THE CHARACTER OF OUR DISCONTENT: Old Testament Portraits for Contemporary Times. By Allan R. Bevere. Gonzalez, FL: Energion Publications, 2010. ix + 111 pages.
It is safe to say that most preachers focus on the New Testament. The gospels are popular, but the Pauline epistles are probably even more popular, especially for those preachers with a penchant for doctrinal preaching. There is an obvious reason for this – the New Testament defines and describes the foundations of the Christian faith. This is especially true for faith communities that like to describe themselves as advocates of a “New Testament Christianity.” And yet, the Bible that those first “New Testament Christians” used was the Hebrew Bible (even if many used the Greek translations). Thus, it could be said that the earliest Christian preachers, including both Jesus and Paul made regular use of the Hebrew Bible in their sermons.
Into the breach steps Allan Bevere, a United Methodist pastor with advanced training in the New Testament – having studied at the University of Durham with James D. G. Dunn, who seeks to offer the preacher encouragement to engage with the Old Testament. Bevere, admits that he shares the preacher’s aversion to taking up the Old Testament, but with this book of sermons he seeks to remedy the situation. With nineteen sermons, he seeks to offer guidance and encouragement to other preachers.
The author is well equipped to handle and struggle with the biblical text. In an age of specialization, he might not be an Old Testament scholar, but the work done studying one set of scriptures gives him the proper tools to handle the other. As one whose academic specialization is 18th century Anglicanism, the gap between my specialization and the Old Testament is far greater than his. Preachers, however, are not limited by specialization – they’re called to handle the full canon along with the traditions of the church.
The Character of Our Discontent consists of nineteen sermons preached on texts drawn from the Old Testament, with a focus on the way Old Testament characters lived their faith. The sermons begin with Abraham and continue on through Ezekiel. Most, though not all, of these characters offer positive role models – the two most obvious negative figures are Samson and Saul. Among these characters, the lone woman who figures into the picture is Esther, who represents faithfulness to God in difficult circumstances.
The key words in this series of sermons are character and discontent. Even the best of persons, including Abraham and Moses, do not always live up to the standards that God has set before us. We are, Bevere writes, “discontented because we lack, and often we are not sure what we lack nor where to find what we truly need.” Indeed, we may not even be sure about what it is that we seem to be lacking, but we know that something is missing. When it comes to character, perfection comes not instantaneously, but over time, and this process is not easy (pp. 1-2).
There was a day when preachers regularly published sermons, but except for online options, there are few books of sermons available. Where once sermons were considered an important form of literature, that is no longer true. We’ve become a much more oral and visual culture, so reading sermons lacks the dynamics of the spoken word. One wonders, as one reads the sermons, how they would sound as they are delivered from the pulpit. We lack the sense of gravity and dynamism in mere written words. That being said, reading sermons can be of help – if a publisher is willing to take the risk to make them available – both to the preacher and to the person seeking to grow in faith, and thus the book has two very different audiences. For this we can be thankful to the small independent publisher that sees its business as a ministry.
Reading the sermons, one can get a sense of Bevere’s theological disposition. He’s Methodist, but of a more conservative/evangelical variety. The interpretations, applications, along with the commentaries and other resources consulted point in that direction. Indeed, it becomes rather clear when he quotes from C. S. Lewis’s famous dictum that Jesus could not be a mere mortal man considering what he claimed for himself – “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic.” At the same time, the exegesis and interpretative efforts are solid, as one would expect of one with advanced training. Of course, in the context of these sermons, Bevere focuses his attention on the biblical story and on not the critical questions that are inherent in the text. Ultimately, the focus is on character and one's relationship with God.
This book of sermons makes for a good, quick, and fruitful read. That is true in large part because, as one would expect in a book of sermons that have been delivered orally, they aren’t overly technical. The language is appropriate for a literate but lay audience. And whether or not you agree with the interpretation of one text or another, you will find something of value here.
Note: This review was originally posted in April and was based upon an advanced Reader copy. The book is now available from Energion Publications (http://energionpubs.com), for whom I myself have two books in process.