On religious martyrdom: 3-21-11
Predictors' perfect record: 3-23-11

New books on sacred texts: 3-22-11

The publishers of faith-related books are getting ahead of me, so today I want to introduce you to several at once. But these books all have something in common. One way or another they are about sacred writ. Let's begin with one I really like (despite the overly cutesy title):

BibleBabel * Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked About Book of All Time, by Kristin Swenson. This is a fun, scholarly, fascinating, readable, engaging book. It is especially an excellent place to start for people who don't know much about the Bible, and especially people who feel a little guilty about that. The author teaches religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, and she doesn't hestitate to get into some controversial areas, such as why the Bible sometimes has been a source of anti-Judaism. That plus the evolution-creationism controversy could fill separate volumes, but this book at least introduces readers to ways of understanding these matters by understanding what the Bible is and, perhaps more importantly, what it isn't. Got a young adult who would do well to be, if not biblically literate, at least familiar with the major themes and their arc? Get this book for that person, but first read it yourself.

Scripture-Wright * Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today, by N.T. Wright. Bishop Wright's many fans will be pleased that he has revised a previous book, The Last Words, and sought to help people understand how it is that the Bible can be thought of as authoritative for Christian living. Wright clearly understands that the Bible should not be thought of as a "constitution," a concept and term used (and criticized by) emergent church movement guru Brian McLaren. That is, the Bible is not a book to turn to when you need to know a specific answer to one of life's puzzling questions, though for sure it offers answers as well as general principles by which to live. Rather, Wright understands and explains that the Bible is a product of hundreds of years of writing by many authors and that, in the end, it's a library. This means we must take the time to understand who wrote each book in it, to whom and under what circumstances. For this revision, Wright focuses on two matters to see how the Bible might speak about them today: monogamy and keeping the Sabbath. Tom Wright communicates clearly even for people who aren't biblical scholars.

Forged * Forged: Writing in the Name of God -- Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are, by Bart D. Ehrman. It should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the career of this author, who teaches religious studies at the University of North Carolina, that he might choose a provocative title for a book. Ehrman has created a pretty busy little indeustry asking difficult and pointed questions about belief (especially belief in Jesus) and the Bible. Anyone with basic familiary with the Bible already will know that many of the books attributed to particular writers (including authors of the gospels and some of Paul's letters, almost certainly were not written by the person to whom they are attributed. Saying, for instance, that Mark wrote the gospel of Mark, was a way of adding to its authority. But were such writings "forged," as Ehrman's title would have it? Well, only in the most narrow, technical sense, if at all. Rather, the writings attributed to John, for instance, even if not written by one of the Sons of Thunder, reflect the thinking of what's called the Johannine Community. Still, Ehrman is an interesting writer and even people who are bliblical literalists (I am not one) would do well to read him so they can know what criticisms are being leveled at the book. But no one should approach Ehrman's book imagining that for the first time ever he and he alone has uncovered a major scoop and has been shocked by the news. That others wrote books of the Bible and attributed them to authoritative names is neither news nor shocking -- and most Christian scholars would say that information changes nothing about the Bible's worth.

Pathways * Pathway to Our Hearts: A Simple Approach to Lectio Divina with the Sermon on the Mount, by Archbishop Thomas Collins. The spiritual discipline of lectio divina is more familiar to Catholics and Anglicans than to most Protestants. But it's a prayerful, careful, slow way of reading a relatively brief passage of scripture and meditating on it as the reader marinates in it. The author, archbishop of Toronto, is correct to note that there are many different ways of understanding and practicing lectio divina, and he's wise not to insist that only one way is correct. For this small book he has chosen to read the Sermon on the Mount from the fifth chapter of Matthew and then offer his reflections on what the words and phrases mean to him. I especially like his notion that Christians who use this technique should consider the "word of God" not just the biblical text but also Jesus himself because "the word becomes flesh and dwells among us in human language, in the divinely inspired texts of scripture."

Tanach * The Artscroll English Tanach: The Jewish Bible, with Insights from Classic Rabbinic Thought, edited by Rabbi Nosson Scherman. As Torah-observant Jews know, the term Tanach, which means the Hebrew Scriptures, is an acronym drawn from the three sections of the Jewish Bible: Torah, Neviim (prophets) and Kesuvim (writings). This scholarly new edition of that Bible renders in modern English, though faithful to the original Hebrew, the text that has been sacred to Jews -- and later to Christians -- for several thousand years. Christians who read this version will need to learn or be reminded of several things, among them that "HaShem," which literally translates to "The Name," refers to God. Some of the translations are quite lovely, beginning, in fact, with the widely known first three verses of Genesis, which get rendered this way: "In the beginning of God's creating the heavens and the earth -- when the earth was astonishingly empty, with darkness upon the surface of the deep, and the Divine Presence hovered upon the surface of the waters -- God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light." My preference, however, is for the Psalms to be printed in poetry style because they are widely understood to be poetry. But this translation lumps them into one block of prose each, with occasional indentations for paragraphs in longer Psalms.

Bhagavad-Gita * The Bhagavad Gita: A Walkthrough for Westerners, by Jack Hawley. Anyone from a Western culture who has ever read the ancient Hindu scripture called The Bhagavad Gita knows that it is (quite naturally) permeated with Eastern thinking, Eastern ways of understanding the cosmos and that it reflects well the very heart of India, where I was privileged to spend two years of my boyhood. The Gita, thus, is in some ways foreign territory for Westerners, and sometimes it's hard to grasp from it what it has to offer. This prose translation of that old battle poem -- along with some introductory commentary -- offers Westerners a path toward the truths of the Gita, and does it in lovely and accessible language. The author lives, studies and lectures for half of each year in southern India.

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Speaking of books, you may recall that I wrote here recently about Eugene Peterson's new memoir, The Pastor. ReadTheSpirit.com is featuring the book on its site this week along with an interview with Peterson. Good stuff. Take a look.

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P.S.: My latest column for The Presbyterian Outlook now is online. To read it, click here.


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