The Pastoral Problem with Theological Statements

With the recent (ill-timed, it would seem) release of a theological declaration regarding human sexuality, signed by the likes of J.I. Packer and D.A. Carson and folks from their respective camps (British evangelicals and Gospel Coalition American Calvinists), the Christian news sources have been all a-flutter along the same lines that they tend to be with all these such statements and all these such discussions. The (broadly speaking) traditionalist Right* has made the typical claim that they feel adequately communicates their historic orthodoxy, while the (broadly speaking) progressive Left* has responded in typical outrage and frustration, even crafting a reflective statement of their own (courtesy of Nadia Bolz-Weber). *Left/Right, notably, are horrible terms to use when speaking of theology.

Prof. Wesley Hill, a celibate gay Christian, wrote this provocative tweet earlier today on the topic (“this” referring to Bolz-Weber’s statement, and “its counterpart” referring to the original statement):

Why are such Theological Statements so alienating? The “Right” thinks that by drafting a statement they can clear up typical traditional views on sexuality; the “Left” thinks that by counterdrafting a statement they, too, can clear up their views. Surely clarity is not a problem, right? Yet my sense is that both crowds are perpetuating a poor theology of the pastoral role and revealing, as a consequence, a disconnect between their theologies of ministry and the real practice of it.

I have recently accepted the role as pastor of a small church in downstate Illinois. Along the way, I have been learning a lot about the role and purpose of a pastor in leading a flock. One thing you learn as a pastor is that the topic of Sin is never “in theory.” Sin is, ultimately, always practical.

It is one thing to preach through the dangers of Sin (something I have actually just done), how it creates real dissonance in our relationship with God, with others, and with the world. But it is another thing altogether to counsel people whose Sin has begun unravelling the very basic frameworks of their lives. As a pastor you’ll meet people whose addictions to gambling have wasted away their life-savings, people whose lusts have destroyed their marriages, people whose rage has caused incalculable harm to their children. Sin, in the pastoral mindset, is a real thing that manifests in person-to-person relationships.

What gets complicated, of course, is that most Sin does not manifest in an obvious way. Pastoral ministry is involved in discipling those who have gambling addictions, true; but it is more often about leading people who are struggling to forgive, people who are struggling to be generous, people who are struggling, in short, to love. Most Sins that we, as Christians, wrestle with are not the “A-list” of “struggles”: Lust, Rage, and Pride. More typically, we wrestle with Greed, Gluttony, Laziness, and Envy, and, just as typically, we normalize those Sins. We laugh and say, “Man, I’m jealous of you,” not even realizing that such jealousy is literally against the Tenth Commandment!

As a result, the pastor’s work in discipling his or her flock regarding Sin is a work of little-by-little in-the-moment leadership. For me, it is sitting down with the congregant who is having trouble adjusting to our “new-and-updated music,” and lead her in a conversation about the mission of the church to reach our community. This kind of discipleship is not in the terms of “Your continued clinging to old ways is sinful; get with the program.” Instead, it is in the terms of “I believe Jesus is calling you to set aside these old ways you’re clinging to; here’s some vision why Jesus would be calling you to this.” Pastoral ministry is a lot like how Leo Tolstoy wrote novels: defamiliarizing Sin so we can see how it really works.

In short, the pastoral work of discipleship is almost never in theoretical Yes and No; it is always rooted in the practical, personal, reality of a relationship. It is grounded in the unique contours of an individual’s life.

 

And this is the pastoral problem with these Theological Statements: they prescribe absolutes upon a matter of pastoral ministry, almost as if it these statements don’t understand that marriage (and premarital counseling) is one of the most sacred pastoral duties and almost never subject to absolutes.

I had a woman come in today who wants to be married to a man held at our local correctional facility, and I told her that I would gladly do their premarital counseling, but that I could not guarantee that I would marry them. Why? Because premarital counseling will inevitably reveal certain indicators of whether or not they will have a healthy marriage, and it is the pastor’s sacred role to discern that. There is no Nashville (or Denver!) Statement for this kind of discernment. Some evangelical bigwigs could write “For those getting married in prison, we say Do Not Marry those who are in there in X, Y, Z situations” and some mainline bigwigs could counter-write “Do Marry those who are in there in X, Y, Z situations” and that will never run the gamut of complex discipleship situations in which the premarital counseling pastor finds his or herself.

What if I discover that there is some major relational dysfunction? Or what if I discover a spiritual problem that will eventually spiral out-of-control? Worse yet: our premarital counselors told us about a husband who games all day and all night and never spends time with his wife. Were I the pastor and knew about this commitment I would have officiated his marriage to the Xbox, not to a woman who needs love and affection. What if there is something very “typical” happening in their relationship (like the love of video games) that I can sense will become a destructive idol?

Pastoral discernment is a “grounds-up” matter, not a “top-down” matter. The making of blanket Theological Statements belies the truth of pastoral ministry. The work of a pastor does not operate from the level of ideology, but from the level of the people in which our ministry happens. Sure, we ought to be well-thought pastor-theologians whose practical ministry is the natural outworking of theological claims; but, even then, there are always situations that inevitably make our theological work more complicated. We are always contextualizing that theology in the normal, natural, practical space of relationship with our parishioners.

 

“But what about real theological problems?” After all, it isn’t for no reason that sexuality has become such a bombastic topic in the past few decades. The defenders of this evangelical statement on sexuality, again, think that clarity is of the utmost import. But, as a pastoral mentor of mine once told me, sometimes you can say the “right thing” the wrong way, and, in doing so, you are actually saying the “wrong thing.”

I personally theologically agree with Wes Hill and other “Side B” LGBTQ Christians — which means that I theologically agree with the “conservative” view on the matter (i.e. that marriage is between a man and a woman) — but I do not think that the LGBTQ person in my community or in my congregation is best served by some “Theological Statement.” Theological Statements are, at the end of the day, not very pastoral. One could, for instance, put out a Theological Statement on the sin of not tithing, or the sin of not giving to the poor, or the sin of (*gasp!*) not evangelizing, but I would doubt that most pastors would find those Theological Statements very effective. The precise same principle is true in discipling our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

The role of the pastor is not one of declaring Theological Statements. It is one of “pastoring,” a lost art of discipling people in their unique contexts to become better followers of Jesus Christ. This will mean telling some people that you cannot marry them, and you will not marry them for a wide variety of reasons. “I think you will be a bad fit for one another,” “You’re living lives that will destroy one another,” “You’re unequally yoked,” “You’re really not in this for the right reasons,”… these are all pastoral, unique, individual responses to folks unfit to marry one another. It is my sense that the conversation about LGBTQ marriage ought to be in the bounds of the trusting, intimate, and private space of pastoral ministry. At the end of the day, those of us who fit in the frame of a “conservative” view of marriage will say to LGBTQ folks “I don’t think you should marry each other” not out of a commitment to a theology, but, instead, out of practical discipleship concern for their walks with Jesus. We ought not to say “You should not marry each other because you’re gay,” but “I do not think that this is the way Jesus is calling you to follow Him.” (This is the reason why InterVarsity’s statement of this type (which caused a ruckus a little whiles ago) was not public.)

Admittedly, making a difficult call like this — “I do not think this is the way Jesus is calling you to follow Him” — is really hard. But, then again, if we take the pastoral ministry seriously, then we should be making these types of difficult calls all the time. When a member of our congregation who has strong ministerial gifts decides to pursue a career in engineering, then it is our call to discern pastorally alongside them and extend to them the difficult invitation to Jesus’ work in their lives. I know a student from my time with InterVarsity where this is the case, and I tell him blankly every time I meet him “You should go into ministry.” That is my pastoral responsibility.

 

I have a large concern about how the making of Theological Statements reveals a poor theology of ministry throughout American Christianity. My sense is that by being abrasive theologically, evangelical conservatives are backing down from the invitation of Christ to lead. And by making just-as-abrasive theological counterresponses, mainline liberals are also backing down from the invitation of Christ to lead. In short, this making of Theological Statements belies poor pastoral leadership in the American church.

Instead of waging wars with our words in the air, maybe American pastors are better suited to sit in their office with a congregant, look them in the eyes, and challenge them to follow Jesus, whether that includes marrying or not marrying person X, Y, or Z, for X, Y, and Z reasons, or any other place of discipleship. And whatever the pastor’s response is, we ought to do so from the foundation of leading our people into closer discipleship with Jesus, whatever those sacrifices demand of them. It will require the unique authority of pastoral intimacy, rather than the slapdash power that comes from unilateral statements.

And, at the end of the day, it will lead to better ministry toward LGBTQ folks. This is a worthy end-goal: when rather than relying on a Theological Statement to push LGBTQ Christians away (which is the end-result of such statements), the pastor can sit down, talk about Christian discipleship, and welcome our LGBTQ brothers and sisters into a place of following Jesus that is hard, and yet still a part of our community. Theological Statements only alienate; pastoral ministry welcomes and invites, even into difficult places of discipleship.

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Wendell Berry’s Prophetic Imagination

The Prophetic Imagination
Walter Brueggemann
Fortress Press, 2001. 151 pp.

Imagination in Place
Wendell Berry
Counterpoint Press, 2010. 196 pp.

Recently, I was disappointed by a book I had high expectations of. Now, as someone who willingly plunges into book after book with the aims of (often) writing critical reviews, one might say that I have set myself up for this very sort of disappointment. Sure. And that has truly been the case of books that are even well-liked by certain influential critics.

But I was surprised by my disappointment of this particular book because I actually loved it. It revealed a whole mode of thought regarding a major theme of the Scriptures that, for me, was insightful, provocative, and, as a freshly-minted pastor, theologically resourceful and useful. Continue reading “Wendell Berry’s Prophetic Imagination”

A Pilgrimage to New Cana

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Richard Lischer’s “New Cana Lutheran Church” as of December 2016

Open Secrets
Richard Lischer
Broadway Books, 2001. 239 pp.

In December of 2016, my wife and I drove “[out] of Upper Alton… up a state road…” in our 2009 Chevy Malibu. We had been visiting families for our first Christmas with our son (Theodore) — hers in Godfrey and Collinsville, mine in Gillespie — and on that day we had one small pilgrimage, of a kind, to make before we left for our home in Chicago. We were on-the-hunt for “New Cana.”

About a month earlier, one of our pastors gave a message in which she quoted from a moment in the memoir of a Lutheran minister named Richard Lischer. She told how he had entered into his first pastoral appointment, at a small rural church in southern Illinois, with the high aims of using all his theological training to its utmost ability. He sets up, at his first event, a small group discussion for talking about how the church is engaging with their new pastoral appointment; the first (and second) responses are muted, stiff “Well, I didn’t vote for you, but I know we will have a very good church with you as our pastor.” Our pastor weaved this narrative as an example of how we (as American evangelicals especially) often think of ministry strategies before thinking of the people we aim to serve.

But, if I’m an honest parishioner, I was a little distracted by her description of Lischer himself. A memoir about a pastor in small-town Illinois? As a son of small-town Illinois who had married a daughter of small-town Illinois, and as a person who had recently received a call to pastoral ministry, I knew that this was one of those books I would need to borrow. While walking to lunch after church, I grew curious: I wonder where in small-town Illinois Lischer preached? Then I read the opening chapter via an Amazon preview and saw the above quote of him driving north out of Alton (where my wife and I had lived our first year of marriage) into the country. Immediately, I began comparing Lischer’s words with my mental map of Madison and Macoupin Counties (which is, if I say so myself, pretty accurate), and soon I had narrowed down the location of his “New Cana” parish to a small sub-region of the north-of-Alton, east-of-Jerseyville region.

It was in this context, that my wife and I ended up outside of “New Cana” Lutheran Church, the world of Lischer’s memoir Open Secrets.

 

Our pilgrimage itself was not precisely “exciting.” After all, we are long-time Madison-Macoupin County residents who have only recently made residence as urbanites in Chicago.

Open Secrets
Open Secrets‘ 2001 cover; the “small town” pictured here is far too populated to be “New Cana”

We have been lost in the middle of a cornfield many-a-time before. And “New Cana” Lutheran Church is literally “lost in the middle of a cornfield,” in a way that was utterly familiar to us. Hannah ended up taking one of her better photographs of the church (as my photograph, above, is, characteristically, angled and unprofessional) and using her graphic design wizardry to produce a better book cover, since the edition we had clearly represented a “small town” on the Atlantic seaboard, not southern Illinois. Our small “Lischer-circle” at church (which was us, our pastor Tiffany, and our local Hauerwasian theologian Kevin) were ecstatic about such an update. But the church itself, however mythic as told by Lischer, was no surprise to us. It was, in many ways, a part of us already. The stories that Lischer tells in his memoir could have just as easily been some of the stories my grandmother tells me about growing up on a farm in Shipman. Actually, I’m not entirely sure that somewhere in her family there wasn’t some offshoot that married into or joined the “New Cana” Dullmanns and Bufords and Semanns at some juncture. I’ll have to investigate the Caveny family line at some juncture.

But we didn’t pilgrimage to the “New Cana” church for the sake of excitement. Rather, I think we pilgrimaged there for a sense of “home.” In December, it was becoming ever-clear to me and Hannah that we longed to return “home,” to “our world.” Our inability to see the sunset or sunrise in Chicago was wearing on us; our distance from family was difficult for us; and our new “city-like” busyness was, honestly, “not our thing.” So, however blessed and joyful our time in Chicago had been, we visited “New Cana” with the strong sense that someday soon we would live again in this world. Our world. And in the same sense, we didn’t read Lischer’s memoir to view, as though visitors at a zoo, a “different culture and society,” but, in part, to learn again and learn anew our own home.

 

Lischer’s pastoral observations are some of the most profound on the topic that I have ever read.

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Richard Lischer is a Professor Emeritus of Preaching at Duke Divinity School

Instead of confronting, as most theological-praxis books tend to do, us with theological controversies in the church or practical concerns about preaching or leading Bible studies, Lischer addresses the real “meat” of pastoral work: arguing with the cemetery committee about an unnecessary expense that would overburden a poor widow, learning how to receive a beer offered by a parishioner when the subtexts of the convention are concealed, attempting (unsuccessfully) to “be tough” while half the church watches a pig be butchered prior to dinner. Or, more difficult, wrestling with how to effectively marry a passionate couple with no sense of responsibility or commitment, baptizing an infant that will surely die, consoling a mother whose only son fell in the pond and drowned, or taking a young man to the Cardinals game in the wake of him both losing his father (to a heart attack) and his pastor (to a job-move).The book is a holy excursion into the work of pastoral ministry, and one that expounds on a far more interesting (and far more important) layer to how one thinks of “pastoring.” Too often in American Christianity, the “pastor” is really seen as a “preacher-teacher,” whose “ministry” is all words, words, words; theology without any weighty living behind it. In some sense, Lischer also had this preconception upon arriving at “New Cana.” But Open Secrets divulges a different kind of pastoral ministry, a different aim of a philosophy-of-pastoring, that is desperately needed in our day. Ministry, in Lischer’s memoir, does not occur primarily in the pulpit but at fences, post offices, hospitals, and garages. And, yet, (and this is crucial) it is not the flimsy thing that happens when a person smacks the word “ministry” on top of something else (“Brother, I feel called to do a cassette tape-to-CD transfer ministry,” etc.). Lischer’s ministry is something holy, that manifests the divine in the day-to-day. It is Sacramental, perhaps in its purest form.

Lischer’s insights on rural thought are also extraordinarily valuable. He uncovers the concept of “Gossip” as a form of knowledge (even, I think, an epistemology), and considers how he, as a pastor, can use that “Gossip” for the sake of God’s Kingdom. He reveals the power-structures of committees and sub-committees, of the elders versus the cemetery committee. He observes the tensions of interfering with abusive families, wrestles with his own methods of accomplishing what he feels is right, and, more often than not, discovers that he does not understand how this German farming community actually communicates. If anything, Lischer’s “outsider” view of downstate Illinois rural life helps one to consider any number of “outsider”-“insider” dynamics within churches; and, furthermore, underscores the need to observe traditions and values before moving too quickly in changing them.

 

If Hillbilly Elegy reminded me of the rural world “falling apart” (as I’ve written about before), then Open Secrets encourages me about all the good of rural communities, all the possibility that exist in them, and all the tensions that come with doing effective Christian ministry in that context. In the time since Hannah and I made our pilgrimage to “New Cana,” we have been considering a pastoral opportunity at a church in small-town Illinois. It isn’t a job offer yet — there are, as always, various hurdles to jump over — but we have still, nevertheless, been considering the possibility in a way we hadn’t when we first picked up Open Secrets. As we finished reading Lischer’s memoir last night, I think we both felt a strange sense of preparedness for wherever the Lord is taking us. Lischer’s misadventures in “New Cana” have changed us, equipped us, even prophesied to us, of some new adventure of our own.

Book Review: Preaching in the New Testament

Luther Preaching.jpg
Hugo Vogel, Martin Luther Preaches in Wartburg (19th century)

Preaching in the New Testament
Jonathan I. Griffiths
InterVarsity Press, 2017. 152 pp.

Preaching, of all the various pieces of Christian liturgical practice, is maybe the one that we think the least about theologically. The works out there devoted to discussing preaching from a matter of practice, of course, are dime-a-dozen, and there are many writings discussing the preaching style of some of Christianity’s most famous preachers (re: Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Spurgeon, M-L Jones, etc.). But to hear the act and purpose of preaching qua preaching discussed is a novel and worthy exercise.

Griffiths’ study is a solid foundational work for dealing with a wide variety of questions that arise when thinking about the concept of “preaching” and “the preacher”: What makes preaching distinct from teaching? Who can / cannot preach*? What are the appropriate / inappropriate occasions for preaching? Griffiths admirably resists the urge to follow a wide variety of loose ends and rabbit holes in order to set certain base standards of the Preaching in the New Testament.jpgconcept of preaching.

The monograph is short and to-the-point, with a quick overview of key Greek terms and some discussion of the differences between “semi-technical” terms for preaching proper and less formal terms for general communication. Here Griffiths avoids over-indulging in Greek word-study while setting a solid context for the rest of the work’s observation of specific instances of those terms. I did find myself hungering for a little more Greco-Roman hermeneutics to ground those word-ideas, but given the New Studies in Biblical Theology‘s value for accessibility I know that I am asking for something beyond the bounds of the work.

Griffiths work shines the best as he jumps into the exegesis of various New Testament texts, especially when he gets to the Epistle to the Hebrews and its sermonic structure. With thoughtful attention, he pulls out of each text various key implications regarding preachers and preaching-acts. Some of these claims are fairly self-evident to the task of modern preaching (i.e. they serve to instruct God’s people, to exhort, to teach from the Scriptures, etc.); but, of course, Griffiths goal was never to tear down the common evangelical assumptions but, instead, to question whether they hold Scriptural weight or not.

 

There are two particularly interesting claims Griffiths puts before the reader in his conclusion that are worth ruminating on:

The first point that Griffiths drives home time and again is the importance of the anointing of preachers for the work of preaching. By carefully drawing out the distinctions between formal preaching and other, as he calls them, “word ministries,” Griffiths is able to observe the Scriptural importance given to the anointing of preachers for ministry. He does not linger too long upon the topic, since he would quickly run aground on the reefs of ecclesiological distinctions (i.e. presbyteries ordaining preachers versus bishops ordaining preachers versus congregations ordaining preachers), but he does so with enough biblical grounds and theological argument to sustain the idea that “lone wolf” preaching is unbiblical. The claim is a hard one, especially for the North American church (Griffiths is Canadian) and its propensity for pastor-founded independent churches. The idea that preachers must be called is not new, of course, but it is a bold statement in the theological milieu of today, where preachers are more and more likely to “call” themselves rather than allow a local church body call them.

The second point worth further notice is Griffith’s emphasis on the spiritual nature of the preached word. Time and again he reminds the reader using the Scriptures (especially Hebrews) that it is God who speaks in the preached Word, not simply the man who has been anointed preacher. Griffiths says this explicitly near the end of the work:

When authentic, faithful Christian preaching of the biblical word takes place, that preaching constitutes a true proclamation of the word of God that enables God’s own voice to be heard.

One would almost say that this is a nigh-sacramental view of preaching, although I doubt Griffiths’ tradition (or most traditions, for that matter) would be comfortable with that usage of the term. Still, it bears much resemblance to how most Christians view baptism and the eucharist: they are, rightly, works of God, works of Grace, that He works in the believer actively through His agents (i.e. the officiant). In the magisterial traditions of the Reformation (Lutheran and Calvinist) as well as in the high-church traditions (Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican), the regular confession is that God is present (in some fashion) in the performance of these acts. For Griffiths, God is actually present and speaking in the act of preaching.

Of course, a question could be proffered as to what would account for preaching that does not fit the given standard, just as the question is proffered regarding the sacraments. For baptism and communion, most Christians would agree that they are legitimate even if the sacramental agent is deficient in some manner (hence why the early Reformers refused to baptize converts from Catholicism). Clearly, Griffiths does think that there are situations in which the preaching of God’s Word is not “authentic,” but he does not precisely provide us with such a rubric. An attempt to sort out what does and does not constitute the “authentic” act of Christian preaching would be a very interesting study.

 

Altogether, Griffiths provides useful exegetical engagements with the New Testament to remind the evangelical what he or she already believes regarding preaching (i.e. that it is a ministry of God’s Word, that it serves to exhort and encourage the body of Christ in the Truths of God, etc.) while also pointing to several less-recognized truths of preaching (mainly, that it is a ministry of authorized / anointed leaders, and that in it God actually speaks to His people). I find myself wondering if there are more critical questions that could be asked regarding the act of preaching, and wondering the limits of various terms (such as what constitutes the “authentic” preaching-act, see above), but the work stands on its own as a solid, reasoned example of exegetical theology. It is a useful “step back” from our typical assumptions of preaching in order to re-examine the Scriptural bases for the preaching-act itself.

I would like to thank InterVarsity Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.

*Griffiths graciously brackets the topic of women in ministry for the purposes of his discussion. He marks it once, near the beginning, as a topic that could be discussed from this work, but he does not muddy the waters by stepping into another discussion. As it stands, I think his work could be useful for both complementarian and egalitarian theologians.

Book Review: Hearing the Call

Church of the Servant
Nicholas Wolterstorff’s home church in Grand Rapids

Hearing the Call: Liturgy, Justice, Church, and World
Nicholas Wolterstorff
Eerdmans, 2011. 440 pp.

Liturgy and Justice seem like odd bedfellows. When we typically think of “Liturgy,” we think of Sunday morning worship and the organization of the church service. On the other hand, when we typically think of “Justice,” we tend to think, more often than not, of something that occurs “outside,” in some fashion, the bounds of the Sunday morning worship. If we participate in the work of Justice — however one may define that term — then we participate “outside” of the realms of “worship,” “music,” “architecture,” or any of the other matters that come into consideration under the broad heading of Liturgy.

And this ought not be so, contends Nicholas Wolterstorff. In a collection of essays that includes biographical shorts, letters to young academics, essays on social work, poverty, and architecture, and reflections on matters of theology and practice, Wolterstorff reminds the reader, time and time again, that the call of the Old Testament Hearing the Callis unified in its commitments to the “orphans, widows, and foreigners,” and how the prophets remind the people of God, time and time again, that their worship is null and void apart from this ethical-moral precommitment.

For a book that is inadequately named (“Hearing the Call” is the most unhelpfully vague title I could imagine for such a work), I am surprised at how often I find myself reflecting on Wolterstorff’s admonitions. There’s a joie de vivre throughout — probably a “good infection” that Wolterstorff received from Allan Boesak — that is irresistible; there’s a sense of that eternal Kingdom that Wolterstorff always points to as being palpable and livable hear and now. And yet Wolterstorff does not hold back his hammer: he takes apart Max Weber’s obnoxious thesis of Calvinist anxiety (it is about time someday did this with academic virtuosity!), brings to task American evangelical predilections with capitalism, undoes the secularist’s love of wealth, and demolishes the nondenominational / charismatic structure of a worship service. But even in his direct rebukes, all of Wolterstorff’s words are spoken with intricate care and with loving attention. What is most profound about such a compassionate call-to-action is the vast temporal space between the earliest essay (1969) and the latest (2010): If this were biography, the confession of Wolterstorff’s lifework would be one of compassionate, loving, yet firm, theological and prophetic engagement.

With such a variety of essays and ideas to highlight, it is impossible for me to do Wolterstorff’s work here its due credit. Here are some (sparse, diverse) thoughts that I came away with:

An Attention to Liturgy, Architecture, and Music: Spread throughout the various sections of the book, Wolterstorff spends incredible attention on the individual pieces of corporate worship, dealing with, in turn, the topics of liturgical structure, architecture of the church building, and selection of church music appropriate for this or that mood or season. The thoughts included here are the little pieces upon which Wolterstorff’s later (and more specific) monograph on worship and liturgy, The God We Worship (2015), was built, but they are more than enough to serve as suitable entrance into his thoughts on the matter. The overarching theme is one deemed practically unimportant by most of American evangelicalism: the choices we make in organizing our liturgy, building our churches, and planning our music are important; they reveal our implicit theologies.

Nicholas Wolterstorff
Nicholas Wolterstorff is a Christian philosopher, Reformed epistemologist, and professor emeritus at Yale

In particular, Wolterstorff spends significant attention to the importance of doors and open spaces in church buildings (as one can see in his home church, Church of the Servant, depicted above), highlights the values of expressing Christian egalitarianism through architecture, and, more than anything else, the centrality of churches as spaces filled with light, an idea he draws from Calvin’s Genevan churches.

— The Admiration of John Calvin: Speaking of Calvin, I found Wolterstorff’s consistent return, time and again, to the Institutes of the Christian Religion to be refreshing, an incredible feat in and of itself. While most readers of Calvin (including both Calvinists and Arminians) find him staunch and pietistic, Wolterstorff brings out the Calvin who is deeply concerned with matters of justice, matters of right worship, and matters of Christian communal living.

If there is something to be lamented in American Calvinist / Reformed thought in the present-day, it is the absorption of Calvin’s thought into specific sectarian (and politically-charged) camps to serve particular (often politically-intentioned) purposes. Wolterstorff, alongside other Reformed interlocutors (I would include Peter Leithart, for instance), does an incredible job of bringing out the wholeness of Calvin’s theology to address topics that are rarely addressed in typical Calvinist circles.

— Poverty as a Moral Ill: One last set of thoughts from Hearing the Call that stood out to me were the ways in which Wolterstorff addressed the topic of poverty. Wielding a solid group of ancient witnesses (mainly 4th-Century Church Fathers) alongside Thomas Aquinas, Wolterstorff makes a thorough case near the end of the book for describing poverty as a moral ill, and, with that, takes an axe to the politico-theological camp of ascribing moral goodness to American capitalism. He articulates his arguments firmly and with conviction, with solid biblical and theological grounds, making the American reader double-guess his or her own received values of money as a moral good.

What shocked me in reading Wolterstorff’s addresses on this topic was how little I considered my own economic / financial decisions to be ones of moral importance. But Wolterstorff leaves no room for moral neutrality (as he ought) and holds the Church to the biblical standard of caring for the poor as one of her fundamental duties. Wolterstorff provides an antidote for the poison that is American capitalism, without relying on its typical antithesis, Marxism, at all. Instead, he calls the Church to a higher calling and a higher duty.

 

Wolterstorff’s collection can feel at times slightly repetitive, as it perhaps should be for an anthology of fifty years’ worth of essays, yet it is a delightful “salve for the eyes,” so to speak, helping the American Christian re-frame their theological commitments toward Justice in biblical terms as opposed to our received cultural ones. Some essays leave one with bigger questions than solved answers, but Wolterstorff doesn’t ever leave an essay without some sense of eschatological hope. The works are convicting and compelling, but never damning or heavy-handed; instead, one senses a stronger call to follow the Lord’s ways and purposes, and to, as the prophet Micah says, “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before your God.”

 

Book Review: The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, Volume Two

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah
John Martin, The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852)

The Crucifixion of the Warrior God
Gregory A. Boyd
Fortress Press, 2017. 1492 pp.

Rhetorically, Volume Two of Greg Boyd’s The Crucifixion of the Warrior God is far more eloquent than Volume One. What, in the previous volume, was touch-and-go and overburdened by footnotes and block quotes becomes in this volume a far more thoughtful and well-articulated argument. The improved rhetoric helps Boyd flesh out a more convincing description of his Cruciform Hermeneutic, even though his uncritical presuppositions, discussed at the end of my previous post, continue unchecked.

Volume Two’s structure is also far more soundly organized. I did not find myself asking, as I did in Volume One, why whole sections of text existed for the sake of Boyd’s thesis. Most of Volume Two feels appropriate and necessary for the claims he proposes. I am still convinced that the work as a whole could have been comprised of one volume, with most of Volume One being pared away as unnecessary elaboration, but the amount of paring needed in Volume Two is very small.

With these less significant rhetorical considerations out of the way, my aim in this second review will be to see how far Boyd’s version of the Cruciform Hermeneutic works, what its limits are, and how his applications of that hermeneutic succeed or fail. Volume Two is organized around four principles that Boyd sees aCrucifixionCover_FINALvol1s central to his understanding of that hermeneutic — Cruciform Accommodation, Redemptive Withdrawal, Cosmic Conflict, Semiautonomous Power — most of which (exempting the last one) are robust enough ideas in their own right to substantiate their own individual book reviews. It is here that we see Boyd’s academic / scholarly verve show up in a powerful way, as he stakes claims on what the Cruciform Hermeneutic ought and ought not look like. He is passionate and articulate, and he brings up some questions that seem to me as particularly intriguing.

In the previous review, I mentioned that Boyd’s idea of a Cruciform Hermeneutic could be a helpful tool for reading the Old Testament, and that its chief problem is not its methodological / theoretical conception (i.e. look at the Cross, use it to read the OT), but in the precise manner that Boyd imbues it with presupposed definitions of terms like Love, Violence, and War. In Volume Two, he charts out a hermeneutical method that is admirable, but still lacks the honesty of confessing its epistemological pre-commitments.

Rather than chart out my review based on his structure, I am going to pick at few individual moments in his arguments for these principles and observe some of what seemed to me his strongest claims as well as some of what seemed the most problematic. At the end, I’ll offer some concluding thoughts on the unified work altogether.

Strengths — A Robust Description of Cosmic Warfare

One of my favorite sections in CWG was the Principle of Cosmic Conflict section. Here Boyd’s previous work on spiritual warfare (God at WarSatan and the Problem of Evil) manifests in a brilliant manner, demonstrating both an avid reading of the OT full of its supernatural density as well as a scholarly identification of ancient near East gods “hidden,” as it were, in the text. Boyd goes beyond the typical scholastic OT reading that discusses the presence of “Rahab” or “Leviathan” as cosmic metaphors and actually asserts, as me and my Pentecostal brethren would assert, that these are not simply metaphorical entities for the sake of a pre-modern people’s worldview, but that, instead, they are actually spiritual entities who operate both in the spiritual realms and in the natural realm.

In fact, I would say that Boyd’s greatest success in CWG as a whole is the manner in which he presents a thorough academic case for the presence of ongoing spiritual conflict between God and the forces of evil, something that many other theologians either write off as entirely soteriological (as those in the Reformed camp tend to do) or as entirely societal (as those in the Liberation camp tend to do).

In light of this cosmic conflict, Boyd re-engages two OT accounts in ways that I find very convincing. The first is his reading of Job, in which he brings to attention the wide variety of satanic references throughout the book in order to drive home the understanding of Job as the subject of cosmic warfare. The second is his reading of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, where Boyd presses on the ANE worldview where both Pharaoh and the Sea itself are cosmic powers that, in the end, devour one another.

All this being said, the Principle of Cosmic Conflict does meander into its own waters of convolution, as most of CWG does. A significant problem could be raised that Boyd’s understanding of cosmic conflict allows for a semi-Manichean view of reality, giving the devil and his forces far too much agency. One result of this semi-Manicheanism could be, for instance, a reading of events like 9/11 as attacks of the devil allowed by Yahweh’s “redemptive withdrawal,” which, honestly, is no different than Pat Robertson’s infamous declaration of such events as divine judgment. Boyd addresses this problem directly but unconvincingly, waving the concern off without much critical engagement as he does with most of the biggest (and most interesting) problems raised against his theses.

Problems — A Surprisingly Critical View of Moses and the Torah

Maybe I’m a “traditionalist,” and maybe I’m overprotective. But one of the most shocking sets of claims throughout CWG is the way that Boyd continually treats Moses (as a person) and the Torah (as a collection) with supreme amounts of suspicion and, at times, derision. When addressing “problems in the OT,” I typically expect that the Book of Judges will be presented, that the morality of various decisions throughout the Histories will be presented, and that, broadly, our discussion will center on the “Canaanite genocide” (a term I’m wary of, because definitional presuppositions), the holy wars, and other clearly man-based judgments. I never expect a discussion on Moses and the Torah.

The reason for this is because the confession of both the OT and the NT is consistently one of praise and respect with regards to Moses and the Torah. Psalm 119 is the most famous of these, of course, but the verses from Psalm 19 ought to be observed as a testament to this:

another-image-of-greg-boyd.jpeg
Gregory A. Boyd is a speaker in the Neo-Anabaptist movement and is an advocate of open theism and Christian pacifism

“The Law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the Testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple; the Precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the Commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes” (Psalm 19:7-8). Jesus, famously, is formally coronated Messiah (at least, in the eyes of His disciples) on the Mount of Transfiguration with Moses and Elijah present. Paul, Peter, and John all base their theologies in the context of Moses’ writings.

So, it is utterly surprising to me how critical Boyd is of Moses and of the Torah. I do not wish to come across “starry eyed” regarding the first five books of the Bible — there are certainly moments and scenes that we might find bizarre at the least and obscene at the most in those texts. It is true that we certainly have a lot of room for growth in our exegetical understandings of the Torah. But Boyd says, at one juncture, that Moses and Aaron’s “fallen and culturally conditioned hearts caused them to view their heavenly Father in ‘twisted’ ways,” thinking of how they view God as the sort of God who brings plagues and goes to war. This strikes me as strange.

Of course, Moses and Aaron are not perfect. The Scriptures themselves make this clear when, for instance, Aaron makes the Golden Calf, or when, for instance, Moses strikes the rock he is commanded to speak to. But Boyd is perpetually suspicious of Moses, and he often attributes various clauses of Levitical law to him (in his “fallen and culturally conditioned” weakness) rather than to Yahweh whenever doing so suits Boyd’s narrative. I find it, simply put, too rhetorically convenient to believe that whenever Yahweh orders someone to be stoned or put to death that this is a consequence of Moses’ interpretative weaknesses, as opposed to Yahweh’s revelatory wisdom. And it is hard, in my opinion, to claim to be advancing a hermeneutic with the belief that all Scripture is “God-breathed,” and come to the conclusion that the Torah, culturally-distant as it is, is anything other than “the perfect Law” that both OT and NT describe it as (cf. Psalm 19, 199; James 1:22-25).

In Summation

There are many other things that could be discussed with regards to CWG, but I feel that I have written far too much as it is. A few conclusory words could be said as to why I find CWG so unconvincing, and, with that, maybe some suggestions for future theologians for how to write a better work engaging the problem of OT violence.

  1. One of CWG‘s greatest weaknesses is that Boyd writes very clearly in the service of his pre-committed ideological and theological beliefs, rather than using inductive exegetical work to support those beliefs. He comes into the conversation with the firm notion that Augustine and Aquinas are wrong about God’s eternity (and other matters), that Love ought to be defined using a modified version of the modern notion of Nonviolence, and that the presence of violence in the OT ought to be considered a major epistemic problem. A conversation on each of these topics would make for an interesting book, and, in fact, those books are necessary before one could even begin to trace out the sort of hermeneutic that Boyd attempts in CWG. Rather than sitting down and hashing out his differences with Augustine and Aquinas the typical manner (i.e. through thorough academic discourse), Boyd presupposes their fallaciousness and dismisses them with a quick word in edgewise. He uses this rhetorical form throughout CWG: just as the conversation gets interesting, he concludes his argument with simple logic, rather than complex, nuanced discourse. The whole work could be rewritten, in a far more convincing way, by starting with its major deterrents, grounding its claims and definitions in solid exegetical work first, and then bringing external discourses (re: open theism, etc.) into play as the thesis gains strength.
  2. The idea of a single “hermeneutic key” to unlock the problems of the OT is also misguided. This book could have been an intriguing discourse on simply the Canaanite genocide (and it would have held more weight that way, I believe). But by attempting to over-incorporate the whole of the OT, Boyd makes the common mistake of using one hermeneutic tool for a variety of diverse and unrelated texts. Universal theological attempts like this one are almost always doomed to failure because they are more easily tempted by ideological presuppositions. A more particular account would make for a much more interesting read.
  3. Boyd’s greatest ideas in the book occur when he writes his own ideas, rather than relying so heavily upon his academic sources. CWG makes for a great bibliography of OT violence; but it would have made a more effective argument if much of that bibliography was left in the footnotes and in the back of the book, rather than taking up vital space needed for substantive rhetoric.
  4. Finally, setting up the problem as a real problem, rather than making the stark — and rhetorically simplistic — statement “this is obviously problematic,” is crucial in making an argument worthwhile. Not once in CWG did I ever feel that Boyd was presenting an answer to a problem that I felt was significantly worthwhile. It is a problem that the New Atheists find troubling, but that is fine by me; I don’t find the New Atheists worth being troubled about.

There are many fruitful discussions that could be had around the problems of violence and the OT, but CWG does little more than retread ground that has already been discussed and propose an extremely narrow (sectarian) view of OT exegesis as the ultimate, worldwide solution to an already-“dead horse” conversation. At its best, CWG provides suitable bibliographic materials to aid the student of theology in wrestling through a specific problem, or it suggests a view of supernatural powers that is worth considering, at the least. But at its worst, CWG is cloaked open theistic propaganda, struggling to suggest its theological framework as orthodoxy without actually putting in the rhetorical work necessary to accomplish so audacious a task.

I would like to thank Fortress Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.

Book Review: Crucifixion of the Warrior God, Volume One

The Death of Agag
Gustave Doré, La mort d’Agag (1866)

The Crucifixion of the Warrior God
Gregory A. Boyd
Fortress Press, 2017. 1492 pp.

Before I can properly review and engage with the ideas presented by Greg Boyd’s newest work, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, I suppose I must first “out” myself as someone who is about as theologically opposite to Greg Boyd as is possible. His advocacy of open theism, his views on Augustine and Aquinas, and his soteriology are thoroughly distant from my own views. I think it’s important to put that out first, so that I might write this review with integrity.  And while I certainly find certain claims (especially open theism) that Boyd holds as truth to be problematic because of where my theology lands in comparison to his, it is my goal in this review to engage just with the central claims that Boyd presents for this work. As we shall see, I find The Crucifixion of the Warrior God to be an ambitious work of heremeneutics that despite its brilliant methodological approach has major flaws when applying that approach to the problem it proposes to solve.

The Crucifixion of the Warrior God (CWG) is a two-volume monograph that attempts to address OT violence in light of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. For Boyd, OT violence isn’t simply an ethic problem but an epistemic one, contradictiCrucifixionCover_FINALvol1ng, in his view, the very foundations of the Christian faith. In order to provide a basis for re-engaging the OT this way, Boyd proposes a Cruciform Hermeneutic, using it to re-read the OT through the lens of Christ upon the Cross. Through this, Boyd maintains, we will come to see that the narratives of God behaving violently in the OT are simply depictions masking God’s true revelation of Himself. In Volume One, Boyd presents the problem at hand, writes at length on the importance of the centrality of the Cross and then develops the Cruciform Hermeneutic. In Volume Two, he clarifies how that hermeneutic functions and then applies that hermeneutic to various OT texts and proposes new readings for them.

In order to review a work so large as CWG, I will write my review in multiple parts. This first part aims to address the whole of Volume One. The second part will address Volume Two and maybe give some overview and final thoughts. However, since as of this part of the review I have not yet finished Volume Two ,it could happen that I write a third review article or a follow-up to consider other possible solutions to the problems that Boyd reveals. My goal in this first review will be threefold: to give a sense of the quality of Boyd’s writing, point to some of the strengths of his claims and arguments, and lastly engage with some of the problems that arise from Boyd’s claims.

Quality — Meandering, Repetitive, and Quote-Reliant

Before jumping into the matters of Boyd’s claims themselves, I do have a few things to say with regards to the quality of his writing. In stark contradiction to Rob Grayson’s review (the only other review I could find during the writing of this one), I think that one of the great weaknesses of the book is its rhetorical composition. There is a goodness, as Grayson observes, in how Boyd takes great lengths to ensure that his readership understands every twist and turn of the argument, making his work accessible. But in order to accomplish this clarity, Boyd’s work manifests as long, meandering parades of paragraph-after-paragraph of mostly regurgitated information, quotes, and repetitions. Sometimes the structure of Boyd’s argument felt like reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book, with him repeating, numerous times, statements like “As I said in Vol. 1, Chp. 4,” “This will be made clear in Ch. 8,” etc. The book feels like it could have been written in a different order, and, thus, made considerably less cumbersome.

Usually poor rhetorical quality is not anything more than simply poor writing, an excusable error. However, Boyd’s work in Volume One suffers from a far more serious problem. There are times, especially in the first six chapters, in which Boyd lets his interlocutors do the majority of the rhetorical heavy-lifting. Not only is this a nuisance to the reader (at the very least, Boyd broke every rhetorical rule I was taught in graduate school), it also creates the sense that Boyd is attempting to advocate his positions through the voices of other writers. If this is intentional, then Boyd is being disingenuous in a very serious and disconcerting way. However, my sense is that he is not intentionally misrepresenting his interlocutors. Instead, one begins to feel that Boyd is not totally comfortable coming out and making his explicit claims. In the first half of Volume One, there is a hidden fear in the text as he sets his ideas behind the claims of other, more established, theologians. In fact, it isn’t really until Chapter 9 that Boyd’s own voice begins to appear in earnest in the narrative of claims he makes (and, as I will mention in the next post, Volume Two is thankfully freed from this particular impediment).

The fortunate thing, rhetorically speaking, is that his writing cleans up significantly in the last few chapters of Volume One, letting his most engaging and most interesting claims shine. All of the earlier cluttered rhetoric, piling on quotes repeating roughly the same material, gives me the sense that CWG unnecessarily complicates itself, cancelling out Boyd’s own direct ambition to make his work more accessible. The first six chapters could have easily been cut out and written more concisely as a simple introduction to his assumption that Christ on the Cross is the central biblical revelation. It is when Boyd gets into his more interesting claims — how the crucicentral revelation affects other parts of Scripture, etc. — that he begins to write in a more compelling way and ceases to retreat behind the words of other theologians. As it stands, I had the growing sense that this whole book could have been accomplished in one volume of ~400-500 pages. The writing is raw and unfinished, more like a doctoral dissertation in style than like a monograph.

Strengths — The Cruciform Hermeneutic is a Marvelous Exegetical Tool

What accounts for Boyd’s hesitance to put his cards on the table? I wonder if he’s hesitant because he wants his thesis to be received well. Maybe he’s aware that some of the claims he makes later in the book are radical. And maybe, to be sure, the fact that he must frame his rhetoric in this defensive manner is symptomatic of how the broader evangelical community treats new ideas (i.e. poorly).

Yet the first part of Boyd’s thesis is not actually so radical as all his defensive stances makes it seem. (Maybe that’s another reason I don’t think he needs the first six chapters?)

Greg Boyd
Gregory A. Boyd is Senior Pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, MN and President of Reknew.org

At its core, the Cruciform Hermeneutic is a pretty normal understanding of how one ought to read the Scriptures, although we don’t often think so clearly about it as Boyd does. In summation, he claims that we ought to read the Scriptures as God-breathed manifestations of revelation pertaining first and foremost to Jesus Christ who was crucified and raised from the dead. Except for a few outliers, most major streams of theology view the Scriptures with this precise central theme in mind, and, thus, it is no surprise that Boyd is able to leverage such a diversity of theologians for the sake of this claim.

In fact, I think the chief of Boyd’s successes in Volume One is the manner in which he convinces the reader in Part Three (the last three chapters) that all good Christian hermeneutics treat certain parts of the text as literal (i.e. Jesus really did die on a Cross) and certain parts as figurative (i.e. Jesus does not actually expect us to pluck out our eyes). In one of his strongest moments in Volume One, Boyd wagers that most of us are already doing something like what he calls the “Reinterpretation Solution” with the OT, we just don’t know it.

If we follow the logic of that claim then we can begin to see how Boyd aims to use it for the purposes of establishing his Cruciform Hermeneutic. He provides us with a useful tool and metric for reading the Scriptures, helpful guidelines with which to judge what ought to be read literally and what ought to be read figuratively, all focusing on the exaltation of Christ on the Cross. All this is incredibly insightful, helpful, and orthodox.

So, what is it about his thesis that is radical enough for him to spend the majority of the first half of Volume One defending himself from all possible angles and all possible critics? Surely, if the Cruciform Hermeneutic is simply a matter of reading the OT (and the rest of Scripture as well) with the revelation of Jesus on the Cross as our guiding interpretative framework, then what Boyd suggests ought not be so problematic!

Problems — Uncritical Manifestations of Boyd’s Presuppositions

Of course, Boyd’s goal is not just to establish a Cruciform Hermeneutic, but to use that hermeneutic to solve what he sees as one of Christianity’s greatest age-old problems: Why does God behave so violently in the OT? Boyd’s specific engagements with the OT occurs in the bulk of Volume Two, which I will engage in my next post.

For Volume One, it is simply enough to question the question itself. In Chapter 7, Boyd addresses OT violence head-on, describing every violent event he can find. He even adds a hypothetical story from the perspective of the Canaanites as the Israelite army comes in to kill. The straightforwardness of presenting biblical texts with forthright honesty is, of course, valuable. But what Boyd never presents us with at any juncture is either A) a framework for determining which texts are and are not problematic, in light of the Cross; or B) a definition for how Boyd proposes to understand “violence” (and, thus, as he describes Jesus, “nonviolence”). The lack of these terms is a serious blow to Boyd’s entire argument.

The problem here is simply that for all his hard work in defending against a wide variety of criticisms, Boyd has not taken the time to critically assess his own a priori assumptions. In the Introduction, he takes for granted that Jesus’ revelation of God is “agape-centered, other-oriented, self-sacrificial” without putting flesh on what those terms really mean. These terms are fascinating, intriguing, and radical claims on their own, but Boyd assumes that his readership is already on-board with the content of those words. Likewise, he doesn’t seem able to abide the arguments that, as an example, Augustine has proposed with regards to God being both “agape-centered” and the “God of war” that the OT describes him as. There could be an interesting discussion engaging with Augustine here, but when Boyd brings it up, he dismisses Augustine out-of-hand with far too much ease. This is yet another example of the weakness of Boyd’s rhetoric: he spends very little time refuting the more substantial arguments against his case, and a lot more time defending and shoring up the more self-evident points for his case.

This is one of the things that I personally found aggravating throughout CWG. Boyd holds long-form arguments in order to support certain claims that he could just hand to us as simple propositions (i.e. Christ’s Cross as a centralizing biblical revelation), but then neglects to engage with the propositions that he does hand to us that are not actually that simple to surpass (i.e. Boyd’s presupposed definitions of love). Rather than linger on the Augustinian question of whether or not Love could or could not engage in Violence of any kind, or even rather than admit that the discussion therein is more complicated that it appears, Boyd makes an interpretative leap and then assumes what is implied by his Cruciform Hermeneutic. If one of the strongest points of Volume One is how useful the Cruciform Hermeneutic is as an exegetical tool, then easily the weakest matter is how Boyd attempts to apply that Cruciform Hermeneutic, premising his reading of the OT upon his own presuppositions of how that hermeneutic views Love, Violence, and the like.

In so doing, I am afraid that Boyd begins his engagements with the OT from a thoroughly modern standpoint, in which “Violence” and “Nonviolence” are terms decided upon by Western secular society, not Christ, even though Boyd would surely assert that he prefers the latter. As a result, from very early on in the text I am continually concerned that what we are receiving is not an actual re-reading of the OT through the proposed Cruciform Hermeneutic, but, instead, a re-reading through the modernist presuppositions of Greg Boyd. It is Boyd’s definitions of “Violence” and “Nonviolence” that articulate his concerns in Chapter 7, and it is his definitions, not necessarily Christ’s, that constitute the hermeneutic he intends to deploy in Volume Two.  As I shall discuss in the next part of my review, Boyd’s failure to address these presuppositions results in a touch-and-go exegesis of the OT, with some readings revealing brilliant insights and others leading to nonsensical conclusions.

I would like to thank Fortress Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.