Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

A Few Good Books on the Trinity

This Sunday, like so many around the world, I will be preaching on the Christian doctrine of the Trinity–the Tri-Unity of God. After, I’ll post that sermon here. For now, I thought I would list a few excellent theological works on The Trinity.


For beginners in theology:

Alister McGrath, Understanding the Trinity (Zondervan, 1990).

Roger E. Olsen and Christopher A. Hall, The Trinity. (Guides to Theology Series). (Eerdmans, 2002).


Modern works on the Trinity:

Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society. Trans. from Portuguese by Paul Burns. (Reprint Wipf & Stock, 2005).

Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Discourse10th Anniversary Edition (Crossroads Publishing, 2002).

Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God For Us: The Trinity and the Christian Life(HarperOne, 1993).

Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom (Fortress, 1993).

Karl Rahner, The Trinity (Milestones in Catholic Theology).

There are many others, but these should keep you busy for awhile.




June 1, 2012 Posted by | book reviews, liturgy, theology, Trinity, Trinity, Trinity Sunday | Leave a comment

Distinguishing Fantasy from Science Fiction

Fantasy and Science Fiction are distinct-but-related genres of fictitious literature, both belonging to the larger category of speculative fiction.  Fantasy is a modern term for fictional literature set in worlds wherein magic works and where there are often supernatural beings (e.g., djinn or genii, ghosts, demons, vampires, nymphs, dryads, goddesses and/or gods, etc.) or creatures from mythology (e.g., elves, dwarves, giants, dragons, etc.).  Major characters often have supernatural abilities or magical devices (e.g., rings, swords, harps, lamps, flying carpets, etc.).  Fantasy draws from many ancient mythologies, texts from extinct religions (and sometimes from living religions), fairy tales, medieval  romances and legends, but, unlike these earlier works (which often serve as source material or taproot texts), modern fantasy is deliberately composed by one or more authors not as history, but as entertainment–-the fantastic elements are not expected to be believed by either the author(s) or readers.  Although people often refer to “sexual fantasies,” fantasy literature is not usually a written form of pornography; the term for that “literature” is erotic fiction.  (This is not to say that fantasy literature aimed at adult readers may not entail elements of romance or even of the erotic–-but this is not the focus and because of the wide age range of readers, love scenes in fantasy works  seldom become overly graphic.)

What distinguishes fantasy from science fiction is that the latter attempts to base all fantastic elements on principles from known science or to give a plausible scientific explanation for the fantastic elements.  Usually, the laws of the universe in science fiction either function in ways known to contemporary science or the changes are cautious and a scientific or pseudo-scientific explanation is attempted.  (For this reason, despite the genetically altered indigenous lizards of Pern, that the colonists from earth named “dragons,” Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragonriders of Pern” books are science fiction and not fantasy, as McCaffrey herself would argue.) 

The two literary genres do sometimes overlap and, when this happens, the result is often called science fantasy.  The currently most famous example of science fantasy are the films and books in George Lucas’ “Star Wars” saga which include science fiction elements (starships, laser weapons, advanced technology, robots/droids, holograms, alien races, etc.) but also elements of fantasy (e.g., the powers of the Jedi Knights and the Sith Lords; a “quest” structure and a cosmic battle between good and evil, etc.).  Other major examples  of science fantasy include Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Barsoom” novels in which the “Mars” to which Captain John Carter of Virginia is transported bears little resemblance to the Mars known by astronomers; C.S. Lewis’ “Space Trilogy,” Lin Carter’s “Callisto” books, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover stories and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.  The great pioneer of modern science fiction was 19th C. French author, Jules Verne (e. g., 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; The Mysterious Island; From Earth to the  Moon; Around the World in 20 Days, etc.)

Since I believe imagination is crucial to both religious faith and moral discernment, I encourage wide reading in this literature, regardless of the particular religious commitments (or lack thereof) of the author(s).  I am also convinced that both fantasy and science fiction are excellent vehicles for exploring moral, philosophical, and spiritual questions, although this should never be so heavy-handed as to dominate the narrative structure.  The story must first work AS literature.  Far too many Christian apologists with no real literary ability and boringly dogmatic outlooks have wasted trees in attempts as “Christian fantasy,” believing falsely that they are the next C.S. Lewis. (Left Behind and all its sequels should be LEFT OUT. Ugh!)

January 24, 2011 Posted by | blog series, book reviews, books, fantasy literature, science fiction | 6 Comments

Taproot Texts: The Sources of Modern Fantasy Fiction in World Religions and Mythologies

Those who read this blog primarily for religious social commentary, theology, philosophy, or politics, should try back later.  I need a break.  Writing about other interests than the main themes of this blog help me to keep from cynicism, depression, despair, or misdirected anger.

Although dominated since Tolkien(1892-1973) by Western Medievalist forms, modern fantasy literature draws from a plethora of ancient sources (“taproot texts”) in numerous mythologies and religions.  No source of fantastic elements is off-limits and would-be fantasy authors who don’t want simply to repeat tried and true formulae, might want to explore Native American, African, Australian Aboriginal, New Zealand Maori or other indigenous mythologies and tales.  These sources are all under-utilized in modern fantasy literature.  Below, however, I list the most common sources for fantasy, in roughly chronological order.

I. The Epic of Gilgamesh.  An epic poem from ancient Sumeria, this is one of the earliest works of fiction.  We don’t know when the first version was written in Sumerian, but the standard Akkadian version was compiled from older legends sometime around 1,300 B.C.E.  It tells of the exploits of a legendary King Gilgamesh, blessed by the gods with supernatural strength but who is bored with ruling his kingdom, and his friend, Enkidu the Wild Man (who is even stronger than Gilgamesh) and their quests and battles with incredible monsters.  The story influenced Homer’s The Odyssey, was outlined in brief in a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode (“Darmok”), and has even influenced some role-playing video games.  For non-scholars only interested in reading the work for entertainment, the most accessible English translation is N. K.  Sanders, The Epic of Gilgamesh (Penguin Epics, 2006) which reprints the prose edition of the Penguin Classics, 1960.  The “Sword and Sorcery” subgenre of fantasy is particularly indebted to the Gilgamesh stories.

II. Ancient India.  Modern Hinduism grew out of a complex of different Indian traditions–and many of those traditions have proved good source material for modern fantasy writing.  India has a long tradition of fantastical stories and characters.  The Japanese “manga” or graphic novel series, RG Veda, for instance, draws directly from the Rig-Veda, a collection of Sanskrit hymns and stories that represents India’s oldest (Vedic) Scriptures.  The Mahabharata and the Ramayana are also deep sources for fantasy.

III. Classic Greco-Roman Mythology.  The Greek and Roman myths and hero stories may be the  most “plundered” as source material for later fantasy literature.  Some of the most important stories are:  “Theseus  and the Minotaur” (minotaurs and mazes that contain monsters are common in fantasy literature), “Perseus and the Slaying of the Gorgon Medusa” (which also includes what may be the first “sea serpent” story in Western literature), “The Labors of Herakles/Hercules,” “Jason and the Argonauts.”  And, of course, Homer’s great epic poems (c. 800 B.C.E.), The Iliad and The Odyssey.  You can find both in one boxed set edited by Bernard Knox and translated from the Greek by Robert Fagles in a 1999 Penguin Classics edition.

IV. East Asian Legends:  Especially from China and Japan.  The rich mythologies and cultures of Ancient China and Ancient Japan  contain many elements that lend themselves to fantasy writing.  One prominent example is the Chinese dragon:  Western dragons are usually depicted as sly, evil, cruel, and greedy.  Chinese dragons, on the other hand, are considered wise and signs of luck.  In modern fantasy literature, we often see dragons drawn more like the Western image (e.g., flying), but many writers have started to give them more noble characters that are more in line with Asian traditions.  Taoist traditions have, by her own admission, influenced Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea novels.

Likewise the Taoist belief in Nei Jin (“internal power”) has influenced both real life martial arts and the kind of  Chinese fantasies known as wuxia, where the martial artist can perform superhuman warrior feats:  nearly flying, dodging hundreds of thousands of arrows, etc.  Wuxia is a word made of two Chinese characters, wu (having to do with things military or martial) and xia which refers to both the Chinese version of chivalry and the person (usually a swordsman) who lives by such a code.  Wuxia fantasy is found in Chinese novels, comics, and films, but is known in the West mostly through a series of films beginning with Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) based on the novel of the same name by Wang Dulu.  See also Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004).  Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle (2004) is a hilarious spoof of wuxia films–but fantasy spoofs are still fantasy.  The Chinese sage, as well as the swordsman, has now become recognizable in many modern fantasy works.  See also Albert A. Dalia’s wuxia novel, Dream of the Dragon Pool: A Daoist Quest (2007).

From Japanese culture and legends, fantasy has drawn upon the code of Bushido (“Way of the Warrior”) practiced by the Samurai warrior caste, the contrast between Samurai (knights serving masters) and Ronin (“masterless” warriors), the legendary ninja assassins, and strong interest in traditional Japanese weaponry.  Fantasy novels often use Japanese legends for suitable monsters or demons, too.  The popularity of Japanese anime (cartooning) has further popularized these legends and their modern variations.  A good example of contemporary Japanese fantasy using traditional materials (translated into English) is Noriko Ogiwara’s, Dragon Sword and Wind Child (1993, 2007).

V. Islamic Middle East.  The most famous source for modern fantasy from the Middle East is, of course, the book known both as 1,001 Nights and as The Arabian Nights, a book that compiled many traditional Arabic legends and folk tales collected and translated by the English explorer, Richard Burton.  (In fact there are layers of stories: Persian tales inspired by Indian mythology and adapted into Arabic by the 10th C. C.E.; Stories recorded in Baghdad in the 10th C., C.E.; and Medieval Egyptian folklore.) This anonymous work first took form in the 10th Century C.E. and reached its final form in the 14th Century, C.E.  Western writers have tended to call all Arabic legends “Arabian Nights” stories whether or not they appeared in the 1,001 Nights. There are even a number of tales known in Europe and set in the Middle East called “Arabian Nights” tales, even though there is no known Arabic manuscript.  The collection first began to be a major influence on Western fantasy with the translation into French in the 1704-1717 by Antoine Galland.  Galland’s version includes the stories, “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” and “Aladdin’s Lamp,” that are not found in any Arabic or Persian manuscript–stories that he claimed he heard from a Syrian Christian storyteller from Aleppo.  In 1885, Sir Richard Francis Burton gave the earliest popular English version.  

 The influence of these stories on later fantasy is incalculable:  flying carpets, djinn, genii, the characters of Ali Baba, Aladdin, Sinbad the Sailor, Scheherazade (and other women using their wiles to survive in very oppressive, and dangerous patriarchal contexts), are all standard features.  So is the use of such literary devices as “the unreliable narrator” and stories within stories. 

Other Middle Eastern/Islamic literature that has influenced later fantasy writing includes the national Persian epic, The Shahnameh, and the Persian tale, Amir Arsalan which has directly influenced Japanese writer Yoshiki Tanaka’s Arslan Senki, translated into English as The Heroic Legend of Arslan.

VI. Norse and Icelandic Sagas (and related mythology)  Norse mythology, as reflected in the Elder Edda  (sometimes called The Poetic Edda)  and the Younger Edda  (sometimes called the Prose Edda ) include the Norse/Germanic gods (the Aesir) such as Odin (German Woden), Thor, Loki, etc. and their battle against the forces of chaos embodied in elves, dwarves, frost giants, trolls, and giants.  They have directly, and indirectly, influenced everyone from Shakespeare to William Morris, to J. R. R. Tolkien,  Robert E. Howard, and Poul Anderson.  The Norse fornaldarsagas (lit., “Stories of Times Past”) told more “historical” legends, but drew upon the Eddas for fantastic elements.  These Norse and Icelandic sagas depict heroes on dangerous quests fighting dragons, barrow-wights, witch-kings, and other forces of evil, from which they must often rescue “fair maidens.”  The quests are also often journeys of self-discovery. 

The Volsungasaga and The Nibelugenlied, in addition to being source material for Wagner’s operas, depict more historical legends, battles over thrones and dynasties, but still include many elements that have influenced modern fantasy.

Related to these source texts is the Anglo-Saxon epic poem, Beowulf (c. 8oo C.E.) which tells the story of the defeat of two hideous monsters, Grendel and Grendel’s mother,  by the hero Beowulf.  J. R. R. Tolkien, while a Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, gave a 1936 lecture, “Beowulf:  The Monsters and the Critics” which was the first serious look at the saga for literary purposes.  John Gardner’s Grendel (1971) retold the myth from the monster’s point of view.

Celtic mythology and folklore is another related source for modern fantasy.  Particularly rich is the Welsh tradition since it was collected into one source,  the Mabinogion (c. 1350-1410) , iron age tales which contain, among other things, the roots of the Arthurian legends.  One modern fantasy writer, Evangeline Walton, attempted to retell the Mabinogion in a series of four novels(for the four “branches” of the Mabinogion), The Island of the Mighty (1970); The Children of Llyr (1971); The Song of Rhiannon (1972), and Prince of Anwynn (1974).  In 2002, Overlook Press republished this series under one cover as The Mabinogion Tetralogy.  The Irish Ulster Cycle and Fenian Cycle have also been mined repeatedly for modern fantasy. 

But the greatest influence of Celtic mythology has been indirectly through the “Matter of Britain,” the medieval romances we know as the Arthurian legends.  These legendary histories of Britain took on lives of their own, apart from the Welsh mythology of their source–an important step in the history of fantasy.  Chaucer, Geoffrey of Monmouth ( The History of the Kings of Britain ), and others told versions of these tales, but they were  most influentially collected and reworked by Sir Thomas Mallory in Le Morte D’Arthur (c. 1470),  making Mallory probably the first fantasy anthologist.  This work is directly the source for many modern retellings of the Arthur stories, especially T. H. White’s The Once and Future King (1958) and the 1981 film, ExcaliburThe Victorian retelling by Alfred Lord Tennyson, Idylls of the King, which is heavily Christianized, is also influential–including on the third volume of C.S. Lewis’ science fantasy “Space Trilogy.”  The best resource for all things related to “The Matter of Britain” is Alan Lupak’s The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legends.

In addition to T. H. White, the following modern reworkings of Arthurian legend stand head and shoulders above the rest:  Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) while poking fun at some aspects of contemporary society is mostly using satire to take issue with the romantic view of the Middle Ages; Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series; Mary Stewart’s “historicised” version told through Merlin and heavily influenced by Geoffrey of Monmouth (The Crystal Cave, 1970; The Hollow Hills, 1973; The Last Enchantment, 1979; The Wicked Day, 1983); and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s feminist re-telling through the eyes of the women (which sees the tales as a struggle between Augustinian Christianity and the older pagan religions of the Great Mother), The Mists of Avalon (which also attempts to recreate pre-Augustinian Celtic Christianity as a form of Christianity which lived more in harmony with the pagans).  I would NOT recommend the “Pendragon Cycle” of Stephen Lawhead in which the Arthurian legends suffer because of Lawhead’s heavy-handed Christian apologetics. (His novels have won evangelical awards, but they just aren’t good as literature.  I don’t object to Lawhead’s Christianity since I am also a Christian, but a novel has to work first as good fiction.)

Finally, there is the Finnish epic, The Kalevala, which, though not published until the 19th C., collects stories that date back centuries.  J.R.R. Tolkien has said directly that both The Kalevala itself, and the Finnish language he learned in order to read it, were direct influences on his The Silmarillion.  I would think this epic could prove to be a rich source for others as well.

These appear to be the major “taproot texts” or sources of modern fantasy literature.  Some are more heavily used than others.  I noted at the beginning that traditional stories from Native American, African, Australian Aboriginal peoples, and New Zealand Maoris are all very under-utilized.  So, I think, is pre-Islamic Egyptian mythology.

January 23, 2011 Posted by | blog series, book reviews, books, fantasy literature | Leave a comment

A Brief History of Modern Fantasy II

III. Late Victorian Era.: The Flowering of Fantasy

At the end of the 19th C. and beginning of the 20th C., it was more acceptable for fantasy writers to write for children than for adults, so writers often deliberately wrote for children or adolescents in order to be marketable as fantasy writers.  One result was that some top-notch children’s fantasy was written by brilliant writers–producing works that that have remained popular long after their authors’ deaths.

J. M. Barrie (1860-1937), Scottish baron, author, and playwright, created the enduring children’s fantasy character, Peter Pan as part of a serialized novel (The Little White Bird) in 1901.  He then staged the play, Peter Pan or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up in 1904.  This play also popularized the female name “Wendy,” which was rare in English prior to this. The numerous follow-up appearances of Peter Pan by Barrie and others continues to this day.

L. Frank Baum (1856-1919), an American writer was simultaneously creating the great “Oz” series of books.  The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was first published in 1900 and in 1901 became the first “global” mass-market children’s fantasy, the “Harry Potter” series of its day.  It also drew controversy similar to Rowling’s later “Harry Potter” books, with fundamentalist preachers denouncing the “witchcraft” and supposedly “terrible morals” of the story. Baum wrote 13 sequels, none of which became as popular as the original. He acknowledged the influence of The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson, and even Lewis Caroll‘s “Alice in Wonderland” books, but was deliberately setting out to create “American fairy tales.” The books had numerous semi-allegorical allusions to political turmoil in the U.S. of Baum’s day.  (Baum was a Populist and Progressive whose wife, Maude Gage Baum, was a leader in the suffragist movement of early, first wave, feminism.) The 1939 film version, starring Judy Garland, continued the influence for successive generations.  Baum continues to be a major influence to this day.

Other children’s fantasies of this era include Lewis Caroll (Charles Dodgson, 1832-1898)’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland(1865) and Through the Looking Glass–And What Alice Found There(1872) (which mathematicians, philosophers, and logicians love because of the “inside jokes” that children and most adults miss) and Beatrix Potter (1866-1943)’s many “Peter Rabbit” and related stories.  Nor should one miss Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932)’s The Wind in the Willows (1908).

In this  Victorian period, adult fantasies were being written, too, especially in an adaptation of the old “traveler’s tale” format known as “Lost World” stories.  Often set in Africa (which was still mostly unknown to Western writers) or on unexplored islands, these were adventure stories outside the increasingly tamed industrial world.  Some were straight “realistic” adventure stories with no fantastic elements. Others, an early form of science fiction, depicted advanced civilizations or the hidden bases of rogue scientifice genuises (forming one of the roots of contemporary “steampunk” fiction).  But some included magic or other fantastic elements.  Among the most influential of the latter was H. Rider Haggard’s She (1887) and its sequel Ayesha (1905).  Haggard’s numerous adventure stories of English explorer, Allan Quartermain also sometimes contained fantasy elements–and that influence continues even to Steven Spielberg’s films about archeologist “Indiana Jones.”

The American author, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) is most famous for his novels and short stories concerning “Tarzan,” a son of an English lord who is raised by apes, teaches himself languages, and grows up to be “king of the jungle.” Though wildly improbable, the main Tarzan novels contain little or no explicit fantasy elements.  But Burroughs also pioneered several science fantasy works of a “sword and sorcery on other planets” type as well as lost world novels.  The most famous of these were a series of novels concerning Captain John Carter of Virginia (a Civil War veteran) who is mysteriously transported to a “Mars” that was nothing like the Mars that even the astronomy of Burroughs’ day knew–a “Mars” the natives call “Barsoom,” containing beautiful Red Martian princesses who need rescuing from giant, 4-armed, green Martians in a desert world of canals with a strange combination of high technology and swords.  The first John Carter tale was serialized in 1912 as Under the Moons of Mars and published as a novel in 1917 under the title, A Princess of Mars.  10 sequels were published over the next 30 years, adding characters and complicating the picture of Mars as a dying, post-industrial, planet.   Burroughs also wrote of Carson of Venus (Amtor),  and Pellucidar (a lost world at the earth’s core).  This kind of Sword and Planet science fantasy would influence later writers like Lin Carter, the highly sexist John Norman, and others. Writers as diverse as Ray Bradbury, Robert A. Heinlein, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Michael Moorcock have paid tribute to Burroughs’ Mars’s stories.

At the tail end of this era comes an author who is pivotal to the later development of fantasy due to his large influence on J.R.R. Tolkien, E.R. Eddison (1882-1945).  I, personally, find Eddison’s style dry and contrived, but he attempted to recreate the old Norse sagas in a world of total fiction–a self-contained, wholly invented mythology. It was that project which Tolkien eventually undertook in far more detail and with far more talent.  Eddison’s novel is The Worm Ouroboros (1922), in meticulously recreated Jacobean English (which I find tiring), creates a world of aristocratic heroes who war for honor and to escape boredom.  Michael Moorcock finds Eddison’s villains to be more authentic than Tolkien’s and even Ursula LeGuin pays tribute to Eddison.  But I find the casual disregard for human life and suffering of Eddison’s “heroes” to be off-putting.  It is worth noting that the Demons, Witches, Imps, Pixies, etc. are not separate species, as in Tolkien and many others, but various nationalities of human beings.  The novel also deals with the classic theme of time as an eternal wheel (the “worm” or dragon Ouroboros is the serpant which eats its own tale, a classic symbol of rebirth and cyclical history).  Even though Eddison is not my cup of tea, his importance to this history cannot be denied.

IV.  The Post-Victorian/Pre-Tolkien Era:, 1920s-World War II.

 In 1923, an American publisher launched Weird Tales, the first English-language (and maybe first in any language) magazine dedicated solely to fantasy and horror.  This was the era when pulp magazines were huge and many a novel began as a serialized story in pulp pages.  Weird Tales (and other sister publications soon to follow, like Fantastic Adventures and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction) launched numerous publishing careers in fantasy fiction.  Among those careers, pride of place must go to four very different American writers, H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) and Robert E. Howard (1906-1936),  Fritz Lieber (1910-1992),  and C. L. [Catherine Lucille] Moore (1911-1987), all of whom continue to have numerous fans and imitators.

Lovecraft, a fan of Edgar Allan Poe and the Gothic novels of the Victorian era, wrote in the boundary between the fast-separating horror and fantasy genres–-a boundary crossing tradition that today would  be called “dark fantasy.”  Lovecraft created the Cthulhu Mythos, a shared universe (other authors were allowed to use it and friends like August Derleth and Robert E. Howard did and others have continued) a series of stories and novels concerning demons and dark gods from ancient civilizations which, disguised, continue to threaten modern existence.  The stories usually take place in fictional New England towns and center on struggles against the Great Old Ones, a fearsome assortment of ancient and powerful gods who came to earth from outer space and once ruled the planet–and seek to do so again. The essence of these many stories is that the human world is an illusion–and the heroes of these stories, at risk of their sanity, catch glimpses of the true world behind that illusion and the cosmic struggle therein.  Lovecraft has been a major influence on later fantasy (Michael Moorcock and much dark fantasy) and on horror writers like Stephen King and Robert Bloch.  For an accessible secondary study, see Lin Carter, Lovecraft:  A Look Behind the Cthulu Mythos (Ballentine Books, 1972.) (It is worth noting that though Carter is a fan, he is far from uncritical, both of Lovecraft’s writing style and of some of his less savory beliefs, including his racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism.)

Even more influential than Lovecraft was Robert E. Howard whose troubled life ended in an early suicide, but not before writing numerous  stories of horror and fantasy.  Howard created the sub-genre of fantasy called “Sword and Sorcery,” usually featuring barbarian heroes, damsels in distress (often scantily clad), and a series of obstacles reminiscent of those from ancient mythologies (sorcerors, monsters, etc.).  This kind of fantasy differs from “epic” or “high heroic” fantasy (exemplified by Tolkien and all his imitators) because the protagonists (heroes or antiheroes) are not often great moral characters and the adventures usually do not serve as epic battles between the forces of good and evil–they are played out on a smaller scale.  (Some writers and fans of each of these sub-genres have held the other form in contempt, but Tolkien is said to have enjoyed Howard’s Conan tales.) Howard’s fantasy heroes included Kull the barbarian king of Atlantis, Bran Mak Morn, King of the Picts, and Solomon Kane a Puritan-Adventurer, but his most famous creation was Conan the Barbarian from lost Cimmeria in a pre-Ice Age “Hyborian Age.”  The Conan stories would eventually become a staple of Marvel Comics and a series of movies that launched the career of Arnold  Schwarzenegger–although I doubt the people of California can blame Robert E. Howard for the incompetent rule of “The Governator.”  L. Sprague deCamp and Lin Carter collected unpublished Howard stories into anthologies,  finished some fragments, and wrote their own Conan stories,  too.  See the official Robert E. Howard page here.

Fritz Leiber added realism (carefully controlling the fantasy elements and researching ancient weapons, technologies and cultures in a way Howard never bothered to do) and humor with his stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser a fantasy partnership between a Northern barbarian (somewhat more realistically depicted than Conan) and a suave, sophisticated, city-dwelling thief.  The stories were written over 50 years and most originally published in pulp magazines before later anthologization.

C. L. Moore was one of the earliest female writers of sword and sorcery.  Challenging the sexism of the “he-man barbarian” approach, Moore wrote stories in the 1930s (usually published in Weird Tales) about “Jirel of Joiry,” female ruler of an alternate Medieval realm somewhere in our France who was as tough as Conan, smarter,  just as scantily clad, and always fighting sorcery. 

The era closes with the publication in 1938 of T. H. White’s (1906-1964) humorous re-telling of the Arthurian cycle, The Once and Future King.  (Actually, only the first section, The Sword in the Stone, was published in ’38.  The “finished” novel was not published until 1958 and a “conclusion,” The Book of Merlin, was published posthumously in 1977).  Comedy has long been a feature of fantasy which has an amazing ability to  spoof itself when it starts to become pretentious.

IV. Tolkien and the Post-Tolkien Explosion

It is simply impossible to overestimate the impact of one, rather ordinary, Oxford Professor of Anglo-Saxon Language, named John Ronald Ruel Tolkien (1892-1973).  A pre-Vatican II Catholic of conservative views from his childhood in South Africa onward, Tolkien was uncomfortable with educated women and much else of the rapidly changing world.  He was an early environmentalist and critic of overindustrialization who preferred books and created his entire “Middle Earth” imaginary world in order to have characters to speak the invented languages he developed. (You can actually learn to speak Elvish and the actors in Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of Tolkien’s work do so.) He wanted to create a mythology for Britain which, he believed, had lost its mythology.

In 1937, Tolkien published The Hobbit, a children’s fantasy based  on stories he used to tell his own children.  It enjoyed modest success and, if Tolkien had stopped there,  he might have been only mildly influential on later fantasy.  But he noticed that his characters had, at the edges of his tale, wandered into the high history of Middle Earth that he had been creating over decades.  He decided to connect the stories and worked on them by longhand, sending chapters out as letters to his son Christopher, serving in France during WWII.  The resulting saga, The Lord of the Rings (first published 1954-1955) was so large it had to be published in three volumes. It is NOT a trilogy, despite all those who claim otherwise.

There have been critics ever since, but Tolkien’s work was such a huge success that it created fantasy as a mass-marketing reality. (That is, someone could actually make a living just writing fantasy novels–something virtually  impossible pre-Tolkien.) He was never really comfortable with his fame and its attendant wealth.  After his death, his son, Christopher, began editing and publishing the many pieces of the longer mythology behind the Lord of the Rings, but these have been of interest usually only to diehard Tolkien fans. (Interested fans can find the complete Tolkien works here.

Tolkien’s success had 3 immediate impacts on fantasy:  1. It spawned a host of imitators of The Lord of the Rings–most of them very bad.  (One, Terry Brooks’, The Sword of Shannara and its sequels, I really dislike–but they became the first post-Tolkien “epic fantasies” to make the New York Times‘ bestseller lists.) 2. It spawned, or at least sped-up,  the republication of many of Lovecraft and Howard’s works (and other Weird Tales’ contributors) in fantasy anthologies.  3. It gave renewed attention to some of Tolkien’s friends and associates–a group of English writers known as “The Inklings.” (All of the Inklings were male, but Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957), a popular Christian apologist, creator of both the mystery hero, Sir Peter Whimsey, and a translation of Dante, is often considered an honorary “female Inkling” because of her friendship with several of the members.)

Among the most important Inklings for this history are C. S. Lewis  and Charles Williams.  Clive Staples (“Jack”) Lewis (1898-1963)  was Fellow and Tutor in English Literature, Magdalen College, Oxford (1925-1954) and Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge University (1954-1963).  Irish by birth, Lewis was an adult convert from atheism to Christianity and became a popular apologist for a rather traditional (though by no means fundamentalist) Anglicanism.  In addition to works on popular Christianity, two spiritual autobiographies, and various scholarly works, Lewis published several works  of fantasy, the most famous of which is the series  of children’s books known collectively as The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956).  The Narnia books may be the most famous children’s fantasy works between Baum’s Oz books and J.K. Rowling’s recent Harry Potter works, though its explicit Christian themes leads the series to have FEWER (but still some) critics among conservative evangelicals.  Lewis also wrote a trilogy of science fantasy novels where the Christian apologetics is somewhat more heavy-handed than in the Narnia books.  See Out of the Silent Planet (1938); Perelandra (also published as Voyage to Venus, 1943); That Hideous Strength (1945–which also brings back in the Arthurian cycle).  Lewis also wrote explicitly theological fiction in fantasy form, The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933, a fictionalized autobiography); The Screwtape Letters (1942; hilarious series of letters from a senior devil to a novice tempter), and The Great Divorce (1945; A bus tour of the fringes of heaven from hell in the tradition of Dante’s Divine Comedy.  In Lewis’ work, his guide is not the Roman poet Virgil, but the Scottish minister and fantasy writer, George Macdonald [see previous post].)

A third Inkling with an influence on fantasy is Charles Williams (1886-1945), a staff editor at Oxford University Press who wrote a series of fantasy novels that have been characterized as “Christian Lovecraft.”  They aren’t my cup of tea, but many find them wonderful.  In chronological order, Williams’ novels (all later republished by the American evangelical publisher, William B. Eerdmans) are War in Heaven (1930; involves the Holy Grail); Many Dimensions (1931); The Place of the Lion (1931; very Platonic); The Greater Trumps (1932; involving Tarot Cards and the Great Dance); Shadows of Ecstasy (1934); Descent into Hell (1937), and All Hallows’ Eve (1943).

V. Pioneering Female Fantasy Writers:

The rediscovery of  Tolkien, Lovecraft, and Howard by the countercultural youth movements of the 1960s (ironic considering the deeply conservative trends of each in his own way) led to an explosion of fantasy in the 1960s and 1970s–most of it mediocre at best.  The genre had been dominated by men, but a generation of women began to push at these boundaries–and today the genre is full of strong female voices.

Alice Mary Norton, writing as Andre Norton (1912-2005), was an American writer of historical fiction, science fiction, and fantasy.  In the fantasy genre, she became famous for her “Witch World” novels–a long series of books depicting a parallel earth in which magic works, but is, at least at the beginning, the exclusive possession of women.  The females who dominate the witch world believe that magic only works for virgin females and that loss of virginity will translate to loss of magic.  They are slowly forced to revise their beliefs because of the adventures of Simon Tregarth from our Earth who is able to handle some magic, marries the witch, Jaelithe  (who does not lose her magic), and whose children, both male and female, are stronger magic users than the traditional witches.

By contrast, Ursula LeGuin (1929-), influenced by Taoist and feminist themes, wrote a series of novels set in the world of Earthsea where magic is mostly male–controlled and female magic users have to unbend the conservative heirarchy of wizards. Other than the Earthsea books, LeGuin is mostly known for her works of science fiction rather than fantasy.  For all things LeGuin, see this site.

Marion Zimmer Bradley (1930-1999) built on the legacies of Le Guin and Norton (and earlier, C. L. Moore) and on the post-Tolkien explosion.  She has written both science fiction and fantasy.  She is most famous for her science fantasy “Darkover” novels, but also for the way she worked to get more women in the field by editing a series of short-story anthologies known as Sword and Sorceress, vols. 1-23 which helped to launch the careers of C. J. Cherryh, Mercedes Lackey, Diana Paxson, Elizabeth Waters, Elizabeth Moon, and others.  From 1979 onward (continuing with Diana Paxson), Bradley reworked the Arthurian cycle from a feminist (and neo-pagan) perspective beginning in The Mists of Avalon (1979) which spent 3 months on the New York Times bestseller lists. (Bradley herself experimented with Wicca and other forms of neo-pagan worship, but eventually became a confirmed Episcopalian.)  Eventually there were sequels to The Mists of Avalon, some of them completed by Diana Paxson.

Madeleine L’Engle(1918-2007) was an American writer of novels aimed at adolescent audiences.  She wrote at the blurry boundaries between fantasy and science fiction (“science fantasy”).  I like her books, especially her best known (and award winning), A Wrinkle in Time (1962), but my wife, Kate, is an even bigger fan and has several of L’Engle’s works autographed by the author–which is so cool.  Influenced both in writing style and in religious views by the Victorian-era Scottish minister and fantasy writer, George MacDonald (see part I of these history postings), L’Engle, a lifelong and very active Episcopalian (American Anglican) was also a thoroughgoing believer in universal salvation.  For that reason, many conservative Christian bookstores would not stock her books, despite their prominent themes of faith.

Katherine Kurtz (1944-)  renewed the “alternative history” form of fantasy by creating an alternate Medieval Wales (Gwynnedd) that is the setting for her many Deryni novels–stories of a race of magic users persecuted by a Medieval Church–but more tolerated in lands where the Moors (Muslims) or the Eastern Church are dominant.  Kurtz was one of the first writers to go into detail about the mechanics of magic (often it seems like a form of Extra-sensory Perception or psionics) and her characters wrestle with the morality of their actions more than is common in the genre.  Although born in America, she has spent most of her adult life in a castle in Ireland, but recently moved back to the U.S. (Virginia) to be with her children and grandchildren in her senior years.  (She is known to be close friends with the science fiction writer, Anne McAffrey.) The Deryni novels first began being published in 1970.

Patricia A. McKillip (1948-) is an American writer who has lived abroad and writes both science fiction and fantasy. Her fantasy works usually take place in a Medieval- like setting in which music plays a large part.  Though sometimes her writing reflects divisions of labor among the sexes, she portrays strong female characters who are the equals of their male counterparts.  The books usually involve elements of mystery as the main characters possess and/or are confronted by powers they don’t understand.  Her “Quest of the Riddlemaster” Trilogy from the early 1970s is particularly inventive.

Today, the numerous women who write in this field–with as many male fans as female–all stand on the shoulders of these determined pioneers.

VI. The Post-Tolkien Era.

As the counterculture kept the Lovecraft, Howard, and Tolkien books continually in print, fantasy began to splinter into numerous sub-genres: Sword and sorcery, epic/high fantasy, sword and planet and other science fantasy, historical fantasy, alternate histories, etc.  Most were only of mediocre quality.  But some stood out.  Michael Moorcock (1939-) is a British writer of science fiction and fantasy who did not like the way Tolkien dominated the field–and did not like the way barbarians like Conan dominated the field of Sword and Sorcery.  So, he created an anti-hero, “Elric of Melnibone,” who was a degenerate, a city-dweller, a hedonist and prince who disdained barbarians and from a long line of evil magic users.  Far from Conan’s rippling muscles or the clean living of Tolkien’s heroes, Elric was an albino (white hair and skin, pink eyes), weak and with disgusting habits.  Then Moorcock cursed Elric with a magical sword, “Stormbringer,” which sucked out the souls of people to give Elric both physical and magical strength.  He cannot throw the sword away–and he is chosen to be the champion of Order vs. Chaos, a battle that is presented as more cosmic than the one between good and evil.  Eventually, Moorcock linked up his Elric stories with other heroes as incarnations of an “Eternal Warrior” in the battle between Order and Chaos.  Moorcock did for fantasy what Sergio Leone did for Western films–-gave a grittier, grimmer feel that fit well with the cynicism of the 1970s and early ’80s when they enjoyed their highest popularity.

I am not a fan of Terry Brooks (1944-) whose first successful novel, The Sword of Shanarra (1971), I considered to be a cheap retelling of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  Though he modified this and became more creative in sequels, I never got over my initial disappointment. But Brooks showed that others could write Epic fantasy after Tolkien. He has now written 22 New York Times bestsellers during his career.

After Brooks (and, in my view, a much better writer) came Stephen R. Donaldson (1947-) who began working on his fantasy writing while growing up in India where his parents were medical missionaries. Donaldson’s 1977 book, Lord Foul’s Bane introduced “Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever” an anti-hero as powerful as Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone and placed him in an Epic tale and in a Land as beautiful as Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. 

Where will fantasy go from here?  Who knows?  The possibilities are literally endless.   I hope to write future posts on science fiction, on the sub-genres of fantasy, and some major themes.

One note of criticism for this genre, I love.  Though the initial male-female imbalance is much less, today, the Anglo-American scene is still dominated by writers from the so-called “dominant” Caucasian culture.  (This IS changing. The late Octavia Butler [1947-2006] wrote science fiction and fantasy that was both popular and critically acclaimed.  Carol McDonnell, author of Wind Follower and Alaya Dawn Johnson, author of Racing the Dark are two contemporary African-American authors.  And more Asian writers of fantasy are being translated, thanks to the popularity of manga comics and Japanese anime.  But the field is still WAY too moncultural.)   We need far more fantasy writers of more diverse cultural backgrounds.  That would help keep from having the overly-Caucasian casts.  Look, folks, even our “real” Europe of the Middle Ages was not so very white as most Medieval flavored fantasy novels.  Huns and Mongols and the Russ had brought Asian peoples and influences.  There were Islamic influences from both the Middle East and Africa–even in Britain, but much more in France, Portugal, and Spain.  And why must every other fantasy novel depic a society with a king, some nobles, and peasants? Even the “real” Middle Ages had wider political patterns with “free towns” run by guilds and merchants, or the cantons of Switzerland under democratic rule, etc.  And actual “barbarians” are usually only barbaric to those who consider themselves above them, and they are almost never like Conan.  Some variety and research, please.

January 23, 2011 Posted by | blog series, book reviews, books, fantasy literature | 2 Comments

GLBT Persons in the Church: Bibliography for Further Study

A Bibliography for Further Study:

There are far too many books on this subject to read them all.  I highlight ones that have been helpful to me. In an attempt at fairness, I will include a list of the best “NOT affirming” books at the end of this post.

I. Anthologies that Cover Diverse Views:

Jeffrey S. Siker, ed., Homosexuality in the Church: Both Sides of the Debate (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994).

Sally B. Geis & Donald E. Musser, eds., Caught in the Crossfire: Helping Christians Debate Homosexuality. (Abingdon Press, 1994).  (Most of those in this book are participants in the debate within the United Methodist Church.)

Michael A. King, ed., Stumbling Toward a Genuine Conversation on Homosexuality (Cascadia Publishing House, 200&). Participants represent the debate within the Mennonite Church, USA.

Timothy Bradshaw,ed., The Way Forward? Christian Voices on Homosexuality and the Church. (Eerdmans, 2003).

Dan O. Via and Robert A. J. Gagnon, Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views. (Augsburg-Fortress, 2003). A debate between two well-known NT profs, with Via arguing for the revisionist/inclusive view and Gagnon arguing for the traditionalist/exclusivist view.

II. Revisionist Views:

     A. Biblical Arguments:

Alice Ogden Bells and Terry Hufford, Science, Scripture, and Homosexuality (Pilgrim Press, 2002). A collaborative effort between a biologist and a biblical scholar.

Jack B. Rogers, Jr., Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church. (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2006). Rogers is an evangelical theologian (formerly prof. of theology at Fuller Theological Seminary; later president of San Francisco Theological Seminary; still later, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, USA) who describes his journey from the traditional to a revisionist view.

Walter Wink, ed., Homosexuality and Christian Faith: Questions of Conscience for Christian Churches (Augsburg-Fortress, 1999).  More than most revisionist collections, this anthology contains several essays by prominent evangelicals including Ken Sehested, Lewis B. Smedes, Peggy Campolo, and others.

Robin Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality. (Augsburg-Fortress, 1983).  Although, I now see that Scroggs overstated his case on Romans 1, this was the first book on this topic to be a major help to me. Scroggs’ basic argument is that the NT condemnations of same-sex behavior have a different focus than our current debate and, thus, are being misused in most of the debates.  I think that broad argument still stands.

Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? A Positive Christian Response, revised and updated edition.  (HarperOne, 1994).  Significantly stronger than the first edition. When the first edition was published in 1978, it was almost the only revisionist book from a Christian perspective, and definitely the first written by evangelicals. (Later, Mollenkott herself came out as lesbian, terrified that her friend, Letha would reject her as her home congregation had.) The original edition was written before the dominance of the Religious Right in North American evangelicalism–the book got a somewhat positive review in Christianity Today. (The CT review did not accept the thesis, but recommended it as a conversation starter in all churches!)

John J. McNeill, The Church and the Homosexual, 4th edition. (Beacon Press, 1993).  When published in 1976, this was one of the first studies of its kind–possibly the first revisionist study in English by a Catholic priest.  This was the book that converted one of my heroes (and a deeply biblical Christian), Fr. Daniel Berrigan, S. J., to a revisionist view. In 1987, Fr. McNeill was thrown out of the Society of Jesus for refusing to stop ministering to gays and lesbians.  Later, he was thrown out of the priesthood, despite having remained faithful to his vows of celibacy.

   B. Testimonies from GLBT Christians:

Mel White, Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America. (Plume Books, 1995). Mel White began as a member of the Religious Right. A ghostwriter and film maker for Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell (his “autobiography”), Pat Robertson, and a speechwriter for Oliver North!  He worked for years to be “cured” of his gayness (and save his marriage), but eventually had to admit he was always going to be gay. He also came to a different view of Christianity. Today, White is the founder of Soulforce, an organization which uses nonviolent direct action to confront Religious Right and evangelical churches and leaders with the harm they do to gay and lesbian Christians.  (In recommending the book, I am not necessarily agreeing with all of the tactics of Soulforce.)

Michael Glaser, Uncommon Calling: A Gay Christian’s Struggle to Serve the Church.  (Westminster/John Knox, 1994).

Gary David Comstock, A Whosoever Church: Welcoming Lesbians and Gay Men into African-American Congregations. (Westminster/John Knox, 2001).

 III. Best Books from the “Not Affirming” Perspective

Stanley Grenz, Welcoming but NOT Affirming:  An Evangelical Response to Homosexuality. (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1998). Written by a Canadian Baptist theologian and ethicist who died unexpectedly.  The hardest part for me with this book is that I support Grenz’ wider views on sexual ethics–which are so much more Christian than much of what is sold as “orthodoxy.”

Thomas B. Schmidt, Straight & Narrow? Compassion and Clarity in the Homosexuality Debate. (InterVarsity Press, 1995). 

Marion L. Soards, Scripture and Homosexuality: Biblical Authority and the Church Today. (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1995). Written by a former Southern Baptist who became a Presbyterian to escape fundamentalism, but still sees the revisionist/inclusivist view as a threat to the health of the church.

Paul A. Mickey, Of Sacred Worth. (Abingdon Press, 1991). Argues against the Religious Right’s singling out of gays and lesbians for persecution, but also against revisionism on ordination or same-sex marriage.

More could be added from all perspectives. This is the tip of the iceberg where this literature is concerned.

See also the books recommended or cited in earlier posts in this series.

January 20, 2011 Posted by | "homosexuality", Biblical interpretation, blog series, book reviews, ethics, GLBT issues | 1 Comment

Essential Theology Books of the Last 25 Years (1985-2010)

The Christian Century has asked a range of prominent contemporary Christian theologians to list their top 5 works in theology for the last 25 years.   CC  polled Stanley Hauerwas, Amos Yong, Emilie M. Townes, Lawrence S. Cunningham, Sarah Coakley, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, George Hunsinger, and Willie James Jennings.  Their results are here

It’s a good selection of thinkers and a good list, but I thought it’d be fun to poll the theoblogging and biblioblogging world for their picks.  Below are mine in no particular order.

  • Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Abingdon Press, 1996).  Won the Grawemeyer Award for religion.  Written in the wake of the Los Angeles uprising over an all white jury’s cynical aquittal of the racist police officers who beat Rodney King and in the wake of the ethnic cleansing in the civil war of the former Yugoslavia. (Volf is a Croatian-American.) Though not every part is equally satisfying, this is a powerful account of the necessity and difficulties of forgiveness.
  • J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account (Oxford University Press, 2008).   Even though modern theology and philosophy (since the days of European colonialism) are deeply involved in the construction of the flawed notion of race, the topic is usually ignored. Carter not only tackles it, but does it with more depth than I would have believed possible.  NO pastor (especially in the USA), evangelist, missionary, theologian or student of any theological discipline can afford to ignore this book.
  • Catherine LaCugna, God For Us: The Trinity and the Christian Life (HarperOne, 1993).  The late Catherine LaCugna gives one of the most powerful accounts of the Trinity I’ve ever read and shows how deeply important it is for Christian living. Far too many Christians (whether liberal or conservative) think of the Trinity as a “numbers game” which is abstract and remote and of no essential importance for Christian faith–whatever lip service they give to it.  All of them should read LaCugna and reconsider.
  • John Howard Yoder, For the Nations:  Essays Evangelical and Public (Eerdmans, 1997; repr. Wipf and Stock, 2002).  The last book Yoder published before his untimely death in December 1997.  Demonstrates clearly that the Anabaptist engagement with the state and the wider culture is anything but a “sectarian withdrawal.”
  • James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Systematic Theology (3 vols.) (Abingdon Press, 1986; 1994; 2000).  In 3 concentrated and dense volumes (Ethics, Doctrine, Witness) McClendon forges a Baptist (and baptist) theology for the new millennium that is both deeply catholic and which explains and defends the (Ana)baptist perspective to those trained in mainline (Constantinian) theology–whether liberal or evangelical, Catholic, or Orthodox.

I look forward to your picks and reasons.  Yes, it’s hard to limit to just 5, but that is part of the challenge.

October 4, 2010 Posted by | book reviews, books, history of theology | 18 Comments

Favorite Commentaries: General Epistles and the Revelation to John

1 & 2 Peter, Jude

The canonical order, of course, is for the 3 Epistles of John to be placed between 2 Peter and Jude.  But Peter  and Jude are obviously connected literarily and theologically in great detail and both are so brief they are almost always treated together.

Once more, a confession:  These books have played only a small part in my theology and I have usually only read them when teaching NT survey courses.  So, I have not read many commentaries on them and my “favorites” here should be given much less weight than in areas of Scripture (indicated in previous posts) where I have done far more study.

1, 2, 3 John

In pre-critical times, it was nearly universally believed that the Apostle John wrote the Gospel of John, all 3 Epistles ascribed to him, and the Apocalypse or Book of Revelation–the only one of these books to name an author.  But literary and theological differences make it unlikely that all 5 books were written by one person, though they all seem to be related closely enough that scholars have posited a “Johannine School” or “Johannine tradition.”  I’m a cautious sort and believe that weight ought to be given to ancient tradition unless overwhelmed by contrary evidence. I think at least an early version of the Gospel was written by John the Apostle (the double endings suggest revision after the apostle died, but I wouldn’t go with a stronger word than “suggest”), and that the same hand wrote the Epistles.  Revelation is very different and, although it is possible to ascribe the differences to use of a different “amaneunsis” or secretary, it is likely that “John of Patmos” was an exiled elder from the Johannine churches with the same (common) name as the Apostle.  But I don’t think authorship opinions should take on creedal status or deeply affect the interpretation of the material. My 2 cents.

  • Rudolf Bultmann, The Johannine Epistles (Hermeneia:  A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible) (Augsburg-Fortress, 1973).  Bultmann sees Johannine Christianity as sectarian and proto-gnostic. I disagree, but everyone should wrestle with this classic commentary.
  • Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Johannine Epistles (Herder & Herder, 1992).  A contemporary critical Catholic perspective.
  • D. Moody Smith, First, Second, and Third John (Interpretation: A Commentary for Teaching and Preaching) (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992).
  • Marianne Meye Thompson, 1-3 John (IVP Commentaries) (IVP, 1992).
  • David Rensberger, First, Second, and Third John (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries) (Abingdon Press, 1997). 

The Apocalypse or Revelation to John

Growing up, I hated the Book of Revelation. It was the 1970s, and Hal Lindsey’s Late, Great Planet Earth nonsense was all the rage.  TV preachers used it as a reason to preach hate and war or for endless speculation on “the end times.” I watched churches become obsessed and began to think that Reformers like John Calvin showed great wisdom in refusing to write commentaries on it.  I believed (and still do) in the parousia or “Second Coming” of Jesus, but I had no desire to take sides in debates over premillenialism vs. postmillenialism vs. amillenialism.

Later, learning more about Revelation as a form of apocalyptic writing and designed as both reassurance and instruction for nonviolent resistance to the Roman empire, I came to love the Book of Revelation.  It is very practical and helpful for the church today–even if constantly abused by Dispensationalists and “Christian Zionists.”

Commentaries that highlight the socio-political dimensions of Revelation:

  • David E. Aune, Revelation 1-5 (Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 52a) (Thomas Nelson, 1997); Revelation 6-16 (Word Biblical Commentary vol. 52b) (Thomas Nelson, 1998); Revelation 17-22 (Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 52c) (Thomas Nelson, 1998).  Excellent critical commentary that is almost too detailed.
  • Brian K. Blount, Revelation:  A Commentary (New Testament Library) (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009).  An excellent commentary by the President and Professor of NT of Union Seminary-Presbyterian School of Christian Education.  He previously taught at Princeton Theological Seminary.
  • Brian K. Blount, Can I Get a Witness? Reading Revelation through African American Culture (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2005).
  • Allan A. Boesak, Comfort and Protest:  The Apocalypse from a South African Context (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1987).  The experience of oppression, as in apartheid-era South Africa, often leads to insights into Revelation since it grew out of similar context.  It’s in the hands of rich and powerful people that Revelation becomes a dangerous book.
  • G. B. Caird, The Revelation of St. John the Divine (Black’s New Testament Commentaries) (A & C Black Publishers, Ltd., 1966). In the U.S. this was published by Harper & Row as part of Harper’s New Testament Commentaries, but I found mine in a used theological bookstore from the original British printing.  Long out of print, I’ve found this older commentary to be very useful, especially in highlighting the nonviolent, peacemaking, aspects of the book. (I must also say that I miss “Theologue” the used bookstore in Louisville that specialized in buying and selling used books on religion and theology related topics.  With 2 seminaries in town, it was a pearl of great price!)
  • Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza,  The Book of Revelation:  Justice and Judgment (Fortress Press, 1985) and Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Revelation:  Vision of a Just World (Proclamation Commentaries) (Fortress Press, 1991, rev. ed., 1998).  Two excellent commentaries by the pioneer of feminist New Testament studies. Even if you have many objections to her other writings, you should not miss Schüssler Fiorenza’s excellent work on the Book of Revelation.
  • Mitchell G. Reddish, Revelation (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentaries) (Smyth & Helwys Press, 2001) with CD Rom.  Very well done.  Counteracts much terrible writing and preaching on Revelation, tackles many tricky technical issues, but is accessible to the general reader.
  • Pablo Richard, Apocalypse:  A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation, trans. Philip Berryman (Orbis Books, 1995; Repr. Wipf and Stock, 2005).  Brilliant commentary from a Latin American Liberation Theology perspective.
  • Charles H. Talbert, The Apocalypse: A Reading of the Revelation to John (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994).
  • John R. Yeatts, Revelation ( A Believers Church Bible Commentary) (Herald Press, 2003).

Additional studies (not commentaries) that are helpful:

Final thought: If, you are a pastor or other minister responsible for regular preaching of the Word and you shy away from preaching on the Book of Revelation because of bad associations with the “Left Behind” crowd, you are NOT doing your people good. The only cure for bad theology is better theology.  So, read up, and preach Revelation as the radical guide to nonviolent discipleship in a context of imperial persecution that it is and always has been!

September 28, 2010 Posted by | Bible, Biblical interpretation, blog series, book reviews | 3 Comments

Favorite Commentaries: Hebrews and James


The unsigned document (may be more of a sermon than epistle) known as Hebrews is one of the most fascinating and controversial in the New Testament.  Readers either seem to love it or hate it with it’s high Christology, connections to Hellenistic Judaism (e.g., Philo), sacrificial and temple imagery–and its depiction of the life of faith as a journey or pilgrimage.  Some, including the famous German liberal church historian, Adolf von Harnack, thought the writer might be a woman while others have argued for the author of Luke-Acts as the author of Hebrews.

  • Thomas G. Long, Hebrews (Interpretation:  A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching) (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997).  Long is a homiletician who was also trained as a biblical scholar, so he is well qualified to write a commentary for pastors.
  • Marie Isaacs, Reading Hebrews and James:  A Literary and Theological Commentary (Smyth & Helwys, 2002).  Excellent literary critical work.
  • Robert Jewett, Letter to Pilgrims:  A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Pilgrim Press, 1981).
  • Edgar V. McKnight and Christopher Church, Hebrews-James (Smyth & Helwys, 2004). McKnight pioneered the literary critical and reader response approaches to NT interpretation.
  • William L. Lane, Hebrews 1-8 (Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 47a) (Thomas Nelson, 1991). William L. Lane, Hebrews 9-13 (Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 47b) (Thomas Nelson, 1991).  Lane’s work is a must for the biblical scholar and the series format allows the less technical student to skip to the conclusions.
  • Alan C. Mitchell, Hebrews (Sacra Pagina) (Michael Glazier Books, 2007).  Best volume from a Catholic perspective; also addresses the history of Gentile Christians using the Book of Hebrews in an anti-Jewish fashion.


  • Edgar V. McKnight and Christopher Church, Hebrews-James (Smyth & Helwys, 2004).  Full disclosure: Chris Church and I are good friends, were next-door neighbors in seminary, were on the same church staff together in the 1980s and he was even in my wedding party.  So, I am probably biased(!), but I think his commentary on James is brilliant and even better than McKnight’s on Hebrews.
  • Peter H. David, The Epistle to James: A Commentary on the Greek Text (New International Greek Text Commentary) (Eerdmans, 1982).
  • C. Freeman Sleeper, James (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries) (Abingdon Press, 1998).  A commentary on James written by a Christian ethicist also trained in New Testament? Why hasn’t someone thought of this sooner?  Great work.
  • Frances Taylor Gench, Hebrews and James (Westminster Bible Companion) (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1996). Gench’s work is good, better on James than on Hebrews.
  • Marie E. Isaacs, Reading Hebrews and James: A Literary and Theological Commentary (Smyth & Helwys Press, 2002).

September 27, 2010 Posted by | Bible, Biblical interpretation, blog series, book reviews | Leave a comment

Favorite Biblical Commentaries: Acts and the Pauline Epistles

The Book of Acts:

Although I love the Book of Acts, I confess to having very few commentaries on it.  It has not played the role for me that it has for some Mennonites and most Pentecostals and Charismatics, nor the different role that it has many Catholics.  Yet, it’s not that I have neglected this work, but simply that I have approached it more devotionally than academically–and have never been asked to preach through it.

See also:

Richard J. Cassidy, Society and Politics in the Acts of the Apostles (Orbis Books, 1987).  Not a commentary, but a monograph that directly takes on Conzelmann and shows that Acts is far from a pro-Roman apology, but, rather, depicts the early church as constantly in conflict with Rome and the empire acting unjustly in dealing with the earliest Christians.


  • Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans trans. J. Theodore Mueller (Luther Classic Commentaries) (Kregel Classics, 2003).  My copy is to a translation and edition long out of print, but I linked to this new translation because every Protestant should read Luther’s Commentary on Romans.
  • John Calvin, Commentary on Romans trans. John King (Forgotten Books, 2007).  I picked up my copy (an 1834 translation by Francis Sibson) in a used bookstore 20 years ago, but, once more, I think we should not neglect the classics when interpreting Scripture.
  • Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans trans. Edwyn C. Hoskyns (Oxford University Press, 1968).  A book that literally changed the life of the Church in the 20th C.
  • Ernst Käsemann, Commentary on Romanstrans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Eerdmans, 1994).  My favorite critical commentary on Romans.
  • John E. Toews, Romans (Believers Church Bible Commentary) (Herald Press, 2004).  Excellent commentary from an Anabaptist-pacifist perspective.
  • Luke Timothy Johnson, Reading Romans:  A Literary and Theological Commentary (Smyth & Helwys, 2008).  Good close reading from a rhetorical-critical perspective.  It’s also a fascinating Roman Catholic perspective on a book of the Bible that has been central to the Protestant Reformation.
  • Paul J. Achtemeier, Romans (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching) (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1985).

I & II Corinthians

Commentators on the Corinthian correspondence sometimes treat the books separately and sometimes together.


See also:  Michael Bachman, Anti-Judaism in Galatians?:  Exegetical Studies on a Polemical Letter and on Paul’s Theology (Eerdmans, 2009).


Additional studies:


  • Karl Barth, Epistle to the Philippians 40th Anniversary Edition with a New Introduction by Bruce L. McCormack and Francis Watson (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2002).  I was so excited when this new edition was published because I had never read Barth’s commentary on Philippians. 
  • Gordon Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (New International Commentary on the New Testament) (Eerdmans, 1995).  This is an excellent commentary from the best Pentecostal Neutestamentler active today.
  • Fred B. Craddock, Philippians (Interpretation:  A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching) (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1985).
  • Ralph P. Martin, Philippians (New Century Bible) (Eerdmans, 1980).  This is a slim commentary, but Philippians is a slim book and Martin has spent his career working on its problems.
  • Carolyn Osiek, Philippians, Philemon (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries) (Abingdon Press, 2000).  Excellent use of socio-historical and newer literary methods with an eye to relating the social worlds of the text to those of contemporary churches.

Colossians, Philemon

The canonical order separates these two books by the Thessalonian correspondence, but there are numerous literary and historical connections that tie the two books together.  Since both are small books, they are often placed together in one commentary.

I and II Thessalonians

The Pastoral Epistles:  I and II Timothy, Titus

  • William D. Mounce, The Pastoral Epistles (Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 46) (Thomas Nelson, 2000).
  • Martin Dibelius and Hans Conzelmann, The Pastoral Epistles (Hermenia: A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible) (Augsburg-Fortress, 1972).  The classic German critical approach.
  • Paul Zehr, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus (Believers Church Bible Commentary) (Herald Press, 2010).  Brand new. What makes this work so helpful is that, in addition to the verse-by-verse commentary, Zehr includes numerous essays on the special problems of the Pastorals and relates them to contemporary issues in the church today.
  • W. Hulitt Gloer, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary) (Smyth & Helwys Press, 2010). Includes CD-Rom with searchable text. 

September 27, 2010 Posted by | Bible, Biblical interpretation, book reviews | 4 Comments

Favorite Biblical Commentaries: The Gospels

Overviews and Special Topics for the Gospels:


Serious students of the First Gospel will need to consult the older 3 vol. ICC Commentary by W.D. Davies and C. Dale Allison and/or the massive 3 volume commentary by Ulrich Luz. But both are too dense and detailed for the needs of the ordinary pastor.

  • David E. Garland, Reading Matthew:  A Literary and Theological Commentary on the First Gospel. (Smyth & Helwys Press, 1993).  Full disclosure:  Garland was one of my NT profs. at seminary (the old SBTS, not Truett where he is now), but I honestly think this is one of the best examples of the strength of the newer literary criticism.
  • Robert H. Gundry, Matthew:  A Commentary on his Literary and Theological Art.  (Eerdmans, 1982).   This was one of the first commentary-length examples of an American evangelical scholar making full use of genre and redaction criticism. Not all elements are equally persuasive, but the storm of controversy which greeted this commentary in U. S. conservative evangelical circles was completely unjustified and Gundry has some excellent insights.  The revised 2nd edition (which I have on order) is called:  Matthew:  A Commentary on His Handbook for a Mixed Church Under Persecution.
  • Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew. Trans. David E. Green. (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1975).  Written for ordinary readers but thoroughly informed by critical scholarship.
  • Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture(New American Commentary, vol. 22). (Broadman & Holman, 1992).   Full disclosure:  I am not a fan of the New American Commentary series as a whole, but it has some good volumes, especially in the New Testament and this is one.  Blomberg was my NT professor in my undergrad days, but he is more conservative than I am on critical and theological issues.  This is still a good choice for working pastors.
  • Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Rev. Ed. (Eerdmans, 2005).  In all his work, Keener’s great strength is how thoroughly  he knows 1st C. Greco-Roman culture. Here that is combined with the latest evidence on Jewish-Christian relations in the 1st C. to get at the shock-value of Matthew to his first readers.
  • John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text (New International Greek Testament Commentary) (Eerdmans, 2005).  The most serious work directly on the Greek text since Davies and Allison.
  • Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13 (Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 33a) (Thomas Nelson, 1993) and Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14-28 (Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 33b) (Thomas Nelson, 1995).

In addition, several studies on aspects or portions of Matthew are essential for serious students:


Additional important Markan studies:


Additional valuable studies on Luke:


  • Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John:  A Commentary (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1971).  I have several strong disagreements with Bultmann, but this large commentary set the agenda for 2 1/2 generations and serious students need to wrestle with it.
  • C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John:  An Introduction with Commentary and Notes on the Greek Text 2nd. edition (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1978).  Excellent centrist British counterpoint to Bultmann.
  • George R. Beasley-Murray, John, rev. ed. (Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 36) (Thomas Nelson, 1999).  Probably the best evangelical commentary on John in English. (I know that J. Ramsey Michaels has a brand new commentary that may change that estimate, but I haven’t seen it, yet.  Nor have I seen Craig Keener’s 2 volume work.)
  • Ben Witherington III, John’s Wisdom:  A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel  (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1995). Very few commentaries take on nearly all the major scholarly issues (surveying the field) while also working to provide practical help for the contemporary preacher and for churches seeking to be guided by John’s Gospel.  Unfortunately, Witherington is a bit snide concerning the practices of Christians who, e.g., practice footwashing as a sacrament/ordinance in light of John’s Gospel.
  • Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries) (Yale University Press, 1995; repr. from 1970); The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries (Yale University Press, 1995; repr. from 1970). Classic contemporary Roman Catholic perspective.

Additional helpful works on John’s Gospel:

September 26, 2010 Posted by | Bible, Biblical interpretation, blog series, book reviews | Leave a comment