Friday, June 17, 2016

Book Write-Up: Pictures at a Theological Exhibition

Kevin J. Vanhoozer.  Pictures at a Theological Exhibition: Scenes of Church Worship, Witness and Wisdom.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.  See here to purchase the book. 

Kevin J. Vanhoozer is a theologian at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  He has a Ph.D. from Cambridge University.  Pictures at a Theological Exhibition is a collection of essays by Vanhoozer about theology, worship, and the church's witness to the world.  Some of the essays are sermons that he delivered.
Here are some of my reactions to the book.

A.  The book is thoughtful.  The conclusions, you can probably find in a lot of Christian writings and sermons.  But what makes this book worth reading is the journey.  Vanhoozer is an educated person exploring territory.  He interacts with prominent thinkers and trends of thought as he makes his points.  In talking about imagination, Vanhoozer addresses an argument some Christians make that imagination is wrong because it focuses on what is false (i.e., imagined).  In discussing Jesus' statement to the Samaritan woman that people must worship God in spirit and truth (John 4:24), Vanhoozer disputes the hyper-individualist application of this verse by Kant and other modernists.  In a chapter about the doctrines of angels, Vanhoozer explores what various New Testament passages say about angelic doctrine: Paul's statement in Galatians 1:8 about how the Galatians are to reject a message even from an angel from heaven when it contradicts the Gospel; Paul's statement in I Corinthians 13:1 that speaking in the tongues of angels is without value if one lacks love; and I Peter 1:12's statement that angels desire to learn more about people's salvation.

B.  There were times when the book offered me a fresh understanding.  In Vanhoozer's discussion of Jesus' interaction with the Samaritan woman in John 4, for example, Vanhoozer interprets Jesus' reference to God being a spirit, not in reference to God's bodily composition or immateriality, but rather in reference to the activity of the Holy Spirit in animating and renewing.  In discussing Jesus' reference to living waters, Vanhoozer refers to passages from the Hebrew Bible about springs and living waters, as well as rabbinic Judaism's likening of the Torah to waters of life.  Vanhoozer mentions and addresses what interpreters have said about the Samaritans and how that may be influencing the content of John 4.  For example, Vanhoozer states that some early commentators interpreted Jesus' reference to the woman's husband and the man she was living with who was not her husband in light of Samaritan religion: the Samaritans had worshiped five gods, and now they were worshiping YHWH, yet they were not exclusively committed to him.  Vanhoozer disagrees with this interpretation, saying that the Samaritans were monotheists by this point.  It is still an intriguing interpretation.

C.  Vanhoozer talks about why he believes that theology is important.  He quotes skeptic Richard Dawkin's statement that theology is utterly unimportant.  Vanhoozer makes a variety of interesting and profound points.  He notes that, in the New Testament, sound doctrine is often contrasted with sin, not doctrinal heresy.  He states that doctrine has to do with spiritual health, not just truth.  He says that theology is important because it can counteract the tendency of today's knowledge to be vast, while not really going anywhere.  That last point resonates with me, for I do think that there is more to life than survival and machines running smoothly.  At the same time, Vanhoozer may have done well to have explored how (or if) certain academic discussions of theology have any relevance to people's lives.  In short, are these discussions about esoteric and arcane trivia, or are they about something relevant that can impact people's perspective and life?

D.  Many of the essays were inspiring.  Vanhoozer had thoughtful things to say about beauty and the church's mission to point people to God's reconciliation with humanity.  Vanhoozer talks about the importance of narrative and how that can show Christianity being lived, not just contemplated.  The chapter about the inerrancy of Scripture was somewhat lackluster, and Vanhoozer perhaps should have wrestled more with the problems the Bible has, in the eyes of many people.  At the same time, those looking for a reasonable perspective on inerrancy, one that is not rigidly fundamentalist, may find Vanhoozer's insights helpful here, in terms of providing a starting-point or food for thought.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review. 

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