Book Review: Arterbury, Bellinger, and Dodson – Engaging the Christian Scriptures

Cover ArtOne of the shared experiences amongst all Bible scholars is that at one time or another we are called upon to teach introductory courses. Finding a suitable textbook is not always easy. There are a wealth of single volume intro textbooks covering each Testament as well as the entire Bible, yet these employ a diversity of approaches and views on the presentation of “cutting edge” scholarship. Add to this list of new introductory textbooks Andrew Arterbury, W. H. Bellinger, and Derek Dodson’s Engaging the Christian Scriptures: An Introduction to the Bible.

The volume is designed to be used for a single semester course in Bible–both Old and New Testaments. The preface begins: “We intend for this volume to serve as an introductory textbook to the Christian Scriptures for students who are engaging in an informed reading of the Bible within an academic setting. Because we believe the biblical texts should function as the primary texts in such a setting, we have crafted this textbook to function as a supplemental resource. For example, we have focused our readers’ attention on the prevailing conversations and leading opinions within the field of biblical studies on most subjects” (xi). The methodological focus is described as “contextual,” with a focus on historical, literary, and theological contexts.

The opening chapter, “Places to Begin,” is accessible, well-organized, and still challenging enough for entry level students. Questions addressed include “why read the Bible,” “how did we get the Bible” (covering canon/ization, textual traditions, and translations),  “how shall we read the Bible” (addressing early Christian interpretation, post-Reformation interpretation, and “new trends”). Clocking in at 21 pages, this chapter covers a wide range of difficult yet essential questions for any student to encounter before turning to the biblical text. It is an excellent orientation to the complexities in reading and interpreting the Bible.

The remaining chapters are devoted to the respective canonical divisions: Pentateuch, Former and Latter Prophets, Writings, Between the Testaments, Gospels and Acts, Paul and the Pauline Tradition, General Letters and Revelation. I cannot hope to cover every aspect of this introduction in this review, but a few representative examples will provide a helpful snapshot.

First, the Primeval History in Genesis 1-11 is expertly covered, including important discussions of creation in the ancient Near East, the differences between Gen 1 and 2, patterning/narrative structure of Gen 2-11, the flood account in the Bible and ancient Near East. This section addresses the necessary issues in a readable and non-confrontational way that will allow for the professor to ‘fill in the gaps’ and press conversation deeper during in class discussion. In short, this treatment fulfills the stated aims of the book to serve as a “supplemental resource.” This strength, however, does not continue into the ancestral narratives discussion. While issues such as “the ancestors and history” and the ancestral promise are addressed at the outset in helpful albeit brief fashion, the ensuing discussions surrounding the chosen family fall victim to the sin of many single volume intro textbooks in offering a simple and uninspired summary of the biblical text. For instance, there is no prolonged discussion of the Akedah in Gen 22 and the theological and ethical issues accompanying it. The story is summarized as follows: “Remarkably, in the very next chapter, Abraham hears God instruct him to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. Abraham follows this instruction faithfully, and in the end God provides a ram for hte sacrifice and Isaac is spared. The text becomes the occasion for the repetition of the divine blessing of children and land. Sarah and Abraham then come to the end of their lives. Their journey has been one of learning to trust the ancestral covenant promise from YHWH in the face of threats and distractions from the customs of their culture” (39). While I admit it is not the task of the introductory textbook to cover every issue, nor is such a thing possible, to offer no deeper treatment of this critical nexus in the history of interpretation is an unfortunate lapse.

This recapitulation of the biblical narrative becomes even more apparent in the Jacob and Rachel/Leah discussion, where there is no interaction with or presentation of “prevailing discussions and leading opinions” as stated in the preface. This overly-simplistic summary offers nothing the reader of the Jacob stories could not ascertain themselves. This space would have been better devoted to at least some attention to the challenges surrounding the theme of deception and blessing and the enthralling narrative of YHWH and Jacob’s wrestling contest at Peniel. Instead, the Jacob cycle is summarized thusly: “This section of Genesis contains a variety of traditions organized around the question of the future of the covenant promise”(40). While I agree with this conclusion, much more depth is needed to achieve the stated aims of the book.

Not all of the book falls prey to this retelling. The Psalms section, for example, does a superb job of entrenching students in the current issues and conversations in psalms scholarship. The requisite discussions of poetric, superscriptions, and form criticism are present, but so also is a ‘lengty’ (3 pages) survey of “contemporary scholarship and the psalms,” with a nod toward issues such as micro and macro readings of the Psalter, poetic form, enemies in the psalms, and historical setting for composition and organization of the book of Psalms.

On the New Testament side of things, the strengths continue. The historical world of Jesus, genre of the gospels, and various theories of gospel writing and relationships are surveyed in a way, again, that will challenge the introductory student, albeit in a non-confrontational way. Each of the gospels is treated on its own terms, highlighting the importance of appreciating the unique portrait of Jesus presented by each. Paul’s letters are also treated individually, with helpful breakdowns into key issues Paul addresses to each community, as well as the “occasion, date, and location” for each respective letter.

A brief (half a page) section devoted to the “Overarching Story of the Christian Scriptures” rounds out the entire volume. With due appreciation to the “diversity of voices, some affirming and expanding traditions, and others challenging and reinterpreting those traditions” (259), the authors suggest “one can also detect an emerging, overarching story” (259). This metanarrative of scripture can be summed up as creation, covenant, Christ, consummation.

While no single volume introductory textbook will ever be ideal for all readers, Engaging the Christian Scriptures has many strengths to commend it. Its stated desire to serve as a supplement, bowing to the primacy of the biblical text in introductory courses, allows for a format that provides the reader just enough and yet allows adequate room for the professor to explore issues further and in greater depth during class time. Certainly, as noted above, the volume is not always successful in this regard–giving way to basic retellings of the biblical text at several junctures as opposed to presenting the “prevailing conversations and leading opinions.” Peppered throughout the book are boxes containing charts, brief discussions of issues such as “messiah or Christ” and “social justice” or “the Immanuel prophecy,” suggested exercises and questions, maps, and artistic reconstructions of Solomon’s temple, among many others. These sidebars make the text not only visibly appealing but also breathe a certain life into it. Students can not only read about Solomon’s temple but “see” it; they can trace the various routes of the exodus or see the land apportioned by Joshua. Moreover, helpful bibliography for further reading concludes each chapter.

I must confess, personally, to typically being dissatisfied with single volume introductory textbooks. When I taught Christian Scriptures at Baylor, we were given a list of approved options, none of which satisfied me. Since, when I have taught intro courses elsewhere I have used several books offering a variety of perspectives and approaches, in the interest of satisfying not only my own desires but also so as to benefit students with exposure to a diversity of perspectives. This volume has some of that advantage, having been written by three Baylor professors, each of whom bring their own strengths, methodologies, and insights to the biblical text. But I am beginning to wonder whether the problems with intro volumes, of which this one also is not immune, have more to do with the genre of the single volume introductory textbook than anything else.

I recommend this volume as an insightful, challenging, and readable foray into the Christian scriptures for the introductory student. The admonition that the primary focus for such a course should be to get students into the biblical text itself is an admirable and worthy animating factor for this volume. The title is a suitable one: Engaging the Christian Scriptures. This volume serves as a helpful guide and companion as students begin their engagement with the Christian scriptures.

 

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