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Thursday, December 12, 2019

"A Week in the Life of a Greco-Roman Woman" by Holly Beers. A Review

A Week in the Life of a Greco-Roman WomanA Week in the Life of a Greco-Roman Woman by Holly Beers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's hard to read the New Testament and attempt to imaginatively transport ourselves into another time and environment, with all of it's unwritten expectations and pressures. It takes some creative fancy, softly putting aside our own situation and cultural packaging as best we can, and reaching into another world. Holly Beers, author and associate professor of religious studies at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, has taken on the challenge in her brand new release "A Week in the Life of a Greco-Roman Woman." This 176-page soft back is the most recent installment in IVP's "A Week in the Life" series, and it is a fun read!

As the title suggests, the chapters unfold over seven days in the life of "Anthia," a young woman, large with child and living in Ephesus. Beers gives her audience a robust story from the inner and outer life of Anthia, drawing in her living arrangements in the insula (crammed apartment structure), health concerns, daily responsibilities, family relationships, mild domestic abuses, and fears. It's a troubled pregnancy in an era of high infant mortality, where many women die in childbirth, with no antibiotics, and hygiene is archaic. Because I was stationed in that part of the world several decades ago, I can testify that she hit all of these nails squarely on their shiny heads! Beers also rightly colors in the place of social honor and shame in that context, as well as the religious atmosphere that surrounded all participants, feed to them from their mother's breast. At stages, the tale becomes gripping. I found myself both teary-eyed and enthused as I became swallowed up on Day 3, the Day of Venus/Aphrodite.

There are places where the story likely goes a bit overboard. For example, the way Claudia, a wealthy Christ-follower, treats her slaves as equals. She's not the only one in the tale to do so, but she stands out. If Paul had to charge Masters to treat their slaves justly and fairly (Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 4:1) and felt compelled to entreat Philemon to not treat his run-away slave as the social justice of the day demanded, then the likelihood is that Christian slave owners did not treat their servants as equals, and had to be coaxed to at least handle them more graciously than their neighbors managed their own. One other episode sticks out as well, and it was the assembly of Christians. It's a bit raucous the way it is portrayed, as Beers seems to be using 1 Corinthians 14:26 as her model. It's possible that in 1 Corinthians 14:26 Paul is giving his approval of a liturgical free-for-all; but it is more likely he is simply describing one of the Corinthians' worship assemblies to make a specific point, and then corrects it at the end with his "But all things should be done decently and in order" (1 Corinthians 14:40). In fact, it is strongly probable that the early Christian worship gatherings followed an orderly synagogue meeting as is implied in the Greek in James 2:2. But none of these are "show-stoppers" as one becomes enveloped in the story.

"A Week in the Life of a Greco-Roman Woman" is doubtlessly tamer than real life in that place and time. But some of the grit comes in here and there to give her readers a sense of how things would have been. The book flowed easily, and was a pleasure to get into. As soon as I completed the manuscript, I told my wife about it, and how much I thought she would enjoy it. If you want a better perspective on what life was like as the New Testament was written, here's a great place to start. I highly recommend the book.

I am so glad that IVP agreed to send me a copy of the book used for this review, at my request. My analysis is given freely, without any duress or distress. IVP made no demands on me other than that I write up, and share, my evaluation.

If you're interested in obtaining a copy of the book, look here: A Week in the Life of a Greco-Roman Woman

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Tuesday, December 10, 2019

"Transformational Prayer" by Zachary F. Carden. A Review

Transformational Prayer: A Non-Linear ApproachTransformational Prayer: A Non-Linear Approach by Zachary F. Carden
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have a secret. Okay, I actually have two. First, the author of this book is a friend of mine. Second, he doesn't know that I picked up his teeny virtual-codex. But when I saw the subject I was intrigued and thought I'd give it a look-over, and I'm glad I did. Zachary F. Carden, Director of Family ministries and an associate pastor at Church of the Apostles in Atlanta, Georgia, compiled this roughly 30 page Kindle-manuscript for himself, and out of his own experience for others.

In "Transformational Prayer" Carden is talking about prayer, and using something of a modified version of an old prayer template, ACTS(i) - Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication (intercession). But the whole point of this easy-to-read volume is to come into ACTS(i) from wherever you are at the moment, instead of rigidly following the formula. As the author says repeatedly, start "where your heart is most burdened" (location 97). He then gives several examples, showing how things might go if you enter first through the Confession door, or the Thanksgiving entryway, or the Adoration portal, or the Supplication arch. It's a very simple, straightforward manual for those who find a more regimented approach to prayer stifling.

If you are having difficulty praying, this little piece will be an immeasurable aid to you. And if you think you have it "all together" in your prayers, this booklet might just be the thing to shake a few rusty pieces loose and crank your motor. I highly recommend the book. And by the way, don't let Zack know I read and reviewed his book. It'll be our secret.

You can get a Kindle Version here: Transformational Prayer

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Saturday, December 7, 2019

"Reading Buechner" by Jeffrey Munroe. A Review

Reading Buechner: Exploring the Work of a Master Memoirist, Novelist, Theologian, and PreacherReading Buechner: Exploring the Work of a Master Memoirist, Novelist, Theologian, and Preacher by Jeffrey Munroe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Storytelling is a gift. I'm not sure I have it, but I'm always intrigued when I stumble across an author or speaker who can capture my attention. I have heard for many years that Frederick Buechner is one of those master raconteurs. So I was interested when Jeffrey Munroe, executive vice president at Western Theological Seminary and a charter member of the advisory board of the Buechner Institute of Faith and Culture, put forth this new 232-page paperback "Reading Buechner: Exploring the Master Memoirist, Novelist, Theologian, and Preacher." It's an easy read, delving into the life, times, trauma and lyrical abilities of Frederick Buechner, and giving dabblers and fans alike a fresh, factual portrait written by an enthusiastic admirer.

Munroe walks through Buechner's works both chronologically and systematically. He comes at his task in waves: Memoirist, Novelist, Theologian, and finally, Preacher - exactly as listed in the book's subtitle. Yet while wading us through this fourfold swell, the author weaves in details of Buechner's life and how they affected his writings. He simultaneously gives brief surveys of some of the subject's major works. This volume is peppered with Buechner one-liners, and complete paragraphs, to give the uninitiated a sizable taste of Buechner's skill, as well as to make Munroe's various points. One of the assets of this manuscript is that it lays out for readers an idea of the intended audience Buechner wrote for in his varied genres. For example, Mueller claims that the "intended audience for the fiction has always been the religiously indifferent reader" (74), whereas his popular theological works were meant for "a wide, popular (nonacademic) audience" (109). I always find this type of knowledgeable decoding helpful, especially when reading someone whose divergent styles are different strokes for different folks.

Many of my friends have read Frederick Buechner to great advantage. For myself, I've only read one of his volumes and that was in the middle of the 1980s. I couldn't tell you anything about the book, other than recalling a scene portraying Abraham, Sarah, and Yahweh laughing. I mentioned it to an Air Force chaplain who quickly asked if he could borrow my copy and would return it swiftly. I haven't seen it since, and never gave it a second thought. But as a result of reading this book, my interest in Buechner is piqued and my motivation to take up some of his volumes has resurfaced. I highly recommend this book.

Thanks to IVP who happily sent a copy of the book used for this review, at my request. They made not demands on me other than an honest assessment. I have fulfilled my obligation anon, and present it to you.

For those interested in obtaining a copy of the book, go here: Reading Buechner

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Tuesday, December 3, 2019

"Slave Narratives of the Underground Railroad" ed. by Rudisel and Blaisdell. A Short Review

Slave Narratives of the Underground RailroadSlave Narratives of the Underground Railroad by Christine Rudisel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The volume is packed full of slave narratives, many penned in the late 19th-Century by William Sill, a son of slaves. The remainder are drawn in from other sources by the editors, Christine Rudisel and Bob Blaisdell, both professors of English at Kingsborough Community College, Brooklyn New York. The stories unpack the harried and sometimes, horrific environment of 19th-Century slavery, and the thirst for liberty. The tales can be brutal, but also inspiring. There is a bit of a propaganda edge to the narratives, since many of them were collected for the purposes of vindicating the anti-slavery movement, and the Underground Railroad. Several of the accounts are from interviews given to various Vigilance Committees not long after a person reached safety. The stories are a mixture of sadness and celebration, pain and perseverance, sacrifice and suffering. It is a book worth reading, and having in one's library.

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Wednesday, November 27, 2019

"The Victory of the Cross" by James Payton Jr. A Review

The Victory of the Cross: Salvation in Eastern OrthodoxyThe Victory of the Cross: Salvation in Eastern Orthodoxy by James R. Payton Jr.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We've been friends for years, one a Presbyterian minister, and the other a one-time Lutheran parishioner now Orthodox priest. It has been a warm relationship filled with frankness and humor from day one. And though we are in the same spiritual solar system, we both know that we are, at the least, on different sides of the same globe; and at the most, on different planets altogether. But we have grown in learning and understanding from within each other's frame of reference, which has built goodwill and affection. That is the value of a new and thoughtful 224-page softback, "The Victory of the Cross: Salvation in Eastern Orthodoxy" penned by James R. Payton Jr., author and emeritus professor of history at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, Canada. Payton, a Western Protestant, draws in years of research to help readers better apprehend Orthodoxy, especially in the area of salvation, and clear up misunderstandings. The style is easy, and the content cordial.

The author consciously works his way through the kaleidoscopic aspects of what salvation encompasses for the Orthodox. He rightly notes that "Orthodoxy asks different questions than Western Christianity typically does - and when you ask different questions, you get different answers" (5). That is an important observation while a person delves deeper into the book as it addresses the victory of the cross, sin - both original and actual, atonement, salvation that is cosmic as well as personal, and finally deification or theosis. To aid the reader in hearing Orthodox answers to Orthodox questions, Payton draws heavily on important voices from the past and the devotional dialect of the Orthodox one will hear in the present. Not only is the volume a good introduction into the theological framework of Orthodoxy, but it also is a handy inauguration into the church's earlier theologians and pastors.

The two areas that most Protestant readers will find of interest are the atonement and deification. Payton methodically walks through the whole concept of ransom and redemption, how these are traditionally seen in Orthodoxy, and in what ways they differ from Western Christian conceptions. Though I think the author teases out more difference than may necessarily be there, especially with regard to penal substitution, nevertheless he does a nice job focusing on aspects of the atonement most Protestants and Evangelicals rarely acknowledge. Further, the author's careful unpacking of theosis is very useful in clearing up most mischaracterizations and misunderstandings.

In the end, "The Victory of the Cross" is a valuable manuscript for those wanting to get into the heart of Orthodoxy without feeling like they are being proselytized or put down. Many of the subjects covered in this book have been the topics my Orthodox friend and I have kindly wrangled over for years as our friendship has continued. From my experience and discussions, Payton has portrayed Orthodoxy's understanding of salvation fairly and in a friendly tone. I gladly recommend the book, especially for those who want to know the whats, whys and warrants of their Orthodox neighbors and relatives. Like me, you may not always agree, but you will have a better understanding.

My thanks to IVP Academic. I requested a copy of the book used in this review and they sent it speedily. I'm also appreciative that they made no demands on me other than that I assess the volume and write it up, which I have done.

If you're interested in obtaining the book you may get it here: The Victory of the Cross

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Thursday, November 21, 2019

"Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism: ed. by Hixson and Gurry. A Review

Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism
Elijah Hixson and Peter J. Gurry, editors
IVP Academic
ISBN: 978-0-8308-5257-4; November 2019; $40.00

It could be a sign that I have crossed the threshold into the bleary realm of being eccentric and idiosyncratic. Honestly, I wholly expected to be bored to tears. But somehow reading about ancient manuscripts of the New Testament, codices, fragments and variants was enjoyable! Editors Elijah Hixson, junior research associate in New Testament Text and Language at Tyndale House, Cambridge, and Peter J. Gurry, assistant professor of New Testament and codirector of the Text and Canon Institute at Phoenix Seminary, have enlisted a team of knowledgeable and engaging authors in their new 400-page paperback, “Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism.” Not written for technicians, but rather for pastors, apologists, seminarians, and congregants, this volume intelligibly hits the mark.

The editors and contributors seek to accomplish several things. They address grandiose claims about the New Testament manuscripts from both friends and foes. The essayists show, whenever they can, where friend and foe are correct, and clearly where they are wrong. Further, the writers walk their readers through the ancient manuscripts of the New Testament, explaining what the variations are across textual “families,” how these affect our understanding of the diffusion of early New Testament documents, why they matter, and how they broadcast to us – against the claims of some – a strong textual stability and reliability. Though addressing and answering the claims and assertions of Bart Ehrman and Kurt Eichenwald is not the primary task of the volume, the authors do engage with them at important places.

I found the book helpful at numerous places and learned better ways of understanding how we came to have our New Testament Scriptures today. I also walked away with an even greater assurance at the reliability and stability of our New Testament, especially in the face of elaborate and alarming claims floating in popular culture. In several places I learned new factors I had never known before, such as the early practice of scribes abbreviating important names as they copied manuscripts, commonly called nomina sacra. Or, how the copyists who transcribed the New Testament evidenced in their copies some clear skills at transcribing, but also various aspects of quality assurance, so that “among the early manuscripts we find a wide range of skills and abilities, but still a significant majority (of copyists) appear to be competent transcribers” (142). This volume was filled with a trove of valuable explanations and research!

Hixson and Gurry should be applauded for, both, pulling together a sharp crew of contributors, and for having this topic covered so well. “Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism” is a keeper! This is a volume you will want on your shelf to refer to time and again. It would make a super gift for your pastor, Bible Class teacher, or favorite seminarian this holiday season. Without hesitation, I strongly recommend the book.

I am ever grateful that IVP Academic answered my request for a copy of this book used in the above analysis. And I’m thankful that all they asked of me was an honest review. Consequently, my evaluation is freely made and freely given.

The book may be obtained here: Myths and Mistakes

Saturday, November 16, 2019

"Bearing God's Name" by Carmen Joy Imes. A Review

Bearing God's Name: Why Sinai Still MattersBearing God's Name: Why Sinai Still Matters by Carmen Joy Imes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What, exactly, does it mean to not take the name of YHWH your God in vain? From the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms to our grandparents and Sunday School teachers, we have heard many applications of this directive. Is it a prohibition on the flippant or irreverent expressions of the name of our Lord? Does it include being disrespectful of the elements of God's communal and public worship? Could it also comprise the debasing of the Scriptures? Carmen Joy Imes, associate professor of Old Testament at Prairie College, in Three Hills, Alberta, contributor to "Discovering the Septuagint: A Guided Reader," and recently elected member of the board of directors of the Institute for Biblical Research, addresses this commandment in her soon-to-be-released (December 2019) 240 page softback "Bearing God's Name: Why Sinai Matters." This easily accessible volume is written for men and women interested in the Scriptures, whatever their background.

Imes takes on what is normally numbered as the 3rd Commandment by most Protestants (the 2nd Commandment for Catholics, Orthodox and a few others). The author is sensitive to the classic Protestant perceptions of the 10 Commandments, and this precept in particular. Rightly, I think, does she observe, show "me the inside of your sanctuary, and I'll tell you how your church counts the commandments" (47). Nevertheless she takes a bit of her own path and marches forward. For example, based on language and the structure of Exodus 20:2-7, she claims that these verses are not three injunctions but two, so that they essentially say "Worship only Yahweh" and "Represent him well" (52). And so, to represent Yahweh well is the overall focus of her analysis.

The author walks the reader through the story line of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, coming back around to rightly bearing YHWH's name. Her approach is a refreshing strategy to telling the old, old story. The way she shows the ongoing value of the Old Testament, as well as the Decalogue pleased my heart. Imes notes that the Sinai directives don't begin with the thunderous voice of God, but they spring forth from the redemptive hand of God. In other words, God first redeemed his people from their enslavement and then in essence says, "I've made you a free people; now here's how free people live." The author also keeps together what some modern day religious leaders put asunder; "God's grace coexists with his justice. They are both integral to his character" (79). The Gospel of Jesus is clearly announced in this volume as she proclaims Jesus is YHWH in the flesh and maps out the role of his life, death, burial, resurrection and ascension. In the end, as "believers we've been branded with his name, and that reality should change the way we do everything" (186). And this last line is the backbone of what it means to represent YHWH/Jesus well.

"Bearing God's Name" is a wonderful little volume, overall. I did take issue with a few of the author's moves (placing the command to not make images of God and worship them under the first commandment, and the Sabbath, to name a couple). But through-and-through Imes wove together a useful and valuable codex for pastors and people who want to grasp the Scriptures better, and especially for comprehending what it means to bear the name of God rightly. I highly recommend the book.

I'm ever so grateful that, upon my request, IVP Academic sent me a copy of the manuscript used for this review. And I'm just as appreciative that the publisher only asked me to put forth an honest assessment. I have dutifully and delightedly done so .

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