Great Gift Ideas: Holy Ground, Epiphanies & Books on Reading the Bible

It has been our pleasurable custom each December to offer for Hearts & Minds cyber-customers a holiday gift-giving list. Some years we have enjoyed telling you of handsome hardbacks, beautiful gift books, Advent devotionals, and our favorite soothing Christmas CDs. We'd love for you to ho ho ho your way to those past columns, as most of the things we recommended are still merrily quite commendable. Happy giving awaits, so do click back to those seasonal suggestions: The 2002 Hearts & Minds Christmas Gift List or Gifts for the Holidays: Books, Music and the Glory of Children's Books or Holiday Devotionals, New Books and the Smell of Sawdust.

This year, though, I cannot resist being a bit more focused. I want to tell you about books that, if not exactly charming holiday fare, are nonetheless very, very important, quite new, and truly great. You most likely won't see them touted at the ubiquitous big box stores and probably not at the typical CBA type store either.

(Speaking of the most popular religious books these days, I actually like the new Max Lucado, on the incarnation, no less; his books are always good, if a bit basic. It may be good to deepen our efforts a bit, and offer books of a bit more substance. It is, we would like to think, part of our calling here to tell of these better books. We hope you find knowing of them helpful.)

So, here's our December listing for the year of our Lord, 2003.

Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology by Gordon W. Lathrop (Fortress, $25.00). This actually is getting a bit of holiday press: it is the much-anticipated completion of Lathrop's liturgical trilogy, started in 1993 with Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology. That groundbreaking book was followed in 1999 by Holy People: A Liturgical Ecclesiology. In these profound books, Lathrop (a vivacious and insightful professor at the Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia) makes the case that our worship (even the structure of our worship) helps us construe the world in new ways. Deep, poetic, profoundly ethical, this exploration of the Trinitarian holiness of God has been called "momentous" and "a rare work of theology." Although they obviously are interconnected, one need not read them all to appreciate either. This new one, especially, captures my attention -- you know how much we like to read about worldviews and Christ-honoring ways of being in the world. With chapters like "Baptism and the Cosmic Map" and "Eucharist and Earth-care," you know it is important.

Epiphanies: Stories for the Christian Year edited by Eugene Peterson & Emilie Griffin (Baker, $15.99). While a very different book than the Lathrop work, this collection, finally, speaks of a similar reality and invites us (through evocative stories, fiction, testimony) to see our whole year in light of what some call the liturgical calendar. The Christian year has an ebb and flow, you know, and these pieces help illumine what is going on and (how we might dare to participate) in the seasons of Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Pentecost and a dozen other less known church feast days and holidays.

As Emilie Griffin points out in the new introduction to this expanded edition,

From the early days, Christians celebrated their holiest people, setting aside special days in their names. These became feast days or holy days. In this book we honor that custom with stories of apostles: Doris Betts give us Luke, who is honored by many on October 18. Diane Glancy tells us about Philip and James (the Lesser), who are celebrated together on May 1 in the Book of Common Prayer"¦ Glancy's first title for her piece was "This, Simply This, Lives Said." When I questioned her about it, she explained that these lives spoke to her once she began to retell them"¦

Writers are wayward folk, even when they have Jesus Christ in common. Our churches, too, are all over the lot, representing many styles of Christian belief and practice. Yet in this volume we have a way of coming together. Splintered though our church may be, we ourselves are hanging on and hanging out together. Wanting to belong to Jesus, we tell stories about his life, death, resurrection, and ascension; we tell stories about those who followed him. It is all a way of honoring and remembering and saying again to each other what a Christian is, and why we are sisters and brothers in Christ.

Who wouldn't enjoy these varied pieces? Who of us couldn't be helped by being reminded of God's presence all year long? And would it not be good to reflect on the particular ways God's story impacts our own yearly cycles? (You may recall my enthusiastic affirmation of the wise little Mudhouse Sabbath, which I told of in October's column and which reminds me of such themes.) In this great anthology, you can read Walt Wangerin, Steve Lawhead, Luci Shaw, Philip Yancey, Madeleine L'Engle, and of course, Eugene Peterson, as well as many others. As the Library Journal reported, "These stories"¦lead the reader from the ordinary to the extraordinary."

Reading the Bible for the Love of God by Alan Reynolds (Brazos Press, $12.99). From the broadest sweep of the aforementioned book about liturgical cosmology to the one about the cycle of the Christian year, we turn now to a pair of books that show us us how to properly know all of this. How do we know God's revealed truth? By reading the Bible, obviously. But that, as we know, is a study -- and not at all a self-evident one -- all itself.

I must admit that I often become open to a book's quality by those who endorse it. When I saw the solid and diverse authors who have graced the back of this new book -- Jeremy Begbie, Walter Brueggemann, J.I. Packer -- I am immediately interested. Hear what Gab Fackre says:

Had enough of both the Bible bashers and the Bible thumpers? Then this book is for you. The author, a faithful pastor and skilled communicator, takes you down a third way. On that journey, Alan Reynolds holds high the authority of Scripture and helps the reader to hear within it a fresh and revitalizing Word.

The "Bible bashers and Bible thumpers" line, by the way, is from Reynolds himself, from a good and useful chapter for any of us trying to honor God's truths in the post-Christian world.

That Eugene Peterson wrote the forward to Reading the Bible for the Love of God is telling. Peterson is known as a pastor who cares not about the efficient and managerial movement to make pastors into organizational leaders. He has written widely about how pastors must pay attention both to the text of Scripture and the texture of prayer. (I have written about him often in these pages, and believe his work should form the foundation of any good Christian library.) In the introduction, he notes,

Now we are faced with this astonishing irony: everybody (I exaggerate slightly) can read, everybody has a Bible (again, a slight exaggeration), and yet so much of the reading is misreading and so many of the Bibles are unread (not an exaggeration). I have been keeping close company with pastors and teachers for fifty years and know from decades of conversations, confirmed by my own experience, that most of them, dismayed by the marginal place of the Bible among the people under their care, consider it one of their primary tasks to guide the men and women, children and youth in their sanctuaries and classrooms not only to read the Bible but to read it rightly. They know this is necessary and embrace the work. But they also find it surprisingly and unendingly difficult.

Peterson captures much of Reynolds when he writes (again, in the forward) "Reading the Bible doesn't require any great technical skills, but it does require a radical shift from our habitual reading-for-information to personal reading-as-listening."

This is a rich and good book. If we care about our Bibles -- and the Lord whose Word it surely is! -- we should regularly reflect on its meaning, how best to read it, and the role it plays in our lives together as God's people. Of course we should read the Book itself, but time spent under the tutelage of the likes of Reynolds will make our actual Bible reading more fruitful.

For beginners, the new (third) edition of Doug Stewart and Gordon Fee's classic, Reading the Bible for All that It's Worth is very useful. I love a handful of other introductions to the Bible's overall themes. For instance, the evocative The Bible Makes Sense by Walter Brueggemann is a gem. I have often drawn on the wonderful and liberating God's Healing Strategy (Pandora Press) or the little collection of radio talks done by the world renowned Lesslie Newbigin (Walking Through the Bible). Any of these brief intros could serve to warm up a beginner to the Bible and its significant role in our lives. But for those needing a bit more of what could be considered a "theology of the Bible," Reynolds is very, very good.

How to Read the Bible to Hear God Speak: A Study in Numbers 22-24 by Calvin Seerveld (Toronto Tuppence Press/ Dordt College Press, $12.50). This is the latest edition of an older version of a project dear to the heart of a writer who I've often mentioned in these pages, Calvin Seerveld. Famous for his remarkable books on a neo-Calvinist perspective on philosophy and the arts (see, for instance, the rare and wondrous Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves), Seerveld has also become an important voice in helping us "rightly divide the Word." His own denomination has drawn on his insight; also, he has had hymns placed in the Christian Reformed Church hymnal and even has a video (Breath of God) about the process he uses to translate the biblical text to contemporary idioms. (He has a remarkable book modernizing the Song of Solomon as chorus theatre, called The Greatest Song.) How To Read the Bible to Hear God Speak is actually the new title for Balaam's Apocalyptic Prophecies, a title which more closer resembles the original, early edition before it was renamed Balaam. Trust me on this one -- you haven't seen a book quite like this. Raw and real and scholarly and very, very helpful.

How to Read the Bible to Hear God Speak is based on good hermeneutical sense. Seerveld reminds us that the Bible "is not a book of proof texts to be shot at people. Each passage needs to be understood in the context of God's whole revelation, the true story from Genesis to Revelation. This booklet tells what the episode of God's dealing with Balaam, his ass, Balak, and the Israelites means in the Bible, for us today."

The heart of this fascinating and illuminating book is the way Seerveld wisely shows the workings of three different styles of reading the biblical text. Each approach may have some strengths, which he is quick to point out, but each have serious shortcomings and his evaluation of these is solid. Few Bible teachers know so much about traditions other than their own and are able to fairly explain them. Here, as he compares and contrasts, looking at strengths and weakness in assumptions and practices in these differing schools of thought, we see Seerveld as kind teacher, as fair-minded scholar, but also as broken-hearted prophet, passionately calling God's own away from ideologies that will surely hinder and hamper faithful witness. Gratefully, he not only critiques, but offers, then, a fourth reading, one that I might describe as Kingdom-driven, whole-life oriented, visionary and coherent, fruitful and healing. He calls it (and has since 1959) "biblically reformational." Those of us who labor for the CCO doing the whole-life Jubilee conference thing all use that word -- it may be Seerveld who coined it.

The three sorts of readings he exposes are (in shorthand) a higher-critical/ liberal reading, a moralistic/fundamentalist reading, and a dogmatic (or theologistic) reading. As a teacherly case study, it is spectacular. He literally creates three sample commentaries -- a bit caricatured, but only just a bit -- on this odd Bible story to show how these three common but inadequate perspectives deal with the passage. That these are the three most-used interpretive styles should go without saying. I might say that getting Seerveld's take on this and his alternative framework in your bones will help you sort through a whole lot of the inevitably bad sermons we inevitably have to sit through, and help you be on guard as you read other biblical commentaries with their unique foibles and dispositions.

This book is a Godly version of what I think Holden Caufield called a "crap detector." If you are a pastor, read it well to keep yourself on track as you exegete and preach week after week. If you lead Bible studies, it will be a tool to draw upon regularly. As ancient-future guru Robert Webber has said, "[It is] a wonderful exercise in learning how to listen to God out of God's whole story"¦the compelling guidelines offered by Seerveld are most welcome."

Seerveld has deep respect, it seems, for the wrong-headed views he critiques. Yet, he holds little back when he laments the shortcomings of these dysfunctional perspectives. He avoids crass oversimplification and -- although prophetic and biting at times -- never throws the cheap shot. He is not trying to win an academic debate or prove himself; rather, he longs for God's Word to take hold of folks who want to live -- in the world, but not of it, bodies laid down in nonconformity, agents of reconciliation -- with all they've got for the creation-reclaiming Lord of hosts. How we read the Bible, he rightly maintains, is chief among the matters that keep us from this kind of whole-life discipleship. Here is how he summarizes the need for a sound hermenutical approach and what is particular about the tradition which he advocates:

One needs to realize that the holy Scriptures are God-speaking literature given to us historically for our learning by faith the one true story of the Lord's rule acoming and the contours of our obedient response. I believe the holy Scriptures come at us as the compelling Word of the Lord and that it faces us whole, bodily men and women in our concrete life activity today with the overall directive to praise the Lord!, repent and get adopted!, love your neighbor as yourself and reconcile all creation back to God in Jesus Christ!

In a lengthy new chapter, Seerveld updates his argument since Balaam. He again critiques the near pointlessness of the so-called objective, higher-critical approach (using, for instance, a recent commentary from the prestigious Anchor Bible series.) He offers good insight into the problems created by liberationist approaches, especially the important feminist readings which are hugely popular in mainline seminaries. (It is interesting, and an indication of his good heart and strong character, that he has great sympathies for the oppressed and is clearly interested in how postmodernists have reminded us to read "from below," considering the ways in which privilege and social setting can deform interpretations. He has said this, I know, for decades, long before it was commonplace!) His constant insight, though -- that there is always the larger context of promise-and-fulfillment in the drama of God's historical, redemptive faithfulness to His creation -- comes time and again to the rescue, offering very practical insight for avoiding the wrong turns and missteps of the other popular interpretive styles.

We recommend this book to all, but especially to campus ministers (whose students are exposed to all these varied approaches), Bible study leaders, preachers and we lay folk wanting to take up our Bibles in appropriate and insightful ways. (And surely, to beginning seminary students.) I respect and care for Cal, admire his scholarly work, and love his powerhouse and hefty writing style. (It isn't exactly elegant, but it certainly is memorable!)

This book, since we are hoping to sell many, should come with a tiny disclaimer, though. It is a bit odd. He writes in a manner that some find off-putting (sorry, Cal), and he is, well, eccentric. He is a scholar of the arts, after all, and he has that in his very being. He makes up words. He has read really, really widely. He illustrates the later portion of the book with songs and weird art. His odd bibliography is nearly useless -- half are out of print, the other half are Dutch. (Okay, I exaggerate.) But I will take this any day; Seerveld is a prophet and I stake our reputation here at Hearts & Minds on the significance of this very important and precious work. Take up and read, indeed!

Hear from the author himself, near the end of this small book,

While I am ready to say, in the manner of Paul, that whatever hermeneutical method one is using, if it somehow leads to the proclamation of Jesus Christ's saving Rule acoming in God's world, I can be glad about that (cf. Philippians 1:15-18). But the lectional astigmatism I find marring these other methods -- despite what they make me thankfully aware of -- is disturbing because the biblical "eye-glasses" they give people for viewing reality are sorely out of focus; they do not help people hear and see and do the full counsel of God (cf. Acts 20:17-35) with a thankful heart.

It takes time to read the Bible to hear God speak. The Bible is not a fast-food outlet. One has to pay attention to the written text, pore over it, learn the languages or consult several translations, deepen oneself into the original historical circumstances, piece out the literary features to catch the nuances, check a wide diversity of commentary readings on the particular text under scrutiny. Reading the Bible to hear God speak is not a one-person show -- it happens best in a believing communion of attuned reading saints (often found in books!). Once prepared"¦a person waits on the Lord, wrestles with the God-speaking text which humbles you to your knees with an oracle of tough love and rough comfort, and a mission or redemptive service.

Yet another way to hear about this book is to again consult Eugene Peterson. After exclaiming how important the Bible is, and how important it is to "get it right," he says, "In getting it right we need all the help we can get. Dr. Seerveld's help is as good as it gets -- and not in the form of rules and principles, but by plunging into one of the more interesting stories in the Bible and showing us how it works." What better endorsement could you get? As good as it gets. Plunges us into the story. Shows us how it works.

Sadly, this is a small press publication and a book you will not find many places. Join us in our mission to get it known. Buy a few and send 'em out. I believe it will be seen as a rare treasure.

An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination by Walter Brueggemann (Westminster/John Knox, $24.95). At least in the field of biblical studies, this may be the book of the year -- a mammoth work by Professor B, the one we've been waiting for! Here, Brueggemann weighs in on every book of the Older Testament, showing how best to understand its themes, the lay of the scholarly land, the consensus among many contemporary scholars (if there is one). Throughout, in Seerveld-esque fashion, he invites radical revisioning of our live and times, showing us how these old, old stories -- now become our texts -- shape and construe a new world. What can be said about this: an intro to the Hebrew Bible by Walter Brueggemann? (I would love to hear Seerveld's review!) In the meantime, somebody you know wants this book, I'm sure. Or maybe you should tell Auntie Agnes to call us quick and get it under your Christmas tree.

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A final bit of news: you might want to know that the entire Eugene Peterson paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, is now available in a slightly chunky hardback with verse numeration. (As you may know, the standard version of The Message, which is available in its entirety, does not have any verse numbers.) Called The Message //Remix, it was initially designed for the hip youth market. A lot of adults like its squarish size and verse numbers. The sturdy hardback sells for $29.99 and the leather -- with fake alligator stamping -- sells for $49.99. Ask us about the various packages of The Message on audio, too (CD or cassette). Yeah! There is even a weirdo retro gift edition for teens which comes in a faux lunch box with thermos!

For those who prefer the New Revised Standard translation there is at last a good study Bible -- The New Interpreters Study Bible (Abingdon). The NRSV New Interpreters -- based loosely on the esteemed commentary series of that name put out in recent years -- has oodles more notes than the skimpy New Oxford Annotated (don't get me started!) or the somewhat better, but overly progressive HarperCollins Study Bible done by the Society of Biblical Literature. It is the only really thorough study Bible in the NRSV and we recommend it for NRSV readers. The big hardback sells for $45.00. The only leather editions are the high-quality, genuine leather (in burgundy or black, $85.00).

For those happy with the great NIV Study Bible (it has more notes, I think, than any study edition on the market, and they are certainly fair and balanced, too), there is a very cool edition, smallish, two-tone (tan & dark brown or brown & black) fake leather than feels just great, currently on sale for $30.00. The two-tone look is really attractive, the binding supple and the portable size makes it very handy (although be warned about the smaller print!). This is quite a bargain, a good study edition and would make an excellent gift. While supplies last. (There are other editions of this two-tone look -- even some gaudy ones for kids. Call us for better descriptions.)