Saturday, July 9, 2011

Review: A River Runs Through It (Norman Maclean)

by Charles Kuykendall

This is the tale of how an older brother cannot, despite his best efforts and intentions, save his younger brother. He. Just. Can't. Save. Him. All he can do is admire his beauty while it crumbles to dust, and lives on only in memory. This is he saddest story I have ever read. It left me reeling for a week. Seriously, it left me in a state of despair. It left me thinking about all the people that couldn't save, despite my best efforts and intentions.

So, this tale is a picture of hopelessness when there is nothing outside us to save (in this case: those we love). As a picture of hopelessness, it is quite poignant and effective: utterly genuine and sincere. As a picture of hopelessness, this is a masterpiece. If there was no God, this novella would be beautiful resignation; since there is a God who can save, it is a true tragedy, beautifully written, but incomplete.

In terms of tenor, I can't think of a better example of communication of pathos. Pathos: that is, the effective communication of emotion. You feel loss when you read this. Real loss. However, Maclean gives pathos without logos: emotion without reason. It is a fine thing to feel hopelessness, loss, and sadness; it's not fine to only feel, and not think. In fact, one of the best ways out of the feeling of hopelessness -- maybe the only way -- is to think: to reason with oneself, like the Psalmist in the Scriptures, "Why are you so downcast within me, O my soul (Ps. 42 and 43)?" Why? Why? Why?! What is the reason? Let's think about this.

Norman Maclean nobly displays the pathos of loss and despair -- but unlike the Psalmist -- he never moves on to reason with himself or his reader. He never asks the simple question, "Why?" There are two important ways of asking the why question. The first is, "Why did this happen?" -- which is another way of saying, "Why, God?" This deals with the reason, or reasons, of God. Of course, his ways and reasons are always just, and good. However, we often don't ever get an answer to this particular why question. See the book of Job. Job didn't get an answer to, "Why, God?" He did, however, get more of God.

The second why questions deals with our reason -- our reasoning. This is the question we often neglect; this is the question Maclean neglects. Yet, this is the question which moves us beyond despair -- this question is, "Why are you so downcast within me, O my soul?" As I said, this is a question which Maclean never comes to. So, he left us with a masterpiece of a complete tragedy. In other words, an incomplete masterpiece.

Review 1: Good Will Hunting

by Charles Kuykendall

Tonight I watched, for the 10th -- or is it 20th? -- time Good Will Hunting.

I can't ever remember watching this movie with anyone else. Maybe I have. Tonight, though, will be remembered as the first time I watched Good Will Hunting with friends.

You have to appreciate this scene. I was sitting in the living room with a group of guys: most new acquaintances. Monday Night Football was on. I was soaking in the joy of watching two good teams battle it out in a close game. Bears v Packers, if that means anything to you. It didn't mean anything to my new acquaintances. Then, to my dismay, one of my new acquaintances suggested we dial up Good Will Hunting on NetFlix. This individual (who will remain nameless) doesn't have much appreciation for Monday Night Football. So, I played the servant, and agreed to watch, out of good will, but against my will, Good Will Hunting.

It wasn't long before I was enthralled. I felt like I was watching Monday Night Football. The whole experience was more like a sporting event than a movie. I was cheering. I was routing for Will. I was pointing out the best scenes as if they were spectacular plays. Few words were spoken, but a sense developed in the room that we were 'gelling' as friends -- the same sense that usually comes when a group of guys pull for the same team. Football fans -- you know that nervous feeling you get at the end of a game, when your team is ahead, but the opponent is driving, and about to score? That sense of nervousness? Well, one of my new acquaintances had never seen Good Will Hunting and, at various points in the movie, he was literally on the edge of his seat, nervous, unsure how things would go. The 'intense' scenes were so intense that, at one point, I actually suggested we turn the movie off and finish it later. It was really that intense. I wasn't sure if we could take it.

I forgot how intense this movie is. I dare you to find a (good) movie with more shouting matches. I dare you to find a movie with more painful relational dynamics. I dare you to find a movie where there are so many concurrent relationships that are genuine, combative, integral to plot, and -- this is the key -- ultimately redeemed.

Then, there's the ending. The film ties things up at the end in the best possible way. It gives a sense of hope without giving a neat resolution. We don't know what happens with Will and Skylar, for example. Still, the film ends with the promise of a reunion. The whole direction of the movie has shifted as Will rides to 'see about a girl.' The sun is (metaphorically speaking) starting to rise as the credits come up. Will rides, not into the sunset, but into the sunrise. As a friend once said of another movie, "It ended the way it needed to."

Review 1: Grantland.Com (Bill Simmons)

by Charles Kuykendall

Bill Simmons is one of my favorite writers. I own him several debts -- no, not gambling debts (inside joke for other readers of Simmons). Debts of another kind. He showed me that writers could, and sometimes should be, comedians. He's given me reason to smile after many a long day. He's taught me something about how to make reader's smile. It is a pleasure to read him.

Yet, his writing remains for me a guilty pleasure. I disagree with him on lots of his takes on sports and life. Notable exceptions are his response to the Tiger Woods scandal, the WNBA, and his vision of the writer (the hard work of joy). I lament his tendency to laugh at, instead of with, people. His mocking of Isaiah Thomas went too far. The moral vision of his work (gambling, using the F* bomb for freedom's sake, view on marriage, glorification of immorality) especially disturbs me. At one point, I had to take a break from reading Simmons. His world and work started to make me a little nauseous -- too much like a dirty bar room at 3 a.m., replete with the smell of stale beer, stogies, and evaporating lives.

All the same, I had high hopes for his new website: I liked the idea of a culture/sports/good writing combination, and Grantland held out promise to be just that. Yet, early on, things are not going well. The reviews are in, and Grantland is not what we hoped it would be. Simmons mocked Spider-Man: Turn Out The Dark. Everyone did. It had such high expectations, and such a build up. It erred in creating those expectation with a big budget, and way too much sound and fury. Well, I fear that Grantland is about to become the internet version of that.

My first impression of Grantland was mild dislike. I really just wanted to read more Simmons, and I think this is the basic problem with Grantland. People who go there -- at least at first -- just want to read more Simmons. They want to hear more of his takes on pop culture. They want more movie reviews. And, of course, more sports columns. Yet, Grantland promises not more of Simmons, but less. He is, afterall, busy now administrating and editing a culture/sports/world web bonanza. That's hard work, and time consuming. That leaves little time for writing. So, Grantland means we will probably get less of Simmons the writer. Simmons himself seems to know this, and bemoan it (see below). Less of Simmons the writer means one and only one thing: most who go to Grantland will be disappointed. So, ironically the very thing that will compel people to Grantland will repel them.

I gave Grantland a fair chance. I visited it 5-6 times. Each time, only to see if Simmons had written anything new. I may not go back. If I do, I'll only do so to check and see if Simmons has written anything new. Simmons always impresses on a first read. Grantland doesn't. It just lost one reader.

If Simmons wanted to set off in a new venture -- why not a writing venture? Why not write more books? Or, write more screen-plays? He's already written at least one. Why not write, write, write? He faces a similar dilemma as the Apostles in Acts chapter 6. They were being diverted from their primary calling by something good. Instead of abiding this diversion, they moved to remedy it. They wanted to focus. They couldn't do both well, and so they let someone else do that other "good" thing. They refused to do both. I believe Simmons, when faced with a similar version, decided to try and do both. Life very often serves us up opportunities. It is hard not to try and do both. It is hard not to try and do everything -- especially in the throes of success, fame, and fortune.

I fear that Grantland will die a slow death over the next several years. This will probably involve upset over content: too racy for a Disney affiliated enterprise, and the F* word for the sake of freedom gets old. This will probably involve rumors of writers and staff quitting. This will probably involve "cash-flow" problems. This will probably involve Simmons stepping down as editor to focus on "other things." Then, Simmons leaving the site altogether midst rumors of "bad blood." I wonder how Simmons, who has so often mocked colossal failures, will deal with this.

The "cash-flow" issue will come up when people stop going to the site. That hasn't happened yet. Yet, the site already seems over-mortgaged. It publicly enlisted elite writers, and famous editors (think, Dave Eggers, Malcolm Gladwell). It had an apparently big budget, a big send off, and big expectations, ala Spider-Man: Turn Out the Dark. This reminds me of Turn Out The Dark, but also those big-budget Hollywood movies that spend lots of money making the movie. They hire big name actors. Then, it leaks out how much it cost to make the movie. It all becomes about the cost. Predictably, the movie fails (think Waterworld). It fails, not because it didn't have money or talent, but because it had too much of both. Movies are, after all, about good stories. When a movie becomes known for it's budget and talent there's trouble in the offing. Grantland is already known for it's budget and talent, and not especially for it's writing. Yet, it is supposed to be a website about good writing. This is ominous.

Also, Grantland seems expensive, and this will be off-putting to the average internet browser. Are they really spending that much money on an internet site?

Money will be a problem in other ways. How are you going to pay all those elite writers? You'll have to add more advertisements (more giant subway banners blocking your entry to the site). Money problems will shift focus away from content, and onto revenue. Thus, content will suffer. Simmons may start writing more, but it will be an act of desperation. So, the quality of his work will suffer as well. He will find himself caught up in a machine, with a big budget. Such machines don't got to sleep, and they don't care about good writing. They don't care. One of the first signs of trouble will come when a few writers have to be let go, or else leave over "creative differences" -- the reality will be "financial differences." This is, by the way, one danger of "hired gun" writers. Everyone gushes about the talent of Grantland, but why are these particular writers there? Is it because they believe in the vision? Is it because they care about the venue (excellent writing on the Internet)? Or, is it about the payday? If it is about the payday, it won't matter how good they are, how talented, or how well-known. Their writing will suffer.

A better tack for Grantland would have been to hire relatively unknown, but hungry, writers, and give them a shot (this seems to have been the original goal, actually; see below under bethlehemshoals). Grantland might have been a nurturing venue for writers like Simmons who started out as relative unknowns, but with lots of talent. Had Grantland done this, then the readers would have been satisfied. Why? Because they would have gotten more of Simmons. Not Simmons himself, but versions of his talent. They would have gotten fresh and dissident voices. I don't doubt that the writers on Grantland are good at what they do. But the pieces I've read so far have not impressed me. I feel like the writers are trying to constrain themselves to a certain style. This style happens to be Bill Simmon's style. No surprise. Yet, the appeal of Bill Simmons style is that it is unique -- it is his style. It is fresh. Grantland threatens to make it stale. This would have been another advantage of hiring younger, hungrier, unknowns. Assuming they aren't sycophants, you never know what you are going to get from such people. Freshness would have been on the menu every day.

So now, on this 30th day of June, 2011, when it is only a week old, I am already mourning the fall of Grantland. Actually, I'm not mourning. I'm rooting a little bit for Grantland to fail. Because, if it does, maybe Simmons will go back to writing. That's what we wanted all along.

Here are a several other perspectives:


Yes, Grantland's "murderer's row of talent" is ("HOLY ****") impressive, but that's just another reason why it's going to fail. These people are way too expensive for what Simmons is trying to do. If the site does succeed it won't be because of the level of talent that he's brought in -- it will be despite it. Simmons -- well, ESPN -- is essentially overpaying, because of their experience, old guys to act like new guys. Established sportswriters that will have to pretend they don't have that experience ESPN is paying them for. These are smart, literary writers. Simmons is anything but -- and he wouldn't disagree.


Chris Jones doesn't write like that. But Bill Simmons might want him to. Expect another of Simmons's fits as he tries to mold Grantland into his own shape, one that will conflict with ESPN's wish to draw an elite audience and conflict with the aspirations of the writers he has attracted. If Bill Simmons wins the war and ESPN sheds some of the expensive talent it's already promised a position on the masthead, the site might eventually work. It might actually be something new.


But Simmons will lose this battle -- the rebellious teenager still relies too heavily on its parents for support -- and ESPN will drive this site into the ground. It's only a matter of time before he leaves. "I don't know, I think I have one more big sellout of my career," Simmons told Mahler. Well, at least ESPN didn't name the site The SimmonsPost; naming it Grantland will make it easier to extract Simmons from the venture when the time comes.


Perhaps the one we did finish – the editor's note – sums up the biggest issue Grantland has to face? Why does it exist? Simmons himself doesn't even seem to know.
Of the four goals he spells out, two are essentially the same thing – hire good people, which is a means not an end – and the third is "make money."
Four is to make use of the freedom and format that doesn't allow, but Simmons doesn't seem to have thought about (or can't articulate) in what that freedom means or in what way it should be exercised.
Nowhere in his opening essay does he provide a clear vision or even a justification for Grantland existence. His other statements on the matter have been less than gung-ho about the project.
Perhaps he didn't have to think about it, because for him, there's almost nothing riding on this. The investment is all ESPN's and the writers who left day jobs to come work for him. He says he wants to focus on quality over quantity, as if none of his bosses will be keeping track of pageviews. At least he'll have plenty of time to figure it out.
From what we gathered so far, he basically likes hanging out with his (occasionally) famous friends and talking about stuff. Good for him, but will there be enough people who wants to join in that conversation.
There's no comment section, by the way.
UPDATE: Grantland has added two more posts this afternoon. Even though Simmons says he doesn't want "one person to check ten times a day; I’d rather have 10 people check once."


"Simmons sounded as if he was having some regrets about Grantland. 'It hasn’t been as much as fun as I had thought,' he told me. 'I’m not sure I would do it again.' Too much of his time was being spent in the office, dealing with administrative tasks, which was encroaching on his column."
"As far as Simmons has come since he first started searching for an audience, he wants to go much further, to create something more enduring than his column or even his books. But the drudgery of running his own publication is already intruding on the utopian world he has built for himself. And he knows that the only thing preventing him from becoming another overexposed hack, an ex-sportswriter who now gets paid to blather on TV, is his column, which can take days to research and write. 'My biggest concern about the site is that I don’t want the column to just be one of the things I’m doing,' Simmons said. "


It's the Grantland Fallacy, encoded in the site's very name: People care about sports because sports is what sportswriters write about, because sportswriters are the most interesting people in the world. That's the premise. How does Chuck Klosterman feel about the way he watches sports on TV? When did Chris Jones lose his virginity? (No, seriously, when, again?) What are Bill Simmons's thoughts about what people might think about Bill Simmons writing about hockey? It's like someone replaced the clear glass in the press box with a one-way mirror, pointed inward. Watch the writers watch themselves.


I don’t get opening with Simmons, Klosterman, and Chris Jones. Actually, I do; it’s the site’s two biggest names, and probably the most high-profile contributor. To the extent that Grantland did make a bang, or a dent, today, it was with that star power. However, Simmons was adamant about hiring “unknowns” who would be turned loose to “do their thing” and rise to prominence under his watchful gaze. The preview pieces from Katie Baker and Molly Lambert fit that bill; that was the site’s opening salvo. And then today, just the good ol’ boys. I wonder if the ambivalent response to those first two offerings inspired a change of course … or if some suit at ESPN was sick of being told that indie cred is a brand-building virtue.

Review 107: In the Name of Jesus (Henri Nouwen)

by Charles Kuykendall

                I was challenged by the content of this book, but I was most challenged by the decision that Nouwen made to leave Harvard to be a priest to the mentally handicapped. In many ways, Nouwen embodies the very principles that he commends to the reader. His example inspired me to serve, and gave me a glimpse of how beautiful it is to live a life of service as opposed to one of “upward mobility.” He repeatedly uses the phrase “downward mobility throughout the book, and his own pilgrimage to L’Arche is a tremendous example of such a mentality. I was reminded of Schaeffer’s principle that there are no little people and no little places, only consecrated and unconsecrated people. May God grant me the grace to escape the upward mobility mentality, and serve him where he wants me as a humble and consecrated person.
                I was convicted as I read this book that so far much of my ministry has been done as a lone ranger. Nouwen relates how his including Bill in his ministry turned out to be a great blessing, and in the end allowed him to be a much greater blessing to the people he was speaking to. Bill’s contribution made an even more lasting impression than Nouwen’s well thought out words. A couple of times in the book he makes reference to Jesus’ curious action of sending the disciples out by two (Lk. 10), and he sees this as paradigmatic for our own ministries. I pray that God would grant me partners in ministry with whom I will be able to minister. It will certainly be more difficult to coordinate my ministry with other brothers and sisters, but I think it will be well worth it. Nouwen alludes to just a couple of the advantages of this type of ministry. First of all, there is greater accountability and encouragement. Many of the wiles of the devil are much more easily handled when there is someone else present. Nouwen comments, “It is precisely the men and women who are dedicated to spiritual leadership who are easily subject to very raw carnality...They separate themselves from their own concrete community, try to deal with their needs by ignoring them or satisfying them in distant or anonymous places, and then experience an increasing split between their own most private inner world and the good news they pronounce (48).” This is the danger if I do not minister in and with a real community.
                Last of all, I was encouraged by Nouwen to become a man of prayer. When I look back on my Christian life sometimes it seems it has all been a process of learning to pray more. With every year of Seminary I have been more impressed that the real work of my life will be to pray. Nouwen suggests that the Christian leaders’ “leadership must be rooted in the permanent, intimate relationship with the incarnate Word, Jesus, and they need to find there the source of their words, advice and guidance.” Nouwen draws attention to the fact that prayer is one of the primary ways that we come to truly know Christ. I usually think of prayer as a time when I come to God to lay all my burdens on him and ask for his help in various situations, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with this. However, Nouwen helped expand my view of prayer as it relates to ministry. Prayer is also a means of knowing God. Out of this knowledge we are equipped for the task of serving the Church. May God grant me a life devoted to prayer, and may the result will be that, “every word spoken, every advice given, and every strategy developed can come from a heart that knows God intimately (30).”

Review 107: The Lord's Supper (Robert Letham)

by Charles Kuykendall

Letham helps me to have a more cross-centered view of the Lord’s supper. It goes without saying that the Lord’s supper is a reminder of the cross. This has seemed clear to me from the passages in the Synoptic gospels. However, Letham showed me how another passage of scripture relates brings together the Lord’s Supper and the cross. In John 6, Jesus says that if anyone eats his flesh they will live forever, because he gives his flesh “for the life of the world (Jn. 6:51).” Letham surmises, “He is evidently referring to his death on the cross (11).” I agree with this; Jesus is making a reference to the atonement. I have tried to work out the symbolism here, and how it leads to the atonement.

1. Jesus’ flesh = bread which is to be eaten
2. Jesus gives his flesh “for the life of the world.” He does this on the cross.
3. We are nourished on his body in that we receive forgiveness of sins and righteousness by ingesting Christ’s broken body in the act of faith. Thus, Jesus’ death allows us to live.

Letham also pointed me to the cross in his discussion of Paul’s description of Jesus as “our Passover Lamb (1 Cor. 5:7).” He remarks that when we think of this we should not think primarily about the Passover meal. Rather, we should have in mind the events of the next day where Christ is sacrificed on the cross, much as the lamb was slain to protect Israel ( pg. 4).
Letham also helped me relate the Lord’s Supper with union with Christ. He did this be helping me see the relationship between physical and spiritual food. In the Supper we are granted union and communion with Christ. Just as food becomes part of us, so Christ becomes part of us. Food gives us energy, which sustains us. Similarly, the Lord’s Supper is spiritual sustenance (pg. 14).
              I have never before worked out this analogy, and, as a result, not realized that one of the purposes of the Lord’s Supper is to energize us. It nourishes us spiritually that we might be healthy and fit for service. If this is the case, we should be coming to the Lord’s Supper as hungry and tired people. We should ingest as we ingest the most savored meal. All of us have had the experience of missing a meal or two out of necessity. How we long for the next break from work so that we can enjoy a meal and be reenergized! By faith we should see the Lord’s Supper in the same way; it is the nourishment that eases spiritual fatigue. I am ashamed to admit that I often take the Lord’s Supper lethargically. I am almost eager for the whole ceremony to be over so I can get home. I had never realized how much Ineed the Supper.
Letham further informed me of the centrality of the Supper in church history. “Transubstantiation was the doctrine the reformers opposed,” and “abandonment of the mass was the single most decisive event marking the reformation in its various centers (pg. 21).” Furthermore, I understand for the first time how grievous is the error of transubstantiation. I now see the practical damage that is done when one holds to the position of transubstantiation. If we carry this belief to its logical ends the elements should be worshipped, and held high for all to adore. The minister should be very careful that not one drop touches the ground, and they should be preserved for the next observance, not discarded. I am struck, as many have been before, that all these things seem illogical. This demonstrates that allegiance to wrong belief will lead to illogical ends. Also, and this is even more disturbing, this view is “the cause of manifold superstitions; yea, of gross idolatries (WCF 29.6).” I don’t think there is any way to deny that this is worshipping God in physical form, and thus a breach of the second commandment. Learning more about the centrality of the Supper in history has caused me to value the Supper’s more as theological bellwether.
I am also thankful to Letham for confirming my own position, the ‘Real Presence.” He states that, “This eating and drinking is not physical, but is nonetheless real and true. Christ does not come down to us in body and blood. Instead we are lifted up to him by the Holy Spirit (pg. 28).” This makes sense. Christ has permanently united himself to us in the incarnation, and so is with us while we eat and drink.
Letham also helped me better understand the relationship between word and sacraments. God has appointed ministers to administer the sacraments because “the word governs the sacraments and thus a minister of the word alone is authorized to preside...Without a minister declaring the word of institution there is no sacrament (pg. 41).” Letham later discusses how the word governs the sacraments. The word has a special status because it is the speech of God. Furthermore the ordained preacher speaks the word of God when he preaches (Eph. 2:17). Furthermore, the word creates the sacraments. Jesus instituted the sacraments with his word, recorded for us in the Bible. This is helpful for a couple of reasons. First of all, it gives a rational for why only teaching Elders administer the sacraments. They are ministers of the word, and this qualifies them to give the word of institution. This also explains why the words of institution are so important. Sacraments without the word are set adrift from the truth they embody. The connection between the ritual and word must be present or the sacrament “is reduced to bare ritual (pg. 50).” This has one other implication that I think is important. The Lord’s Supper is not to be practiced by individuals or families in the privacy of their homes. It is also not to be practiced at informal settings where a minister is not present: youth retreats, fellowships groups, etc. I once heard a radio preacher advise keeping a loaf of bread and bottle of wine handy so that we could always be ready to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. When I first heard this I was not uncomfortable with it, but I have grown more so. In this context the Lord’s Supper loses its sacredness because the word is not present.
I also appreciate Letham’s discussion of using real bread and wine. Letham argues, “No one has any right to change (the wine into grape juice concentrate), any more than in baptism they can replace water by orange juice.” If his analogy holds, that changing the wine would be like changing the water of Baptism, then any change can hardly be defended. I see some validity of his argument, but I don’t think his analogy does hold. To go from wine is not a change of substance, as going from water to orange juice. Wine is only grape juice fermented. It is conceivable that the wine used in the earliest observances was more or less fermented. The degree of fermentation was not prescribed, and perhaps it ought not be for us either. So, our rationale for using wine cannot be made by analogy to Baptism. I still think this argument can be made, and I am open to this. My reservation is that we may have alcoholics present at the supper. Even a taste of the real stuff might be injurious to their sobriety.
Letham’s argument concerning using a real loaf of bread is much more convincing. He points out that the early church clearly did this (1 Cor. 10:16-17). This is also supported by the idiomatic expression, ‘the breaking of bread (pg. 42).’ I would add to his argument that using a real loaf will help us identify with one another as a united body. In 1 Corinthian 10:17 Paul uses the ‘one loaf’ to reinforce the truth of the unity of the body.. Someone may argue that we get the same symbolism if a minister uses one loaf as an illustration during the words of institution. This is the practice at my home Church here in St. Louis. However, I don’t think we get the same thing when we use neatly divided pieces of bread made by a company who specializes in mass producing elements for religious ceremonies. It is too sterile. Letham critiques this practice on other grounds, just as convincing, “(I)t is redolent of post-Enlightenment individualism, where religion is conceived of as a private, individual matter between the individual and God. This is to change the sacrament, indeed to violate and pollute it (pg. 51).” If at all possible, I would like to use a real loaf of bread if I preside over the Lord’s Supper.
                Last of all, Letham helped me have a more eschatological view of the Lord’s Supper. He argues that in the Supper we have foretaste of the fellowship we will one day have with Christ, a fellowship that will be unimpeded by sin. We are looking forward to the final meal, the marriage supper of the Lamb. Our fellowship with Christ in this world revolves around a meal. Apparently, our fellowship in the next world will be similar. I tried to think about what this must mean for my present life. One result is that I must be more eschatological. One of my professors once said, “The Christian life is hopelessly eschatological.” What is it I am to look forward to? A meal. For some reason I have a difficult time getting excited by a meal. Perhaps it is because the elements of a meal are not as rich in our day. A meal symbolizes closeness; we will have intimate fellowship with the Lamb. A meal also symbolizes celebration, and we will have great reason to rejoice on that day. A meal also symbolizes refreshment. In heaven we will be finally refreshed as we enter our rest. This is something to look forward to!

Review 104: The Greco-Roman World (James Jeffers)

by Charles Kuykendall

Jeffers provides a helpful background to life in NT times that explores the cultural, political, social, religious and legal milieu in which the earliest Christians lived. He explores cultural issues such as the jobs and burial practices of the 1st century. He discusses the political landscape of the Roman Empire, how it formed with the collapse of the republic, and how this political structure affected the ministry of the apostle Paul. He investigates various relationships: among families and between slaves and masters. He delineates the various Gods and Myths of the Roman world, while helping the reader understand the tolerance with which Romans viewed other religions, and especially Jews. He provides an extensive description of the legal scene that Jesus and the apostle Paul faced. Throughout he relates information to the student of the NT. For example, he doesn’t just discuss the legal system of the Roman Empire. He helps the reader see that it affected the ministry of Paul; because the authority of Greek cites was “limited to their own territory…Paul and Barnabas and their hosts took advantage of this by keeping on the move.[1]” In short, he introduces readers to aspects of the Greco-Roman world which will aid them in the study of the NT. He comments that, “Many Bible background books have been written over the years, but few have addressed thoroughly what the student of the New Testament needs to know about Greco-Roman societies and cultures of the time[2].” He hopes to write with the goal of being accurate while still being understandable to the nonscholar,[3] and he has definitely achieved his goal.
  One of the most helpful things about Jeffers work is the broad historical background that the reader comes away with. His appendix on Greco-Roman history is concise but informative. He is also able to show how historical evidence only validates the trustworthiness of the NT. For example, Luke’s knowledge of the unusual title politarchoi for the rulers of Thessalonica shows that he was a careful historian[4]. In the same vein he notes that the Gospels, which display a “virtual absence of Greco-Roman influence,” are accurate to the historical circumstances and are “a testimony to the authenticity of the Gospel accounts[5].” This does not mean that Jeffers dodges any of the hard questions. He alludes to differences between Josephus and Acts on the circumstances surrounding the details of the death of Agrippa[6].
One of the strengths of this book is that it directly relates background studies to the NT, but this can also be a weakness. At times, Jeffers connection between historical data and the text is suspect. To cite an example: he informs the reader of rumors that there was impropriety between Agrippa and his sister Bernice. He then suggests that Paul’s appeal to Agrippa as an expert in Jewish customs and issues may be a sarcastic remark and “attack on his current lifestyle (Acts 26:2)[8].”  However, the text itself does not give any evidence that this is the case. Furthermore, it was customary for speeches to begin with an attempt to secure the favor of the hearer.[9] A sarcastic remark would have been foreign to the form of rhetoric of the day.    
With a couple of exceptions, his relation of text to background information is good. For example, his discussion of Patrons is beneficial and his assertion that Phoebe is probably a Patron (pg. 79) is supported by Dunn [10]. 
Jeffers uses a variety of ancient sources. Josephus is one of his main sources, and he appears to do him justice. He is correct in citing Josephus as proof that Herod built several shrines dedicated to honoring the emperor. In fact, “To say all at once, there was not any place of his kingdom fit for the purpose, that was permitted to be without somewhat that was for Caesar’s honor.[11]                                                                        
           The student who is reticent to read a background book because they do not want to wade through things irrelevant to their study of the NT will be very pleased with Jeffers. Also, because the scope of this book is wide, it will prove a helpful introduction to the student who is just beginning their study of the backgrounds of the NT. 

[1] James S. Jeffers, The Greco- Roman World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1999), 155.
[2] Jeffers 11
[3] Jeffers 11
[4] Jeffers 283
[5] Jeffers 141
[6] Jeffers 134
[7] Jeffers 221
[8] Jeffers 139
[9] See I.H Marshall, ACTS, Tyndale NT Commentary Series (Leicester, England: IVP, 1980), 391.
[10] James Dunn,.Romans 9-16, Word Biblical Commentary v.38b (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1988), 888.
[11] Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, The Works of Josephus, trans William Whiston (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987), 1.407.

Review 103: Engaging With God (David Peterson)

by Charles Kuykendall

            Peterson’s work is exegetically informed, challenging, and even daring. He took great care to understand and interpret particular passages, even if his was not the traditional approach. In this sense, his work was daring. I appreciate his willingness to let the text guide his conclusions even if I don't always agree.
            Though his work was more exegetical in nature there were times when he tried to bring together various teaching on a particular theme. I most appreciated his discussion of what it means to ‘fear the Lord.’ He concludes, “In the OT, reverence or respect for God is essentially a matter of walking in his ways and keeping his commandments.” I have often wondered what exactly the Bible means when it commands us to fear God. It is now clear to me that fearing God consists mainly in obedience faithfulness, and turning from evil. Overall, Peterson’s focus on the life of the believer was helpful. True worship of God is demonstrated in the way we live. He argued throughout that the public gathering of God’s people is not only means of worshipping God. Kindness to my bothers and sisters and a life of integrity are critical aspects of my worship of God.
            Peterson also argues for the importance of community. For instance he argues that the Lord’s supper is, “clearly meant to focus the eyes of the participants on one another as well as on God (219).” We are to be others focused for the purpose of edification. This means we must design church life to allow time for believers to mutually encourage one another with their gifts. I have thought about ways to do this. I am not sure I would set aside time on Sunday morning for informal sharing and prayer, but I think this would be very useful at a Wednesday or even Sunday night service. I am convinced after reading Peterson that their should be some avenue for believers to encourage one another in a more spontaneous setting. One particular aspect of this that Peterson highlights is the ministry of exhortation. Exhortation is more than just encouragment;  it is a “warning on the basis of scriptural teaching (248).” These warnings play a major role in the thinking of the writer of Hebrews. They are instrumental in helping us persevere. As I considered this I realized two things. First of all, I could use more people in my life who are lovingly exhorting me on to faithfulness. Secondly, I must be much more proactive in exhorting my good friends. I realize it will be a help to them.
            Lastly, I appreciated the Christ-centered nature of this book. Peterson repeatedly reminds us of the need to preach and teach on the finished work of Christ. In his chapter on Hebrews he spells this out wonderfully. We can draw near God because Christ is the perfect High Priest. “Drawing neat to God means believing the Gospel and making personal appropriation of Salvation.” Like others, I sometime feel distant from God emotionally and so it is hard for me to pray. I was encouraged that whatever my emotional condition I am able to draw near to God with full assurance. Christ has opened the way, and it does not depend on me.