"Seriously Dangerous Religion" by Iain Provan - a Review
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters
Baylor University Press
One Bear Place 97363
Waco, TX 76798-7363
ISBN: 9781481300230; $49.95; August 2014
5 Stars of 5 Stars
Hazarding Holy History
The Old Testament receives a lot of flak. It looks grisly, violent, vicious and unforgiving to many. Then adding to the bad press it already gets, the new Atheists and others have taken great pleasure in painting it with even darker and starker colors. On top of all this, Christians themselves either avoid the Old Testament at all costs, or shove it up the stairs into the attic where with the embarrassing family secrets it remains blanketed under dim light and chocking dust. Unsatisfied with this treatment, Iain Provan, the Marshall Sheppard Professor of Biblical Studies at Regent College in Vancouver, has put forward a new 512 page hardback titled, “Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters.” In the book Provan dusts off this portion of the Bible and brings it back down the stairs for the family to face, and shows there’s really nothing to be embarrassed about. He also takes on not only the new Atheists, but several others who think that biblical Christianity is dangerous and deadly.
Provan begins “Seriously Dangerous Religion” by describing four modern stories that seek to capture the West’s center stage, three of which are attempting “to displace, above all other stories, this dominant Old Story of Western culture” (9). The story of the “Axial Age” seeks to take us back to some ancient moment where there was a supposed “wellspring from which all faith once emerged, behind and beneath all specific religious and philosophical worldviews and their secularized political forms” (6). Then there is the story of the “Dark Green Age,” a primordial time when humankind allegedly lived in harmony with all nature, where “people in ancient hunter-gatherer societies lived much happier lives than we modern people do” and where “they did a much better job of looking after the environment” (7). Next is the story of the “Scientific New Age” that looks to the present and out ahead. They rehearse a story that claims that if we could simply throw off the childish, fearful ways of religion and embrace “modern, empirical science as the only (or at least the best) basis for true knowledge of the world” (8) we could have “greater human fulfillment and happiness” (Ibid.). The final story is the biblical story, which Provan pours himself into.
In “Seriously Dangerous Religion” Provan spends most of his time in Genesis, from which he branches off into other bits of the Old Testament to make his case. The author answers a number of questions, each of which is a chapter in and of itself: “Who is God?” “What is the world?” “Who is God” “Who are man and woman?” “Why do evil and suffering mark the world?” “What am I to do about evil and suffering?” “How am I to relate to God?” “How am I to relate to the rest of creation?” “Which society should I be helping to build?” and “What am I to hope for?” In answering these inquiries, the author keeps an eye on the modern worldviews mentioned above as well as the storied answers from Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, along with the responses from the religions of the Ancient Near East (ANE). This is the brilliant aspect of the book. By juxtaposing the biblical answer to these questions with the other metanarratives, it becomes clearer and clearer that the Old Testament is unique and sui generis (in a class by itself). Though there may be overlapping similarities on the surface, nevertheless, at the end of the day, the Old Testament rises to the top.
Throughout the work the author is willing to take on issues that many blush at, and work them out in challenging, thought-provoking ways. A case in point is that as Provan unloads the biblical concept of God’s jealousy, he rightly points out, “God’s jealousy is good news for his human creatures, for it is this jealousy that leads God to campaign against the false gods who can only do harm to those who devote themselves to them. “Worthless idols” cannot bless, or love, or rescue. In the biblical perspective, God is, thankfully, jealous” (70). Later in the same chapter he draws attention to how God’s jealousy, being a jealousy for the good of his people, is the polar opposite of ANE spirituality, for there “was certainly no concept in this ancient Near Eastern way of thinking that the gods were committed in some way to the good of worshippers. The world was, after all, not set up in the first place with the good of nongods in mind” (73).
Provan lays out a well-lit, nicely built motorway in “Seriously Dangerous Religion.” There are, unfortunately, potholes that once hit may well mess up a reader’s alignment and wear some tires down to the bare radial wire. Here are three examples. First, his acceptance of macro evolution appears to bring him to see the first three chapters of Genesis in a more metaphorical light, for instance, “the metaphor of the garden that is used for (the world) in Genesis 2” (33). Unable to accept a real, set-apart garden where humankind and God enjoyed communion, he sees it as simply being the earth dressed up in pretty language. With this in mind, it seems clear that he understands the story of Adam and Eve as metaphorical, as well as the episode of the fall.
Then, because of his unquestioning assumption of evolution, he perceives a greater continuity between the pre-fall world and the post-fall world. In other words, the conditions that exist now and the way things function presently are nearly identical to the way it all worked before the fall, “it is perfectly obvious that some suffering in the world arises simply from the fact that the world is the way it is, and not otherwise. It is perfectly obvious that the world already had this nature long before human beings lived here” (369). Provan’s opinion seems to fly in the face of Paul’s point in Romans 8.19-23 where the Apostle posits a close relationship between humankind and creation post-fall. That since the fall we and creation groan, longing for the final day of redemption, but until then creation is in “bondage to corruption” (phthora). Something significantly changed creation and brought it into bondage to decaying decline. The world doesn’t work the same way as it once did, there is a serious, substantial discontinuity from the way it was made, and creation longs to be restored and transformed, obtaining “the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” Nevertheless, Provan is absolutely correct in emphasizing the creational consequences of redemption (338). Since things have gone horribly wrong with both humankind and creation, with neither of us functioning as we once used to and as we were meant, then Christ’s redemptive work breaks in and inaugurates the restoration and transformation of both (humankind and cosmos), to complete this work at his return; something I also noted in my book, “Gnostic Trends in the Local Church.”
Lastly, and in a different vein, the author slowly and almost imperceptibly builds a case for thorough egalitarianism among humankind. After developing this thought through several chapters he finally works it into ecclesiastical leadership, claiming that in the early church women “held positions of authority ( . . . ) Phoebe is noted as a deacon of the church ( . . . ) and Junia as an apostle” (320). Both of these assertions are heavily contested by New Testament scholars, which certainly Provan knows but doesn’t footnote, nor does he acknowledge that he is in the minority on this. But what makes this even more problematic is that further up and further in, he reinforces his claim under the theme of “Accommodation” where he acknowledges that there are places in Paul’s writings where the Apostle states that women are not to hold ecclesiastical office but this is all a passing part of “the accommodation of the biblical moral vision to the realities of the world as the early Christians found it” (339). His entire subject of accommodation, which begins with great insight and promise, leaves the reader wondering what else might fall under accommodation; for “it is understandable that often in the New Testament Christians are exhorted to live within the cultural norms of their time and place and are not encouraged to exercise what New Testament faith overall implies to be the full extent of their Christian liberty” (340).
There are a few other potholes to watch out for while driving down the thoroughfare mapped out by Provan. For instance, his presentation of suffering intrinsic to creation, that is before the fall; and suffering that is extrinsic to creation, or a result of the fall. Also there is his way of handling Genesis 3.15 that strips it from being the protoevangelium, the first reference to the Gospel. The reader will simply need to be watchful.
These concerns I have raised might attract some to pick up the book because it resonates with their way of thinking. Well, so be it. Others may be repulsed and tempted to look for another resource. And many will likely conclude that I see little value in this work. On the contrary! I say race out and get it, devour it, ponder Provan’s premises and propositions! “Seriously Dangerous Religion” is a thought provoking read that will be profitable to whoever sincerely imbibes in it. This ought to be the first book an Old Testament seminary professor assigns and the primary or sole textbook for an undergrad “Introduction to the Old Testament” class. Pastors and priests should scoop it up and pour over it with pen in hand, pausing after every chapter to muse over the points the author makes, and the ways the biblical faith stand out against other traditions and metanarratives. Plus University and Seminary librarians need to obtain copies for their libraries. Even with my declared concerns, I strongly recommend the book.
I’m grateful to Baylor University Press for the free copy of “Seriously Dangerous Religion” provided for this review.
(As always, feel free to publish or re-post this review; and please, give credit where credit is due. Mike)
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