Review of ‘Scripture and Cosmology’ by Kyle Greenwood

Scripture-and-CosmologyKyle Greenwood, Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible Between the Ancient World and Modern Science (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015). Paperback

The Lord by wisdom founded the earth,

by understanding he established the heavens;

by his knowledge the deeps broke open,

and the clouds drop down the dew.

Proverbs 3:19–20 express the who, what, and how of creation. Who? The Creator is “The Lord,” that is, Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What? He created “the earth,” “the heavens,” “the deeps,” and the “clouds.” And he did so expertly, with “wisdom,” “understanding,” and “knowledge.”

These verses also express an ancient Near Eastern cosmology. Israel shared with its Egyptian, Syrian, and Mesopotamian neighbors a three-storied universe consisting of heaven, earth, and seas. Though there were variations in the details of these culture’s cosmologies, the basic three-tiered structure was the same.

Modern people hold a very different cosmology than the ancients. We know, for example, that the earth revolves around the sun, not vice versa as the ancients believed. We know that the sun and the moon are not planets, as the ancients believed, and that there are more planets and planetary moons than the ancients could observe with the naked eye. Moreover, we know that our solar system is one among many in the Milky Way galaxy, which itself is one among many galaxies in an expanding universe.

The differences between ancient Near Eastern and modern cosmologies raise questions in the minds of Christians about “reading the Bible faithfully.” Kyle Greenwood outlines both questions and answers in Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible Between the Ancient World and Modern Science. Greenwood is associate professor of Old Testament and Hebrew language at Colorado Christian University, whose Statement of Faith makes this declaration regarding the Bible: “We Believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.” Though readers of all perspectives will find Greenwood’s presentation informative, Christian readers with a high view of Scripture will find it most helpful.

Scripture and Cosmology opens with a chapter about the importance of reading Scripture in context. In it, he states his book’s thesis: “a high view of Scripture employs a hermeneutic that accommodates the biblical writers’ immersion in their ancient, pre-Enlightenment cultural context. Therefore, as with other cultural matters, such as social customs and language, the biblical texts reflect that worldview in their written communications.”

Part One consists of three chapters that outline the similarities (and differences) between the cosmologies of the ancient Near East (specifically Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia) and of Israel. Greenwood argues that both ANE and biblical texts assume a three-tiered universe consisting of the earth, the heavens, and the sea. He also contends that this three-tiered understanding of the cosmos serves as a better “guiding principle” for the Old Testament various creation accounts than does Genesis 1’s seven-day formula.

Part Two consists of two chapters that describe how the Christian church dealt with the challenges to this three-tiered biblical cosmology posed by first Aristotelian cosmology and then Copernican cosmology. Whereas ancient Near East cosmology depicted the earth as “small, flat and round”—a disk, in other words, Aristotelian cosmology pictured it as a sphere. And whereas Ptolemaic cosmology put Earth at the center of the universe, with the sun, moon, and heavenly bodies revolving around it; Copernican cosmology put the sun at the center, with the heavenly bodies, including Earth, revolving around it. (Contemporary cosmologies understand that the cosmos is acentric; neither the sun nor the earth is the center.) What Greenwood writes about the Aristotelian challenge might be equally applied to Copernican challenge: “The most notable trait we see among the Aristotelian-era interpreters is the willingness to adapt their interpretation of Scripture in light of new understandings of the physical universe.”

Part Three offers a theological rationale for this adaptation. Terming it “the doctrine of divine accommodation,” Greenwood explains the rationale this way: “God condescends his language to the language of humanity. This is not to say that God is condescending but that he speaks down to the cognitive ability of his human audience.” He offers this example: “Just as a father uses simple vocabulary and analogical language to communicate complex ideas to his children, so the heavenly Father accommodates his language to his children by speaking to his audience’s mother tongue and also employing analogical language.” Applied to biblical cosmology, accommodation entails that God speaks to Israel and its surrounding culture in terms of a three-tiered universe because that is what it believed. Were God revealing himself to our culture, he would accommodate himself to our cosmological speculations.

Over the centuries, accommodation has proved to be a fruitful line of thinking for Christians wrestling with the issues raised by a better scientific understanding of the physical universe. That doesn’t mean it is problem free. One wag has defined accommodation as “the theory which states that God goes along with the commonly accepted story even though he really doesn’t believe it.” Accommodation assumes that we can neatly distinguish between what culture assumes about a given topic and what Scripture teaches about it. Christians largely agree that accommodation is a good strategy when the Copernican Revolution is on the table, but Christians vehemently disagree when evolution is. Perhaps this indicates that while accommodation is a good interpretive strategy, it doesn’t necessarily decide all scientific cases.

Regardless, I commend Scripture and Cosmology for its in-depth look at the specific issue of biblical cosmology. It is well versed in the Bible and the texts of the ancient Near East, as well as cognizant of Scripture-science discussions throughout church history. And it is a thoughtful, irenic presentation of how to navigate the tensions between ancient cosmology and modern science.


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Review of ‘The Man in the High Castle’ by Philip K. Dick

The-Man-in-the-High-CastlePhilip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle (Boston: Mariner Books, 2011). Paperback | Kindle

One night, with nothing better to do, I scrolled through Amazon Instant Video looking for something to watch. I came across The Man in the High Castle (an Amazon Original Series). The premise of the show is that the U.S.A. lost World War II and is now divided between the Germans on the East Coast and the Japanese on the West, with a small neutral zone along the Rocky Mountains. The pilot was well done, but it is the only episode released so far. Learning that the series was based on Philip K. Dick’s novel of the same name, I ordered the book (from Amazon, of course) and started watching.

Three things: First, the show is nothing like the book. Second, the book is much better than the show. (In my experience, the book is always better than the movie or TV show, even when the latter is good.) Third, I am embarrassed to confess that it has taken me 46 years to read this author.

For those of you who are similarly uninformed, Philip K. Dick is a Hugo Award-winning science fiction author. (Indeed, he won the Hugo Award—science fiction’s most prestigious—for The Man in the High Castle.) Even if you have not read his books or stories, you are probably familiar with them, for several have been turned into blockbuster films: Blade Runner (based on the novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), Total Recall (based on the story, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”), Minority Report (based on the story, “The Minority Report”), and The Adjustment Bureau (based on the story, “Adjustment Team”).

But back to The Man in the High Castle. As noted above, the Axis Powers won World War II and divided the world between them. The Nazis completed the Holocaust, pushed the Slavs back into Asia, and perpetrated continent-wide genocide in Africa. They also developed their technological capabilities to such a degree that they are beginning to colonize Mars. Japan, by contrast, took control of the American West and the Latin American South. They have not developed their technological capabilities. Indeed, their culture is suffused with Buddhist mysticism, and—weirdly—a fanatical love for Americana. They are not as extremist as the Nazis, nor as powerful, but they are still clearly in control within their sphere of influence.

The Man in the High Castle centers on the interactions of several German, Japanese, and American characters. Unlike in the TV show, there is no revolution in the offing. There is plenty of intrigue, however, with espionage, assassination, and counterfeiting all playing a role. As I read it, the novel—if its narrative can be reduced to abstract ideas—is about authenticity, choice, and reality.

Who the characters are and who they present themselves to be are not identical. There’s a lot of subterfuge and disguise (more emotional than physical). Key points in the novel turn on characters making choices to more closely align their self-presentation with their inward self. And there are moments—especially toward the end—when it’s unclear what the reality of the situation is, whether reality itself depends on choices made. One of the subplots involves a character seeking out the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, an alternate history novel in which the Allies defeat the Axis in World War II, though in a way unlike the historical ending of World War II. In other words, The Man in the High Castle is an alternate history with a subplot about an alternate history. The ending leaves open the question which alternate history is real within the world of the novel.

In some ways, this ambiguity makes for a dissatisfying ending to the book. In other ways, however, it leaves open possibilities for choice and action, which I think was the author’s point. If you like neat story lines with clean endings, don’t read The Man in the High Castle. If you’re okay with thought-provoking ambiguity, however, take and read…


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Review of ‘The Concrete Blonde: A Harry Bosch Novel’ by Michael Connelly

The-Concrete-BlondeMichael Connelly, The Concrete Blonde: A Harry Bosch Novel (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1994). Hardcover | Paperback | Kindle

The Concrete Blonde is the third Michael Connelly novel to feature LAPD homicide detective Hieronymous “Harry” Bosch. It opens with Bosch shooting a naked, unarmed man named Norman Church. Church was a suspect in the “Dollmaker” serial killings case. After the shooting, forensics tied him to nine of the eleven killings. Nevertheless, Church’s widow sought a civil judgment against Bosch and the LAPD and sued them in federal court.

As the trial gets underway, however, the LAPD receives a note written in the style of the Dollmaker which points them to the body of another woman. Her body bears the signature of the murderer’s other victims. However, she was killed after Bosch shot Norman Church. This casts Church’s guilt into doubt and throws a span into Bosch’s legal defense. Connelly weaves these two strands together in a well-paced narrative that is part police procedural, part legal thriller.

I am a huge fan of mystery series, and Connelly is one of my favorite series writers, through both his Harry Bosch and Mickey Heller (aka, “Lincoln Lawyer”) novels. The Concrete Blonde can be read independently of the series, but if you want to see Bosch’s character develop, start with The Black Echo and work your way through the novels in order.


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Review of ‘A Christian Guide to the Classics’ by Leland Ryken

A-Christian-Guide-to-the-ClassicsLeland Ryken, A Christian Guide to the Classics (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015). Paperback | Kindle

The more I watch television, the more I like books. The reason is not that there are few good television shows these days. On the contrary, television is experiencing something of a Golden Age, especially if you have cable or a streaming service.

The reason I like books more is because they have depth and require imagination. An actor must communicate in one take what an author can communicate over several pages. And the visual media makes decisions for you. Read Pride and Prejudice, and you can imagine Mr. Darby looking a number of different ways. Watch Pride and Prejudice (the PBS version preferably), and Mr. Darby will always look like Colin Firth.

So, books. But which books? Every reader has a preference, and mine tend to run toward mysteries and thrillers when it comes to pleasure reading. As a religion journalist, my professional reading—which I also enjoy—runs toward theology and ministry.

In A Christian Guide to the Classics, Leland Ryken makes a case for what used to be called “the Western canon.” These are the books, essays, stories, and poems that have endured and been considered influential through the ages because of their literary excellence and ability to inspire. They evince different worldviews (pagan, Jewish, Christian, secular) and encompass many genres (history, novels, poems), but they bring people together into a grand, ongoing conversation about life in its manifold variety.

The Classics are, by nature, elitist, but they have a capacious elitism, one that can be entered into by any who take them up and read. Ryken doesn’t quote her, but Maya Angelou’s comment that “Shakespeare must be a black girl” is apropos. If a dead white man can express universal human longings that a poor black girl can embrace, then he has written a classic.

For Christians, of course, the Bible is the classic to read. As Ryken argues, however, reading the Bible is not an alternative to reading other classics. Rather, it can be read alongside those classics, with the proviso that as Christians, we read the Bible humbly because of its authority over us, whereas we read other classics critically, knowing that they can err and mislead. God’s common grace is such that even in pagan texts that err, aspects of our common humanity come to light and find expression.

Ryken’s introduction addresses three questions: the nature of the classics, their value, and how to read them. His answers are workmanlike and analytical. His prose is clear and precise, though not necessarily memorable. The book’s back page contains a list of “Christian Guides to the Classics” that Ryken has penned on The Odyssey, Paradise Lost, Hamlet, The Scarlet Letter and other works. I have not read them, though I’m sure that they would make for helpful companions as you read those books.

I have this confidence because I took classes from Prof. Ryken when I matriculated at Wheaton College in the late 1980s. His workmanlike, analytical lectures helped me read literature in a different, better, more Christian way. Reading A Christian Guide was like a welcome return to his classroom, one that has encouraged me to get out my mystery/thriller rut and read the classics.


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Review of ‘The Volunteer Church’ and ‘Volunteering’ by Leith Anderson and Jill Fox

The-Volunteer ChurchLeith Anderson and Jill Fox, The Volunteer Church: Mobilizing Your Congregation for Growth and Effectiveness (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015). Paperback | Kindle

_____, Volunteering: A Guide to Serving in the Body of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015). Paperback | Kindle

“At their core churches are volunteer organizations,” write Leith Anderson and Jill Fox. The issue, then, is not whether a church has ministry volunteers but how well it mobilizes volunteers for ministry. The Volunteer Church offers guidance that will help church leaders:

  • effectively recruit and train volunteers;
  • build sustainable, long-lasting ministries led by volunteers;
  • encourage and maintain volunteers;
  • build volunteer teams;
  • and find the right ministry fit for volunteers.

Anderson and Fox were colleagues at Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota—he as pastor, she as director of the Volunteer Development Ministry. In addition to being biblically sound, the advice they offer in this book is undergirded by pastoral experience.

If you are a pastor or church leader looking for help improving your volunteer ministry, this short book is a good place to start. The book’s two appendixes—“Volunteer Development Training” and “Your Plan for Volunteer Development”—are especially helpful. They provide bullet points and discussion questions leaders can use to plan an effective volunteer development program.

VolunteeringAnderson and Fox’s Volunteering is a companion to The Volunteer Church, written primarily to address the questions volunteers have about signing up for ministry in the local church. Chapter 2, “Finding Your Fit,” is especially useful. It helps potential volunteers assess their spiritual gifts and talents and skills to more closely align who they are with what they do.


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Review of ‘The Great Detective’ by Zach Dundas

The-Great-DetectiveZach Dundas, The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015). Hardcover | Kindle

Arthur Conan Doyle published A Study in Scarlet in 1887. Nearly 130 years later, Sherlock Holmes and John H. Watson continue to attract followers. But while Conan Doyle’s four novels and 56 short stories are canonical, the Sherlockian universe has expanded (with no end in sight) to include stage and screen adaptations, spinoff stories, and fan fiction.

The question is why. “Why have Sherlock Holmes, John Watson, and the mysteries Conan Doyle challenged them to solve not only endured, but thrived?” Zach Dundas asks that question at the outset of The Great Detective. A “Sherlockian” since adolescence, Dundas’ book-length answer is part memoir, part biography of Conan Doyle and history of his times, part literary criticism of the Holmes canon, and part ethnography of the consulting detective’s fan base.

The result is a fascinating read, especially if—perhaps only if—you are a Sherlockian too, which I am. The reason Conan Doyle’s stories endure is because he gave readers a memorable character (Holmes), a great relationship (Holmes and Watson), and a world that is at once both Victorian and universal.

A British soldier returns from Afghanistan to a London teeming with international intrigue and low crime and there meets a man who has the skill to navigate them both. That’s how A Study in Scarlet begins. That’s also how the BBC’s Sherlock begins. Plus ça change… But it still works.

And that’s why Holmes and Watson thrive.


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Review of ‘Unburdened: The Christian Leader’s Path to Sexual Integrity’ by Michael Todd Wilson

UnburdenedMichael Todd Wilson, Unburdened: The Christian Leader’s Path to Sexual Integrity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2015). Paperback

If you are a male Christian leader struggling with sexual temptation, I encourage you to read Unburdened today. It traces a path toward sexual integrity that you can begin to walk immediately. Michael Todd Wilson discusses topics such as

  • Risk factors that men generally and leaders particularly face when it comes to sexual temptation
  • The importance of adopting a grace-based rather than performance-driven approach to sexual integrity
  • Spiritual disciplines that move you toward sexual integrity, including: surrender, radical honesty, non-ministry God time, body maintenance, and intimate relationships

Whether your struggle involves pornography or inappropriate relationships, Unburdened will help you move toward “temptation-resistant transformation.” Not temptation-free transformation, mind you. Temptation remains with us all till Christ perfects us. Even so, resisting sexual temptation can become a new normal.

Wilson includes three appendices: “Sexual Integrity Action Steps” (a checklist for the spiritual disciplines listed above), “Mentoring and Leading Other Men Along the Path,” and “Additional Resources” (both in print and online). This is a welcome book on a topic that affects many, if not most, male Christian leaders.


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Review of ‘Make Me: A Jack Reacher Novel’ by Lee Child

5114SvyFceL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_Lee Child, Make Me: A Jack Reacher Novel (New York: Delacorte, 2015). Hardcover | Kindle

Reading fiction requires a willing suspension of disbelief. With Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, this suspension usually comes easily. Child is a talented writer whose narrative pacing grabs your attention and drags you along with it until Reacher gets his man.

Unfortunately, I had a hard time suspending disbelief while reading Make Me, the twentieth novel in the Reacher series. The novel is a page-turner, which I read in its entirety on the day of publication. But unlike previous novels, I found myself increasingly skeptical of elements of the story.

For the story to work, we have to believe that Reacher—in his mid-50s and homeless for nearly two decades—has lost none of his vital powers, whether intellectual, physical, social, or whatever. We have to believe that he is able to roam the country without let or hindrance from law enforcement, despite having racked up a body count in the high two-digits. We have to believe that the violence and stress he has both suffered and inflicted have left no lasting marks on his body or psyche. And finally, we have to believe that Reacher has stumbled—yet again—into an enormity through pure happenstance.

We have to believe, in other words, what no one can believe.

Usually, Child drives the story forward so expertly that we go along with the make-believe. He doesn’t do so in Make Me, however…at least not in my opinion. Reacher’s reason for being on the scene is thin. The plot takes a while to develop. When it does, there are too many moving parts. In sum, Make Me is not the best of the Reacher novels. Child’s formula simply didn’t work for me this time.

It saddens me to write a negative review about the latest installment in what is easily one of the best long-running series in contemporary American fiction. I’d like to report a far more positive experience. But I can’t.

Still, the good news is this: Reacher survives. He’ll be back. And I’ll be waiting to turn the pages once again…


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Review of ‘The Gods of Guilt’ by Michael Connelly

The-Gods-of-GuiltMichael Connelly, The Gods of Guilt: A Lincoln Lawyer Novel (New York: Little Brown, 2013). Hardcover | Paperback | Kindle

Jurors are the gods of guilt in Mickey Haller’s world. They decree the fate of the accused. As this story opens, Haller feels as if his personal jurors have tried him in the balance and found him wanting. When his daughter’s friend is killed by a drunk driver—a client of Haller’s—she cuts off all contact with him. His burgeoning relationship with his ex-wife implodes. And he loses the election for Los Angeles district attorney.

When a murder case comes his way, Haller takes it. (What else is he supposed to do?) What begins as a relationship with paying client quickly becomes a desperate attempt to clear a wrongly accused man, get justice for a dead friend (who happens to be his client’s alleged victim, and put the real killer on the stand.

The Gods of Guilt is not the best novel in the Lincoln Lawyer series. That’s a bit like saying someone’s the second tallest starter on an NBA team, however. Michael Connelly is a great mystery writer, and I turned the pages on this one like I have on the previous ones—just not as fast. Still, this novel goes deeper in the psyche of Mickey Haller, giving us a window on his hopes and dreams, as well as his doubts and failures. What the story lacks in narrative punch, compared to the other novels, it makes up for in emotional pathos. The reader feels sorry for the downturn in Haller’s personal life, even as it cheers him on in the courtroom.


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