Book Review: Mark Through Old Testament Eyes

Mark Through Old Testament Eyes
Andrew T. LePeau
Kregel Publications, 2017. 352 pp.

If you have spent any time with InterVarsity people, students or staff, you will begin to notice a strange commonality between them all. No matter how different, how theologically diverse, or how socio-geographically dispersed, you will eventually discover that InterVarsity people love the Gospel of Mark. They return to it with unerring frequency, their staff workers assign it for Bible studies, their area directors quote it with knowing reflection. There is some sense that the Gospel of Mark is the foundational text of the whole student-ministry movement.

There is due reason for this, of course. Ever since InterVarsity pioneered the structure of Inductive Bible Study in the 50’s, the preeminent text for both Bible study training and student spiritual development has been Mark: we InterVarsity folks preach Mark in our chapter meetings, we study Mark in our dorm rooms, and, for those blessed many who have gone to chapter camp (and for the smaller number who have been blessed to go to Cedar Campus!), we even spend an entire week digesting just the first half of the book.

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Andy LePeau, former publisher with IVP and IV-famous champion of hospitality

So when Andrew [Andy] LePeau, of late a publisher for InterVarsity Press, approached me a few months back about reviewing his forthcoming commentary on the Gospel of Mark, I already knew that the text I was about to receive was a “word-made-flesh” version of something like the spirit of InterVarsity Bible studies. After all, in the front cover Andy has written: “Tables [X]… are adapted from Fred Bailey, rev. Andrew T. LePeau, Mark I and Mark II Manuscript Study: Teacher’s / Program Director’s Manual…” It should be noted that this mentioned Fred Bailey owns the original copy of InterVarsity’s “unofficial Mark chiasm guide,” a IVCF-wide famous handwritten piece of paper wherein Fred has listed the whole book by all its chiastic structures.

 

With this background in-hand, I feel a little like the disciples in Jesus’ parable of the soils: “the mysteries of the kingdom have been given to you…”

Immersed into Mark’s Old Testament Images

My first major takeaway from this commentary was the way it immersed me into the Old Testament world contextualizing Mark’s Gospel. Some commentaries let you get away with observing OT references and say “Oh, that’s cool,” but Andy LePeau forces you to reckon with the presence of the OT in the Gospel account. This commentary does not let the reader get away with ignoring the OT presence. In some sense, it thoroughly unmans the notion that one could even read the Gospel of Mark without any OT engagement, and it reveals the artistic elegance of Mark’s narrative weaving of the OT throughout the story of Jesus’ ministry, as well as bringing to the fore Jesus’ own role as an interlocutor of the OT.

One comes away with the overwhelming sense that there would be little left of the Gospel of Mark should the OT interplay be removed! All that Jesus says and does has immediate and significant relevance to some OT forebear. John opens his Gospel by calling Jesus “the Word”; Mark’s Gospel demonstrates Jesus as the Word, as the embodied fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, without even needing to state it so explicitly. And LePeau’s hard work of cross-referencing and theological review makes all of the more difficult comparisons and intertextual references readily available to even beginners in biblical study.

Some great observations LePeau highlights include Jesus as the New Moses leading the New Exodus, Jesus as the Divine Warrior bringing God’s Judgment, Jesus as the New Temple, amid many others. What is perhaps the most compelling part of this commentary’s work on this end is that LePeau does not rely too much on his bibliographic sources; the commentary succeeds in its role as a study tool by effectively pointing out these themes from the text of the Gospel itself and simply tying threads together.

Accessible Entrance into Biblical Interpretation

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One of the most difficult parts of leading readers into the Gospel of Mark (and into a wide variety of New Testament works reliant on Greco-Roman rhetorical structures) lies in explaining the relationship between structure and message. Modern readers often impute a “literal” reading onto the texts they engage with, without any sense that their “literal” lens is not the way the original recipients of the text would have read. Explaining structural pieces like chiasms, euphemisms, riddles, and the like can be roadblocks for understanding at best and sometimes lead to crises of faith at the worst (as in: “Why does Jesus say something that clearly is not true?”).

LePeau demonstrates himself as a teacher first and foremost, providing for the reader easy on-ramps into the more difficult rhetorical and intertextual parts of Mark. He frequently breaks down the various chiastic structures in order to angle how one ought to read more difficult texts. In so-doing, he also rights many poor interpretations taken out-of-context (for example: he dismantles the common evangelical reading of “moving mountains” as having to do with “overcoming obstacles” and replaces it with a more text-centered engagement with Jesus as the New Temple).

This makes Mark: Through Old Testament Eyes a resource for a wide variety of Bible students, whether they are students in seminary, pastors or Bible teachers, or just folks who want to grow in their understanding of the Bible. The tools that LePeau hands to Bible readers in this commentary will inevitably unlock new ways to engage in the entire Bible. In short, this book provides onramps for increased biblical literacy for all, something that ought to be celebrated.

Making the InterVarsity Mark Experience Available to All

But I have to show my true colors: What I love the most about Mark: Through Old Testament Eyes is not its thorough engagement with Old Testament imagery, nor its ease and accessibility for the common Bible enthusiast; instead, it’s the way LePeau has made a beloved InterVarsity Chapter Camp experience available to everyone.

This is no small feat. At InterVarsity’s Cedar Campus (for instance) every year, students spend an entire week reading the first half (or, more rarely, the second half) of the Gospel of Mark, going through extraordinarily slowly, line by line, on sheets of manuscript paper, armed with colored pens and pencils and New Bible Dictionaries (courtesy of IVP) led by Mark-masters like Andy LePeau and Fred Bailey. (I once got to be in the course when Fred led it; it was unimaginably cool.)

For so many IVCF alums, this manuscript study in Mark is one of “those” moments. Sometimes it’s the moment when they “got” the Gospel for the first time, sometimes it’s the moment when they realized that studying the Bible could be joyful and fun, sometimes it’s even the moment when they commit themselves to full-time ministry or the academic study of God’s Word. The Mark track at Chapter Camp is a formative experience for anyone who has ever gone through it.

And somehow LePeau has bottled that experience, sprinkled it with a solid theological bibliography, mixed it up with his own life and ministry experiences, and composed it into a book that others can read. That is something of the magic of this commentary: LePeau brings the reader into a secret that every IVCF student and staff knows.

And, even better, that secret is the selfsame secret that Jesus hides and then reveals in the Parable of Soils. There’s an invitation implicit behind it: the secret is to ask the Teacher what the secret is! It’s the spirit of that secret that permeates this commentary and makes it a joy and not just another suitable addition to one’s theological reference library.

I would like to thank Andy LePeau and Kregel Publications 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.

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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. Continue reading “The Pastoral Problem with Theological Statements”

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”

Book Review: Strangers in a Strange Land

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Strangers in a Strange Land
Charles J. Chaput
Henry Holt, 2017. 288 pp.

Captain America is a story of anachronism. After being frozen in ice during World War II, he awakes in modern-day New York and quickly realizes how foreign he is. His values aren’t shared, his cause is considered outdated, and his epistemology is challenged (“The world is different now,” he is constantly told). Christians in America are encountering a life not unlike the Captain’s—waking up to a culture that no longer shares our presuppositions about God, reality, and humanity. We are foreigners, or pilgrims, in a world that is not our home.

Charles Chaput adds his Catholic voice to the argument that we now live in post-Christian America, a world in which Christianity is seen as irrelevant, regressive, or even hateful. Some are quick to dismiss such a thesis as an overreaction to cultural changes, or the response of privileged whites to the loss of political power. Chaput—himself a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation and the first Native American archbishop—counters these dismissals by spending two-thirds of his book outlining the multifaceted problem facing American Christians.

Tracing the emergence of the problem, Chaput embarks on a journey through American history, culture, and political theory from our nation’s founding through the present. This isn’t a book about politics (see Render Unto Caesar), yet Chaput spills quite a bit of ink outlining early American political thought. He connects the American founders’ reliance on natural law with observations by Alexis de Tocqueville about American democracy’s emphasis on individual freedom. Chaput concludes that democracy without moral guardrails elevates the autonomy of the

individual above all other concerns. Christianity, along with “any other institution that creates bonds and duties among citizens,” hinders self-expression and, therefore, self-fulfillment.

Much of America’s post-Christian worldview is connected, according to Chaput, in one way or another with our views on marriage, sex, and the family. I initially discovered Chaput’s book through an excellent excerpt on marriage. Chaput argues that sex is “intimately connected with how we understand ourselves as human” and the human family connects individuals in bonds of commitment and service.

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Chaput rejects the way that American individualism has relegated sexual ethics to a private matter outside the purview of any authority. He characterizes the sexual revolution as a technological battle against human limitations. Even if Protestants disagree with Chaput on the licitness of contraception, there are many points to find agreement on the ways marriage and family have been twisted by American culture and need to be recovered.

Along the way, Chaput pens a manifesto on the stewardship of truth, as well as an analysis of American culture through the lens of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. We are strangers in a strange land because we are made for the City of God, yet live in the City of Man. How are we to live in the ensuing clash of values?

In the final third of the book, Chaput proposes a way forward for Christian countercultural living. As he says, “We can’t simply blame the culture. We are the culture.” The only way to have an impact is to begin living differently. It’s well worth sticking with the book for these exhortations to live like Christ. Chaput unpacks the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-11) and contrasts each statement with American cultural values. After being inundated by the media’s vision of the good life, I need this reminder that it is blessed to be poor, meek, and persecuted. In addition, he illumines a proper Christian perspective on persecution through an ancient Christian document (Letter to Diognetus) and stories of modern martyrs. I appreciate that Chaput isn’t out to demonize American culture; instead, he is pointing out real problems and calling Christians to love the culture by living uniquely.

It’s easy to sense that Chaput is a man with a deep appreciation for beauty. He regularly references art and literature, and calls readers to recognize the beauty in creation. In a culture where humans are often seen as “interchangeable reasoning and consuming units,” the elevation of human dignity and the imago dei is a stream in the desert.

Jesus promised that following him would appear strange to others. We live in a time where Christian belief and practice makes less and less sense to the rest of our country. And yet, we live as people of hope on a pilgrimage home. I welcome more voices like Chaput who will call “small-o” orthodox Christians in America to live the only kind of life that will present Christ to the world.

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.”