Sunday, July 19, 2015

Book Review: The Pilgrim by Davis Bunn

Davis Bunn writes a historically informed work of fiction concerning the Helena, mother of Constantine. At times, the book seems hagiographic, but Bunn makes clear that Helena never thought of herself that way. In fact, nearly all of the characters are floundering in doubt and brokenness, with only the details ranging.

The book is built on the philosophy that God uses people to encourage faith; such an undercurrent is carried by the main theme of calling individuals to faithful obedience while supplying their needs; and subthemes include community and healing/restoration. The plot flow is one of journey/pilgrimage set in Roman-ruled Judea C.E.(but I will not give a plot synopsis here). Bunn is clearly writing to Christians for Christians, and I think it is this reality which allows this book to succeed in its purpose: Bunn is writing to people who already convinced of the story at a macro-level, and so seeing it in the micro encourages the readers. There is little challenge of thought or ideas. The good guys are clearly good, and the bad are clearly bad. The reader already knows what is going to happen even if they are unfamiliar with the history. The characters are essentially two-dimensional, except for a few who are one: e.g. the primary antagonist, Severus. But it is to the historically-interested Christian subculture that Bunn writes, and so this is relatively unproblematic.

From a historical standpoint, it seems a bit too contemporary in certain plot elements (i.e. “someone at that time wouldn’t have said/done that!”), and some of the Christian elements seem anachronistic (e.g. there are phrases or behaviors that seem like American Evangelical rather than 4th century Christianity). And yet it is historically informed. Geographically and socio-politically it rings true. Oftentimes the dialogue flows in the very way 4thC Latin would have… it ‘sounds’ ancient—just enough for you to remember this is historical, but not so much that you think the author is being dramatic.

From a literary standpoint I find that there is much that could have been improved upon. Again the characters are too flat, so a few layers would have been helpful—take creative liberties!—we already know it’s historical fiction, so make the history come alive… and include a few notes on the relationship between the history and the narrative. The chapters and scenes seemed a bit disjointed (like fast-forwarding), and the dialogue seemed a bit forced. The ‘great mysteries’(in character & plot) were overplayed, and un-affective (i.e. we didn’t feel the suspense or shame). A few characters were introduced and described as if they would be significant players, only to disappear for chapters at a time. If I were to summarize my literary critiques I might say: I didn’t feel the need to invest in the story.

And yet… I have given it 3/5 stars. Why so? Well, really I give it 5/10, but rounding down to 2/5 seems unnecessary… and of course, I have to keep in mind the target audience and the reason for which it was written. It appears to have been written to offer an introduction to St. Helena, mother of Constantine, and to be an encouragement to believers enduring doubt or shame. And with just such purposes it succeeds. I wouldn’t actively recommend this book to very many people, but the type of person I would recommend it to is clear: for Christians who are broken, recovering from guilt or doubt, or for Christians who want an introduction to Helena.

I received an Advanced Reader Copy of this book from the Publisher in exchange for my honest review.

This review is crosslisted on Amazon and Goodreads.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Book Review: Recapturing the Voice of God

This is an area of discussion much needed for today’s pulpits… unfortunately I wish this book had been postponed another couple months. We need people talking about this, but not talking about it poorly. Steven Smith’s Recapturing the Voice of God: Shaping Sermons like Scripture needed another pass with the editor, and a bit of interaction with some dissidents. All in all, I give this book a 7/10 or 3/5 (rounded down) because the content is there, but it’s not quite there, wrapped with bow.

Book thesis:
“The humble ambition of this book is to show a preacher or teacher how the genre influences the meaning of the text and give practical help for those who want to know how we can shape our sermons to reflect this meaning.

Smith writes to pastors and teachers with the caveat that this book is an introduction—and this is testified over-and-over again with recommended resources for further study at the end of every chapter, and a voluminous bibliography in the back. In fact, its sheer size may be a point of anxiety for the pastor who wants the few best resources to look into… not the whole gamut of scholarship since the 50s. Smith supports his thesis a bit vaguely at times—showing the Bible expositor how the genres of Scripture tend toward a kind of sermon structure best suited to re-animate the biblical authors meaning.

Smith loosely categorizes 9 genres into 3 major categories. Story contains OT Narrative, Law, Gospels/Acts, and Parables. Poem/Wisdom contains Psalms, the Wisdom Literature, and Prophecy. And Letter contains Epistles and Revelation. Again, they are loose categories with some overlap but Smith makes a pretty compelling case for categorizing them where he does. The macrostructure of Story applies to the genres therein (even Law—because Law is given in the context of narrative), and there are microstructures singular to the particular subgenres. Similarly with Poem/Wisdom (though there is great diversity between the Song of Solomon, Proverbs, Eccelesiastes, and Job). Truth be told, the Letter category seems a bit arbitrary since Revelation is all over the board, and the Epistles bear resemblance to the Prophetic literature.

Each chapter breaks down into Interpretation, Communication, and Structuring a Sermon; it ended with a sample sermon, study questions, and recommended resources. I found that the Interpretation section often asserted things without interacting with dissidents/counterarguments. And at the risk of wanting my cake and eating it too: I was surprised to find Smith prolonging his pen so often in the interpretation sections and swiftly passing through the Structure sections. Truly, you must understand the text before you know how to convey its meaning, but the Structure sections (the apparent thrust of the book) remains scant to my eyes. I think the readers would be better equipped if these sections included multiple examples of sermon outlines from the genre in question. Smith offers a sample sermon in each chapter, but the benefits could be multiplied if confused pastors could see the variety even a single genre provides… after all different texts reveal different structures. On the other hand, the study questions were at the perfect level of cognition—requiring enough thought to solidify the ideas presented without being obscure or menial. Additionally, I was pleasantly surprised with how well Smith handled some of the more complex or ‘scary’ genres: prophecy, Psalms, and Revelation; and yet I was dissatisfied with his mediocre treatment of Luke, Acts, and some epistles.

So let me get to my biggest dissatisfactions…
1.      Editing. I found an uncanny number of typos and inconsistent/confusing headings. But really they were all things that are entirely amendable, things that the college English professor docks you for because it shouldn’t have happened. I think just a couple more weeks before the book hit the printer would have given the time for another spell, grammar, and outline check and would have presented the book in a much more professional manner. Most of the content is there, but it’s still sitting in the store-given plastic bag, unappealing.

2.      The Introductory matters. Chapters 1-3 could use some revision. Again this seems like someone was on a time-crunch. Like the author had written the first draft and never got around to checking it out and revamping his arguments. Occasionally the author would give an example to ‘prove’ his point without telling you what the point was! We had no lens to interpret. At times he leaves his question ultimately unanswered—he gets into the discussion but leaves it vague; he seems to start writing about something only to end up saying, “But we all already know the rest” or “we aren’t going to talk about this.” And he seems to assume things he shouldn’t. This sort of ‘unworked’ feel pops up a couple places in the remainder of the book (e.g. 185 where he states, “Let’s deal with a few strategies,” but that is the final sentence of the section… and he doesn’t explicitly answer this in the remaining sections), but it is predominant in Chapters 1-3. In fact, I think the book would have been better if it simply had the Introduction followed by chapters 4-12.

All that being said, I have found this book beneficial for myself. I learned some things. I saw some things for the first time. I captured a pithy proverb or two about preaching. I am confident about a foray into the book of Revelation. And so I give this book 3 stars… recognizing its potential value, and hoping for soon updated editions… with a few of my suggestions taken into consideration.

I recommend it [the updated edition] to pastors who feel they’ve run themselves into a rut in the pulpit. The ones for whom every sermon seems the same with three alliterated points and the same conclusion each time. Unfortunately it’s the ones who haven’t realized they’re driving themselves into that rut that need this most and who are most unlikely to read it.

I also recommend  it to students of Scripture who aspire to the pulpit one day. And to teachers of small groups (though for this group I think it has least immediate application).
One of the benefits of this book is its introductory level—not just to sermon structure but to genre interpretation. I would show persons this book alongside Preaching with Variety by Jeffrey Arthurs and Preaching God’s Word by Duvall and Hays. Of course each book has its niche, and so should it be; this niche relates to conveying the text through appropriate structures. After all “we preach a text, not a sermon.”

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review; all thoughts are my own.

This review is crosslisted on Goodreads and Amazon.