Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Book Review: Sider's Nonviolent Action

Another Brazos Bloggers review: Ronald J. Sider, Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands But Most Christians Have Never Really Tried (Brazos, 2015).

Seldom has the case for nonviolent action -- which Ronald Sider defines in his new book as "an activist confrontation with evil that respects the personhood even of the 'enemy' and therefore seeks both to end the oppression and to reconcile the oppressor through nonviolent methods" (xv) -- been made so readable. For those only vaguely aware of the victories that nonviolent actions have won, this is an excellent primer: the book's first three parts detail some of the most memorable of those victories (e.g., Gandhi vs. the British Empire; Martin Luther King, Jr., in the fight for civil rights in the US; struggles against Communist control in Poland and Germany; and the "Arab Spring"). Its last section reminds us why the word action appears so prominently in the title, for this is not only a history but a call to engagement. Sider isn't shy about noting the problems and inconsistencies that have arisen in some of the struggles above, but he is clearly and justifiably proud of the campaigns in which he himself has played a role. (Indeed, these emerge as some of the book's best chapters, from his admission of fearing for his life while intervening with Witness for Peace in Nicaragua in 1985 [47] to his involvement in the formation of Christian Peacemaker Teams [147].) His challenge to readers comes through clearly in this last section, when he calls "just- war" and pacifist Christians alike to be more consistent and courageous in their actions, not just in their beliefs. The book would have been improved by adding a concise chapter on the theology of nonviolent action (hinted at but underdeveloped on 173, 177), but even as it stands, it's a volume that cannot and must not be ignored.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Book Review: Middleton's A New Heaven and a New Earth

A short book review of J. Richard Middleton's new book, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), for NetGalley. I'll be presenting an expanded version of this as part of a review panel, with a response by the author, at the spring meeting of the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association at the 2015 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

I'm always impressed by Richard Middleton's work, and this book is no exception. It's a difficult trick to write about eschatology without losing sight of the larger narrative of biblical theology, but Middleton pulls it off! He begins by showing how the book's concern fits within his story, noting his concern "to make the Bible's vision for the redemption of creation available to a wide audience" (16) -- many of whom might struggle with some of the same questions that he's wrestled with throughout his theological life.

The opening chapters place in narrative context "God's unswerving purpose to redeem earthly creation (rather than take us out of earth to heaven)," arguing that the image of "an ethereal 'heaven' is more traditional than biblical" (17, 23) and that humans bearing the image of God is at least as much about cultivation and culture as it is about conventional images of worship. Middleton shrewdly labels his thesis as "holistic salvation," which puts the onus on potential opponents to prove that their vision is as "holistic" as his -- as some Dispensationalists have previously done with terms like "biblical," "normal," and "literal." The upshot is that Middleton is able to note the Bible's interest in concrete details of creation and culture, including systemic oppression and deliverance from same in the Old Testament, without undermining divine transcendence and redemption. In Middleton's treatment of the New Testament, I particularly appreciate his re-interpretation of pivotal passages like Romans 8, where Paul "includes the nonhuman creation in God's salvific plan" but puts humans in Pharaoh's place: "we have subjected creation to...frustration, much as the Egyptian king oppressed the Israelites" (160). The book's two final sections, taking up "problem texts" for holistic eschatology and the reconstruction of "kingdom" ethics, are commendable for their systematic presentation and humour -- as when the author hopes that the "false teaching" of the annihilation of the present earth will itself be destroyed at Christ's return: " 'Left Behind' theology will finally be left behind!" (200) 

My own (not terribly eschatological) hope is that this book will take its place next to classics like Ladd's The Presence of the Future, though I'm not sure that those who most need to be convinced by Middleton's work will be patient enough to read it thoroughly. As I largely agree with his holistic eschatology, my two caveats concern the theology that supports it. First, I would like Middleton to clarify his definition of sin, as it shifts over the early sections: it's "our culpable mismanagement of our human calling" but does not simplistically drive "God's presence out from earthly life" (48); yet it's also "innovations in the misuse of power, which impede God's purposes for the flourishing of earthly life and prevent God's presence from fully permeating creation" (53; variously rephrased on 55, 71, and 165). I understand and agree that the definition can develop and vary according to different texts within the metanarrative, but again, I'd like some further clarity on the definition that emerges from that very development. Second, I was glad to see Middleton devote attention to 2 Corinthians 5:1-9 (216-17, 229-31), not just for the passage's eschatological importance, but because it's recently become devotionally formative for me. But I challenge some aspects of Middleton's reading of this text, as Walter Grundmann's interpretation (TDNT 2:63-65) supplies some needed nuance -- not least of which is the role of the Holy Spirit, which Middleton neglects.

My heartfelt thanks to Richard for writing this excellent book, and to Baker Academic for publishing and offering the opportunity to review it.