Friday, July 25, 2014

Important Perspectives on the Hebrew Scriptures

Bible Jesus Read, TheBible Jesus Read, The by Philip Yancey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mr. Yancey's personable style is one element that is makes The Bible Jesus Read a winner for me. Don't expect cold exegesis or hellfire ranting, but a friendly, honest exploration of a few of the (for him) troublesome books of the Hebrew Scriptures, a la Kathleen Norris (whom he quotes a few times). One should not expect theological ramblings, though the theology seems pretty solid to me. One of the cornerstones of Yancey's argument is that these books of the Bible are about different aspects of God's relationship with Creation. To that end, this book is about Philip Yancey's evolving relationship with these powerful, but baffling works.

After an introductory chapter outlining why the author felt led to explore these books and his approach, he tackles Job. Probably my favorite part of The Bible Jesus Read, it reorients the reader concerning the legendary suffering of the title character, demonstrating that the story is more about faith than about pain. Then comes a look at Deuteronomy, where Yancey imagines the thoughts and feelings of the soon to die Moses as he makes his last speech to the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land. While an interesting exercise, I felt this was too speculative. I kept wondering, "How would he (Yancey) know this?"

The fourth chapter is about my favorite book of the Bible: Psalms. Here Mr. Yancey does a masterful job looking at the famous poems as much from a literary point of view (without being academic) as from a religious perspective. He reminds the reader that these verses, though part of the canon of Jewish public worship, are very personal words from people of varying socio-economic and political perspectives, and even those that make us uncomfortable portray a people with faith in a God who can take their bitterest complaints.

Next, the author covers Ecclesiastes. For me, this is one of the most interesting parts of the book. Ecclesiastes is a tough, depressing part of the Bible, but other than repetition of the statement "Everything is meaningless!" I put my finger on why. But Yancey helps the reader see the theme in its context. Written probably after Solomon's death but certainly during a time when the people were still reaping the benefits of his reign, the book explores the emptiness of having it all. The sixth chapter is about the prophetic books, and though I would have like a more detailed look at a single prophet, I realize that it would be disingenuous to pick one, and to get at them all would take another book. Besides, the chapter seems rambling and repetitive to me. It does have an important idea that should those who struggle with this part of the Bible. Readers are encouraged to look at these writers less as men who foretold the future, and more as seers, people with the ability to observe the world (past, present, and sometimes future) more deeply than most.

The final chapter of The Bible Jesus Read works to make the point that what Christians call the Old Testament does more than foretell Jesus as Messiah, but has additional resonance for Christians. It should not be segmented so we can find lessons for daily living, but seen as a more complete picture of our relationship to God than the New Testament alone provides. I suspect that non-Christian readers may find this ending a bit tedious. However, Yancey's story about attending a performance of Handel's Messiah does make for a fascinating connection.

A brief word about the title. It seems a little misleading in that the author spends little time discussing Jesus' responses to or references to these the Hebrew Scriptures. However, the main audience seems to be those who are familiar with the New Testament, most of whom assumed that Jesus was well verses in these writings. I suppose The Bible Jesus Quoted or The Scriptures Jesus Read More Carefully Than the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law isn't very catchy.

The Bible Jesus Read was first published in 1999, but is not at all dated. And despite a couple of missteps, at least for me, the book is overall quite edifying.

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