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Brief Notes on My Book Club Reading for 2014

IMG_0001       My colleague and best friend in the world Dr. Eric Johnson and I have been having a lively 5-year ongoing  dialogue about all things theological, spiritual, psychological, hermeneutical, philosophical, epistemological, and biblical. We affectionately refer to it as The Conversation (my title with happy allusion to the early years of Lestat de Lioncourt and Nicolas de Lenfent).

        Back in May 2014 we decided to invite a few select friends along to join in The Conversation with a systematic reading and discussion of books, chosen by Eric and myself in turn. For the most part the books are ones that Eric or I have not read before and want to read together as we continue to stumble in our journey of understanding life, the universe, and everything, or something close to it. Our 2/3 Book Club meets to read and discuss about 200 pages every three weeks or so. It has been one of the most rewarding and stimulating experiences of my intellectual life.

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How Luke 1-2 relate to Beauty and the Beast (revised)

[BLOGPOLOGY: In the original version of this post I made a snide side comment about many churches’ practice of not preaching the Advent texts during this season. I did not direct it at anyone in particular and no one said anything to me about it, but my conscience was nagging me. So the next morning I removed that unnecessary part of the post. This morning I was still bothered so I wanted to write this brief apology. While I do think the practice of not using the Advent texts during this season is unfortunate, my comment was snide and not needed. Such comments are never beneficial to hearers nor productive in effecting change. My apologies to anyone I might have offended!]

At this time of year it is good and right that most churches read and preach from the two portions of Scripture that botticelli annunciationdescribe and reflect on the birth of Jesus Christ and the many events surrounding it (Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2).

Whenever I teach from these passages in my Gospels classes I like to help students see that these two opening portions of the Gospel biographies are very important and are neither to be neglected as merely Christmas-y stories nor are they to be treated at Christmas as merely historical accounts unrelated to the rest of the books they are in.

Rather, both Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 in their own distinct ways serve as prologues and overtures to the rest of these two massive Gospel accounts that bookend the Synoptic witness. They are the stories with which the First and Third Evangelists chose to introduce their accounts.

In the case of Luke 1-2 it is especially interesting to consider how the highly structured, deeply reflective, and theologically rich introduction to the largest Gospel functions like the overture to a great musical. Indeed, Luke 1-2 is a musical itself, structured around interwoven events that are peppered through with the characters breaking into songs that explain and advance the storyline; one cannot help but think of these opening chapters as a sort of Jerusalem-Side Story or Les Shepherdables. (And I suppose Matthew 2’s Herod would The Lyin’ King.)

To consider how Luke 1-2 serves as an overture to Luke’s Gospel it will be helpful to reflect for a few moments on how musical overtures function overall. And it is difficult to find a better example than the brilliant and creative opening scene to the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast.

Some readers may desire to skip the clip given here, and one could skip to the bottom for the immediate cash value of what I’m arguing, but I would encourage all to take the few moments to watch and soak in (multiple times if you can) the gift of human creativity at work in this piece:

Beauty and the Beast Overture (Belle’s Song)

If you watched the clip let me ask this question: How does this overture serve to introduce and foreshadow the great story that is about to unfold?


I will suggest a few ways:

  • Notice the two halves/movements of this piece — Introducing Belle (the Beauty) and then Introducing Gaston (the Beast?). The song concludes with their two stories beginning to intertwine (and Belle’s reaction to this in her reprise).
  • Notice how Belle’s complex character is depicted in a multi-layered way
    • Sweet, beautiful, dreamy, bookish, “far off look,” romantic
    • Dissatisfied and even looking down on this boring old poor provincial, for which she is different and made for something greater and “more”
  • At the same time, the other main character (so it seems) Gaston is depicted as thin and lacking depth, arrogant, self-confident, insensitive and self-consumed. “Here in town there’s only she who is as beautiful as me.”
  • Most importantly, there are many details of the overture that only make sense once one reflects back on the whole story from the end.
    • For example, when Belle is in the bookstore she proclaims that the book she is now borrowing for the third time is her favorite. Why? Because it has “far off places, daring sword fights, magic spells, a prince in disguise.” The bookkeeper then responds: “If you like it so much, it’s yours!”

Looking back from the perspective of the whole story we can see that this is exactly what happens in the story – far off places, sword fights, magic spells, and a prince in disguise – and that this story does become Belle’s story despite how far off and unbelievable it seems from this opening.

  • And in the most beautiful part musically, in the bridge (starting at 2:16) Belle sings these prophetic words that mean more than she could know: “Isn’t this amazing! It’s my favorite part because you’ll see. Here’s where she meets Prince Charming, but she won’t discover that it’s him till chapter 3.”

Again, the meaning of this only becomes clear and significant once you understand how the whole story plays out.

There are many other ways in which this overture sets up the rest of the story – more that I see every time I listen to the music and lyrics and watch the images. But the point is sufficiently made for now. Overtures serve to introduce, frame, and foreshadow the story.

Let’s return then briefly to Luke 1-2 and consider how beautifully and crucially this is as well for Luke’s whole Gospel.

A few observations:

  • The births of the two main characters in this prologue (John the Baptizer and Jesus the Christ) were both miraculous and prophetic
  • The Holy Spirit and angels were at work in preparing and effecting these events
  • The women in these stories are particularly depicted as godly, wise, and faithful (and especially note the contrast between Mary and Zechariah, both of whom encounter Gabriel)
  • The Christ is coming to fulfill promises to Israel, and he comes as the heir of David
  • And finally, the content of the songs (1:46-56; 1:67-79) is very important and teaches much about God’s saving work through the Child. One might even say that these songs give a robust definition of what the gospel is:
    • God loves and lifts up the humble
    • God’s salvation will satisfy the needy
    • God will deliver his people from their enemies
    • God is returning to remember and bless his chosen people
    • God is bring peace and light to those in darkness (see also 2:29-32)

Again, there is much more of value to observe about how Luke 1-2 introduce, frame, and foreshadow the whole message of the Gospel.

My point for now is simply to encourage my readers during this beautiful Advent season to re-read Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 with a new set of lenses – for how they provide a crucial interpretive perspective on what the message of the whole gospel is.

Merry Advent!

Leclercq on Medieval Reading of Scripture

With a few other PhD students I have been reading through Jean Leclercq’s The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture. The book provides a helpful exposure to the monastic approach to God and Holy Scripture. The broad thesis in part is that to understand medieval theology and Christianity we must examine not only the scholastic tradition but also the meditative monastic traditions. The latter, with its focus on the journey to heaLeclercq Coverven and love for God, has a theology motivating it just as much as the more obvious scholastic theology.

I just finished Chapter 5 on “Sacred Learning.” It provides the best short introduction I’ve yet read on the basic approach of medieval exegesis, especially within the monastic tradition. Highlights include the discussion of why the Canticle of Canticles was the most commented upon book throughout the Middle Ages, the use of imagination, how the Old Testament was read as Christian Scripture, and the use of natural histories and medieval science books.

But most fascinating and revealing is his discussion of the monastic habit of meditative, prayerful, memory-driven exegesis (pp. 72-77). In short, Leclercq points out that the custom of recited, prayerful meditation on Holy Scripture (a spiritual mastication) resulted in the memorization of Scripture and the constant seeing of connections between words and phrases throughout the canon of Scripture. As a result, the reading of one verse leads by way of link-words to another passage and then to another, etc. in a rich tapestry of intra-canonical reading.

This observation does much to explain how and why medieval exegesis and commentary appears from our modern perspective to be haphazard and jumping all over the place. It is because of the very close attention to and meditation on the text, combined with a great reverence for God’s Words that medieval exegesis is so richly polyvalent but not apparently logical in its argumentation (especially monastic even more than medieval scholastic). This habitus or mode of meditative reading is a kind of “Exegesis by Concordance,” the concordance being stored in the mind and heart of the meditative, Scripture-memorizing reader.medieval reading

This connects with and confirms the importance of imaginative memory and memory storage techniques of the medieval readers that I have discussed in a previous post.

I am also reminded of Eugene Peterson’s excellent volume Eat this Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, which uses this idea of rumination as foundational. I’m fairly certain Peterson has read Leclercq because I’ve seen several striking similarities!

I am also struck by this thought — If this is true of medieval readers of Scripture, is it not remarkably similar to the Jewish custom and practice of memorizing, masticating, reciting, and meditating on Scripture, the very habit which we find occurring within Scripture itself? That is, does not this meditative, link-word habit do much to explain how the Old Testament authors refer to early parts of the Jewish Scriptures and how the New Testament authors employ the Old? I think it obviously does.

Tolle lege Leclercq!

A Question about Scholia for Any NT Textual Critics Out There…

medieval scholia ms of Aristotle

In this age of the necessity of narrow expertise, I am naturally inclined to think (and feel) more broadly and laterally. This is part personality, part intentionality to break out of the silo-intellectualism of Modernity.

One area in which I have a mere sophomoric level of training is textual criticism, but I do love it! I taught a PhD seminar on this last year which helped my understanding, but I’m aware of how little I know.

SO, I have a question for any readers out there who might know more about this area. Continue reading

My Recent Sojourn Sermons

I love to preach and am thankful for the honor to get to speak on a regular basis at my church, Sojourn East.

Per request, I thought it might be helpful to post here the links to the sermons I’ve delivered in the last few months:

Aaron Copland and Hermeneutics — Three Kinds of Listening/Reading

The great American composer Aaron Copland (1900-1990) was famous for his musical compositions that express the sense and style of America in the 20th century. The two most famous examples are his Fanfare for the Common Man and Appalachian Spring, great pieces of Americana. (Though for some reason my very musical mother never liked Copland; unsure why.)

Copland, the “dean of American music,” was also well-known for his reflections on the nature and pleasure of listening to music, gathered up in his well-regarded book, What to Listen for in Music (1939).

In this book Continue reading

A few thoughts on Hillel’s kelal uferat and the Structure of the Sermon on the Mount

The ancient Jewish teacher Hillel (active ca. 30BCE to 10CE)  famously preserved seven principles or hermeneutical rules for teachers of Torah to help them  make systematic inferences based on the ancient text. Hillel did not make up these rules, of course, but his codification of them proved important and influential.

Rabbi Ishmael, a third-generation mishnaic teacher (ca. 100-170CE), expanded this list to 13 rules by taking Hillel’s fifth rule (the kelal uferat) and subdividing it into eight different groups.

It is this fifth rule, the kelal uferat — which means “from the general to the particular” — upon which I want to make a preliminary comment. I say “preliminary” because I hope to do more detailed research into this idea to make sure I am understanding it correctly.

From what I do understand I will simply observe Continue reading

Book Review: Matthean Sets of Parables by Peter Yaw Oppong-Kumi

I have just completed writing a brief “Book Note” for Religious Studies Review on Oppong-Kumi’s published Tübingen dissertation, Matthean Sets of Parables. The (not-yet-published) RSR review is necessarily very short (250 words) and can never do justice to a 400+ page book that has much to offer. So, I’m recording here a few reflections as well.

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Creative Walking

This past week I had the joyous opportunity to teach a brand new course to our class of new PhD and ThM students at Southern. The class is entitled, “Foundations for Theological Study” and it focuses on issues of faith and scholarship and Christian epistemology. I’ll soon be posting various reflections on the textbooks I use for this class.

For now I want to mention just one small part of the best book from the class, A. G. Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Method. Sertillanges, in a robust Thomistic way, emphasizes the necessarily embodiedness of our lives, including our lives as scholars and thinkers. As a result he offers a very thoughtful view of how to maintain balance in all of living, including the importance of periodic physical activity.

Along these lines my assistant found these helpful articles Continue reading


Reading the Gospels WiselyFor the past ten years I have been working on the hermeneutical issues of what the Gospels are and how we are to read them. I'm thrilled to be finally done with this book!

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Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of MatthewThe theme of heaven and earth is a much-overlooked aspect of the Gospel of Matthew. In this work, rising scholar Jonathan Pennington articulates a fresh perspective on this key interpretive issue, challenging both the scholarly and popular understandings of the meaning of Matthew's phrase, "kingdom of heaven." Pennington argues that rather than being a reverent way of referring to God as is typically assumed, "heaven" in Matthew is part of a highly developed discourse of heaven and earth language.

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