26 June 2009

5 Books That Have Influenced My Reading of the Bible

Last Friday, Kevin Edgecomb posted his fulfillment of a meme in which he was tagged: ‘list at least five books that have influenced your reading of the Bible’, whether scholarly, patristic, devotional, or otherwise. The courteous Edgecomb noted—after giving his own fascinating answers—that he cannot bring himself to pass memes on, but he added:

So, the meme stops here unless you, O reader, find yourself, perhaps, on an off chance, as the case may be, meme-amenable, so that you might then take it upon yourself to contribute to this meme which could very well force you to jog down memory lane, and also, I hope, enjoy a dig through dusty bookshelves as well.

Well, it sounded like a good idea to me, so I have gone and done likewise. Furthermore, like my wise blogger friend, I will ‘tag’ no one, although I can think of one or two bloggers whose response I would enjoy seeing. One of these is, of course, Esteban Vázquez (I only hope he doesn’t use up all five on the purportedly ‘infallible’ Moisés Silva), who tells me is planning to write such a post and to tag me in it. I grew rather tired, however, of waiting for the promised post and the subsequent tagging, so I have decided simply to anticipate it. For your enjoyment, the hermeneutical influences of a semi-scholarly non-biblical scholar:

1) The Jesus Style, by Gayle Erwin (Cathedral City, CA: Yahshua Publishing, 1983). Gayle Erwin was a former pastor of my parents and an old family friend, whom I grew up thinking of as a warm, playful uncle. I vividly recall my father discussing and recommending this book to various people when I was a child, and I also remember Erwin himself giving talks based on it, although I was so young I didn’t pay much attention! Well, I finally read the book when I was about 13, and it had a profound effect. It is very simply written, not at all scholarly, and does nothing more than elucidate Christ’s example of humble service to others. Previously I suppose I had had some vague moralistic idea about how we Christians were supposed to be ‘good’ or something, but I had almost no understanding of the radical nature and implications of what it meant to be a ‘servant of all’, to love others ‘as oneself’, etc. It was my first glimpse of the kenotic Christ, and I would never forget it. It certainly remained something to which I was highly atuned in the Scriptures.

I should add that Erwin is an Evangelical of the non-denominational variety, though I believe he grew up in the Assemblies of God. Although it’s been years since I last read Jesus Style, I can’t recall anything I would call un-Orthodox. There is a casual tone and frequent humour throughout that may be a bit jarring to many Orthodox, but I think the ideas are pretty solid. Unfortunately, that’s not to say that Erwin is at all friendly to Orthodoxy. To date, he is the only friend or relative to have vigourously denounced my father for converting. I believe he thinks even less of me at this point.

2) An Introduction to the Bible: A Journey into Three Worlds, 3rd ed., by Christian E. Hauer and William A. Young (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1994). I don’t suppose there is anything particularly special about this textbook, but it was my own first textbook on the Bible, which I read in my Introduction to Biblical Literature class as a freshman at Oklahoma City University. Today, 14 years later, I can say nothing specific about its merits or lack thereof, but the effect that it had of causing me to look at the Bible as not only a sacred and divinely inspired text, which I certainly hold it to be, but an historical and literary artifact, was helpful. I’m afraid the typical Christian’s view of the Bible begins to appear somewhat Monophysite or Docetic after a book like this.

3) Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View, by Fr Georges Florovsky, Vol. 1 in The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky (Vaduz: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1987). This classic was one of the first books I read about Orthodoxy (along with Coming Home, a collection of—I know—conversion stories edited by—I know!—Fr Gilquist, and God’s Revelation to the Human Heart, the transcript of a talk given at UC Santa Cruz by Fr Seraphim [Rose]). I can’t say I followed all of it—it seemed like an awful lot of Latin and Greek for a college freshman with just a couple semesters in high school of the former under his belt—but it certainly deepened my understanding of the relationship between the three things named in the title. It also served to immunise me against any claims that Orthodox theology was somehow ‘unscriptural’!

I would add to this an essay of Fr Florovsky’s that is not included in this volume but which I seem to recall reading fairly early on and the influence of which was certainly not lesser—‘The Ascetic Ideal in the New Testament’, which can be found in Byzantine Ascetic and Spiritual Fathers, trans. Raymond Miller, et al., Vol. 10 in The Collected Works (Vaduz: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1987), pp. 17-59, or read online with Scriptural citations in English only here, or with Greek text as well (but unfortunately without diacritical marks) here. In this essay, Fr Florovsky carefully and incredibly demonstrates—contra, in particular, Anders Nygren and the Lutheran tradition—the degree to which the New Testament is permeated with ascetic teaching. For one who had been immersed growing up in the sola fide interpretation of the NT, and St Paul in particular, this was a real eye-opener that completely transformed the way I read the NT. Among others, I’ll never forget Fr Florovsky’s citation of I Cor. 9:24-27 on pp. 35-6.

4) The Philokalia: The Complete Text, 4 vols., comp. St Macarius of Corinth & St Nicodemus of the Holy Mounatian, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. (London: Faber, 19-1995). After the profound awakening to the kenotic Christ effected by Erwin’s Jesus Style, the greatest influence on my personal reading of the Bible at the hermeneutical level is the Philokalia. From roughly 1998 to 2003 or 2004, I read through all four volumes of the still incomplete English translation, and in the course of various papers written for postgraduate courses in Greece I had occasion to delve to a great extent into the Greek text. For some time I read almost nothing in the way of biblical scholarship or even patristic commentary proper, and yet the use of Scripture in the Philokalia did more I think to make my reading of it as Orthodox as it is than verse-by-verse commentary (not to mention such a thing as an ‘Orthodox Study Bible’) ever could have done. Certainly I never again saw passages such as Ps. 75:9 (LXX) or II Cor. 3:18 except in light of the hesychastic, Philokalic tradition.

5) The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism, by Douglas Burton-Christie (NY: Oxford U, 1993). The most recent of these five, it cannot but have had a somewhat lesser influence on my reading of the Bible than the others. But it certainly helped me to understand at a more conscious level some of the things I had begun to grasp more intuitively through reading things like the Philokalia, the Gerontikon (the text Burton-Christie chooses to focus on), or the Lives of Saints. I also found Burton-Christie’s discussion of the more oral rôle of Scripture in the Egyptian desert quite enlightening, informing my own perception of Scripture at a deep level. Of course, there is more to this book than its effect on a boy’s reading of the Scriptures, as important as such a thing is, and I strongly recommend it to readers of Logismoi for many reasons.


Esteban Vázquez said...

Hey, as I said before, I'll just tag you retroactively. ;-) I have like 7 posts in queue, but haven't had the time or energy to crank them out -- have been working on putting bookshelves together, don't you know!

Very interesting choices. I've been struggling with mine, but promise not to commit all five to the inarguably infallible Moisés Silva. (Oh, and it greatly amuses me that your intro textbook was Hauer and Young!)

Aaron Taylor said...

Oh, isn't it great putting the books up on a good shelf afresh? We are planning to acquire a new bookcase soon, so I have that simple joy to look forward to!

So, I'm afraid you'll have to explain why you're so amused by Hauer and Young...

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

No matter how many shelves you have, they are never enough.

I just put two large bookcases up (seven feet high and 42 inches wide each), having removed the headboard of my bed and putting them there. Very efficient! I promptly moved all my Orthodox books into them, from a smaller triple stacked case, and then got some books out of stacks on the floor into the old bookcase. Anyway, the result was: two brand new bookcases, but no empty shelves. (Sigh.)

But the smell of fresh wooden bookcases is a delight.

+Metropolitan SAVAS of Pittsburgh said...

I see I've found fellow sufferers. I dare say, without knowing any of your particulars, that my case is the most difficult, as I've had to move my ever-growing library seven times in the past twelve years. I most recently moved into an apartment in Manhattan, in a hundred-year-old building. Advantage: it's six blocks from work. Disadvantages: it's 340 square feet, five flights up, and there's no elevator! My entire library (aside from a couple of hundred books in my office) will remain in storage in Connecticut until such time as I can afford a place large enough to accommodate it. And God only knows if that day will ever dawn!

At last count, 18 of Ikea's "Billy" bookcases (http://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/products/83688210) were insufficient. Pity me.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Oh, your Grace, that is no fun at all. You're in the same boat as Esteban, who was in Puerto Rico but his books in storage in Michigan (they have recently been reunited). I dread moving. I have only eight full cases (some double-stacked). Perhaps ten, counting things in the garage, but those I intend to donate away. I would like to keep everything down to being able to fit in one room. As long as I ignore Aaron's book recommendations, I may be able to keep this intention for some time.

Esteban Vázquez said...

Aaron> Oh, the book amuses me because it is written in absolutely standard, agnostic "religious studies" academese. That cracks me up.

And I do derive much pleasure from seeing books long exiled (and further, imprisoned) neatly accommodated in new bookshelves. Sadly, I'm currently unable to afford real wooden bookshelves, so I make do cheap Wal-Mart ones. This means no smell of fresh wooden bookcases for me.

Bishop Savas> I feel Your Grace's pain! As Kevin mentioned, the bulk of my library (except for 1,500 or so books that I managed to ship before I left) were in storage for 7 full years while I lived in Puerto Rico. Of course, now that I have been able to liberate the exiled, a new captivity has befallen those books that I had over these, since I was unable to ship them here before I came back. How long, I say?

Also, without minimizing Your Grace's relocation difficulties, I think I can offer a worse example: between 1999 and 2001, I had to move my library (which was about as large then as it is now) a total of 5 times!

Aaron Taylor said...

Esteban> But of course you probably weren't moving into a fifth-floor Manhattan apartment with no elevator! I hate moving into and out of tiny urban apartments. Even if there is an elevator, it's usually too small for the big stuff.

+Metropolitan SAVAS of Pittsburgh said...

Most of my books suffered a similar fate, Esteban, while I was studying in England and Greece, for a total of seven years. Of course, I came back with nearly as many as I'd stored away, and that was more than 14 years ago! And although a large part of my library is, not surprisingly, theological material, my first degree was in philosophy and English literature, and I'm afraid my love for the latter has only increased with the passing years.

I'm now 52 years old, and have calculated that, if God were to grant me another 20 years of health and mental acuity, and if I were to manage 52 books a year in the hypothetical time remaining to me (which would be a lot more than I've been averaging these past few), I've only got another 1000 books left! So what's the point of continuing to buy things I most likely will never get around to?
(That was a rhetorical question.)