Saturday, June 29, 2013

Interpreting the Pauline Letters, A Book Review

Interpreting the Pauline Letters: An Exegetical Handbook by John D. Harvey is the first in a series of handbooks (Handbooks for New Testament Exegesis) by Kregel Academic that seeks to equip Bible readers and teachers to understand and communicate the text of the New Testament to the contemporary mind. The series is organized and focused on the issue of genre, or type of literature in the New Testament. It seeks to look at narrative, letter and apocalypse as the three major genres in the New Testament literature. The series will be rounded out with volumes on the Gospels and Acts (Narrative), General Letters (Letter) and Revelation (Apocalypse). The series is aimed at students with some experience in Greek.

Each volume will ambitiously include:

  1. The nature of the literary genre
  2. The background and historical setting of the books
  3. Major Themes
  4. Steps in preparing to interpret the text
  5. Issues of interpretation specifically related to genre
  6. Communicating passages in light of genre
  7. Examples of moving from Exegesis to Exposition (interpretation to preaching and teaching)
  8. List of selected resources and a glossary of technical terms

I’m not sure if every volume will contain this feature, but in Harvey’s inaugural volume each chapter begins with a helpful “chapter at a glance” and concludes with a “chapter in review.” I found this helpful (I wish all books had these!) in navigating the chapters that especially included some technical discussions of terms and ideas. If one is looking to address a specific issue, term or concept in interpreting Paul’s letters, the table of contents and these chapter summaries should be sufficient in finding the practical help that is needed.

The value of textbooks using the “text to sermon” model is very much necessary (and appreciated) in our day. Textual issues can easily obscure the goal of actually bringing this particular text to the audience of a particular people, so this tension must always be kept before us as we seek to understand and share God’s word. The examples used in this volume (Col 3:1-4 and Phil 3:12-16) offer helpful models of this.

My only criticism of the book perhaps is that the transition does not go far enough in this regard. In commentary writing, Gordon Fee has shown decisively (in my opinion) that every text has a spirituality behind it and that the process of exegesis is not fully complete until the readers/hearers have begun to participate in this life (See his Commentary on Philippians and his book, Listening to the Spirit in the Text). For this reason, I am always on the lookout for such in handbooks and commentaries. I wish Harvey’s volume contained more in this regard. But overall, the work is very well done and to be commended to the student and teacher of Scripture as one more tool in the toolbox!

[This copy was provided to me by Kregel Publishers in exchange for an unbiased review]

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

How Jesus Visits Us

If you’re like me, we often miss Jesus because we’re not looking for him. Or, if we are looking for him, we are looking for him in the wrong places, through lenses of worldly versions of glory, power and success. We expect him to show up at the big spectacular events, the shiny buildings and the gatherings of the well to dos and have it togethers. We expect to see him clean, wealthy, with shining teeth, a slight tan and a full wallet. Basically we look for him to show up looking like us, or at least our “American Dream” version of us.

Sometimes he does show up in these places, but as a beggar or as a prostitute or as a shame-filled Christian with huge awkward baggage and shuffling feet and eyes to the ground. He doesn’t show up as anyone we would want to invite to our small group; especially not someone we would want to invite over to our home for dinner! He might show up smelly and disheveled, with empty hands and an empty wallet. We don’t think he would show up like that, so we miss him. If we do see him, we’re much more likely to be disgusted and repelled by him, writing him off as a “loser.” He chooses to dwell in the utterly ordinary.

Growth in the Christian life is learning to wake up to the ways Jesus actually comes, opening our eyes to how he chooses to show up, letting him be the savior that he chooses to be and not the savior we would make for ourselves. In this endeavor, I found Frederick Buechner’s words especially powerful:

JESUS IS APT TO COME, into the very midst of life at its most real and inescapable. Not in a blaze of unearthly light, not in the midst of a sermon, not in the throes of some kind of religious daydream, but . . . at supper time, or walking along a road. This is the element that all the stories about Christ's return to life have in common: Mary waiting at the empty tomb and suddenly turning around to see somebody standing there—someone she thought at first was the gardener; all the disciples except Thomas hiding out in a locked house, and then his coming and standing in the midst; and later, when Thomas was there, his coming again and standing in the midst; Peter taking his boat back after a night at sea, and there on the shore, near a little fire of coals, a familiar figure asking, "Children, have you any fish?"; the two men at Emmaus who knew him in the breaking of the bread. He never approached from on high, but always in the midst, in the midst of people, in the midst of real life and the questions that real life asks. (Magnificent Defeat)

Jesus shows up in the common, the mundane, the ordinary – not because this stuff is particularly “more holy” than the rest, but because it is what 99% of our lives are made of. We want to live in the 1% of glory, fame and success. Jesus waits for us in the 99% of cleaning toilets, waiting in lines at the DMV or the grocery store, mowing grass, changing diapers and wiping away drool, cleaning up dog poop and a million other mundane and useless places that make up our everyday lives. Let’s take time to be silent and enter the meaninglessness of our everyday lives, because God waits for us there in the person of his Son. Look for him in the face of the weak and despised around us.

Who has believed what he has heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?

For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. (Isaiah 53:1-3 ESV)

Friday, June 21, 2013

Knit Together

After my unraveling earlier today (my wonderful meltdown) I wanted to post a few texts that the Lord continues to use to restore my soul, to put me back together again. Perhaps others will find strength and hope as well.

I love this metaphor of being “knit together,” especially in contrast to being unraveled. As the Lord interacts with all my broken pieces, He sovereignly and tenderly rebuilds my sense of self, using Himself and his grace as adhesive. What results is new creation. I literally am bound together, knit together with him, and the result is a new self that is “Christ in me, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27).

God made my life complete
when I placed all the pieces before him.
When I got my act together,
he gave me a fresh start.
Now I’m alert to God’s ways;
I don’t take God for granted.
Every day I review the ways he works;
I try not to miss a trick.
I feel put back together,
and I’m watching my step.
God rewrote the text of my life
when I opened the book of my heart to his eyes. (Ps 18:20-24 MSG)

I’ve been listening to Eugene Peterson’s lectures on David and “narrative spirituality.” He spends some time on the David and Abigail story (1 Samuel 25), parking on this phrase that Abigail speaks to David:

“If men rise up to pursue you and to seek your life, the life of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of the living in the care of the Lord your God. And the lives of your enemies he shall sling out as from the hollow of a sling.” (1 Sam 25:29 ESV)

Peterson himself translates it this way:

If anyone stands in your way,
if anyone tries to get you out of the way,
Know this: Your God-honored life is tightly bound
in the bundle of God-protected life;
But the lives of your enemies will be hurled aside
as a stone is thrown from a sling.

Going alongside the metaphor of being “knit together” with God, I embrace this reality of being kept in “the bundle of the living in the care of the Lord.”

He really is that good.


I hate this. My heart is overthrown once again and fear runs rampant, unchecked. When it happens I feel so weak, so ashamed.

Whatever maturity I thought I had, whatever “progress” I thought I had made seems lost in an instant. It’s almost like there is a tiny loose thread hanging out of my heart and something trivial latches onto it and won’t let it go until the entire tapestry of my “self” lay in ruins on the floor. Whatever strength and hope I had found in the “beloved” new self in Christ-in-me is quickly wiped away in the thunderstorm fury of the orphan, wreaking havoc throughout my soul, raging for a sense of control (Sometimes I think that there is just a huge pool of anxiety and fear residing within me, waiting to latch on to something, anything).

This time it was some car problems as I tried to get out the door to work. I was in a hurry (as usual!) and unfocused. As I started my 99 Camry, it sounded weird - the engine sounded louder than normal. I decided to turn it off then on again to see if that helped (the extent of my mechanical expertise). But the engine kept running, or at least parts of it (at least one belt and fan seemed to keep going). I tried again, and same thing. My anxiety and confusion was rising by this point. On the third time I started it and the extra sound went away, and turning it off one more time the engine finally stopped.

Already late, I just started it again and went to work without problem, wondering what in the world was going on in my car. I imagined all kinds of “doom scenarios” with me being stranded somewhere, being late for work or not being able to make it to work at all, paying thousands in car repairs which we don’t have, etc. etc. I will wait and see if it does it again; I see my mechanic tomorrow anyway to get a few things done on our minivan so I’ll ask them about it then. From what I’ve found via web search, it doesn’t sound too dire.

The trigger or cause is not really important though. It could be something this small or something big. What it provokes within me is where I desperately need the redemptive healing of Christ. It’s times like these that remembering previous truths and experiences with God is so vital for me. Finally at work, I throw up my “tender mercies” playlist and listen, trying to invite God into this ravaged heart, into the messy chaos of my fearful mind. Slowly, grace seeps in and the wheels of anxious striving slow down. Once the wheels slow down enough I can sense his presence with me. I remember there is no condemnation for broken people like me, that the Lord has infinite tenderness and compassion towards me. I feel his embrace slowly surround even my fear (which seems so big and foreboding), his faithfulness envelop my anxiety. I admit I’m scared as hell. I cry out for help. Repeat, over and over and over.

Turn to me and be gracious to me,
for I am lonely and afflicted.
The troubles of my heart are enlarged;
bring me out of my distresses.
Consider my affliction and my trouble,
and forgive all my sins. (Ps 25:16-18 ESV)

Blessed be the Lord!
For he has heard the voice of my pleas for mercy.
The Lord is my strength and my shield;
in him my heart trusts, and I am helped;
my heart exults,
and with my song I give thanks to him. (Ps 28:6-7 ESV)

Slowly I feel myself being put back together. He is not ashamed of my fear, nor should I be (dang, I just should-ed on myself!). It is at moments like these where I need to show compassion on myself, just as I would to a dear friend or family member who was experiencing this. This episode does not negate anything of what he has done for and in me up to this point, his grace toward me has not been in vain; such episodes are actually required for his grace to go deeper and deeper. They provide opportunity for the life of God to get into newer and deeper places.

I don’t know if in this life I will ever grow to the point where I don’t get overthrown so easily. I do hope and pray that the process of recovery will continue to gain traction and get stronger, and my habits will help me more and more, especially as my reservoir of experiences with the faithful tenderness of God grows and grows. I appreciate any prayers you can send this ragamuffin’s way.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Formation of a Man of Steel

I went to see “Man of Steel” yesterday, and I was struck by several moving elements in the story that I felt compelled to write about. It is a happy coincidence that these reflections take place on Father’s Day, a fitting place. Warning - spoilers ahead!

I need to take a step back though and give a sense of context. Like many boys, when I was growing up, Superman was THE superhero I wanted to be. Though my favorite comic book hero was Spiderman, in terms of where my imagination went when thinking of “playing the hero” it was always to Superman that I went. For me, this was not just boyhood fancy, but it was deeply tied to my Dad and the role he played in my life, or at least the role I wanted him to play.

You see, my Dad (Bob Holman) actually looked like Christopher Reeve’s Superman, and even entered and won a Superman look-alike contest in Portland, OR. I was eight years old when the first Superman movie came out (1978) and I couldn’t get enough of these stories (Superman 2 was my favorite). The fact that my Dad looked like the hero I worshiped meant that all that I wanted from my Father and for myself became mythologically melded to this figure known as Superman (sorry I don’t have any pictures to post, though I can still see the framed picture of my Dad in suit and cape and goofy 70’s shorts standing on a Portland rooftop looking regal with cape blowing in the wind). I even prayed several times (the only prayers I remember praying, except for giving God the finger), “please, please, let me become Superman!” Looking back, the reason why I wanted to become Superman was because everyone loved him, and I desperately wanted to be loved, to be special, honored and cherished - all the things I felt desperately lacking in my childhood. If only I could be Superman, I would have a glory that would be constantly and endlessly affirmed, or so I foolishly imagined.

Thus, going to see the latest installment “Man of Steel,” I was mythologically expectant (despite having been very disappointed in Brandon Routh’s portrayal in “Superman Returns” a few years ago). I wanted to see what they had done to my favorite hero. I was delightfully surprised, to say the least. My expectations had been dampened somewhat by early reviews that weren’t too positive.

The first thing I noticed was that the development of Clark Kent’s (or Kal-El for you Kryptonians) moral character was far more important to the story than the development of his superpowers. In fact, his character guided and controlled the use of his powers, from beginning to end, and this in fact is what made him a good person. The issue of “what is a good person?” is something we all must wrestle with, and I believe that the best answer to this question is provided by Jesus and life with him in the Kingdom of God. See the Sermon on the Mount in particular - the good person is one who is alive in the Kingdom with him, immersed in his vision of reality and enabled by him to do the same things that he did in love, truth and service.

Second, I loved how the character of Superman was formed and guided by his relationship with his fathers. The message of both Jonathan Kent and Jor-El was more or less, “Son, you have to decide what kind of man you will become, and what you decide will change the fate of the world around you.” So few of us had fathers to communicate this message to us as sons, and we need stories and experiences to constantly remind us that this decision is ever before us. We have a will, and it is effective. The decisions we make will help create a certain kind of person. The kind of person we choose to become will drastically affect the world around us.

Human will, or agency, is a huge element to Superman’s story in this film. According to Jor-El, Krypton had degenerated to the point of genetically manufacturing their babies to fulfill strict and specific societal roles. There was no freedom to choose according to wisdom or desire, and Jor-El saw this as a huge weakness to Kryptonian culture. In this re-telling, Kal-El (Superman) was the first naturally born baby in centuries, which meant he alone had the freedom to choose what others did not. He could choose what role he would play, what kind of person he would become. He was not genetically engineered but a product of loving union, and this was one of the things that gave him an edge over General Zod and his followers when they attack Earth.

In order to think rightly about this we need to have a vision of the kind of person we want to become. If we have no vision, we will merely “float” and drift with whatever the strongest message is around us (the “social pressure of the strongest professional opinion.”). Recently I asked myself the question, “what kind of person would I like to be on my dying day?” What kind of person would I like to be in the last days of my life? How could that impact how I live today, and the choices I make? I would like to be the kind of person who is utterly confident in the goodness and mercy of God, free from attachments to things and others’ opinions, one whose only security is in the simple fact that I am loved by God, free from worry and anger. Lord, let it be.

Third, hiddenness and obscurity was essential to the development of Superman’s character. For much of the movie, our hero was hiding in the shadows, trying not to attract attention to himself. He still helped people (he couldn’t help it!), but he did it in hidden ways, and disappeared when too much attention was drawn to him. There was a glory to his powers that could not be trusted in the hands of certain types of persons. For a long while, he could not even trust himself. A huge shift occurs when he learns to trust who he has become and to entrust this person to the human race (a beautiful Christological parallel, see Philippians 2).

Lastly, Love (sacrificial, agape love) is the most powerful thing in the universe. Similar to the beautiful narratives in the Narnian Chronicles and the Harry Potter books, self-sacrificing love wins out over raw power every time.

On this Father’s Day, I am reflecting on the men in my life who have stepped in to “father” me from time to time (esp. my step-Dad, David!), and I am remembering that the best of all their counsel and living life with me is the same kind of advice that Clark Kent received from his fathers. With God’s resources available to me in Christ, I can choose to become the kind of person (in-Christ) that fathers others in ways that imitate his Fatherly heart. I don’t have to drift or compare myself with others; I can be God’s man, in this time and in this place, using whatever meager power I’ve been given to influence others toward goodness, beauty and truth, all of which find expression in the Kingdom of God in Jesus.