: Volume 8 (Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples)
  • Sabrina (Nick Drnaso)
  • Saga: Volume 9 (Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples)

Looking ahead

For 2019, my most immediate plans are to get to grips with my backlog of books, by imposing a moratorium on acquiring new books during the first three months of 2019. Beyond that, I’m planning to continue reading more fiction and for my book buying to fall more closely into line with the reality that I now read mostly fiction rather than nonfiction.

More specifically, for Christmas my wife gave me a curated reading list of (mostly) fiction, which I hope to work through during the year. I’m currently reading The Warden, by Anthony Trollope, from this list. On the nonfiction and theology side of things, I have a few books lined up on St Paul’s letter to the Romans. I dare say though that, as in every other year, I’ll end up being drawn down all sorts of tempting byways…

2017 books round-up

Covers of favourite books from 2017: Protestants (Alec Ryrie), The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver), Albion's Seed (David Hackett Fischer), Always Coming Home (Ursula Le Guin), The Experience of Defeat (Christopher Hill), An Introduction to the Old Testament (Walter Brueggemann)

Time for my annual round-up of books I’ve read during the year. As in previous years (2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016), I’ve categorised them as fiction, non-fiction (excluding theology), theology, and “other” (mostly graphic novels and comic books). Asterisks indicate books I’ve read before, and my two favourite books in each category are highlighted in bold. Each title links to my review on Tumblr.

Fiction

It’s safe to say I’ve read more fiction this year than in any previous year of my life. Many, many highlights: A Perfect Spy by John Le Carré is a strong contender for his best book, I loved The Bell by Iris Murdoch and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. The Essex Serpent narrowly missed the cut for my top 2. Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow divides opinion, as does the sequel, Children of God, but I enjoyed both. Just one anti-recommendation: Conclave, by Robert Harris (whom I normally like) was dismaying tosh.

Another theme was reading to our ten-year old: Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy earlier in the year, followed by Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence.

Picking two favourites from such a list was not easy. I’d read A Handmaid’s Tale before, or that would easily have come out top (it’s among my favourite novels ever). Setting that aside, though, there was a clear winner for me: The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver’s enthralling epic about a Southern Baptist missionary family disintegrating in late colonial and early independent Congo. Alongside that, I’ll place Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home, a sprawling, non-linear anthropological study of a society that “might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California.”

Non-fiction

This is always something of a mixed bag, though a clearer focus this year on history and politics, including (as usual) some excellent Very Short Introductions. Tom Holland’s Millennium was up to his usual high standards, as was his short biography of Athelstan. I also greatly enjoyed Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity. I didn’t read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, because a reviewer recommended reading Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land instead. I have seen no cause to regret this decision.

In the end, though, there are two clear favourites for the year: Albion’s Seed, David Hackett Fischer’s magisterial account of the four British migrations whose “folkways”, Fischer argues, came to have a disproportionate influence on American culture; and Christopher Hill’s The Experience of Defeat, a thrilling account of how various radical groups (ranging from the Ranters to the Quakers) came to terms with the disappointments of the English Commonwealth and the even more thoroughgoing reversal of the Restoration.

As we’ll see, these books also had a significant influence on my theological reading this year.

Theology

One of my aims this year (well, starting from September 2016) was to read more books about the Bible. For various reasons this seems to have fizzled out a little in the second half of the year, but not before I’d appreciated Walter Brueggemann’s An Introduction to the Old Testament: one of my two picks for the year from this category. Either of the Gerhard Forde books I read could have been contenders, too.

In the second half of the year, I read several books on some of the “minority reports” of the Reformation and post-Reformation Protestantism, in particular the Quakers and the Moravians. This area of interest was spurred, among other things, by my two favourite nonfiction books of the year, Albion’s Seed and The Experience of Defeat. In both of these, the Quakers feature prominently, and The Experience of Defeat also takes in the other Protestant sects that emerged in England during the 1640s and 1650s.

The other major influence in this area was my other pick from this category: Protestants, by Alec Ryrie. This superb book – my single favourite nonfiction book of the year – might perhaps sit more comfortably under the general nonfiction category, but I included it under theology because a large part of the impact it had on me was in Ryrie’s description of the “love affair” that lies at the heart of Protestantism. As I said in my review at the time, the picture Ryrie paints is of a dysfunctional family, but its unquestionably my family: and Ryrie has made me feel more at home in it than for a long time.

Other

Otherwise known as the “poetry and comic books” section. I managed to read more poetry than in previous years, mostly thanks to resolving to read a poem each day before bed – a resolution that survived reasonably well until I got rather bogged down in a volume of Rilke. I’ll attempt a reboot in 2018.

The Scott Pilgrim series is sweet: much better than the film (which I also enjoyed). I felt that the Saga series is either losing its way a little, or I’m losing my interest in it. I’ll see if I can pick up Volume Eight once it’s in the library.

Ian Martin’s Epic Space is neither a comic book nor poetry. What it is a hilarious satire on modern architecture. Plus, my name’s in the back. 🙂

Running the numbers

In total, I read 112 books this year, an increase from 89 in 2016. The breakdown by category can be seen here, showing the dominance of fiction:

chart (2)

I used the library less this year, with most of the books being my own physical or electronic copy:

chart (1)

Looking ahead

My reading plans for 2018 include:

I also have some interesting books on early Jewish history lined up: I’m currently reading Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews, and have a couple of books on the intertestamental period and the Dead Sea Scrolls on the shelves. I also hope to pick up Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion once I’ve made some room for it.

Let’s see how things work out in practice…

Book review: Shakespeare and the Psalms Mystery

shakespeare

Are cartoons too violent for children? Most people would say “No, of course not, what kind of stupid question is that?” but one woman says yes, and she’s here with us tonight…

— Kent Brockman, The Simpsons: Itchy & Scratchy & Marge

Did Shakespeare write Psalm 46 in the Authorised Version of the Bible, and did he signal this to future generations by concealing his name within the text? Most people would say “No, of course not…”, but it has proved to be a surprisingly persistent myth in some corners of evangelical Christianity.

Jem Bloomfield’s new book, Shakespeare and the Psalms Mystery, takes a look at this myth. Jem is very clear that the myth is (almost certainly) Not True, but he argues that it provides an insight into how English-speaking people have engaged with both Shakespeare and the Bible over the past four centuries.

Jem begins by describing the myth itself. The story is told that, when you look at Psalm 46 in the Authorised Version (a.k.a. the King James Version), the 46th word from the beginning is “shake”, and 46th word from the end is “spear”. What’s more, Shakespeare was 46 in the year when the Authorised Version was being prepared (1610). Depending on which version of the myth you read, this was either the result of Shakespeare himself concealing his name in “his” translation of the psalm, or planted by admirers working on the text as part of the committee of scholars commissioned by King James to produce the new version.

Jem sets out a combination of historical and literary reasons why neither story is at likely to be true: for example, it is unthinkable that a conservative and scholarly project such as the Authorised Version would have involved a disreputable playwright in its activities, or had any members who desired to demonstrate their admiration for such a figure. What’s more, the words “shake” and “spear”, far from being novelties introduced in the new Bible, had already been used in the previous translations on which the Authorised Version was based.

As Jem observes towards the end of the book, it is quite difficult to refute the Psalm 46 myth, because there is literally no evidence for it and hence very little with which to engage in any refutation. Hence the myth itself is of less interest than the very fact of its existence, and it is this with which Jem’s book is mostly concerned. As he writes in his introduction:

The Psalm 46 rumour had always interested me, partly because it was so bizarre, and I enjoyed tracing the various ways in which it could have possibly been true, and marshalling the evidence to prove it was not. The story branched off into questions about the translation of the King James Bible, the theatre industry of Shakespeare’s time, the religious politics of England under James I, the way Early Modern books were printed, and attitudes to the Bible. Though I did not think the story was true, proving it untrue opened up much more interesting issues.

In the opening chapter, Jem contrasts the attitudes towards the theatre in early modern England and our own time. Today, the theatre – especially Shakespeare – is regarded as one of the pinnacles of high culture, to be mentioned in the same breath (and funded out of the same pot) as classical music, opera and art galleries. In Shakespeare’s time, theatre was a branch of popular entertainment, competing for people’s attention with bear-baiting and public executions. Today, the theatre is seen as “good for you”, a respectable activity to which schoolchildren are dragged in the name of educational improvement. Then, church ministers inveighed against the corrupting influence of plays and theatres: indeed, leading members of the Authorised Version’s translation committee had been especially vocal in their attacks on the theatre.

In short, “it is a very modern perspective to look back and see the King James Bible and the works of Shakespeare towering over the early 17th century as the two books that mattered”: no one at the time would have seen it that way.

Moving on, Jem looks at how poets of the time did engage with the biblical texts, from Sternhold & Hopkins’ metrical psalter for congregational singing, to the rather more accomplished paraphrases by Lady Mary Sidney. (Having these texts quoted at length is one of the particular pleasures of this book.) Jem’s point is that, had Shakespeare wished to involve himself in translating the psalms, he had more attractive options available to him than tweaking a word here or there in the rather less obviously “poetic” translation of the King James Bible.

So how did such an unlikely myth emerge? Jem traces its origins to the growing cultural status of both Shakespeare and the Authorised Version during the 18th and (especially) 19th centuries. As Shakespeare came to be regarded as a giant of literature – often in terms so enthusiastic as to “sound satirical to modern ears” – and as the Authorised Version established itself as a foundational text of English-speaking culture, so it became increasingly difficult for people to believe that these two monuments could have developed at the same time without any connection between them.

The myth has most recently been repeated in a 2014 Bible commentary published by Eerdmans in the US, where it is described as a “wonderful legendary story.” Thus the commentary, while remaining agnostic as to the truth of the myth, employs it as a sort of “sermon anecdote” to corroborate the literary worth of the Bible: the very existence of this legend shows that the Bible is a serious work of literature, worthy of consideration alongside an undisputed giant such as Shakespeare. This emphasis on the literary value of the Bible has been one strategy employed by evangelicals over the past century in order to demonstrate the Bible’s continuing worth in the face of scholarly assaults upon its literal reliability.

Jem concludes his book as follows:

[T]he Psalm 46 legend fails to do justice both to the texts of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, and to the astonishing histories of which they are a part. The political, social, religious and literary worlds which gather around these books are far more puzzling, dramatic and absorbing than this little conspiracy theory claims. It claims to tell a secret, but points us away from the heart of the mystery.

If I have one criticism of this book, it’s that the Psalm 46 myth is so slender a thing that to devote so much time to its refutation can seem almost cruel. However, this is more than outweighed by Jem’s unravelling of the “political, social, religious and literary” threads which surround the myth – and which are indeed “puzzling, dramatic and absorbing.”

The book is well worth the asking price of £8.99 paperback or £3.99 Kindle – and it’s a positive no-brainer if you have a Kindle Unlimited subscription.

Note: Jem provided me with a pre-publication PDF review copy of this book, but I ended up buying my own copy of the Kindle edition anyway. 

Book review: A More Radical Gospel, by Gerhard O. Forde

Forde_More-Radical-Gospel_LQB_WEB

I’ve just finished reading A More Radical Gospel, a collection of essays and lectures by Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde (1927–2005).

The essays set out elements of Forde’s vision of “radical Lutheranism”: that is, a Lutheranism that centres its ministry and identity on the proclamation of the gospel as unconditional promise, while sitting relatively lightly to historic Lutheran doctrinal formulations such as the Formula of Concord. Appropriately, the book ends with a set of sermons, allowing Forde to conclude with the direct proclamation of the gospel that is such a critical concept in his theology.

Forde is a stimulating thinker and writer, and I found these essays thought-provoking, often exciting, and (mostly) spiritually energising. What I find most helpful in Forde: his emphasis on the gospel as a first-to-second-person proclamation (“I absolve you”, “I baptise you”); what Forde calls “primary discourse” (“speaking for God”), as contrasted with the “secondary discourse” (“speaking about God”) of systematic theology, exegesis, and so on. This comes through particularly strongly in his sections on eschatology, authority and ecumenism.

Criticisms? The biggest is that I really can’t get my head round his theology of the atonement. As I understand it, Forde argues that it’s not that Jesus died to satisfy God’s justice, demonstrate God’s love or win a victory over evil. Rather, God wanted to forgive humanity unconditionally, we didn’t want it, and so we killed Jesus to keep intact our conditional, law-based approach; only for God then to vindicate Jesus by raising him from the dead.

I like Forde’s emphasis on the “brute facts” of the crucifixion, of reaching an understanding of what the cross means “from below” before we go on to ask what it means “from above”. However, I don’t think he even does justice to the event considered “from below” – do the Gospels really present Jesus’ death simply as a refusal by his hearers to accept unconditional forgiveness? – which makes Forde’s argument about its meaning “from above” feel unconvincing. In the end, one is left wondering how necessary or central the cross is to the gospel, if understood in Forde’s terms. It also seems to leave a lot of biblical data unaccounted for.

To end on a more positive (though still controversial note), I liked Forde’s approach to ecumenism: above all his emphasis on the church’s identity (and hence its true, albeit hidden unity) being found in the activity of the proclamation of the gospel and administration of the sacraments as gospel; an activity which is not confined to any one denomination or tradition. This involves setting aside a confessional Lutheran insistence on full doctrinal agreement as a precondition for altar fellowship (which I know some reading this will disagree with strongly); but it also allows for a distinctly Lutheran approach to ecumenical dialogue, rather than seeking bland compromise formulas in which “every cat is grey”.

After the fold, I’ve posted the brief summary notes I wrote on each essay to aid my own recollection. They may not make much sense without the full text, but hopefully they will whet your appetite to check out more of what Forde is saying in these essays. You can also get a flavour from the quotations I’ve posted on my Tumblr.


Eschatology: The Last Word First 

  • Radical Lutheranism: Lutheranism should find its identity in the religious landscape by doubling down in proclaiming the gospel in all its radical unconditionality, a proclamation that takes seriously both justification by faith and the bondage of the will. Not that these will always be the content of our preaching, but that they inform and undergird the unconditional proclamation of forgiveness in Christ.
  • The Apocalyptic No and the Eschatological Yes: grace as an eschatological breaking-in of the new, not an ontological infusing of power into an old being.
  • Lex semper accusat? The Reformation perspective – that the law always accuses, and that the gospel is the end of the law – paradoxically frees us up to have a positive view of the law in the civil/political/ethical sphere, not as an end in itself, but as a tool to assist us in taking care of this world.

Legal and Evangelical Authority

  • Authority in the Church: The Lutheran Reformation: “The preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ is the highest exercise of authority in the church”; “scripture interprets itself” means that the Word acts upon us rather than sitting as a passive object of our subjective interpretation.
  • Scriptura sacra sui ipsius interpres: Reflections on the Question of Scripture and Tradition: Sola scriptura can only be understood properly in the light of the sui ipsius interpres, that the Word acts on the hearer rather than vice versa. Only this can resolve the dilemma between the supposed need for an infallible interpreter on the one hand, and individualistic subjectivism on the other.
  • The Irrelevance of the Modern World for Luther: Never mind what the modern world should make of Luther: what would Luther make of the modern world? He’d decry its lack of distinction between human judgment and divine judgment, reducing everything to the former and ignoring the latter; and its superficiality as regards sin, death and the devil.

Atonement and Justification: Christ Unbound

  • Caught in the Act: Reflections on the Work of Christ: Why is the death of Jesus necessary? Understanding Jesus’ death “from below”: he was killed for proclaiming an unconditional forgiveness and mercy that we do not want (“…and you would not,” Matthew 23:37). Understanding it “from above”: God cannot have mercy on us “in the abstract”. Christ’s death satisfies God’s desire to have mercy on whom he will have mercy, because it creates believers, and thus “actualizes the will of God to have mercy unconditionally in the concrete.” [I found this Forde’s argument in this essay quite hard to follow, tbh]
  • Loser Takes All: The Victory of Christ: We want to turn the story of Jesus and his cross into the story of a “winner”; but the story of Jesus is the story of someone determining to follow the path of being a loser in a world of winners. The resurrection is not God snatching victory from defeat, but his vindication of Jesus’ following the loser’s path.
  • In Our Place: Forde engages with a feminist critique which accuses all theories of atonement as valorising suffering (“divine child abuse paraded as salvific”); he agrees with some aspects of the critique, but emphasises that any understanding of the cross in terms of its moral purpose is mistaken, and leads to an “us vs them” mentality (“had we been there, it would all have come out differently”). Rather, Christ’s death is a “happy exchange”: he takes our place and gives us his.
  • Forensic Justification and the Christian Life: Triumph or Tragedy?: We don’t progress morally in the Christian life, our lives approximating more and more closely to the righteousness imputed to us in Christ; rather, imputation is an eschatological breaking-in of the new world, and this attack on sin from without is then worked out more and more fully in our lives.
  • Luther’s “Ethics”: stop thinking ad modum Aristotelis (“in the manner of Aristotle,” in which the fundamental human story is one of ethical development aided by grace), start thinking ad modum scripturae (“in the manner of scripture,” in which grace alone determines our relationship with God): “good works do not make a good person, but a good person does good works.”

Unecclesiological Ecumenism 

  • The Meaning of Satis Est: Article 7 of the Augsburg Confession is not a “counsel of despair”, an attempt to patch together a minimal definition of unity in a splintering church. It’s a redefinition of the church in a manner consonant with justification by faith. Hence the church is defined by its activities of preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments, not by any human rites, ceremonies, institutions or offices; and hence its unity is an invisible object of faith, not a visible institutional or ceremonial unity.
  • Lutheran Ecumenism: With Whom and How Much? Ecumenism, for Lutherans, should not be a matter of “political correctness” or “ecclesial correctness”, but of confessional integrity: contributing our distinct understanding of the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments, rather than either working to concoct bland compromise statements in which “every cat is grey” and for the sake of which legitimate theological questions and concerns get steamrollered in the name of “repressive tolerance”. Let’s recognise one another as Christians and as churches on the basis of preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments, and then discuss our theological differences.
  • The Catholic Impasse: Reflections on Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue Today: Lutherans and Catholics need to stop papering over the cracks in ecumenical discussion and acknowledge that fundamental differences remain between them. Postliberal Lutheran theology rejects both ecclesiastical infallibilism and biblical infallibilism in place of the living, present-tense gospel declaration. This is what roots it in catholic tradition, since the paradigmatic expressions of that proclamation are the concrete, catholic practices of preaching, absolution and the sacraments; Lutherans are not (contrary to widespread Catholic belief) “subjectivists” preaching an unmediated gospel.