Anarchy and Apocalypse: Essays on Faith, Violence and Theodicy

Ronald Osborne, Cascade, 2010

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        The victims of war are not only the soldiers, but women, children and the elderly, and the biblical record invites us to contemplate how violence affects the weakest members of society, and even the enemy.  It would have been significant if the Hebrew bible would have included descriptions of how Yahweh’s holy wars might have felt for a Philistine child.

        But violence was part of daily life in the first century.  The idea that Jews in Jesus’ day were primarily concerned with matters of dogmatic theology does not reflect cultural reality.  The pressing needs of most Jews of the period had to do with liberation from oppression, from debt, from Rome.

        Between Herod’s death and the first destruction of Jerusalem in 70CE, Israel ‘was convulsed by repeated religious revolts, by violent messianic movements, political assassinations, insurgency and counter-insurgency warfare’ (p 23).  The options tempting a poor but religiously devout Palestinian young man in the West Bank or Gaza Strip were the realities that confronted Jesus, a young Jewish carpenter.  The gospels suggest that Jesus was repeatedly tempted to embrace the agendas and tactics of several competing theological-political movements. Read more ›

Seed Falling on Good Ground: Rooting our Lives in the Parables of Jesus

Gordon King, Cascade, 2016

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        We sometimes imagine the New Testament milieu consisting of contented farmers and jolly fishing families who gave up a few hours of words to hear the message of a religious teacher speaking about the deeper meanings of life.  It is more accurate to say that ‘desperation, deprivation and resentment characterized the lives of most people in Galilee and Judea’ (p 24).

        Hunger was prevalent in first century Palestine. King points out that the parables are grounded in socio-economic, spiritual and political realities that challenged the status quo and confronted the powers, principalities and system.  ‘It was dangerous for Jesus to talk about the kingdom of G-d in a land ruled by an emperor who commanded legions of troops.  It would have been a safer option to speak about the family of G-d or the age of the Spirit’ (p 6).

        Most of the people who heard his stories lived on the margins, contending with hunger, poverty and a growing sense of resistance to the Kingdom of Rome and its religious puppets. Read more ›

In Search of the Early Christians

Wayne Meeks, Yale University Press, 2002

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Meeks, of the Department of Religious Studies, Yale University, explores a fascinating range of studies embracing social theory, history and literature, from the figure of the androgyn to New Testament pictures of Christianity’s separation from Jewish communities.

       (Androgyn:  myth of a bisexual progenitor of the human race, using metaphors of clothing symbolism, spiritual marriage, even baptism; ‘there is no longer male nor female’ cf. Galatians 3:28.  Androgyny.)

        A major theme dealt with by Meeks is the discussion of roles of women in the Christian congregations.  He lists the women who were leaders and patrons in the early churches, who shared Paul’s struggles.  ‘There are a number of signs that in the Pauline school women enjoyed a functional equality in leadership roles that were unusual in Greco-Roman society as a whole and quite astonishing in comparison with contemporary Judaism’ (p 20). Read more ›

Misquoting Jesus: the Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why

Bart Ehrman, HarperCollins, 2005

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Most of us assume that when we read the New Testament we are reading an exact copy of Jesus’ words or St. Paul’s writings.  Yet, for almost fifteen hundred years these manuscripts were hand copied by scribes who were deeply influenced by the cultural, theological and political disputes of their days.  Mistakes and intentional changes abound in the surviving manuscripts, making the original words difficult to reconstruct.

        Ehrman reveals when and why these changes were made.  He had a ‘born again’ experience in high school, and attended Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College, concentrating on Greek; the more he studied Greek the more he became interested in the manuscripts that preserve the New Testament for us.

        Studies took him to Princeton, where studies in Mark suggested that there were mistakes (eg a mustard seed is not the smallest of all seeds; was Jesus crucified on the day after the Passover or on the day before?).  To hold to the theory of scriptural inerrancy when a study of the manuscripts showed ‘mistakes’ was proving impossible; most of these differences are completely immaterial and insignificant. Read more ›

Women and the Reformation

Kirsi Stjerna. Blackwell, 2009

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Stjerna’s primary goal is to present stories of several women (eight have a chapter to themselves) in varied visible leadership roles in different Reformation contexts (politics, religious matters, households, writing, teaching, hosting, partnering). (One chapter treats Katharine von Bora, Martin Luther’s wife.)

        Second, the women’s lives are interpreted in light of the reformers’ teachings about women’s place in the church and in society.  Stjerna examines whether the Reformation had a distinctive appeal to women, what Protestant women did to bring about religious change, what impact the Reformation had on their lives (and vice versa).  Stjerna sketches the concept of reformation, the different reforming movements and actions (church, theology, religious practises, resulting in the formation of distinct denominational traditions).

        In each of these reformational areas, there was the importance of education, literature and understanding of vocational models (eg the 1530 Augsburg Confession).  The reformation shaped lives in different ways for men from women.  ‘The strongest female protest against the reformation in Germany was from the convents where women were used to expressing themselves on religious matters.  This although the Protestant reformers did champion a woman’s role as wife and mother by closing the convents and they cut off women’s opportunities for expressing their spirituality in an all-female context’ (p 26). Read more ›

Zealot: The life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

Reza Aslan, Random House, 2013

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff


        First-century Palestine was an age awash in political and religious zealotry, of scores of prophets, preachers and would be messiahs bearing messages from G-d.  An age of zealotry, a fervent nationalism that made resistance to the Roman occupation a sacred duty for all Jews.  Zealot talks about a Jewish revolutionary who gathered followers for a messianic movement with the goal of establishing the kingdom of G-d.  And of how his followers reinterpreted Jesus’ mission and identity.

        His followers saw him primarily as a religious reformer; Aslan places Jesus within the social, religious and political context, an era marked by the slow burn of a revolt against Rome. Read more ›

Weaving the Sermon: Preaching in a Feminist Perspective

Christine Smith, Westminster/John Knox, 1989

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff


        Smith’s book is an intriguing extended metaphor, using weaving as a central lens of understanding.  Weaving is an art, an expression of our time, and Smith uses the components of weaving as illustration, as an organizing image in women’s lives:  weaving, loom, warp, weft.  Weaving involves interlocking threads to create joyful instances of textures and colours.  Loom: keep threads in order and under tension.  Warp: binding together differing threads.  Weft:  the most prominent threads.  This is Smith’s extended metaphor for preaching.

        Smith believes there is some ‘qualitative distinctiveness surrounding the preaching of feminist women (p 9); there is a distinctive quality to women’s preaching (p11).  Women use more images and more stories than men do.  ‘The texts women choose are less abstract and more related to everyday life/ (p 12); they are more creative and imaginative in dealing with the text. Read more ›

Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed

William Herzog, Westminster, 1994, reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Herzog focuses on the parables from the social/cultural analysis of Paulo Freire, Brazilian educator, whose work with the poor brought new attention to what could help people accept a perspective that would move beyond the immediate poverty and loss of hope.

        Herzog traces carefully the shifting interpretation systems of Jesus ‘the Parabaler’ and presents an interpretational approach that compares it with Freire’s methodology. Jesus and Freire have much in common. They both worked with the poor and oppressed. Both lived in advanced agrarian societies, an imperial or colonial situation. In both Palestine and Brazil religion plays a leading role (religion can both liberate and oppress).

        Jesus used parables shaped by the Torah, spelling out the justice of G-d’s reign. He was shaped by his social location as the son of a village artisan who became an itinerant rabbi, wandering through the client kingdom of Herod Antipas and the Roman administered province of Judea (p 17). The parables give details of everyday life, but they by themselves remain isolated and contentless.

        To understand the parables means one must know what larger work was being accomplished. So the interpreter needs to articulate what social constraint of reality is being presented in the given parable. What do they reveal about the large social, political, cultural and economic systems within which Jesus spoke and the crowd heard? Herzog does this kind of analysis with ten parables. ‘Jesus ministry was concerned with political and economic issues’ (p 264). Read more ›

Liberating Bible Study

Laurel Dykstra and Ched Myers, eds., Wipf and Stock, 2011, reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Here is an excellent compilation of 25 essays dealing with social justice issues as they are dealt with by biblical writers and by current activists. ‘The bible is a record of displaced and dispossessed people who have found a communal identity…. It provides an important perspective for reflecting on responsibilities toward refugees…. The bible is a book by and for refugees…. First century Christianity in Asia Minor, as reflected in 1 Peter, faced the same issues as did the church in Central America in recent years’ (p 198,199).

        The book has well defined subject matter: chs 1-10, the Hebrew bible; 11-19, Jesus and the gospels; 20-25, the Epistles. I found the last section the most moving as the writers dealt with issues of sanctuary: the church as counter-cultural, the biblical emphasis on hospitality, and a powerful poem reflecting on Vancouver’s east side street life of the homeless.

        The fiery trial (1 Peter 4:12) is not so much a case of persecution by outsiders but of collusion with the enemy, capitulation to consumerism, the profit motive, conformity to values diametrically opposed to a gospel celebrating G-d’s favour toward the poor. The ‘Christian nations make and sell the bombs, train the torturers, create and refuse the refugees’ (p 210). A powerful section deals with 17 political dimensions that appeared in the Galilee of Jesus’ day and contemporary forms (‘top down social organizations and control’, p 149-151).

        A powerful look at the bible’s treatment of social dynamics. Read more ›

The Power of Parable: How Fiction BY Jesus became Fiction ABOUT Jesus

John Dominic Crossan. HarperCollins, 2012, reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Crossan examines Jesus’ parables and identifies what he calls the ‘challenge parable’ as Jesus’ chosen teaching tool for urging his followers to probe, question and debate the absolutes of religious faith and the presuppositions of social, political and economic traditions. He proposes a three-fold typology for the parable genre: riddle parables (allegory) (eg Sower and the Seed, Mark 4); example (seeing the lost things (Luke 15) and challenge (his major category)(p 244). He then presents the four gospels as mega parables, interpretation by the gospel writers challenging and enabling us to co-create with G-d a world of justice, love and peace.

        Crossan invites a new perspective involving the probable setting of an oral tradition. ‘Would there have been an absolute and respectful silence, for say an hour plus as Jesus performed his story? Or would there have been interruptions and pushbacks, agreements and agreements, not only between speaker and hearers, but among the hearers themselves?’ (p 95), an audience participation involved a class reversal of traditional expectations (eg the Good Samaritan). Challenge parables are participatory—because provocative—pedagogy. The gospels are challenge parables not by but about Jesus.

        Crossan presents a non-violent Jesus who rejects rhetorical violence. But what of the violent metaphors Jesus uses (ie ’hypocrites’, especially in Matthew 23)? Here Crossan sees the gospel writers as parable writers; ‘does Jesus change his mind or does Matthew change his Jesus?” (p 187). ‘The power of Jesus’ parables challenged and enabled his followers to co-create with G-d a world of justice and love, peace and nonviolence’ ( p 252).

        A wonderful exposition of parables by and about Jesus. Read more ›