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OK, I confess: I have a hard time finishing a book before starting another. I’ve also realized I’ll never get around to writing full-fledged book reviews for every book I read. So here’s a little summary of what I’ve been reading lately. If you’re reading some of the same things, chime in and tell me what you think.

  • Gregory Fruehwirth, Words for Silence, and Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year. After taking my first retreat to the Abbey of Gethsemani last fall, I’m more and more attracted to the idea that—as the monks themselves declare—anyone can live the contemplative life. These two books are aids to doing that. They’re both organized around the church year. Fruehwirth, a member of the Episcopal Order of Julian of Norwich, has written meditations based on chapter talks he gave to the order. Joan Chittister’s book is not simply a dry history of the origins of the church calendar; rather, her chapters are meditations on the meaning of each liturgical season. I’m finding both books valuable in grounding myself in the liturgical calendar.
  • Brian Walsh & Sylvia Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed. Um, why did I wait so long to read this? Six years on, this is still an incredibly potent book. Their targum of Col. 1:15-20 is so powerful, I had to put the book down for a couple minutes after reading it. Recommended if you’ve been wondering what all the fuss about postmodernity and empire was all about.
  • Patrick Miller, The Ten Commandments (Interpretation). I’m only a couple chapters in (still, that’s 100 pages), but this is clearly going to be a standard work to return to over and over again. Miller explicates the meaning of each commandment, as you might expect, but the real value of the book may be in how he traces out the trajectory of the commandments throughout scripture, including the New Testament. I blogged an example here.
  • Karen Armstrong, The Case for God. I don’t know if Armstrong knows anything about the emerging church, but those familiar with Pete Rollins’ How (Not) to Speak of God (or Pete’s sources, including the Christian mystical tradition) will find much familiar here. Armstrong makes clear right up front that she’s interested in tracing out the apophatic traditions about God in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, although her major emphasis is on Christianity. I’m about halfway through the book, and over and over again she emphasizes how believing the right things (a certain prescribed set of doctrines) is a relatively recent development compared to the long tradition of emphasizing right practices. It seems pretty clear what she’s going to conclude, but I’ll reserve judgment until finishing. My only question at this point is whether she could’ve accomplished her task in briefer compass.
  • Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity. I’m only about 7 chapters in, but it seems pretty clear that this is Brian’s “here I stand, I can do no other” book. Like Richard Hughes (see below), Brian is putting his flag down firmly, but his writing is, as usual, irenic and highly accessible.
  • Scott Cairns, Love’s Immensity. Cairns is a poet and professor of English at the University of Missouri. In this book he’s taken some of the early church fathers and mystics and adapted/translated their writings into poetry. The results are just beautiful. I’m slowly working through these, usually reading a few on Sunday mornings before church.
  • Richard Hughes, Christian America and the Kingdom of God. I finished this a few weeks ago, but haven’t had time to finish my review, so wanted to include it here. Hughes gets right to the point: the notion of a Christian America propagated by many, particularly on the evangelical right, has little or nothing to do with the biblical portrait of the kingdom of God. Hughes spends a lot of time tracing the kingdom of God in scripture—a helpful reminder, to be sure—but perhaps more valuable for me was his rehearsal of evangelical history showing how the idea of Christian America developed as it did.

What are you reading?

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Note: In this reflection I’ll consider primarily today’s Gospel reading.

Reading: John 1:(1-9), 10-18

John 1 is one of those passasges you just can’t say too much about. Today’s reading is a grand christological/theological proclamation, audacious in its claim that God did something unprecedented in the incarnation of Jesus. At the same time, John is clearly attempting to connect Jesus to Jewish tradition, to remain within the bounds of “orthodoxy.”

What do I mean? First, of course, we notice that verse 1 reformulates Genesis 1:1, placing Jesus with God at the beginning of God’s creative work. Except, second, we notice that John avoids naming Jesus and instead calls him “the Word.” Whatever the other implications of the Greek words logos, John identifies the Word as a figure through whom all things were created, a concept found in Jewish tradition in the figure of Woman Wisdom (for example, see today’s accompanying readings in Sirach 24 and Wisdom of Solomon 10).

Then we come to verse 14: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” Here is John’s most scandalous statement. To assert that God would in any way become visible directly contradicts the Second Commandment, in which God commanded the people not to make idols—of other gods, of course, but also and apparently of God, too. As John goes on to assert in verse 18, no one has seen God. So to say not only that the Word became flesh, but that we have seen his glory (“the glory of the Lord” is a common OT euphemism for God’s presence) appears to be blasphemy of the highest order.

But there may be a certain theological logic behind John’s statement. As Patrick Miller notes in his recent book on the Ten Commandments, it may be that one of the reasons God prohibits the people from making idols, or images, of gods or Godself is that God had in fact already created an “image of God”—that is, humanity itself. The only one allowed to create an image of God is God. Turning back to John, then, it should probably come as no surprise that, in order to make the stunning assertion that God became flesh, John takes the reader back to Genesis 1 and God’s creative action. God creating an image of Godself when the Word becomes flesh has a certain continuity with the idea of God creating humanity in God’s image. With the notable exception, of course, that this particular image of God is full of God’s grace and truth (see also Colossians 1:15, where Christ is called “the image of the invisible God”). Finally, if we read slowly, we notice that it is not until John establishes this basic idea that he goes on to name Jesus as the particular one in whom the Word became flesh.

Heady stuff for Christmas (in typical secular understanding). But these words from Gregory Fruehwirth say it nicely: “The fullness of God’s Self was present in Jesus, and as a result of God’s indwelling Spirit, we can begin to live the moments of our lives as likewise filled with God, open to the full reality of the eternal Word. This new potential of creation to bear the fullness of God’s life and light is what we celebrate at Christmas. It is what Jesus’ birth announces” (Words for Silence, p. 43).

I’ve just started Patrick Miller’s new book on the Ten Commandments. I’m still in the first chapter on the first and second commandments, but one of the aspects of the book I appreciate already is that, beyond merely explicating its meaning, Miller surveys how each commandment is picked up and used throughout the rest of the biblical literature beyond its appearance in Exodus and Deuteronomy.

For example, Miller notes that Jesus affirms the first commandment (“you shall have no other gods before me”) by quoting Deut. 6:13 when tempted by the devil to bow down and worship him: “The Lord your God you shall fear/worship; him [alone] you shall serve.” For Miller, the significance of this is that, even—or especially—as the Son of God, Jesus’ relationship to God is not marked by special privilege that exempts him from giving ultimate allegiance to God; rather, the opposite is true. For Jesus’ disciples, this means that

Following Jesus is not to replace the object of our worship but is a commitment to follow no other gods, however tempting they may be, and to worship the Lord your God and the Lord alone. Whatever identity is made between Jesus and God, whether in the language of “Son of God” or of “Lord,” the incarnate one embodies a faithfulness to the First Commandment that shows the way for all who follow him. (44)

I don’t think the significance of this can be overstated. The point can be made in many ways, but it’s especially obvious in the story of Jesus’ temptation: Jesus (and the early church) saw himself as being faithful to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Did God do something unprecedented in raising Jesus from the dead? Yes. But for those early Jewish Christians, Jesus’ resurrection meant not the beginning of a new religion but the affirmation of the faithfulness/righteousness of the God the Jews had known from of old.

As Christians learn to follow Jesus, we learn that we are part of a story that stretches back to and begins with God’s creative intentions for the world, and includes the way God chose a people to embody those intentions. If some of our earlier ancestors in the faith had remembered this, perhaps some of the tragic history of Christian anti-Semitism could have been avoided.

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