Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Book Review: Sea Raven's Theology in Exile: Year of Matthew

Someday soon I will actually write a blog post that's not a book review. But that day is not today. For now, I'm continuing to clear out long-neglected projects, with another review for The Speakeasy: an ebook, Theology in Exile: Year of Matthew -- Commentary of the Revised Common Lectionary for an Emerging Christianity, by Sea Raven (Book 1 of Theology of Exile; Vol. 2 of Theology from ExileCreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013). ISBN: 9781491077320.

First, an apology: this review is badly late. I promised it before beginning renovations on our house, and that process had a predilection for torpedoing deadlines. But I hope that this review, late as it is, will still bring some welcome publicity to this book. As I'm supposed to do here, I'll also state that I was provided with a copy of this ebook in order to review it here on my blog, and that I was not required to give it a good review.

It's safe to say that Sea Raven, D.Min. -- an Associate of the Westar Institute and lay minister for worship of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland -- and I differ somewhat on our interpretations of Scripture. This didn't surprise me, as Speakeasy's initial description of her book promised a view of the Lectionary "through fresh eyes, providing compelling biblical study and insight for pastors and lay leaders ('believers in exile') who are drawn to Jesus' mandate for justice, healing and shalom, but who no longer find meaning in conventional interpretations of scripture." I'm sympathetic to the need to create, as she puts it, "reimagined rituals" of Communion and other rites (p. 9 of 364, according to my device). But having read her re-interpretation of the texts through the Lectionary year, I'm not sure that I find any meaning -- "conventional" or otherwise -- in Raven's commitment to "a non-theistic, 'kenotic God'" (9; "post-theistic," which she uses on p. 31, is more nuanced and might have made a better choice throughout). And though I share her desire to articulate and live out a "theology from exile" (11 and throughout) for a post-Christendom age, as my friend Lee Beach has done, I'm uncertain whether Raven sees the irony in uprooting this theology from its biblical and historical roots.

There are some features worth commending here. Raven will not let readers hide from uncomfortable truths of contemporary politics, noting, for instance, that "too much of Christian fundamentalism has become United States domestic and foreign policy" (17); nor will she let us forget that there are biblical texts that go unread as one works through the RCL (165, 168 and elsewhere). She excels at bringing the RCL's texts together, as here: "In Isaiah 35, the exiles -- redeemed -- return to Zion. They are redeemed because they return to the ways of the Lord. And what are those ways? Psalm 146 spells them out..." (28). And her exegesis occasionally produces memorable insights: "The pearl of great price is actually worthless to the one who sells everything to get it. In order to live in the normalcy of civilization, he would need to sell it. But nothing is needed for living in God's realm" (182).

Unfortunately, too often her interpretive skills end up serving a predetermined agenda -- which is inevitable in scholarship, yes, but need not be so to this degree. Raven cannot let herself stray far from the Jesus Seminar's findings, so when she doesn't like the meaning of a text, she simply changes it. For John 1:12, "Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God," she states, "Believing in the light is not a prerequisite for becoming children of God" (34). Unless, of course, the text actually says that it is! It's one thing for Sea Raven to take issue with those who created the RCL (as she often does), and to offer re-interpretations of biblical texts. It's quite another thing, far more destructive than the "cherry-picking" of passages (of which she finds the RCL guilty), to make those texts mean the opposite of what they say. If you enjoy "progressive" readings of Scripture, to the point of allowing your exegetical skills to regress, then this book is for you. Otherwise, it's best read as an example not of good exegesis, but of skilled eisegesis -- bringing the interpreter's meaning into the text, rather than bringing the text's meaning out.

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