Tag Archives: james kugel

Five Books That Changed Everything

One nice thing that my unexpected midlife spiral into biblical study has done for me is to teach me to read. In my younger days, I was always more of a “worn out VHS tape of The Simpsons or Mystery Science Theater” kinda guy than a “book” guy. When I first started asking big questions about faith and tradition, now almost a decade ago, the only resources I had handy were my ESV Study Bible and sermon podcasts from the likes of John Piper, Tim Keller, and Mark Driscoll.  (I had no idea back then that my biblical education had been entrusted almost exclusively to neo-Calvinists. I barely knew what a Calvinist was.)

Seminary taught me to read, and to read wide. It taught me to eagerly seek diverse points of view and to expose myself to scholarship from many disciplines and traditions (not just Christian, not just American, not just western). I still regularly consult books I bought in seminary: reference books, theologies, histories, and books on biblical languages. And my library shelves (and Kindle and Audible accounts) continue to expand.

Looking back on the journey that has taken me from familiar and safe surroundings to new and uncharted frontiers, there are some books which represent distinct moments of discovery, correction, and transformation; what I might call “intellectual repentance.” These are not necessarily my “favorites” or my “desert island” reads, but they mark the major moments of progress in my ever evolving relationship with the Bible. If I remain diligent, this list will never be a “closed canon.” Here’s how it looks today:

1. The First Testament In Historical and Cultural Context, R. Bryan Widbin

first testamentThis one has more to do with a man than a book. The First Testament is a published presentation of notes and curriculum from Dr. R. Bryan Widbin, Professor of Old Testament at Alliance Theological Seminary. As the title of his book suggests, Dr. Widbin does not prefer the moniker “Old Testament,” which too often reflects unhelpful Christian notions about the Hebrew Scriptures.

I had the honor of studying under Dr. Widbin in several courses and the great honor of assisting him in the teaching of Hebrew for a couple of terms. Few experiences have been more profoundly transformational than my time in classrooms with Dr. Widbin. He taught us about the world, culture, language, and people which created the Hebrew Bible, emphasized the prophetic call for justice, and exemplified a peaceful, hopeful reading of difficult ancient material. In short, his courses set me on the critical and theological trajectory that has defined my faith ever since.

Thank you, Dr. Widbin!

2. How to Read the Bible, James Kugel

how to read bibleI bought this book on the recommendation of Dr. Widbin. In fact, I seem to recall that it was listed on the syllabus for one course or another. It wasn’t until some time later that I actually picked it up and started reading it, and it proved to be immensely helpful. Kugel is a distinguished professor of Bible (retired from Harvard, now at Bar Ilan in Israel) and an Orthodox Jew. In How to Read the Bible he pursues two objectives: he provides a comprehensive and invaluable survey of current Hebrew Bible scholarship, and at the same time wrestles with his own conclusions in light of both his scholarly accomplishment and his personal Jewish faith. For a Christian just beginning to study and ask unsettling questions, it was disarmingly instructive and comforting to observe such vulnerable teachability in someone from a very different perspective and station. This book gave me mountains of data to consider, but more importantly it modeled sensitive and responsible scholarship.

The Bible As It Was is another essential book from Kugel, a reference volume in which he compares interpretations of Hebrew Bible texts from various rabbis and church fathers. His In Potiphar’s House is also highly regarded, though I have not read it myself yet.

3. The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann

prophetic imaginationThe third and final “Old Testament” title on the list, and one of the most stunning intellectual experiences a Christian can have reading about the Bible. Brueggemann’s very short book reframes and clarifies the role of the biblical prophets, clearing up unhelpful assumptions and giving the original prophetic voices a fresh broadcast. Dr. Brueggemann portrays prophets not as unfeeling, mechanical vessels for divine announcement and prediction, but as poets artfully inviting their hearers (and especially the powers-that-be) into an alternative world of imagination. These prophets don’t merely wag their fingers at sinners, they challenge us all to consider that “it doesn’t have to be like this.” I cannot do this powerful book justice in such a brief description.

Brueggemann also published a full and excellent Introduction to the Old Testament, and his recent Sabbath As Resistance is another watershed.

4. Jesus and the Victory of God, N.T. Wright

jesus and the victory of godI usually treat lengthy theologies like reference books, consulting them topically as-needed. But when the 700 page Jesus and the Victory of God arrived at my doorstep from Amazon, I opened it up and read it straight through over the course of a few evenings. Then I immediately went back and re-read a couple of key sections. When it comes to the New Testament and the historical person and ministry of Jesus, no work has been more influential and definitive to me than Wright’s. After providing an alarmingly thorough history of Jesus scholarship, JVG offers a meticulous and multidimensional examination of the (ancient, prophetic, and Second Temple) Jewish contexts of Jesus’ life and message. No aspect of the historical Jesus is left unexplored or unclarified: his self-concept as a prophet, the political background to his public campaign, the meaning of his miraculous “signs,” the exile as the interpretive key to his parables, the historical roots of his eschatology, and the reasons for his arrest and execution. If you care about who Jesus was and what he said, JVG provides invaluable guidance. The follow-up volume The Resurrection of the Son of God deals with Easter from a similar perspective and with the same rigor.

Also highly recommended are Wright’s books on Paul (his major scholarly work Paul and the Faithfulness of God and his more reader friendly Paul: In Fresh Perspective), Surprised By Hope, and The Kingdom New Testament, his own fresh and eye-popping translation.

5. Her Gates Will Never Be Shut, Bradley Jersak

her gatesFor a brain like mine, Jersak’s book is what Rob Bell’s Love Wins should have been. That’s probably not fair to Bell, who surely wrote the book he intended to. But Her Gates Will Never Be Shut examines the questions of hell and judgment with an evangelical attention to the contents and contexts of scripture, even as it gives voice to perspectives that go far beyond the traditional Protestant configurations. Jersak exhaustively catalogs those biblical terms and scenarios which deal with judgment and ultimate human destiny and demonstrates their rich diversity, their obscured and unexpected origins, and some surprisingly beautiful pastoral implications. This book doesn’t call the debate for the universalist side, it simply constructs a holistic – and ultimately hopeful – biblical view to a future in which God’s mercy conquers, redeems, and rescues all. If you are a serious and conscientious reader of the Bible who finds traditional formulations of judgment and hell untenable, this book is a gift.

Brad Jersak appears in the fascinating documentary Hellbound?, now streaming on Netflix, and his upcoming book is titled A More Christlike God.

Other Game-changers:

Understanding Genesis and Exploring Exodus, Nahum Sarna
Sinai and Zion, Jon Levenson
A Farewell to Mars, Brian Zahnd
Disarming Scripture, Derek Flood
The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle
The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard
A New Kind of Christianity, Brian McLaren
A People’s History of Christianity, Diana Butler Bass
For the Bible Tells Me So, Peter Enns
The Jesus Driven Life, Michael Hardin
And for old times’ sake: The Reason for God, Timothy Keller