Over the past few weeks, I have read three quite different books that I wish to bring to your attention.
The first is A Compact Guide to the Whole Bible. This book is intended to be a semester long introduction to the Bible for Christian colleges and churches. What makes this book unique is its focus on the Bible as scripture and as story. The authors do not spend much time with historical context and literary criticism as these topics have been well covered in other books. They do spend time explaining what scripture is and is not. Then they lay out the big picture: the meta narrative. Only then do the authors begin their discussion of the various sections of the Bible. This book helps the reader make sense out of the entire text. It shows how the different “parts” fit together and why the Bible is shaped in the way that it is. This book is not dumbed down and it is not overly technical. It is written for average, intelligent lay people who want to understand the Bible well. A Compact Guide to the Whole Bible is well worth your time.
The second book is The Gospel of Jesus, by Ben Witherington III. In all honesty, I almost didn’t read this book after I discovered it was an attempt at telling a “unified” story about Jesus using the four gospels. I was afraid it would be stilted and dull and either too dramatic or too holy. However I did read it and I am glad that I did. Witherington uses the Common English Bible as his main translation and admits to rearranging some events (just as the original gospel authors did). He also adds historical, cultural and geographic details into the story which add greatly to the book. He does an excellent job of making the people in the New Testament come to life. Overall Ben Witherington succeeds in his attempt to tell Jesus story in a fresh, interesting, and faithful way.
The third book is Scot McKnight’s A Fellowship of Differents. I really wanted to like this book. I wanted to like it so much that I read it twice to give it a second chance. McKnight’s thesis in this book is that the church is not supposed to be a gathering of the similar(theologically, culturally, ethnically, etc) but rather a fellowship of differents.
On the plus side there is quite a bit of information about Paul and the historical and cultural context of the first century CE. McKnight’s work here is very good and very interesting and worth reading. He grounds his argument for diversity in the church today in the diversity in the early church and Paul’s insistence on that diversity.
What is lacking, in my opinion, are good real life examples of churches which are truly fellowships of differents. The book lacks stories about churches that learned to live and thrive as diverse communities. There aren’t stories about churches that experienced conflict and managed that in a faithful and healthy way. There aren’t stories of churches who have struggled with issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, and theological differences. The majority of examples in the book are about individuals and are not examples of managing and overcoming situations of conflict or exclusion. There is also the obligatory, for evangelicals, chapter on “the gay issue”. Again, McKnight’s discussion of the sexual habits and norms of first century Rome is very good. But his language and discussion suggest he considers same sex orientation as sin and he stops well short of advocating for full inclusion in the church. Read this book for the very fine discussion of Paul and first century Rome and skim the rest.