1) Devotional-but-clueless, i.e. the author is able to read/write devotionally on a passage because they don’t know any other way to read it. They don’t address context or difficulties or objections or avoid pitfalls, because they’re completely unaware of them. It’s often trite and shallow (and I don’t think you necessarily need length to have depth, lead to reflection, or inspire.) Lest I be misunderstood, it is entirely possible to be devotional and clueless, but still meaningful, I just think it’s rare and find little value in spending my time to read it. And let us not even speak of the abomination of trying to pass off rhyming poems as “spiritual thoughts.”
2) Knowledge-but-without-faith-implications, i.e. the author doesn’t care about affecting behavior, spiritual experiences, or the implications of the content for faith and doctrine, but is intent on talking about Roman culture, or Hebrew grammar, or Ugaritic history. This also is rare in a Church setting, but is completely valid and normal in other contexts. Some of my favorite authors are such because they neither hide from the difficult questions nor avoid wrestling with their implications for believers. I do not like my devotional material to be empty spiritual calories, nor do I like my knowledge divorced from all application, meaning, and implication for someone of faith.
Small indeed is the number of authors who can successfully give spiritual meaningful material while in full knowledge of all the context and difficulties of the text in question, devotional-and-academic. N.T. Wright is one who can. He’s written an almost-complete NT commentary for non-specialists, using his non-specialist nom-de-plume Tom Wright. I’ve been reading his series from the beginning and really appreciating it. Here’s a gem I found last night, talking about Matthew 5:27-37, which juxtaposes lust, divorce, and swearing falsely. We usually break these up into individual trees, but Wright is skilled at looking at the forest.
“It is also important to notice that in the present passage the mention of divorce comes between two other issues, both of which are in some ways more basic. It may be stating the obvious to point out that if people knew how to control their bodily lusts on the one hand (verses 27–30), and were committed to complete integrity and truth-telling on the other (verses 33–37), there would be fewer, if any, divorces. Divorce normally happens when lust and lies have been allowed to grow up like weeds and choke the fragile and beautiful plant of marriage.
The first answer, then, is clear. Deal ruthlessly with the first signs of lust. Plucking out eyes and cutting off hands are deliberate exaggerations (like leaving an animal for a week at the altar while you go off to be reconciled), but they make the point very forcibly. Don’t suppose that Jesus means you must never feel the impulse of lust when you look at someone attractive. That would be impossible, and is not in any case what the words mean. What he commands us to avoid is the gaze, and the lustful imagination, that follow the initial impulse. Likewise, determine resolutely to tell the truth, to yourself and to your spouse. These two between them will see off most of the challenges that even a hard-pressed modern marriage will face. If the church had carefully taught these disciplines over the years we would have less of a problem now….
This is not ‘repression’, as people sometimes suggest. It is more like the pruning of a rose, cutting off some healthy buds so that the plant may grow stronger and produce better flowers. Choosing not to be swept along by inappropriate sexual passion may well feel on occasion like cutting off a hand or plucking out an eye, and our world has frequently tried to tell us that doing this is very bad for us. But, for neither the first nor the last time, we must choose to obey our Lord rather than the world.” Tom Wright, Matthew for Everybody Part I, 47-48.
(Not also his use of “world” there, which is not simply an LDS cultural trait but shared among those who read the NT. Jesus several times draws contrasts between “the world” and Christians.)
Wright also provides his own translation at the beginning of each section, published separately as The Kingdom New Testament. The translation seems to lean in the dynamic thought-for-thought philosophy of translation, resulting in some fresh and thought-provoking language. Note Matthew 5:20, for example-“unless your covenant behaviour [KJV “righteousness”] is far superior to that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get in to the kingdom of heaven.”
I’m impressed, challenged, and appreciating Wright’s contributions to my own spiritual progression. Highly recommended. Google Books previews.
(And to my Institute students and others interested, I’ll get back to my Genesis blogging soon, and class is over.)