July 8, 2009

Bible Overview

We continue our series of recommendations sparked by a recent reading of Marian Plant's book, Faith Formation in Vital Congregations.

This week's suggestion, finding an "entire Bible" overview, is a fairly hard nut to crack.

In my next blog, I'll address Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament Scriptures and overviews written about them, but recommending a whole Bible overview is more challenging.

Having graduated from seminary a few decades ago, there are, obviously, more current and up-to-date scholarly works available. To be honest, I don't remember having a Bible survey book from seminary and a look at my library at home and the office didn't offer any possibilties.

My friend and colleague Lynn, a more recent seminary grad, couldn't recommend a specific overview from her seminary days, but did recall that some friends of hers use - believe it or not - The Bible for Dummies as a textbook to introduce the OT/NT to general readers. The authors of the book are both college professors teaching general religious studies. They are well versed in the Biblical text, well versed in Greek and Hebrew, obviously familiar with recent archaeological discoveries, and have an understanding of contemporary culture that makes the book understandable and appealing to a wider variety of people than one would imagine.

Their greatest gift, however, is the clear, understandable language that they use. Part of my hestitation in recommending scholarly works for the average layperson is always the fairly academic language that some scholars inevitably use, as their primary audience tends to be people studying for the ministry or scholarly pursuits, including teaching. This is not a problem with this book.

Another possibility - and more "scholarly" in approach - is Marcus Borg's Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. This book is written for the person whose faith has been frustrated by the perception that the only Christian view is a fundamentalist one. Borg writes with an historical/metaphorical perspective that many find quite refreshing. He is also very approachable as a Biblical scholar, finding a large audience of Christian laity in recent years.

Either of these books would serve well to someone looking to study an overview of the entire Bible.

June 12, 2009

Biblical Commentaries

Today we continue with Good Pastoral Suggestions -
an idea recommended by Dr. Marian Plant in her book
Faith Formation for Vital Congregations

One-Volume Commentaries

Harper Collins publishes high quality materials, and their Harper Collins Bible Commentary is no exception. The General Editor is James Luther Mays, a Professor Emeritus from Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, and a former president of the Society of Biblical Literature.

This one volume commentary is well-researched, scholarly, and best of all, easy to use. I think that one of it's strong points is the strong quantity of historical material that puts Biblical times into context. It reviews books of the Bible by passage, not verse by verse.

Multi-Volume Commentaries

These are much more difficult to recommend, because even the very best of commentary sets display unevenness, because of different authorship and varying styles of Biblical interpretation.

For example, one of the most extensive commentaries currently available is the Anchor Yale Bible (Commentary). Many volumes have been produced since the 1960's. The two-volume set of Raymond Brown's Gospel of John and two-volume set of Ephesians by Karl Barth's son, Markus Barth, have stood the test of time and are rarely matched for theological excellence. Other commentaries, sadly, are very poor, and frankly, practically worthless.

Another example: the Hermeneia Commentary set from Fortress Press is an excellent commentary, but difficult to use by anyone who is not versed in biblical languages.

By doing research, you can find out which Genesis, Ezekiel, or Gospel of John commentaries are considered the best of their field, but generally speaking, I advise against getting a multi-volume commentary set without being aware of all the strengths and limitations of that particular set.

June 10, 2009

A Good Dictionary is Easy to Find . . .

Today we continue with Good Pastoral Suggestions -
an idea recommended by Dr. Marian Plant in her book
Faith Formation for Vital Congregations)

There are essential tools necessary for Bible study.

Today we look at two Bible Dictionaries I've used in recent years.

If you are looking for a one-volume Bible dictionary, the Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, which was published a little bit over a decade ago, is a wonderful resource.

It's extensive. With over 1,250 pages, you will find articles from Aaron to Zurishaddai, written by almost 200 Biblical scholars and edited by five individuals.

The scholarship is outstanding, yet the articles are rarely over a page long. They are scholarly, but concise.

The maps are excellent.

It's the best one volume Bible Dictionary available.

The only dictionary that compares is the Anchor Bible Dictionary.

Six volumes. 7,380 pages. Over 6,000 entries. Almost 1,000 contributors. This is the most extensive Bible Dictionary ever created. It is multicultural in scope. There are articles that reflect recent Biblical scholarship, including early Christianity's relationship with Judaism, discussion of everyday life, articles that help the reader understand health issues, the role of animals and plants, demographics of human settlement, and other issues in biblical times.

The Anchor Bible Dictionary, published by Yale University Press, is the Encyclopedia Britannica of Bible dictionaries. It is expensive, weighing in at almost $400 on Amazon, but well worth it.

But if money is an object, or you just want a one-volume dictionary, you can't go wrong with the Harper Collins.

June 2, 2009

A new kind of GPS

A friend of mine, Dr. Marian Plant, has just published a book in the Vital Congregations series from Pilgrim Press. Faith Formation in Vital Congregations is a book that I will refer to many times in the coming years.

Dr. Plant suggests that one way of helping to promote biblical literacy in our congregations is for a pastor to share with his or her congregation a "GPS" list - Good Pastoral Suggestions for books, DVDs, videos, etc..

I think that's a great idea, so over the next several blogs, I'm going to list some books and authors that I believe will help you to grow spiritually as you make your journey along the path of faith formation.

We'll start that GPS list by looking at Bibles....you would be surprised how many people have asked me over the years the following question . . .

What kind of Bible should I be using?

It's not an easy question to answer. If you were to go into a bookstore - particularly a Christian bookstore - you would find hundreds of translations and editions, trying to fit all sorts of niches.

Of all the Bibles on the market, I believe your best option is to choose a Study Bible. Fortunately, there are several very good ones on the market.

The three that I recommend are the Harper Collins Study Bible, the New Interpreter's Study Bible, and the New Oxford Annotated Bible. Click on each of these titles - I've included links to amazon.com for all three - so you can read reviews or purchase the Bible of your choice.

  • All three use the New Revised Standard Version translation. Most scholars recognize this as the best English translation available.
  • All three are available with the deutero-canonical books (i.e., Aprocrypha). While Protestant Christians don't consider these books to be "canonical," it is recognized that they provide excellent resource material for understanding the times.

Of the three, my personal recommendation is the Oxford Annotated Study Bible for the following reasons:

  • It is the most recently updated (2007).
  • Truly ecumenical, it includes books that would be used not only by the Roman Catholic Church, but also the Orthodox Church (i.e., Psalm 151, 3rd and 4th Maccabees).
  • The study helps - notes, essays, maps, diagrams, charts, etc. - are quite extensive.
  • The (Sabon) type font is very easy on the eyes and the [larger] print is easier to read.
  • The binding and paper is very good, thicker and sturdier than the other two Bibles. The binding - and thin paper - is particularly an issue with the Harper Collins Study Bible.

Nevertheless, you would profit immensely from using any one of these three Study Bibles.

I also want to recommend one other Bible, because of my strong interest in spiritual direction and adult faith formation.

That Bible is the Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible.

Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline, one of the 20th century classics in spiritual reading, headed up a team of over 50 scholars that worked on the Renovare Bible.

Here are some comments from Publisher's Weekly regarding the RSFB:

"Foster wrote an introductory note explaining the team's basic mission: to provide 'a resource for approaching the Bible through the lens of Christian spiritual formation.' An opening essay encourages readers to see the entire Bible as 'the unfolding story of God's plan for how we can have an intimate love relationship with our Creator,' while 15 other essays speak to various aspects and stages of that relationship, from exile and travail to Christ's coming and the future hope of eternity. The editors also include spiritual exercises, profiles of key biblical figures and discussions of how those individuals practiced spiritual disciplines like prayer and worship. Christians of many different traditions will appreciate this ecumenical resource devoted to spiritual renewal."

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Not convinced? A friend of mine has been using this Bible on my recommendation for about two years. She likes it so much that this past Christmas, she gave a copy to a devout Episcopalian friend of hers. That woman, who has studied the Bible for all of her nine decades, has put her other Bibles away and is using this one exclusively. And it's already dog earred from use! That's as good a recommendation as I can make.

If you have any questions about any of these Bibles - or have any question about other translations or niche Bibles - let's talk!

Pastor Al

May 7, 2009

A Time Apart

On the weekend of February 13-15, seven of us traveled over to one of the two gems in the Ohio Conference Outdoor Ministries program - Pilgrim Hills, located just south of Holmes County in eastern Ohio.

The purpose of this trip was to have a weekend apart - to connect with God, with nature, with each other. It was a great experience for all of us!

Although Carol (my spouse) served on the Outdoor Ministries Board for a term and I've been on the Ohio Conference Board for two terms, it was the first time I'd been to Pilgrim Hills. What a lovely place! Located in the Ohio Amish country, it is beautiful and rustic and a good place to set yourself apart for a weekend.

We stayed at Prettyman Lodge, a fairly new building at Pilgrim Hills, a perfect retreat setting for 10 or less adults. Prettyman Lodge is located close to the entrance of Pilgrim Hills and is a good mile from the other buildings. It was a great place for us to sleep and do our spiritual exercises. We took our meals at the dining hall, and even though there were only the seven of us at the camp that weekend, the dining staff treated us with great food and great service.

Lynn Labs and I had decided to use some of Rob Bell's NOOMA videos - short, 10 minute vignettes about various subjects. We also had put together our own retreat book with about 25 stories, poems, and thought provokers for our weekend together.

We had 30 minute sessions after each meal (five sessions in all) and then quiet time for reflection. Some stayed in the main gathering room, some went to their own rooms for privacy, some took walks on the trails near Prettyman Lodge. At the end of the weekend, we knew that we had been in God's presence and we returned to Troy with some new found peace and tranquility.

Our next retreat is scheduled for Halloween weekend! We hope you might think about becoming part of this special ministry of First UCC.