Monday, March 14, 2011

Engaging the Word -- Review

ENGAGING THE WORD: The New Testament and the Christian Believer. By Jaime Clark-Soles. Louisville: WJK Press, 2010. Xii + 154 pages.

Back in the day – when I was working for a Christian bookstore – there were quite a few options when it came to Bibles. At the time I was a devotee of the New American Standard and resisted the seductiveness of the newer New International Version (though I eventually succumbed to its smoother and clearer text). Later on, having become sensitized to the issue of inclusive language I embraced the even newer New Revised Standard Version. But despite the variety that was available then, today we that era might seem relatively impoverished when it comes to bible choices. Despite all of the new translations, and there are many more since I worked at that store in the early 1980s, and despite all the study options available, biblical illiteracy continues to plague not only the broader culture, but the church as well. The Bible remains a bestseller, but it is also the least read, most misunderstood, and possibly most misused bestseller on the market.

The question that the church must address concerns not the why but the how do we change this reality? There are a number of good translations available, which should make the Bible more accessible to people, but maybe the problem isn’t the prevalence of choices but the nature of the choices. Perhaps we have become overwhelmed by marketers who have so niched the Bible that it loses its place in the life of the church. It has become a commodity to be manipulated for better sales.

Jaime Clark-Soles, a professor of New Testament at Perkins School of Theology, has taken on the task of providing wise guidance in matters of biblical study – for lay and clergy alike. Clark-Soles understands the scholarly issues of the day, from the historical Jesus quests to biblical authorship to translation issues. She is deeply embedded in that conversation, but this book isn’t written for scholars, it’s written primarily for the lay audience. It’s written with great care and with eloquence, but without the sensationalism that so often accompanies such books. She’s not trying to convince us that she has discovered something new and unique that the scholars and the preachers have been hiding from the laity. But, she wants to make the New Testament understandable to people who may find reading the Bible a daunting task. She is a critical scholar, left of center in her commitments, but she is also committed to the faith, which may be why there is a lack of sensationalism (ala Bart Ehrman).

She begins the book in an interesting manner. She takes up the question of packaging – something that addresses the consumer-driven nature of contemporary Christianity. She does this by taking a look at the current ways in which the publishers are marketing the Bible, starting with Revolve, a New Testament based on the New Century Version that is niche-marketed to teen-aged girls. This is a bible that’s relevant – that is, it is packaged as a fashion magazine. The biblical text is surrounded by fashion tips and articles dealing with relationships. The packaging might be attractive, but what does this package do to the way we read Scripture? The author points out that situated in a sidebar next to the story of Herod’s Slaughter of the Innocents is an article about “emergency pimple repair.” And what does this beauty advice have to do with Matthew 2? Clark-Soles writes “Well, as the text says, ‘Blemishes come and go, but God’s Word remains forever.’” In this opening chapter, the author deals with a number of critical issues, including the problem of separating out the New Testament from the entire biblical text, the problem of study notes and life application notes. She raises the question that has always troubled me – how do we separate out the commentary from the text, when the commentary is printed along with the text? Of course, she raises the question of the dangers that accompany hyperindividualizing these Bibles. It might be good for sales, but is it good for understanding the text of Scripture.

In reading this opening chapter, you begin to discern an ironic twist to the religious conversations of the day. Conservative evangelicals are keen to defend biblical authority, and yet it would seem that these products that largely come from evangelical publishers and marketed to evangelicals could in the end devalue the very Scriptures that evangelicals seek to defend. Indeed, as this occurs, as we begin to treat the Bible as some kind of manual to answer our beauty and relationship questions, it loses spiritual value.

So the question is – what should we do? In answer to this question, Clark-Soles offers words of guidance, beginning with a chapter on the various ways we read Scripture, showing both the “promises and pitfalls.” She introduces the reader to premodern (uncritical), modern (critical, reasonable), and postmodern (questioning and aware of cultural influences) approaches to scripture. From there she turns to the various parts of the New Testament, beginning with the Gospels. She begins this section with a question of harmonization. Should we try to harmonize the four gospels, or let them speak for themselves? Her answer is to let them speak for themselves. In that regard she deals with some of the key issues, such as the people mentioned in the four gospels – noting that when we harmonize we tend to conflate identities – such as the various Marys and Jameses. She deals with genre – noting that the gospels aren’t biographies. They’re not eyewitness accounts and that the authors framed the story to fit their own needs. For those committed to a Modernist reading, whether conservative or liberal, this can be problematic when it comes to authority. It is in this context that the author raises the issue of the four senses of scripture – the literal, the allegorical, the tropological, and the analogical. The church has understood that there is more than one way of reading the text – that the literal may not always be the best way to read and interpret the text.

Staying with the Gospels, the author deals with the so called “Synoptic Problem,” that is the relationship of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (along with the presupposed existence of Q). She deals with all of the major theories that range from Markan priority to Matthean priority. She deals with form criticism (transmission) and redaction criticism (editing). In this chapter she deals with the current fascination with the Gospel of Thomas, which is a sayings gospel and thus quite popular with those who want to assert the priority of Q, the sayings of Jesus. She also deals with John, and its place in the conversation. She feels, rightly so, that John too often gets excluded from the conversation when matters of Jesus’ life get discussed. She believes that John may have more to offer than the reigning paradigm would allow. Her point is that we are at a point in which we need to reexamine this who “synoptic problem.”

With a new book from Bart Ehrman on authorship issues (I’ve not read the book, but the title seems to give away the intent – Forged), Clark-Soles discusses the issue of authorship, especially with regard to the Pauline texts. It’s not all that controversial to say that the gospels were written anonymously, because there is no name attached to any of them. The same can’t be said for texts such as Ephesians and Colossians, which claim Pauline authorship, as is true with the Pastorals, or with the two letters attached to Peter. The letters of John are largely anonymous, and Revelation is self-attributed to a John, but necessarily the Apostle John. She deals with all the relevant issues, including the reasons why many scholars doubt that Paul wrote the so-called “deutero-Pauline” texts, issues that range from eschatology to church offices. With regard to the question raised by folks like Ehrman, she notes the questions of whether this is “dishonest,” and whether the fact that Paul might not have written Ephesians might undermine its authority. She seeks to answer these questions by pointing us to the canonization process, and the role that this process has played in how we read and experience the text. She raises more questions than she provides answers, but that’s not a bad thing. It pushes us to dig deeper.

Finally, she looks into the Historical Jesus debate and the politics of biblical interpretation. With regard to the latter, she notes how in recent years there has arisen a plethora of differing ways of reading scripture, from Feminist to Queer, from Ethnic to Post-Colonial, each of which raises question about approach and ideology. If you think that one of these approaches is politic and yours is not, she suggests that we might need to look more deeply inside to discern our own ideologies. In other words, there is no completely “objective” way of reading the Text. We all bring something to the discussion. Even as the authors were “socially located,” so are the readers. With regard to this question of social location, she provides an inventory so that we can examine questions of authority, ethnicity, gender, theology, the translations we use and more, asking how these issues affect the way we read Scripture. And in closing she reminds us all that we all have our own “canon within a canon.” We all start somewhere. There may be no one way of reading Scripture, but as Clark-Soles reminds us - -there are responsible ways of reading Scripture, and she invites us to take up this task. Her book focuses on the New Testament, but remember that she challenged us to not separate the New from the Old. Thus, it would be helpful to read (as I’ve yet to do), her book in tandem with one written on the Hebrew Scriptures by Carolyn Sharp (Wrestling the Word, WJK, 2010).

This is with a doubt a most helpful book. It raises questions, provides resources (including questions for discussion), and pushes us to be more responsible in our reading of the text. If we will heed the wisdom present in this book (and I’m assuming present in Sharp’s book), then perhaps we can begin to overcome the prevailing biblical illiteracy within the church! Oh, and she does all of this in a 148 pages of text.


Rev. Steven F. Kindle said...

Bob, I find your book reviews especially helpful and I usually want to read the books. I'm wondering, certainly in this case, but in your future reviews, if you could mention one or two ways in which your thinking has changed, or been modified, or been reinforced, due to what the author wrote. Thanks.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...


Thanks! On this particular book, for those of us who have been the conversation it's not so much new material, but it lays it out really nicely, so that it can be used effectively with small groups.

I did appreciate her advocating for the inclusion of John in the discussion. She is part of a John group at AAR.

I also found the conversation about editions, while not new, very helpful in formulating a response to the proliferation of "study bibles" that really aren't study bibles, but marketing gimmicks!

But your push will be taken under advisement -- as always!