Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Books (Page 1 of 6)

Book review: Pauline Dogmatics by Douglas A. Campbell

Today I have the pleasure of sharing some thoughts about the latest (big) book from Pauline scholar Douglas Campbell, titled Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love. Campbell is a professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School (North Carolina, USA) and is well known for having already published a number of popular and scholarly works on Paul, including a highly accessible account of Paul’s life and theological development, Paul: An Apostle’s Journey, and a groundbreaking (and massive) scholarly treatment, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul.

Given that Pauline Dogmatics weighs in at over 700 pages, it would be impossible in the scope of a single short review to do anything more than briefly skim over its surface and offer a few high-level observations – so that’s what I’ll attempt to do.

What is Pauline Dogmatics all about? Put simply, it is Campbell’s attempt to construct a full-orbed theology of Paul built on Paul’s writings as they come to us in the New Testament. Campbell himself describes it as his “basic account of Paul’s deepest and most important theological convictions, their ideal coordination, and the further steps we need to take to bring those convictions into a constructive conversation with our modern locations” (p. 1). It’s not uncommon for preachers and others with an interest in biblical application to rummage about in Paul’s writings in an attempt to work out what his position was on this or that theological issue (justification, the role of men and women in society and the church, eschatology, etc.). The problem with that kind of approach is that it’s all too easy to end up with a grab-bag of disconnected bits and pieces of theology that are more likely to be shaped by the reader’s own biases than by whatever underlying framework Paul’s writings were grounded in. The mission Campbell sets himself here – and it’s an ambitious one – is to recover and reconstruct that underlying framework so that each and every piece of Paul’s theology can be seen in proper perspective as a component of a coherent overarching theology and worldview.

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Book review: That All Shall Be Saved by David Bentley Hart

In the years-long process of reconfiguring my theology from rigid, evangelical dogmatism to something much richer, deeper, truer and more life-giving, one of the last changes I publicly acknowledged was the abandonment of the idea of a hell of eternal torment. (The piece I wrote when I finally, publicly let go of that abhorrent notion is here.) If I left it late to publicly nail my colours to the mast on the question of hell, it was partly because I hadn’t spent much time and effort digging into the topic, and partly because the existence of a hellish alternative to paradise is such a foundational component of evangelical dogma that I was wary of the backlash such a public disavowal might provoke. (In the event, it didn’t provoke much of a backlash at all – probably because anyone who might have called for my burning at the stake either simply didn’t notice or had already written me off as a heretic long before.)

I say all of that to say this: had David Bentley Hart’s new book That All Shall Be Saved been available for me to read a decade or so ago, I would probably have dispensed with the abhorrent notion of a hell of eternal torment much sooner than I did – and, having read the book, I would have been able to do so with a fair amount of confidence.

For those not familiar with David Bentley Hart, he is an Eastern Orthodox scholar of religion and a prolific writer, philosopher and cultural commentator. The “Eastern Orthodox” part of those credentials is important, because it means Hart’s theology and philosophy is rooted in the thought and writings of the Church Fathers, relatively untainted by later layers of (mis)interpretation and obfuscation.

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Book review: A More Christlike Way by Brad Jersak

I’ve been dabbling in amateur theology for a few years now. One of the main reasons I find theology a worthwhile pursuit – beyond the pure intellectual joy of contemplating and wrestling with some of life’s biggest questions – is that our theology inescapably affects how we inhabit and move through the world. Our actions mostly flow out of our attitudes, which in turn are strongly influenced by what we believe about ultimate reality – which, after all, is what theology is all about.

My own theological journey has been one of significant change over the past decade or so. My perspective on key issues like the character of God, the nature of Jesus, the atonement, forgiveness, sin, salvation, and so on is very different now from what it was not so long ago. And I’m not alone: largely through the magic of the internet, I’m fortunate to have gained a great many friends who’ve been on or are still on similar journeys. Perhaps now more than ever before, people all over the world are challenging stale orthodoxies and discovering healthier, more life-giving ways to think about God and faith.

However, remodelling your long-held beliefs is not for the faint of heart: when seeming certainties you’ve been taking for granted for decades are suddenly thrown open to question, it can be a challenging and sometimes bewildering process. Adding to the difficulty, those in the midst of theological reorientation can often find themselves feeling quite isolated as the people with whom they’ve shared their faith experience thus far prove unable (and/or unwilling) to provide answers to their questions or even to sympathise with their plight.

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Book review: Postcards from Babylon by Brian Zahnd

America is an empire, which means the biblical forebear with which it should rightly be most closely associated is not Israel but Babylon. Such is the contention of Missouri-based pastor and author Brian Zahnd in his most recent book Postcards from Babylon: The Church in American Exile, released January 2019.

The parallel between the modern day United States of America and biblical Babylon, that great whore and arch-enemy of Christ, is one that is rarely drawn. Understandably, the average freedom-loving American patriot might initially balk at it. But such is the force and clarity of Brian’s prophetic message and writing that the parallel, once seen, is hard to ignore and even harder to dispute.

All of Brian’s books (see here, here and here) have a prophetic edge, but none so sharp as in Postcards. Now, I realise “prophetic” is one of those words that is sometimes all too easily assigned to a message or book to give it a certain aura of authority and relevance; be assured I do not use it in such glib fashion here. If the hallmarks of prophecy include proclaiming inconvenient truths, urging faithfulness in an age of compromise and holding the church to account, then Postcards is more prophetic a work than most. The great Walter Brueggemann – he of The Prophetic Imagination fame – thinks so too, writing in the foreword:

The more I learn of Zahnd’s work, the more I have deep respect and appreciation for his truth-telling. This book is a reprimand and an invitation to his fellow evangelicals about how the way has been lost and what it will mean to ‘come home,’ because it is a gift to come down where we ought to be! Beyond his immediate circle, however, Zahnd addresses all of us, because all of us in the Christian community in the U.S. are too readily narcotized by the mantras of Caesar, Constantine, and their continuing heirs.

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Book review: God Can’t by Thomas Jay Oord

A few years ago, I started to become passionately interested in theology. One of the main reasons for this interest had to do with my own evolving journey of faith. Specifically, I came to a point in my journey where I realised I had long held onto beliefs that, in the cold light of day, simply didn’t stack up. By that I don’t just mean I believed things that were unlikely, such as, for example, the resurrection of Jesus; the Christian faith has always, at its core, been about things that seem unlikely from the lowly perspective of homo sapiens. Rather, I mean I had believed things that were internally contradictory; specifically, I had believed ideas that were in conflict with some of the core tenets of the faith. The most obvious example is the idea that a God who is love and light, and in whom there is no darkness at all (see 1 John 1:5), had insisted on the cruel execution of his spotlessly innocent Son as the only acceptable price that must be paid to enable the rest of us sinners to escape eternal torture. Put like that, it sounds perfectly barmy; yet I’d glibly and unthinkingly accepted and believed it for years, as countless other Christians continue to do.

The key word in that last sentence is unthinkingly: as adherents to a religious faith, it’s all too easy for us to accept without question whatever doctrine happens to be handed to us, when even the most basic critical assessment would easily reveal glaring contradictions and inconsistencies. That’s why I’m convinced two of the key characteristics of good theological thinking are clarity and consistency: good theology should compel us to think clearly about what we believe and why we believe it; and good theology should be internally consistent, not requiring us to believe things that are glaringly at odds with each other. From this perspective, Thomas Jay Oord’s new book God Can’t is an example of excellent theological thinking, encouraging us to wrestle with questions that are often left on the “too difficult” pile, and urging us not to settle for pat and ultimately unsatisfying answers.

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Book review: Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God by Brian Zahnd

Today I have the privilege of posting some brief thoughts on the latest new book from Brian Zahnd, titled Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, published by WaterBrook and released on 15 August.

Those who have followed my blog or my Facebook posts for any length of time will be no stranger to Zahnd. A veteran pastor of 35 years’ standing, in recent years he has become a prolific and increasingly important voice for those who tire of dogmatic fundamentalism and its ugly implications, but who are unwilling to simply throw in the towel and walk away from the faith altogether. As a result, Zahnd is at the forefront of a rising tide of prophetic voices whose mission is to help Christians and non-Christians alike rediscover – in the words of the book’s subtitle – “The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News”. (I have previously reviewed two other books by Zahnd: A Farewell To Mars and Water to Wine).

In a way, Sinners bears some similarity with Zahnd’s previous book Water to Wine: Some of my Story, in that it starts with what he once believed as a zealous young Jesus freak and tracks his theological trajectory from there towards a much broader, deeper and more beautiful faith. The key difference, though, is that where Water to Wine was essentially a biographical narrative that served as a framework for Zahnd’s theological growth, Sinners is unashamedly a work of theology – by which I mean that its focus is theological, not biographical, and it is structured into broad theological topics, including some “hot potatoes”.

A quick word about the book’s title, whose resonance may escape those less familiar with the history of American evangelicalism. In 1741, revivalist preacher Jonathan Edwards preached what would become his most famous sermon, titled Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, in which he expounded, often in lurid terms,  on fallen man’s utter depravity and God’s deserved utter contempt for humankind. The sermon went on to become a Puritan classic, and was without doubt foundational and extremely influential in later American revivalism and evangelicalism more broadly. (For a flavour of Edwards’s sermon, read Zahnd’s book: he quotes a sample of excerpts from it in the first chapter.)

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Book review: The Uncontrolling Love of God by Thomas Jay Oord

If God is good and loving, why do evil and suffering exist in the world? This question, often referred to as the problem of theodicy, is one of the thorniest issues theologians have had to wrestle with through the ages. And in our twenty-first century world, where stark visual images of all manner of suffering and strife are streamed into our living rooms daily, it is no less important – and no less challenging – a question than it ever has been.

Far from being the preserve of specialists, theodicy is – or at least should be – of genuine concern to the ordinary Christian. Self-described theologian, philosopher and multidisciplinary scholar Thomas Jay Oord introduces the problem thus:

“To a greater or lesser degree, we all want to make sense of life. Yet doing so proves difficult, even for those of us who believe in God. Although we witness beauty, purpose and goodness all around, we also witness random accidents, pain and evil. Simplistic answers to life’s difficult questions […] leave many of us unsatisfied. We need better answers. Believers want to reconcile randomness and evil with the idea that God acts providentially.” (15)

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