Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Book Review: Journey to the Manger

Journey to the Manger. Paula Gooder. 2015. Hymns Ancient & Modern. 128 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Looking for something to read during Advent and Christmas but devotionals aren't quite your thing? I've got a book for you. Paula Gooder's Journey to the Manger is a good fit for those who want a little meat, a little substance in their holiday reading. Throughout the book she urges her readers to read the birth narratives from the gospel with fresh, new eyes, to try to shake off their familiarity with the stories as much as possible and experience it anew. Also she hopes that her readers will come to appreciate the theology of the birth narratives. There is a rich theology to be found, studied, and appreciated. It's a wonderful story, but, it's so much more than a story.

Gooder approaches the story as a scholar and a believer. She presents the findings of the scholarship she's read. Sometimes this means presenting two or three or even more perspectives on any one subject. Sometimes this means presenting scholarship she herself doesn't believe in--at least not completely. She always distinguishes her own personal beliefs from the conclusions of the scholars she's read. She acknowledges that their questions are not always her questions. And that "big" issues supposedly "standing in the way" of believing the accuracy of the Bible are not "big" to her at all.

I find it interesting that the scholarship she presents differs quite a bit from the scholarship I find in my own study Bibles. For example, one of the "big" issues focused on in Gooder's work is the dating of the census--Luke 2:1-2. Here is what the MacArthur Study Bible has to say:
Quirinius was governor of Syria. Fixing a precise date for this census is problematic. Publius Sulpicius Quirinius is known to have governed Syria during A.D. 6–9. A well known census was taken in Palestine in A.D. 6. Josephus records that it sparked a violent Jewish revolt (mentioned by Luke, quoting Gamaliel, in Acts 5:37). Quirinius was responsible for administering that census, and he also played a major role in quelling the subsequent rebellion. However, that cannot be the census Luke has in mind here, because it occurred about a decade after the death of Herod (see note on Matt. 2:1)—much too late to fit Luke’s chronology (cf. Luke 1:5). In light of Luke’s meticulous care as a historian, it would be unreasonable to charge him with such an obvious anachronism. Indeed, archaeology has vindicated Luke. A fragment of stone discovered at Tivoli (near Rome) in A.D. 1764 contains an inscription in honor of a Roman official who, it states, was twice governor of Syria and Phoenicia during the reign of Augustus. The name of the official is not on the fragment, but among his accomplishments are listed details that, as far as is known, can fit no one other than Quirinius. Thus, he must have served as governor in Syria twice. He was probably military governor at the same time that history records Varus was civil governor there. With regard to the dating of the census, some ancient records found in Egypt mention a worldwide census ordered in 8 B.C. That date is not without problems, either. It is generally thought by scholars that 6 B.C. is the earliest possible date for Christ’s birth. Evidently, the census was ordered by Caesar Augustus in 8 B.C. but was not actually carried out in Palestine until two to four years later, perhaps because of political difficulties between Rome and Herod. Therefore, the precise year of Christ’s birth cannot be known with certainty, but it was probably no earlier than 6 B.C. and certainly no later than 4 B.C. Luke’s readers, familiar with the political history of that era, would no doubt have been able to discern a very precise date from the information he gave.
I appreciated Gooder's perspective that scholars can sometimes lose sight of what is important and what's ultimately not. That they can miss the big picture--the glorious, life-changing BIG PICTURE--for focusing on all the wrong things--to the exclusion of everything else. Early on, she writes:
The birth narratives are about the mind-blowing, brain-boggling truth that the God who shaped the universe into existence was prepared to be born as a tiny, vulnerable baby. This God trusted his whole well-being to a young girl, who had never had a baby before and wasn't even married. This God chose a ludicrously risky means of redeeming the world he loved so much. When I think about this my brain is so taken up with the wonder and mystery of it that there is minimal space left for the historical questions that seem to trouble others so deeply.*
I don't absolutely agree with every single sentence or paragraph. As I mentioned before, she presents multiple points of view at times. But I think I agree enough with her on the big things--the things that really matter--that I can recommend this one.

*I agree completely that there is plenty of room for wonder and mystery. I do. But I do disagree that the incarnation was "ludicrously risky." God is sovereign--sovereign over the whole universe. Always has been, always will be. God is God is God. There was nothing risky about God's redemption plan. There was no, cross my fingers, I hope this works. And there wasn't an IF. The outcome was never uncertain or unsure. God accomplishes what he sets out to accomplish--in the way, and in the time, he means to accomplish it. So there is plenty to fathom in the gospel story, in the birth narratives. But I don't for a second see it as God's Big Gamble.

© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible

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