Every Monday, we will be releasing a blog post that will help you engage with the Bible in new ways.
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READING THE FIVE SCROLLS FOR TODAY
by Robert Williamson, Jr.
In Judaism, the biblical books Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther are known as “the Five Scrolls” (Chamesh Megillot). They play an essential role in in Jewish faith as festival scrolls, each being read on a major holiday. But the Christian Church has all but forgotten about them. They rarely make an appearance in the life of the church—or in the lives of most Christians. They are rarely taught or preached—or even read—in our churches.
Yet I believe these books have urgent relevance to the church today. If we took them seriously, they could help us think more faithfully about everything from human sexuality to human mortality, from immigration to the role of protest among people of faith.
The Song of Songs and the Joy of Sex
Unlike much of the Bible, the Song of Songs views sexuality as an exciting and enjoyable aspect of human existence. It presents two young lovers caught up in the rush of passion. It revels in the anticipation and fulfillment of sexual desire. It lingers over the beauty of human bodies, as the lovers admire one another’s physical forms.
In a church culture that too often views sex and bodies as sources of shame, the Song of Songs could provide an alternative biblical voice. It could help us celebrate sexuality as the beautiful gift of a loving God.
Ruth and Immigration Reform
Ruth tells the story of a Moabite woman who immigrates to Israel to support her Israelite mother-in-law. Though a foreigner, Ruth navigates Israelite customs and culture to provide food and security for herself and Naomi. She ultimately marries Naomi’s kinsman Boaz, bearing a child who will become the grandfather of David, Israel’s greatest king.
The book of Ruth was written in a time when there was strong anti-immigrant sentiment in Israel. It reminds the Israelites that even their founding king would never have existed without this Moabite woman. Likewise, Ruth can help us think about how we welcome immigrants. It can remind us, too, that people of many ethnicities have always contributed to the strength of our own communities.
Lamentations and Communal Trauma
Lamentations is a poetic response to the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. It presents multiple speakers, each responding differently to the community’s trauma. Daughter Zion accuses God of punishing her too violently. The Strong Man accepts God’s punishment and believes God will eventually restore him. Lamentations never decides between these two perspectives but lets them stand side-by-side.
For contemporary readers, Lamentations suggests that, in times of trauma, it is more important to remain together in community than to enforce theological conformity at the risk of relationship. If Daughter Zion and the Strong Man can remain together, surely we can, too.
Ecclesiastes and Human Mortality
In a culture often obsessed with wealth and achievement, Ecclesiastes offers a potent counternarrative. It observes that in the end all our striving will accomplish nothing. We will all die and—sooner or later—we will all be forgotten. In 20 years (or 50, or 100) it will be as though we never lived.
Ecclesiastes encourages us to stop pursuing wealth and achievement and instead learn to appreciate the value of day-to-day life. We should laugh and cry, mourn and dance, rend and sew (3.1–8). The true value of life is to enjoy the individual moments, fleeting though they may be.
Esther and Ethnic Nationalism
The book of Esther tells the story of a young Jewish woman who rises to the position of queen of the Persian Empire in a time when anti-Jewish sentiment is seething just below its surface. When the king appoints Haman as his second-in-command, he concocts a plan to exterminate all the Jews living in Persia. Esther’s cousin Mordecai protests loudly in the streets, but he has no power to change the decree. It falls to Esther, who works quietly and carefully within the protocols of the Empire, to save her people.
In a time when ethnic nationalism has again found access to power in the United States and around the world, Esther calls people of faith to resistance. It shows that all people can use their positions to affect change, whether through noisy protest or quite diplomacy. It insists that all of us have a role to play in a time such as this.
To learn more about these five books and their relevance for today, see my recent book The Forgotten Books of the Bible: Recovering the Five Scrolls for Today.
Robert Williamson, Jr is Margaret Berry Hutton Odyssey Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Hendrix College and founding pastor of Mercy Community Church of Little Rock, a multidenominational worshiping community that welcomes especially those who live on the streets. He is author of The Forgotten Books of the Bible: Recovering the Five Scrolls for Today (Fortress Press, 2018).
SPACES AND PLACES IN THE BIBLE
by Eric Smith
My children are captivated by C. S. Lewis’s stories of Narnia, and if I’m honest, I am, too. There is something magical about the idea of escaping through a portal into another world, discovering all the things that can be contained in a single ordinary wardrobe. The best-kept secret of Narnia, of course, is that Narnia is real, but it isn’t the wardrobe that transports you there. You’re transported to Narnia through the pages of the books where you read about it. It’s a story about a magical space that leads to a magical place, but all of the real magic is contained in the pages of a book.
The Bible works the same way. We think of the Bible as a book that describes people, places, and things—that it can tell us all about another world. But what we sometimes miss about the Bible is that the Bible isn’t just reporting on those worlds. It is creating those worlds as we read it. It is a literary space that opens up new worlds to us, like all great literature does, builds them stone by stone, and it allows us to visit and travel through them.
Think, for a moment, of all of the different worlds contained in and created by the Bible. The Jerusalem temple comes to mind—grand, imposing, bustling, overwhelming to the senses. You might think of the regular sacrifices of Solomon’s temple, or your imagination might turn to the story of Jesus driving the money changers out of the second temple, or you might even visit a ruined temple as it is described in Mark 13. The temple, though, only exists in the place where our imaginations meet the text of the Bible; the actual physical temple was destroyed twice by invading armies, and after it was ruined by the Romans it was never rebuilt. The door to this temple, and to all our travels through it, is found in books. We can visit, but it’s a space, like Narnia, that only gets created in the reading of a book.
Another good example of spaces created by the Bible are kingdoms. Think of all the kingdoms described there: the kingdom of Saul, the kingdom of Herod, the kingless kingdoms of Revelation, the kingdom of God in the gospels, and many others. Pay attention, as you read, to the way you are invited into these kingdoms—these spaces—and the way they are created around you as you read. None of these are real kingdoms today, in the sense of being political entities recognized by the international community or anything like that. But they take on their own kind of reality when we walk through the pages of a book and enter into their literary spaces.
Once you start to read the Bible this way, paying attention to what wardrobes you’re walking through and where they lead you, you can start to see how the Bible is taking you on a particular tour of places and spaces. Take the book of Jonah, for example, and the different spaces created in that short book. There’s Tarshish, a vague place on the horizon of the world that we never get to see. We travel on a ship and meet some panicked sailors, where Jonah’s reluctance catches up with him. Part of the book takes place in the belly of a giant fish, where Jonah prays. We visit Nineveh, where Jonah succeeds against his will, and the book ends in a strange space—under a vine, where Jonah plagued by a pernicious worm, grumpy about the fact that he has saved the Ninevites despite himself. These are all places we are led, spaces we are taken through, localities conjured up by the act of reading. They are all something like Narnia, although we don’t usually give the Bible the same kind of credit that we give C. S. Lewis.
Try reading Jonah that way—but also try it with Genesis, Isaiah, Acts, Galatians, Joshua, and any other book in the Bible. Even the Psalms and Philemon make spaces for you and invite you in, if you’re willing to find them. The Bible is a book, but like all books, it’s much more than that. It’s a magical space that can take you to magical places and worlds beyond our own.
Eric C. Smith is Assistant Professor of the History of Christianity and New Testament Studies at Iliff School of Theology. He is the author of Jewish Glass and Christian Stone: A Materialist Mapping of the Parting of the Ways and the forthcoming Paul the Progressive?: The Compassionate Christian’s Guide to Reclaiming the Apostle as an Ally.
READING THE BIBLE AS A POSTMODERN SPIRITUAL EXERCISE
by Matthew Kruger
In this article, I’m going to talk about a postmodern approach to reading Scripture as a spiritual exercise, focusing on the movement from concept to practice, the classical philosophical practice of integrating intellectual thoughts into one’s life. Postmodern thought is, of course, an expansive thing and difficult to summarize, but it is perhaps best known for its critical tools. In this way, reading Scripture from a postmodern perspective can help us learn and grow in faith through its questioning and disruption of the general pattern of our belief.
One important criticism offered in postmodern thought is the complicating of metanarrative. Metanarrative describes the overarching story that we tell about the universe, and Christianity has a few different versions of this story, depending on one’s background and belief. Generally speaking, it can include several components, or stories: God created the world; God is good and teaches us right and wrong; God punishes the evil and rewards the good; God rewards the good in this life and punishes the evil in this life (theodicy); God has a plan for the world; God has a plan for your life in particular. All of these pieces together form a “metanarrative,” because these distinct pieces (“narratives” or “stories”) are told together as part of one grand story about the nature of all things.
Reading Scripture in a way influenced by postmodern thought challenges us to ask difficult questions of our metanarratives. For example, I would say that reading Scripture honestly complicates our understanding of, at the very least, the last three on the list. For example, when Jesus talks about theodicy: “Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you” (Luke 13.4–5a). Eighteen people died in a tragedy, and the people would like to know why this happened. They are searching for an explanation of some kind. What was the plan for the lives of those killed by the tower? Did they especially deserve to die? Jesus’ answer (“No”) dismisses the idea that these persons were killed for any reason related to sinfulness—that is, they did not deserve it more than anyone else. Beyond this, he provides no explanation for the event.
Another passage provides a similar complication: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep” (Luke 6.24–25). We are very ready to speak of wealth and happiness as blessings; why is Jesus telling us that we will be punished for these things?
So, what do we say about our metanarrative now? Does God bless and punish in this life? Does God have a plan for our lives? Reading these passages should give us pause if we have held any of those beliefs. The Apostle Paul offers us a good example of how to be when he writes: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair” (2 Corinthians 4.8). Paul is including himself as one who is perplexed, and this should give us pause once more. Why is Paul perplexed? How is it that there is something baffling about life for Paul, who is one of the architects of the Christian religion and a man of deep and abiding faith? If Paul is perplexed, how could we not be?
So this is where the spiritual exercises come in. We can aspire to follow in Paul’s footsteps, and thus to come his place of perplexity. We do this by finding points that disagree with our theology or metanarrative in the scriptures, reading not to confirm our opinions but with the goal of creating unbounded space. Once we recognize something that brings us to a place of unknowing, we can then integrate this complexity into our lives through spiritual exercise. Here the spiritual exercise takes the form of an internal questioning and evaluation: do you feel like something bad should happen to someone who does wrong? Do you feel like you should be punished by God when you do something wrong? Do you feel a pang of jealousy when you see a rich person, or believe that people who have more than you are more blessed by God? The goal is not the creation of a new metanarrative—not a new, final answer to these questions—but rather to live within the confusion that is the human condition by the grace of God. Through this constant evaluation of one’s daily life in action and thought, it is possible to come to a new sort of faith.
Matthew C. Kruger is Assistant Professor of the Practice of Theology at Boston College and an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Massachusetts. He lives in Newton, MA, with his wife and son. He is the author of Spiritual Exercises for the Postmodern Christian (Cascade Books, 2018).
SIX BIBLE READING STRATEGIES FOR PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIANS
by Dr. Bill Greenway
My youth was, happily, drenched in Scripture. I grew up in Houghton, New York, a rural town of a thousand that is home to Houghton College, a private college associated with the Wesleyan Church. At home, we read aloud daily from the small box of color-coded Scripture cards before saying grace at dinner. Then there was weekly Sunday School, morning worship, evening worship, mid-week worship, two weeks of Summer Vacation Bible School, and as I got older, Sunday evening and mid-week Youth Group, and finally, my favorite (seriously), the 6:30 a.m., before-school Bible circle for teens. We gathered, prayed, read a passage aloud, reflected silently, shared and worked to discern different ways the reading was significant for each of our lives, all under the guidance of Norm, our youth pastor. Unwittingly following the fourfold exegetical method of the Patristic period, in practice we simply ignored passages and interpretations that were obviously unacceptable—though in theory for us the contentious debate was “infallible or inerrant?” (I remember, alas, arguing successfully against hiring a youth pastor who expressed doubt the Genesis flood was global).
Rigorous study in philosophy, theology, sociology, and Bible at Houghton College and Princeton Theological Seminary rapidly moved me beyond seeing Scripture as either inerrant or infallible. My theology became open and progressive. At the same time, I came to appreciate even more powerfully the profundity of the Scriptural witness—it awakened and convicted me over spiritual truths; therein lay its transcending authority. With regard to questions of joy, guilt, forgiveness, love, koinonia, comfort, grace and justice, I found and find the Scriptures far superior to the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Kant, Hegel, Camus, Heidegger, and Sartre (all from whom I also learn). When cynics like Sam Harris pen best-sellers highlighting biblical passages that are beyond the pale—mostly the same passages we ignored in my teen Bible study—in order to bash all Scriptures and all faith, I am stunned by his weak generalizations and sophomoric judgments, and I am saddened over a power and wealth-obsessed culture all too happy to celebrate a book that trashes texts and traditions that are overwhelmingly and at their heart full of prophetic calls to love, justice, mercy, community and hospitality, to confession of sin and complicity, to texts and traditions that stimulate awakening to gracious love for oneself and others, all of which leads to concrete care for the poor, the needy, acceptance of oneself as beloved, and to active concern for all creatures and all creation.
These prophetic calls were at the heart of the biblical witness I had heard since childhood. While no person or church is perfect (indeed, every Christian and church confesses to the contrary!), it is no accident Wesley set up free medical clinics and started schools for impoverished coal miners and their children in England, no accident the Wesleyan Church in the USA was established in 1843 on an abolitionist platform and later was at the forefront of the suffrage movement, no accident the members of my home church gave and give massive amounts of money (as a percentage of income), time, and talent (especially medical and educational) to the poor and needy in surrounding communities and abroad. Such ministries are typical of the overwhelming majority of churches.
Ironically, as my understanding became more philosophically and theologically sophisticated, I was increasingly convicted over the way in which Scripture in multifarious ways and with profound, complicated implications, unveils and strives to awaken us to a single, piercing reality, namely, the reality of agape, which, insofar as God is love, is the reality of God. I was helped to this insight by Emmanuel Levinas, a Jewish philosopher and Holocaust survivor who argues that at its heart all Torah testifies to one thing: to the love manifest when we are taken hostage by the faces of persecuted others. I slightly amend Levinas and talk of the love manifest in our having been seized in, and by, love for every Face (including our own). Significantly, this is a love manifest both in contexts of horror (where we scream “no!” and move to help), and in contexts of joy (where we say “yes!” and celebrate).
In especially horrific or joyous contexts the agape by which we are so intimately and powerfully seized is palpable, almost irresistible (it takes real effort to harden one’s heart). It is surely real. Agape immediately, spiritually, surely experienced is God immediately, spiritually, surely experienced, a sure and contoured encounter with the living Spirit of gracious, accepting, commanding love to which Scripture and a host of witnesses testify and seek to awaken us.
Levinas is a 20thcentury Jew reminiscent of a 1stcentury Jew who also proclaimed the sum of the law was love, the love of God, which is love of neighbor (Matthew 25.31–46)—Paul (Romans 13.9; Galatians 5.14) and John (John 4.7–21) famously concur. St. Augustine said the supreme exegetical principle was love—any interpretation that was unloving was wrong. This same love fuels what Calvin defined as the essence of faith: overwhelming conviction over ultimate divine benevolence towards us that the Spirit reveals to our minds and seals upon our hearts.
I am a Christian theologian who specializes in philosophical theology. For me, that means I specialize in evangelical/apologetic or public theology in the sense that I strive after a witness that is reasonable and compelling not only within but also outside the community of faith. I am now Presbyterian (USA), but I find my Wesleyan heritage also shining through as my work utilizes experience, reason, tradition, and Scripture, all as inspired by the living Spirit manifest in our having been seized in, and by, love for every Face of every creature of every kind. My first book, For the Love of All Creatures: The Story of Grace in Genesis (Eerdmans, 2015), is a philosophically rigorous reading of the primeval history (Genesis 1–11, including the flood narrative!) in the light of agape. And my foundational work, A Reasonable Belief: How God and Faith Make Sense (WJK, 2015), culminates and finds vindication in an awakened rationality’s reading of Jesus’ parables of the Unforgiving Steward, the Prodigal Son, the Sheep and Goats, and the Good Samaritan, and also of key passages from Paul and I John (all readings which were critical in first awakening me).
So, in light of all of this, and speaking specifically as a philosophical theologian, what general advice might I add about reading Scripture? First, do read Scripture; it is reasonable to expect to find wisdom in Scripture, for the reason the various books of the Bible came to be affirmed in the first place as especially trustworthy and insightful, as Scripture, is because they concretely proved themselves over centuries of use in contexts of flourishing and of horror. Second, read and discuss Scripture with others, ideally diverse others, and ideally with informed leadership (someone aware of key historical and interpretive issues). Third, do not read primarily for information or doctrine; read primarily as one open to awakening to the inspiration that first inspired the written witness. Fourth, in the tradition of hymns, lectionaries, and 99.9% of sermons and devotionals, follow the lead of my 6:30 a.m. Bible group: don’t sweat the offensive stuff that clearly contradicts agape; move on to passages that nourish you with loving challenge and gracious acceptance. Fifth, don’t be anthropocentric. The Scriptures testify to God’s love for all creatures of all kinds; be open to awakening to a love for all creatures of every kind: love as broadly and generously as God loves. Finally, while struggle with passages that disturb me often eventually proves especially fruitful, do not turn your reading into a chore; in general, read freely until you find words that speak to your heart—ultimately, as Augustine said, if your reading is true to the Spirit, these will be words testifying to the Word, which is agape.
William Greenway, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophical Theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He is the author of A Reasonable Belief: How God and Faith Make Sense (WJK, 2015) and For the Love of All Creatures: The Story of Grace in Genesis (Eerdmans, 2015).
THE BIG, MASSIVE, LIFE-ALTERING WORD AT THE VERY HEART OF THE BIBLE
by Brandon Andress
There is this big, massive, life-altering word at the very heart of the Bible. It is a word on the lips of every Christian and a word included in virtually every sermon preached in every church at every service every Sunday. Yet, it is very likely the most misunderstood word in all of Christianity. That word is: gospel.
Gospel is an Old English word that means good news, which should invariably lead one to ask, “The good news about what?” If you ask Christians the meaning of the word, you may get an answer like this: “The good newsis the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus to take away our sins so that we can go to heaven one day.”
But the fundamental problem is that Jesus actually preached the good news.
Do you see the problem here? Jesus had not yet died, so his good news could not have been his own death, burial, and resurrection.
A closer look reveals that the good news Jesus preached was the good news of the kingdom of God. And this good newswas not about going to heaven one day in the future. It was the good news of heaven coming to earth presently through our lives, in how we live. It was a good newsradically rooted in this present moment. And it was a good news that operated by a new set of values, a new way of thinking, a new way of being human.
And it looks exactly like Jesus.
When the world hits you, do not retaliate but give the other cheek. When the world is weighing you down with heavy requests, don’t just go one mile with the request but go two miles. When the world takes everything you have, even the coat off your back, don’t just give your coat but go even further by offering your shirt. When the way of the world harbors anger and holds grudges, be one who forgives your friends and your enemies alike. Don’t just forgive once, but forgive and forgive and forgive.
When the world is quick to respond and rip a person to shreds, be one who controls your anger and the words that come from your mouth. When the world devalues relationships and marriages, be one who looks to the interest of others, honors commitments, and always remains selfless. When the world looks out for and protects its own pursuits and interests to the detriment of others, be one who treats others as you would want to be treated yourself. When the world casts the stone of judgment at the “sinner,” be one who loves and stands beside every single person without judgment. When the world shuns the outcast and pushes that person to the edges of society, be one who befriends the outcast and welcomes them back into loving and healing community.
When the world lords over you with power and authority, be one who serves with the utmost humility. When the world takes the seat of honor so it can be seen and noticed by everyone, be one who takes the seat of low position in the back of the room. When the world puts on a show of being pure and good but is corrupt at the very core, be one who is pure from the inside and let it work out through your life. When the world continues in the ways of injustice and is merciless to the least in society, be one who aligns with the least and for those who cannot defend themselves by demanding justice and mercy.
When the world fights and wars among themselves, be one who always stands on the side of peace no matter the situation and no matter the circumstance. When the world insults, ridicules, and curses you, be one who blesses in return. When the evil of the world assaults you, be the one who does not resist the evil. And when the world beats you, spits upon you, and is preparing to crucify you, continue on the way of forgiveness and self-sacrificing love.
The kingdom of God will never be conquered, destroyed, or defeated because it is the love of God that continually resurrects in our lives. This kingdom is growing larger and spreading from person to person all throughout the world. And there is not a savage, a soldier, a maniac, a terrorist, or a world army that can pin it down or extinguish it because the love of God will prevail.
And this kingdom is here, now.
That is the good news.
That is the gospel.
Brandon Andress is the author of Beauty in the Wreckage: Finding Peace in the Age of Outrage. He is also writer at brandonandress.com and producer of “Outside the Walls” podcast.
IS THE BIBLE THE ONLY WAY TO HEAR GOD'S VOICE?
by Keith Giles
Does the Bible really say that the only way to know God is through the Scriptures? You might be surprised at the answer. In the ongoing conversation about the identity of the “Word of God” and differences between the Bible and Christ, we often hear reactions that sound something like this: “You cannot know Christ apart from the Scriptures. Everything we know about Christ comes to us from the Bible.”
That sounds right, doesn’t it? I mean, how else could we know anything about God or about Jesus apart from the Bible? (Right?) But, if we look to the Bible to support this notion we might be in for a little surprise.
As we look deeply into God’s Word, we run across verses that suggest something a lot more breathtaking than what we might have expected. For example, the Gospel of John tells us that “The Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1.14) and that this same Word of God is Jesus (John 1.1) and now Jesus (the Word of God) lives within every one of us who abides in him (John 15.4). So, if the Word of God is Jesus, and if Jesus now lives within us, then we have the Word of God inside of us. This means we can know Christ the way we know our own voice or our own heartbeat because he is alive within us.
The Scriptures also tell us that we “have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2.16) right now and that we have the “gifts of God’s Spirit” and can discern “all things” (1 Corinthians 2.14,15). We also learn that this Spirit is now alive within us. Jesus also affirms to us that we can hear his voice and that he, as the good shepherd, is more than capable of making himself heard: “I am the good shepherd . . . my sheep hear my voice” (John 10.11,27). So, not only can we all hear our Master’s voice individually, we are also empowered by the Holy Spirit who “guides” us into truth (John 16.13), as Jesus promised us.
The Apostles also affirmed these same ideas by pointing to the evidence of the Holy Spirit within us as proof that we belong to Christ and that we can know the truth apart from anything else: “As for you, the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, abide in him”(1 John 2.27). The anointing every Christian has received is from the Holy Spirit and this anointing teaches us about all things.
Now, does any of this mean we don’t need the Bible? Far from it. Why wouldn’t we avail ourselves of the all the treasures provided for us in the Scriptures? That would be foolish. But my point is this: According to the Bible, we can know God, and Christ, by the indwelling Spirit of the Living God within us. This is what the Bible teaches us about how we primarily know God and Christ and the truth: by the Spirit of God.
According to the Bible, everything we know about Christ comes from Christ. Yes, some of it does come from the Bible, (and that of course comes from Christ, too), but even more wisdom and truth is available to us directly from the One who lives and breathes within us on a daily basis. I think that’s worth at least one big “Halleluiah!” Don’t you? Are you ready for a little more excitement? This is all exactly what the New Covenant is all about.“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31.31–34; emphasis mine)
Notice that the result of this New Covenant would be that God’s people would not turn to teachers for wisdom about God because “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” and because “they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” When these words were written, it sounded like science fiction. How could God do this? What would it be like to have God’s Law written on our hearts? What would it be like not to depend on teachers to know God? How amazing would it be if everyone who belonged to God knew him so intimately? Now, today, because of Christ’s accomplishment and fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, the Holy Spirit has been poured out on all people. We, right now, are those people that Jeremiah prophesied about. We are the people who now have God’s Law written on our hearts. We are the people who are now empowered by the Spirit of the Living God to “Know the Lord” because we can all know him, “from the least to the greatest.”
Doesn’t that excite you? Isn’t that great news? How sad would it be to live in such a time as this and not take advantage of such a wonderful gift from God? Jesus declared this New Covenant in his blood. We remember his death and covenant with us every time we eat the bread and drink the cup in holy communion. Why stop there? Why not continue onward to claim the promises that come with this New Covenant reality? Why not listen for the voice of our good shepherd and learn to “know the Lord” in this one-on-one way?
If we don’t live this way, we are actually choosing to live an Old Covenant life and to embrace an Old Covenant kind of faith rather than a truly Christ-centered life and faith that leads us to life and grace and truth. Jesus was quick to remind us that we have no need of any other teacher except him:"Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah"(Matthew 23.10).
Please don’t miss this, my friend. It was for freedom that Christ has set you free from the Old Covenant kind of life. The opportunity to know God intimately and to hear the voice of Jesus directly is wide open to you now. The Lord is available to you. Listen for his voice.
Keith Giles is a licensed and ordained pastor who left the pulpit over a decade ago to start a church where 100% of the offering would go to the poor in the community and no one takes a salary. He is the author of several books, including the Amazon best-seller Jesus Unbound: Liberating the Word of God from the Bible with a foreword by Brian Zahnd. Keith now lives in Meridian, Idaho, with his wife and blogs regularly at: www.KeithGiles.com.
GETTING OVER PROTESTANT PREJUDICE AGAINST THE APOCRYPHA
by David deSilva
The topic of the Apocrypha came up in my Sunday School class a few weeks ago. I was surprised to learn that only three people in the class of twenty even owned a Bible with the Apocrypha. Only one of the three had dipped into the Apocrypha at all. Nevertheless, despite a total lack of familiarity with the Apocrypha, there were a lot of negative opinions about these books. “Weren’t those books removed from the Bible because they contained bad theology?” “Aren’t those dangerous books, full of misleading ideas?” “Those are books that Catholics read, not us!” There’s some pretty strong prejudice out there against the Apocrypha among Protestants.
This is not a prejudice that one of the great leaders of the Protestant Reformation shared. Martin Luther dearly valued these books. He thought them sufficiently important to go through the significant trouble of translating them when he created his German Bible. He carefully separated them out from the Old Testament and printed them as a separate section between the testaments, where, chronologically speaking, they also most naturally belong. But he did not remove them. Far from cautioning Protestants against the Apocrypha, he encouraged them to become familiar with these books alongside Scripture. In his preface to the Apocrypha, he wrote: “these are books that, while not esteemed like the holy Scriptures, are still both useful and good to read.”
Luther appeared particularly to value two books in the Apocrypha. The first was called the “Wisdom of Solomon,” a Jewish text written in Greek around the turn of the era. In his preface to this book, Luther wrote: “There are many good things in it, and it is well worth reading.” I would love to have had such an endorsement from Luther for any of my own books! He regarded it as “a good exposition and example of the first commandment,” a book that “is to be read, so that one may learn to fear and trust God, so that he may help us by his grace.” Far from being a danger to faith, Luther commends this book as a devotional aid to faith! Perhaps we should be at least as willing to read the Apocrypha as we are the most recent inspirational literature by Max Lucado, Beth Moore, or Adam Hamilton.
The second was one of the historical books, 1 Maccabees. This book provides an important window into the history of Judea and its surrounding territories between about 167 and 141 BC. Together with 2 Maccabees, it introduces us to some of the most important events of the period between the testaments:
- The attempt, initiated by Jewish elites, to turn Jerusalem into a Greek city;
- the desecration of the Jerusalem temple with pagan sacrifices (the “abomination that desolates”);
- the violent repression of Judaism and the first martyrs of our tradition, who died under torture rather than willfully eat a mouthful of pork;
- the successful revolt against Gentile rule led by Judas Maccabaeus and his armies of Jews who were “zealous for the law”;
- the purification and rededication of the temple, celebrated annually at Hanukkah;
- and the establishment of an independent Jewish state for the first time since 597 BC (which would only last, however, until 63 BC).
Luther recognized the importance of knowing this history for interpreting the book of Daniel, which also zeroes in on the repression of Judaism and the desecration of the temple: “This book is one of those which do not form part of the Hebrew Bible, but its words and discourses are almost as enlightening as those of the other books of holy Scripture. And it would not have been wrong to count it as such, because it is a very necessary and useful book, as witness the prophet Daniel in the 11thchapter. For this reason, it is useful for us Christians also to read and know it.” Luther appears to be highlighting the importance of at least one of the Apocrypha as necessary historical background for understanding canonical Scripture, valuing it almost as much as canonical Scripture!
We all read a lot of non-canonical books. If we value Luther’s opinion, reading the Apocrypha would be near the top of that particular reading list.
David A. deSilva is Trustees’ Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Greek at Ashland Theological Seminary. He is the author of over twenty-five books, including Introducing the Apocrypha (2nd edition; Baker, 2018), The Jewish Teachers of Jesus, James, and Jude (Oxford, 2012), and Day of Atonement: A Novel of the Maccabean Revolt (Kregel, 2015).
READING THE BIBLE THROUGH THE LENS OF THE FORGIVING VICTIM
by Matthew J. Distefano
What is the Bible? Ask any number of people this question, and you’re bound to hear a variety of answers. Some would probably tell you that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and that every bit of information contained therein is a literal account of the way things were, are, and are to be. Others, typically in response to this staunchly literalistic method of interpretation, see the Bible as an antiquated piece of literature that belongs, at best, in a museum, and, at worst, in the dustbin of history.
But what if the Bible is something else entirely? What if it is chock full of errors—theological, historical, and otherwise—and yet could still be considered “inspired” by God? Well, that’s exactly what I contend it is.
Now, with that being said, I understand the propensity to see the Bible as nothing more than a superstitious effort by ancient people to try to explain the world around them. I mean, with tales of fire and brimstone falling from the heavens, and with people turning into pillars of salt or falling down dead for touching the wrong piece of holy furniture, it’s easy to see the Scriptures as nothing but Bronze Age hocus-pocus. We are, after all, post-Enlightenment moderns, and we know this sort of stuff just doesn’t happen.
What we tend to miss, however, is that underneath these mythologies is an overarching story being told, and it’s a story that should give us—yes, even as scientific-minded post-postmoderns—a good dose of hope in the midst of a mad, mad world.
Please allow me to explain.
First off, we can never honestly approach the Bible without first having a basic grasp of the world in which it came from. In other words, the Bible has a context, both cultural and theological, and often that context is a world where sacrificial violence is not only allowed, but championed and praised. This is the presupposition of all ancient peoples.
Take, for instance, the story of how the Roman Empire came to be. In this myth, two brothers, Romulus and Remus, quarrel over where to build a new city. Instead of working together or compromising on their dissimilar opinions, they get into a heated dispute that leads to Romulus killing his brother Remus. And because dead men tell no tales, so to speak, Romulus is written in as the hero of the story, forever celebrated as Rome’s patriarch.
Does this story sound familiar? It should. In the book of Genesis, a similar one is told. Only in this version, there is a twist in the tale. In the biblical version, we begin to part ways with other ancient myths by hearing from the voice of the slaughtered victim (Genesis 4.10). That is to say, the slain Abel cries out for vengeance. But, in this version, divinity is not having any of it, and in spite of Cain being depicted as entirely guilty of the murder, God puts a mark on him in hopes that violence will stop dead in its tracks (Genesis 4.15). As we all probably know, however, this doesn’t exactly work. In only a handful of generations, a man named Lamech is taking vengeance on others at a rate of seventy-sevenfold, and by the time we meet Noah, violence and corruption are so prevalent that it overwhelms humanity in a flood of epic proportions.
Fast forward a few thousand years to Jesus. Like Abel, the first century itinerant preacher from Nazareth is murdered in cold blood. Both the dying bandit on the cross and the Roman centurion testify to this (Luke 23.41,47). Yet, unlike Abel, the blood of the slain Jesus does not cry for vengeance from the grave. In fact, as the writer of Hebrews puts it, the blood of Jesus “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12.24). We know this for one very specific reason: The Resurrection. Only three days after his death, Jesus is raised in order to speak the good word of shalom—peace—and of forgiveness. Whereas the voice of religious and political systems speaks the language of death and blood sacrifice, and whereas most human victims’ natural propensity is to cry for retribution and vengeance—we call it “justice”—the voice of divine revelation transcends these human systems by speaking the language of life, by the pouring out of one’s self in love for the other (the Greek term is “kenosis”). John 20.19–23 captures this theme beautifully:
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
It is here where we are introduced to what Catholic theologian James Alison calls “the intelligence of the victim.” Because of the Resurrection, for the first time in human history, we can see with the clearest of lenses just how wrong we’ve been structuring things. We’ve often opted for peace through the killing of the “other,” but here, the victim is vindicated. And the Good News—the Gospel—is that the victim comes to us, in all our confusion and bloodlust, with peace and forgiveness.
This Christ-centered lens is crucial for our understanding of the overarching story of the Bible. Because the Bible includes all sorts of voices, all sorts of views and opinions, the Jesus-story—one where mercy always trumps sacrifice (compare Matthew 9.13; Hosea 6.6)—is all-too-often missed, generally because we have, for too long, opted to read the Bible hyper-literally, as if every jot and tittle is from the very mouth of God. Either that, or we’ve chucked the whole thing out because of its inclusion of the very sacrificial violence it’s moving humanity away from. Both of these methods are tragic. Why? Because they both cause us to miss the subversive and, might I say, prophetic message Jesus is trying to convey. In short, Jesus gives us a new type of community, one centered on other-oriented love. When we sit down and take the Eucharistic meal, the breaking of bodies is replaced by the breaking of bread. The pouring out of our victims’ blood is replaced by the pouring out of a fine cabernet sauvignon. It’s a community centered, not around a dead body, yet another one of our victims, but around a meal and a table.
May we have eyes to see and ears to hear what story the Bible, rightly divided, is really telling.
Matthew J. Distefano blogs for the Progressive Christian channel on Patheos. He is the author of 4 books, including 2 Amazon best sellers, and co-hosts the Heretic Happy Hour podcast. He lives in Chico, CA, with his wife and daughter.
IT'S A STORY
by Rev. Anne Robertson
The Bible has been called “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” We sing hymns with titles like “I Love to Tell the Story,” and buy books of “Bible stories” for our children. We flock to musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat; movies like The Ten Commandments win Oscars, while all corners of the culture debate films like The Passion and The Last Temptation of Christ. The Bible is a great, engaging story.
When adults pick up a Bible to read, however, the Bible often morphs into something else entirely—a book of laws that seem impossible to keep; a textbook that makes us choose between our faith and science; a record of God’s exact words to be applied universally across time and space. We forget that the Bible is a collection of stories, ordered in a way that creates one large, epic story that begins and ends in a garden of God’s promise.
To talk about the Bible as a story is not to make any claims about what happened and what didn’t. “Story” isn’t about fact or fiction; it’s about how we approach what we’re reading; and that approach can make all the difference in the world when it comes to understanding the Bible. Here’s an example:
In Genesis 1.28, as God is wrapping up the gift of Creation, God says to the man and woman: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” If I think the Bible is a book of God’s laws, I can’t move on to chapter two until I know what “dominion” and “subdue” mean—because that’s how legal documents work. The terms are defined up front and then everything that comes later refers back to those definitions.
Stories work in exactly the opposite way. If I think I’m reading the first chapter of a very long story, I will still take note of that verse. After all, it’s the first thing God says to the newly-minted humans, and any author worth their salt will use that moment to signal a theme. But because it’s a story, I will also know that the first mention of a theme is just that. It’s a hint of things to come. I don’t have to stop for definitions. The rest of the story will tell me much more about what God means by “dominion” and “subdue” and how God would like Adam, Eve, and their myriad descendants to exercise power in this shiny, new world.
Just eighteen verses later, we see that God’s idea of dominion includes tilling and keeping the Garden. It’s not the raw exercise of power; it’s stewardship. Further, Adam and Eve’s “dominion” has limits—they can’t even eat all the fruit! In chapter four we learn that our role as stewards extends to each other. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain asks, after killing his brother. The answer is yes. “Subdue” doesn’t mean unfettered authority to do as we please. We are stewards of the land and of each other. In come the prophets, who tell us that dominion includes the exercise of justice, bounded by mercy and humility. We watch as kings who get it wrong wreak havoc on their kingdoms.
Every story in every book of the Bible weaves its tale with that dominion thread, until everything we first thought about power and authority is turned on its head. The almighty power of God becomes a vulnerable infant and show us in the flesh what “dominion” looks like: The first are the ones who go last; the leaders are those who serve; and eternal life is won by laying down our lives for others. It is not until that understanding is clear that the gates of heaven open.
The Bible is not “The Most Profound Legal Document Ever Written” or “God’s Comprehensive Guide to How Everything Works.” It’s “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” We won’t understand the full picture until the end; so relax, grab a drink, and curl up with the Good Book. God has a story to tell.
Anne Robertson is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Bible Society. A graduate of the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, Rev. Anne Robertson became the MBS Executive Director on April 17, 2007 after serving churches for 13 years as a United Methodist pastor. You can read more about this way of approaching the Bible in New Vision for an Old Story: Why the Bible Might Not Be the Book You Think It Is by Anne Robertson. Eerdmans Publishing, October 16, 2018.
READING THE BIBLE DURING LENT
by Max Vincent
Scripture reading has always been at the heart of observing the season of Lent. In the early days of the church, those who were being prepared to join the church during Lent often went to church daily, in part, to learn the Scriptures. These catechumens were not just learning the content of the Bible, they were learning to let the Scriptures direct their thoughts and actions. Such spiritual formation can be a part of our Bible reading at any time, but this year, let it be your focus during Lent.
One way to encourage such spiritual growth in your reading is to work through a selection of questions as you study a given passage. Some of the questions I often ask myself to move towards being shaped by the Scriptures are: What does this passage tell me about God? What does it tell me about myself? What does the passage tell me about my relationship with God or with others? Usually, these questions guide me into a time of prayer. My responses to these questions remind me of thanksgiving to express, confession to offer, intercessions to make, and praise to offer to God for who he is.
The above outline of prayer grew out of my own study of Paul's letter to the Philippians during Lent a few years back. I tell the story in my book Because of This I Rejoice. It is one example of how reading Scripture with an intentional focus on spiritual formation during Lent can affect your reading of Scripture at all times.
You might try the practice of Lectio Divina during Lent. This ancient reading method is a more meditative reading of Scripture, meant to draw the reader into the text to listen for what God is saying to you. There are many websites with information on this practice. The basic outline is reading the text, meditating on the text, praying in response to the text, and then contemplation (listening for how God speaks to you.)
Other ways of giving intentional focus to Scripture reading during your observance of Lent is reading through one book of the Bible or reading for a set amount of time each day during Lent. We often encounter Scripture in bits and pieces: a passage today from Genesis, one tomorrow from the Psalms, and one of the gospels the following day. Using Lent to work through a given book or section of Scripture can open us to new understandings, helping us see passages in literary and historical contexts that lead to new spiritual insights.
Again, you could use any of these reading disciplines at any time. Lent, with its defined time period leading up to Easter, can be a great time to experiment with a reading plan that is different from your regular Scripture reading practice. Maybe the place for you to begin is by thinking how you most commonly read Scripture and be willing to try something new during this season. It may be a practice you end as soon as Easter arrives, or it might become a new daily habit.
Rev. Max Vincent, St. James United Methodist Church
THE BIBLE'S STORY AND THE PROBLEM OF EVIL
by Tom Long
What has become known in theological circles since the eighteenth century as the “theodicy problem” is basically the attempt to hold as true four affirmations:
- God exists
- God is all-powerful
- God is loving and good
- There is innocent suffering
The challenge of theodicy is the difficulty in holding to all four statements at once. If God is truly all-powerful and loving, then why doesn’t God intervene to stop disease and natural disasters that destroy the lives of people who seemingly have done nothing to deserve their suffering? As a character in Archibald MacLeish’s play J.B. puts it, “If God is God, he is not good. If God is good, he is not God.”
Presented this way, the theodicy problem, like formal atheism, is a product of the modern age. Only with the development of natural science and advanced notions of human reason could the question of God’s existence come into full bloom. In the ancient world, if a tornado destroyed a village, the sufferers would be prone to ask, “What is God saying to us in this?” Only in a post-Enlightenment world, when the universe is seen as “Nature” with its own laws and inner processes and God is seen as “Super-natural,” thus above Nature, could the question be raised, “Why didn’t God intervene in the processes of Nature and prevent the tornado from doing its damage?”
Because theodicy is a modern problem and is posed in terms of philosophical logic, some theologians, particularly Christians, reject theodicy outright as an improper question. The only answer to a philosophical, logical question about God, they claim, is a philosophical and logical God. But Christianity knows no such God and instead responds to suffering, not with logical argument, but with a “practical theodicy,” that is, by re-telling the story of the cross to live in faith and hope for one more day.
Those who have attempted to address the theodicy problem on its own terms generally do so by challenging one of the four affirmations, consequently resolving the challenge but also paying a theological price. For atheism, there is no God, thus no theodicy. Others challenge God’s omnipotence, arguing that God is working for good but does not possess the power to stop all evil and suffering. Others wonder about God’s goodness, protesting that God must be held to account in a world where children die of cancer. Both views—a God of limited power and a God of questionable moral character—come at the expense of awe and worship. Still others challenge the notion of truly innocent suffering, arguing that humans exercised free will to rebel against God, thus causing the creation to be fallen. In such a broken creation, God allows suffering to teach about sinfulness and to form moral character. But scientifically there is evidence of earthquakes and hurricanes before there were any creatures around to cause a fall, and the idea of suffering as moral education cannot account for senseless and catastrophic suffering. Whose character is built in a tsunami that kills hundreds of thousands of people?
Within Christian theology, the wisest response to the theodicy problem involves not the abandonment of any of the four affirmations but a redefinition of each of them. For Christians, the God who exists is not the abstract supernatural God of the philosophers, who chooses to intervene or not in the processes of nature, but the God who is all-in-all, the God revealed and known most fully in Jesus Christ. The creation cannot be neatly divided between the innocent and the corrupt but is, for reasons that are mysterious, held captive by the powers and principalities of evil and death, which are not God’s tools to build character but God’s enemies, too. God exercises power to defeat these enemies, but God’s power, seen most clearly in the cross, is in sharp contrast to the ordinary understandings of power as bullying strength. The response to theodicy is not an abstract explanation, but a hymn of hope. The promise of the gospel is that all that threatens to destroy the goodness of creation is God’s enemy. God comes as a warrior, but one unlike any human warrior, to exercise divine power to defeat all evil, the power of suffering love, unlike any earthly power. God, who is not defined or bound by time, enters our past, our present, and our future, and redeems even our memories.
Thomas G. Long is the Bandy Professor Emeritus of Preaching at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. He is the author of The Witness of Preaching (Westminster John Knox Press) and What Shall We Say: Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith (Eerdmans).
READING SCRIPTURE THROUGH THE EYES OF JESUS' SHALOM KINGDOM
by Randy Woodley
The origins of Jesus’ ministry did not begin with his public announcement in his hometown of Nazareth, but it was here his intentions were made undeniably clear. In Luke 4.14–30, Jesus draws a clear line connecting his own mission and that of the Ancient Israelite system of shalom/Sabbath. Jesus reads from Isaiah 61, a passage highlighting the shalom/Sabbath system of fairness, equity, inclusion of all, and justice: “For I the Lord love justice” (Isa 61.8).
Jesus’ mother also anticipated the “Great Day” when the shalom/Sabbath system designed by Creator would be followed, and all wrongs would be made right. In hope, she envisioned the poor walking away full and the rich walking away hungry. Mary envisioned Jubilee:
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
Jubilee is the time when all the smaller parts of shalom/Sabbath become fulfilled. In God’s design of shalom/Sabbath, a part of everyone’s land was set apart for three reasons: to help those who were hungry, for the wild beasts to forage, and to allow the land on earth itself to rest. Sheaves of wheat and bushels of grapes were left in the field for those who had nothing. Every seventh year the land lay fallow for those same purposes but on the fiftieth year, the year of Jubilee, or sometimes called the “Great Day of the Lord,” all prisoners and slaves were set free, all debt was cancelled and the land was returned to its original owner. In God’s wisdom, over the course of just two generations, no one could become too wealthy and no one could become too poor. Under the ancient shalom/Sabbath system, even the poorest slave could retain the hope that they, or their descendants, need not remain poor forever.
When Jesus announced his fulfillment of Jubilee, he was not proclaiming a new concept; he was calling people back to a very ancient one that was to be renewed. His renewed outlook on the shalom/Sabbath system was centered in justice and equality for everyone. Many of those present did not appreciate the openness and inclusiveness of Jesus’ reference to Gentiles. In fact, his reference was more specific and more directed to the people’s failure to include those outside Judaism and to fail to include the “least of these” in society. Throughout the Scriptures. there is a holy triad testifying to an active shalom presence and reflecting how the people on the margins of society are treated. In the ancient Israelite agrarian society, it was the concern for the widows, the foreigners, and the orphans. Any of these three categories of people were powerless when it came to finding entry into Israel’s patrilineal society where women could not own land, foreigners had limited rights, and only the first and second sons received an inheritance. Jesus points out God’s grace to the widowof Zarephath and the foreigner, the Syrian, Namaan, a soldier of the occupying force oppressing Israel at the time. But who was the orphan?
Jesus made himself the orphan by advocating for the widow and foreigner in those familiar stories, securing his own disenfranchisement. Mobs attempted to kill him. Jesus was cut-off in his own hometown because of his witness to God’s inclusion of others, especially the most downtrodden and marginalized of society. In Jesus’ public announcement concerning what his message and ministry would be about, we see clearly that the message of “the kingdom” he proclaimed is a kingdom of peace, justice, and equality. According to Jesus’ shalom kingdom, and his fulfillment of Jubilee, God has no favorites except for those who are the most disenfranchised from power in their society—those who cannot speak for themselves in the halls of power, those without a voice. As it was in ancient Israel, so must we include, not only people in these categories, but we must also include the earth’s creatures and the earth itself.
The interpretive lesson to those who claim to follow Jesus is that we begin to understand the entirety of Scripture through Jesus’ understanding of shalom. Viewing life and the Scriptures through Jesus’ eyes calls us first to consider the most marginalized of society in our ethics and actions, in both our public and our private lives. We understand God’s provision in ancient Israel for the poor, the disempowered, the earth and earth’s creatures, as safety-nets. In what ways are these safety-nets in place in our society? What are we doing personally and in policy to ensure God’s unchanging intentions to create safety-nets for those who need them? Where do we find ourselves in the story of Luke 4:14–30 and all the other stories we know that are calling us, like Jesus, to love justice?
Randy Woodley is Distinguished Professor of Faith and Culture and Director of Intercultural and Indigenous Studies at George Fox University/Portland Seminary. He is the author of Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision (Eerdmans 2012). His Podcast is www.peacingitalltogether.com.