Purpose:

The Paroikos Bible Blog exists as a resource to those interested in Biblical studies and Koine Greek. It is hoped that this blog will simultaneously provide food-for-thought to the reader while pointing him or her in the direction of valuable resources, both in print and on the internet, that will further help his or her studies in the Word.

Sep 29, 2012

The Son of God . . . submits?! Pop culture vs. the Epistle to the Hebrews

Pop Culture and the "son of god"
Modern pop-culture contains plenty of narratives that are anti-God, not in the sense of being atheistic (within the story itself), but rather in the sense that they portray god/God as an antagonist. The literary example par excellence is, perhaps,  the immensely popular  His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman (the "anti-Lewis," if you will!), though other examples abound.

There is, however, a different motif I'd like to examine. Within pop culture, both modern and ancient, some narratives give us a "son of god" protagonist. Significantly, however, this "son of god" works independently of his father, frequently antagonistic towards him. Way back in Greek mythology we have various references to sons of the gods with Perseus, the son of Zeus, being one of the more significant. In the modern retelling of Perseus' adventures in Clash of the Titans (Warner Brothers/Legendary Pictures, 2010) and Wrath of the Titans (Warner Brothers/Legendary Pictures, 2012), the hero distances himself from the gods, refusing the offer to join them. At the beginning of Wrath of the Titans, it is revealed that Perseus refused to pray to Zeus or any other god even when his wife dies (and the gods lose their power when mortals cease to pray!) Zeus approaches an unsympathetic Perseus for help in a cosmic conflict, telling him, "You believe your human half makes you unworthy to join us. You will learn someday that being half-human makes you stronger than a god, not weaker." Perseus responds dismissively, "I think you should go."

In the extremely popular (and gratuitously violent) God of War games for the PS2 and 3 (Sony/SCE Santa Monica), protagonist Kratos learns that he is, in fact, the son of Zeus. Rather than a heart-felt reconciliation à la "Return of the Jedi," Kratos embarks upon a path of vengeance resulting in him killing his own father.

Other examples exist, but these are some of the more popular. My point is simply that pop culture's conception of a "son of god" frequently seems to consist of an independent will, often in opposition to its father (or at least one that works independently of the father).

Hebrews and the Son of God
Similar to how John 1:14 turns popular conceptions of the "Logos" (both Greek and Jewish) on its head, so also Hebrews 5:8 presents a radically different picture of who the "Son of God" is and what he does.  To being with, we do not have here a "half-human," as if the human side and the divine side could be measured independently from each other. Rather, we have here the "God-human in his divine-human unity" (McCormack, 66). Christ, though 100% human, is so linked to the Father that to oppose the Father would be to oppose his own essence, a logical absurdity.

More significantly for our purposes, however, we have the incredible statement in Heb 5:8 that the Son "learned obedience from what  he suffered." "Learned obedience?" How does the Son "learn obedience," and why?

In Clash of the Titans, we see Perseus starting from humble origins yet earning a place with the gods through heroic deeds (a place which he refuses). Here in Hebrews, however, we see Christ starting out with the highest position (the "express image" [kjv] of the Father, Gr. apaugasma, in 1:3; there is a parallel here in Wisdom of Solomon), yet voluntarily lowered to the experience of suffering and anguish in 5:7. Rather than the father coming to the son for help, here the Son cries out to the Father and is heard in his anguish. Suffering, then, is the path to exaltation. As Guthrie writes, "The dynamics ofthe situation are not what you would expect. Unlike an ancient prince, on whom positions were bestowed by lineage, this divine Son was called to walk a path of obedience through suffering" (190-191). Throughout all this the Son is not acting as a hero on his own, slaying monsters while the father or other gods sit by wringing their hands and hoping for a good outcome. Rather, the Son becomes the hero by submitting in "godly fear [Gr. eulabeia] expressed in the recognition of God's sovereignty and submission to the divine will" (Lane, 120).

The author of Hebrews is fully aware of the sense of irony pervading this theme. Up until now Hebrews has, after all, spent a lot of time portraying the Son as superior to everything and inherently worthy of honor and glory. The Son needs do nothing at all to earn his place at the Father's right hand. It is his by right! Nevertheless, as B. F. Westcott states,, "Though son and therefore endowed with right of access for Himself to the Father, being of one essence with the Father, for man's sake as man he won the right of access for humanity" (128). Yet all this is done not in opposition to the Father, as if the Son somehow had humanity's best interests while the Father did not! Rather, mankind's salvation is won only in submission to the Father.

Yet how, then, does the Son "learn" obedience? Surely he was no stranger to that aspect of his relationship with the Father. Westcott points out this oddity by aptly noting that "the nature of Christ's Sonship at first sight seems to exclude the thought that He should learn obedience through suffering" (128; see also Lane, 121). Yet we must not think of "learning" here in a strictly intellectual sense, i.e., the gaining of new knowledge. Instead, "learning" here is experiential; the Son "graduates" from "the school of suffering" and accomplishes the divine goal (Guthrie, 191). Indeed, he "entered into a new dimension in the experience of sonship by virtue of his incarnation and sacrificial death" (Lane, 121).

Clearly the Son was always "on board" with the Father's will. Yet something new happens at the cross--in Heb 5:9 the Son experiences perfection/completion (remember, the Greek here can mean either) of the Father's will through submission to the divine plan. The concept of "perfection" (or "completion") in 5:9 does not mean that the Son was not already perfect (either morally or otherwise), but rather that he now experiences completion of the Father's purpose through his suffering.

It is only through submission, then, that the story has a happy ending. An antagonistic or independent son cannot save humanity. Rather, Christ's new position as a priest "after the order of Melchizedek" comes from having submitted himself to the Father's will. Suffering, rejection (even by the Father!), and death ensues. Yet in the end, it is the Father Himself who refuses to leave his obedient Son's body to suffer corruption; he hears the Son's cries and exalts him. Glorious freedom for all humanity is thus not gained through opposition to the Creator, but paradoxically through submission to the Creator.

Practical application
What, then, does this have to do with us? The fact is, we too often follow the model of Perseus rather than Christ. Despite paying lip service to our status as children of God, in daily practice we coldly tell him to leave us alone, that we're quite okay on our own. When trials arise, we often fail to embrace them as part of the divine plan and prefer to either attempt to weather them through our own strength or lash out at the One who brought them. With W. Henley in "Invictus," we declare, "I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul." Unconsciously spurred on by humanistic views (helped, perhaps, by an obsession with political liberty and so-called "rights"), we delude ourselves into thinking that "freedom" stems from the personal liberty to pursue our own dreams, to chose our own paths. In doing so, like Perseus, we give God the cold shoulder.

Jesus offers us a better way. Demoted from his exalted status, which was his by right, he marries his will completely to that of the Father. All throughout the Gospels it was the Father's will, over his own, that was of paramount concern (e.g., Luke 22:42). In his greatest hour of suffering, he demonstrates obedience to the most extreme degree possible and consequently emerges victorious.

How, then, can we fail to follow Christ's example? Experiencing obedience in the manner of Christ marks us out as children of God. True happiness ultimately stems from allowing the Creator's desires to shape our own, even in the midst of grief; true freedom emerges from our service to the King and to others. Our own desires, our own habits, our own plans for the future, all these must be allowed to become subservient to the Father's will. There is no room in the Christian life for two masters.

Modern pop culture tends to promote a concept of humanistic Independence, the idea that I have the right to choose my own path and "follow my own heart." Humanity throws off its "bonds" and rises against  the "tyranny" of divine rule (Psalm 2). In contrast, Christ submits to the Father and purchases freedom for an enslaved world. Let's choose to follow the example of our Redeemer and submit to the Father's will; to him be glory both now and forever, amen!


Bibliography

1. Guthrie, George H. Hebrews. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids,
Mich. Zondervan, 1998.

2. Lane, William L. Hebrews 1-8. Word Biblical Commentary 47A. Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 1991.

3. McCormack, Bruce L. "'With Loud Cries and Tears': The Humanity of the Son in the Epistle to the Hebrews." Pages 37-68 in The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology. Eds. Richard Bauckham, Daniel R. Driver, Trevor A. Hart, and Nathan MacDonald. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2009.

4. Westcott, Brooke Foss. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1951.

Sep 8, 2012

Some Quick Thoughts on Book Reviews

Book reviews have been a staple part of literature, both popular and academic, for quite some time. Ideally, a book review provides the consumer with an informed opinion that helps one decide whether or not to buy a book. In some cases in academia, a reviewer may even enter into dialogue with the book and advance scholarship on a certain issue (occasionally a scholar, when critiquing another author's position, will cite book reviews of the other author's works).

Yet a recent article by New York Times writer David Streitfeld indicates that quite often this is not the case. In his article "The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy" (online: http://finance.yahoo.com/news/best-book-reviews-money-buy-131408538.html?page=1 accessed 9/5/2012), Streitfeld tells the story of a certain Mr. Rutherford who had a revelation regarding book reviews. While initially working in marketing attempting to get others to review his clients' books, he recognized the potential for a whole new business model; Streitfeld writes, "Suddenly it hit him [Rutherford]. Instead of trying to cajole others to review a client's work, why not cut out the middleman and write the review himself? Then it would say exactly what the client wanted . . ." By 2010 Rutherford had his own website and was offering various pricing options ($99 for one review, $499 for 20 reviews, etc.). Eventually, Rutherford was making almost $30,000 dollars a month!

Streitfeld further narrates how Rutherford began hiring other reviewers to work for him. One such reviewer admitted in an interview that for a simple 50-word review, the reviewer didn't even need to actually read the book. She could find enough information on the internet to write a glowing report! For a 300-word review, a mere 15 minutes was all that was necessary.

Apparently Rutherford's company's reviews were not the only ones of their kind. Streitfeld quotes Bing Liu (from the University of Illinois) stating that "about one-third of all consumer reviews on the internet are fake." In Streitfeld's article, this seems to be linked both to the perception that a 5-star review is necessary for a book to sell well and to human nature itself.  Elsewhere, Streitfeld cites Stanford professor Robert Sutton, who makes the following observations: "Nearly all human beings have unrealistically positive self-regard. When people tell us we're not as great as we thought we were, we don't like it. Anything less than a five-star review is an attack" (emphasis added). Sadly, I think this is a generally accurate analysis of human nature.

The result, as Streitfeld notes in his article, is that often reviews have come to resemble the endorsements that one reads on the cover of a book, rather than actual reviews.  (There is, of course, the complete opposite problem: an entirely negative review stemming from issues unrelated to the book itself [e.g., "I know that this author is a Calvinist/Arminian/Calvaminian-hypochondriac, so anything he or she writes must be downright heresy!!"] It's not only the 5-star reviews that are sometimes suspect but the 1-star ones as well!)

While I am fairly certain that Biblical studies does not suffer from the same problem described above (at least not to the same extent), this still raises a few issues that I wish to address. To begin with, why do we write book reviews in the first place? Secondly, what should a book review actually provide the reader?

Of course, there will never be a totally objective way to analyze books. All of us have our presuppositions going into a book and those probably won't change. Thus two intelligent scholars may both review the same book and come away with differing conclusions. For example, within the past year or two both Stanley E. Porter (JETS 53.4) and Robert W. Yarbrough (BBR 21.1) have reviewed Daniel Wallace's Granville Sharp's Canon and its Kin, the former negatively and the latter positively. Now, both writers are intelligent, published New Testament scholars. I happen to very strongly disagree with Dr. Porter's review (and have already defended Dr. Wallace some time ago on this blog), but the fact remains that Dr. Porter clearly read the book, and his review is thus an intelligent opinion on the content of the book, not an attack against Dr. Wallace himself. Furthermore, he tries to fairly represent Dr. Wallace.  Likewise, Dr. Yarbrough's review is a critical review, not a marketing endorsement. Both of these reviews, then, are true reviews, yet this illustrates that good people can disagree on certain issues, that some subjectivity exists.

A book review, then, should be a thorough, intelligently expressed summary and opinion (I use "thorough" in the sense of "the author actually read the book and does not omit discussing key portions of it" rather than regarding length per se; a 1-page review may be more thorough than a 2-page review in that sense). Since a review should, ideally, help in determining whether or not I want to actually spend money on this book (either as an individual or as an institution), the review should provide me with, at minimum, two key pieces of information: 1. What the book is about, and 2. what the book's focus and limitations are.

Regarding the first, a review should summarize the content of a book with accuracy. This means that a reviewer should actually have read the book (duh!). If I'm considering buying a new book on the theology of the Apostle Paul, for example, I want to know what areas the book focuses on, what (if any) space is devoted to the apostle's life and conversion, what chapters deal with the New Perspective,  etc. I also want to know where the author is coming from. Is he or she Roman Catholic? Liberal? Protestant? Hyper-Covenantal-Pentecostal-Post-Tribulationist? Are there certain obvious theological presuppositions that the author holds? (this last point would be especially important if I were teaching a college-level class for a particular denomination or theological tradition).

As for the second point, I want the author's intelligent opinion on the content. I may or may not agree with the reviewer, but at least I should be treated to a well thought-out analysis of the contents of the book. Ideally, a critical thinker reviewing a book should be able to recognize strong portions of a book he or she disagrees with as well as weak portions of a book he or she agrees with. Furthermore, if the book omits key material, I want to know about it before I buy it. A book on Pauline theology that fails to discuss justification would be severely handicapped, and I probably would not be interested in adding that to my library. Conversely, a statement like "author Josephine Johnson's treatment on the use of second temple literature in the General Epistles is nearly unparalleled" would definitely make me sit up, take notice, and possibly make a bee-line to Amazon.com (if, in fact, we can make "bee-lines" while traversing the internet). Finally, the author should qualify what  the book is useful for. A book on Hebrew poetic structure in Genesis would probably be a poor choice for an "OT Survey class" for college freshmen but may be quite appropriate for a doctoral class on Hebrew exegesis.

Let me close by pointing the reader to a book review in an academic journal that, in my opinion, gets it right. Granted, I'm a bit positively biased towards the author here, because he's a former college classmate of mine back in the late 90s and early 2000s, so keep that in mind (although I'm still a bit jealous he got higher grades than me and finished his doctorate first . . . :)!
(for the record, I don't think a book review needs to be in a peer-reviewed academic journal to be valuable. I've read quite a few reviews on personal blogs, etc. and have benefited from them. One of my friend's blogs pretty much focuses exclusively on book reviews as well as linking  the reader to other reviews, author interviews, etc. [see the blog roll])

A test case. Kevin W. McFadden, "Review of Romans by Craig S. Keener," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society vol. 53.2 (June 2010): pp. 407-409.

My old friend Kevin McFadden reviews Craig Keener's commentary on Romans in the New Covenant Commentary series (Eugene, Oreg.: Cascade, 2009). The review is approximately 2 pages long. It's a bit different than standard reviews in that there's less summary of the content simply because the book is a commentary (after all what, how can you summarize a book that's going chapter by chapter through another book? "In chapter 1, Keener covers Romans 1. In chapter 2, Keener covers Romans 2 . . ." and so forth ad nauseum)

McFadden does, however, point the reader to specific areas of Keener's commentary that may differ from other commentaries. Furthermore, he clearly discusses many of Keener's positions on key points in Romans (e.g., Keener's view of the purpose of Romans, the nature of God's righteousness, various New Perspective issues, etc.)

While McFadden's review is mostly positive, it is nevertheless a critical, well thought-out review. When he likes something Keener does, he tells us why. Conversely, when he thinks Keener's work falls short, he also tells us why. Thus I am informed what the strengths and weaknesses are of this particular commentary, in McFadden's view (if you want to know, read the review for yourself! Or better yet, read the commentary). Also, I am informed by McFadden that the book "In general, . . . accomplishes the goals of the author and the series" and also that "it is amazingly concise for a letter as long as Romans." More importantly, however, McFadden tells me that the commentary "will be understood by a general audience, although in some cases readers may be confused by technical terms . . ." (this is an absolutely essential observation for this kind of a review, and one that may very well determine whether or not I would use this book for a class).

In conclusion, from a good book review such as McFadden's, I glean the following:
1. what the book is about, 2. the views of the author on key issues, 3. the strengths of the book, 4. the limitations and/or weaknesses of the book, and 5. the suitable audience for the book. When those points are covered, I generally have enough information as to whether or not I would wish to purchase this book or suggest it for class reading. In contrast, a poorly written review could conceivably cause me to waste my money (hey, theological works aren't cheap!) The bottom line, once again, is that a book review is neither a song of praise nor a spiteful attack, but an opinionated summary and analysis.

With special thanks to all my professors that forced me to write book reviews for a class!