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Pile #15 “Doors of Perception: Icons and Their Spiritual Significance” by John Baggley

30 Jan

Doors of Perception: Icons and their spiritual significance / John Baggley. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. 1988.  xi, 160p. Includes Bibliographic References and Index.

Worship with the Senses

We Christians of the 20th and 21st century live in a highly visual culture – while relying for the most part on oral and written testimony to learn of, and know God in Jesus Christ mostly through proclamation.  And yet, Christian Faith and Worship is a more than merely verbal and mental, it is a sensual experience: utilizing sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell; through these God-given senses we bring all of ourselves as an offering to the Lord each Sunday when we gather, and ideally in our daily lives when we turn to the Lord in prayer and thanksgiving.

Of all the senses the one most honed throughout most of human history is that of sight (which means it is also the sense most easily debased) To aid this understanding and appropriation of the Spirit, a long and rich tradition of Christian art exists, one that has not always remained in chancel or chapter house. The down side to this is that Western religious art, like academic, scholarly study of the Scriptures has often become divorced from the Faith and Church that such studies and practice were meant to serve.

To See or Not to See, That is the Question…

And yet our contemporary (western) liturgical and devotional forms are in a sense vestiges of a much richer approach to worship  that relies less on a realism so prominent in our Western Christian art and theology, than on expressing the inner spirit in visible form. This alternative to artistic realism is found most readily in the Orthodox (and Coptic) East, and in their primary expression of religious art -the Icon.

Icons are an integral aspect of corporate worship and devotion of the Eastern Church, bringing the Communion of Saints to mind in a highly visible format, as well as teaching the faith without words. They are also a legacy of faith from the undivided Church. My own parish, Our Saviour is privileged to possess no less than three Icons  from different liturgical backgrounds and styles within the Church grounds:  two in the Lady Chapel after the Byzantine fashion and an Ethiopian Icon that hangs in the parish hall.

Sadly, though, they are not often utilized for their proper devotional function. This may have something to do with our lack of understanding of the force, and influence of Icons. Many books exist that introduce Icons for a Western Christian, but most are written for an Eastern audience by Eastern writers, and don’t always address Western concerns. Happily, the parish library once again comes to the rescue, for its shelves hold  the Doors of Perception: Icons and their Spiritual Significance by Fr. John Baggley.

Opening the Doors…

Doors of Perception is a book on Icons written for a Western audience by a Anglican priest (at the time of writing, Fr. Baggley was serving as Team Rector of the Bicester Team of Parishes in Oxfordshire) who is a sympathetic outside observer of Orthodoxy, and published by a venerable American Orthodox publishing house to introduce the discipline, decorum, and devotion of iconodulia -the veneration of holy Icons. It explores the history, theology, and spirituality of Icons for the Western audience, without taking prior experience or knowledge of Orthodoxy or Icons for granted.

Fr. Baggley offers 8 Chapters, an essay on the painting of icons by Richard Temple, a section of color plates with meditations, and two appendixes.  The first 98 pages of text covers the general historical and theological introduction, as well as  the spiritual tradition that surrounds Icons.  The second part, pages 99-105, consists of an essay by Richard Temple of The Temple Gallery, London (which is a centre for the “study, restoration, and exhibition of Icons”, specializing in Russian Icons) about the nature and techniques of Icon painting, and the third section is a collection of 18 Icon plates with provenance  and commentary and meditation.

After the introductory chapter, two chapters deal with a historical overview of the use of Icons, two chapters cover biblical language and imagery, and as well as it’s interpretation, and two chapters cover the Orthodox spirituality (especially the monastic setting) that forms the background for Icon painters (actually most of the book is a primer on Orthodox spirituality as the making, and use of Icons owes so much to this spiritual theology), and the last chapter situates the Icons in their liturgical and devotional context.

For Beginners, and Well-Seasoned Travelers

Fr Baggley does not presume that we know anything about Icons, other than the fact that they are a style of Eastern liturgical and devotional art (if indeed we know that much), so shies away from lots of technical jargon, unless the terms are first explained.

Having myself read a number of earlier books on Icons (including the two volume Theology of the Icon by the late Léonide Ouspensky -my first fora into Icons) I wasn’t expecting to learn many new things about Icons and their use but, found myself pleasantly surprised at the depth of information, as well as the integration of theology and spiritual aesthetics which Fr. Baggley and Mr. Temple offer. I can honestly say that this book has done much to increase my love of the Icon.


The next complete Pile  (#16) I am preparing is Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan’s Mary Through the Centuries, which marks a milestone of sorts for me, as it marks the last Amazon Book Review that I submitted way back when I was consumed with climbing the ranks of Amazon reviewers -said fervour has since died down somewhat. I mentioned in a previous Pile that I thought it best to savor Mary Through the Centuries only when placed alongside it’s predecessor, Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the  History of Culture. I have since rethought that position, not least because I have read so many other books in the meantime without returning to Jesus Through the Centuries and now think it best to actually finish the review, so  along with my Select Reading Project of Foreground Reading for additional university degrees, I am putting the finishing touches on Mary. Until then my friends, keep reading, learning, and loving.


Pile #13 “Yeshua: A Guide to the Real Jesus and the Original Church” by Ron Moseley

7 May

Yeshua: A guide to the real Jesus and the original church / Ron Mosley. Clarkesville, MD: Lederer Books,  1996. Includes Bibliographic References and Index.  [Kindle edition]

nota bene: This marks the end of my reviews that I adapted from my prior published material on (with one exception, to be noted below). Going forward, my reviews will be original creations, except for those reviews that might be adapted from The Angelus,  the parish newsletter for  Church of Our Saviour, Atlanta  This means that my pace, already slowing down since the end of February, will be a tad bit slower, as I actually have to write them all out as opposed to simply reworking existing material (Oh the horror!!, Oh the humanity!!)At the same time, I do have a considerable backlog of reviews to push out, so I definitely will not run out of material any time soon. (Especially as I continually purchase books from Amazon….around 30 at last count over the last 6 months), and I’m sure to continue to enjoy a lot of overlap between this blog, Amazon reviews, and those aforementioned other blogs that I have not as yet been able to work up as planned.

And now, let us together explore the real (life and meaning of) Yeshua and His meaning for us latter day believers in His Name.   The original review can be found here

Remembering the Jewish Jesus

In recent years it has become fashionable to remember that before He was hailed as the Christ -the Messiah of Israel- Jesus of Nazareth was born, raised, lived, and even died, as a Jew, and that the first communities to spread His message were sent from the synagogues to the synagogues and almost as an afterthought to God-fearing Gentiles. Such lights and critical scholars as +N.T. Wright, R. Shmuley Boteach, Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Geza Vermes, and Dr. Bart Ehrman have given us volumes of ‘biographies’ and studies focusing on Jesus as a Jew, and along with this comes a thawing of how Christians view both individual Jews and Judaism, both modern and ancient. Before these writers were received into the public imagination, however, there was Dr. Ron Moseley, and his book Yeshua: a Guide to the Real Jesus and the Original Church.

Dr. Moseley has multiple doctorates in such fields as Second Temple History, and Religion and Society, as well as a D.LL. in Research, and studied at Princeton, University of Texas, and Oxford Graduate School at Oxford University, and currently resides in Jerusalem, Israel.

The book is comprised of a Foreword, Preface, and Introduction, 9 chapters with a Conclusion, a section of Notes, a Glossary and Bibliography. Additionally,  each chapter ends with a set of Study Questions for individual or group use.

Dr. Moseley’s aims in the book are to show that: Yeshua (Jesus’s name as transliterated from the Hebrew) lived a fully Jewish life, that the earliest Church was Jewish and organized along synagogal lines; that major Jewish concepts (especially “Torah”) are misunderstood when communicated in a Greek language and idiomatic mindset; that the Pharisees were the orthodox fundamentalists of their day and had both heroes and villains in their ranks; and that the earliest Church was but one of many sects within first century Judaism -all wrapped around the overriding premise “that it is impossible to understand the first 100 years of the Church’s existence without a knowledge of the Hebrew culture from which it sprang” (from the preface). It defines for the reader the “players, struggles, and issues” which affected the earliest Church, as well as the environment that Jesus was raised in, the people that He loved, and the religion that He served.

Dr. Moseley opens his book with the following statement regarding standard works of church history at the time of writing: “By beginning their research with the later second and third-century Church after it had become predominantly a Gentile organization, they have lost the history of the first hundred years.” This awareness is shown in the favorable foreword written by Professor Marvin Wilson of Gordon College “If one desires to be radically Christian, a thorough understanding of the Jewish origin of the Church is by no means optional; it is foundational.”

The Misunderstood Pharisees

The greatest part of the book is given over to a study of the Pharisees (the “Perushim”), perhaps the most misunderstood group of Jews to Christian eyes: their rise and function within Jewish society, their teachings and their enduring influence and eventual morphing into the rabbinate of post-Second Temple Judaism, and this can be seen by a glance at the table of contents. The first chapter covers the evidence for the Jewish background of the early Church, the second chapter covers major Jewish idioms and ideas in the teaching of Jesus Himself. The third chapter takes up the Torah/Law and the misconceptions that arise from its transmission in a Greek-mindset using the Greek language as opposed to the Hebrew mindset and language. Chapters 4 and 5 are a discussion of the relation of the Old and New Testaments and the influence of the Old on the New, and last 4 chapters are taken up with the Pharisees.

Meant Not For the Scholars

Some [Amazon] reviewers have criticized Dr. Moseley for quoting lavishly from other scholarship without providing his own arguments for his thesis. This book, though, does not pretend to be a work of original scholarship that uncovers previously unknown information about the life of of Jesus, or a textbook on the same. In fact it’s purpose is just the opposite of the criticism.

It is a general purpose reader that seeks to call attention to the actual Jewishness of Jesus and the earliest Church, bringing together information from various sources, and written on a level that is approachable to readers of a general education, a Sunday School or church group, not a specialist audience of scholars. So of necessity he relies on the published work of other authors and scholars. Any one of his aims could be (and in fact is) the subject of a book by itself. Additionally, as has been subsequently brought out by the author, this book came out at a time when there was little other literature out there proclaiming and celebrating the Jewishness of Jesus and the early Church.

While not a weakness, I would have preferred a more scholarly presentation of the subject, yet I believe it is quite adequate for someone who doesn’t care for lots of footnotes, non-English quotations, abbreviations or bibliographies interrupting their reading but who does want to learn something about the world that Jesus and the Church was born into. Another nit-pick from my perspective is the fact that he quotes mostly from the KJV; though I would have liked to have seen more recent translations, I realize that the KJV is probably the version most English-speaking readers will be familiar with. I would hope that in revised editions of the work, Dr. Moseley would consider alternate translations, such as the NIV, RSV, or ESV.

This book will provide the most benefit to readers who have little to no previous formal exposure to the Judaism of Jesus’ day, and can be used by church youth groups, Sunday Schools, or the casual reader. If nothing else, it should open the eyes of the sympathetic reader to the religious diversity that existed within Judaism in the days of Jesus, and rid him of a simplistic understanding of the faith of Israel.

*This review refers to the Kindle edition of the text, and there were some formatting issues as well as typographical and minor editorial glitches in the text that detracted a little from my enjoyment of the book, but did not alter the argument of the work.                                                                                                                                         

Normally this would be the part of the post where I tell you what to look forward to for my next review, but the truth is, though the ‘scheduled’ review is Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture by Jaroslav Pelikan is the next one, it’s really a book that is savored best when read alongside it’s companion and predecessor, Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture, also by Pelikan. So, for now, I’ll be working on adapting some of my previous book reviews written for my parish church newsletter, as well as working on a crop of truly orginal book reviews (including reviews of the next 2 books in The Wheel of Time. Until then my friends, keep calm and read on!

Mini-Pile #4 “Seeing Christ in the Old Testament” by Ervin Hershberger

6 Mar

The original review can be found here  Seeing Christ in the Old Testament by Ervin Hershberger

The second of two related books, that I did not wish to lump together into a single Pile, no matter the brevity of presentation of each work.

An old Latin couplet says: “The New is in the Old concealed, the Old is in the New Revealed”, and Christians and Christianity from the beginning have always seen Christ as the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets.  Ervin Hershberger, in this his second of two Bible studies is no less enthusiastic about reading the Old Testament with understanding by searching for glimpses of Christ Himself in the Old Testament.

Mr. Hershberger wrote out of the Mennonite Christian tradition, and taught for many years at Calvary Bible School (a Beachy Amish Mennonite affiliated. but non-accredited – i.e. non-degree granting institution) in Arkansas. This book, as well as his earlier”Seeing Christ in the Tabernacle”, was written at the behest of colleagues at the school. The tenor of this book, as with his earlier book is a study aid for a High School level course on the Old Testament.

The New in the Old

Hershberger divided his work into four parts: 1) seeing Christ in the beginning as “eternity past” in Creation, 2) seeing Christ in 13 Names of God  3) in major biblical characters -20 characters from the Old Testament (covered in 14 chapters with 6 chapters covering pairs of characters (Adam and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, two Joshuas, Aaron and Eleazar, David and Solomon, and Elijah and Elisha);  and 4) in “eternity future” -in the fulfillment and culmination of all things.

The chapters on the Names of God can be further divided (though not by the author) into Names revealed before the Exodus, Names revealed during the sojourn in the wilderness, and Names revealed in the Promised Land.

As a work written to lead the Christian believer into a deeper awareness and appreciation of the presence of Christ in the Old Testament, by showing how actions, persons, and Names therein foreshadow the more perfect working of Christ, “Seeing Christ in the Old Testament” is a good pointer, and the reader can derive enjoyment from Hershberger’s simple, heartfelt prose. However, readers are advised to use this, not as their primary study guide for understanding Christ and His messiaship in the Old Testament, but as one more tool to crack open the depths of meaning that the Scriptures has for us.

The book as a whole could have benefited from sections that showed Christ in the Psalms and Christ in the Prophets,

The Loss of Language

One weakness of the work as an aid to critical study of the place of Christ in the Old Testament is his admitted lack of familiarity with the biblical languages which prevents careful exegesis of cited passages, as well as his lack of engagement with other authors or commentaries to describe the the Old Testament’s relation to the New Testament and to the One Faith of Israel.

Although in the preface he is praised for his ability to read Luther’s German Bible, which may occasionally enrich his insights, Hershberger admits in his foreword to having no knowledge of Greek or Hebrew, relying totally on Strong’s and on Young’s Concordances, which limits what he can draw from the text, yet he does not feel this is a major handicap to the work he presents. He also suffers from a few blinders in his acceptance of the accuracy of “Jehova” for the Name of God and the reliability of the KJV generally, yet all the same, the reader is encouraged not to judge the work too harshly, as Hershberger wrote it out of a genuine love of the Lord and a desire to share this love. He also wrote, not for scholars, or even necessarily the college educated, but for those who want to know the Lord and His Word a little more closely, without the fetters of academia.

To Love, not Learn the Scriptures

in the end, this short study (like its companion work “Seeing Christ in the Tabernacle) should be seen as a devotional and personal study aid, rather than a systematic, or scholarly commentary on the presence of Christ in the Old Testament/Tanak, written as a simple aid to faith, not a rigorous study of the same. I myself, will undoubtedly return to it to draw wisdom from its well from time to time as a reminder of things I often forget or overlook, while keeping in mind it’s limited purpose.

Mini-Pile #3 “Seeing Christ in the Tabernacle” by Ervin Hershberger

30 Jan

The original review is found “Seeing Christ in the Tabernacle”

“Seeing Christ in the Tabernacle” is one of a pair of books that I bought from the “Choice Books” kiosk at the grocery store I work in. I picked this book up because it appeared to be a study of the Tabernacle a structure of vast spiritual and symbolical significance in the life of Israel.  It turned out not to be as detailed as I I first thought it was. Nonetheless it is helpful in seeing the Tabernacle as more than just a historical curiosity.

Ervin Hershberger desires his reader to see Christ in all things, and especially in that most Jewish of structures the Tabernacle -the Tent of Meeting that the Israelites made at the command of the Lord after their flight from Egypt, and carried with them through the subsequent 40 years sojourn in the desert, and well into the formative period of their occupation of the Promised Land, until the building of the First Temple by King Solomon, at which the levitical priests daily performed the appointed sacrifices to the Lord God of Israel.

His is a simple book without intrusive footnotes, elaborate bibliographies or foreign sounding and oddly spelled words. Included between its pages are a Foreword, a Preface, a section “Introducing the Tabernacle”, 12 chapters covering the various structures, furnishings, articles, coverings, and spaces within the Tabernacle, as well as the persons who served it and the actions that occurred in and around its sacred precincts.

As Hershberger writes: “The story of the Tabernacle reaches deeper than the earth, higher than the sky, and farther than the universe. Its humble features represent none of these but, but they represent the Creator of them all, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (p12).

Every chapter in the book is aligned to showcase “God’s masterpiece of typology, the Tabernacle” (p11). The book is not, however, primarily intended as a study of the Tabernacle in and of itself -you will find no extra-biblical source material used to discuss its history for example- instead, Hershberger’s purpose is to “praise, adore, and glorify Jesus Christ, of whom the Tabernacle is only a shadow” (ibid), while gently prodding the reader to “Remember that we do not use types to establish doctrine, but only to illustrate what the Bible clearly teaches” as a constant refrain throughout the book. A longer introductory section on typology charting the difference between ‘establishing doctrine’ and ‘illustrating what the Bible clearly teaches’ would have been more helpful, but is not essential for Hersberger’s task.

Straining the gnat?

While the book does fill a niche as a devotional meditation focusing solely on the Tabernacle with a commitment to see every last detail as a type of Christ (whether or not such typifying is only illustrating established teaching), it occasionally stretches credulity (and the author’s credibility) in requiring every object (down to the symbolically significant number of stakes, nails, or dimensions), space, person, and action refer only to Christ. This makes a note of caution to the reader in order, as seeing everything about the Tabernacle as only a type and shadow of Christ, combined with an implicit refusal to accept the Tabernacle on its own terms, can be construed as a veiled form of antisemitism, and as a devaluing of the Tabernacle itself as the chosen place of meeting between God and His chosen people. Moreover Hershberger’s style of a direct one-on-one comparison of a specific element of the Tabernacle and its relation to a similar element of the work of Christ becomes monotonous after a while even in as short a text as this one, so multiple readings may become necessary to achieve the fullest benefit of the book’s potential.

Useful but Limited

It remains a useful reference work for deepening one’s appreciation of the Scriptures, of tieing the ‘Old’ to the ‘New’ Testaments. A few references and allusions to Rapture might mar the text for the non-Dispensationalist minded believer, and certainly a Jewish reader can feel put out by the claim that: “The Tabernacle and all its features, the priests and all their services, the multiple sacrifices and all their rituals were only a foreshadowing of the coming ministry of Jesus Christ!” (p.98) but overall, these considerations should not take away the value of seeing in the Tabernacle a type of Christ Jesus, and of the Heavenly Third Temple.

Pile #7 Africa and the Bible by Edwin Yamaguchi

16 Jan

Africa And The Bible / Edwin M Yamauchi.  Foreword by Kenneth A Kitchen. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.  2004.  297 p. Includes bibliographic references and index.  [“Paperback published in 2006”]

The original review is here “Africa and the Bible”

One of the greatest disadvantages that contemporary readers and interpreters of the Jewish and Christian Bible (especially those of us in the Western Hemisphere) have is that we live at vast removes from the nations and times of the biblical text, which leads to a corresponding impoverishing of our understanding of the text and its meaning.  This is especially true of the relation of Palestine and Israel to surrounding nations, in particular the continent we know of as Africa.  But most readers lack the time, inclination, or patience to wade through dozens, if not hundreds or thousands of articles on history, archaeology, and anthropology, not to mention thematic commentaries, basic or specialized encyclopedias  (such as the Anchor Bible Dictionary)  or even, and especially, internet sites such as to acquire the necessary cultural background, and are usually content to read the text as is.

This does not mean that sources do not exist to help the interested lay-reader, preacher, or academic non-specialist. Many fine works exist, but again it is up to the reader to find and read it, which is where I come in, to present one such work to help the interested reader: Edwin Yamauchi’s Africa and the Bible, published by Baker Academic.  Dr.Yamauchi is professor of history emeritus at Miami University, Ohio.   His main fields of research interest are Ancient History, Old Testament, New Testament, Early Church History (including social and cultural history of early Christianity), Gnosticism, and Biblical Archaeology, which is well displayed in this volume, and the present volume is an outgrowth of research interests throughout his career. In addition to Africa and the Bible, he has written  Persia and the Bible, a companion volume, as well as other books on the archaeology of biblical times including  Archaeology of New Testament Cities in Asia-Minor, and other publications exploring the relationship of the Bible to the lands and people of Antiquity. Pertinent here, he has written extensively on the continent of Africa (among other works, he has edited Africa and Africans in Antiquity (2001).

Investigating and Interpreting Africa

Dr Yamauchi’s book offers to the general non-specialist, non-scholarly reader a volume of essays  that seeks to do three things: 1) explore the archaeological and history behind texts having Africa as a subject (as people or nations),  2) look at exegeses of these passages and 3) trace the ramifications of these exegeses through the centuries.  The first two aims he accomplishes quickly.  The third aim at times veers off and attempts to take over at times, without completely succeeding.

Africa and the Bible offers a taste of scholarship in the fields of archaeology, history and interpretations, and even anthropology, and consists of 8 chapters, an appended book review, a foreword, and a preface which treat of various references to Africans and nations of Africa in the Bible -most notably Egypt and the lands of Kush- along with photographs, maps and other illustrations to enhance the text.

This is however, not a unified narrative, but rather a collection of separate articles (some previously published in other venues) that explore themes of the place of Africa in the Bible.  Additionally, the concluding chapter and appendix concentrate on a contemporary cultural interpretive paradigm named ‘Afrocentrism’ that seeks to shake off an  Aryan (White or European) dominated understanding of history; and, at the least to restore the dignity of black peoples in the march of history, and at the extreme to replace it with an understanding centered on the achievements of Africa and black peoples especially in regard to biblical civilizations and personage.

History, Myth, and Legend in biblical Africa

Within the book, a number of articles debunk old beliefs about African locations for certain biblical personage.  Chapter one explores the strange reception of the “curse of Ham”; Chapter two investigates the identity of Moses’s “Cushite” wife, while chapter three is a discussion of Solomon and Africa, most notably his relations with the Queen of Sheba, and Sheba’s possible correlation with the kingdom of Sabba. Chapter 4 returns to Cushite matters looking at among other things, the Cushite pharaohs  of Egypt.

Chapters 5 and 6 form a pair of articles working with the kingdom of  Meroe in Arabia, and the “Ethopian” eunuch in the book of Acts that St. Philip from whence the Ethopian Church derives its claim to apostolic origins.

Chapter seven is an overview of the history and archaeology of Cyrene, framed around the question whether Simeon of Cyrene was black skinned.

His critical interactions are mainly with the extreme forms of Afrocentrism: a field of studies in which often ‘enthusiasm outruns knowledge’ as Kenneth Kitchen says in the Preface.  This happens in chapter eight, and the appended book review of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena.

The strengths of the book are the care and scholarship displayed in the individual articles, and in the introduction they give the interested reader to the history and environs of Africa of the ancient world in many cases Dr. Yamauchi provides helpful clarification of persons and countries, that provide support for biblical history.  Dr. Yamauchi marshals a great deal of evidence from multiple disciplines, archaeology and history, and one of the highlights of the book is his extensive, 44 page bibliography.

In terms of readability: Dr. Yamuchi is a scholar working with the fields of ancient and classical history, archaeology, anthropology, and biblical interpretation, of necessity he uses footnotes to add additional information not found in the body of the text but useful to the interested reader. At the same time, he takes care not to talk over the head of his potential readers, keeping his technical language to a minimum except for the unavoidable use of Egyptian, Lydian, Cyrenic, Cushite, and other national names and place-names. Anyone with at least a High School education (and perhaps some  brighter Middle School/Junior High School students) should be able to read, and enjoy this book.

Africa or Afro-centrism?

I find the two greatest weaknesses to be the aforementioned lack of a coherent unifying narrative and its lack of an overview article about Africa and the Bible,  and an apparently singular dialogue and focus on ‘Afro-centrism’ as the major alternative interpretative lens that Dr. Yamauchi engages with, which throws off the balance and, to me, appears misplaced in a work that aims to primarily deal with Africa as it was known in biblical times. This is not to say that Afro-centrism is not a worthy subject of study, or that it has no legitimate insights to bring to biblical interpretation. My concern is rather, one and a half chapters and a book review in a volume whose scope is Africa of antiquity and the Bible is not enough space to devote to such an all-embracing subject, nor do I think it was necessarily appropriate to spend as much time as he did it, it’s popularity among African and African-American scholars notwithstanding. The rest of the chapters deal with specific passages, their historical and archaeological contexts and their interpretations. Afro-centrism is an entire interpretative scheme for viewing history, as fulsome as Africa itself, as the foreword itself acknowledges.  Other reviews (most notably those found on also fault Dr. Yamauchi for spending too much time engaging Afro-Centrism, though interestingly, are divided as to whether he goes far enough in his criticisms or goes too far.

In the final analysis then, “Africa and the Bible” as an introductory survey to the lands of Africa, is a bit unsystematic, and falls short of being a critical introduction to the lands of Africa and their relation to Scripture (but then again, writing a critical introduction was not Dr. Yamauchi’s intention), though it serves well as a companion and background reading. As a reference work on individual texts and references, it can be an invaluable aid for enriching our knowledge of Africa in biblical times, especially with it’s bibliography, but it should not be considered a stand alone reference work.

A caveat for those wondering why this book note: This book came my way via a trip to  “Passages the exhibit’  -a traveling exhibit of the history of in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the publishing of the Authorized Version a/k/a King James Version English translation of the Scriptures. (sponsored by the Green family of Hobby Lobby fame) -and my multiple perusals of the book section of the giftshop. This was one of the books offered for sale, along with Persia and the Bible, (which is on one of my numerous wish lists for future purchases), and I bought it thinking it would be a useful addition to my biblical studies reference library. If I had to do it over again, I would still have made the purchase, which I suppose says something about my eclectic reading nature.


And now we’re done with ancient (and modern Africa), and so I turn our eyes far away into the stars for our next Pile With the Lightnings, by David Drake, the first in his RCN series of spaced-age swashbucklers in uniform. Until then, my friends, keep reading!

edit on  January 18, 2013 for content (and minor grammar) prompted by comment on Facebook.

Mini-Pile #1 “Me of Little Faith” by Lewis Black

7 Jan

Most books I like to read and ponder over..some just leave a bad taste in my mouth, and some I am more or less indifferent to. The sad thing is that most of the “indifferent” books out there rarely, if ever, get exposure, and that is a shame, because the author (usually) invest a great deal of time, effort, resources, and energy to write. And I feel bad for authors that never receive attention. My intention with Piles and Philes is to review what I have read, no matter my reaction to it (good, bad, ugly, indifferent).  So I am introducing a new type of entry the “Mini Piles”

Me of little faith / Lewis Black ; edited by  Hank Gallo.  New York: Riverhead Books. 2008.  237 p.

original review can be found here “Me of Little Faith”

I’m not familiar with Lewis Black. But I found this book in the “Recent Nonfiction” section of my local library more than a few month’s ago (more like a couple years ago at this point), and picked it up, thinking at the time that it would provide insight into how and why a person could loose their faith. Boy was I wrong.

Me of Little Sensitivity

This is a work of satire and comedy that that directs itself to religious faith and practice, and written in a semi-autobiographical vein. In this book he takes on organized religion by poking fun at it, which all good satire does. At the same time, though, he also shows his political bias. It is not a book I would read again. Nor would I read his previous or subsequent books.  Don’t get me wrong -I laughed all the way through it; but like with Bill Mahler, he comes across the wrong way – a way that says he believes what he says in a comic mode should be accepted seriously. I take more than slight offense at the seriousness with which he takes his potshots, because underneath the satire I read his real anger, dislike (call it what you will) toward other subjects, especially [now former-] President George W. Bush. (I only wonder has he done the same concerning President Barack Obama or political and cultural figures on the liberal side of the socio-political spectrum?)

Who is Lewis Black?

Black is a playwright, comedian and entertainer. He speaks and writes from a Reform Jewish cultural background, though he himself is not a practicing Jew. He thus takes on the persona of an outsider criticizing religious practice, yet he is not a sympathetic critic. In his sarcastic, comic way he pokes fun at the notion of absolutes, justifying it by the following appeal: “Because what’s true for you may not be true for the guy standing next to you” (p35) The problem of course,  is that with this philosophy as a guiding light you then have no basis for saying that the guy standing next to you who happens to be a skinhead Neo-Nazi  who believes that Jews are parasites on the body politic and deserve what happened to them in Germany of the 1930’s and 40’s is wrong to hold such beliefs. Of course I could be trying to read too much into a work of humour, but the best humour is built on an element of truth and sympathy, and I don’t find much of either in the background of Black’s writing, at least not in conjunction with each other.

To fall,  perchance to trip

Even though the stated purpose of Me of Little Faith is the application of humor, sarcasm and satire to religion, the work as a whole lacks unity. There is a thin thread of personal narrative, but mostly the chapters read like little vignettes, having little connection to each other, apart from their being a take on religion and public life.  Moreover. His satire is destructive rather than constructive. He seeks only to belittle. That is not the mark of a great book.  Rather, it is an example of what Conrad Hyers in And God Created Laughter: the Bible as Divine Comedy called “fallen humor”, a completely destructive form of discourse.  I wouldn’t go so far as to call his work ‘mean-spirited’ but it comes awfully close. And I would definitely not read anything else Mr. Black chooses to write. His words are too toxic for my peace of mind.

The second Mini-Pile will be Do As I Say (Not As I Do): Profiles in Liberal Hypocrisy by Peter Schweizer, so until then, keep reading my friends!

Pile #6 “Will Catholics Be “Left Behind”” by Carl Olson

1 Jan

Will Catholics be “left behind”: a Catholic critique of the rapture and today’s prophecy preachers Carl E. Olson. San Francisco : Ignatius Press. 2003.  395 p. Includes bibliographic references. [on title page “Modern Apologetics Library”]

The original review can be found here: “Will Catholics Be Left Behind?”

The End-as-Beginning

The end of November each year marks a turning point in the life of the Church and the world as a whole: as we come to the end-as-beginning of another year, Christians look forward to the yearly celebration of the Coming of the Lord as the Babe of Bethlehem and prepare ourselves through the Season of Advent (the New Year begins on 1 Advent for Christians), while also looking forward to the Second Coming of Christ in Glory and the World-To-Come. Traditionally also, this is a time for the preaching of the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell as it relates to the individual. And a rich source of material for such preaching is to be found in the final book of the Christian Bible, The Revelation to John.

This is especially true of Evangelical preaching and popular fiction about the end times ( in particular the recent “Left Behind” series co-written by Tim LaHaye), which is more likely to tie events in Revelation to contemporary world events.  A popular movement within Evangelical Christian circles which typifies this style of preaching is Dispensationalism with its watchword question “Will you be left behind when Christ comes to rapture His Church?” This is a question not usually addressed, or even asked by Catholic Christians, who  are more likely to ask,

“Why the Rapture?”

Answers are not always to easy to come by though, at least from a Catholic perspective, most of the material comes from the plethora of  seminaries, authors, blogs, church websites, publishers and nearly all of that is slanted toward the acceptance of Rapture Theology. This is not to say that no references exist to help the  concerned Catholic (or indeed other, concerned non-Catholic Christian) who wants to know a little more about this Rapture and Bible Prophecy movement, especially when they want a second, or third opinion about it. In this regards, Carl Olson’s Will Catholics be “left behind? A Catholic Critique of the Rapture and Today’s Prophecy Preachers fills a niche, and offers an answer, as well as an answer to the answer to the question above.

Olson, an Evangelical  convert to Roman Catholicism, is a former editor of the Catholic periodical Envoy and also free-lances for various other Catholic publications.  The book was written, in his own words because “the Rapture, and belief in the Rapture, is the heart of a unique and complex view of the Bible, the world, the Kingdom and Israel, and the end of Time” (p13) that is at odds with Catholic (and historical mainline Protestant) theology, and  is not to be taken as an isolated doctrine. That is why it is important to understand, and to critique, the rapture.

The book can be divided into two sections: part one  (chapters one through six) gives an introduction and history of the rapture and it’s surrounding theology; while part two (chapters 7-10) provides a critique of the same from Catholic principles. An introduction, glossary of names and of terms, notes, and a lengthy bibliography of primary sources pointing to further information on the topics covered in the book frame the work as a whole.

So, What’s In a Rapture…

In the introduction, Olson shares his own faith journey and interaction with Rapture theology, as well as his motives for writing “Will Catholics Be Left Behind”.  Chapter one brings us into the world of the Rapture and modern Bible prophecy movement, as well as summarizing the confusion that Catholics often display when presented with rapture teachings, Chapter two provides an overview of the recent popularity of “Left Behind” and other media treatments and begins to analyze the theology behind it, Then in chapters 3  we are introduced to the literalist method of scriptural interpretation as applied to both the Book of Revelation and the Prophets and the Bible as a whole, as well as a brief history of interpretation of the Book of Revelation through the centuries.

Chapters 4-6 bring the focus to the movements and personalities of this theology through the  twin lenses of Dispensationalist-Milllenarianism. Chapter 5 and 6 especially give a history of key movements -offering a brief overview of end-times teachings from the Church Fathers on up to the late twentieth century with special attention to British and American writers- and personalities -such as William Miller, John Nelson Darby, Cyrus Scofield (of the Scofield Reference Bible) Hal Lindsey, and Tim LaHaye (of the Left Behind series of apocalyptic novels)-, as well as  clarification of many terms used in teaching and commentaries -explaining the differences between pre-, post, and mid-tribulation; and pre-, post- and amillennialism.

With chapter 7, Olson begins the critique from Catholic principles, concentrating on what Olson says are the three main areas of disagreement between Dispenseationalists and other forms of Christianity: the relationship of Old Testament Israel and the Church (chapter 7), the interpretation of the Scripture (a literal-reading only approach versus a more nuanced understanding) and “Bible Prophecy” with its constant mandate  to match current world events with the events of “prophecy” as it relates to the End Times and its influence upon the believers who accept such views (chapter 8); and the Rapture itself -the notion of believers being caught up and removed from the world scene before the Second Coming (chapter 9).  He ends the book with a chapter giving the Catholic view of the end times (chapter 10).

In their own words

Although Olson himself as he admits, was raised in a Fundamentalist home in expectation of the Rapture, he draws very little upon personal experience in his critique, focusing instead on dispensationalists’ own writings as primary source material, on passages of disputed scripture, as well as documents from Vatican II, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and prominent theologians.

Obviously, Olson writes from the perspective of a committed Roman Catholic, but much of his criticism would be agreeable to Anglicans, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran and the other mainline Protestant churches.  His book is helpful in understanding the popularity of End Times fervor among our Evangelical and Fundamentalist brethren: sympathetic yet not afraid to point out fundamental errors in method and effect. At the same time, his reliance on written sources only without engaging in dialogue can come off as standoffish, which has never been his intention.

The book can appear to be more of a negative critique, than a real engagement with Rapture theology, especially when the final chapter is the sole location where the positive understanding of the End Times, from a Catholic perspective is put forward yet it is helpful to keep in mind that Olson is not writing a scholarly text, but a popular introduction for Catholics. One [Amazon] reviewer has criticized Olson for not including a discussion of Catholic ‘private revelation’ and Catholic ‘end times prophecies’ when giving the Catholic teaching of the End Times (1), but this shows a misunderstanding of the role of private revelation: private revelation is not to be construed as adding anything to doctrine -any such teaching does not belong to the Deposit of the Faith. but is only useful for confirming or illustrating teachings of the faith, and must not contain anything contrary to faith or good morals.(2)


  1.  “Catholic “Double-Talk” at it’s Finest”, accessed on 07/08/2012
  2.  “Private Revelation”, accessed on 07/08/2012

My next review will be Africa and the Bible, by Edwin Yamaguchi, so until then my friends, Keep Reading!