Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Reno's New Commentary on Genesis (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible)

Yesterday, I received the newest volume in the Brazos series of commentaries, R.R. Reno's volume on the book of Genesis. I try to read through at least the Introduction of these volumes when I get them. It doesn't always happen but I try, and I did read through Reno's Introduction this morning. To say I am excitedly intrigued would be an understatement.

Reno used the name of the book as the stepping off point. "Genesis" means birth or origin, he says. And we often think of the origin or birth of the world. Given the creation stories that begin this book, it really should not surprise us. Nonetheless, Reno sees in Genesis the origin, not of the world, but of the reality coming through God's promise and establishment of the covenant. He writes,
As a book of origins, Genesis is far less concerned with the source of what is that what will be. In order to do justice to this overall thrust, I offer an insistent reading of Genesis as a promise-driven, future-oriented. As the covenant with Abraham makes clear, God blesses his creatures with a new future. The promises break the bonds of sin, because God secures their fulfillment. they perfect our created natures, because God fulfills then in our flesh.
As would be expected, I think, Reno continues to maintain focus on the grand narrative which God tells and not get sidetracked in all too common discussions of Genesis and scientific narratives.

That he mentions God fulfilling promises in our flesh is probably not surprising. How else do we think of Jesus after all. However, he closes his Introduction, with an attack on gnosticism, and particularly as to how that relates to the book of Genesis. Immediately before this lengthy quote, he has made clear that he employs historical-critical study of the bible when he finds it helpful in answering the questions he has. It is the case that the historical-critical method does not always answer the questions that arise, and so he is not beholden to that alone. This paragraph is rather short because he see something much more problematic. Reno writes,
I am especially concerned to set aside distracting and epiphenomenal concerns about modern critical scholarship, pro or con, because this commentary has an enemy that I think much more important: the gnostic temptation. Who hasn't felt its appeal? It is a painful fact that the diversity of nations and cultures has not led to a brilliant pageant of difference, but instead to our bloody world of conflict. Moreover, our own cultural inheritance is fraught with painful moral demands and offensive social mores. The labels of accusation are familiar: racism, ethnocentrism, heterosexism, patriarchy, and most of all the general horror over the way in which we allow the past to claim authority over us. What sensitive observer would not conclude that our historical particularity seems a curse, not a blessing? Our bodies seem no less troublesome. We feel ourselves battered by our fickle desires. We age and decay. Visit a graveyard, and ask yourself, Are our bodies anything other than crumbling prisons?
Who, then, would want to find a way to transcend the cruel restrictions of history and throw off the rusting chains of the body? It was the dream of the Greeks, who contemplated unchangeable forms. It is the hope of modern philosophers, who try to replace hard-won virtue with method and to set aside the vagaries of judgment by appeals to logical and experimental certainties. It is the desire of any spiritual seeker who wants to transcend the differences that separate religions and cultures in order to dwell in their deeper, greater truth. It is the project of the modern educator, who wants critical reason to supervene over and sift through the demands of an inherited culture. It motivates plastic surgery to stave off the wrinkling ravages of time, and it endorses euthanasia in the hope that an act of the human will can somehow control and triumph over death itself.
Beginning with Irenaeus, many have observed that the account of creation in Genesis cuts against the gnostic temptation. The world that God has created is good, and therefore it can't be the problem we need to overcome. The observation is certainly true as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough, because the goodness of creation has never been regarded by Jews and Christians as the full and final goodness that God wills for his creatures. God tenses creation with the desire for the seventh day of divine rest, and this greater-than-creation goal seems always to tempt us to turn our spiritual lives into an upward reach that seeks to escape the bonds of finitude. God promises more--and we too easily interpret more as other, as the sweet nectar of the eternal that will palliate our vulnerability to decay and death, as the balm of the indubitable, universal, and necessary truth that will cure our wounded, unpredictable, unreliable wills. My overriding goal in this commentary is to block this slide from more to other.
For Jews, the more is the Torah, and for Christians, the more is Christ crucified and risen. The difference is incalculable, all the more so because it contests over the inheritance of promises that both Jews and Christians trace back to Abraham. Jews and Christians are not ships passing in the night. They collide in daylight. The history that has grown out of this collision is painful to contemplate. Nonetheless, Jews and Christians share a common theological judgment, one vividly present in Genesis. God does not give to Abraham anything remotely resembling what we hope for in our perennial and persistent gnostic dreams. True enough, the blessing that God promises is rest in fellowship with him. But God does not remain on a remote heavenly throne while we mutilate our humanity to get to him in vain efforts of spiritual ascent. God comes to us. He gives us a new future in the flesh, not a new metaphysical location. I hope that I do not tax the patience of readers by repeating this truth again and again. (Reno, Genesis, Brazos Press, 2010, pp. 26-27)
Given today's milieu, I do not think Reno could repeat it enough. The physical world matters. Our physical bodies matter. If they did not matter, I suspect either God would not created a physical world to begin with, or else he would have had us mark ourselves as his people with physical acts, circumcision and baptism.

I am very ready to read this commentary...

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