Publishers and authors always seek to develop ways of meaningfully connecting great written material with reader audiences. This remains as true in the wider publishing world as in the evangelical one, and increasingly so, with technology induced shrinking attention spans, fast-paced forms of media distribution, and a world of increasing population and intense demands on the time and lives of ordinary Christians.
Numerous efforts currently are at various stages of development with different evangelical publishers, including one aiming to introduce doctrinal subjects to readers in short (under one-hundred-page) accessible volumes. At the forefront of these efforts, however, stands Zondervan’s new Ordinary Theology series, brought to life by Wheaton College Professor of NT, Gene L. Green, who serves as series editor.
The effort Gene Green and his authors establish in this series is no mere academic exercise. They’re trying to put tools in the hands of ordinary Christians that will help them more meaningfully to be theologians. They aim to see all things in everyday life as “extremely theological,” requiring meaningful biblical-theological reflection on all matters of life, developing theology in the places we find ourselves. It’s thus something like a balancing act between seeing all things as theological and then also developing theological responses to matters in the course of normal life. The church in the English-speaking world has needed a series like this for some time now.
But not everything under the sun can be covered. So for a series like this the question becomes which features of everyday life demand attention. Naturally, the first authors in the series either chose issues that were related to major recent life experiences (as in the case of Green choosing to write on surgery) or their academic expertise (as in the case of each of the other three), or both. Although each of these initial volumes carries both a deftness with academic discourse as well as deeply personal, storied, and engaging accounts of the subjects.
The first volume in the series, Green’s The Scalpel and the Cross, begins with the author’s own personal experience with open-heart surgery. After searching for literature on thinking theologically on the subject, as he was anticipating the imminent scalpel, he found none, thus birthing the idea for this series. Throughout the book Green locates surgery in the wider context of the divine work of salvation history, under the creation-fall-restoration narrative. As such, surgery is seen as “a violent act carried out in compassion as it challenges the destiny stamped upon a broken human frame—a frame that needs restoration” (p. 25). This powerful imagery is carried on throughout the book, highlighting surgery as a social phenomenon, involving the care of many others on hospital staff, as well as those outwith the professional medical care team, including family, church, friends. Green explores moral and spiritual dimensions of surgery, and he gives careful consideration to how humans relate to “replacement parts,” such as those from a pig (as in his case!). Drawing from Native Indian Christian spirituality as developed by the late Richard Twiss, with a consciousness of the interconnectedness of all creation in its sharedness as creation, gratitude and solidarity become part of what it means to hallow all things and to live in harmonious community with other creatures who we depend on for life, even as parts of their bodies can make fitting transplant parts for ours.
Green argues that surgery should be marked by “access” to all (p. 67) as a matter of social justice to which the gospel witnesses in laboring for societal goods. After reflecting on the role of recovery in the surgical process, Green ponders the reality that sometimes surgery results in failure, requiring the presence of others and a vision of hope found in Scripture. Yet in light of these situations of loss or failure (always not merely a possibility but a reality in this fallen world), the surgeon stands with Christ, imitating his way and skill, following his ministry to bring healing and wholeness to diseased bodies, even though it’s never an easy road getting there. As such, “The violent intervention of surgery echoes the story of the cross since out of harm comes good, out of wounds comes life” (p. 90).
I’ve not read anything like this book, although I’m glad I did. Surgery has invaded the life of my family in incredible ways the last four years, with my youngest child having four brain surgeries between Paris, France and Orange County, California, ultimately resulting in a hemispherectomy. We still live with ongoing effects—many opening new possibilities, and many presenting new challenges. We’ve considered much in the area of the hope the incarnation and resurrection brings, for the healing of all things now broken. And we’ve been slowly working our way through works by leading figures in disability theology like Jean Vanier, John Swinton, Brian Brock, and Stanley Hauerwas. But we’ve not much thought about the act of surgery itself, and how it might be theologically located. Frankly, the neurosurgeon and anesthesiologists who have come into our lives and who are Christian people would benefit immensely from this book, especially as they too are often seeking resources to interpret their vocation in light of the astonishing good they are able to help bring about, as well as the times when their profound expertise is insufficient to remove the impediments for flourishing. Sometimes it even results in death.
I think every surgeon and doctor would be well served by picking up a copy of this book, as should hospital chaplains, other medical personnel, along with pastors and families facing the reality of surgery.
In the second book I read in this series, Wheaton College professor Beth Felker Jones explores a theology of sex. Moving toward a robust account of sexuality within the context of marriedness and singleness, her books treats matters directly. Aside from the powerful biblical expositions throughout the book, mixed with theological sensibility and with a finger on relevant questions swirling around in contemporary culture about the matter of sexuality, the book identifies sex as something that is real, embodied, and good. Some of the goodness has been removed, and sex has become in virtually every context something that is broken (ch. 4) and yet is redeemed back to the delights for which it was intended (ch. 5). An outstanding exposition of Song of Songs is given to show how this is so.
The author is attuned to the biblical text and the issues within first-century forms of sexuality (which inform her NT exegesis), and she brings all of this together with a sensitivity to Christians who will be struggling in the matter of sexuality and sexual relations. The strength of her previous work on the theology of the body, Marks of His Wounds: Gender Politics and Bodily Resurrection (Oxford: OUP, 2007) comes though clearly as she lands serious critique against any approaches to the body that would treat it as a commodity or “merchandise.” And she provides a steady levelling of the “purity rules” paradigm (ch. 7), ultimately developing a positive theology of sexuality within the context of marriage and singleness, since “the body is one hundred percent for the Lord” (p. 100).
Throughout the book, Felker Jones interacts with a number of predominate views on sex and marriage today, and does so with a deep understanding of pressing cultural issues that have shaped much of the Christian consciousness. What I didn’t find in the book (and was somewhat waiting for) was any kind of engagement with matters related to LGBTQIA issues, especially with the Supreme Court’s decision on same sex marriage in June 2015, or with the increasing attention that evangelicals are giving to intersex in correlation with Megan DeFranza’s work, Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), or in light of the high profile situation of Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner and transsexuality.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Felker Jones will be a very careful guide through a number of these matters, and perhaps a revision of this book might allow for this (although it is currently the longest book in the series). But in this short book, she does not touch any of these issues. If a revision doesn’t, I reckon that a book in this Ordinary Theology series that might address these issues would be one on a theology of humanness, or anthropology, which is an increasingly relevant question in our contemporary world. And yet, with that caveat, this book is the best short introduction to a theology of sexuality that I have ever seen, getting right to the heart of the matter that our bodies are for the Lord.
For the sake of space of this review of the series, I will only briefly mention the contributions from two other Wheaton professors Noah Toly and Vincent Bacote. As one of the leading young urbanists, engaged with the best of the wider world of urban theory, sociology, and philosophy of human spaces and built environment, Toly gives a brilliant exposition of what it means to live in American cities, among both the affluent and the hurting, among success and cultural decay. He brings keen insight, especially with regards to his familiarity with Chicago, one of the most complicated cities in America. As with the others, his exposition of Scripture (especially Daniel in ch. 5) was particularly helpful, reflecting especially on how to care for the vulnerable among us.
As with each of these books, Bacote also executes brilliantly, mixing personal narrative, social commentary, biblical exegesis, some creative writing (e.g., pp. 25–26), and theological reflection. The Political Disciple goes quite autobiographical as Bacote discloses his own journey with evangelicalism (e.g., his daily evangelical radio preacher diet along with its strong and unchecked political right impulses, pp. 38–39). But the book shows how in spite of different voices competing for our allegiances, our money, our minds, and (perhaps ultimately) our votes, the question every Christian should ask is one about his or her public posture as a means of pursuing what Bacote calls “public holiness” (pp. 66–67). In other words, the question (one of sanctification) becomes, “What does it mean to pursue holiness in a way that extends to and permeates the public dimension of our faith?” (p. 59).
Each of the chapters in this series begins with a story, sometimes from culture, sometimes from the personal life of the authors. As such, the authors are really trying to (and, I believe) succeeding at storying their own kinds of theological reflections into the minds of their readers, not so readers can have a better theology (although hopefully that would result) but also so that “ordinary” believers, as it were, can have confidence to take the tools within their own grasp in order to better engage with matters in everyday life. That they might, again, be theologians.
In this process, another strength of the series is that the authors shed both the academic and evangelical jargon to really write from their hearts, which creates the best kind of writing. This series promises to be a very interesting one. I read Green’s book at the beach with my family. I read Jones’s book during an afternoon. I read Toly’s and Bacote’s each in an evening.
The only downside of such a series like this is that it suggests that our churches (and perhaps our evangelical institutions) have failed in helping to cultivate better engagement with culture. I have found this to be the case with my own work with Fred Sanders and others seeking to meaningfully engage regional issues regarding California in interdisciplinary theological perspective, which has yielded, Fred Sanders and Jason S. Sexton, ed., Theology and California: Theological Refractions on California’s Culture ((Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014). But we are increasingly succeeding at efforts to encourage the churches, and I trust Gene Green’s effort with this series will as well. I trust this will especially be so as the series authors expand from beyond the scope of Wheaton, Illinois, to the wider world beyond, and to more subjects that confront us in our everyday lives. I look forward to recommending the volumes as far and wide as I can, and also to learning from the next volumes that come out in this series.