A Succinct Book Review

6 12 2019

Book reviews do not need to be long to be pointed.  This review of His Apocalypse is from 1924 and by the well-known Greek scholar A. T. Robertson.  It is only three sentences long, but he captures a dry sarcastic critique.  A T Robertson

“It is enough of this fanciful interpretation of the Apocalypse of John to note on the first page this: ‘His Parousia, when he returns for His Bride (probably April 21, 1924).’ This review is written after that date, and the date is wrong.  The other dates are probably equally erroneous.” Review & Expositor, 21, no. 4 (October 1924), p. 471




John Brown: 160 Years

2 12 2019

One hundred and sixty years ago in a newly-harvested cornfield in Charles Town, Virginia, scaffolding was raised and a man was hung. The nation-wide anxiety of this hanging caused the governor of Virginia to call out over 1000 soldiers to surround the gallows and to guard the bridges and roads—all because of a single grey-bearded grandfatherly figure who swung by his neck gently in the breeze of a warm December 2nd day in 1859. The executed man had deep connections to Kansas. In fact, he was nicknamed after a Kansas town, Osawatomie Brown. The 160th anniversary of the death of John Brown will probably go unrecognized by most Americans, and this is unfortunate.

John Brown should be considered one of the most influential figures of the 19th century and a person whose impact is still felt. The 2005 book by David S. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist, captures three important influences of John Brown in the subtitle: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights. That one person could be such a catalyst is remarkable, but in retrospect, it rings true for anyone who spends time in learning about John Brown.

There is much to admire in John Brown. Perhaps no person in the United States at the midpoint in the 1800s had such a passion for ending slavery and also for the equality of all individuals. Charles Langston speaking at John Brown’s funeral said that he was “a lover of mankind” and “He fully, really and actively believed in the equality and brotherhood of man . . . . He is the only American citizen who has lived fully up to the Declaration of Independence.” John Brown’s war banner against slavery was the belief that all men (and women) were created equal.

Of course, other abolitionists were against slavery, but only John Brown wanted to abolish slavery and also have an inclusive society for people of all colors and genders. He even went so far as to write, while a guest at the home of Frederick Douglas, a provisional constitution. It castigated slavery as “the most barbarous, unprovoked, and unjustified war of one portion of its citizens upon another portion.” What was remarkable for that time was that he considered all individuals as citizens and “fully entitled to protection.”

Admiration of John Brown, however, comes with mixed emotions. He was a terrorist. For those who reject violence as a justifiable means to an end, and that violence can ever be redemptive violence, the bloodshed provoked by Brown at Harper’s Ferry and in Bloody Kansas is repulsive. Yet, John Brown, like a Hebrew prophet, was driven by a biblical vision of liberation for enslaved blacks and by a God-focused sense of justice. But more than visionary, he acted upon his beliefs. As found in his favorite song, “Blow Ye the Trumpet, Blow,” Brown believed that “the year of Jubilee has come,” and he was its appointed apostle. He rejected a passive Christianity of a non-violent approach to end slavery or that it would die out of its own accord. He despised Southern Christianity’s attempted to justify the enslavement of blacks with appeals to Scripture. His deep rooted-Puritan faith was grounded in a holy war for a justice cause.

The execution of John Brown happened on the very day, December 2, that presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln gave a speech in Atchison, KS, an event commemorated by a plaque at the northeast corner of the Atchison County Courthouse lawn. Lincoln, while sympathetic to anti-slavery sentiments, was cautious about John Brown and attempted to distance himself from Brown’s assault on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. When asked in Leavenworth, KS, the day after the execution about John Brown, Lincoln replied “even though [Brown] agreed with us in thinking slavery wrong, that cannot excuse violence, bloodshed, and treason.”

In his time John Brown was hailed both as a saint and the devil. After his death, a multitude of songs from the North deified him and an equal number from the South railed against him. No one was ambivalent about Osawatomie Brown. While few folks today know or perhaps seem to care about him, John Brown’s passionate vision of inclusion and his emphasis upon the worth of all individuals is a tonic for our toxic time. His words continue to speak a word of challenge to those who are suspicion about and hold in contempt (consciously or unconsciously) those who are different from “us.”


In an abolitionist organization John Brown founded called Black Strings, all members had to sign this membership statement: “I believe all mankind are created free and equal, without distinction of color, race, or sex, and are endowed by their Creator with inalienable right.” This statement, when taken to heart and acted upon, is still as radical and as powerful today as it was then.

Weighty Books

7 06 2016

I cannot stay away from old books.   The feel, the look, the smell. These all capture for me the power of the written word. What also invests even more weight in a book is the history of its ownership. I always check for any inscription. Upon whose library shelf did this book reside? What person or persons turned the pages and mediated upon its word? Did they mark in the margins? This blog is about a set of books that recently came into my possession; its scholarly and historical provenance is weighty.

The books are two-volumes by the French biblical scholar Alfred Loisy (1857-1940) entitled Les Evangiles Synoptiques (1907-08). Loisy is an author not well known today, but in his day, he challenged the Roman Catholic Church with his critical analysis of the biblical text. Perhaps his most famous quote is “Jesus foretold the kingdom, and it was the Church that came; she came enlarging the form of the gospel, which it was impossible to preserve as it was, as soon as the Passion closed the ministry of Jesus.”[1]

In 1903 all five of Loisy’s books he had written up to that time were condemned by the Holy Inquisition and placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Because he was part of the modernist movement and used critical methods for the study of the Bible, he was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church in 1908 and died outside of it in 1940.  His motto was “Catholic I have been, Catholic I remain; critic I have been, critic I remain.”

The inscription below is found inside the book.


olim e libris Willelmi Sanday

του μακαρτου

nune Cuthberti H. Turner


The Latin and Greek translate something like this:

Once the books [of] William Sanday

of blessed [memory]

now [the books of] Cuthbert H. Turner

A. D. 1920

William Sanday (1845-1920) was a British theologian and biblical scholar at Oxford University. He was the Dean Ireland’s Professor of the Exegesis of Holy Scripture. It was in the year he died (1920) that C. H. Turner (1860-1930) came into procession of these personal volumes. Perhaps Sanday bequeathed these volumes.

The Greek phrase του μακαρτου (“of the blessed one”) seems to indicate Professor Sanday had passed away.  It also illustrates Turner’s respect for him. This respect is demonstrated in C. H. Turner’s inaugural lecture when he became Dean Ireland’s Professor of the Exegesis of Holy Scripture at Oxford in 1920. In his inaugural lecture, he focused upon the contribution of William Sanday. [2]

How did these volumes from the shelves of Oxford University and from esteemed Victorian biblical scholars make their path to Kansas City, MO?  That journey remains a mystery.



[1] This quote is found in The Gospel and the Church, trans. Christopher Home (New York:  Scribner’s Sons, 1909), p. 166.  It was originally published in November 1902 as L’Evangile et L’Eglise. [The English translation of the book is in public domain and can be found on Google Books: The Gospel and the Church.]


[2] It was published as The Study of the New Testament 1883 and 1920 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1920). [This book is also in public domain and can be found on archive.org: https://archive.org/details/studyofnewtestam00turn.]


Ash Wednesday: The Beginning of Mending

10 02 2016

AshIn Herman Melville’s book Moby-Dick, the narrator, Ishmael, watched with interest the religious obligation of “Fasting and Humiliation” of his whaling companion Queequeg. While many might have viewed Queequeg’s rituals as strange and even comical, Ishmael did not. He observed in them something universal and says, “Heaven have mercy on us all . . . for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending” (Moby-Dick or The Whale [New York: W. W. Norton, 1976], p. 81).

Ash Wednesday is the beginning step towards Lent and the humble acknowledgement that we are not only “dreadfully cracked about the head” but also about the heart and spirit. For forty days, we are asked to be honest about ourselves to ourselves. Honest about what we think of others. Honest about our relationship to mammon. Honest about how we treat others. Honest about our fears. Honest about what we place our hope in. Ultimately, it is about being honest to God. At some point in these forty days, we should utter the words of Ishmael—“Heaven have mercy on us all.”

Whenever we reach this point, what started as a Lenten journey of personal and egocentric introspection transforms into the recognition that mercy is not just for me but also for all. The journey of Lent can create within us an empathetic spirit for those, who like us, are “made from dust and destiny for dust.” Our own flaws and failings can help us live more humanly, more Christ-like, with others who are also flawed and failed.

Ash Wednesday starts with the strangest of rituals—one that is almost comical, the imposition of ashes. A finger will be dipped into ashes, and a dark, irregular cross will be drawn on our foreheads. For those who are dreadfully cracked about the head, heart and spirit, and who need mending, these ashes are the healing balm of Christ.  It is the beginning of the mending.

Herman Melville’s Bible

5 02 2016

Melville's Bible 2Not every year, but most, I choose a writer and focus upon him or her for the year. Or as Pam would say, “I become obsessed.” I will immerse myself in his or her works and read various biographies. In the past I have focused on writers such as Thomas Hardy, Frederick Buechner, Robertson Davies, John Irving, Walker Percy, or Flannery O’Connor. This is the year of Herman Melville.

I have been reading Hershel Parker’s two-volume work Herman Melville: A Biography, Volume 1 (1819-1851), Volume 2 (1851-1891). Each volume is a 1000 pages. Reading these volumes makes reading Moby-Dick seem like reading a Little Golden Book. I feel like I know more about Herman than his own mother must have known.

Parker draws his research from the letters of the Melville family, newspaper reviews of Melville’s book, diaries, and from the assorted ephemeral that is the natural habitat of biographers and historians. He also utilizes the personal books Herman Melville had in his library. Melville had the habit of writing annotations in the margins and on the flyleaf. He would mark texts and highlight passages. Parker noted that Melville practiced this art also in his Bible. This intrigued the Bible scholar in me. I had no idea that Melville’s Bible, purchased in 1849, was extant and available for scholars to study. I am always interested in the passages to which individuals gravitate when marking and annotating their Bibles. These colophons are often tiny revealing windows. Below is a sample from one of my Bibles.

Annotation 1

I thought it would be interesting to examine Melville’s annotation, but alas, how could I get access to his Bible? Surely this Bible was under lock and key somewhere remote from Kansas City. (Actually, it is located in the Houghton Library on the Harvard University campus). So I googled, “Melville’s Bible,” and miracle of miracles, his whole Bible (the New Testament and Psalms) is digitized and available online. Thank you Al Gore for inventing the Internet! Here is the website: http://melvillesmarginalia.org/tool.php?id=14&f=i

One interesting aspect of his Bible is that some annotations are erased. (Melville made his annotations in pencil).  It is likely that his wife, Elizabeth (Lizzie, 1822-1906), made liberal use of the eraser after Herman’s death in 1891. During his lifetime, Melville’s neighbors, critics, and even some family members considered his thinking and writings as almost sacrilegious if not blasphemous. As anyone who has read Melville knows, he was steeped in the Bible and had great acumen as a layperson in reading the Bible and juxtaposing its context and content with his narrative plots. Biblical illusions are woven throughout his works; this is reason I like Moby-Dick so much. From my reading, Melville was a creative critic of placebo Christianity, which did not sit well with the religious purveyors of pietism in that age.

Below is one of Melville’s annotations on Romans 14:22, “Hast thou faith? Have it to thyself.” His comment: “The only kind of faith—one’s own.”

Faith Melville

Look over Melville’s shoulder as he is marking his Bible.

Book Inscription

20 01 2016

Below is a recent meditation regarding the beginning of 2016 that I presented to the faculty at Central Seminary.

As my wife Pam will attest, it is difficult for me to walk by a sign that reads “Used Books for Sale.” Like a moth to fire, I am drawn to bumped and bruised volumes found on dusty shelves. So recently I gave into the Siren call of a two-volume work by W. M. Thomson, “twenty five years a missionary of the A.B.C.F.M. in Syria and Palestine,” entitled The Land and the Book; or, Biblical Illustrations Drawn from the Manners and Customs, the Scenes and Scenery of the Holy Land. The copyright date was 1864. This work was so popular in its day that only one other book out sold it, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriett Beecher Stowe.[1] Almost every literate home of means had a copy of The Land and the Book.

While the volumes interested me from a perspective of one who works in the context of the New Testament and also from an antiquarian angle, one of the features that drew me to these volumes was the inscription on the flyleaf. I am always curious to see if someone has given a book to another and what type of message he or she inscribed. Like a snapshot, the inscription preserves a moment in time when the book was new and the original reader had living eyes on the pages.

In Volume 1, the inscription reads:

           To dear Hally    

                      from her affectionate husband 


Christmas 1864


The brown-inked inscription bore the signs of a careful script delicately written in the mid-nineteenth century cursive style of writing. The pen George dipped into his inkwell had a fine or extra-fine nib; each elegant stroke presents the narrowest of ink line gently slanted to the right. The one flourish the Inscriber allowed himself was on the word “husband” where the last letter “d” tapers off to the left.

Hundreds of unanswered questions could be asked about Hally and George, this couple without any last names who are now gone for over a century and half. Why did George think these volumes about the Holy Land would entertain Hally? Did they hope to travel to that exotic land? Did she ask for the set? Was it a surprise? Were they keeping up with the Jones or the Smith who had these volumes? Did Hally read this book and share bits of it to George over the breakfast table or at dinner? Around a coal fire, did they image tramping around the shores of the Sea of Galilee?   What did Hally give George for Christmas in 1864?

In 1864, the Civil War that tore apart North and South had been going on for four years. Did George and Hally have children or family members in the battles? How had their lives been unsettled by the clash of steel and guns, blood and smoke? The war would end in four months, and so would President Lincoln’s life. What were their reactions to the President’s assassination?

Lots of questions. No answers. All that remains are two rather battered volumes that George once presented to Hally at Christmas and this faded inscription. And yet contained within this inscription is a biography of sort. Certainly it is the briefest of biographies one can image, but it is still enough to give us a glimpse.

It is interesting George does not write, “ To my dear wife.” He does not restrict Hally’s role only to the category of wife, which in the 1800s could certainly be narrow and circumscribed for a woman. Rather he calls her by name, the person she is, . . . or was.

But what is even more revealing about Hally and George is summed up in the adjectives used for each. Hally is described as “dear,” and George presents himself as “affectionate.” The ability to check these attributes as qualities of their quotidian lives is beyond our ability to know. But George felt it solid enough to enshrine on the flyleaf of Volume 1 so that 150 years later they are “Dear Hally” and “Affectionate George.”

We have entered the new year of 2016. If you are like me, you are probably wondering what happened to 2015. It seems like it just started and only lasted a week or maybe two at the most. Before long, I will be here again around these tables presenting the faculty devotion for 2017.

This headlong rush into life and its teleological consequences may give one pause on occasions such as the New Year. The writer of James puts it this way, we are “a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14b). The start of the New Year might cause us to think about new beginnings, but Hally and George remind us of mists that vanish leaving only faded traces of ink in their wake.

One hundred and fifty years from now, it will be the New Year 2166. Who knows what flotsam and jetsam (or bits and bytes) will remain to mark who we were. But if we had one word, just one, to inscribe upon a flyleaf of a book in order to be remembered 150 later, what would it be?

Paul, in his inscription to the Christians at Rome, chose the word slave: “Paul a slave of Jesus Christ called to an apostle.”  In the inscription of 3 John, the elder chose the word “beloved” to describe Gaius (v.1), and in Colossians the writer inscribes and describes the whole community with the single word, hagiois: “saints” (Col. 1:2).

Perhaps with all the resolutions made in 2016, all we really need to do is to find that one word with which we wish always to be twinned and to live into it. What is your one word biography for 2016 or 2166?



David M. May

[1] Naomi Shepherd, The Zealous Intruders: Western Rediscovery of Palestine (London: Collins, 1987), p. 90.

Letter to the Editor

4 11 2015

Below is a letter to the editor I recently wrote for my hometown newspaper, the Maryville Daily Forum.

While now living in Kansas City, I grew up in Maryville (all my education from fifth grade to college was in Maryville), and I have family and friends in the city. I still feel very connected to Maryville. It is a great place with a wonderful past and bright future. For this reason, I could not let the news pass that the Sheriff’s Department will be placing the motto, “In God We Trust” on patrol cars.


While the Sheriff indicates that, “There are always going to be people who want to be in opposition just for the sake of the argument,” (Maryville Daily Forum, 21 August 2015), let me assure readers, I am not just against this action because I am against things and just to be on the other side. Instead, several good reasons exist for the Sheriff’s Department to reconsider this decision, which is a bad option for Maryville . . . and for God too.

First, this decal indicates that an official government authority is explicitly endorsing a particular religious perspective. Maryville is a wonderfully diverse community; both the local residents and the university student body illustrate this point. So not everyone the patrol cars visit will share this motto’s perspective. We live in a pluralistic society in which a key characteristic of maintaining healthy relationships and hospitality is through empathy. Can we empathize with how others might perceive this endorsement? If a person is not God-believing, will he or she receive the same response time? Will a God-Truster get quicker response and more protection? While I am sure equality of service and protection will be given to all without discrimination, this religious endorse can raise questions, especially in the minds of those who often feel marginalized because of different religious traditions and practices.

Second, to place this decal/motto on patrol cars indicates that the Sheriff’s Department may not be a diverse place of employment. Some Sheriff Department employees (if not now perhaps in the future) might be Buddhist, Moslems, or Sikhs. Would the Department place “Allah is Great” or “Buddha the Compassionate” on the bumper of a patrol car?

Third, if the Sheriff’s Department wants a motto that inspires and encourages, several great mottos exist that would speak to the department’s goal of serving the community of Maryville. Perhaps the Missouri state motto would be appropriate, “Let the welfare of the people be the supreme law of the land” (thanks to my eighth grade teacher of Missouri history for my remembering this motto). Maybe the brief but powerful statement, “To Protect and to Serve” would be good. These statements let those who see the cars coming, and who are often in crisis situations, know help is on the way.

Fourth, From a theological perspective (now I am preaching), God is much more interested in how one lives versus repeating mottos often heard as shallow bumper sticker theology. Slogan theology is not new. In the sixth century B.C., the prophet Jeremiah responded to those in Jerusalem who wanted to plaster decals on their donkey carts that said, “The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord” (Jeremiah 7:4). As the prophet reminded folks, security of the nation (then and now) is not founded on simple mottos, but on whether one acts justly, does not oppress, and helps the vulnerable of society. Trust in God is best demonstrated not by decals but by acts of mercy that originate in empathy for another.

I urge the Sheriff’s Department to reconsider this decision.

Deep and Sustained Reading: The Challenge

26 10 2015

Deep Reading

Here is a brief piece I wrote about the difficulty of deep and sustained reading in the age of the Internet.  Click on the link below for the full PDF.


Article on Lectionary Passages

5 07 2015

Over the next four weeks, I will have four articles (about 1000 words each) related to the New Testament text-segments on the Lectionary readings for Year B at the Truett Pulpit website.  The passages are Mark 6:14-29 (July 12), Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 (July 19), John 6:1-21 (July 26), and John 6:24-35 (August 2).  These passage were interesting ones on which to work.  If you would like to read these short articles, the first two are now available, and you can follow these links to the articles.  The last two articles will be posted shortly.

Mark 6:14-29

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Review & Expositor: “Hauerwas Among the Baptists”

18 02 2015

The latest issue of Review & Expositor is out.  This issue focuses upon the influence of Stanley Hauerwas and is entitled “Hauerwas Among the Baptists.”


RE Stanley


It looks like a good issue.  Here is a link to a youtube video about the issue:  “Hauerwas Among the Baptists.”  For a limited time the entitle issues is free to read and download.  Here is the link:  “Hauerwas Among the Baptists.”  Enjoy.