Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Book Review: The Epic of Eden (Introduction)

I'm not going to commit to finishing the reviews, but I finally cracked open The Epic of Eden by Sandra Richter over lunch yesterday. I don't think I've ever met Sandra in person but I first became aware of her at Asbury. Then I knew she had gone to Wesley Biblical and is now at Wheaton. Word on the street is that she is crazy smart, Harvard wile without the Harvard style.

Lara Levicheva has been on me to read Epic for years now, so I have finally taken the dive and read the introduction during lunch yesterday. (Maybe Tuesdays will be epic lunches)

I was not surprised to find that this is a book of biblical theology. That is to say, it is a book about reading the Bible as a unified whole, as a true canon with a unified message. I've argued here before such a biblical theology is completely appropriate--especially from a Christian perspective. I have also argued (cf. Gödel's incompleteness theorem) that such a theology cannot be done without some organizing metanarrative from outside the Bible.

There are several options that have been used to organize biblical material in this way, and Dr. Richter's is a very valid one, one that fits well with the Wesleyan tradition. Her organizing principle is the theme of redemption. For her, the Bible has "one very specific, completely essential and desperately necessary objective--to tell the epic tale of God's ongoing quest to ransom his creation" (15).

She suggests three reasons why so many Christians overlook the Old Testament...

[As an aside, let me say that growing up in an old holiness context, this was not my experience. In fact, going into college I knew far more stories from the OT than I did from the NT. A key here is that the old holiness preachers preached the OT typologically and allegorically. As such, the OT stories were a gold mine for preaching morality.]

... The three reasons are:
  • a sense that the OT is not the Christian story but someone else's story
  • the challenge to get past the historical, linguistic, cultural, and even geographical obstacles to understanding
  • "the dysfunctional closet syndrome"
1. As far as the first point is concerned, she suggests that Christians have a kind of "Christian Alzheimer's disease" when it comes to the OT. She does not suggest this flippantly, as if to make light of a serious disease. Indeed, for her this loss of a sense that the OT story is our story is a very serious loss of memory of our past indeed. "The church does not know who she is, because she does not know who she was" (17).

I'm sure I must grate on some OT professors when they hear me say things like "The NT trumps the OT." I want to make it clear, however, that I completely agree with Sandra and Joel Green when they say that the OT is our story, not the story of some other people of God. From the NT perspective, we Gentiles are incorporated into true Israel (Rom. 11:17). It's not that the Church replaces Israel.

But they are flying up in metanarrative territory, with a theological reading of the canon. I fully approve of that reading. But I live in a fundamentalist world, not their Methodist world with its different struggles. I deal with a world where, sometimes, people still take to heart comments about not trimming the edges of your beard (Lev. 19:27) or not working on the (reinterpreted) Sabbath.

I can't imagine anyone who could successfully argue against my claim that, if Jesus in Mark says that God has declared all foods clean, then I can eat pork despite the fact that Leviticus says not to. The same goes for circumcision and Sabbath observance. When I say that the NT "trumps" the OT, I am speaking very concretely in the light of premoderns and fundamentalists who actually want to apply OT law to us today that the NT clearly says is not obligatory.

In fact, these practices stood at the very heart of what Paul meant when he said we are justified by faith and not works of Law, and he tells the Galatians that they will have lost their salvation if they get circumcised. So I agree on the metanarrative, but the concrete dynamic seems pretty obvious to me.

2. Dr. Richter sees the historical cultural context of the Bible as another obstacle, "the great barrier." This is certainly true from a modern perspective. The verses leading up to Isaiah 7:14 or Jeremiah 31:15 used to be completely incomprehensible to me.

Of course since I was raised with a memory verse hermeneutic to these sections, I thought I perfectly understood these island verses once I got to them. Not knowing the context was no obstacle to preaching holiness sermons about Isaiah 35:8. There's a reason why Fee and Stuart tell their readers not to read the OT stories as moral lessons (92). In my world, that's exactly what the premodern preachers of my world have always done.

But she is in a modernist world and trying to move beyond the limits of modernism. If your goal is to understand the OT at all in its historical-cultural context, there is going to be a learning curve about the Ancient Near East.

3. Her real target, though, is what she calls the "dysfunctional closet syndrome." By this she means the situation where you may know a lot of details from the OT, but they are in no particular order, like a messy college dorm room where the clothes are more or less in a random heap. "My goal in writing this book... is to deal a mortal blow to the dysfunctional closet syndrome" (19).

"Facts are stupid things until brought into connection with some general law" (19). What she is saying here is that she intends to give us a Christian metanarrative by which to read the OT texts. She is going to give us a Christian organizing principle by which to bring the individual texts of the OT into a coherent whole.


Leah Dykstal said...

That book really helped me as a non-history-minded student with the ANE learning curve. I feel like I approach all of theology in a better way because of it! Sandy is great at making it clear that the Bible is one story and I understand on a deeper level that idea of the metanarrative. Her book helped pull all the pieces together for me. Plus, she and her family are awesome and she makes the best chicken and dumplings!

Ken Schenck said...


I get the clear impression that she has raving fans everywhere.