Stephen Lawhead’s In the Region of the Summer Stars (Eirlandia, Book 1)

51mmZL0BtgL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve been reading the works of fantasy writer Stephen Lawhead for a number of years. He is a writer who is a Christian (as opposed to a “Christian writer”—a distinction made by C.S. Lewis if I recall), and one that I appreciate greatly. His novel Byzantium remains my favorite of his and one of my favorite of all time. I cannot recommend it highly enough. I personally also truly appreciated the Song of Albion trilogy and the Celtic Crusade trilogy. Again, I am a fan, though I always come away feeling that Lawhead is a good writer but not a great writer. He has great moments, to be sure, and that is why I keep coming back to his work. Also, his historical research and grasp of Celtic and Arthurian lore is evident and skillfully employed in his work.

In In the Region of the Summer Stars Lawhead has given us another solid offering. This is the beginning of a new series, the Eirlandia series. It is focused largely on a young warrior, Conor mac Arden, who is banished from his clan on trumped-up charges and who begins to suspect that Lord Brecan, King of the Brigantes, and the most powerful King in Eirlandia, is involved in a secret alliance with the hated Scalda who occupy the southern realm. Conor, soon joined by two of his warrior comrades who seek him out and believe him to be innocent, clashes with the Scalda, helps free and then befriends some of the faery people—who are being taken hostage by the Scalda who want access to their magic and power—then infiltrates Brecan’s warrior band to see what he can discover.

The first 2/3rds of the book, while interesting and well-written, drags a bit, though it does set the stage well for what is to come. In the last quarter of the book the pace quickens with some truly impressive and exciting descriptions of fighting and action sequences. Furthermore, the story becomes more nuanced and clear. I finished the book with greater anticipation for the second book in the series than I had in the first half of the book (though I hasten to add the first half was interesting as well). Stick with it. It is worth it.

As for the writing, it is vintage Lawhead. It has an epic feel to it and the terminology roots the reader effectively in the realm of druids and warriors and faeries. There are thrones and halls and bowls of ale and torcs and siarcs and swords and horses. If you like that whole scene, you’ll like this! And I’m a sucker for stories like this.

I’m excited to start book 2. This looks to be a promising series. Check it out!

 

Genesis 33

genesis-title-1-Wide 16x9

Genesis 33

1 And Jacob lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, Esau was coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two female servants. And he put the servants with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. He himself went on before them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother. But Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. And when Esau lifted up his eyes and saw the women and children, he said, “Who are these with you?” Jacob said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.” Then the servants drew near, they and their children, and bowed down. Leah likewise and her children drew near and bowed down. And last Joseph and Rachel drew near, and they bowed down. Esau said, “What do you mean by all this company that I met?” Jacob answered, “To find favor in the sight of my lord.” But Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.” 10 Jacob said, “No, please, if I have found favor in your sight, then accept my present from my hand. For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me. 11 Please accept my blessing that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough.” Thus he urged him, and he took it. 12 Then Esau said, “Let us journey on our way, and I will go ahead of you.”13 But Jacob said to him, “My lord knows that the children are frail, and that the nursing flocks and herds are a care to me. If they are driven hard for one day, all the flocks will die. 14 Let my lord pass on ahead of his servant, and I will lead on slowly, at the pace of the livestock that are ahead of me and at the pace of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir.” 15 So Esau said, “Let me leave with you some of the people who are with me.” But he said, “What need is there? Let me find favor in the sight of my lord.” 16 So Esau returned that day on his way to Seir. 17 But Jacob journeyed to Succoth, and built himself a house and made booths for his livestock. Therefore the name of the place is called Succoth. 18 And Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, on his way from Paddan-aram, and he camped before the city. 19 And from the sons of Hamor, Shechem’s father, he bought for a hundred pieces of money the piece of land on which he had pitched his tent. 20 There he erected an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel.

In all of life there are few things more beautiful, more touching, and more powerful than genuine reconciliation between aggrieved parties. Psalm 133 captures it so memorably when it says:

1 Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes! It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.

God is in reconciliation. God is in the reconciliation business. Jesus comes for precisely this reason. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. When it comes to human reconciliation, it is hard to imagine a sweeter picture than the one we find in Genesis 33: the reconciliation of Jacob and Esau.

Continue reading

Matthew 8:23-27

the_gospel_of_matthew-title-1-Wide 16x9 copy 2

Matthew 8

23 And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. 24 And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. 25 And they went and woke him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” 26 And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. 27 And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?”

In 2012 Pepsi Max introduced a commercial that would become a phenomenon and pave the way for a series of commercials then, eventually, a movie. I am talking about the Uncle Drew commercials. In the first commercial, NBA star Kyrie Irving had a professional makeup artist transform him into Uncle Drew, an old man in a grey sweatshirt. He starts playing in a pickup basketball game of young men who are obviously amused by the old man who cannot quite keep up.

Then something happened. Kyrie Irving, still dressed as Uncle Drew, begins to be Kyrie Irving. He talks trash. He hits three pointers. He puts on a stunning dribbling exhibition. He dunks the ball! All the while, the crowd, who was amused earlier, moves from being confused to being impressed to being downright amazed![1]

You can tell what questions they are asking simply by the expression on their faces: Who is this guy?!

It is a brilliant and entertaining concept: a superstar concealed in the guise of a regular old man who decides to give a glimpse of his true skills to the sheer, stunned amazement of the onlookers.

I thought of Uncle Drew while reading Matthew 8:23-27. Here, Jesus, who looked so very ordinary, revealed that there was much more underneath. He gave the disciples a glimpse of His true power which opened the door for amazed questions about His true identity. “What sort of man is this?” the disciples asked when they saw His true abilities.

Let us consider Jesus rebuking the Sea of Galilee. And let us consider in particular how Jesus’ actions in this scene reveal Him as one who is distinct from the rest of humanity.

Continue reading

Genesis 32:13-32

genesis-title-1-Wide 16x9

Genesis 32

13 So he stayed there that night, and from what he had with him he took a present for his brother Esau, 14 two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, 15 thirty milking camels and their calves, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. 16 These he handed over to his servants, every drove by itself, and said to his servants, “Pass on ahead of me and put a space between drove and drove.” 17 He instructed the first, “When Esau my brother meets you and asks you, ‘To whom do you belong? Where are you going? And whose are these ahead of you?’ 18 then you shall say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a present sent to my lord Esau. And moreover, he is behind us.’” 19 He likewise instructed the second and the third and all who followed the droves, “You shall say the same thing to Esau when you find him, 20 and you shall say, ‘Moreover, your servant Jacob is behind us.’” For he thought, “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will accept me.” 21 So the present passed on ahead of him, and he himself stayed that night in the camp. 22 The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and eveything else that he had. 24 And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh.

The late B.H. Carroll told a story about being inspired by the tenacious persistence and determination of the Greeks in the Battle of Marathon.

You have heard me state before, and I will restate it now, how that idea of persistence got hold of me when I was four years old. I slept with my eldest brother and he taught me history lessons in child stories. One night he told me the history of the Battle of Marathon, where one hundred thousand Persians were assailed by ten thousand Greeks under Miltiades; how the Greeks broke the ranks of the Persians, and followed them into the sea; how the Persians got into their boats, and the Greeks grabbed the boats with their hands until the Persians cut their hands off; and then how they caught hold with their teeth until the Persians cut their heads off. And when my brother got that far, I jumped up in the bed and yelled out, “Hurrah for the Greeks!” until I woke up the whole house.[1]

Well! That is probably a bit much for a bedtime story for a four-year-old, but apparently it did make an impression. The Greeks simply refused to let the Persians go. They clung to their boats with their hands, then with their teeth, then…well…then they let go.

People love stories about fierce, stubborn, dogged determination against all odds: a refusal to quit, an adamant refusal to let go, an unwilting desire to accomplish some great goal. But of course, this kind of behavior can be for noble or ignoble means. The Greeks showed this when they refused to let the Persians go. But lots of people today demonstrate this kind of tenacity when it comes to pursuing wealth or fame or comfort. However, in Genesis 32, Jacob showed this kind of unrelenting determination with God! He refused to let go of God until God blessed Him!

If the stubborn determination of the Greeks caused little four-year-old B.H. Carroll to hop up and yell, this should inspire us infinitely more. Let us consider what it looks like to take hold of God and refuse to let go.

Continue reading

Matthew 8:18-22

the_gospel_of_matthew-title-1-Wide 16x9 copy 2

Matthew 8

18 Now when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. 19 And a scribe came up and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” 20 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 21 Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 22 And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.”

Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola have written about a sobering lesson and challenge to the church.

A few years ago a Christian group visited the Soviet Union before the fall of the Berlin wall.  When the guide who was showing the Christians around Leningrad came to a statue of Lenin, the guide paused and said reflectively, “You Christians have a great message, but we Communists will win the world.  Christ means something to you.  Communism means everything to us.”[1]

I wonder if that is so: Christ means something to us whereas other causes mean everything to their adherents. One is hesitant to generalize, but I will say this: that has certainly been true in my life at times and it would appear to be true of the church at large in the United States in certain ways as well.

It is a scandal.

Jesus calls us not to a fickle appreciation but to radical discipleship, to reckless abandon in our following of Jesus. “When Christ calls a man,” Bonhoeffer famously said, “he bids him come and die.” True. But He bids us come to die so that we might live, resurrected and transformed, in Him. This is made abundantly clear in the startling verses of Matthew 8:18-22.

Continue reading

An interesting observation in Adam Harwood’s review of John MacArthur’s systematic theology

Biblical_Doctrine_Insider_small

I was given a copy of MacArthur and Mayhue’s book but have not read it yet. However, I just noted the following interesting observation in Adam Harwood’s review of it:

Who is the author? The cover lists two general editors, MacArthur and Mayhue. However, neither the table of contents nor the individual chapters provide the names of any authors. Instead, this sentence appears in the preface, “Our Master’s Seminary colleagues Dr. Bill Barrick, Dr. Nathan Busenitz, Dr. Jim Mook, Dr. Bryan Murphy, Dr. Michael Vlach, and Professor Michael Riccardi supported us by producing drafts of several sections” (27). It seems this volume is similar in composition to the 2003 publication by the Dallas Theological Seminary Faculty edited by Swindoll and Zuck titled Understanding Christian Theology. That volume, however, was comprised of chapters with named authors. It is somewhat confusing to see the names of two general editors listed on a volume with no other attestation of authorship. If MacArthur and Mayhue are the general editors, then why not list the authors? If the reason is that the work is attributed primarily to MacArthur and Mayhue, then why not refer to them as the authors, while including the line of thanks in the preface for the contributions of others?

This is curious indeed, is it not? I do not say that to suggest that there is anything underhanded about it, just simply that it seems odd. As a lover of books, things like this give me pause indeed.

That is all.

Carry on.

Genesis 32:1-23

genesis-title-1-Wide 16x9

Genesis 32

Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. And when Jacob saw them he said, “This is God’s camp!” So he called the name of that place Mahanaim.And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother in the land of Seir, the country of Edom, instructing them, “Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: Thus says your servant Jacob, ‘I have sojourned with Laban and stayed until now. I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, male servants, and female servants. I have sent to tell my lord, in order that I may find favor in your sight.’”And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.” Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed. He divided the people who were with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, thinking, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, then the camp that is left will escape.” And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good,’10 I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. 11 Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children. 12 But you said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’” 13 So he stayed there that night, and from what he had with him he took a present for his brother Esau, 14 two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, 15 thirty milking camels and their calves, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. 16 These he handed over to his servants, every drove by itself, and said to his servants, “Pass on ahead of me and put a space between drove and drove.” 17 He instructed the first, “When Esau my brother meets you and asks you, ‘To whom do you belong? Where are you going? And whose are these ahead of you?’ 18 then you shall say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a present sent to my lord Esau. And moreover, he is behind us.’” 19 He likewise instructed the second and the third and all who followed the droves, “You shall say the same thing to Esau when you find him, 20 and you shall say, ‘Moreover, your servant Jacob is behind us.’” For he thought, “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will accept me.” 21 So the present passed on ahead of him, and he himself stayed that night in the camp. 22 The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. 

I would like for us to consider the prayer of distress, that prayer that arises in moments of great fear, danger, and uncertainty. Dan Crawford has told the amazing story of Cindy Hartman and the power of prayer when she found herself in a dangerous situation.

            An Associated Press article showed a yes answer for Cindy Hartman’s prayer when she encountered a pistol-toting burglar in her home. Hartman, of Conway, Arkansas, said the burglar confronted her when she came in to answer the phone. He ripped the cord out of the wall and ordered her into a cramped bedroom closet. Then she dropped to her knees.

            “I asked if I could pray for him,” she said.

            Hartman said the man apologized, used a shirt to wipe his fingerprints

from the gun, and he even dropped to his knees to join Hartman in prayer. Then he yelled to a woman in a pickup truck, “We’ve got to unload all of this and return it. This is a Christian family. We can’t do this to them.”[1]

Fascinating. This is not to say, of course, that every prayer of distress results in the alleviation of danger. Sometimes it does not. But every prayer is heard and every prayer of distress is vitally important for the child of God.

Herbert Lockyer has concluded that “[e]xclusive of the Psalms, which form a prayer-book on their own, the Bible records no fewer than 650 definite prayers, of which no less than 450 have recorded answers.”[2] The Bible is a prayer-saturated book. So should our lives be as well. And, in times of danger and fear, the prayer of distress is a powerful source of comfort but, more than that, a powerful statement about who we are as God’s children and who God is as our God.

Jacob prays a prayer of distress in Genesis 32 and, in so doing, offers us a model for how to pray as well.

Continue reading

Matthew 8:14-17

the_gospel_of_matthew-title-1-Wide 16x9 copy 2

Matthew 8

14 And when Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever. 15 He touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose and began to serve him. 16 That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.”

One of the coolest and most moving archaeological discoveries in Israel in recent times is the discovery of Simon Peter’s house in Capernaum, excavations of which began in 1968.

DSC01021 house-of-peter-in-capernaum

Roni recently pulled out her photo album from her last trip to Israel (she has been twice) and showed me what it looks like. The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary offers some fascinating information about this site.

The majority of scholars now believe that excavations undertaken in 1968 have basically confirmed the authenticity of this claim [i.e., that this is Peter’s house].

            The building was used as a typical home for an extended family from approximately 63 B.C. until A.D. 50. Peter and Andrew apparently moved the family fishing business from Bethsaida to Capernaum and established their residence in this house, large enough for an extended family. Mark tells us it was the home of both Peter and Andrew (cf. Mark 1:29).

            During the second half of the first century A.D. the use of the house changed. Domestic pottery ceased to be used and the walls of the large center room were plastered—quite unusual for the region except for where groups of people gathered. Graffiti that mention Jesus as “Lord” and “Christ” in Greek were found. These pieces of evidence indicate that during this time the house became a center of Christian worship.

            The house-church continued in existence for nearly three hundred years, as is evidenced from over a hundred Greek, Aramaic, Syriac, Latin, and Hebrew graffiti scratched on the plastered walls, along with numerous forms of crosses, a boat, and other letters. Among the graffiti are at least two possible occurrences of Peter’s name.

And later:

Pottery shards, oil lamps, and coins discovered in the ruins date back to the first century, along with artifacts that included several fishhooks in the earliest layers of the floor.

The commentary also quotes Princeton New Testament scholar James Charlesworth as saying, “The discovery is virtually unbelievable and sensational. Despite the sensational nature of the find, learned archaeologists and historians have slowly come to the same conclusion.”[1]

I love stuff like this, when major finds have so much evidence that they earn the acceptance of the oftentimes very skeptical field of archaeologists and historians. If Charlesworth finds the discovery of this house to be “virtually unbelievable and sensational,” I bet he must find what happened in this house to be off the charts! It is here, in the home of Peter and Andrew, that Jesus’ next miracle takes place.

Continue reading

Will Willimon’s Accidental Preacher: A Memoir

41-B3hy3b8LMan, I just don’t know. Back in the day I considered Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon’s book Resident Aliens to be truly revolutionary. It had a counter-cultural ecclesiology that eschewed both Constantinianism and liberal enculturation. I have read more of Hauerwas than Willimon since then, but, based on this autobiography, Willimon has become as frustrating as Hauerwas has become in some regards.

Don’t get me wrong. The book is engaging and often laugh-out-loud funny. It is also often very insightful. Willimon’s take on the modern ministerial emphasis on self-care, for instance, was intriguing and most-welcome as was his righteous exasperation with, say, Robert Schuller. His recounting of his conversation with Schuller, by the way, was utterly fascinating.

A good friend recommended this book and, truly, I am glad he did. He thought that Willimon’s many references to South Carolina would interest me. They certainly did! Willimon grew up in the upstate whereas I grew up in the mid-state of South Carolina. We are of different generations, to be sure, but I truly did find his frequent allusions to South Carolina—the state, her history, her characteristics, and her foibles—familiar.

And I’ll say this: Willimon really is quite humorous and is a wit. There were some great turns of phrase and memorable lines, many of which are highlighted in my Kindle version of the book and will soon be catalogued in my database of quotes and quips and illustrations.

Also, I appreciated how Willimon was able to see the virtues of those with whom he would not normally be associated. Specifically, I thought that his handling of Billy Graham and his speaking at Duke Chapel was gracious and even appreciative.

So what’s my problem? My problem is that Willimon sometimes seems a bit too cute for his own good. Some of the provocating seemed a bit forced. Also, he takes some well-deserved swipes at ministerial ego while, sometimes quick on the heels of these swipes, demonstrating quite a robust ego himself. To be fair, he seems more than aware of his own struggles in this area and admits as much. And, to be even fairer, I myself struggle with this without the added benefit of having Willimon’s mind and accomplishments! Ha! So I should perhaps be careful. Even so, there are, at points, underlying currents of self-focus that were a bit jarring to me, perhaps because I understand these. So maybe these were cautionary for me as well.

But I suppose my main problem is the way in which Willimon (and Hauerwas) are so willing to betray their own brilliance and willingness to go against the liberal status quo when it comes to questions like homosexuality and gay marriage. Like Hauerwas, Willimon offers no attempt at a substantive biblical rationale for, say, allowing gay weddings at Duke Chapel or his disregard for conservative Methodism’s desire to remain orthodox on these questions and issues. His comments on these important issues (again, like Hauerwas’) seem so trite to me, so ill-formed, so very capitulatory.

Want an example? Here you go:

Same-sex marriage? Being in the fidelity-promoting, promise-keeping, forgiveness-receiving business, the church, you’d think, would be eager to find one more occasion to make people make promises, welcoming anyone who dared to put his or her life at the mercy of the future with another human being. Go figure. (Kindle Locations 2393-2396).

Yeah, go figure, Will. Surely those who agree with Willimon’s position here must admit that this kind of reasoning—with its utter lack of engagement with scripture, its avoidance of the fundamental issues involved with the question, and it’s quaint, shrug-of-the-shoulders dismissiveness of those who hold to the church’s view on this question (i.e., to what genders constitute a marriage biblically defined) as held for the greater majority of two millennia—is not the way forward. I anticipate the objection, “It’s a memoir, not an academic paper.” Yeah, I know, but this kind of thing is what I hear increasingly from guys like Willimon and Hauerwas who are hailed as fearless thinkers. It is because I appreciate their earlier work so much that I find this so very frustrating. Here’s another example:

Methodist political junkies predicted there was no way in God’s name the six hundred members of the 2004 Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference would elect me as bishop. No campus minister had been elected bishop.

I had been absent from my home conference, South Carolina, for twenty years.

I had allowed Duke Chapel to be used for same-sex unions.

I had never led a prestigious Methodist church.

My negative paper trail was miles long.

Some were still sore about my Christian Century article “My Dog the Methodist,” a spoof of UMC evangelism fiascoes.

I had ridiculed the alleged evangelicals of the Confessing Movement as having nothing to confess but “I believe in straight sex.”

Few bishops forgave me for calling the Council of Bishops “the bland leading the bland.” (Kindle Locations 2779-2788)

Will Willimon sounds in this memoir like somebody who is titillated with his own naughtiness, with his own acerbic wit. Same-sex unions at Duke Chapel?The Methodist Confessing Movement has nothing to confess but “I believe in straight sex”? Oh Will! You’re such a rascal.

[Sigh. Pause.]

I think, if I try to get behind my own irritation, that I regret that I cannot take Willimon seriously. His mocking reference to the Confessing Movement has helped me understand why, and the reason why is this: Tom Oden. Tom Oden, the Methodist theologian who broke with the theological and leftist faddishness of his youth and rediscovered the classical orthodox consensus of Christianity via the church fathers, has had a major impact on me. And to hear issues that Oden considered very serious shrugged off with such patently absurd tripe really disappoints me. And it disappoints me because this is coming from the author of Resident Aliens, a book that is so very very brilliant and biblical and insightful.

I am a Baptist, but were I a Methodist, I must say I would be an Oden Methodist and not a Willimon Methodist on these issues. (And, yes, I know that Oden listed Willimon appreciatively in Requiem. There is much to be appreciative about when it comes to Willimon. But note too how, in Willimon’s 1995 review of Oden’s Requiem, his major beef is that Oden is making too much of homosexuality as a problem.)

I grieve to see Willimon and Hauerwas fold with accommodationist compromise on issues of biblical sexual ethics. And to see them do so with such seeming ease and disregard for the real issues at stake saddens me.

95% of this book was fantastic. 5% of it saddened me. 95% is pretty good, right? However, that 5% is pretty important stuff.

Apparently even the rebels we love can be domesticated by the dominant culture. It is lamentable.

Stephen R. Haynes’ The Battle for Bonhoeffer: Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump

417IQf5NqGLThere is a lot going on in Stephen Haynes’ The Battle for Bonhoeffer. As a blow against Bonhoeffer hagiography it is very effective, showing how Bonhoeffer was, like most people, complex, ever-evolving, and a person who sometimes fell quite short of his own ideals. This book will go a long way toward demolishing overly-simplistic and romantic depictions of Bonhoeffer while increasing the reader’s appreciation for Bonhoeffer in many ways as it shows that Bonhoeffer’s acts of great courage truly were committed by a real, flesh-and-blood, flawed human being. I appreciated the book’s assault on the kind of hagiography in which Christians across the spectrum oftentimes indulge when it comes to Bonhoeffer. (I have been guilty of the same!)

As an evaluation of the Bonhoeffer industry in the United States the book is also effective. Haynes does a good job of demonstrating how Bonhoeffer truly is a phenomenon in the United States by chronicling the various books, movies, plays, and other offerings that show no sign of slowing down. I really was not quite aware of just how big this phenomenon is, though I did know it existed and seemed to have picked up steam since the Metaxas biography.

As a take-down of Eric Metaxas and his Bonhoeffer biography, Haynes’ book is devastating. I must say that I have grown increasingly wary of Metaxas’ book even though I wrote, I now believe, a naive review of it nine years ago when I first read it. Metaxas’ biography of Bonhoeffer is very well-written and I think I was a bit caught up in it. I suspect one reason for this was I had spotted and still do spot liberal appropriations of Bonhoeffer that I think are absurd and appreciated that Metaxas’ was hitting back against such. But I am not trying to excuse my review. I see it now as too optimistic to say the least. I am leaving my review of it up but have added a caveat to it concerning my own changing views on the book.

Haynes does a masterful job of demonstrating what anybody who follows Metaxas on Twitter (as I did before I got off of Twitter) knows: that for a champion of Bonhoeffer Metaxas holds some shockingly non-Bonhoefferian views. I shan’t go into them now. Feel free to follow Metaxas then read Bonhoeffer. It should be evident pretty quickly. Anyway, yes, following Metaxas on Twitter will make one, retroactively, very cautious and curious about his book and will, upon further reflection and review (along with listening to Bonhoeffer scholars), lead one to be much less inclined to agree with Metaxas’ recasting of Bonhoeffer as essentially an American Evangelical in his sympathies.

That being said, one may (a) recoil at some of the musings of the post-Bonhoeffer-biography-Metaxas and (b) agree that the book is indeed hagiographic (contra my own regrettable assertion to the contrary when I first read and reviewed it) and yet (c) not necessarily go as far as Haynes goes in condemning the Metaxas book. I personally now believe, the more I read Bonhoeffer himself, that he is very difficult to categorize. I feel that Haynes, in his efforts to lampoon the Evangelical appropriation of Bonhoeffer, at points overstates his case, even though, as I said, his critique is devastating overall. (Does that make sense?). For example, while Haynes references a number of times, and seemingly dismissively, Evangelical appreciation for Bonhoeffer’s condemnation of abortion in his Ethics, he never actually explains why Evangelical appreciation of this aspect of Bonhoeffer’s thought and application of it to the modern scene is necessarily misguided or represents the same kind of crass appropriation of Bonhoeffer by Evangelicals in other areas. (By the way, I have long found the notes on Bonhoeffer’s abortion section in the Fortress Press English critical edition to be laughable.) What Bonhoeffer says about abortion in Ethics is damning indeed and one may argue that Evangelicals do read him rightly on this point while conceding that Evangelicals have read him wrongly on others. The efforts of more left-leaning Bonhoeffer scholars to argue that we must be careful not to draw any substantive equivalency between Bonhoeffer’s views of abortion in Ethics and the modern abortion scene ring, in my opinion, hollow and betray a tendency on the left to shape Bonhoeffer to their desired ends just as Evangelicals have been guilty of doing in other ways. (I do note that Haynes is indeed aware of the reality of the liberal appropriation of Bonhoeffer, and acknowledges this in his book.) But enough about all that.

This seems like a good way to segue: As an evaluation of how both the theological/ecclesiological left and right claim Bonhoeffer, Haynes evidence is helpful, though it is weighted very very heavily against the right’s baptizing of Bonhoeffer with much less (I do not say “no”) attention given to the left’s tendencies to do this. (And I consider the pass and even legitimacy that Haynes grants to Marsh’s theories about Bonhoeffer’s alleged homosexuality to be inconsistent. He admits that this view is held by a minority of Bonhoeffer scholars even as he uses it to swipe at Evangelical employment of Bonhoeffer for the cause of traditional marriage. This seemed strange to me.) To be clear, Haynes, a former Evangelical, for all of his admirable efforts to remain balanced, cannot help but grind some axes along the way.

As a commentary on the modern American political situation, the book is predictable though helpful to a point. One may largely agree with Haynes (I do) without completely agreeing with Haynes (I do not). One may find oneself saying (as I did), “True enough. Good point. Of course, on the left…” etc. etc. etc. I do not say this to relative and dismiss his argument. I essentially agree with the thrust of his argument. Bonhoeffer, I rather expect, would indeed have much to say about our President. How can one deny this? But if one honestly thinks, after reading Bonhoeffer, that he would not also be horrified by certain emphases on the left, one has done violence to the Bonhoeffer legacy from the other side. (Take a look, for instance, at Bonhoeffer’s letters to friends concerning the vacuousness of the liberal theological pursuits at Union when he was in America.)

It’s an interesting, if sometimes irritating book. I don’t regret reading it, though I did chafe a bit under the book’s indecision (again, it seemed to me) about what it wanted to be and also against some of the imbalances in it. Of course, in the book’s final section, Haynes makes it clear that his goal is not to be a dispassionate observer. He has a point to make, and he’s free to make it. I appreciate much of the point he made. Other aspects I found short-sighted.

Overall, I think the book is worth reading. See what you think.