Saturday, November 8, 2014

Book Review: Every Valley

Every Valley. Albert L. Blackwell. 2014. Westminster John Knox Press. 160 pages. [Source: Review copy]

From the foreword:
"What did the Holy Spirit do," St. Basil asked in the fourth century, "seeing that the human race was not easily led to virtue?" He answers, "The Spirit mixed doctrine with gladdening song, so that when hearing its agreeable and attractive eloquence we might unwittingly learn things beneficial." So it happened to me as a boy, sixteen centuries after Basil. From Handel's musical settings I unwittingly learned words of the prophets and psalms of Hebrew Scripture, from which Messiah takes three-quarters of its texts. 
Every Valley is an 40 day Advent devotional by Albert L. Blackwell. The premise of this one is simple: to use Handel's Messiah (1741) as inspiration for Advent and Christmas devotions.
The book seeks to place the songs in their scriptural contexts, and, to use each Scripture text as a starting point to contemplate the season.
The reflections in this collection help us comprehend biblical prophecy in its theological, historical, and pastoral dimensions. 
Christ's birth must never stand apart from the larger and long story of all that is disclosed to us in Christ--in birth, life, death, atonement, resurrection, and glorification. 
Is our Advent devotion about entertainment or edification? Diversion or direction? Amusement or awareness?
At times, the focus is on what it meant then, and, at times the focus is more on what it means now. The devotions can be reflective and ask hard questions of readers. Not every devotion does so equally, however. One of the best examples, perhaps, is
 "What exactly in my life is in need of refining? And how much will it hurt? What might I have to give up (or what might be taken from me) before I would be refined like gold and silver?"

  1. Comfort Ye My People Isaiah 40:1-5
  2. I Will Shake All Nations Haggai 2:1-9
  3. He Shall Come Malachi 2:13-3:1
  4. And He Shall Purify Malachi 3:2-4
  5. God With Us Isaiah 7:10-16
  6. O Thou Tellest Good Tidings Isaiah 40:6-9
  7. Arise, Shine Isaiah 60:1-6
  8. The People That Walked In Darkness Isaiah 9:1-2
  9. For Unto Us A Child Is Born Isaiah 9:3-7
  10. Keeping Watch Luke 2:8-10
  11. Born This Day Luke 2:11-12
  12. Glory to God Luke 2:13-20
  13. Rejoice Greatly Zechariah 9:9-12
  14. The Lame Shall Leap Isaiah 35:1-7
  15. He Shall Feed His Flock Isaiah 40:10-11
  16. His Yoke is Easy Matthew 11:16-30
  17. Behold the Lamb John 1:29-34
  18. He Was Despised Isaiah 52:13-53:3
  19. He Bore Our Griefs Isaiah 53:4-5, 9-12
  20. All We Like Sheep Isaiah 53:6
  21. They Laugh Him to Scorn Psalm 22:1-15
  22. There Was No One To Comfort Him Psalm 69:7-20
  23. Sorrow Like Unto His Sorrow Lamentations 1:1-12
  24. He Was Cut Off Psalm 16:9-11
  25. He Is the King of Glory Psalm 24
  26. Let All The Angels Worship Him Hebrews 1:1-8
  27. Even From Thine Enemies Psalm 68:1-12, 17-20
  28. How Beautiful Romans 10:8-15
  29. Into All Lands Psalm 19
  30. Why Do Nations Rage Psalm 2:1-3, 7-8
  31. The Lord Shall Break Them Psalm 2:4-6, 9-12
  32. Hallelujah Revelation 19:6-16
  33. My Redeemer Liveth Job 19:23-37
  34. For Now Christ is Risen 1 Corinthians 15:12-20
  35. All Shall Be Made Alive 1 Corinthians 15:21-22
  36. We Shall Be Changed 1 Corinthians 15:51-53
  37. Death, Where Is Thy Sting? 1 Corinthians 15:54-58
  38. If God Be For Us Romans 8:31-39
  39. Worthy is the Lamb Revelation 5:11-13
  40. Amen Revelation 5:14

My thoughts. I just want to say that I think it's GREAT to use Advent to meditate on the Savior. To learn more about how Christ can be seen in the Old Testament. To read the passages and imagine the longing and expectancy of waiting centuries for the Messiah to come. To read not only of the birth and childhood of Christ, but to read it all: the birth, the life, the parables, the sermons, the miracles, the tension of opposition, passion week, the resurrection, the ascension, etc. There is no better time to contemplate the person of Christ and the works of Christ. I do believe that very much.

I want to add that Handel's Messiah is rich in Scripture. So using Handel's Messiah as inspiration seems like a good, natural fit for believers. I like to read things in context. So it is a little disjointing that some Scriptures are broken up and spread out. But that is how it is in Handel, so that's just how things will be. (For example, "Comfort Ye My People" is from Isaiah 40:1-5, "O Thou Tellest Good Tidings" is from Isaiah 40:6-9, and "He Shall Feed His Flock" is from Isaiah 40:10-11. The devotions are days apart from one another.)

Looking at these Scriptures--putting aside the musical context of Messiah--one gets a good taste of who Jesus is and what he came to do and why. These scriptures could easily be read in any bible, or perhaps even studied in a good study Bible with great benefit to Christians.

What about the devotions? Well. Honestly, I can't say I loved them. I believe the material from the devotions comes from a long list of contributors. "The majority of the reflections in this volume are excerpted and adapted from essays in the Feasting on the Word commentary series." Some days were better than others, in my opinion. It depends on how picky you are in your theology--if you can look past the viewpoint throughout many of the devotions that there were three Isaiahs, for example. I couldn't. Since the devotions were supposed to be putting the scripture into historical and theological context, and, I could spot some wrong things almost immediately, it puts more of the devotions into doubt than I'm comfortable with. That being said, some of the devotions seemed to have good insight.

For example, from "Comfort Ye My People,"
But these words are not just for us to savor like food at a holiday feast. We are also in the situation of the celestial ones and the prophets in the text, trying to find a way to speak these words to others whom God loves.
From "He Shall Come"
Uncomfortable as it may be, however, Advent calls us to venture into these uncomfortable places with questions like, "How have we wearied him?" and to face head on the possibility that we have wearied the Lord in some of the same ways Malachi's audience had: by convincing ourselves that evil is good or by shirking our own responsibility for the world's ills by asking, "Where is the God of justice?"
Every Valley would be a good fit for you:

  • if you enjoy daily devotions
  • if you enjoy Advent studies (or Lent studies)
  • if you are looking to read more Scripture this holiday season
  • if you're a fan of Handel's Messiah

© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible

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