Book Review

Want to Understand the Old Testament Better? Read This Book…

Book Recommendation by Garrett Best

Sandra Richter, Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament. IVP Academic, 2008. (233 pages)

Okay, so I’m a few years late discovering this book. I happened upon it at a Half Price Books store, but I guess better late than never.

I often hear Christians bemoan the fact that they don’t know, or better yet, don’t understand the Old Testament. Even Christians who regularly read the Bible can’t seem to understand the point of all the names, dates, genealogies, wars, kingdoms, and kings. They can’t keep all the super-powers and centuries together. Was it they Egyptians, Amorites, Moabites, Jebusites, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, or Babylonians? Was it the 9th century or the 7th? And, what’s the point of it all anyway?!

Richter calls this the “dysfunctional closet syndrome”. We all have a dysfunctional closet somewhere in our lives: “clothes hanging from their hangers, accessories dangling from the shelves, shoes piled in disarray on the floor.” (18) Given her years in ministry and teaching, she has found this is a great way to express the way most Christians think about the Old Testament. We may know facts about people and dates and times, but we don’t really know how to get it in order. We know David killed Goliath, Cain killed Abel, Noah saved the animals, and David committed adultery with Bathsheba, but we don’t quite understand the point of those stories. So, we end up closing off this closet and opening it as little as possible, only when necessary.

Richter to the rescue. “My goal in writing this book, therefore, is to deal a mortal blow to the dysfunctional closet syndrome. I am convinced that the key to the problem above is order. Until a believer is able to organize what they know about the Old Testament meaningfully, they cannot use it… So my goal in this book is to provide structure. Metaphorically speaking, to pick the clothes up off the floor, get some hangers, a pole and some hooks, and help you build a closet of your very own.” (19)

What I loved about this book is that it has something for everyone, the novice and the mature Christian alike. Even if you’ve read the Old Testament before and basically understood it, there will still be gems in the book. She has included detailed footnotes for those who want to dig deeper. However, this book will be most beneficial to Christians who find it difficult to understand the basic story of the Old Testament and to understand why that story is important to new covenant Christians. Richter provides a “general law” through which to read the whole Bible and give the story some order. She traces this general law through a series of covenants God made with five different men to affect his plan of redemption for the world.

There were a few things I especially loved about this book. First and foremost, it is a book chock full of good theology. Not all theology is good theology. Richter has a knack for good, big-picture theology. She understands the grand story of the Bible and she communicates it effectively and engagingly. The book contains many charts and diagrams that aid in getting a fuller picture of the grand narrative of Scripture. You will leave this book with an appreciation of Jesus messiah as the “son of Abraham, the son of David” (Matt. 1:1) rather than the view of many evangelicals that Jesus is “my personal savior here to tell me how to get to heaven”. Richter helps us transcend these naive views with a more mature faith in Christ informed by the whole of Scripture.

Second, Richter has a way of dealing with controversial issues in Old Testament studies in a respectful and helpful way. She helps move the conversation forward without getting mired in the disagreements. Heated debates over the controversial issues have obscured us from understanding the story of the Old Testament. Was the creation in Genesis seven twenty-four hour days or millions of years? Did characters in the Bible really live to be several 100’s of years old? Did the exodus event happen at the early date or the late date? Was Noah’s flood local or universal? Richter is able to address these issues and others in a way that is respectful to those who won’t see eye to eye with her conclusions. She is able to take these “controversial issues” and show their import in the story of redemption.

Third, Richter aptly incorporates epigraphy and archaeology from the Ancient Near East in order to bring to life the world and culture of the Old Testament. Richter makes the material accessible and interesting. She certainly has the right credentials to do this. Most chapters have a section where Richter delves into the real time and real space of the people she is discussing. In order to understand the Old Testament, we must understand the culture of ancient Israel.

With any book, there will be negatives. There will certainly be some who won’t agree with some of Richter’s interpretations, but this should not take away from the overall value of the book. One shortfall of the book is that it has the ambitious undertaking of summarizing the entire Old Testament story in 233 pages. In one sense, the book falls short because no 233 page summary of the Old Testament could ever be adequate. In another sense, this book is as good a summary as could be done in such a succinct, engaging manner. Although Richter is attempting to summarize the Old Testament, there are some notable absences of important Old Testament material. I don’t recall any mention of the Wisdom Literature. How does Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, or Job fit into the grand narrative of Scripture? Unfortunately, Richter does not deal with this.

Despite the shortfalls, Richter fulfills her general purpose of providing a basic framework to understand the Old Testament, and not just understanding it, but making that story our own. I am grateful for having stumbled upon this book. I highly recommend it.




Book Review: Muscle and a Shovel

Reviewed by Garrett Best

Several months ago, someone asked me if I had read Muscle and a Shovel, and I hadn’t. It seemed like almost everyday I was seeing or hearing someone comment about the book. I didn’t have time to read it, but someone in my congregation came up and asked my opinion about the book and so, in December, I read it. Michael Shank’s story of leaving the Baptist Church and coming to Churches of Christ is a story shared by many of my friends and even my own wife! So, I appreciate what Michael has tried to do with this book. He has attempted to share his own story in an effort to encourage others to think critically about the Bible, salvation, and the church. My review of this book is nothing personal against Michael Shank. I know nothing about the guy other than what I read in the book. My review is solely based on the content, message, and tone of the book. I hope to include enough quotations in this review so that even if you haven’t read the book personally, you can get a feel for what it seeks to do. I don’t claim to have all the answers, and hope this review is received with the well-intention with which it is written. I want to see people reached with the gospel of Christ as should all Christians. I want to question whether this book is the most effective means to accomplish that purpose.

When I started the book, I expected to like it. Preachers and elders were handing out boxes full of the books in their churches. There are hundreds of five star reviews on Amazon. I really wanted to like it. I grew up in Churches of Christ and love our rich heritage in the American Restoration Movement. I believe there are so many great things about our fellowship. I love our simple yet theologically profound worship. I love our emphasis on teaching the Bible. So, this review is written by one committed deeply to the principles of our movement and the teachings of the Bible.

I found the book to be easy to read. I was unable to put it down. Shank has a talent for producing narrative. One of the positive things that I think has resulted from this book is showing those in Churches of Christ how powerful narrative can be in evangelism. Since the 1980s biblical scholarship has been moving away from historical-critical criticism and towards more wholistic understandings of the narratives and how they function. Simply put, narrative is hot right now. I think that a narrative approach to evangelism might be an effective means of reaching certain age groups. I appreciate Shank for bringing an emphasis on narrative to the conversation about how best to reach people.

The book is easy to read and the narrative engaging. Unfortunately, there are numerous spelling, capitalization, and grammatical errors which occur throughout the book. As a reader, I found that to be distracting. The preface states, “The story you are about to read is completely true in every sense. There are no exaggerations and embellishments” (7). In the 352 pages that follow, Shank shares the story of how he was brought out of the Baptist Church and introduced to Churches of Christ. Randall, a co-worker of Shanks, invites him to study the Bible and causes Shank to question many of his previously held beliefs about religion and salvation.

Since the events of the story occurred over two decades ago, the conversations and actions have been reconstructed for the benefit of readers. Of course, Shank doesn’t have an actual transcript of the conversations so he has recreated them with a purpose in mind. The story is clearly crafted in such a way to have an intended effect upon the reader. Shank makes this agenda clear at the end, “Friend, if you’ve read this book in its entirety you have been taught of God” (326). The book is intended to be an evangelistic tool that encourages readers to question their salvation and denominational affiliation as Shank was led to do by Randall (327). As I understood the book, it is more intended to be directed at those in denominations than it is to unbelievers. This book would be largely unintelligible to a non-Christian. In other words, it is intended to be a Bible study in narrative form for those currently in evangelical Protestant denominations.

There are a few concerns that I have about the book. First, I think that readers leave the book with unfair caricatures of denominations. The straw man fallacy is when a person in a debate constructs a straw man of their opponent’s position and then attempts to burn down the new argument they have constructed. For example, Bob says, “I just love sunny days.” In response Fred says, “Bob only wants us to have sunny days which means there will be no rain and then all our crops will die and we will starve to death. Bob is so evil.” Fred has constructed a straw man and then burned it down and burned down Bob with it. The argument Fred made and attacked was not what Bob originally said.

I believe this book contains several straw man fallacies and ill-informed characterizations of those in Protestant groups. For example, Shank repeatedly presents the Baptist Church as teaching that John the Baptist was the founder of the Baptist Church (62, 66). While I do not deny that Shank encountered this response from some Baptist pastors, this is not what most in Baptist Churches teach. Can you imagine someone writing a book and claiming that Churches of Christ are opposed to Sunday School because they spoke with two preachers from some of our no-Sunday-School brethren? It’s a straw man which only serves to make the Baptist Church look ignorant. Even if a few pastors responded to Shank in that way, it is false and not descriptive of the beliefs of all Baptists as if one could even describe what all Baptists believe any more than one could describe the positions of all in Churches of Christ.

When Shank discusses what he views as, “the vague, nondescript, generic, community churches,” his caricature is even more injudicious. In chapter 20, he relates a story of being kicked out of a Sunday morning Bible class at a local community church. He says that he was kicked out for quoting the Bible. A man in the class allegedly accused Shank of thinking “the Bible is a literal guide” (179). The reader leaves with the impression that all community churches have disregarded the Bible as a guide for faith and practice. I am not questioning the historical veracity of this episode. What I am saying is that even if this happened at that particular community church, it cannot be said of all community churches. As if all community churches could be pigeonholed in this manner to begin with, the caricature is unfair and unfounded. Another straw man constructed and burned down.

When he discusses Jehovah’s Witnesses, he makes the assertion that they believe that the Watchtower Bible publication is “just as holy and inspired as the Bible” (176). “Isn’t it bizarre that they exalt their publications to the same level as the inspired Bible?” (176) This is simply not true. The Watchtower organization was formed in 1881 as Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society for the purpose of distributing religious tracts. That is what it continues to do today- distribute religious literature to promote the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses. How is this any different than the tract racks in our church foyers, Leroy Brownlow’s book Why I Am a Member of the Church of Christ, or even the current book under review? I have some well-meaning Jehovah’s Witnesses that stop by my house often. They always hand me a copy of the Watchtower publication and in their other hand they have a copy of the New World Translation Bible. When they hand me the Watchtower, they do not think they are handing me Scripture.

Look, I’m not saying I agree with everything that the Baptists, community churches, or Jehovah’s Witnesses believe or teach. I disagree on many points. I think many of the doctrines being taught by these religious leaders ought to be challenged, but I want us to be responsible in how we go about it. Characterizing what they believe falsely is not the way.

Shank also unfairly caricatured all Baptist pastors as greedy, pompous, and self-promoting. In the book, they are presented as only interested in their own glory rather than the glory of God. “Those churches seemed to be replacing Bible content for bigger buildings and better entertainment. Why? To draw bigger crowds, of course. Bigger crowds meant bigger donations. Bigger donations meant bigger paychecks and better lifestyles for the leadership of those churches” (63). Are there no Baptist pastors with pure motives? To caricature all Baptist pastors and Baptist Churches in this way is slanderous. If Shank doesn’t believe all pastors are greedy and power-hungry, he certainly never says otherwise (see also 200-01). In possibly the worst insinuation in the book, Ryan, a friend of Shank’s, actually compares Hitler’s Mein Kampf to the brainwashing that occurs in denominations (206). Denominational pastors compared to Hitler?! In another place, Randall says, “Denominational preachers seem to love and crave the glory that is of men more than the glory that is of God. They prove this by their actions and attitudes” (253). Again, Randall says, “And denominational preachers today can be likened to the Pharisees in the first century who loved the praise of men and loved their titles. I understand that some of today’s preachers will even get angry if you won’t address them by their religious title” (253). Stereotyping all “denominational preachers” as greedy, power hungry, and craving the glory of man is irresponsible. I’m sure there are no preachers or elders in Churches of Christ that would fit these descriptions!

Second, I felt that Shank (and Randall) inappropriately used and applied several biblical passages. I will provide one of the most glaring examples. After a discussion of tithing, Randall says, “Mr. Mike, do you realize that when the Baptists try to pull people back under the Law of Moses by binding the Jewish tithe of 10% they’re fallen from grace?” (236) In Galatians 5:4, Paul told the Galatians they were severed from Christ for trying to be justified by the law. They were inserting circumcision and other covenant keeping rites as requisites for salvation. Paul himself says that it doesn’t intrinsically matter if one is circumcised or not (Gal. 5:6). In Acts 16:3, Paul took Timothy and had him circumcised. Clearly, he doesn’t think circumcision in and of itself is sinful. The problem was that some taught that circumcision was required in addition to faith in Jesus. Paul would not have a problem with anyone giving 10% of their income to the Lord if they so purposed in their hearts. His problem would be with someone who made tithing a requisite for salvation in addition to faith in Christ. I doubt that’s what “the Baptists” are teaching. To charge “the Baptists” en masse with seeking to be justified by the law because of tithing is an irresponsible use and application of that text. I would like to hear what Shank (or Randall) thinks about the fact that Jesus himself sanctioned the practice of tithing (Matt. 23:23). I would also be interested in hearing their thoughts on the episode in Acts 21:17-26 when Paul took the four men who had taken a Nazarite vow up to the temple to keep their vow. Paul paid for the offerings at the temple. Was Paul severed from Christ for trying to “pull people back under the Law of Moses”? The issue is more complicated than Shank (or Randall) allows. The worst part is that this misapplication of Paul’s teaching is used as a weapon for condemnation.

Third, I was concerned by the sectarianian tone and rhetoric. I tried to imagine reading this book as someone currently in one of the groups he is describing. My guess is that many have been horribly offended. Many of the reader reviews on Amazon confirm this. In my opinion, the rhetoric is off-putting. One quote has especially drawn the attention of many:

“Mr. Mike,” he said meekly, “from my understanding of God’s Word, if you’re a member of a denomination, whether it be Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Mormon, any church that Jesus Christ did not establish and buy with His blood, there’s no question that you’re headed toward eternal destruction” (52).

One leaves the book with the impression that if one is not in Churches of Christ, eternal punishment awaits. If Churches of Christ have taken any steps forward in trying to distance ourselves from the “We’re the only ones going to heaven” stigma, then this book takes us giant leaps backward.

One of the goals of this book is to encourage readers to come to the same understandings he reaches and follow the five step plan of salvation and submit to true biblical baptism for remission of sins. He says of his baptism in the Baptist Church:

Jonetta, [Shank’s wife, GB] when I got into the water at the age of 13 I thought that I had no sin. The Baptist Pastor told me that I was already saved. He said that baptism had nothing to do with salvation. He said it was just an outward show of an inward change…. And if I got into the water thinking I had no sins, I was not baptized for the remission of sins. I wasn’t baptized like those in the Bible were baptized. It wasn’t biblical. Jonetta, I was baptized for the wrong reason and if that’s the case my baptism is no good. I’m still in my sins at this moment. I’m not a true Christian. (pgs. 313-14)

If Shank is right about this, then some of the greatest thinkers and preachers in our past (Alexander Campbell, J.W. McGarvey, James Harding, and David Lipscomb) were wrong. They vehemently opposed re-baptism of those coming to Churches of Christ from certain denominational groups, most notably the Baptists. They did not believe that “for remission of sins” was the only acceptable motive for baptism. They believed that the view of re-baptism promoted by this book was sectarian and unbiblical. If you want to read more, you can check out a previous post here. You might ultimately disagree with them, but you at least should know what they said.

In my opinion, the book has an arrogant, sectarian tone. Shank repeatedly asserts that he has “used no personal interpretation” of any Bible passage (349). The book boasts of the absence of “human opinions” or “personal biases” (225, 283). This displays a blindness and arrogance on the part of the author. Randall and Shank’s interpretations are simply equated with truth. Further, the book is riddled with quotes like, “How could any man call himself a minister of God and be so ignorant of the Word?” (138); “Do people really believe this junk called Calvinism?” (176); “The doctrines of the Holy Word of God are much different than the sweaty-palmed, weak-kneed, rosy-cheeked, wishy-washy, feel-good, stand-for-nothing, ineffectual, spineless, let’s-all-hold-hands-and-just-get-along garbage being dished out by the Community Church crowd” (180-81); “Mr. Mike, there is no rational spiritually honest person in the world who can refute God’s plan of salvation” (309); “Teaching that one can be saved by repeating the Sinner’s Prayer is a doctrine that will condemn numberless good people to the Lake of Fire” (335); “Try attending one of those spirit-filled, Holy Ghost baptized, charismatic revivals sometime and take a bottle of drain cleaner with you. Walk up to the ones claiming to have the miraculous gift of the Holy Ghost, hand them the drain cleaner and ask them to drink it” (171). The charged sectarian rhetoric of the book was off-putting even for me, and I’m not even in the target audience of the book. We would do well to take Paul’s advice in Col. 4:6, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” In my opinion, the rhetoric of this book is not very salty.

It is my opinion that this book is irresponsible in its caricature of denominations and its irresponsible application of some biblical passages. It contains sectarian rhetoric which will only continue to distance us from those outside our fellowship. For these reasons, I will personally not be recommending this book or sharing it with my friends outside Churches of Christ. This review is my own opinion. You are free to hold your own about the book.