Reconceptualising Conversion

The market is saturated with academic books of various types: newly published dissertations, edited collections, and established scholars’ latest projects. This is not new information for a scholar at any level who pays attention to their disciplinary boundaries.
It can be difficult to keep up, and too often books slip under the radar for a number of reasons. Perhaps they were not marketed well; or, more likely, an avalanche of titles gathered speed from atop Publisher Mountain, enveloping any onlookers, burying them in a mass of (quite expensive) scholarship.

Because of this, I wanted to highlight a book that was particularly influential to my early PhD work. A volume that, actually, will soon be given new life!

In 2004 De Gruyter published many books. Among those was an updated version of Zeba Crook’s PhD dissertation, entitled Reconceptualising Conversion: Patronage, Loyalty, and Conversion in the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean, and included within the highly respected series Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wisseschaft. It can be easy to dismiss dissertations, especially these days since the academic market seems flooded with them. But, Crook’s Reconceptualising Conversion helped to make apparent several crucial problems while also suggesting solutions.

Reconceptualising

Despite the beginnings of noticeable disagreement with ‘personal guilt’ as a necessary component to understand Paul (often marked by Krister Stendahl’s 1963 essay ‘The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West’) and the rise of the so-called ‘NPP’, many scholars continued to rely on psychology (including cross-cultural models) to understand the conversion of Paul. This is one of the tracts in studies of conversion that Reconceptualising attempts to combat, primarily because the temporal and geographical gaps are much to wide for such methods to be deemed constructive. Trying to utilise ‘psychological’ models are, for Crook, problematic precisely because there are diverse ways of viewing the self, and modern psychology relies on strictly modern understandings of the self. This is, of course, a vital point because it cuts through the muck of individualisation that many Pauline scholars seem to be stuck in, even in the rather wide embrace of the distinctions between ‘collectivist’ and ‘individualist’ cultures (granted, this binary is a simplification) within NT studies.

But, going beyond this important beginning, Crook spends much of the rest of the book setting up a discussion on Paul that pierces through the often overt theologisation of conversion and, crucially, charis. Crook, then, spends time dealing with the intricacies of reciprocity, as well as patronage and benefaction. Here is, perhaps, one of the most compelling points of the book. Crook brings out the importance of benefaction language, how it plays into ancient religion, and how this changes how Paul is read. Again, Crook breaks the reliance on ‘grace’ as a strictly ‘theological’ concept filtered down through certain, pervasive theological structures that are often found in discussions around grace within the academy. Instead, Crook underscores the importance of Paul’s conversion as a response that can be read more coherently when compared with other similar moments of patronage between deities and individuals in the ancient world.

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So, I don’t mean for this to be a review of a book that says much more than I what I have written above (much is going on in the book; for instance, there are crucial discussions on pistis, fides, and other trust and loyalty terminology that predate Teresa Morgan’s large 2015 volume on the subject).

More, important, is the announcement that this wonderful book will breathed new life by Wipf and Stock in the near future!

A few months ago I was finally able to get my hands on Stephan Joubert’s Paul as Benefactor and James Harrison’s Paul’s Language of Grace in Its Graeco-Roman Context (neither of which my library had, but both of which I had encountered at previous universities). These were two expensive academic books published around the same time as Crook’s, dealing with many of the same themes (in fact I’ve often seen these three as an important coterie of studies essential for readings of grace, Paul, and conversion) that were thankfully resurrected into ‘new bodies’ through Wipf and Stock’s Reprint division.

paul and language

Yay! Now this book is affordable!

I had the naive idea to email Wipf and Stock and suggest a re-print of Reconceptualising Conversion. They were super interested, and I was able to briefly operate as a sort of middle actor between Crook and Wipf and Stock. I’m pretty excited that I was able to help make this happen and I hope that many will pick the volume up when it finally comes out.

I do think the book is an important volume, even nearly a decade and a half later, and I am still shocked that while it does make an appearance in many books that deal with ‘grace’, not even John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift gives the book it’s due attention.

Now, no one will have an excuse.

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Review of: The Poetics of Grace: Christian Ethics as Theodicy

The amazing book on Christian ethics by Jeph Holloway.

This blog has a LOT of purposes, which perhaps contributes to its downfall. Nonetheless, I have to include a plug for one of my former professor’s book which came out last April. If you care in the least about subjects in the realm of theology, philosophy, ethics, or ecclesiology you should pick up the book. It is not that expensive, especially if you want an electronic copy.

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Holloway’s book on ethics centers squarely around theodicy. Now, I know what you may be thinking: theodicy is, primarily, a philosophical topic taken up by, usually, apologists (though, it seems most often the hard work is done by those scholars like Van Inwagen and then disseminated by rank-and-file apologists). After all, considering the existence of deity in the face of seemingly insurmountable natural and moral evil is becoming a rather stark task, one that the Christian should rightly confront and not shy away from.

Holloway, however, is not particularly concerned with discussing theodicy as some sort of difficulty in the face of God’s reality; rather, he starts by pointing out, quite rightly, that despite the insistence that Augustine (the bishop usually associated with the origination of the term) is concerned with proving God (and the goodness of God) existed in light of evil, the notion is just contextually naive. Augustine was concerned instead “as a pastor to instruct members of the faith community–the church– as to the nature of evil and God’s response to it. (3)”. This is the starting point for Holloway, and what he seeks to do as well. No defense of belief in God (others have done this, and this is not the point or scope of the volume) as would be assumed by the reliance on theodicy.

God is doing something about Evil. That is the assumption, and God doing something about evil (theodicy, God’s justice in the presence of evil) is the foundation for the ethic to be explored in this volume (and subsequent volumes to hopefully be released within the next year or so). Primarily, Holloway echoes often the following phrase throughout the book: God, in God’s redemptive work, is creating a people whose lives, sustained in worship, bear witness to God’s purpose for creation. In this phrase Holloway packs several themes that he finds intimately detailed within Ephesians, characteristics that are crucial for properly doing Christian ethics. Thus, Holloway sees Christian ethics as needing to be theocentric, redemptive, ecclesial, liturgical, and eschatological, and he explores these themes in conversation with partners as diverse as Nietzsche and Niebuhr, MacIntyre and Gustafson, and virtually everyone else on the spectrum of ideas. In this respect, the name-dropping can be sometimes overwhelming; nonetheless, the resources are invaluable to the argument. This is truly an interdisciplinary volume, marrying quite rightly philosophy, theology, ethics, and biblical studies. The use, more explicitly, of scripture and biblical studies is a much needed corrective to those like Hauerwas who often seem to know the Ethica Nicomachea a bit more thoroughly than the New Testament.

Truly the importance of theodicy is convincingly applied as a starting point for a Christian ethic, especially one indebted to a view of scripture as a grand narrative, as is becoming more popular in light of Wright, Hauerwas, Long, and others. Turning the term on its head and asking the question, “What is God doing about evil?” rather than “How can God and evil coexist?” is not only more contextually interesting, it also helps to marry theology and ethics (too often separated in modern theology) and put a certain amount of burden on the Christian. God is redeeming the world, in this understanding, through his people, and God is a deity of work, and thus calls for his people to worship through their work to redeem.

If one is looking for a usual book on ethics, one that posits various questions or situations and employs a decisionistic enterprise then you had better look elsewhere. However, if you are looking for a volume that delves into scripture (primarily Ephesians, as the theme of the book is centered around it), sifts through recent ethical theory and philosophical inquiry, and challenges the theologian and lay Christian then you should certainly pick up the volume. It is excellently written, rather than excruciatingly dry, and unusually convincing in argument.

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If you are interested in checking out the book click here

 

Look for a forthcoming interview with Dr. Holloway concerning the book, Christian ethics, philosophy, and Pauline theology. Oh, and maybe jazz.

 

Thanks for reading!