As I continue to make the transition from grad student (digging into monographs and articles) to new instructor (forced to teach and think broadly), I have entered the world of finding good textbooks. Not ones that always get all of the details right, but the ones that focus on what is important to learning, demonstrate the tools of the trade, and make theology/Biblical studies interesting, useful, and relevant. No small tasks for some! Well, though I am early in my explorations, I have found three recent noteworthy textbooks.
Getting the Old Testament (Steven Bridge; Hendrickson, 2009). This short (220+ pp.) book is not comprehensive, but does what it proposes – helps students to learn how to read the OT for meaning, not learn all of the critical details. Bridge uses very accessible examples and illustrations to make his point – whether it be about the purposes of the creation stories in Gen 1-2, or showing the lunacy of the Bible Code. His writing style is very casual and appealing. Whether or not I actually assign students to read portions of it, and I am tempted to do so, I will certainly turn to Bridge for good anecdotes and ways of communicating hermeneutical principles. If I have one complaint, it is that Bridge works with the documentary hypothesis and uses the J-E-D-P labels throughout his pentateuchal discussions. OK, if you buy that, that’s fine. However, for beginning undergrads, I think it is unnecessary and can lead to a lot of confusion and teaches students to think that a different author is at work when “seams” or inconsistencies are detected. For me, history and composition are too messy and unpredictable to continue to sell these “theories” – especially when we say “theory” and we mean “how it all really worked.” [Nijay – do you really believe Moses wrote the whole pentateuch?] – No, I accept that it must be a work that was in progress and was a group effort until its final form much later. But for me, it is enough to say that – group work, not finished in a short time.
So, if you get a chance, order Bridge for your library and poke around. He has numerous charts of value and I enjoyed this light read.
An Exploration of Christian Theology (Don Thorsen; Hendrickson, 2008). One course that I will be teaching next year involves introducting basic doctrine. Sure – I can handle that. Let me just break out my notes from seminary…Oh, wait. I didn’t take any notes because I didn’t have a clue what was going on in my systematic courses. Uh-oh…Well, Thorsen to the rescue! This is a textbook-textbook – hardback and large with nice easy-to-read print and wide margins. On almost every page there are cartoony-like illustrations of various things (aimed at making the experience fun and easy). You will find your basic structure of a theology book – Foundations (Scripture), God, Creation, Humanity, Sin, Jesus Christ, The Holy Spirit, Salvation, The Church, The Future.
There is a nice glossary in the back – what is ‘apophatic’? ‘Open theism’? Soul sleep? A nice addition for people like me who were tyros in seminary. Only two quibbles with the book – first, it borders on being too simplistic, but better lean towards that than too esoteric in my opinion. We were reading some heavy stuff in seminary and it was too much for me. Would have been nice to have this! Secondly, I am big on Christian ethics and Thorsen seems to place that as a sub-section under ‘salvation’ – as ‘Living as a Christian’ and ‘Christian Spirituality’. Hmmm….OK, not bad. I would have liked a section all of its own, not to differentiate it from other theological categories as if it is free-floating, but to make it a prominent category to be appreciated as something on equal-footing with the rest of the groups.
Finally, we come to The Bible: An Introduction (Jerry Sumney; Fortress, 2010). Finding whole-Bible textbooks by real experts is very uncommon. Granted, Sumney is a NT scholar trying to write for both Hebrew Bible (as he calls it) and New Testament, all in one (in 400+ pages). I don’t know how accurate or reflective of the state-of-the-discipline his OT side is, but I am sure he is fine on the NT side. Truth be told, I won’t end up using this as my textbook for Intro to Christian Scriptures. Though Sumney is not as critical as others, and he does invest in the theological meaning of the Bible, it is still too ‘critical’ for what I want to do. I don’t mind Biblical ‘criticism’. I value it as a tool to sharpen how we understand Scripture as God’s word through human words. But if I have only one hour to talk about Genesis, I can’t waste it on JEDP. That is why I like listening to the lectures of John Goldingay on itunes u – he knows how to get right down to business and talk about the parts of the texts that are meaningful and useful and central to getting a sense for how the part fits into the whole.
There are many things I DO like about Sumney’s book. It is visually appealing – good photos, charts, timelines, maps. He invests a good amount of space on inspiration, the canonization process, and the history of the Bible’s interpretation. He dips into Bible translations and modern hermeneutics.
At the end of each chapter he gives ‘For Further Reading’ suggestions. He properly avoids picking only conservative or only liberal choices. He nicely offers a range and tends to choose folks that don’t neatly fit into a label: Richard Burridge, Joel Green, Morna Hooker, Beverly Gaventa, etc…
I have not had a good chance to really scour this intro, but I will give a more full accounting when I do (over the next six months as I do course prep for my Christian Scriptures classes).