Friday, March 9, 2012

Book Review - from inspiration to understanding

This is a second post on the subject book. The title is from inspiration to understanding, reading the bible seriously and faithfully. It is written by Edward W. H. Vick, and sent to me for review by Henry Neufeld of Energion Publications.

I have received some critical feedback in my lifetime about books I have written. My first was called that book (1987, Intuition to Implementation, Prentice Hall). It had a very long subtitle and a very nice cover, Fish and Scales by M.C.Escher. But inside, as a treatise on systems analysis and design, it was quickly dated.

My second, Peleyah, is a children's story about a donkey. Written in 2001 or thereabouts, I received my first royalty cheque of $1.37 just a week or two ago. I was really quite surprised. The criticism from someone at Christianity Today indicated I should not have written this for 'children'. Maybe 20-80 year old children. It was too complex (according to them). "Go back to the drawing board", she suggested - and I could have listened.

My third book is in preparation. It is under review by 7 of my friends. I am confident they will remain so, but I am prepared for negative responses. (Or so I hope.)

I have just mastered the Scripture index! What a job. Be warned, you need to prepare the text to avoid double indexing (or e.g. Psalm 111 will give you an index entry on Psalm 1, 11, and 111). And you need a table of what you want indexed that corresponds to your annotated text. So for the above, Psalm 1 is Psalm ~~1 and Psalm 11, Psalm ~11 etc. The table then has entries like this:
Text to Index -
be sure to be unambiguous
Hierarchy Level 1 ; sequence 1 : Level 2 ; sequence 2 : Level 3 ; Sequence 3
(Level 3 and Sequence 3 can be extended to accommodate sorting by chapter and verse.)
Genesis ~1Torah;1:Genesis;01:1;001
Genesis ~2Torah;1:Genesis;01:2;002
Joshua ~1Prophets;2:Joshua;06:1;001
Joshua ~2Prophets;2:Joshua;06:2;002
Psalm ~~1Writings;3:Psalms;26:1;001
Psalm ~~2Writings;3:Psalms;26:2;002
Psalm ~11Writings;3:Psalms;26:11;011
Psalm 111Writings;3:Psalms;26:111;111
And for the NT e.g.
Matthew ~1New Testament;4:Matthew;01:1;001

The left hand column is a complete list of all chapters in sequence in the TNK and NT. The right hand column is a hierarchy. The final index will look something like this: 
1, 63, 73, 75, 129, 222, 328, 348
1.2, 336
2.4, 123, 222
6.38, 258
1 Samuel
1-2, 358
3, 153
9.1, 33
Psalms ....
1.3, 79
1,8 and 15, 88
New Testament
Matthew ....

- but only after you have done a lot of work. I am not finished with my 2000 or so references. You can even do bold, italics etc - after you have done the work. You have to love it. The automark feature of Word 10 only gives you an index by chapter. (And remove the squiggles in your text after you have done the automark.) You need to add manually the idiosyncrasies you have allowed yourself in the text. Like a reference to Psalm 1 verse 1 or Psalm 11:4  or Psalm 111 verses 5 and 6 - and so on. And you can't use colons in the body of the index entry - they interfere with the hierarchy, so I used the period.  There is no further shortcut that I have found.

Moreover, if you make mistakes, the hierarchy fails. If e.g. by accident you have an extra space in the right hand column, or you give the wrong sequence (as I have), then you will have a terrible time finding where you went wrong. Or if you copy a reference and forget to change the sequence, all subsequent references will fail to gather correctly. But don't buy a program to do it. They are worthless because they can't read your text or mark the entries or add the verse numbers. 

All this preamble is marginally relevant to the subject of my review. But while I have been spitting nails at Microsoft Word 10 for not doing my job for me, I have also been thinking about how to approach a book to review it without being unnecessarily critical.

I said in my previous note that there is some real finesse in the text. But if you start at the beginning, you may get discouraged. The opening chapters are approaching the problem of escaping from the bondage of confessional fundamentalism of one kind or another. The author has learned his lessons from life and from school. But I did not find the writing particularly coherent in the first few chapters. This is, I think, because the thought world of fundamentalism of whatever stripe is a long way from the world of historical criticism and formulating a strategy to get from one to the other is a very complex problem. He does get there - at times - though I would wish for even greater boldness, but the beginning is not as promising as parts of the middle sections.  I recognize that in my third book, I will have some of the same problems. How do you grasp the process of summarizing what you have learned over 60 years with all the twists and turns that might be better left out? Or even in the past two weeks!

The answer is in the audience you are writing for - the question is: "what can you assume"? For one who is labouring against the bonds of convention in an assembly - let us cast away their bonds from us - this book will be very helpful. The one who is under such duress, whether of creationism, or Adventism, or Anglicanism, or Catholicism, or Orthodoxy or whatever other name one subsumes oneself under, will be happy to find another who is qualified, as Vick is, to begin to explore the various bits of incoherence in the assumptions one has accepted without question. Vick approaches the questions with care. You can read the care into his words. The questions might have been mine 35 years ago, but I would not have listened. There's the problem. Can you grab a fundamentalist by the scruff of its neck? No. Will its rejection of fundamentalism result in the rejection of all aspects of its faith? That is a question that the young earth creationist or inerrancy crowds (for there are many) cannot face. They like their bonds and haven't yet learned that a little revolt is a good thing. 

This review is incomplete as is my reading of the book at this point. But I just opened to page 240-241 to a section of striking beauty: the reasoning from "the term 'tradition'  is used of both beliefs and practices, good and bad" to a conclusion that the "New Testament sources now available to us represent a selective remembering of the events to which they refer."

He could not have said that on page 1. He had to begin with the acceptance of a 66 book canon (p 17), and so on. So Vick gently encourages questions about these assumptions. Mercy and gentleness are within the scope of his writing. I can identify him with that hand of mercy that is spoken of in Psalm 149 whereby the royals (the enemies, the kings) are bound in fetters of iron, as Joseph (Psalm 105) was bound by Pharaoh, ultimately leading to the resurrection and glorification of Joseph in a figure. Vick thus joins the ranks of those who use the canonical text to build a community of the merciful. 

Physically, I have some minor concerns with this book. 1. Avoid black covers. They have a newsprint problem. (Note to self - your working cover will not work). 2. Don't hide your Scripture references. The real use of such an index, for one who wants to learn the Teaching (Psalm 1), is to get directly to the text and confirm that the reader grasps the book. For the student of rigidity and self-sufficiency, such as binds the confessional fundamentalist, the Scripture references need to be seen in the text, not hidden in chapter end notes. And for both audiences, I think Vick need more references.

He does have a Scripture Reference Index (roughly 150 references for a 350 page book). It is not extensive nor is it easy to follow the cross references since one must look in three places in the book (the index, the end notes, and the chapter). Many of the assertions and discussions in the text could bear Scriptural support for those students of the Teaching who want to begin to exercise their judgment about what our shared canon represents.

As an example, from page 240, in discussion of Jude 3-4, Vick writes "There is no suggestion here that the teachings are true or the practices commendable because they are old. Nor conversely, are they to be rejected because they have been handed down. Whether they are the one or the other we must decide on other grounds."  A few pages later, I read his list of supports for Scriptural interpretation based on the texts of Scripture. Here I also read his struggle with the NT use of the OT. So with Paul on the meaning of muzzling oxen (p328), Vick writes that "we may not permit ourselves to do with the biblical texts what the New Testament writers did with the Old Testament text" . This is an area where I would wish for a greater boldness on the subject of interpretation. I think we must do, in Christ, what the NT authors do with Scripture (the Law and the Prophets and the Psalms, as Jesus referenced them). And historical criticism seeks just that power. So the myth of the conquest of the Canaanites needs to be interpreted both historically (as myth in every sense of the term - i.e. both fiction and powerful image for motivation) and as capable of analogical and allegorical interpretation. (I am indebted to Bill Morrow of Queen's University for this insight.)

It took me a little time to find Vick's section on interpretation of Scripture by Scripture.  Note 54 on p243, points to endnotes on p263, a chapter reference given, requires a scan of the book, in this case forward rather than backward. This is unduly difficult design. Part of it is the result of using chapter end notes. Part is the hiding of information that should be on the surface. Such surface information aids in transparency of the contents of the book.

What does the book contain? The high level chapters are well laid out in the Table of Contents:
Ways of Approaching the Bible (subdivided into 5 subsections)
Canon (8)
Authority: Influence and Acceptance (10)
Authority: a Series of Mistakes (6)
Inspiration: the Doctrine (10)
Inspiration and the Contents of the Bible (6)
Revelation: what it means (8)
Revelation and the Knowledge of God (8)
Tradition and Scripture (18)
Interpreting the Bible: Figure Form and Content (8)
Interpreting the Bible: Text and Revelation (13 subsections)
then an index of Biblical references as noted, and of names, and a brief Bibliography (Anderson, Baillie, Dodd, Von Rad are a few that would have come from Vick's studies in the 50s and 60s I expect.)

I think I can see potential for considerable overlap in discussion points in the text of the various chapters. I confess I do not know how I would approach such a subject area.