Book Review: Being Human in God’s World

As I alluded to previously, I’ve set myself some deliberate (And hopefully attainable!) goals for reading more widely, more deeply, and more intentionally in 2017. As I presently work for a publisher, I have access to a steady stream and seam of books, as well as ways to snaffle others. I’ve also aqquired other books over the years, and haven’t read them. Today’s book review is one of four promised in a previous post, and of a book that has already got me thinking about what it might mean for the Church to be political. But it isn’t about that. Being Human in God’s World: An Old Testament Theology of Humanity is a really exciting new book from J. Gordon McConville, on one of my favourite subjects. Focusing on the Old Testament, both exegetically and contextually, means that this book is one that really should be foundational for anyone trying to articulate what it means to be human in the world we find ourselves in.

One of the best features of this book is McConville’s wide reading and enthusiastic humility. As he notes in his Introduction, it is very difficult and rather daunting to try to say anything new about what it is to be human, and even more so to do so in a useful way. Having now finished the book, I think he manages it. Whilst I have some concerns about what McConville doesn’t touch on, this is a brilliant book that gradually builds its argument, engages carefully with the texts of the Old Testament (And the world of the texts), takes sensible dialogue across the breadth of relevant traditions and questions, and leaves the reader thinking and more hopeful about what it means to be human.

Driving McConville’s project, and woven rather beautifully throughout the book, is the brilliant blend of serious scholarship and transformational spirituality. This is not a detached academic book – but one intimately and carefully involved in what it means to be human, and how that is to be lived out. As the book comes to a close, the author writes: “The human vocation to represent God in the world is inseparable from the imperative of what may be called ‘formation’, or indeed ‘transformation. And this imperative operates in all the spheres of human life that we have examined“. In these two sentences the shape of this book, and its broadly (but not totally) universal applicability is summed up. This is perhaps best seen in the closing chapter, where the tapestry of rich theological thought and applied reading of the Psalms combines to make a beautiful whole.

This is a book that is shaped by, and ultimately focused on, the Old Testament, with approrpriate nods to the wider biblical Canon and culture. Starting in Genesis, McConville considers the way that the Old Testament articulates and explores what it means to be human. Drawing on texts from nearly every (if not every?) book of the Old Testament, the author also makes appropriate usage of the comments and reflections of those who have gone before. This shows in the way that the book unfolds – rather than taking an exegetically forced route through the Old Testament, McConville engages with key questions. For my own work on being human in the Image of God as embodied and relational, I was particular challenged and forced to think by the sixth chapter, ‘Embodiments: Place and Memory’. Having, in my opinion, previously failed to engage with the embodied nature of the human, here McConville engages with the meaning of that point very, very well. Here, I would say, the title resonates. What does it mean to be human in God’s world? As the author observes; ‘the Bible gives good reason to see placedness as an essential aspect of our being human‘.This book, focused on the oldest books in the Good Book, is one that asks the right questions in order to equip and challenge the church of today.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. I don’t say that lightly – particularly when commenting on books written by authors far more qualified than I to write. This is a book that invites the reader in, to think and ponder, to consider and wonder, and to seriously engage with the perennial question of what it means to be human. McConville has furnished us with a book that forces us to examine seriously what the Bible actually says about being human, in all times and in all places. I would firmly recommend this book to those who, like me, are involved in ongoing reflection on what it means to be human. For pastors and preachers, this could be a helpful reference book, ranging widely as it does over the whole Old Testament in the light of an important question!

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