What Are You Reading and Why?

We regularly ask our readers to submit annotated reviews of the good books they’re reading—on any topic whatsoever, and whether the books are newly-published or golden oldies.

Preaching as Weeping, Confession and Resistance

Christine Smith, Westminster/JohnKnox, 1992

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Smith writes from the perspective that preaching is an interpretation of our present world and an invitation to a profoundly different world.  Preaching is a form of weeping in a universe filled with human suffering and oppression; it is a form of oppression where the preacher can call on communities into painful and honest confession, and it is a form of resistance, moving people to actively resist the attitudes and structures of oppression, of ‘isms’.  Smith sees three worlds that converge in the act of preaching; the world of the text, the world of the preacher and community where proclamation occur, and the larger social context in which we live out our faith.  Preaching is a theological act (mediating biblical perspectives) as well as an act of naming.  Smith’s three descriptions of preaching are those of weeping, confession and resistance (the Christian response to the real world).

        Smith identifies six areas of redemptive activity (handicappism, ageism, sexism, heterosexism, racism and classism).  Each of the chapters names a type of violence; describes her experience that moved her to passionate feeling; identifying the realities of our social and political life; adding a sermon on the particular issue (eg women standing at the cross, ‘Standing at a Distance’, Good Friday, Luke 23:44-49).  Smith’s close fellowship ecumenically, especially with Latin American struggles, adds powerful perspective to her presentations; it is a book that will bring preaching into a new partnership with the congregation.

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.

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Preaching in the New Creation

David Jacobsen, Westminster John Knox, 1999

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        We live in apocalyptic times, with a sense that an age is ending and a new one breaking forth.  Jacobsen provides methodology for preaching apocalyptic texts, starting with a definition.  ‘Apocalypticism is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which envisages eschatological salvation, invoking another supernatural world intended to interpret present earthly circumstances’ (p 6).  Jacobsen points out the ways in which a throne room imagery is common to both Hebrew bible imagery and the Christian literature, the new testament; all the  throne room scenes begin with the throne, move to the heavenly court and end with the commission (eg Revelation 5) (p 80ff).

        The symbolic language offers a vision, a symbolic inversion, capable of evoking not just a different image but a different social world and a different way of engaging the old one’ (p 89).  ‘Symbols are not interested in mediating information but in altering perception, as we live out in our lives the claims of colliding worlds…. John the Seer uses these symbols in order to encourage a praise of resistance among his hearers’ (p 89).

        Thus the throne room scene invites us to think of ways of maintaining or perpetuating the alternative reality that is John’s vision:  the tension between our own cultural messianic longings and the mystery of the Christ crucified, ‘to find places of tension where worlds collide and discern ways in which we can confirm the life the gospel offers us in the world, establishing the claims of competing symbolic worlds. (p 90). Read more ›

Paul: the Pagans’ Apostle

Paula Fredriksen, Yale University Press, 2017

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Paul’s letters concentrate on two ancient worlds, one Jewish, one pagan.  The first is incandescent with apocalyptic hopes, expecting G-d through his messiah to fulfill his ancient promises of redemption to Israel.  The second teems with human and divine actors, with superhuman forces and hostile cosmic gods. Fredrikson clearly outlines Paul’s situation within the social/cultural content of gods and humans, pagans and Jews, cities, synagogues and competing Christ-following assemblies, with particular attention to Paul’s letter to the Roman church. 

        Central to Pauline thought is his conviction that the kingdom of G-d is at hand, his firm belief that he lived in ‘history’s final hour’ is absolutely foundational, shaping everything Paul says and does. This vivid apocalyptic expectation unites the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth with the resurrection experience of his early followers, and accounts for their decision to spread Jesus’ message of the coming kingdom outside of the homeland to Israel within the Diaspora (p 167).  It also explains their incorporation of pagan god fearers into this new charismatic assembly (the promise of the biblical theme of Gentile inclusion in Jewish End-time traditions, the inclusion of Gentiles as a natural extension of its mission to other Jews).

        Fredriksen does careful cultural and linguistic analysis of terms and categories; calling Jesus ’Lord’ does not attest to unique divinity; it functions as an eschatological-messianic designation, not as a theistic identification (p 238).  ‘Divinity is an extremely flexible category in Mediterranean antiquity and it is applied to humans as well as to superhumans’ (p 241). Read more ›

Gospel Medicine & When G-d is Silent

Barbara Brown Taylor, Cowley Publications, 1995; Barbara Brown Taylor, Cowley Publications, 1998

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Gospel Medicine is a collection of brief meditations on biblical texts, on 26 meditations that tough on a wide spectrum of biblical stories.  All warrant attention in Taylor’s inimitable fashion:  Jacobs wrestling bout (Genesis 32), the ascension of Jesus (Acts 1:9),  the Silence of G-d (Isaiah 58:6,7).

        I was particularly moved by ‘The First Breakfast’, where Jesus meets the seven of his disciples post-resurrection (John 21:2,3).  ‘We are much better at beginnings; we are not so good at endings (p 84).  Jesus is not serving supper this time—that was the last meal of their old life together.  This is the first meal of their new life together (p 87).  Evocative imagery!  ‘There is a voice that can turn all our dead ends into new beginnings.  ‘Come,’ that voice says, ‘and have breakfast’ (p 88).’

        When G-d is Silent looks at religious language, especially at the role of proclamation:  the sermon.  Religious language is communal property, shared language about G-d which includes biblical narratives, creeds, liturgies, theologies, popular piety and folklore (p x).  ‘The problem is how to call people to the table with the language at hand’ (p xi), a language not unambiguous. Read more ›

Imagining the Small Church: Celebrating a simpler Path

Steve Willis, Alban Institute, 2012

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Willis identifies the small church as one with an average worship attendance of 100 or fewer; his denomination has about 10,500 congregations, of which about 7000 are small churches; these are the congregations he has served in his 30-years of pastoral experience, bearing witness to what has seen G-d doing in small churches.  ‘This book boasts no ten or fifteen steps to a successful small church, but encourages the reader to give up on steps altogether—and to see with new eyes the joys and pleasures of living small and sustainably. And what they see are love, belonging and faithfulness’ (p xiii).

        Willis develops the concepts of central and peripheral culture (p 4).  This is not simply a division between urban and rural; large populations of marginalized communities also reside in urban centres. Churches live and minister in these different cultures.  Often the central culture is simply seen to be the way in which things work and that voices at the periphery are not measuring up.  When central-cultural church power fails to respect the differences and imposes itself on small peripheral churches, it causes damage to these congregations (p 6).  As mainline Protestantism has lost power and influence, many congregations are struggling to adapt to the change from being at the centre to being at the periphery.  It’s ironic that some dominant church leaders complain about the way their churches are being mistreated by the changing culture, and they turn around and misuse their power and influence within the church family (p 7).

        This is a wonderful treatment of church growth theory.  For those on the periphery, adjusting to smaller scale and diminishing budgets, it’s a reminder of a simplicity that echoes Jesus’ own teachings and practices. We need not look for the culture’s approval but tend to the people and places right in front of us. And a new application of love emerges (p 97). Read more ›