Tag Archives: book review

Book review: Paul Among the People, Sarah Ruden

Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time, Sarah Ruden

Paul is, as Sarah Ruden rightly points out, a misunderstood, misinterpreted, and widely disliked author – and one who is generally regarded as, at least, down on women, sex, and fun. Ruden does a good job of arguing that much of this is misunderstanding, brought on chiefly by a complete lack of contact between people who study the Bible in Greek and people who study other Greek texts written at around the same time. Ruden, having started out as a Classicist reading material from the polytheistic Greeks and Romans, is in a good position to bridge this gap by bringing her knowledge of the classical languages and cultures to bear on Paul’s writings.

In fact, in this slim volume that’s most of what she does. It’s often effective, sometimes shocking, and often challenges accepted views of the Greek world as well as common views of Paul. For example, she challenges the view of the Greek world as a “gay idyll”, arguing that reading Plato but not other texts, less philosophical and perhaps closer to reality, has given a misleading picture (p58). On the one hand, I’m a bit sad to see this picture torn down, because a picture of a society in which sexuality is viewed very differently is a useful one in all kinds of ways. On the other hand, my feminism survived the destruction of the myth of a matriarchal past, and these pictures can be useful even when known to be fictional.

In quoting extensively from classical texts and trying to offer a more accurate picture of what Paul was saying, Ruden uses blunt and modern translations which do not shy away from sexually and other explicit language – which is, I’m sure, to the benefit of the translation. It’s easy to see why people might not want to read this in church – but also easy to see an argument that this is because some of them have a mistaken, overly prettified, view of what is acceptable in church. I found her section on Galatians 5, one of the rare cases in which she takes on the King James Version directly, especially interesting. She offers transliterations of the Greek words in cases where no suitable translation is available, and goes to some lengths to point out how far from that worldview we are now. (She attributes much of the change to Paul – and I’m sure he had a big influence, although I can think of some other possible candidates as well.)

One drawback I found in Ruden’s writing style was a tendency to make her point, and offer her evidence – and then move on to the next point, without wrapping up neatly and restating the conclusion. Sometimes this worked well, and at other times I found myself going back to the beginning of a section to read it again and understand properly how this evidence support that point. However, I didn’t find points which weren’t supported by anything at all – and many of the points she makes suggest that readings of Paul should change a long way from those currently accepted in the traditions of Biblical interpretation (mostly ‘ordinary’ or folkloric) which I encounter most often.

I didn’t come away from the book as converted to Paul-following as Ruden obviously is. (I think that would be difficult to achieve anyway.) I still find writing attributed to Paul, and some probably genuinely by Paul, used as ‘clobber passages’ or turning out to be ‘texts of terror’. However, Ruden is doing her bit to change misinterpretations, and filling out Paul’s context with suitable Greek and Roman material is obviously a helpful step in that direction.

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Book review: Jesus for the Non-Religious, John Shelby Spong

(Amazon; Bookfinder)

This book is basically an overview of John Shelby Spong’s view of what Christianity should be. In the first part of the book he spends a long time breaking down why traditional or literal Christianity is no longer believable, and looking at the historical circumstances of the writing of the Gospels. The upshot of this is that he ditches miracles, supernatural stuff generally, and a lot of historical claims (not all – he offers a clear explanation for his acceptance that there was a historical Jesus, about whom we know very little but more than nothing). He expects his audience to be upset about this, and he often offers reassuring asides or encouragements to hear him out. I found these unnecessary because I wasn’t upset, but I accept that I may not be his intended audience.

In the second part of the book, he looks at the stories we have about Jesus in the context of the first-century synagogues in which they were (he argues) created. Throughout the first part of the book, he was constantly relating stories about Jesus to stories from the Hebrew Bible – mainly as evidence that they are stories, recurring motifs borrowed from elsewhere, rather than history. In this second part, he builds on this awareness of the Jewish origins of Christianity, and describes very clearly how the synoptic Gospels can be understood as liturgical texts within the context of the Jewish calendar. I’ve heard of this theory before, but found Spong’s presentation of it both clear and convincing.

The third part of the book, meant to be a discussion of the core of Christianity as Spong understands it, felt a little weak in comparison with the foregoing. It’s slightly less carefully argued. Some of the concerns about historicity are dropped before the reader has fully understood why they are no longer relevant – Spong’s point is actually that the stories are spiritually true rather than historical, and that if we understand them as non-literal attempts to share the heart of the Jesus experience, rather than the facts of the life of Jesus, we can learn a lot from them. He does make this explicit, but I think it would have been better said slightly sooner. He also – and this is interesting in light of my previous post – uses the term ‘theist’ not for all God-belief, but for the kind of God-belief he doesn’t like (external, interventionist, supernatural, patriarchal, paternal). I found the explanation of how theism came to exist, which is framed in terms of evolutionary psychology, less than helpful – to do it in this space, or, I fear, at all, one must generalise so much that it becomes almost meaningless. Rather than trying to go back in evolutionary time, and falling into some of the same problems which Freud encountered in Moses and Monotheism, it would be enough to point out that now and in recorded history people have experienced self-conciousness, fear of death, and a desire to survive even at the cost of other lives. It’s probably safe to assume that the human condition is known to your readers, and skip the bit about it dawning on prehistoric people – although I suppose it does serve to demonstrate that Spong fully accepts evolution as an explanation of our existence.

Spong is, then, a non-theist (under his own understanding of theism) and a Christian. In particular, he is a Christian in that he takes the character and story of Jesus to be primary. The message which he derives from the Jesus story, and which he wants to detach from unhelpful baggage and express in modern terms, is that we come into the life of God when we are fully human. When we drop tribalism, prejudice, and boundaries between people, we can “step into a humanity that opens to all people the meaning of life and thus the meaning of God” (p247).

Overall, I found this a good read – it’s dense but clear, and contains a lot of material, especially in the first part. For people who are interested in whether/how Christianity can reform itself into something for today and tomorrow, it’s got a lot to offer. For those who are interested in the history of Christianity and the relationship of the New Testament texts to the Hebrew Bible, this book lays out one common and scholarly approach in an accessible way. Those who have already made many of Spong’s early moves, such as rejecting a supernaturalist reading of the New Testament and embracing a more poetic approach, might find some of this disappointing in that it covers old ground, but also reassuring and at times illuminating of details. In particular, Spong’s positioning of the Jesus story as a continuation of the Elijah/Elisha and Isaiah/Zachariah stories, and his continued and respectful attention to Judaism, are helpful.

Book Review: Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World, Philip A. Shaw

Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World: Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of Matrons, Philip A. Shaw

Although obviously of interest to many modern Pagans, this book is basically an academic one, focussed on historical and linguistic evidence. For those of us who, aware of the scholarly community but not following every detail of every debate, have been cheerfully answering the claim that “Easter is named after the pagan goddess Eostre” with “but Bede probably invented her”, this book is something of a wake-up call. In particular, Shaw argues that Eostre was probably neither a “pan-Germanic goddess” nor an “etymological fancy”, but a local goddess with a name linked to the name of a social group. Her name was indeed, he suggests, taken up as the name of a month and then later transferred to the Christian festival.

In order to support this argument, he makes two main moves: the first is to look at the names of matrons, where we know them from inscriptions. It transpires that several groups of matrons, such as the Austriahenae, had names linked to people (individuals or groups) or geographical locations. The second is to undermine the pervasive idea that pagan deities all have some function or area of expertise, such as ‘dawn’ or ‘spring’. Not only can these functions not be deduced from names, even in every cases where they may have existed, but many deities of social groups may not even have had such ‘functions’ in the first place.

The first argument, and the linguistic evidence which goes along with it, will be of interest to Pagans interested in worshipping Eostre (his conclusions about Hreda, because of the nature of the evidence, are so relatively thin that I struggle to see how they will be thealogically interesting to anyone – but I would welcome being corrected on this point!). For example, if he is right to conjecture that Eostre was originally a Kentish deity, this might have implications for her worship today.

I think that the second argument, though, has a much wider applicability – a lot of Pagans today work with the ‘function’ model of polytheistic deities. Sometimes this is justified by original sources which discuss deities in this way; obviously there are, for example, Roman deities who have always been conceptualised as ‘God/dess of x’ (e.g.: the dawn, apple trees, war, knowledge). At other times it sort of works but becomes extremely confused or limiting, especially when a single deity collects hundreds of functions. Philip Shaw’s book makes it clear, though, that there are also times when it doesn’t work at all. To make sense of Eostre in light of the linguistic evidence, it is necessary to let go of claims about her functions (even if they can’t be removed from the modern reconstructions), and focus on her relationships to places and people.

WW1 resources: ‘Watford’s Quiet Heroes’ and ‘Conscience’

Lots of people are talking about World War 1 at the moment, with anniversaries of things rolling around all the time. Quakers are no exception, and some of the Quakers stories from that time, especially of Conscientious Objectors, deserve to be better known. To that end, lots of resources are being produced, and I want to review two of them here.

Watford’s Quiet Heroes is a 30-minute film which tells the stories of three men from Watford who refused to fight. It’s aimed at 11+ and intended to be accessible for use in schools, but also makes good viewing for adults. Each story is told straightforwardly and with a sensible balance of archive material and modern links and reconstructions. (Disclaimer: I was involved in a very minor way in the archive research and am credited.) For those who know Watford, the combinations of archive photographs and modern images are perhaps particularly striking – the ‘I go along there all the time’ effect – but the contrast between old and new, and the link to the past created by the combination, should be equally effective if you don’t know the area.

I was particularly struck by the varied attitudes taken by the tribunals to people claiming to be COs, and by the clear description of conflict between positions taken by the armed forces and by the government of the time.

Conscience is one of two school resource packs put out by Quaker Peace and Social Witness. Conviction is aimed at 11-16s, and Conscience at younger children – so when I had a chance to try it out with my Brownies, girls aged 7 to 10, I thought we’d give Conscience a whirl. We only had one evening, and spent a bit over an hour on the material, so left quite a lot out. As befits a school-focused resource, it had lots of written activities which didn’t fit well into a Brownie meeting – I reworked these so that we did more moving about and talking. For example, we began with a game (based on ways of doing a true-or-false quiz) in which I asked girls questions like “Would you help someone?” and “Would you hurt someone?” and they moved around the room to indicate their answers – “I would” at one end and “I wouldn’t” at the other, with plenty of room for doubt in the middle and no penalties for changing your mind as we discussed things. (Questions like ‘would you hit someone?’ tended to get lots of ‘no, never’ to begin with and then lots of ‘sometimes’ as we thought about really irritating siblings, people who bullied you, and they reflected more honestly on their behaviour.)

We also talked about who helps you make moral choices and the stories of Albert French and Howard Marten. A lot of girls struggled with the idea that Marten didn’t refuse to fight because he was afraid to die – because they’d be afraid to fight, I think – but the fact that he was sentenced to death and didn’t change his mind helped to clarify that. It’s a feature of Marten’s story which makes it especially useful for this kind of discussion.

Overall, I hope both resources will be taken up widely. The DVD in particular would be good for a wide range of audiences, not only schools, and although Conscience and Conviction look easy to use in a school setting a small amount of tweaking for your group would make them accessible to lots of youth groups, including children’s meetings.

Book Review: Emma Percy, ‘What Clergy Do: Especially when it looks like nothing’

(Amazon link) (SPCK, 2014)

I picked this book up at the Modern Church conference last week where I heard Emma Percy speak. The book riffs off Naomi Stadlen’s book ‘What Mothers Do: Especially when it looks like nothing’, and is focussed around the mothering/clergy analogy. In her talk, Percy mainly used breastfeeding as the image; in the book, she uses mothering children at all ages, from breastfeeding through weaning to the teenage years, to consider all the complexities of parish work.

It’s always welcome when an author writes down something you’ve been saying for years. There are a couple of examples in this book of things I’ve been saying for year: one, which I think is applicable to all sorts of groups who don’t have clergy, is about outreach. ‘Mission’, as the church tends to term it, is often treated in a very reductive way, to ‘bums on pews’, but as Percy writes in this book, “growth is not easy to measure according to neat numerical scales” (p157).

I feel like I’ve had this conversation with Quakers over and over. We ran Quaker Quest, or some other outreach thing, and all anyone wants to know is, ‘Did any of them come on Sunday?’ Well, who cares. If people came to an event – a few people, people we already knew, people we never see again – and they learnt something, even if that thing was ‘Quakerism isn’t for me, actually’, isn’t that a success?

Linked to this point is the broader one, touched on in previous posts here, about not getting too worried about numbers. Much of the work which clergy do, much of what needs doing in a community or a family, cannot be expressed in numbers or targets achieved. Like the crafter who needs a big supply of ‘nothing’ in order to make ‘something from nothing’, much of what keeps us busy in building our communities will be ‘nothing’ from the point of view of the to-do list. ‘Had a cup of tea and a chat’ doesn’t tick off many boxes, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. If anything, we may need to find new language for these tasks so that we can explain to the tick-box people (or the tick-box focussed sides of our own minds) why we are bothering.

That said, I’m well aware that I’m terrible at this. I can’t remember people’s names, I lose track if I don’t speak to someone for a week or two, they can’t remember me and ask ‘so are you a student?’ fifteen times in a row, I get annoyed and walk out before tea and biscuits, etc. From that perspective, I found this book really useful, both as a reminder that those things are important, and a reassurance that even those people who are good at this stuff learn it and put effort into maintaining it. Like motherhood, pastoral and spiritual care are skills, not instincts, and anyone can get better at them.