Reading the Word with Ken Bailey & N.T. Wright

Often in my preaching, presentations and talks, I refer to the old saw of “text and context”; our friend Steve Garber talks about “reading the Word and the world.” It is said that Barth insisted that we must read the Bible with a newspaper in the other hand.
I sometimes think that many church-going folk (myself included!) don’t read the Bible enough. After an invigorating session with Walter Brueggemann, or a CCO Staff Seminar with Tremper Longman, or a C.S. Lewis Institute event with N.T. Wright, I am humbled and re-energized to study the Scriptures more diligently. Surely we have little to say to the “context” of the world as reported in the daily papers if we are not firstly and primarily rooted well in a biblical worldview. Which starts, of course, with Bible reading, long and hard.
As Eugene Peterson puts it in the forward to The Message, “Reading is the first thing, just reading the Bible.” He continues, “”¦it is important simply to read, leisurely and thoughtfully. We need to get a feel for the way these stories and songs, these prayers and conversations, these sermons and visions, invite us into this large, large world in which the invisible God is behind and involved in everything visible”¦”
We must simply read the Book. This takes time. But we must do it.
In what follows, I will briefly note a few wonderful books — some about the Word, and then just a few new ones about the world. Happily, the best Bible scholars are aware of the need for culturally-relevant application and these social critics are themselves well versed in biblical study. God shows up everywhere, you know, but this month I shall commend some books that especially focus on the Bible. It is the place to begin. Of all the books we recommend each month here, reading them should never distract from regular Bible study — alone, in small groups and in worship. Then, I do have a few I will mention that seem to us to exemplify uniquely Christian cultural criticism par excellance. These are brand new and I can’t wait ’til next month to promote them!
Jacob & the Prodigal: How Jesus Retold Israel’s Story by Kenneth E. Bailey (InterVarsity Press, $17.00). Ken Bailey is, for those in the know, one of the great, under-appreciated New Testament scholars of our time. His previous scholarly books have made huge contributions to the study of the gospels, especially the parables. Shaped by a lifetime spent in Middle Eastern rural villages that have changed little in 2,000 years, Bailey has an uncanny ability to “hear” Jesus’ stories the way a Palestinian peasant or a first-century Jewish rabbi might have heard them. He has spoken and listened well for a lifetime to brothers and sisters in Egypt and Lebanon and Israel, to friends and foes, Arab Christians and Muslims, and it has paid off with unusually crisp and profound insight. Craig Blomberg, Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary (himself very widely published) has said that Bailey “has become the premier commentator in our generation on the cultural world behind Jesus’ parables.”
In his retirement years from the mission field, Bailey’s latest thesis has captured his passion and enthusiasm — he may be right in thinking that he has connected the biblical dots (what scholars call inter-textuality) in a new and faithful way.
Bailey is confident that Jesus, in telling the beloved story of the prodigal son, was making an altogether intentional reference to and retelling of Israel’s primal story of Jacob and Esau. In this remarkable new book, Bailey shows 51 — yes, you read that right: 51 — dramatic connections between the narratives of Jacob and the prodigal.
Rev. Bailey has a missionary’s heart beating below his scholar’s mind, so his creative biblical interpretation is not done for the fetish of the academy, where arcane speculative notions come and go with trendy regularity. He is not working for the sake of novelty or scholarly status. I doubt if he wants to be known as particularly innovative. Rather, Bailey (who reads widely among the earliest literature of the first centuries to see how they interpreted things) wants the gospel to be known, read on its own terms and — understood aright — trusts that the good news of Christ’s grace will be received by longing hearts.
He is much more concerned about sharing the fruits of his Bible study with Muslims, Jews and other Middle Eastern seekers than the novel hot-air balloons that fill the horizons of the Society of Biblical Literature or the Jesus Seminar. Although he is regularly asked to present his evangelical findings to the likes of the Seminar, he declines; rather, he lectures with a like-minded scholar and colleague, N.T. Wright, at the University of Cairo and other such locations to seeking Muslims. Ken works with retreats of small churches, college students, local congregations and has been a major presence behind the annual New Wilmington Missionary Conference near Westminster College. He is a man with a mission, even in his waning years. Oh that everyone’s “retirement” can be so rich and fruitful!
I do not intend to spoil your fun by listing any of the similarities that Bailey sees between Jacob and the Prodigal. Nor shall I cite the numerous ways in which this matters. It is all there in these grand, interesting, serious and very readable 224 pages. We at Hearts & Minds stock plenty of Bible commentaries, scholarly and not so, and some truly unique Scriptural research from all sorts of publishers and perspectives. This is truly one of the most exciting bits of biblical work we have seen in years, perhaps decades. Like the rave reviews that it is beginning to garner, we commend it to you, your church library, your Sunday school teacher and your pastor. This is a book that deserves that kind of attention.
Bailey’s other books include a handsome big volume from Eerdmans that are actually two books in one: Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant’s Eyes, and a very helpful study from Concordia, entitled Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15.
The Resurrection of the Son of God by N.T. Wright (Fortress, $39.00). I will say right from the start that I am not qualified to review this magisterial book. By many accounts, it is one of the most important theological works of the past 100 years, easily the most awaited work of the new millenium. This, volume three in the massive series known as “Christian Origins and the Question of God,” has been in the works for nearly a decade. It follows on the heels of the hugely important first volume, The New Testament and the People of God (dedicated to Brian Walsh, we like to note!) and the very popular and often-cited second volume, Jesus and the Victory of God. In the new one, The Resurrection of the Son of God, as the title suggests, Wright struggles with the biblical material about resurrection, how it would have been understood in the ancient world (among Jews and non-Jews alike) and about what this entails and implies. Indeed, if Jesus’ tomb was empty, and He made various appearances after Easter, what might these truths suggest for a properly Christian worldview?
His scholarly works are meaty, incredibly nuanced, well argued and, for some to his theological left and right, a bit controversial. We often say he is the most important biblical scholar working today. I have counseled people to leave their Bible classes if their professor doesn’t know him. I would find a more trustworthy mentor if a seminary professor dismisses him. He is that important and, I believe, that right.
Of course, he is seriously critiqued by the more speculative and liberal scholars involved in what has become known as the Quest for the Historical Jesus, and those in the Jesus Seminar. Goofball Episcopalian retired Bishop John Spong has called him a fundamentalist, which is beyond silly. His friend and debating partner Marcus Borg (they wrote a pro and con book together which is well worth reading, called The Meaning of Jesus) has chided him for being too literalistic (Wright believes in the bodily resurrection of Christ; Borg does not). One book of appreciative but critical evaluations is well worth reading as it shows Wright’s brilliance and how so many many scholars deeply respect him, and yet highlights some of those matters in which there is debate, even among solid and evangelically-minded scholars. It is called Jesus and the Restoration of Israel: A Critical Assessment of N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God edited by Carey C. Newman (IVP, $22.99). I found it very, very informative as a guide to Wright’s scholarly work.
While Wright, an Anglican scholar and working pastor, doesn’t seem to have the same typical view of the Bible as most American evangelicals, it is clear that he is orthodox, doctrinally sound, passionate about the person of Jesus and utterly rooted in reliable biblical scholarship. He can be appreciative of charismatic renewal, and yet he hangs out with the Jesus Seminar guys (as much as he criticizes their approach for internal flaws and historical inaccuracies and, for some, even a lack of faith). He has a truly pious attitude, and yet always pushes us to a Kingdom agenda of social transformation, to ministries of mission, justice and peace. I am deeply, deeply touched every time I hear him.
I recommend that you read any of his basic books, and if you have the stamina, go with his bigger volumes. (They don’t have to be read in order, but for the intellectually precise, he is making a very, very big argument that you can trace from the beginning.) The new one, The Resurrection of the Son of God, weighs in at over 800 pages, nearly a pound of book, with extensive footnotes, side trips, tons of Bible inter-texuality, with all the various views of the resurrection dissected. If it were any other topic, or any other author, I would say skip it; life is just too short for much of this stuff. This, however, is one of the central claims of the Christian faith. This may be the most significant book in church history to have been written on this topic.
N.T. (sometimes publishing as Tom) has written numerous smaller works for lay people — one of our favorites is called Following Jesus, which makes a wonderful study, as does his great little (and very helpful) book on worship, entitled For All God’s Worth. I loved his great study of various places you can go — sort of a travelogue, a pilgrimage following Jesus around the Meditterain, The Way of the Lord: Christian Pilgrimage Today (Eerdmans, $10.00). Evoking the sounds, sights and smells of a trip to the Holy Land, this is great for a devotional read or for a group discussion, weaving together (as he often does) Old and New Testament texts, placing them in their historical settings. Very interesting. His book on the Lord’s Prayer is powerful!
For those wanting more than Tom’s sermons and smaller works (which, as I have said, are rich and wildly helpful, especially given their brevity) but don’t feel like they can wade through the tomes, I highly recommend the semi-scholarly and very readable The Challenge of Jesus (IVP, $24.95). This lovely hardback is essentially the text of three lectures that summarize the arguments made in all three volumes of in the “Christian Origins” series. For a serious-minded layperson or busy pastor or an undergraduate Bible course, this book is a must-read. If it whets your appetite for the real deal, save up your dollars and call us. For most of us, though, this will be an adequate introduction to the brilliant mind, remarkable scholarship and passionate concern for Christ’s Kingdom that permeates this most important of modern-day Scripture scholars.
For those who, like me, enjoy listening to a teacher as much as reading his work, may we recommend that you inquire about the audio tapes and CDs of Wright’s that we carry? His lovely British accent and articulate speaking is a delight to listen to, and it is a way to warm up to his written work. For starters, we suggest the three-tape set Christian Hope in a Postmodern World (Regent College, $23.95). We also stock two different taped sets of Wright’s debates with Marcus Borg (the aforementioned one which became the book on Jesus and another, which is not a book, on the role and authority of Scripture). His Romans in a Week (tapes or CDs) set is fabulous; Wright is the author of the Romans section in the esteemed New Interpreters Bible Commentary Vol. X which, despite the steep price, is a very valuable resource.
Speaking of Wright’s ability to do, not just historical and theological study of Jesus, but systematic commentary on books of the Bible, we are exceptionally pleased to announce that we have had the joy and privilege of carrying Wright’s “For Everyone” New Testament commentaries. They are popularly written — perhaps on a level somewhat akin to Barclay — with his own unique take on the texts. In fact, he includes his own translation of each passage! They are published in England by SPCK, now distributed in the states by Pilgrim Press. (One Christian education journal in England proclaimed that this publishing enterprise “is probably the most exciting thing to have happened in C.E. in Britain in many years.”) Although he is working on the rest of the New Testament books, for now we must settle for the following:
Matthew Vol. 1
Matthew Vol. 2
John Vol. 1
John Vol. 2
Epistles of Paul (Galatians and Thessalonians)
Epistles of Paul: The Prison Letters (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon)
These are hand-sized guidebooks, about the size of Barclay’s famous set, each under 180 pages. Although each is slightly differently priced, they are each around $12.00 or $13.00, making them affordable. We offer a 20% discount on entire sets, so do let us know if you are interested.
We find it hard not to gush too much about these. They are readable, insightful, creative, faithful, nicely packaged. What more could you want from entry-level biblical material? If you are wanting to be a person of the book, rooted in Scripture — doing biblical-faithful-fill-in-the-blank: scholarship, art, politics, work, ministry — then you should have plenty of Bible reference tools and commentaries at your disposal. These cannot be beat for brevity, clarity and for bearing the godly possibility of bearing good fruit.
If we have not yet convinced you to invest in Wright’s important work, here is yet another plea: his devotional guide is called Reflecting the Glory: Meditations for Living Christ’s Life in the World (Augsburg, $14.99). This is actually a Lenten devotional that is so rich, so helpful, so profound, that we sell it all year round. It is a study that is a mere couple of pages a day. This includes a study guide, making it ideal for small group use, too. Be warned: the print job is odd, the typeface terribly small. Until the publisher hears our protests and re-sets it, we will have to put up with the hard-to-read pages. So be it. It is worth it. Trust me.
Lastly, the ever-publishing Wright has a set of reflections done on the lectionary texts, Year A and Year B. We hope year C is coming, perhaps late in 2003. These page-a-day sermonettes relate to the various lections for each Sunday and have proven helpful for lay folks wanting to keep spiritually atuned to the rhythms of worship and the preaching they will hear on Sunday, or for preachers wanting to jumpstart their sermon prep. Even if you don’t follow the lectionary tradition, these are great little Bible studies and, again, we highly recommend their use. (Published in England by SPCK, $10.00 each.)
And, for those who want a taste — just a tiny taste — of N.T’s wonderful prose and theological clarity, his British book Holy Communion for Amateurs has been reissued in a very handsome little paperback from Westminster/John Knox Press as The Meal Jesus Gave Us: Understanding Holy Communion ($7.95). Whether you are highly liturgical or not, this is a gem of a book, with a helpful forward by Michael Green. Wright says that it is even good for confirmation classes. How ’bout that?!
I would like to bring this section of my column to a close, and happily get to report a cool and fun fact you should know. Ken Bailey admits that, while his sense that there was more going on in the Prodigal Son story than we previously considered had been percolating for a long while, the Spirit seemed to strike him (“nudge,” as he explains it, seems like too gentle a word) to explore this theme when he — get this, now — saw a footnote in N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God. Yep, a couple of little sentences in tiny print almost hidden away in a footnote of Wright’s 800-plus pages so inspired Dr. B that he wrote his book on the retelling of Israel’s story, the gospel within the gospel, presented keenly by the master teacher Jesus the Christ. I’m not what sure that proves — that Bailey pays attention to the Spirit or that Wright is brilliant or that I have an odd interest in insignificant details or that we should all read our footnotes, like we eat our vegetables. Whichever, I wanted you to know. Kudos to them both.


I began this column with the claim that we are to read the Bible, study it and, from its holy perspective, engage the world, the times, the culture. I believe that getting the Bible in your bones is dangerous — it makes you a prophet. Here, then, are a few titles that illustrate wise and spiritually-aware ways to do Christian cultural analysis, written by authors that we may call prophetic. May they help us embody and live out all that we learn in God’s Word.
Power Failure: Christianity in the Culture of Technology by Albert Borgmann (Brazos, $14.99). Borgmann has been an important writer to us since we discovered his excellent book on postmodernism, Crossing the Postmodern Divide. His work on the nature of how the technological culture has influenced how we see and experience life in this society has been impressive. (For instance, see his important Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life.) I am sure we have mentioned Holding on to Reality, which is about living faithfully in the information age. And now this, which Marva Dawn calls “A crucial book!” David Gill writes, “”¦His meditations on the gifts Christianity could bring to our needy culture are insightful, eloquent and on numerous occasions flat-out inspiring and moving.” Not every philosopher has that said about his work!
Sidewalks of the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith by Eric O. Jacobsen (Brazos, $16.99). Did we mention this last month? Those who hang around our Web site, looking at back issues of the MinEx column know that I am intrigued with the feisty and somewhat cynical critic James Howard Kuenstler, whose Geography from Nowhere and Home from Nowhere and The City in Mind are recent favorites. Here, a Presbyterian pastor and himself a fan of the “new urbanists” approach to the problems of contemporary urban and town planning, offers a Christian perspective on suburban sprawl and what we can do about it. My, my, this is an important book, and I have been assailing every church leader who comes into the shop about it for weeks. I hope you consider ordering it from us, regardless of your address — town or country, urban or suburban, these issues of zoning and community, aesthetics and habitability press upon us with each passing month. I am glad that Brazos sees the significance of a “theology of sidewalks” and publishes this sort of remarkable work. Praise God that an evangelical press can garner a review from such a world-class writer as Bill McKibben, who has said, “This book offers one of the most robust defense of the public, the communal, the shared that I’ve ever read. It is a powerful riposte to the privatizing creed of our age, and it makes painfully clear how much of our contemporary life is not only un-Christian, but uninteresting as well.” Yeah!
Proclaiming the Wonder: Engaging Science on Sunday by Scott Hoezee (Baker, $16.99). You know I love this guy as a writer — I have often noted his wonderfully-crafted collection of pieces about Christians and the environment, Remember Creation. That is a lovely, lovely book, thoughtful and wise and interesting. This is a more serious work, I think, and Hoezee, a Christian Reformed pastor in Grand Rapids, uses his “science on Sunday” to mean two things, it seems. Firstly, he means that, in the most general sense, we must see science in light of the truths of “Sunday” — that is, in light of Christian truth. There are good books on that topic — developing a uniquely Christian view of science — and this is surely one of them.
However, Hoezee’s more specific intention is to ask how preachers can engage the sciences in their sermons. And, more generally, how theologians and Christen believers can be enhanced by what has come to be called the faith-science dialogue. I do not know of another book so trustworthy and helpful on how an informed scientific view of the universe can be compatible with Christian belief and how preachers can preach effectively into a culture shaped by the discoveries and theories of science. An endorsement by the world-class scientist, Sir John Polkinghorne, graces the back cover and indicates the ways in which this book will be taken seriously.
Darwin’s Proof: The Triumph of Religion over Science by Cornelius Hunter (Brazos, $17.99). Hunter engaged in molecular biochemistry post-doc research and here, in a follow-up to his philosophically-oriented Darwin’s God, he offers extremely important insight into the debate about intelligent design, Darwinism, naturalism and the like. Lawrence Johnston has said that this is “the most perceptive analysis of the Darwinian controversy I have seen. Hunter teaches you a wealth of recent biological findings and, in a nuanced way, looks at the conclusions that can be fairly drawn.”
I close this month’s column with the following plug — even if that seems like a crass word — for some of the finest little booklets to be published by some of the finest living writers of our time. Orion is a journal of great repute for nature writing, and other essays of socially-aware literature. Their online site is full of notables and their responsible ways are inspiring. It is a great example of art and literature and politics and morals uniting.
Just this month, they have released two more small books, reflecting, as they have been, on the meaning of 9-11, the notions of American patriotism, and the ways in which a sense of place can move and inspire authentic civil care. Since Iraq still smolders as I write, these books are very timely. The first in this stellar little series was a small but handsome volume of three essays by Wendell Berry, entitled In The Presence of Fear: Three Essays for a Changed World. Not sold in the chain stores, we have been pleased to stock it for a year or so now. The two new editions in the series include Citizens Dissent: Security, Morality and Leadership in an Age of Terror (a portion of which appeared in a full-page ad in the New York Times in February 2003) by Mr. Berry, followed by a piece by David James Duncan. (Duncan is the beloved author of the Hearts & Minds favorite novels, The River Why and The Brothers K and his eccentric, wild autobiographical collection, My Story as Told By Water.) The third in the trilogy is a set of essays by nature writers, Richard Nelson, Barry Lopez and Terry Tempest Williams, entitled Patriotism and the American Land. (You may recall that I raved about Williams’ stunning memoir Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. Her more recent is simply called Red: Passion & Patience in the Desert, which will be one of my summer reads.)
We are truly honored to be among the few bookstores that carry these items. They are classy and important and you will be grateful to own them, I think. And, more importantly, you will sense the joy and pain in talking about them with your circle of friends. These are important pieces of intellectual reflection designed for ordinary folks — the kind of ordinary folks who care about this land, our world, and the deeper questions about the meaning and purpose of life itself. We highly recommend them. They are published by Orion and each sell for $8.00.