Mini-Book Review: The Adam Quest

Tim Stafford, The Adam Quest: Eleven Scientists Who Held on to a Strong Faith While Wrestling with the Mystery of Human Origins (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013).

Adam Quest

With a subtitle worthy of the eighteenth century, almost, this book was recommended to me in early December. I saw it on a bookstore shelf in mid-December and bought it, and had it read in about a week and a half.

It’s an evangelical Christian treatment of the evergreen issue of understanding creation (ranging a bit broader than simply ‘human origins’), from the/a senior writer for Christianity Today. Well-researched and well-written, what really makes it reader-friendly is its biographical tack. It is not just about ideas but about people and their personal odysseys (odyssies? I’m not near a dictionary). And people are always interesting to other people. So I finished this book quickly because I found the personal stories so interesting.

But it is also handy to explore ideas by the biographical route. In this book we get to wrestle with issues of truth concerning creation and science through the lenses of other individual persons’ own quests for truth, in the context of all the human hangups, prejudices, social obligations and relationships, human and divine, that go with being human. It’s real thinking in the context of real life, complicated by real politics. So I related to these stories and liked them.

The eleven primary stories feature well-qualified scientists whose convictions about creation are arranged in a steady sequence from strictly young-earth, as it were six-day creationism, through to those who believe in an old earth (progressive creation) and on to theistic evolutionists. The names are on the whole quite well known, another asset for the work. The movement represents an increasing proximity to Stafford’s own theistic-evolutionist sympathies, revealed at the end of the book, and these sympathies are detectable as an undertone throughout the book. That notwithstanding, I found Stafford’s treatment generally even-handed. He sought to avoid demonising or patronising any participants, and largely succeeded.

I should mention that within the eleven major stories are embedded many more in shorter compass. I should give you examples, but I’m on holidays and have snatched the chance for some public wi-fi, and don’t have the book with me. But I recall seeing a nutshell bio of Intelligent Design advocate Philip Johnson offered within a fuller treatment of another ID advocate, one of the researchers at the Discovery Institute, as I recall.

It was fascinating to read about Kurt Wise, Michael Behe, Francis Collins, John Polkinghorne, and many other important figures in Christian discussions about creation. It was also interesting to see whose careers really flourished, and whose seemed somewhat stillborn, or remained starved of funding or mainstream acceptance.

Well, enough words! It’s inexpensive and available, and if you’re interested in creation and evolution, and like human stories, I recommend this book to you.

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Can Loanwords in the Hebrew Bible be the result of scribal updating?

My comment: debates can be difficult to close based on individual terms, but statistical patterns can be pretty telling, especially when examining suites of terms. E.g. when an individual Aramaic term becomes current amongst Hebrew speakers may be hard to establish, but the sudden ‘Cambrian explosion’ of Aramaic terms in exilic to postexilic texts is unmistakable. Persian terms are a real bellwether in my book, being very unlikely to enter Hebrew vocabulary prior to 550. The logical process in my mind is to demonstrate the high prevalence of a set of loanwords in texts that are uncontroversially postexilic, like Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah, and then to ask whether they appear in the more debated cases. Sometimes they do (especially in, say, Song of Songs) and sometimes they don’t (e.g. rarely in supposedly post-exilic contributions to the Pentateuch). Repeating the process often builds up a pretty comprehensive picture of books and parts of books that appear to have arisen after the exile.

With Meagre Powers

A loanword is a word that originates in one language, but makes it into another language for common use.

The Hebrew Bible is replete with loanwords. These are interesting cases, because it makes us ask how and when these loanwords made it into Hebrew. They are often used as evidence for particular (usually late) dating of biblical texts.

I was recently asked whether it was possible for loanwords to have crept into biblical texts through editing. That is, could a later scribe, in the process of copying a text, have updated the language and replaced a Hebrew word in the early text with a loanword from another language? And if this is possible, what does this tell us about our methods of dating biblical texts?

Well, the scenario of later scribes inserting later loanwords into earlier texts is possible, but there is absolutely no way of verifying it without manuscript evidence of such a replacement occurring…

View original post 823 more words

New Genre: The TwitView – a micro-book review

Book: Shead, Andrew G. A Mouth Full of Fire: The Word of God in the Words of Jeremiah (New Studies in Biblical Theology; Downers Grove: Apollos, 2012).

Looks like:
Shead - Mouth Fire
Pluses:
  • Solid grasp of the range of issues affecting Jeremiah
  • Excellent introduction to literary formation and structure of Jeremiah
  • Strong sense of biblical theology, and overall theologically very robust
  • Thoughtful and ambitious theology of the Word of God – a tour de force
  • Loves Jeremiah!
  • Wonderful value for money, at not much over $10. You’ll never get more bang for your buck.

Minuses:

  • Not as light as Reader’s Digest, that’s for sure, but clear and accessible for academic writing.
  • Ultimately draws the theological bow a bit too long, I felt, but well worth wrestling with.

Outro:

  • If you’re half interested in Jeremiah, and can handle a solid read, and have $15 to your name, you have to buy it!

Crazy Love, Surrendered Life and the Life of the Scribe

That title doesn’t really tell you what this is going to be about, does it? Well, this is a thought and a mini-book review in one.

I’m currently reading the Gospel of Luke (in the ‘Final Quarter’) and once again came across Jesus’ call, not to arms, but to lay all on the line for his cause:

23 Then he said to them all, “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.
24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. (Luke 9:23-24 NET Bible)

Many of you will know that chapter 9 is pivotal in Luke, marking a turning point in Jesus’ ministry, in the course of which Jesus elicits from his disciples who the people think he is, and then ‘turns his face to go to Jerusalem’ and lets them know that if they want to come, it’s all on the line, right down to their lives. It’s all or nothing.

The quote above would be a pretty accurate summary of a book I’ve just finished reading, Crazy Love by Francis Chan. It’s unusual for me to read the kind of book that you would find popular at a Christian bookshop (bookstore, for US readers). I normally read more academic and factually-oriented things. But my sister bought me this last Christmas, and I finally worked my way down to it in my impossibly high bedside table must-read book pile.

Chan Crazy Love

I won’t try to summarize it further, but I did find it challenging. Sometimes I disagreed with Chan, such as when he (like everyone else) assumes that when Jesus says within the parable of the sheep and the goats,

‘I tell you the truth, just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it for me.’ (Matt 25:40 NET Bible),

that he was talking about doing good for every human being on the planet. That’s a nice thought and a good ideal, but I strongly suspect that Jesus was talking about his disciples, and to the crowd: “They’re with me, and how you treat them, including when I’m gone, I will take personally!” Well, Chan has lots of company there.

When he was challenging the Western reader to live less indulgently and give more material means to the work of God, I knew he was right and felt suitably guilty. At the same time, I would like to be reassured that Chan himself really lives like this. He assures us in the book that he does. I’m just inherently suspicious of people who get their income from the church, telling others to give more money to the church. Well, let’s trust that Chan is not milking the system. No sense assuming the worst, though that’s kind of a gift of mine.

At the end of the day, I thought his book was good, though uncomfortable, reading. It was meant to be uncomfortable – it’s a classic prophet’s call, and God’s task for prophets is certainly not to make people comfortable.

So I felt suitably guilty.

All the more so because I’m a Christian academic. The academics in Luke 9 aren’t the good guys. They’re among the baddies in Jesus’ story. If Luke 9:22 were translated into current English, it might say that those who reject Jesus would be “the elders, the head priests, and the biblical scholars (‘γραμματεῖς’, traditionally ‘scribes’).” When God does a new thing, as He certainly did in Jesus, the traditional political leaders, the existing religious leaders, and the academics normally do their best to shut it down. Old wineskins don’t take well to new wine. Jesus taught with authority; scribes (scholars) hedge their bets and prevaricate (Matt 7:29). The prophet believes. The scholar doubts, checking and rechecking.

The one who is greatest in the economy of God is the child, not the expert (Luke 9:48). God revels in ‘destroying the wisdom of the wise’, and ‘frustrating the intelligence of the intelligent’ (paraphrased from 1 Cor. 1:19 NIV).

So is there any hope for the scholar in God’s kingdom?

All I can find to cling onto here is Paul’s teaching about the one body needing a lot of different parts (1 Cor. 12:12-31). I believe that we need a range of gifts at work in the church, and our sheer diversity is our strength. We need prophets like Chan to kick us stiffly up the backsides at regular intervals. It hurts but it does us good. We need the tenderhearted people too, to pick up the pieces afterwards. We need all kinds.

Perhaps God wants, still, the odd Nicodemus, the odd Joseph of Arimathea, to play a part in His plan and purpose.

Because it’s hard to change how you’re wired, and God is responsible for that wiring, at the end of the day.

Prezi for Luke Chapter 1 and Forward; Two Miracle Babies, Jesus & John the Baptist

This is a first draft prezi done for a sermon of mine at my home church yesterday. It attempts to visually map the relative roles of Jesus and John the Baptist at the gestation stage of their respective careers, and thus of their parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, and Mary and stand-in Joseph. Just a first draft, but see what you think.

Dawn of New Day Luke 1 Scr'shot

https://prezi.com/zkmxhkbehlyg/dawn-of-a-new-day-luke-1/

I told people they could google for it, but for some reason, it’s very difficult for your online prezi material to be found by others in this way, unfortunately.

Comments are welcome.

Days of Creation Book Launch Presentation – MST Graduation 1 Dec 2014

Time is short in graduation ceremonies. Here is what I would say about The Days of Creation, if time permitted. What can we say about Genesis chapter 1?

Slide1

Genesis 1 existed in relative obscurity when the Christian church was born, though it was far from being unknown, as passages like these remind us:

For God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor. 4:6 Holman Christian Standard Bible)

As centuries passed, Genesis 1 became the focus of increasing interest, including becoming the subject of a burst of preaching and commentary by figures such as Basil the Great and Augustine around 400 AD/CE. Soon it provided the dominant paradigm for Christian explanation of the origin and nature of the physical world (and a lot of other things!).

Slide2

This remained true throughout the Middle Ages and through the Reformation era. But eventually a combination of philosophical currents old and new and a weakening of traditional authority structures began to undermine this intellectual dominance. It began to break down in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, and in the nineteenth, studies of nature that once would have been carried out with reference to Genesis became independent from it.

The causes for this sombre trend are manifold, and are explored somewhat in the book. In part they have to do with a burgeoning sense of the age of the earth from the late 1600s onward – the increasingly widespread belief that the earth, like humanity, had a history whose relics could be studied, and that in fact the earth’s story significantly pre-dated the human story. One term for this is the ‘discovery of time’, and attitudes to the days of the creation week, in simplified form, can be plotted to show a trend from a time when six literal days was felt to be too long of a time for God to create (Augustine and Origen) to a time when schemes for creation days that were figuratively extended to stand for years or even ages began to be proposed.

Slide3

Learning of this trend often prompts Christians to wonder, “How then should I regard Genesis 1 when I read it now?” In my experience, the meaning of Genesis 1:1-2:3 (as well as that of Genesis 2:4-25) has been clarified by the perspective of ‘discourse analysis’, which simply means paying attention to the literary shape of the narrative and the language signals that communicate to us how the story is moving forward. Reading Genesis 1 with this awareness shows that when creation begins, three things are lacking that prevent a world as the Old Testament would perceive it from existing.

Slide4

What is missing in Gen. 1:2, which is needed to make a world, is 1) form or distinction, clear zones in which various life forms could exist; 2) fullness, i.e. living populations, inhabitants, including humans; 3) light. Light is fittingly the first thing provided, after which increasing distinctions provide places to live, and then beings are created to live in those spaces. If you’re familiar with the scientific concept of entropy or the ‘heat death’ of the universe, where temperature (energy) and other distinctions are gradually ironed out until there is nothing in any meaningful sense, creation in Genesis 1 is exactly the opposite! Creation reaches its highest distinction with the arrival of humans, the image-bearers, on Day 6.

Such an understanding works very well for following the story of human creation in Gen. 2:4-25 also.

I would like to say, then, that Genesis 1 is not only a God-inspired biblical text, but is extraordinarily versatile, given that it stems from an ancient culture in what from our perspective is an ancient world. What other creation story thousands of years old survives as unscathed as the creation week of Genesis 1? What other example presents God’s authorship of all categories of the known world while importing so little of an obsolete cosmology, while avoiding mythology, which is so prone to obsolescence? What is simpler and more practical than to categorize life by its medium, air, water and earth?

Slide5

Where we do sometimes get into trouble sometimes, I believe, is when we read Genesis as if it was written in our time, or if that’s implying too much ignorance, as if it was written just for us, just for our time in history. We sometimes ask it to make perfect sense in the twenty-first century, to sound utterly modern. This is actually selfish; it is in effect to ask that it make little or no sense to the people of God in eras other than our own, or even people in non-Western cultures in our own time. It is an ancient text, and it shows this in various ways, not least in the way it speaks about the ‘expanse’ (raqia) and the waters above it. But in its God-givenness it transcends its ancient birth in a unique way, retaining its ability to proclaim God’s authorship of and sovereignty over physical and human creation to people of every era.

The fact that we forget how ancient it is may be a sign of just how well it succeeds at this purpose.

 

The Lord’s Prayer – An Alternate Illustration of Structure

Some time ago I posted a self-guided PowerPoint intended to demonstrate how the Lord’s Prayer is careful Greek poetry as well as profound theology in the form of a prayer: seen here. Here’s a screenshot of the main screen when complete:

Lord's Prayer S'shot

I was pleasantly surprised to read an article recently and find out that a scholar in the U.S. had attempted the same thing. Her focus is more on syntax (sentence structure), whereas I was focusing on sound, i.e. rhyming, and semantics (meaning). And she illustrates differently, e.g. using indentation. But the basic idea is similar. So here is her effort, from an appendix at the end of her article,

Pfeiffer, Cara. ‘The Contour Methodology: Teaching the Bible in the Digital Age’, Conversations with the Biblical World 31 (2011), 204–216. (This is available in the ATLAS database, held by many Bible colleges.)
Lord's Prayer Contour Rendering - Cara Pfeiffer
She has been constrained by the limits of what’s possible within the strict confines of a journal article, but notice her use of colour coding and her sensitivity to poetic structure. Encore!