Dwelling with Philippians (review)

We live in an age of commentary-overload. That is good news to anyone wanting scholarly discussion of exegetical and theological issues in the Bible. It can be a nightmare for researchers who have to sift through a veritable sea of books in an attempt to be “thorough!”

Given the state of things, a “new” commentary hardly makes frontpage headlines. However, a new book on Philippians did catch my eye – Dwelling with Philippians: A Conversation with Scripture through Image and Word (eds. E. Steele Halstead, P. Detterman, J. Borger, and J.D. Witvliet; Eerdmans). This is not your grandma’s historical-critical commentary! How would I describe it? Well, you might call it a liturgical-theological commentary.

Before I get into what the book contains, the origin of the “conversation” may interest you. This book began as the main textbook for a campus-wide “Bible study” at Calvin College under the “Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.” Alongside highlighting the thoughts and pictures of a number of well-known poets and artists, the editors intentionally drew from Calvin professors and alumni.

There is a similar project going on right now at my institution, Seattle Pacific University, under the direction of the Center for Biblical and Theological Education – see HERE. Anyway, I am teaching Philippians for the seminary here next year and I thought this book looked very interesting.

It is not a commentary in the sense that it is attempting to set Philippians in its ancient historical, social, or even literary context. The book contains a number of types of reflections on the text: prayers (ancient and modern), theological and homiletical reflections, words of profession and praise, and related Scriptural texts. Perhaps the most distinct part of the book is the series of visual images that pepper almost each page – from folks like Rembrandt to a number of modern artists. The visual art is quite diverse culturally and in terms of medium: photographs, paintings, sculptures, drawings, etc…

In terms of reflections in texts, quotes (usually a paragraph or two long) are drawn from a wide range of writers – here is a sampling: Maya Angelou, Karl Barth, Richard Baxter, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Hieronymus Bosch, Frederick Buechner, John Chrysostom (of course!), T.S. Eliot, Kierkegaard, Lesslie Newbigin, Henri Nouwen, and Charles Wesley (hymns), and especially Eugene Peterson. ┬áThis is not a running commentary, but more like a series of snapshots. Each block quote appears in a colored-box and the boxes are arranged artistically on the page. This gives it the flavor of the experience of walking through an art gallery. What a great idea!

Given the new directions that commentaries are going in, and how hard it is for a new book on any book of the Bible to draw attention, the editors here have done a fantastic job of filling a new niche. Who would benefit from this book? I think this works for personal devotional study, but it could also be useful in any worship setting, such as a Sunday School, college chapel program, or I might use selections from this to start each class session for my exegesis course.

If I have one criticism, and it may not even be that big of a deal in this case, it is that one might read this book and feel that Philippians is a somewhat random collection of theological ideas, rather than a rhetorically-driven argument with a context and background. I can tell the editors know the background of this text to some degree, but will readers pick up on this? Given the niche of this book, I know they did NOT want to get too far into the historical context and background, and I can respect that.

REVIEW

OVERALL: 4.5/5 stunningly-beautiful presentation, novel approach, well-selected quotes and images.

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