Archives for November 2014

Lectionary Reflection for the First Sunday of Advent

This excerpt comes from Psalms for All Seasons, commenting on Psalm 80:

Psalm 80 is a prayer for God’s intervention to restore the people and is especially poignant after the desolation and violence depicted in Ps. 79.

The theme is clearly established by the cry for restoration and salvation repeated throughout the psalm (vv. 3, 7, 19), ending with a vow to faithful obedience (v. 18) before the last refrain.


Prayer for reflection:
Shepherd of your flock, restore your wayward people;
lead us again to green pastures and renew us beside the waters of comfort.
Because of your faithful care we worship and praise your holy name. Amen.


©2012 Faith Alive Christian Resources. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Between the Lines: A Conversation with Dennis Okholm – Part 1

We recently had the chance to talk with Dennis Okholm about his book Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins: Learning from the Psychology of Ancient Monks.

Dennis Okholm (PhD, Princeton Theological Seminary), a Benedictine oblate, speaks frequently in church and youth group settings and serves as assistant pastor at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Costa Mesa, California. He is also professor of theology at Azusa Pacific University and adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. Okholm is the author or editor of many books, including Monk Habits for Everyday People.


What are the seven deadly sins? What makes a sin cardinal, mortal, or venial?

The so-called “deadly sins” didn’t start out as a list of seven but as a list of eight thoughts that plague us simply because we are fallen human beings. They were listed and reflected upon by Evagrius (fourth century) and John Cassian (fifth century). The list included gluttony, lust, greed, anger, dejection (tristitia), weariness of heart (acedia), vainglory, and pride. Gregory the Great (sixth century) did some rearranging and came up with our list of seven, essentially combining tristitia and acedia into “sloth,” taking pride out as the font of all, and adding envy.

These are “cardinal” sins because they give birth to progeny, as it were: lesser but related sins. But they don’t become “deadly” (just “venial”) until they so consume your thoughts that they clog up your spiritual arteries so that God’s grace cannot flow through your life; as a result, spiritual death ensues and, sometimes, even physical death. You get an idea of this if you compare what they said about gluttony—our thoughts about food—to contemporary research on eating disorders. In fact, that’s what I am doing throughout the book—noting that what they said about these sins has much in common with what we think we’ve recently learned about similar issues in psychology and sociology.


How would monks have pursued emotional health, and what did that look like? What can we learn from them? What can we imitate?

The monks I write about in this book—monks who lived centuries before us—were living together in close relationship with others day in and day out. In the process they dealt with all the issues with which we deal every day—how to think about food intake, lust, anger issues, envious thoughts about fellow monks, desiring more than is needed for daily life, and so on. When it comes to our spiritual, emotional, and bodily health, things really haven’t changed that much over the centuries; so their insights can be very helpful for us, particularly because they were processing it all from a specifically Christian understanding.

They analyzed these problems—causes, symptoms. Essentially, they were providing an etiology of psychological and sociological problems that ail us. Then they prescribed strategies to deal with these problems. As an example, in their discussions about anger they recommend, among other strategies, what we would call “reframing”; that is, they encourage me to think what might have caused someone on the LA freeway to cut me off—such as word that a family member has just gone to the hospital—before I impulsively vent in a fit of road rage. And they recommend the cultivation of counterveiling virtues, such as patience in the case of anger—the virtue of expansion of the heart to relieve the built-up pressure that is anger.

Along the way I discovered that at times the ancient monks anticipated cures that we only recently discovered. To use anger as an example again, I discovered in psychological literature that research reversed the long-held supposition that cathartic venting was the best way to deal with anger; in the 1960s research began to demonstrate that a response of verbal aggression actually increased anger—something that Cassian said 1500 years ago.

There is much wisdom in the writings of these early Christian monks that I have tried to unpack so that it will help us to diagnose what ails us and to develop strategies and cultivate virtues so as to be healthier human beings. I can honestly say that I myself have taken their wisdom to heart, analyzing my own sins and developing strategies for dealing with them based on what they have recommended.


Next week Dr. Okholm will explain how “chastity is the queen of the virtues” and what role grace plays in our purity.

For more information on Dr. Okholm’s new book, Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins, click here.

Lectionary Reflection for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

This excerpt comes from Ezekiel (BTCB) by Robert W. Jenson, commenting on Ezekiel 34:

Here, in my view, is one of the places where we must allow ourselves some of the conceptual play that is both the delight and temptation of theology. As it happens, the same classic doctrine provides an answer to both of our questions.

First the major problem and its remarkably available resolution. For our whole passage to make straightforward sense, the Good Shepherd must be at once God and a descendent of David. And that, of course, is exactly what classical Christology says of Jesus the Christ.

In the traditional formulation: the hypostasis of God the Son is the hypostasis also of the human Davidic Messiah, Jesus. In more contemporary language: “God the Son is Jesus the Christ” is an identity statement. By either formulation of the rule: you cannot refer to God the Son without thereby referring to the man Jesus, and you cannot refer to the man Jesus without thereby referring to God the Son.

A development of this claim within classical Christology then provides the conceptual framework within which we may understand the text’s calling a descendent of David simply “David.” In the jargon of traditional theology this development is called “the communication of attributes”: if God the Son and Jesus are the same person, then what is true of the one must somehow be true of the other, divine and human attributes must somehow be mutually “communicated.”

One of the things true of God the Son is that he transcends the divisions of time; therefore Jesus must somehow transcend them and so indeed be able to sum up in himself the whole Davidic history, appearing as himself the paradigm of Davidic rule.

One unit of the composition (34:25–29) remains before the conclusion. Here we see nature itself transformed by the rule of the eschatological Good Shepherd—shepherds, after all, live with nature. Such marvels as are here promised did not appear in Ezekiel’s day, nor were they seen as the exiles returned. If they are to happen at all, they await the day when David’s shepherding will be universal and open for all to see, so that “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21).

Finally the construction is rounded off and concluded by a version of Ezekiel’s regular finishing formula. Here the formula is completed by another and beautiful variant of the covenant promise: what the people will hear and learn when the Lord who is David takes over as shepherd is, “You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God” (Ezek. 34:31).


©2006 by Robert W. Jenson. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Brazos Press at ETS/SBL/AAR Annual Meetings

Over the next week, Brazos Press and Baker Academic will be attending the annual meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society and of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion in San Diego, California.

Visit our booths for a 40% discount on all our books.

At ETS, we are booth #226.

At SBL/AAR, we are booth #605.

Between the Lines: A Conversation with David G. Benner, PhD – Part 2

We recently had the chance to talk with David G. Benner, PhD, about his book Presence and Encounter: The Sacramental Possibilities of Everyday Life.

David G. Benner (PhD, York University; postdoctoral studies, Chicago Institute of Psychoanalysis) is an internationally known depth psychologist, author, spiritual guide, and personal transformation coach who lives in Toronto, Ontario. He is a faculty member of The Rohr Institute’s Living School for Action and Contemplation, where he serves as a master teacher. Benner has authored or edited more than twenty books, including Soulful Spirituality and Spirituality and the Awakening Self. He lectures widely around the world and has held numerous clinical and academic appointments. For more information, visit his website at or his Facebook page.

Part 1 of this interview is available here.


What is a “clouded” presence? What are its causes and how does it manifest itself?

Personality is seldom clouded. Think of your circle of acquaintances. You don’t have to be a psychologist to be able to identify salient personality traits for each of them. But this is not their presence. The presence that shadows us all is deeper than our personality and yet often more difficult to discern. It is with us in every interaction and will influence others one way or another—even though most people will be unaware of it. It lurks and lingers but is easily ignored or missed. And the major reason for this is because it is so often clouded.

Clouded presence is hard to read. The waters of the soul are opaque and restless. We may sense that someone’s surface presentation does not tell their whole story, but the nature of that deeper story will be as unclear as their presence. Or we may feel uneasy with them and not understand why. But chances are good that the uneasiness we feel is justified and that the clouding of the person’s presence is because of the mask they wear. This mask obscures their motives and parts of themselves that they don’t acknowledge and, if they did, would not want others to see. We can, therefore, describe the cause of clouding of presence as hiding behind a persona. But it is important to realize that we are seldom aware that we are doing this and that the real cause can more simply be described as living out of a false self.

The core of a clouded presence is always limited self-knowledge and an unwillingness to be honest about what we actually do know about ourselves. You don’t have to be perfect to have a clear and unambiguous presence. But, pretense will always confuse it. Pretense compromises our grounding in reality. It also produces the complexity that complicates knowing how to relate to such a person and the confusion you feel when engaged with them. This confusion is only clarified when you understand the ulterior motivations and needs that are opaque to them. But, because the person who is hiding behind a persona believes he or she is that public face, the presence that is their soul signature is clouded and confused.


What is “luminous” presence, and how can we recognize or encounter it? 

Luminous presence is the natural state of being. Rocks, trees, houses, and bridges are luminously clear in their presence to us, but we are seldom sufficiently present to notice. Although we don’t experience luminous presence often, perhaps you can think of occasions when the presence of something or someone was so clear and powerful that it broke through your preoccupations and distractions and pulled you into presence for at least a moment.

When we encounter this sort of presence in a person it shines through them with such luminosity that it can be quite dazzling. You might easily assume that it is the person who is dazzling. But what you are encountering is not simply the other person but the Presence they mediate. This transcendent source of all presence lurks behind all encounters. The other always brings us in potential contact with the Ultimate Other, and all presence mediates—usually in a partial and imperfect way—Ultimate Presence. This is why presence to anything opens the door to presence to the transcendent.

In luminous presence we encounter the purity of simple being. Life is complex. Personality is complex. Mind, self, relationships, and experience are all complex. But being has about it a singularity that marks it as pure.

The best example of this purity and luminosity of presence is Jesus. The Gospels describe him as speaking with amazing authority. I think what people were noticing was his presence, not his personality or his elocution. They were noticing the power and influence that comes from the simplicity and purity of being that we see in Jesus who Christians understand to be the perfect personification of Luminous Presence.


Why have mystics been so concerned with presence and encounter? What can we learn from them about encountering God and how it can change us?

The mystics understand that both spiritual transmission and transformation are through presence and encounter. And they know that encountering anything—particularly God—is something quite different from holding beliefs or having information about someone or something. They understand that authentic encounter is always potentially transformational because it calls us into presence and invites us to return to our center—our being in the Ground of Being. But they also understand that we miss the potential for encounter because of our lack of presence. So, presence and encounter are right at the center of the life and teaching of the mystics.


For more information on Dr. Benner’s new book, Presence and Encounter, click here.

The Weekly Hit List: November 14, 2014

Chicago residents: If you haven’t already registered, there are a limited number of on-site registrations available for tomorrow’s special Kingdom Conspiracy event with Scot McKnight and Missio Alliance at Northern Seminary.

Click here for more information.


Quick Hits:

Craig Blomberg appeared on The Janet Mefferd Show to discuss Can We Still Believe the Bible?

David Fitch continued his review of Kingdom Conspiracy.

Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins by Dennis Okholm was reviewed by Pastor Drew McIntyre.

The Drama of Living by David F. Ford was reviewed by Jonathan K. Dodson.

Presence and Encounter by David G. Benner was quoted by Stephen P. Carlson.


Ebook Specials:

Untamed Hospitality: Welcoming God and Other Strangers by Elizabeth Newman is only $1.99 (92%off) from participating retailers through November 19.

Ebook Special for Untamed Hospitality by Elizabeth Newman

Now through November 19, the ebook of Untamed Hospitality: Welcoming God and Other Strangers by Elizabeth Newman is only $1.99 (92% off) from the following participating retailers:


Barnes & Noble



“This book offers a fresh look at Christian hospitality as a ‘practice’ that shapes and defines our participation in the life of God.”

“An intriguing approach to Christian spirituality. [Newman] understands the contemporary diminutions and distortions of hospitality in dinner parties and the slighter manifestations of charity or politeness; her pioneering work moves toward recognizing and cherishing the ‘stranger,’ whose receipt of hospitality will change us and bring us closer to the heart of the mystery of the Eucharist and of Christianity itself. Her gently persuasive and deeply spiritual work is far-reaching in both its scholarship and its implications. Highly recommended.”
Library Journal

Today’s society has reduced hospitality to hosting elaborate dinner parties and exchanging niceties in conversation with friends. In Untamed Hospitality, Elizabeth Newman seeks to reclaim the true meaning of Christian hospitality as an extension of the abundant and extravagant generosity of God. She argues that Christian hospitality calls for welcoming not only friends but also strangers who will challenge us and enhance our lives in unexpected ways. In doing so, we are prepared to embrace the ultimate stranger: God.

In this theological and cultural analysis, Newman argues that worship itself is participation in divine hospitality—a hospitality that affects our economic, political, and private lives. Her message that hospitality calls us to live in the true marks of the church—one, holy, catholic, and apostolic—is vital in a world separated by national, racial, and ecclesial divisions. It will challenge Christians to move beyond coffee fellowship hours to live out God’s radical hospitality.

Untamed Hospitality offers a fresh approach and will appeal to theologians, biblical scholars, and ethicists, as well as those seeking to redefine Christian hospitality in churches today.

Elizabeth Newman (PhD, Duke University) is professor of theology and ethics at Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. She is the coeditor for Studies in Baptist History and Thought and has published numerous articles in theology and ethics, including essays on theology and science, Christian identity and higher education, the priesthood of all believers, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.

Lectionary Reflection for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

This excerpt comes from Matthew (BTCB) by Stanley Hauerwas, commenting on Matthew 25:14-30:

No parable has been more misused than Jesus’s parable of the talents. Once any parable is abstracted from Jesus proclamation of the kingdom, once any parable is divorced from its apocalyptic context, misreading is inevitable.

Speculation begins, for example, about how much a talent might be or whether the master’s observation that the money could have been put in a bank might mean that Jesus approves of taking interest. Speculative uses of the parable have even been employed to justify economic practices that are antithetical to Jesus’s clear judgment that we cannot serve God and mammon.

Jesus is not using this parable to recommend that we should work hard, make all we can, to give all we can. Rather, the parable is a clear judgment against those who think they deserve what they have earned, as well as those who do not know how precious is the gift they have been given.

The slaves have not earned their five, two, and one talents. They have been given those talents. In the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:1–9), Jesus had indicated that those called to the kingdom would produce different yields. Those differences should not be the basis for envy and jealousy, because our differences are gifts given in service to one another.

So are the talents given to the slaves of the man going on a journey. It is not unfair that the slaves were given different amounts. Rather, what is crucial is how they regarded what they had been given. Jesus makes clear in this parable that we can do only what we have been given.


©2006 by Stanley Hauerwas. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Between the Lines: A Conversation with David G. Benner, PhD – Part 1

We recently had the chance to talk with David G. Benner, PhD, about his book Presence and Encounter: The Sacramental Possibilities of Everyday Life.

David G. Benner (PhD, York University; postdoctoral studies, Chicago Institute of Psychoanalysis) is an internationally known depth psychologist, author, spiritual guide, and personal transformation coach who lives in Toronto, Ontario. He is a faculty member of The Rohr Institute’s Living School for Action and Contemplation, where he serves as a master teacher. Benner has authored or edited more than twenty books, including Soulful Spirituality and Spirituality and the Awakening Self. He lectures widely around the world and has held numerous clinical and academic appointments. For more information, visit his website at or his Facebook page.


What can the story of Moses and the burning bush teach us about presence and encounter?

The story of Moses wonderfully illustrates almost everything I have to say about presence and encounter in this book, so this is a great question to start with. First, let’s notice Moses. On that day and in that moment Moses was present. Rather than being caught up in his own preoccupations or agendas for the day, Moses was aware of what was happening within and around him and open to his life being interrupted. The interruption came in the form of his curiosity. He noticed a fire and paid attention to it long enough and with sufficient openness that he allowed his curiosity to draw him into an encounter. The bush was present to him because presence is the default and steady state for everything in existence with the exception of humans. Only humans can be distant enough from their existence that they can—and regularly do—lose presence. But, like us, Moses could not notice the presence of the bush to him until he was first present to himself. In presence, and only in presence, do we become accessible to encounter.

But the story then brings us to a second really important dimension of this miracle of presence and encounter. What Moses encountered was not merely a burning bush but the Transcendent God. Presence to God also demands presence to self. There can, in fact, be no meaningful encounter with God apart from presence. But presence to anything is a potential doorway to an encounter with the transcendent source of all presence—God. This is why I speak of presence and encounter as sacraments of daily living. Nothing is too small, insignificant, or non-spiritual to fail to be a potential occasion of encountering Presence if we only dare to be present ourselves.


You speak of three laws of presence. What are they and what do they tell us about the nature of presence?

I didn’t receive these laws on tablets of stone on a mountaintop, nor did I derive them scientifically. So perhaps it’s a little presumptuous to speak of them as laws. But they do pull together some of the things that I think are important to understand about presence and how it opens us to the possibilities of encounter. The three “laws” are:

• Presence to anything starts with presence to self,
• Presence to anything is constrained by presence to everything, and
• Presence to anything can be a threshold to the Transcendent.

Being present isn’t something we do. Anything we simply do will always involve more pretense than presence. Presence isn’t something, therefore, that we can simply turn on like a faucet. Authentic presence is always grounded in authenticity. Being present is being real. It is really being in the here-and-now. This is why presence to anyone or anything always must start with presence to self.

But while presence to anything is built on presence to self, the presence that we will be able to offer ourselves will always be constrained by the presence we regularly offer to anything and everything. It is virtually impossible to sustain more presence to anything than we routinely offer to everything. This is because presence is an expression of our being, not simply a behavior. It is a soul posture of openness and attentiveness—not something we can turn into a command performance. The hospitality offered by the best hosts is never simply a way of behaving when guests are present. It is a way of being. Presence is a way of being that will characterize our relationship to everything or it characterizes our relationship to nothing.

Presence is a thin place. It is a place where we are particularly close to Transcendent realities that are normally beyond our awareness but that always surround us. Being present to anything opens us to potential encounter with the transcendent presence that is the Ground of Being. God is always present. It is us who are absent. Our absence is our lack of presence. Once we learn to be present we become aware of the truth of the eternal presence of the One who is present to us.


Next week Dr. Benner will explain “clouded” and “luminous” presence, and he will illuminate mystics’ thoughts on presence and encounter, as well as what we can learn from them about encountering God.

For more information on Dr. Benner’s new book, Presence and Encounter, click here.

The Weekly Hit List: November 7, 2014

Scot McKnight, author of Kingdom Conspiracy, was interviewed by Publishers Weekly.

“About a dozen years ago, Scot McKnight, professor of New Testament at North Park Seminary and the author of 24 books, was sitting in church and heard the pastor say some things about Jesus and the Jewish world that didn’t sound quite right. ‘We can do better than this,’ he thought.

“The kingdom mission, McKnight writes, is ‘the local church mission: evangelism, worship, catechesis (wisdom), fellowship (love), edification (advocacy), discipleship (nurture), gifts (Spirit unleashed).’

“By illuminating Jesus’ view of the kingdom, Kingdom Conspiracy fleshes out the ideas McKnight wrote about in The Jesus Creed: that the church must be all about loving God and neighbor, and that those simple principles are the foundation of a loving kingdom community.”

Read the entire interview here.



Drama of LivingThe Drama of Living by David Ford was recommended by Byron Borger of Hearts & Minds Books.

“With this release, Brazos shows themselves to be one of the most important presses in the North American religious publishing landscape.

“I’ve been waiting for this sequel to The Shape of Living for, oh, gee, maybe fifteen years.

“Subtle, nuanced, deep, beautiful without being flamboyant, this wise, thoughtful theologian has given us practical theology and a spirituality of life itself. It isn’t simple, but it is eloquent.”

Read the entire review here.


Quick Hits:

David Fitch continued his review of Kingdom Conspiracy by Scot McKnight.

Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins by Dennis Okholm was reviewed by Stephen Shaffer.

Generous Spaciousness by Wendy VanderWal-Gritter was recommended by Joshua Torrey: “The must buy book of the month.”

Can We Still Believe the Bible? by Craig Blomberg was discussed by Andrew Sullivan on The Dish.

Jerry L. Walls, author of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory (January 2015), was mentioned in Desert News National.

Kicking at the Darkness by Brian J. Walsh was mentioned in The Toronto Star.


Ebook Specials:

Just Politics: A Guide for Christian Engagement by Ronald J. Sider is only $3.99 (80% off) from participating retailers through November 9.