Archive for August, 2015

123JohnI remember when I was younger, a mere twenty-something going off to Bible college in the 'big city'–full of small town conservative enthusiasm. I was from a small-town, a little right of right conservative church of Christ/Christian Church. We, of course, do not 'permit' women to have positions of 'authority' or to 'teach men' or to be 'elders' or, for the most part, 'deaconesses.' Imagine my surprise when I went off to college, in the denomination, and in one of my first classes, on Genesis, I was asked to read a commentary by Joyce Baldwin. I still remember, to my shame, speaking of her in a rather condescending way. (Ironically, I'm now teaching part-time at a small Bible college and using Baldwin's commentary on Daniel for the students' textbook. Good times.) I had much to learn about who God uses to teach ignorant people like myself. It's funny, now that I think about it, how much I have had to learn.

Well, here I am many years removed from Bible college. I have moved back to my hometown after 25 some years away and still not much has changed–except me. I have spent considerable time–even this summer–reading a number of books written by female authors and I have been, to a large degree, disappointed. There always seems to be an agenda of some sort or other instead of a simple commentary on what is written. (Oftentimes I find that commentators, whether male or female, tend to read issues back into the commentary so that even though the Biblical author had absolutely no idea such and such was a problem, low and behold, our modern commentator has corrected the biblical author or simply pointed out how, through some exegetical gymnastics, he actually was talking about such and such.) I don't bring this up for no reason. On the contrary, I have learned to appreciate good scholarship regardless of whether its a man or woman writing and in the case of this particular commentary, I am simply happy to have read it because it is just an outstanding, excellently written commentary on the letters of John.

I don't want to hide the fact that I love that Karen Jobes wrote this book. I believe that the church needs to have more female academics writing commentaries and engaging in the difficult work of exegesis. It is my hope that authors/scholars like Karen Jobes will be role models for young girls who are considering Biblical scholarship for a career. I realize it's hard to say that without coming across as a complete and utter chauvinist but here's my point: what I look for in a commentary is a serious scholarship–working with the text, digging deep into the Greek, engaging the tough issues that the text highlights and often what I get is something that is less than serious. I look for an author who wrestles mightily with the text and stays humble before it. I found such an author in this commentary. Maybe I've been out of the loop for too long, but I am glad that the typically male dominated world of New Testament scholarship has authors and scholars like Karen Jobes writing books and explaining the Scripture to us. My life is enriched after having read this book. I recently read and reviewed a book full of sermons. One of the editors was a woman, but sadly there was not one contribution in the entire book by a female preacher. It was a glaring and significant failure of the book.

There's no pretense to this commentary. Jobes alerts the ready in the preface what her positions are with respect to her hermeneutical lens. Basic to this lens is the a priori devotion to the assumption of authorship: whoever wrote the letters we call 'John' also wrote the Gospel we call 'John' (or was at least a 'close associate.') With this said, she goes on to assert that "while the letters must be allowed their own voice, they cannot be properly understood without reference to John's Gospel as the interpretive framework for the metaphors, images, and theology common to both" (15). What follows, then, is a commentary that helps us see and make these connections, at a number of different levels and ways, and it is thus extremely helpful to have the Gospel open at the same time as the commentary. This, in my opinion, is one of the stronger aspects of this commentary because I think too many are willing to divorce the letters from the Gospel.

The commentary is arranged in a convenient manner following what seems to be a fairly standard format. The introduction, which covers all three letters, discusses briefly the significance of the letters, authorship and provenance, historical situation and the so-called 'polemical view' of the letters. In this regard, Jobes makes an important point, that I happen to agree with which is to focus the discussion of these letters based on the author's own statements of why he wrote. Again, this goes to my earlier point that too many times authors bring to the text their own ideas and try to force them to make sense. Jobes' point is this: "His concern was to shepherd those in his spiritual care to remain within the bounds of orthodoxy rather than to directly address the heresy(-ies) that disrupted the church(es); that makes it difficult to reconstruct with specificity the problems being addressed" (25). She notes how this 'frees the interpreter' to focus on John's definition of 'orthodoxy' which necessarily and implicitly 'argues against' many different heresies from then and now. It seems so much easier to do things this way.

I mean this with no hint of sarcasm at all, but imagine that! A commentary that is interested in reading and commenting on what is in the text instead of trying to reconstruct all sorts of things that are not there or that we have imagined are there. This is brilliant and I applaud Jobes for taking such a revolutionary and radical step in exegetical sanity.

There is a lengthy section on the relationship between the letters and John's Gospel and a nice chart showing verbal parallels. Other aspects of the introduction include the date and relationship between the three letters, the place of the letters in the chronology of New Testament history, and canonicity. There is a lengthy bibliography after the introduction just before Jobes engages in a separate introduction for 1 John. (Each letter receives its own introduction.)

The individual introductions will provide more specific details such as genre, purpose, structure, and and outline. There are a couple of different outlines including an exegetical outline. There's also a fresh translation of the text–all of this before we finally arrive at the explanation of the text.

Up to this point in the book, the text has been a one column affair. For some reason I am unable to discern, the book turns to a two column approach when we get to the explanation of the text part and then reverts back to a one column format when we get to the Theological reflections at the end of each section of verses being discussed. I suppose maybe it had something to do with space concerns, but I'm not sure. It's not a terrible thing, but I didn't particularly care for it. The explanation is based wholly on the Greek text and it is particular. Nothing escapes Jobes and she is willing to make as many literary and verbal connections as the author gives us ("The Johannine corpus is well known for its abundant wordplays and double entendres.." (47)). It should come as no surprise to anyone reading this commentary that the first four verses of 1 John are particularly infused with meaning and depth and that Jobes takes us as far as the text can take us.

The book is heavily footnoted–which is greatly appreciated–and Jobes is well acquainted with all the important literature, developments, and authors on the subject of John's letters in particular and literature in general. She doesn't skirt controversial issues or try to explain them away, but engages them and makes her case for each point of view she supports. In other words, this is a thorough work–as one might expect from the title.

There are also blocked out sections where the author goes 'in depth' and discusses a 'side-issue' such as whether or not we should use the word 'Messiah' or 'Christ' when talking about Jesus or 'truth' in John's letters. Finally, each section includes a 'theology in application' section where she talks about the aforementioned 'explanation of the text' in practical terms.

I love the section where Jobes translates the Greek text for the reader. It's in a text box and is analytical in nature or, maybe the old fashioned way is to say that the sentences are somewhat diagrammed so that each aspect of translation is also somewhat interpreted. So, for example, 1 John 2:1-6, verse 1 is: 1a (address: my little children) b (assertion: these things I write to you) c (purpose: so that you will not sin). This is a most helpful analysis because it opens up our understanding of the text insofar as we can 'see' it before us–even if there may be some subjectivity involved. I think this will be especially helpful for the reader who is new to Greek or maybe someone who just wants to visualize it without doing the work for themselves. It is a bit interpretive, so as with all things, one really should do their own analysis.

At the end of the book, there is a section called: The Theology of John's Letters. Here the author explores the significant contribution these letters make to our understanding of New Testament Christianity: "The preeminent theological point of John's letters is consistent with the overarching message of the NT in general: that Jesus Christ, God's Son, has come from God the Father to die as the atoning sacrifice for sin, and on the basis of his self-sacrifice, to create for God a new covenant people who will both know him and enjoy eternal life with him" (340). I might quibble a bit with that wording because it sounds way too neo-Reformed for my taste, but Jobes does make her case in this work for her perspective and point of view. At best, she is keeping the meta-narrative in mind as she writes; at worst, she snaps it off just a bit too soon (I think there's more to it than Jesus merely being the 'atoning sacrifice for sin'; that's a big part of it, but there's certainly more. Jobes may or may not agree and it may or may not be a part of 1 John.)

There's a substantial Scripture index, Apocrypha index, subject index, and author index at the very end–substantial enough that whoever wrote it might have been awarded co-authorship of the book! But it is worth the effort to put these appendices together and I am, personally grateful for their inclusion.

I think the same thing can be said of most commentaries: there are things you will agree with the author upon and things you will not. When it's all said and done, I don't think any commentary is written by an author with the expectation that there will be a unanimous voice raised in agreement. Authors write these books to address issues and raise questions that are close to their own hearts, to help us think more deeply about the biblical text, and to engage our minds in significantly deep, Spirit led, thought. Sometimes I think they write them so they can themselves can think through a particular subject. Ultimately, I think what we hope to find is nuggets of exegetical wisdom and splendor–stuff we can use. In this accessible, well written commentary, the author gives us a variety of ways to approach the text of John's Letters:through theological reflection, Greek translation, explanation of the text, outlines, excursions, and introductions. Everyone will find at least one of these approaches useful in their own search for understanding of John's literature.

This commentary is thorough, enthusiastically written, and a welcome addition to the pantheon of literature available on Johannine literature. The reader will be greatly rewarded for journeying through this book and enjoying the thoughtful and timely insights Jobes has to offer. I am supremely happy to have read this book and I am glad I now know of Karen Jobes. I will look forward to reading more of her work and mixing her work with the authors and scholars whose work I have already enjoyed, and keeping it close at hand when I study John's literature again.

5/5 Stars

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: 1, 2, 3 John Amazon ($27.93, Kindle $22.99) Zondervan Academic ($34.99) CBD ($24.99)
  • Author: Karen Jobes
  • Academic Webpage: Karen Jobes
  • Editor: Clinton E. Arnold
  • Publisher: Zondervan Academic
  • Pages: 369
  • Year: 2014
  • Audience: Preachers, college professors, students of New Testament
  • Reading Level: College Level
  • Disclaimer: I was provided a free reader's copy courtesy of Zondervan Academic via NetGalley.
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Greek"Those within Greek scholarship often lament that students, pastors, professors, and New Testament commentators seem out of touch with what is going on in Greek studies." (from the Introduction, 20). Thus begins this important work by Constantine Campbell and after reading this book, it is no wonder we seem out of touch. It seems to me that ignorance might just be bliss. I jest, of course, because this is a very important book and I hope it receives a wide audience, future updates, and reprints. It is technical and a times heavy, but a slow reading will be helpful and since I'm of the opinion that more preachers ought to be studying directly from the Greek, I highly recommend this book to preachers even if scholars and students are also in the primary audience.

Two stories will introduce my thoughts. I was engaged in a conversation today on Facebook–the pinnacle of good, scholarly atmosphere and advanced learning–when a commenter made a rather startling statement. I had posted something about a political candidate published in a popular magazine and someone commented and said something about like, "well if by such and such you mean…" I responded, "'you'? I didn't write this." My friend wrote back, "This is why I love Koine Greek, so much easier to write what you mean." The timing most certainly was providential, but I'm not sure that my dialogue partner has spent much time actually reading about the advancements in Koine Greek scholarship if he thinks it is easier to write what you mean in Greek than, say, English. Or maybe he has and it is. The simply word 'you' managed to cause some misunderstanding–although I was playing funny with him–and we had a good laugh. Still…

Back in the day, when I was still an undergraduate, I spent my Fall and Winter semesters hunkered down in the confines of Ray Summers' Essentials of New Testament Greek. I did this for three years, a total of six semesters. We weren't always in Summers' book after my first year (we used other primers and books too) but when it came to mastering paradigms, my professor insisted we study Summers. I remember those days fondly–working through paradigms, plowing through the translation of Johannine literature (the 'easiest'), learning vocabulary, struggling to get the concept of the deponent verb, mastering participles, periphrastics, and genitive absolutes. Ah, good times indeed. But we spent most of our time mastering paradigms and translating text.

Come to find out, 20 some years later, there was far more nuance to the Greek of the New Testament than I ever thought imaginable. Who knew that behind closed office doors, or in the midst of a conference only attended by a relative few, or in the finely tuned pages of a peer reviewed journal smeared with publishing blood, there was so much debate going on about whether or not Greek verbs actually carry tense or that aorist verbs might not always indicate straight forward punctiliar moments in past time? (Summers: "The function of the aorist tense is a matter of tremendous importance. The time of action is past. The kind of action is punctiliar." 66)

Turns out, Koine Greek–what I was taught was simple 'market place' Greek–is not, after all, so simple and easy and uncomplicated.

To be sure, the study of Greek at the undergraduate level is relatively easy when compared with the depth of conversation that is, evidently, engaged at higher levels of education by linguists and as is represented in this book by Constantine R Campbell. There are debates about everything one can imagine when it comes to Greek, the parsing of nouns, mood, verbs, deponents, tense, perspective, indicatives, perfects, and, when it is all said and done, translating the actual text into something that is both faithful to the Greek and readable by the general church. It is a chore–but I suspect more a labor of love. Campbell is correct: I am hopelessly out of touch. This book is an excellent corrective.

Maybe the undergraduate level study of Greek needs to be a little more intensive (maybe it is now; it's been 20 years since I was an undergraduate) or maybe our definitions are just too simple. I'm not a Greek scholar or a linguist, so setting the tone for undergraduate level study of Koine Greek is not high on my list of things to do. I have Summers' book sitting just above my head on my desk, but after reading Advances in the Study of Greek, I'm wondering if it might be time to purchase a new primer because I'm sure that if I learned anything from this book by Campbell I have learned that a lot of developments have taken place in our understanding of Greek since Summers published in 1950. And who would have thought that? 

Changing gears for a moment, I note that there are a lot of decisions that go into the translation of the New Testament into other languages. We have been blessed here in our time to see the publication of about a thousand different versions of the Bible and I have always asked myself, with each new translation: why? I think I now know why. It is not just so simple as translating one word in Greek into another word in English. There are levels of nuance, interpretation, and decisions that have to be made by the translator for every single proverbial jot and tittle. Frankly, it is staggering to consider what goes into translation and I suppose to this point every translation is, at some level, a paraphrase. It may have been unintended, but this book gave me a deep appreciation for those who do the work of translation of the New Testament into other languages (even English)–especially in cultures where there is no written language. 

Key to this book is the subtitle: New Insights for Reading the New Testament (my emphasis). This book is not just about translating, it is, or at least purports to be, about reading the Bible. It does make one wonder just how much of our reading is done incorrectly. On the other hand, the author has limited his audience because there are not many people sitting in the pews on Sunday with a copy of Nestle-Aland in their hands or on their Kindle. But as DA Carson points out in the Foreward, "This book is not for beginners, but it will provide enormously useful in helping scholars, advanced students, and serious pastors to find out what is going on in the field of New Testament Greek studies–especially if they are tempted to think that advances cannot be made" (17).

The book is broken down into 10 chapters and covers the following areas of concern:

1. Short history of Greek studies; 2. Linguistic Theories; 3. Lexical Semantics and Lexicography; 4. Deponency and the Middle Voice; 5. Verbal Aspect and Aktionsart; 6. Idiolect, Genre, and Register; 7-8. Discourse Analysis I (Hallidayan) and II (Levinsohn); 9. Pronunciation; 10. Teaching and Learning.

Obviously, some aspects of Greek study have been left out due to space considerations, but what Campbell does cover in 200 some odd pages is breathtaking. Within each of these sections is detailed study of some of the things that, perhaps, some have taken for granted (aorists, perfects, for example). What is also helpful is that he includes an Expanded Table of Contents where the reader can find reference to specific scholars or topics covered in the book. I found this to be an especially helpful feature–along with the index and lengthy bibliography located at the end of the main text.

Another aspect of this book that I like is that Campbell includes plenty of examples to help the reader understand where he is going with his argument. Sometimes seeing an argument is makes it easier to understand and I found this to be a great feature of the book. To the uninitiated who wish to venture into this book, there will be challenges. You need a fairly serious working knowledge of the Greek even to understand the examples he gives to explain certain concepts.

The only problem I see with the book is that with so many theories and scholars and divergent points of view, it seems that at some point, and at some level, some conclusions are purely subjective and speculative. Campbell might agree with that assessment given that even DA Carson, who wrote the Foreward, notes he isn't always convinced by Campbell's arguments. The world of Greek semantics is a complicated and without a trustworthy guide it can become a Gordian Knot. We must tread with humility and caution and I'm convinced that Campbell is cautious and open to dialogue and exploration of his ideas and thoughts. This is no scholarly puff piece. This is just an excellently written book.

I think Campbell tries to maintain a fine balance between scholarly integrity and depth and faithful, Spirit led exegetical thoughts. At the end of the day, Greek exegesis will take the scholar or preacher so far, but I think there must be some dependence upon the Spirit to lead us into truth–I don't think Campbell would disagree, but that is clearly not the purpose of his book and this is not the place to make the argument. This is not to say that rigorous work with the Greek text is unnecessary. I stand firm that I think more preachers ought to be engaged in the study and use of the original languages as much as possible. It's also my opinion that some preachers ought to simply put the Greek New Testament away or go back to school given the way they mangle it in the pulpit or the flimsy observations they make based on what this tense means or that verb means. Campbell does a good job warning us of the dangers of careless use of the Greek.

This is an accessible book for those in advanced study of Greek and one that I think preachers ought to give serious consideration to reading. The breadth of resources Campbell discusses and engages has given me some ideas for further study–in the hopes of replacing my worn out Summers primer (whose work did not make the pages of Campbell's early history in chapter 1). It has also inspired me to start applying some serious effort into my study, comprehension, and retention of Greek.  Applying the thoughts practically in the final chapter (Teaching and Learning Greek) was especially helpful and I am glad that he did not leave us hanging on wondering what to do with all this information.

This is an exciting book. I highly recommend it and warmly award it 5 stars.

5/5 Stars 

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase Advances in the Study of Greek Amazon (Kindle, $19.99)  CBD ($19.49) Zondervan (Pre-order for $34.99)
  • Author: Constantine R. Campbell
  • Publisher: Zondervan
  • Pages: 250 (paperback)
  • Year: 2015
  • Audience:Pastors, linguists, preachers, college professors, students of New Testament, students and professors of New Testament Greek, translators
  • Reading Level: College Level
  • Disclaimer: I was provided a free reader's copy courtesy of Zondervan via NetGalley.

GFTROUCan you imagine if Karl Barth sat down to write Church Dogmatics and began with an exceptional account of how wrecked his life has been by sin, how disturbed his family is/was, and other unsavory and sordid details of his confusion, pain, and suffering and then told us the story of how God redeemed it, made it whole, and eventually used that life to change the lives of countless other equally shattered and broken people?

Neither can I. But maybe if he had, Church Dogmatics, as much fun as they are to read, would be even more fun. (I confess I have not read through the entire Dogmatics, so maybe he did I and I don't know it.)

To be sure, God for the Rest of Us is not Church Dogmatics. Most will probably be thankful for this. But it is another book among a collection of books that continue to be published by Christian publishing houses who are convinced that the every day readers in the church want to read stories about how terrible the lives of their favorite preachers have been. Preachers used to be paragons of untouchable virtue and holiness. Not so much anymore. It's kind of a newer trend where we get insights into practical Christianity via the growth process of (insert favorite preacher's name here). We get to read about their struggles, their families, their suffering, their pain, their doubt, their heroics, their rise from the squalor of outcast kid who doubts his way through Bible college on to having some sort of an epiphany and their subsequent rise to become super-hero pastors of super-mega-giant churches that are doing everything right that most other churches do wrong.

I hate to be this way, but this is the trend. I don't see it slowing down anytime soon because evidently there is a market for it. Evidently, people are buying this stuff. When I think about my own 'rise to stardom' in the world of churchianity, I usually end up sitting around wondering why it is that some people suffer so much and end up writing books and others of us suffer so much and end up reviewing those books. Sometimes, I suppose we come off as bitter.

This is partly what you get though when you read God for the Rest of Us. I'm not, necessarily, suggesting this is a bad thing. Those who read this book will figure that out on their own. To be sure, I think people should read this book because despite my conviction that the preacher should not be the focus of his sermon or an illustration (I learned this in elementary homiletics classes) in this case what we learn is that Antonucci is not some stuck up snobbish preacher unwilling to get close to people or to have people close to him. I like that this is a man who has been through the mud a time or two and yet somehow or other found Jesus. Or maybe Jesus found him. Or maybe Jesus dogged his footsteps until he turned around and asked where the Master where he was staying or the Master informed him he was coming over for dinner. Maybe its a little bit of all of it. Maybe Jesus follows us long before we ever follow him. I don't know. My point is that while I have grown somewhat weary of reading stories about the preachers who have struggled and suffered so much prior to Jesus (and sometimes after Jesus too) and share it in their books, churches, and t-shirts, church curricula, and DVDs, there is something to be said about what these preachers have learned from these experiences.

I think this book is, partly, the evidence of what Antonucci learned through his experiences.

While some Christians seem to go out of their way to protect God from the unseemly and untidy and unwashed heathens in this world, Antonucci goes out of his way to demonstrate that it is precisely 'these types' of people in whom God is most interested. Jesus did say 'it's the sick who need a doctor, not the well.' OK. So Antonucci has a vision one day, or a calling, and he packs up the family and moves to Vegas where he, following the lead of Jesus, starts to befriend and minister to all the wrong people–you know, people who would never fit in in our comfortable, white-washed, stained glass, middle-class suburban campus style churches. And a church starts to grow–and the Lord 'added to their number daily those who were being saved'–right in the middle of Las Vegas.

And if this story is true, and why shouldn't it be and how can it not be, it is utterly remarkable and unnerving the people that Jesus loves into his church through his people.

I heard a young preacher say something once that was utterly brilliant. He said, we cannot build relationships if we don't start them first. Oh, he had me hooked after that because I know that I am a somewhat strange person when it comes to relationships. Antonucci agrees: "The way to change a life is not by judging people but by embracing them. Not by pointing out their sins but by pointing the way to hope" (19). I mean, how simple can one get? He goes further (and I've read variations of this before, so it's nothing new, but I think it sets the tone for what the book is about): "What's so disturbing is that what Jesus was known for–amazing grace–is the exact opposite of what Christians are known for today. We're known for judgment and condemnation. We're known not for what we're for–loving God and loving people–but for what we're against" (19). It's really hard to argue with this. 

When I was still a preacher, here I go breaking my own rule, I was one time ripped a new one in a board meeting because I helped a friend with his taxi service. The reason I was ripped? Well, you see, I picked up drunks from bars, I drove people to a local gambling facility, and every now and again I picked up and drove 'exotic dancers' home. You'd never believe some of the conversations I had with people in that car. But it was too much for the uptight members of the board–after all, I was a preacher and I shouldn't be seen in such places or with such people. (It's a true story. It wasn't too long after that that I left the church.) I think God was teaching me to love people. I should have stayed at the church because I ended up not being very loving towards those board members who seem to want to stifle and criticize me.

Love even the judgmental. God is for church boards.

I don't know what is so difficult about loving people right where they are and then allowing God to do the hard work of changing them. But let's take it a step further and suggest that it is our goal to change people, "If our goal is to change people's behavior, to get them to repent, is fear really the best way to do that?" (156) Spend enough time trolling the blogs and you will see that there are a lot of Christians who believe just that. Spend enough time with Jesus and you will see that it will never work because even those who are won over by fear will not last long. Maybe the voices of those who spend more time with Jesus ought to be the voices heard the most by those who think of God as someone who could never love them. Our lives are shaped and we thrive by love. Fear motivates me to nothing, but love? "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). What else need be said? 

God is for us, and if he is, who can be against us? Yes, this is spoken in particular to Christians, but isn't there also a sense in which we can say that God is for all people? God is patient and not willing any one should perish. God wants all people to come to a knowledge of the truth. All. That is a huge, huge word that is too often left out of our Christianese dictionary. We need to embrace it. We need to embrace all people. And seriously who cares if we embrace people and they take advantage of us or persist in their sin? Will God find fault with us for loving all people?

Ask yourself: Will God judge the church more harshly for loving all people with great love even though they might take advantage of us or for only loving some people who treat us kindly? I think it would be better to ere on the side of love than discernment. God can do the judging, we are called to do the loving.

So, yes, there are parts of the book that made me uncomfortable. For example, I don't know about his list of apologies on 112ff, but I suppose if my apology will lead someone to Jesus, then I'll offer it. What do I care? What matters most: my squeamishness at offering apologies for things I never did? Or someone else seeing the Love of Jesus? I like that he takes the time to open up lengthy passages of Scripture for us and walk through them. In particular, the story Jonah, the story of the woman accused of adultery in John 8, and the story of the Prodigal from Luke 15 were well told. I like that he made reference to The Count of Monte Cristo; I dislike that it was the movie version. I like the stories of redeemed lives and how God took broken people and made them whole again. I like how he is honest about who he is and where he's from because even though I get a little tired of the personal 'how I rose from nothing to start a church and write books' stories, I think in this case it grounds the reader: Antonucci understands well the depths of God's love for all people–not just the few we think ought to be saved. God is for everyone. You name the category, the sub-category, or whatever: God loves people. That's the point. God loves people. So should we.

I am glad for that because this also means he was and is for me. That says a lot.

He ends the book with a worthy challenge for those who read it: Whom Do You Least Want to Love? That's all I'll say because I want you to read the book (so does Antonucci) and I want you to answer the question. I have to answer the question too because I suspect there are a lot of people I find it difficult to love. And yet God loves me. I must change.

Notes are appended at the end and there's a nice appendix titled 'My ABC Book of People God Loves." It just may shock you to see the people God is for, but it may also affirm that you are on the right path in your own choices of who you love. Good reading here. I recommend this book for all Christians who struggle to love people who are different. I recommend this book for all Christian who think it is their job to change people or to judge people. I recommend this book for Christians who are more in love with discernment than they are with Jesus. I recommend this book for Christians who truly believe that God does not want anyone to perish.

Get this book. Read it. Think on it. Then go love someone–maybe someone you never thought you could love.

5/5 Stars

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase God for the Rest of Us Tyndale House Publishers (Trade Paperback $15.99)  Amazon (Kindle $9.99 Pre-order)  CBD  (Paperback $12.99)
  • God for the Rest of Us on the internet
  • Author: Vince Antonucci On Twitter
  • Where Vince hangs out with People Jesus Loves: Verve
  • Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers
  • Pages: 255
  • Year: August 2015
  • Audience:Pastors, preachers, Christians, missionaries, elders, deacons, young people, old people, people whose lives are a trainwreck, seekers, the saved, the lost, the helpless and hopeless, the loveless, the judgmental
  • Reading Level: High School
  • Disclaimer: I was provided a free advance reading copy courtesy of Tyndale Blog Network.
  • Page numbers in this review are based on an ARC. Numbering may be different in final publication.

BLOG-NETWORK-BADGE

UnbeliefEvery time I get ready to write a book review, I start to feel like I'm about to do something huge–like lead worship with feeble guitar skills, or send out the starting line-up for a little league game, or get in the ring with a prize fighter. It's always nerve wracking and it's always a bit daunting–especially when the author of the book is someone who is fairly well known and fairly well respected.

With that being said, I have to ask an honest question: Why does anyone want to read a book by Barnabas Piper? And an extension of this question goes something like this: Can I read/review this book without making even that passing reference to his, arguably, more famous father? One shouldn't have anything to do with the other, right?

Yet this is exactly where my first question comes in: what has Barnabas Piper done in his life that is justification for reading his book about matters of faith, Jesus, Church, being a disciple of Jesus, and so on and so forth? Is it his struggles, his doubts, his family name, or something else?  There is nothing novel or unique about what he says in this book. There is nothing extraordinary in this book that I haven't read before. There is nothing about this book that makes a little light bulb hover above my head.

I'm not saying it's a terrible book. I am saying that it's nothing new and so I wonder who it was written for, what the market is, and why I would want to buy this book. Can the book stand on it's own?

Piper states his purpose in writing: "My goal is to help you see that belief isn't blind faith and that questions, if asked well, are building blocks for strong faith rather than stepping stones away from it." (Kindle, Location 87). OK. This is good. But why should I trust that this particular author has the answers to these questions? And does the author, ultimately, accomplish his purpose? The first question, I am unsure how to answer. Some people will trust his answers, but I'm not sure they know why they trust his answers. This gets back to that second question I asked above which had something to do with whether or not I can read this book apart from the knowledge of who he is related to. I think other people will find his answers shallow or cliched. This is not a deep book, it's not a book that takes you on a whirlwind, big city adventure through the Bible. It's full of lots of nice quotes from famous people and anecdotes about his own personal journey.

The second question (does he accomplish his purposes) is a yes/no for me. Let me give you an example of the problem as I see it.

Piper asks some difficult questions in the book, but what if his particular theological disposition that underlies his answers is flawed? How do we understand his answers? So: "If He chooses who will be saved, then why are unchosen people held responsible for their actions and His choice?" (Kindle location 447; he does mention human free will at location 577, but I'm not sure how he means it given everything else he has written in the book). This is a question he asks that has a presupposition underneath it: God intentionally saves some and intentionally condemns the rest. I simply cannot agree with his proposition and it was difficult for me to separate what I suspect/know of his theological tendencies and the answers he gives to some of the questions in the book.

I just read this morning, 2 Peter 3:9: "The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient towards you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance." (ESV) Or what about Paul in 1 Timothy 2:3-4: "This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior who desires all people to come to the knowledge of the truth." (ESV) I think this is the main problem I have with the book. It is beholden to a theological proposition that simply cannot be maintained logically if one reads the entire Bible, observes human nature, and thinks logically. There is no way we can say that God wants all to be saved and then turn around and say that God only saves a few and that the unchosen are, well, lost. There is no way to say that God chooses some for salvation and not others unless you are willing to attribute evil to God.

This is the No side of my answer.

On the Yes side of my answer I had to wait until I got all the way to the appendix 1: Reading the Bible to Meet God. This was the most satisfying part of the book for me: "We must learn to read the whole story of Scripture from beginning to end." (Location 1449). I think in this part of the book he offers us the solutions that I had been waiting for through the entire book because it is here that he finally engages Scripture–to an extent–or should I say encourages us to engage the Scripture. It was most disappointing that this section only made it to an appendix–as if we will find more answers to our doubts and struggles by reading anecdotes about Piper's doubts and life instead of reading stories from the Scripture.

Nevertheless, the points he makes in Appendix 1 are quite good–I only wish he had explored them more in the main text because frankly they would have made better chapters: Read the whole Bible; look for Jesus; get to know Jesus; don't shy away from the hard stuff; start small (I'm iffy on this section); don't read the Bible as a set of rules; pray for the Spirit's help. These are actually the answers we needed when it comes to living in the tension between doubt and faith because the chapters he gives us are really only his beliefs and theological dispositions–many of which, as I noted above, are simply incompatible with the whole Bible he encourages us to read (such as his acceptance of the five solas; I still struggle with how there can be five 'onlys'. Kindle, chapter 2).

One final note of importance. I agree with the author that it is OK for the church or individual Christians to say things like 'I don't know.' I have had to learn this as a human who always wants to have an answer to the questions people ask me. I think we are afraid if we say 'I don't know' people will think we are stupid so we end up giving answers that absolutely confirm our stupidity. So it's OK for the church, or for Christians, to have no answers to all the suffering and violence that goes on around us. It's OK to ask questions: "Questions are an indication of trust." And here I think Piper answers his own questions well: "By revealing what He did in Scripture, God created a massive mystery. He gave us an enigma, a puzzle, a riddle with so many dimensions and plotlines and layers and themes that even just those sixty-six books have generated libraries of volumes of thought, argument, and questions" (Kindle location 225). Yes. Even in our doubts, in some mysterious way, we point to Jesus for answers even if our mouths happen to stay closed.

In short, we do not have to have all the answers to all the questions or perhaps better, we do not have all the answers to all the questions. It's OK to sit in silence for a while and pray. As the time worn conclusion goes, "It's better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open the mouth and remove all doubt." I think this is something that the Church in general should learn and I think Piper is right to emphasize this point. I think it's OK to live in the tension between grace and doubt and to let grace be sufficient. (See chapter 8, So What and What Now?, Kindle location 1381ff).

Overall, the book is not terrible. It's not the best I've read, but not the worst either. I think for some people it will be wholly unsatisfying and for others it will be a good introduction. He has some good and important things to say and he has some other insufficient things to say–especially as it relates to his theological under girding. I didn't come away from the book wholly satisfied, but I didn't come away wholly unchallenged either. I think if a person can weave through some of the theological underpinnings and get to the core of his discussion (which I confess was difficult for me) then there may be some fruit to be realized. At least Piper is humble enough understand that the church is bigger than his opinions and ideas and thoughts and for this I respect him (see the Afterward) and my disagreements with him theologically are not to be interpreted as personal attacks.

At the end of the day, his best advice was found near the end: "In God's infinite wisdom the best way to bring more people to belief is to show them a massively varied story pointed in one direction–to Himself" (Kindle location 1355). I think he is correct on this point and that he does well to point it out. Maybe soon the church will become the place where all such things are discussed in detail precisely because we are all looking for Jesus to arrive…because I'm inclined to think that Jesus will arrive long before any of us do. And this keeps us hungry. And humble. And searching. All things Piper suggests we need to do and be.

Doubt, in a way, keeps us safe because it keeps us moving forward in search of Jesus. Someday he will surprise us and be found. I know that I personally long for a church where I am free to live in the tension and find satisfaction in Jesus alone.

So, to answer my earlier question: Yes. I think this is a book that can stand on its own. I'm not buying all he is selling, but neither am I dismissing it. There's much to think about and much to enjoy.

4/5 Stars

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase Help My Unbelief  David C Cook (Trade Paperback, $14.99) Amazon (Kindle, $9.99) Christian Book Distributors (Paperback, $10.99)
  • Author: Barnabas Piper
  • Publisher: David C Cook
  • Pages: 176
  • Year: 2015
  • Audience:Pastors, preachers, Christians, missionaries, elders, deacons, young people, old people
  • Reading Level: High School
  • Disclaimer: I was provided a free advance reading copy courtesy of David C Cook via NetGalley
  • Interview with Barnabas Piper @Christianity Today
  • Page numbers in this review are based on a Kindle version ARC. Numbering may be different in final publication.