Running Heads

From the editors of Cascade Books and Pickwick Publications at Wipf and Stock Publishers

Cat clips

Cat reacts to ice cream

Cat fails compilation

The Art of Book Titling

With so many books available, the deft titling of a book is more necessary than ever to help a book get possible consideration for buying—and reading. We let authors take the lead on the titling of their books, so perhaps it’s worthwhile to offer a few thoughts on effective titling.

Though evocative titles are nice and in many ways appealing, it’s more important to be straightforwardly descriptive of your book’s subject. Even clever evocative titles don’t say a lot, at least immediately,   about what a book  covers.  And in the day of declining brick-and-mortar bookstores, readers do a lot of their bookfinding by performing online (and especially Amazon) searches. So having key words in a title (especially) and a subtitle (secondarily) is important. When trying to arrive at a title, think about a one-sentence summary of your book and its content. Then work back from there to devise a shorter, smoother title. If you can be evocative and descriptive, great. But remember that the descriptive element is essential. For example, John Bright’s classic The Kingdom of God is a straightforward, purely descriptive title. And anyone  wanting to read on research on the kingdom of God will easily find the book in an Amazon search. For a title that’s both evocative or clever and descriptive, I’ve long been impressed with Gordon Fee’s and Douglas Stuart’s How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. It’s clear in what the book’s about, but also has the nice play on the layers of “worth.”

A second consideration is keeping a title short. I’d say no more than five or six words maximum, and only one to three words is always nice. A wordy title is offputting. It subtly (or not so subtly) communicates to the potential reader that the author has trouble with concise expression. Design wise, it clutters the cover. And a long title is  rarely memorable. When working on a title, keep paring it down until you get it to as few words as possible.

One more thought: there’s a difference between a good working title and a good final title. It’s a good idea to have a working title that aids you in writing your book, a kind of touchstone you can go back to as you’re making decisions while you’re composing. In this sense, a solid working title may be clunky and may be long, but is something that can remind you of your central focus and what you’re trying to do with the book. A good final title, on the other hand, should not be long and should indicate the subject of your book, but not fill it out as much as a working title may. So don’t get stuck on a working title. Have it serve its purpose, then let it go. The final, published title needs to be short, preferably punchy, and appealing—as well as, first and foremost, descriptive of your book.

And put that way, it’s not wonder titling is such hard work, trying to do so much with a few words.

 

 

Christian Decline as Return to (Marginal) Strength

Three stories/posts making the rounds yesterday came together for me, oddly enough as you’ll see, as a picture of hope for the future of Christianity in America.

I.

The first was not a single story but rather a whole series of news articles and blog posts about the new Pew survey on “American’s Changing Religious Landscape.” One of the key findings of the study is that the percentage of Christians is declining in America. Released but three days ago, there’s no shortage of commentary on what the survey results mean. Though the survey results are fresh, the decline is nothing new, nor is the tendency to respond to the trend line as bad news. Back in November, Michael Lipka of the Pew Research Center reported that approximately two thirds of American Protestants and Catholics view “religion’s waning influence” as “a bad thing.” Even 30% of the “unaffiliated” considered the development “a bad thing.”

II.

Jason Byassee, a good friend from graduate school, lured me into reading a lovely post at the Ekklesia Project lectionary blog by declaring on Facebook about its author: “I nominate Kyle Childress for best preacher and storyteller on the planet.” Childress, pastor of Austin Heights Baptist Church in Nacogdoches, Texas, reflects in “Two Christianities” about the difficulty of interpreting the high priestly prayer of John 17:6–19—the centerpiece of which reads, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one”—in the midst of his local context in which some well-meaning Christian folk arm themselves for a zombie apocalypse, and others think their Governor wise for summoning the Texas State Guard to keep an eye on the “Jade Helm” military training exercises out of fear that Obama really might be planning to invade the state and intern folk in empty Wal Marts. Childress hardly feels at one with these Christians, nor with the Christians who recently gathered for the National Day of Prayer in a local park to sing “God Bless America” and denounce various trends that they see at the root of a declining America. Childress pointed out that the National Day of Prayer gatherings are typically all-white audiences entirely distinct from the folk who turned out for the Martin Luther King Day celebration just a few months prior.

III.

I hope readers will follow the link to Childress’ post to see where he goes from there, but it was the racialization of Christian disunity noticed by Childress that I was reminded of later when reading a post at the Duke Divinity School blog by one of my teachers, Willie James Jennings. In “Overcoming Racial Faith,” Jennings summons us to go beyond the false platitudes about racial conflict as an occasional flare up against a more serene and racially reconciled backdrop, to embrace a more painful truth about American life: “racial animus is a constituting reality of our social body.” Importantly, Jennings wants us to understand how the racial animus that is a constituting reality of our American social body is linked to the distinctive history of Christian faith—specifically, to what he calls “gentile forgetfulness.” His account is elegant and powerful and worth quoting at some length:

Christian faith grew from spoiled soil, from a way of reading Scripture and understanding ourselves as followers of Jesus that was distorted almost from the beginning. This first aspect of racial faith emerged from forgetting that we were Gentiles. Christian belief in God begins with the astounding claim that we have met God in a Jewish man, Jesus of Nazareth, a vagabond rabbi who came not to us but to his own people, Israel. The “us” in that sentence is Gentiles, those not of Israel, those not Jewish. And by Jewish I mean (generally speaking) all those inside the history of Israel, who would identify themselves, theologically or ethnically, inside that history.

We Gentiles were outsiders to Israel. We were at the margins. So our engagement with Jesus was engagement from the margins, not from the center of power or privilege. In fact, anyone in Israel who connected themselves to Jesus moved to the margins. They became what theologian Shawn Copeland calls “a thinking margin.” Thinking from the margin is thinking from the site where one can see the operations of power and oppression and spy out the possibilities of freedom. To be a thinking margin means that one always claims the identity of one who others didn’t imagine would be included and one who never forgets the feeling of being the outsider who was included by grace.

Somewhere, probably in many places and many times, Gentile Christians got tired of remembering that they were a thinking margin that had been included in Israel’s promise. They decided—we decided—that those who followed Jesus were the only people of God and that Jewish people, Israel in the flesh, were no longer the people of God. We also decided that we should look at the world as though we were at the center of it and not at the margins with a Jew named Jesus. We forgot we were Gentiles, the real heathens. A Christian world was turned upside down and remade in our image.

Jennings goes on to discuss “The Principality of Whiteness” as another key ingredient to the racial animus that plagues us, and I encourage readers to work through the entire piece. But I’ve quoted enough to suggest why I think it’s not just a parlor trick to claim that Christian decline might actually be good news for Christians in America. It might be just the healing balm needed by power-hungry heathen who have forgotten that the very source of their salvation comes from a marginal Jewish rabbi whose power was made perfect in weakness. As Kyle Childress is experiencing in Nacogdoches, Texas, and I suspect a good many Christians are experiencing elsewhere in America, many efforts by Christian churches “to reclaim the center” of American life and culture are being revealed more and more to be bizarre and paranoid and, I fear, violent betrayals of the gospel that doesn’t belong there—at “the center of power or privilege.” Dare we hope that by rediscovering and embracing our proper location on the margins, Christians in America might at long last confront and overcome the stubborn, constituting reality of racial animus that Jennings helps us to name?

For God so loved the world…

A couple of days ago, Robin took a stab at encapsulating the gospel in one sentence. A few commenters did the same. I’m not going to try to add to the list. I would, however, like to call attention to a book about a very familiar sentence, which, for many, summarizes the gospel quite well.

We are just a few weeks away from publishing a short book on John 3:16 by well-known New Testament scholar, Murray J. Harris. Harris might add to the conversation Robin started with the following:

Of course, John 3:16 is not the totality of the gospel (“the good news”) nor a summary of the entire New Testament. How could one sentence of twenty-five words (in Greek) possibly sum up the message of nine different authors writing over some forty years? But this sentence is a summary of the message of the Fourth Gospel and it does sum up the essence of the “good news” which is the invitation given to all to believe in Jesus, God’s Son, and the promise that those who do this will avoid God’s condemnation and will share in the very life of God forever.

John 3:16: What’s It All About? should be available by early summer. It would make for an excellent small group study. And could easily be read in one day at the beach!

 

Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann is one of the most prolific—and insightful—biblical scholars of the past hundred years. I have had the privilege to work on numerous of his books, going back to 1998. I have just finished editing the first of three volumes of his essays that were all originally published in Festschriften. This volume is called The Role of Old Testament Theology in Old Testament Interpretation and Other Essays. Each essay in this volume is a demonstration of Brueggemann’s breadth and depth. This should be off press in within the next week or so.

Downton Funk

The gospel in one sentence

The message of the gospel is one of those messages that can be expressed in so many different ways and it benefits from all this diversity. But if I had only one sentence available, how would I express it?

Hmmmm. Tricky. OK. Here is a first attempt.

God has acted in Jesus the Messiah—through his incarnate life, death, resurrection, and ascension—to set the world right and to bring creation to its intended destiny.

If you had one sentence, how would you express the gospel?

Catherine Rampell

Catherine Rampell, an opinion writer for the Washington Post, is not someone I have read a great deal. But two of her recent pieces have grabbed my attention for their clarity and a sense of the tragic.

The first was about Charles Gladden, a janitor and dishwasher in the cafeteria of the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington DC (read here). Gladden is 63 years old—my age—and homeless. But when the Senate privatized its food service in 2008 (because it was losing up to $2 million a year), his job became a lot tougher. The new company shrunk the workforce and worsened hours. The government does not require the contracting companies to pay a living wage, so his take-home pay is about $360 a week. He has remained homeless because he gives much of his salary to his children and grandchildren; furthermore, he has had several physical maladies (including diabetes) so that he has missed work, and he has to panhandle on weekends in order to pay for insulin.

The second column is about the tax cuts in Kansas by the Republican legislature and Republican governor (read here). These drastic cuts, mostly for the wealthy, have had a disasterous effect on the state, roads, welfare, and especially on the school districts. These cuts that began in 2012 have brought in hundreds of millions of dollars less that projections. For the fiscal year beginning in July 1, the estimates are a $422 million shortfall. “The most recent reductions, announced in March, required [school] districts to absorb an additional $51 million in cuts by the time this fscal year ends June 30.” This has resulted in schools announcing early closures for the school year, as well as cuts to personnel and programs. This also means that teachers have to readjust their curricula in order to cover the same amount of work in less time.

I wanted to raise up these two stories, but also to point to Rampell as an important columnist to watch for.

“It is finished!” What is finished?

I have always been told—and have always believed—that when Jesus cried, “It is finished!” he meant that his work in bearing the sins of the world was completed.

But it struck me about ten minutes ago that there is a problem with this: when Jesus uttered those words he was not dead (obviously). But the church affirms that Christ died for our sins. So it cannot literally be true that his cross-work was completed when he said those words. That was not finished—at least not in every respect.

This has some bearing on what we say about Christ’s descent into Hades. This ancient belief has received a range of interpretations over the centuries, but the most basic division in the interpretations is between (a) the views in which Christ was thought to be among the dead as the victor proclaiming his triumph and (b) those in which he was among the deceased as one who “stood” in solidarity with the dead, suffering death’s humiliation and Godforsakenness. Now one argument against the latter range of views is that Christ’s humiliation ended on the cross—after all, he said that it was finished. So the descent could only be a victorious descent.

But if the words “It is finished!” do not mean that Christ has no more sin-bearing then the way is opened up to see the descent as an integral part of Christ’s humiliation—his being dead.

That said, I see no reason why we need to play off (a) and (b) against each other. I think that the descent is a pivot element in the story and can be seen both in terms of humiliation and exaltation, cross and resurrection. That’s for another time.

Anyway, here is my question: what is finished?

Jesus and the Powers that Overwhelm Us

Recently I’ve worked on an upcoming book edited by Kent Dunnington, collecting essays published by Arthur C. McGill. McGill was a Yale educated theologian who taught in his later years at Harvard. He died young in 1980, at the age of fifty-four. He published only three books, all now in print with Wipf and Stock. The best known is Suffering: A Test of Theological Method. 

McGill had a gift for cutting to the bone of the matter, and for writing with acute theological insight. His recurrent themes included the inherent neediness of all persons and an insistence that the power of God is not crushing but donative, at its theological core in the perichoretic Trinity, and in God’s self-giving work through the cross. McGill was impressed with how death pervades all of life, and how the call of the cross is a call to die to self and in service of others.

Dunnington’s essay collection is entitled The Uncertain Center. The following excerpt displays McGill’s ability to synthesize broad swaths of thought, and cut to the heart of the matter. In it he discusses the power of demonic in our lives, and Jesus’ dual responses of exorcism and the work of the cross. It may be important to note that McGill’s deployment of the category of the demonic is not literalistic. For him the demonic are those powers that transcend individuals and even societies, and work destruction in them. Here’s the excerpt.

In this connection I would remind you that two very different approaches to the demonic are presented in the Gospel accounts about Jesus. There is one way of exorcism, where demonic powerfulness is driven away and people are liberated from bondage to disease or insanity. But this way is not given great attention. It does not carry any crucial value. In fact the New Testament makes absolutely clear that no one is going to exorcise the demonic out of this world. On the contrary, demonic inhumanity will increase. The present power and pervasiveness of demonic forces in the world is too extensive to imagine that they will be removed by exorcism.

The other approach is the way of the cross. Jesus calls upon people to take up his cross—that is, in some sense to enter into the arena of demonic suffering rather than to flee from it. This is the approach that receives primary emphasis in the New Testament. But what is this approach? What does it mean to take up Jesus’ cross and to let oneself be attacked by inhuman dreadfulness?

The fundamental issue at stake here is the mode in which we discover the Lordship of God as an actual fact. It is easy to mouth the creed about God being almighty, but in the face of the powers that seem to rule this world such a belief remains unreal. Where and how do we actually discover for ourselves, as the truth of our own existence and of the existence which we share with our fellow humans, that the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is indeed the only authentic power in all reality?

The only place we really discover this is where we are being attacked by demonic forces. It is one thing for God to rule by removing these dreadful forces from the scene, in the manner of exorcism. It is another thing for him to vindicate his rule precisely when, and as, these ferocities are in full activity. But what does it mean to say that he “vindicates” his rule at the very moment that the demonic displays its power in full force? What does this vindication amount to? As I see it, this is one of the meanings of Jesus’ death. For on the cross Jesus did not submit to the demonic—that is, did not act as if it, and not his Father, were the master of his destiny. He refused to fear, to defend himself, to imagine that this dreadful destructivity had any final power over him. In short, while on the cross Jesus was sustained in his human way, in his confidence in his Father and in his compassion and care for those around him. God vindicated his rule in Jesus, not by removing the powers of destruction and death from him, but by maintaining in Jesus that supremely human condition of trust and love even while these powers worked their fullest.

 

« Older posts

© 2015 Running Heads

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑