Review of ‘Saving the Bible from Ourselves’ by Glenn R. Paauw


Glenn Paauw, Saving the Bible from Ourselves: Learning to Read and Live the Bible Well (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2016).

What is the Bible? What are we supposed to do with it?

The standard way to answer these questions is to outline what Scripture says about itself. A key prooftext is 2 Timothy 3:15–17. According to Paul, Scripture is “holy” and “God-breathed.” We’re supposed to use it to “make [us] wise for salvation” as well as for “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training” so that we can be “equipped for every good work.” Wayne Grudem’s classic article, “Scripture’s Self-Attestation and the Problem of Formulating a Doctrine of Scripture,” assembles a formidable array of such prooftexts and is well worth reading.

Glenn R. Paauw (pronounced “pow”) takes a very different approach in his thought-provoking book, Saving the Bible from Ourselves. He begins with how publishers format our Bibles rather than how Scripture speaks about itself. Why? Because, to borrow a phrase from Marshall McLuhan, the medium shapes the message.

To see this, take out the copy of the Bible you read and open it. My guess is that it has, at minimum, two columns per page, chapter and verse numbers, headings, cross-references and footnotes. If it is a study Bible, it has all that plus book introductions, thematic articles, study notes, maps, diagrams, charts, tables, pictures and a handy concordance at the end to help you find the verses you’re looking for. Chances are, there are more words per page devoted to commentary on Scripture than Scripture itself.

I don’t know about you, but the only kinds of books I read that have all those features are textbooks, dictionaries, encyclopedias, technical manuals and the like — reference books, in other words. If the medium shapes the message, then how publishers format our Bibles subtly but persistently teaches us to approach the Bible as a reference book. Approaching the Bible as a reference book is both overwhelming and underwhelming for readers, however.

 

Approaching the Bible as a reference book is both overwhelming and underwhelming for readers, however.

 

The more information publishers cram onto a page the more overwhelming Bible-reading becomes for the average reader. As Paauw puts it, “We have effectively buried the text and blinded readers with data smog.” I didn’t realize how smoggy my Bible was until I started using the ESV Reader’s Bible a couple years ago. That version presents the biblical text in a single column on the page and deletes chapter and verse numbers, headings, cross-references and footnotes. Prose sections are formatted in paragraphs, and poetic sections are formatted in stanzas. The result is a Bible that is beautiful and pleasing to read.

Paradoxically, however, the reference-book Bible is also underwhelming to the average reader. The standard Bible-publishing format has taught us to think of God’s Word as an encyclopedia of divine quotations organized around topics. Want to know what the Bible teaches about X? On this approach, all you need to do is look up X in the index — I mean, concordance — and find every verse where Scripture mentions it.

The problem is that not every bit of the Bible is as inspirational or as quotable as every other part. My dad graduated from a Christian college. Many of his friends signed his yearbook with a biblical reference, for example, “Jane Doe, John 3:16.” They didn’t quote the verse because most of the time, it was so well known that they didn’t have to. My dad — kidder that he is — signed his name with Exodus 22:18. Had anyone bothered to look up that verse, they would’ve found that it read, in the immortal words of King James, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”

My dad’s antics make me laugh every time, but they also raise a serious question. If we have been subtly but persistently taught to read the Bible as a reference book of inspirational quotations, what do we do when discover that it contains Exodus 22:18? Or long stretches of ancient history? Or laments and imprecations? Or hard words from Jesus? Or challenging theology in Paul? Or the entire Book of Revelation?

Rather than approaching the Bible as a reference book — which both overwhelms and underwhelms the average reader — how about approaching the Bible without all the reference-book paraphernalia and the interpretive assumptions that go along with? What might reading such a Bible look like?

Paauw describes the resulting Bible this way: “a Bible that is presented as literature, eaten in natural forms, grounded in history, inviting in its narrative, restorative in its theme, engaged in community and honored in its aesthetic presentation.”

In other words, it’s a Bible with clear, easy-to-read pages rather than data smog. It’s a Bible attentive to the fact that prose looks different on the printed page than poetry, and that different literary genres have different interpretive rules and practices. When we read it, we encounter what Karl Barth called “the strange new world in the Bible,” attentive to the fact that God revealed himself to particular people in particular times and particular places, but in such a way that He changed them, their age, and their culture. Reading becomes a matter of seeing the Bible’s individual stories (about Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, Peter, Paul) contributing to the Big Story (creation, fall, election, redemption, glorification) that touches on every aspect of our lives. Moreover, rather than reading the Bible as isolated individuals, we remember that God desires to save a people for himself, and thus read it as a fellowship of the redeemed.

 

This is an eye-opening, thought-provoking, and habit-reforming book.

 

You’ll need to read Saving the Bible from Ourselves to understand what Paauw is proposing in detail. Speaking for myself, I found his book eye-opening, thought-provoking, and habit-reforming. I recommend it highly, and I’ll no doubt read it again.

But before you go out and purchase Paauw’s book, let me encourage you to pick up a reader’s version of the Bible. Crossway publishes the ESV Reader’s Bible. Zondervan publishes The Books of the Bible, which uses the NIV. (Paauw served as a consultant on this project.) If not a reader’s version, at least pick up a single-column Bible that isn’t a study Bible. If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll find it easier to read the Bible for longer periods of time, and you’ll start to notice details that had escaped you before.

Second Timothy 3:15–17 is right, of course. The Bible is “holy” and “God-breathed.” It is “useful” in equipping us “for every good work.” Unfortunately, we’ve smogged up God’s Word with all the human additions we print on its page, making it harder to read and understand. It’s time to save the Bible from our well-intentioned publishing efforts, and Glenn Paauw’s book is a big step in the right direction.

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P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here with permission.

P.P.S. Check out my Influence Podcast with Glenn R. Paauw.

P.P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon review page.

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Review of ‘Introduction to World Christian History’ by Derek Cooper


Intro-to-World-Christian-HistoryDerek Cooper, Introduction to World Christian History (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016).

Derek Cooper begins his Introduction to World Christian History with a thought-provoking quote:

In just over 100 years, the map of world Christianity has changed almost out of recognition. In 1900, it is estimated that 70 percent of all Christians were to be found in Europe … whereas … by 2025 Africa and Latin America will be vying with one another to claim the most Christians, having about a quarter each of the world’s Christian population (p. 11, quoting Sebastian Kim and Kirsteen Kim, Christianity as a World Religion).

Given this monumental demographic shift, Christianity must be understood broadly as a global movement, rather than narrowly as a Western one.

Unfortunately, too many evangelical histories of Christianity continue to evince a Eurocentric bias in their presentation. (The same can be said of other Christian traditions too, of course.) They trace the Church’s story from first-century Judea (where the Church was born) to fourth-century Rome (where orthodoxy formed a problematic relationship with the State) to medieval Europe (where Catholic Christendom flourished) to early modern Northern Europe (where the Reformation took root) to Enlightenment-era Britain and America (where evangelicalism began) to today—that is to say, they trace the history from “them” to “us.” That story is true, as far as it goes, but it leaves a lot of vital information out, about both past and present realities of the Church.

The emerging field of “world Christian history” or “global Christian history” seeks to correct this Eurocentric bias and provide a more accurate history of the development of Christianity. “Despite its close connection to the West today, Christianity has always been a global and ethnically diverse religion,” Derek Cooper writes. “The time has come for the church to recognize that its history extends far beyond the Western hemisphere. The church was planted in Asia, nurtured in African and harvested worldwide” (p. 13).

A thorough history of world Christianity would be a multi-volume affair. See, for example, Dale T. Irvin and Scott W. Sunquist’s projected World Christian Movement, whose first two volumes total 1,000 pages, with a third volume still awaiting publication. Even readers with an interest in the topic do not always have the time or patience to read long books like those. They should begin, instead, with Cooper’s Introduction to World Christian History, which summarizes the main points of world Christian history in less than 250 pages.

Cooper arranges his narrative chronologically and geographically. Chronologically, he divides his material into “three fluid periods: (1) the first to seventh centuries, (2) the eighth through fourteenth centuries, and (3) the fifteenth to the twenty-first centuries” (p. 16). Geographically, he divides his material using the United Nations Geoscheme for Nations. Part 1 and 2 examine the development of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Europe during the church’s first fifteen centuries. Part 3 begins in Europe, which is where Christianity had become spiritually and politically dominant, but then traces the Church’s development into new fields in Latin America, North America, Oceania, Southern Africa, and Asia. The Church’s development in this period coincided with European colonialism, which—paradoxically—constituted both an obstacle to the acceptance of Christianity by the indigenous peoples (because it was associated with foreign domination) as well as the catalyst for its growth (because indigenous peoples took the missionaries’ gospel and made it their own).

Reflecting on this history, Cooper concludes his book with words that are worth quoting:

Christianity does not belong to Europe or America, or to Asia or Africa or Oceania any more than the wind can be captured, claimed and bottled. The wind [of the Holy Spirit] continues to blow today, just as it did in the past. We can hear the sound of it and witness how it transforms peoples and cultures. But we do not know how long the wind will remain with us and where it will go next (p. 244).

Wherever the Wind may blow, Christians should pray and work so that the Wind carries them along with it.

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P.S. This review is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com.

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Review of ‘Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry’ by Amy Simpson


Unknown Amy Simpson, Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2014). Paperback / Kindle

Tune in to the evening news, and you are likely to hear stories that cause fear and anxiety to well up within you. America’s struggling economy, the Ebola pandemic, radical Islamic terrorism. Or perhaps you don’t watch the evening news but still find yourself anxious about your spouse, your children, your job, your life.

Then you read Amy Simpson’s new book. It says: “a lifestyle of worry is incompatible with a life of faith.” And you think to yourself, Is this woman for real? Does she not understand the hard things I’m going through?

Yes, and yes. Amy Simpson is for real. She understands. She’s a wife, a mother, a worker. Her mother is schizophrenic. Her brother-in-law survived stage-3 liver cancer. Her husband is a licensed counselor. She wrote a book on mental illness. When she says that worry and faith are incompatible, she’s not saying it from some airy-fairy height untouched by trouble.

Rather, she says that faith and worry are incompatible because that is what Jesus himself says. “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life.” Doing so shows that we have “little faith” (Matt. 6:25, 30). The key question, then, is not whether world events and personal troubles make us anxious or afraid, but whether we turn to God in faith in the midst of such things.

At the outset of Anxious, Simpson makes some common-sense distinctions between fear, anxiety, and worry that are very helpful. “Unlike fear,” she writes, “worry is not an immediate response to real or perceived danger; it’s anticipatory, rooted in concern about something that may or may not happen. Unlike normal anxiety, it’s not an involuntary physical response but a pattern we choose to indulge. It rises not from outside us but from within.” Fear and anxiety happen; worry is a choice.

And because we choose it in the first place, we can unchoose it on second thought. Simpson offers two good reasons to do so:

First, worry hurts us and by extension, those we love. The longest chapter in Anxious is chapter 3, “Worry’s Many Destructive Powers.” It outlines the many mental, physical, and relational problems that worry causes. If you want to avoid those problems, avoid worry.

But second, worry is based on bad theology. You might be wondering what theology has to do with good mental health. Simpson’s husband is a cognitive-behavioral therapist. What this means is that he helps his clients understand how their beliefs shape the emotional problems they experience. Long before cognitive-behavioral therapy was a gleam in a psychologist’s eye, Jesus showed the connection between wrong beliefs and negative emotions. “Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus said, just after telling his disciples not to worry; “they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matt. 6:26). Good theology contributes to good mental health.

Of course, good theology can’t stay in our minds. It must translate into action. Many of us affirm Jesus’ words with our heads, but they don’t trickle down into how our hearts feel or how our hands act. So, in chapters 6, 7, and 8, Simpson addresses “three things that keep us clinging to worry: a faulty perspective, a desire to possess and control the future, and a possessive attachment to the people and things of this world.” For me, these were the most challenging chapters of the book, revealing the subtle ways that my pride, control, and consumerism lie at the base of my worries.

Replacing worry with faith is not an easy thing, and Simpson doesn’t claim that it is. Throughout, she uses the language of process to describe the changes that need to take place, but also the language of repentance. Getting rid of worry is good mental health, but it is also a necessary spiritual practice. Our worry, driven by a desire to possess and control, comes between us and a God who alone is sovereign, and whose mercies alone can heal.

The book ends with a lovely statement about God that is worth sharing:

Why Trust God?

He never fails

He never leaves us

He never disappoints us

He loves us unconditionally

He’s the creator of all things

He transforms us from the inside

He forgives our sins

He knows everything

He rules the future

He is all-powerful

He is everywhere

He is good

He is great

He is

 

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Biblical Egalitarianism: A Review of ‘The Message of Women’ by Derek and Dianne Tidball


The Message of Women Tidball, Derek, and Dianne Tidball. 2012. The Message of Women: Creation, Grace and Gender. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Few topics roil the evangelical waters as much as the role(s) of women. On one side are complementarians, who affirm the spiritual equality of men and women but deny that this results in the equal calling of both sexes to leadership roles in church and society. On the other side are egalitarians, who both equality of spirit and of role.

Although both sides employ social science arguments in an ancillary manner, their primary arguments are scriptural. Both sides agree that ancient near eastern culture was patriarchal and that the Bible reflects this patriarchalism. The question is whether patriarchy is a universal norm or a particular context. Complementarians argue the former. Egalitarians argue the latter. For them, biblical norms subvert patriarchy and establish a trajectory of equality between the sexes, which is still being realized in the church.

The Message of Women by husband-and-wife team Derek and Dianne Tidball offers an introductory level egalitarian biblical theology. Derek is a Baptist minister who was principal of the London School of Theology and is currently a visiting scholar at Spurgeon’s College, London. He is series editor for the volumes on biblical themes in The Bible Speaks Today series, of which The Message of Women is a part. Dianne is the regional minister (team leader) of the East Midlands Baptist Association.

The Tidballs organize their biblical theology under four headings: (1) Foundations, which outlines the status and role(s) of women in creation (ch. 1), the fall (ch. 2), and the new creation (ch. 3); (2) Women under the old covenant (chs. 4–10), which surveys how the Old Testament portrays women; (3) Women in the kingdom chs. 11–14, which examines how Jesus’ teaching about and ministry to (and with) women; and (4) Women in the new community (chs. 15–20), which examines what Paul taught about women.

The Bible Speaks Today series has “a threefold ideal”: “to expound the biblical text with accuracy,” “to relate it to contemporary life,” and “to be readable.” The Message of Women embodies these ideals. Within the limits of an introductory level text, the Tidballs’ book is comprehensive in scope, nuanced in argumentation, and clear in presentation.

The authors do not shy away from the difficult texts in Paul—such as 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, 14:26–40; Ephesians 5:21–33, and 1 Timothy 2:11–15—which loom large in the complementarian argument. Rather, the Tidballs engage these texts, taking into account their canonical and social contexts. In other words, they do not treat these texts in isolation but in correlation with the entire biblical teaching on women. And they diligently reconstruct the background social issues that called forth Paul’s response. By contextualizing these passages in these ways, the Tidballs effectively blunt the force of complementarianism and show the plausibility of egalitarianism.

Almost as valuable as the Tidballs’ argument is their tone, which is irenic throughout. The bibliography on pages 13–22 shows the authors’ familiarity with the relevant complementarian, egalitarian, and feminist texts. (Readers who want to pursue the issues in more detail would be wise to begin with the complementarian Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, the egalitarian Discovering Biblical Equality, and the feminist In Memory of Her.) The Tidballs seek points of agreement where possibly, but never disagree disagreeably. In a church (and society at large) that is often rent by contentiousness, the Tidballs’ irenic writing style is welcome.

I highly recommend The Message of Women. I agreed with the overall force of their argument, though I disagreed with a few of their specific interpretations. (Even people on the same side of a debate can niggle about the details.) The book includes discussion questions for each chapter. Combined with its other virtues, this makes the book ideal for Sunday school classes and small-group Bible studies. I especially encourage Christian men to read this book and to follow the example of Jesus in their relationships with women generally and their wives particularly.

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

How Culture (Mis)Shapes Interpretation: A Review of ‘Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes’


misreadingscripture Richards, E. Randolph, and Brandon J. O’Brien. 2012. Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books.

Who we are affects how we read the Bible, and culture shapes who we are to a significant degree. For example, a married, middle-aged man from Springfield, Missouri, interprets the Bible differently than an unmarried, teenage girl from Banda Aceh, Indonesia. This doesn’t mean that Scripture has no correct interpretation. It does mean, however, that we shouldn’t assume ours is it.

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by Randy Richards and Brandon O’Brien identifies nine key areas where Western cultural assumptions differ from biblical cultural assumptions. These areas have to do with mores, ethnicity, language, individualism and collectivism, honor/shame and right/wrong, time, rules and relationships, virtue and vice, and the identity of the center of God’s will. The authors devote a chapter to each area, mixing cross-cultural anecdotes (often drawn from the mission field) and examples from Scripture to show how Western ways of reading can misinterpret biblical teaching.

Chapter 3, for example, shows how, among other assumptions about language, Westerners prefer propositions to metaphors. “Because we are somewhat uncomfortable with the ambiguity of metaphors,” the authors write, “we tend to distill propositions out of them.” The biblical authors didn’t share our discomfort with metaphors, however. They “recorded the profoundest truth in similes, metaphors, parables and other colorful and expressive (and potentially ambiguous) forms of language.” The Western tendency to distill propositions out of metaphors “actually diminishes the breadth and application of the text.” What proposition better expresses, theologically and emotionally, God’s providential care of us than “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23:1)? Moreover, “the biblical writers use metaphors to connect central truths in Scripture.” When Jesus said of himself, in John 10:14, “I am the good shepherd,” he drew on both Psalm 23 and Ezekiel 34, where God called himself a shepherd. His opponents rightly discerned that he was claiming to be God (John 10:33). Unlike propositions, metaphors “say more with less.”

By identifying ways that Westerners misread Scripture, Randolph and O’Brien help them cultivate more faithful ways of reading and applying Scripture. I recommend this book to preachers, theological students, and would-be missionaries. It is written at an introductory level and includes a list of recommended books for more in-depth study of the relationship between culture and biblical interpretation.

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

A Festschrift of Sorts for N.T. Wright by Critics Who Are Also Friends


 Nicholas Perrin and Richard B. Hays, Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N. T. Wright (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011). $24.00, 294 pages.

Jesus, Paul and the People of God publishes the papers presented at the nineteenth annual Wheaton Theology Conference, hosted by Wheaton College on April 16–17, 2010. It doubles as a Festschrift of sorts for N. T. “Tom” Wright, whose books—whether academic or popular—alternatively influence and infuriate their readers, especially their evangelical readers. Its authors, though sometimes critical of Wright’s theology, are also personal friends.

The book, like the conference, examined Wright’s theology of Jesus (Part One) and his theology of Paul (Part Two). Following each chapter, Wright offers a short response to the author of the chapter. At the end of each part, Wright outlines the evolution to date of his thinking, using a “whence and whither” formula. The book includes a “Subject Index” and a “Scripture Index,” both of which are helpful for academic readers. A select bibliography of Wright’s books and articles would have been helpful, but it is not included.

For me, Wright’s two “whence and whither” essays were worth the price of the book. Wright is a prolific author. His three-volume series, Christians Origins and the Question of God, contains 2,016 pages of densely argued prose. The “whence and whither” essays helped me understand the gist of Wright’s portrait of Jesus, how he reached his conclusions, and how those conclusions apply to the life of the church today.

Of the other essays, two stood out to me in particular: “‘Outside of a Small Circle of Friends’: Jesus and the Justice of God” by Sylvia C. Keesmaat and Brian J. Walsh and “Wrighting the Wrongs of the Reformation? The State of the Union with Christ in St. Paul and Protestant Soteriology.” The former offered a provocative (and controversial) reading of Jesus’ Parable of the Pounds that got me thinking about economic justice. The latter helped me navigate the debate between Wright and John Piper on the doctrine of justification by faith and suggested “union with Christ” as a point of rapprochement between the traditional Protestant doctrine and Wright’s own interpretation of justification.

Jesus, Paul and the People of God makes an excellent companion volume to InterVarsity Press’s book, Jesus and the Restoration of Israel: A Critical Assessment of N. T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God (1999). If you are interested in the critical assessment of Wright’s work, especially from an evangelical point of view, these two volumes are a good place to start.

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