April 10, 2007

what i've been reading...

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The kingdom of God can be elusive of simple definition. It is often something very hard to explain. It is understood, evidenced in practice, quite differently across the Christian community. In his book, The Upside Down Kingdom, Donald Kraybill takes up the challenge of explaining the kingdom. Apparent by his title, Kraybill offers that the kingdom is a realization that stands in stark contrast to the common ways of this world. It is most often the exact opposite of how we assume a rulership to function. Here, Kraybill provides a biblical framework for understanding the kingdom. He does so not by using common kingdom texts. His core text is Jesus' temptation before his ministry. But in using this he is able to compartmentalize the topic and provide a simple definition, if not of what the kingdom is, certainly of what it is not.

A predominant portion of the book analyzes the sociology of first century Palestine while reflecting on Jesus' temptation by the evil one prior to commencement of his ministry. Kraybill spends three chapters looking at the three areas of focus within their interaction. First, he speaks of the temptation from the mountain top. The author provides deeper insight as to what the political climate was during the time. He also gives significant effort in explaining the history of politics and power within the Jewish community. A broader understanding of the context allows the reader the opportunity to "read between the lines" of the tempter's offer to Jesus. And Kraybill is convinced that Jesus was also able to assume certain things within the temptation in front of him. What Jesus did not do though, was accept the offer to political authority.

In the same fashion, Kraybill goes into the next chapter explaining the religious climate of first century Palestine. He offers detailed explanation of the intricacies of Jewish life during this era. In doing so, he exposes the kind of power that existed within the Jewish religious structure. He contends that Jesus was cognisant of what he was being offered. He was conscious of what the enemy was alluding to. Again Jesus did not accept.

Kraybill ties in the last temptation to economics. He explains that the political and religious power plays of Jesus' day had drastic effects on the economic life of the majority poor. The author insists that Jesus was aware of what kind of power he was being offered by addressing hunger, and economics in the manner being suggested to him by the evil one. Once again, Jesus rejects this offer to him.

What does this have to do with the kingdom of God, you might ask? Everything, in Kraybill's mind. The chapter explores Jesus' announcement, quoting Isaiah in the temple. Here Jesus announces that the wonderful dreams read within the text he reads are being realized now. Jesus implies that these things are beginning within himself. Jesus ties the message of the kingdom of God to himself.

But what the original listeners within that room, hearing Jesus' statements may not have known was that Jesus was setting out to establish a kingdom without using the kind of powers mentioned above: political, religious or economic. Instead, Jesus was implementing a kingdom of radically different principles and values. A kingdom pulled from the imaginations of first century Jewish people, implying concepts they were familiar with, even if they had been exploited. Jewish principles such as Jubilees, Sabbath and Shalom were insinuated in Jesus' words and message. And he was announcing and demonstrating to those that heard and saw that he intended not to treat these principles as good ideas but truly embody them in everything.

Kraybill's book is a great help in putting together an understanding of the context in which Jesus announced the kingdom. Reading this book makes very clear how easily we can misunderstand much of what Jesus said and did if we do not appreciate his situation. It is here that Kraybill soars. His ability to communicate clearly the research he has collected to paint a picture of what was being "heard" by those listening to Jesus is imperative. What he is able to do, and well, is provide the reader the information to sort for themselves whether or not their previous understanding of the kingdom of God is cohesive with Jesus actions and teaching. As well, the clarification he provides in relation to Jesus' parables is deeply helpful, once again, in providing a cohesive understanding of Jesus kingdom pronouncement.

After compiling such an insightful and informative presentation of context and biblical interpretation it is somewhat shocking how few practical applications Kraybill provides for the modern reader. At first glance, this seems a disappointment. Now that the reader has had the opportunity to reconsider her understanding of the kingdom of God, how does it effect one's life? But further reflection on Kraybill's style and approach may make one consider that this may be on purpose. Kraybill acknowledges that when providing an explanation of the biblical text that it can not be taken in it's exact form and applied to contemporary culture. Just as he provides context for the reader, he allows for contextual interpretation for those that wish to apply what they have learned from the text. And this might be the genius of this book. It never imposes context but rather exposes it.

For the purposes of those trying to uncover the reality of the kingdom in the twenty first century this book needs to be at the top of the list of reading. It is helpful in providing a framework for our own interpretation without being prescriptive. It makes clear what we can not assume about Jesus' message of the kingdom and provides insights as to where he was going with his message. The subject matter within this book is far from safe. What Kraybill makes clear is that the kingdom is not compromising to culture, powers or convenience. My only criticism of this book is that Kraybill seems to be accommodating from time to time for those who may yearn for personalized version of the Gospel of the kingdom and find this kind of interpretation repelling. Here, I believe his argument is strong enough to not need these accommodations. Otherwise, this book was incredibly educational and helpful.

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