Monday, November 15, 2010

Book Review: The Consuming Fire: A Christian Guide to the Old Testament

Tracing God's Word through History

God speaks to us through His Word. It is therefore essential that Christians engage in serious study of Scripture. But in doing so we must remember that the Bible is not a text book. The Word of God does not instruct us in the same way a math or science lesson informs our brains with facts, figures and formulas. Nor is the Bible a single book; it is a collection of books drawn from many genres including poetry, historical writings, wisdom literature, myth, and so on, each with its own purpose and method of conveying ideas. Among the authors, editors, and compilers of Scripture there are many voices, each lending a different perspective as they carry out the work of the Spirit. Sacred Scripture is the product of centuries of prayer and reflection, editing and compiling – passed on from generation to generation – and lived out as a faith experience.

As opposed to a “textbook” we may think of the Bible as a “conversation.” And it begins with the people of Israel in the Old Testament. Michael W. Duggan, Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at St. Mary’s University College in Calgary, puts it this way:

“When we read the Hebrew Bible, we listen to a conversation that lasted more than a millennium, from the first settlements of the Israelites in the Holy Land during the thirteenth century B.C.E until the Roman emperor Hadrian expelled all Jews from Jerusalem in 135 C.E. Throughout these fourteen centuries minstrels, storytellers, priests, prophets, poets, and sages composed and collected the texts that rabbis ultimately arranged as the compendium of Jewish Scripture…The whole compendium, while exhibiting the coherence of a conversation among people of shared commitment, does not say the same thing from beginning to end. Each book – sometimes each part of a book – has its own voice. Just as a good listener respects the uniqueness of each speaker, so the good reader of the Bible discerns the unique contribution of each book or portion thereof.”

Duggan’s book, The Consuming Fire: A Christian Guide to the Old Testament, from which the above quote is taken, proposes to do just that – to discern the unique contribution of each “speaker” in the Old Testament. For anyone interested in embarking on a serious study of Hebrew Scriptures from a Christian perspective this book would certainly be a tremendous resource.

It must be noted that there are many methods for studying the Bible, and many levels at which people feel comfortable delving into such a topic. This particular book is not a simple “Sunday school” approach to Scripture, with Noah’s Ark and Rainbows, and cardboard cutouts of the Ten Commandments. This is a rigorous, academic approach to Scripture. Professor Duggan presents a thorough examination of the text, the history of its writing, a cultural analysis of the ancient Israelites, and citations from the latest scholarly work to construct a detailed view of who wrote each passage and why. This book is not primarily a spiritual reflection on the beauty and meaning of God’s Word. Instead Duggan offers a framework from which such a spiritual understanding could be deepened in light of the history of the text.

This is not to say that The Consuming Fire is devoid of spirituality. It is obvious that Professor Duggan writes with a deep respect for the Word of God. He hopes the reader will use his work as a starting point for coming to a more profound understanding of Jewish Scripture as applied in our own lives as Christians. He honors the Jewish roots of the Old Testament, while yet allowing for the Christian fulfillment of these Scriptures in the coming of Jesus. At the end of each chapter he provides Scriptural passages for further reflection and includes New Testament references that explain the Christian view of Old Testament themes. He insists from the outset, that the best way to use his book is to have a Bible open in front of you so that you can prayerfully consult the actual text that is being examined. This book is meant as a companion on a journey through Holy Scripture.

At just over 650 pages, this is not light reading.  Add to this the text of the Old Testament itself as well as New Testament references, and anyone who undertakes this as a Biblical study is in for a long and intense experience. Although the author wrote this book with the beginner in mind (he assumes that the reader may never have been exposed to the Old Testament before), this text is most suited for a college-level reader and preferably someone who has at least some familiarity with the Old Testament.

In preparing to review this book I quickly read through the entire text to familiarize myself with the overall format and content. The first few chapters give a brief introduction to the Old Testament (the people and places of ancient world, the languages and cultures of the time, and some historical context) all of which prepare the reader for a book-by-book examination of the Canon itself.  The following chapters explore the individual writings of the Old Testament one at a time. The structure of these chapters is as follows:

“Every chapter begins with a reflection on issues of faith and life, which were of concern to the biblical author(s) and with which we may be able to identify today. The examination of every book follows a basic design that aims to give you immediate access to the biblical text. The analysis unfolds in six steps: (a) a description of the historical setting of the events related to the text; (b) a portrayal of the historical situation of the author and his audience (all of whom are usually quite distant from the events); (c) a summary of major themes (i.e., the message that the author conveyed to the original audience); (d) a survey of how various New Testament writers used the book; (e) a list of passages for meditative reading; and (f) an outline of the book.”

After an initial read through of the entire text, I selected a few chapters to study as the author suggested (with Bible in hand, and focused on opening up God’s Word). I cannot stress enough that this method is an intense but fruitful exercise. If done properly, reading this book could easily stretch to an entire year of study, perhaps more. But with enough time and dedication, The Consuming Fire can open up new insights that are well worth the effort.

To put all of this into perspective, we can again turn to Professor Duggan’s example of the divine “conversation.” With regard to the Old Testament, The Consuming Fire tells us who did the speaking, when they spoke, to whom they spoke, and why they spoke as they did. Beyond these details the author merely suggests a general direction for further study and reflection. The Consuming Fire does not directly answer questions about Catholic doctrine or spirituality; it does not provide exhaustive interpretations of passages or explore the nuanced positions of theologians on various matters of the faith. However, what this book does well is explain where the Old Testament came from. The reader will be able to “listen in” on the great “conversation” from the moment when it was first spoke. In this way Professor Duggan’s work gives new life to our conversation with God.

[This review was written as part of the Catholic book reviewer program from The Catholic Company. Visit The Catholic Company to find more information on The Consuming Fire and be sure to check out their great selection of baptism gifts while you are there.]

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