Monday, December 1, 2014

Book Review: The Drama of Scripture, by Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen

The following partially satisfies the requirements for Chris Hlavacek's Old Testament Survey class at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story. By Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen. Second Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014, 272 pp.

What is the story of the world? Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen assert that many Christians have not recognized the essential shape of the Bible—that the Bible tells us the story of the world in the form of a sweeping, coherent drama. By presenting the metanarrative of the Bible in the form of a six-act play, they invite Christians who fail to see the overall picture that the Bible paints to find their place in the story. But, is the Bible really one sweeping drama? Although the Bible is presented to us in the form of sixty-six books, these books and stories are indeed related to each other; they are related because of the story of Christ that runs throughout the entire Bible. Although this book has many great qualities, at times the authors seem to have overused the drama metaphor. Additionally, the authors missed some great opportunities in the Old Testament to tie the story together with Christ, although they did look back to the OT from the New Testament.
In the prologue, the authors quote N.T. Wright saying “the whole point of Christianity is that it offers a story which is the story of the whole world…[we need to] tell this story as clearly as possible, and to allow it to subvert other ways of telling the story of the world” (21). They argue that many Christians read the Bible in a fragmented way, as if it were a jumble of little bits. And as a result of this fragmented reading, we ignore the divine author’s intention to shape our lives through its story (14). Throughout the book, they argue that the Bible must be understood as a single metanarrative that tells the story of the world. The problem with their presentation, especially in the long third act, is that some of the time we are presented with little more than summaries, or condensed versions of biblical stories.

The first three acts cover the Old Testament. The first act introduces us to God and covers the story of creation. Next, in the second act, humankind turns away from God in an act of gross disobedience. Act three (which consumes nearly one-third of the book), carries the story all the way from the murder of Abel in Genesis 4 through the end of the Old Testament, focusing mainly on the story of Israel. Between acts three and four the authors cover the history and literature of the intertestamental period. In act four, the authors pick up the story of Jesus as told in the four gospels, and then act five covers both the early church as well as the modern church. The book closes out with act six, covering the book of Revelation and the restoration of creation.

In act one, the authors do a good job of contrasting our biblical account of creation with other accounts from the ancient Near East, specifically how in Babylon it was believed that gods made humankind simply to serve as the gods’ servants (27). The authors point out that we created in the image of God, male and female. This way, we are always standing in relationships with each other and to God. We can’t be fully human—or fully in the image of God—on our own, we need relationships. What the authors fail to do is fully explore the differences in the role of the male and female. One interesting point the authors make is how we are also created to care for the environment. Therefore, not only are we created to be in relationships with one another and with God, we are also called to be in a relationship with all of creation (35-36).

The second act tells the story of how the entire future of the world is shaped by one act of disobedience. The authors discuss the serpent and the act of temptation, but fail to tackle the hard question of how evil could emerge in God’s good creation. The authors simply refer to the mysterious nature of God by saying: “These questions are not answered, and they alert us to the mystery that surrounds the origin of evil in creation” (40). Also, the authors identify Genesis 3:15 as the “first biblical promise of the gospel”, stating that Christ will be the woman’s offspring who defeats Satan (42). While it is great that they mention this, it is one particular example of how the authors only explore the Christological aspects of Old Testament texts when the connecting thread is very obvious, since they miss many other opportunities to explore Messianic meanings within the Old Testament.

Act three is where the grand story of redemption develops. The fall has happened and God must now work to reconcile humankind back to himself. The effects of the fall are causing sin to take over the world and God decides to destroy the world through a great flood so that he can start fresh. While in the process of introducing Noah, the authors do not clarify the difference between Lamach, the son of Methusael, who was the author of the sword-song from Genesis 4 and Lamach, the son of Methuselah and who was the father of Noah (47). They mention both in close proximity, but never explain that they are in fact, different men. After the flood narrative, and the tower of Babel we meet Abraham. God promises that he will make a great name for Abraham and that a great nation will descend from him (55). After years of waiting with no legitimate male heir, Abraham and Sarah finally have a son and God tells Abraham to take his son Isaac and offer him as a sacrifice (56). Although this narrative demonstrates how Abraham trusted God, this is one of the examples where the authors miss a wonderful opportunity to explore the Christological message within an Old Testament narrative. There is neither mention of Christ nor mention of substitutionary atonement in relation to this passage. It is also interesting that in this first section of act three, the authors make no mention of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot or even Hagar and Ishmael. Although the covenant is with Abraham, and then Isaac and Jacob, God also promised to make a nation for Ishmael in Genesis 21.

The authors’ handling of the ten plagues was very interesting, and helpful. Moses and Aaron are sent to confront Pharaoh, and through a series of ten plagues Pharaoh is confronted with the fact that Yahweh is God. In this section the authors present an interesting naturalistic theory of how the ten plagues came to take place. They rightly point out, however, that by resorting to a merely naturalistic understanding of the plagues, we can easily fail to recognize that God sustains the whole of creation and that the laws of nature are part of his creation. The important thing to understand about the plagues, according to the authors, is how they show that God is at work manifesting his power over the whole creation to Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Another view presented was that the plagues were directed against different Egyptian gods, showing the Egyptians that what they thought to be true of their gods is actually true of Yahweh as he demonstrates his control over the forces of nature (63). Later, the authors point out that the golden calf narrative is easily comparable to Adam and Eve’s mutiny in the Garden of Eden—violating the first and second of God’s commandments, and then the authors addressed how God’s personal wrath is handled, and how Moses interceded on behalf of the people (72). It was interesting, and helpful, to tie the golden calf directly back to the fall.

After the interlude covering the intertestamental period, we are presented with the story of Jesus as told in the Gospels in act four. One odd statement here is: “At least four authors took up this challenge”, referring to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (136). Some could misunderstand this because it alludes to the fact that there could be other gospels, or that some accounts, which have not been accepted by the church, could be valid. The authors go on to say that each of these authors tell the story in light of the needs of his own moment in history, his own situation and needs of his audience (136). They also point out that each gospel writer is concerned with conveying that the story of Jesus is part of a much larger story (138). They mention Isaiah 52 and how the prophet was writing some six hundred years before the life of Jesus and how that passage is immediately recognizable to the first century Jews in Palestine. (143-144). They point out that Jesus is the “long-awaited One of the Old Testament prophecies”, and show how Jesus taught that he was the “Son of Man”, drawing from Daniel (164). In act four we see references back to the Old Testament prophecies quite a bit. These correlations could be made in any direction, and the authors chose more often to look back from the New Testament rather than forward from the Old Testament. In keeping with the drama emphasis, perhaps a bit more foreshadowing from acts one, two and three would have added a bit more to the running narratives that took up so much space in the early part of the book. By waiting until the New Testament was being covered, it seemed to de-emphasis how amazing the Old Testament Messianic prophecies can be.

As the authors tell the story of Jesus’s crucifixion, they mention how in Mark 15:34 Jesus says “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” but they fail to reference that back to Psalm 22, showing that even for Jesus, the Scriptures can be a source of comfort during a time of suffering. But, why did Jesus quote Psalm 22? Why not one of the many passages of Lamentations which deal with suffering? Perhaps it’s because the opening cries of Psalm 22 are a cry of faith and the Psalm ends in triumph (Psalm 22:29-31). The authors also say that Jesus “experiences bearing sin”, but Jesus never experienced sin. Jesus could not sin. What Jesus experienced was God’s wrath by suffering the punishment of sin, but he could not have experienced sin. In discussing the atonement, the authors use the language of victory, for example: “Jesus wins the battle and grants liberation from slavery to Satan to those for whom he fought…we share in that victory over sin, even as we share in Jesus’s triumph over it” (178). While victory is a good analogy, it would have been great to see discussion of how Jesus’s death achieves this victory by justification where God removes the guilt and penalty of sin from humankind, and declaring human sinners righteous through Jesus’s act of atonement.

In act five, we learn of the story of the church and how the good news spreads. In the book of Acts, after the resurrection, Jesus is with his disciples for forty days before his ascension. In their discussion, the authors did not show some important aspects of the ascension. By ascending into heaven Jesus has gone to heaven to take his place as the king, and ruler of all of humanity. Also, by ascending into heaven, Jesus has once again left the constraints of space and time. After the ascension, Jesus can act at the cosmic level; he can act on behalf of all people at all time instead of being bound to one place at one time.

Although justification language was missing when discussing the atonement in act four, there are hints to justification in act five. In the section Paul’s letters, we read that “Paul proclaims the good news that our ‘guilty verdict’ has been overturned”, and that “with our guilt removed, we stand in a right relationship to God” (209). It seems obvious though, after reading this section that the authors follow the New Perspective on Paul. A good example of this is the comparison of being “in Adam” versus being “in Jesus” and the statement that if we are “in Christ” we are already part of the age to come. In other words, we are justified because we are part of the new covenant, and justification by faith alone is never mentioned (205).

The final act of the book covers the restoration, where the old heaven and earth which where dominated by sin and death give way to the new heaven and earth free of sin and evil. The first few paragraphs of act six do a wonderful job of showing how the opening chapters of Revelation tie into earlier scripture. Next, in the section titled “Events Proceeding the End”, the authors admit that there are many views of the sequence of events leading up to the end times and acknowledge that that these views have lead to must controversy and disagreement. They did not, however explain any of the views, but do make a great statement quoting David Lawrence: “fixing our attention on such things is a bit like becoming obsessed with the nature, strength and frequency of birth pangs when we should be thinking about the baby” (231). This is a good analogy, and the authors are correct in not getting bogged down in deep eschatological discussion, but perhaps a brief overview of the various positions might have allowed the reader to better understand them and form her own opinions. The book seems to end abruptly; the closing paragraph does not seem to tie the story together or provide closure. The ending is a tad mysterious, but that may not be a bad thing. There was a section in act five with a brief discussion of some scenarios of how the modern reader might apply Biblical Theology. There were scenarios for business, creation care and college students. Perhaps this section would have been more suited for an epilogue.

Despite very few shortcomings, the book was excellent overall, even though the sections covering the Old Testament lacked mention of many Messianic prophesies, most notably the suffering servant narrative from Isaiah 53. The authors do several things well. They present Biblical Theology in an approachable manner. They do a commendable job of condensing the grand story of the Bible to just over two hundred pages. And most importantly, they show how individual Christians fit into the overall story of the Bible. Perhaps there were minor issues here and there, but nothing that would be damaging, and no bad or overly liberal theology was presented. This book could easily be commended to believers at any point in their walk with Christ to gain a better understanding of the biblical story.

Works Cited

Bartholomew, Craig G., and Michael W. Goheen. The Drama of Scripture. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004, 2014.

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