The following are mini-reviews of books I read in 1998.
Also see the full index of books I've read.
Note: My father's health, already fragile, began to fail in the summer of 1997, then precipitiously in December of that year. For the next three months, I couldn't seem to read any books. Finally, in March 1998, I managed to read Peter Gomes' The Good Book. I was in the middle of Marcus Borg's Meeting Jesus Again when my father died in May. I also didn't have much of an inclination to write up my thoughts on the books I read in 1998. Several years later, I've managed to fill in three of the reviews - have patience! :)
A good book, pun intended, by Dr. Peter Gomes, minister of The Memorial Church at Harvard College. The book is divided into three parts. The first and shortest part, Opening the Bible, discusses contemporary approaches to the Bible, particularly in America. Biblical literacy is shockingly low, "[d]espite the ubiquity of the Good Book":It used to be said that most Christian adults live their lives off a second-rate second-grade Sunday school education ...which brought to mind something upon which I remarked when I read Karen Armstrong's In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis: most, if not all, of the Old Testament stories I learned in and remember from childhood are from Genesis - the rest of the Old Testament might as well have not existed.
Dr. Gomes makes some excellent points about Bible study:The Bible is [often] simply the entry into a discussion about more interesting things, usually about oneself. The text is a mere pretext to other matters, and usually the routine works like this: A verse or a passage is given out, and the group or class is asked, "What does this mean to you?" The answers come thick and fast, and we are off into the life stories or personal situations of the group ... [These types of discussions are beneficial to those involved, but] this is not Bible study, and to call it such is to perpetuate a fiction.Bible study actually involves the study of the Bible. That involves a certain amount of work, a certain exchange of informed intelligence, a certain amount of discipline. Bible study is certainly not just the response of the uninformed reader to the uninterpreted text, but Bible study in most of the churches has become just that - the blind leading the blind or, as some caustic critics of liberal Protestantism would put it, the bland leading the bland. The notion that texts have meaning and integrity, intention, contexts, and subtexts, and that they are part of an enormous history of interpretation that has long involved some of the greatest thinkers in the history of the world, is a notion often lost on those for whom the text is just one more of the many means the church provides to massage the egos of its members.(As someone who has put more work, intelligence, and discipline into reading about the Bible than into actually reading it, I can be counted among the biblically illiterate, although I do know better than to think that "the epistles are defined as the wives of the apostles"!)
Dr. Gomes warns against bibliolatry, literalism, and culturalism:
Gomes gives some wonderful examples of ministers attempting to disabuse their congregations of these temptations, as he calls them; my favorite was related to him by a colleague:
- The worship of the Bible, making of it an object of veneration and ascribing to it the glory due to God
- The worship of the text, in which the letter is given an inappropriate superiority over the spirit
- The worship of the culture, in which the Bible is forced to conform to the norms of the prevailing cultureThe preacher of her experience stood up and read his lesson from his Bible. He then closed the book and threw it out of the nearby open chancel window, and said, "Well, there goes your god." He was of course making a point about idolatry, and he was illustrating it with an attack upon bibliolatry, or the worship of the Bible.
Although the passages above stood out in my reading, my quoting them does not do justice to the richness and extent of Dr. Gomes' discussion in this part of the book. The book would be worth buying for this section alone. (I borrowed it from the library!)
Part Two of the book, The Use and Abuse of the Bible, discusses the Bible with respect to race, anti-semitism, women, and homosexuality. The title of the introductory chapter perfectly expresses the difficulties Dr. Gomes is about to deal with in this part: "Hard Texts and Changing Times". Some of his arguments seemed a little stretched to me, but I agreed with his conclusions, which, for the most part, are in the mainstream and "politically correct". Again, these labels don't do justice to the richness of his thought on these subjects.
Part Three, The True and Lively Word, consumes the latter half of the book and includes chapters on the Bible and suffering, joy, evil, temptation, wealth, and science. These chapters apparently didn't make as much of an impression on me as the earlier parts of the book, since I don't remember much from them. Then again, it's been two years since I read the book; perhaps it's just time for another reading.
One final note: I always figured that the ministry and priesthood, like other professions, must have their own tradition of humorous anecdotes and jokes. (I have since found a lot of religious humor on-line.) Dr. Gomes does not disappoint in this regard, freely using humor to illustrate and reinforce points. An enlightening book, yes, but also a truly enjoyable read!
(Also see interview, interview with Brian Lamb, debate with Jerry Falwell, ...)
... George MacDonald Society
A Portrait of Jesus: From Galilean Jew to the Face of God - an "exploration of Marcus Borg's portrait of Jesus and what it can mean for Christian life and faith".
... OCD ...
... One of the best books I have ever read ...
This book begins with a stunning and, in my opinion, on-target indictment of modern culture and, in particular, televisions's role in molding that culture:We must remember that all television is educational. It teaches values and behavior. Children are manipulated from the time they can sit in front of a television ...Children learn these things from ads: that they are the most important person in the universe, that impulses should not be denied, that pain should not be tolerated and that the cure for any kind of pain is a product. They learn a weird mix of dissatisfaction and entitlement. With the messages of ads, we are socializing children to be self-centered, impulsive and addicted. The television ... teaches values as clearly as any church.We may try to protect our children from such nonsense, but they live in a world with children who have been socialized into this value system. Indeed there is corporate colonialism ...After such a promising beginning, I expected more in the pages to come. Unfortunately, the remainder of the book consisted mostly of some inconclusive case studies of dysfunctional families and general advice for families to spend more time in the great outdoors.
The description of the Miller family in Chapter 5 I found offensive. A well-to-do family whose father is a university professor and whose mother home-schools the two children on a gentleman's farm in the mountains, their perfection reminds you of the Von Trapp family as portrayed in The Sound of Music. Pipher recognizes that most families do not have the resources and advantages that the Miller family possesses. What bothered me was the mother's social Darwinian outlook:Jane looked around the room. "We have a nice life, with the horses and farm. We teach that we have this life because we made good choices for a long time."I grew up in a comfortable middle-class family. My mother and father worked hard to raise my brothers and me - a bit harder in my brothers' cases! - and they likewise stressed the importance of making "good choices", but we were made well aware that we were fortunate and that other families and individuals, no less deserving, were not so fortunate. God distributes fortune and misfortune in mysterious ways.
(Also see Mary Pipher's "Surviving Toxic Media: How the Church Can Help" and Donna Ladd's "Is Mary Pipher the Answer to Teen Problems?".)
Bishop Spong presents a compelling case that the Gospels were essentially "textbooks" used to teach new converts prior to them being baptized into the Church on Easter. This instruction took place once a week and thus required many months to complete. The stories in the Gospels are "synchronized" with the Jewish calendar so that a given story, on the day it is taught, is related in some way with the Old Testament scripture being read that day in the synagogue. My recollection of the book is kind of fuzzy 6-7 months after reading it, but I do remember that Bishop Spong redeemed Paul in my eyes, countering the disillusionment I experienced reading Paul Beeching's Awkward Reverence.
(Also see Richard Shand's colorful presentation of The Gospels and the Jewish Religious Calendar [Wayback Machine].)
A collection of columns from one of my favorite political pundits.
Recommended by Paul Beeching in Awkward Reverence: Reading the New Testament Today, the full text of Eusebius's work can be found at Fathers of the Church. Well worth reading.
... George MacDonald Society