Book Review: Pictures at a Theological Exhibition (Vanhoozer, IVP)

Disclaimer: I was kindly given a copy of this book by IVP to review, but this in no way altered my review and my freedom to express what I want to about it.  All books I review can be got from your local Christian bookshop, in Cork (Unbound) or in Belfast (Evangelical Bookshop).

Does preaching have any relevance anymore?  Shouldn’t we just do interactive studies/discussion now?  Aren’t words so cold and doctrine so harsh at times?  Postmodern philosophy and theology has deconstructed words so much that they sit in a heap, lifeless and meaningless.  Occasionally picked up, dusted off and attempted to be used by frustrated evangelicals (and even more frustrated congregants who have to listen to such evangelical explanation, teaching and rants week in, week out, with oh so little power to change).

Vanhoozer’s usage of speech-act theory in his masterful “is there meaning in this text?” helped me immensely in my philosophy degree to not only defend against attacks of postmodern language theories that had little place for words, but to paint a beautiful picture of warm, life-giving words that are alive and perform an act in front of our very eyes.  Although this reviewed work is meant to be a practical outworking of some of Vanhoozer’s other more theological/philosophical work, if one doesn’t grasp the complexities of why words seem powerless in the modern day world, it may just pass over your head a little.

Like his other works, it’s hard to tell where theology stops and philosophy starts (isn’t it that way in the scriptures also, you may ask?), and thus one could read this informative and heart-warming play, and still disagree over the finer points of whether we’re committed philosophically to follow Vanhoozer on from where the text takes us.

That said, for those who are willing to give it a go, this is a majestic performance, that lives out what it seeks to teach.  Framed using Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” (don’t worry, he explains this, for those like me who aren’t big enough classical geeks), he guides us round a life-giving defense of Christian imagination, by helping us experience God’s Word through the lens of themes such as “prophet, priest and King”, presented academically, theologically and pastorally.

Whether you turn to read for his academic nuance of engaging with the latest ideas, because you want theologically challenged by rigorous, heart-warming teaching or because you want to see Vanhoozer’s outworking of pastoral and evangelistic persuasion, this work is well worth the read and will restore any confidence you lacked in the words of scripture and their authority.

Books like these actively demonstrate why I am still very confident to hold dearly to the fact that Scripture/revelation can sit authoritatively over and above experience, authority and reason, although obviously informing all 3 in this majestic speech-act.  Taken rightly, this work would make the claims of my first paragraph laughable.

PicTheoExh

To close, lest one be discouraged by his academia (not that one would find it easy to be discouraged, after reading it), his warmth comes through time and time again:

“If I speak in the tongues of Reformers and of professional theologians, and have not personal faith in Christ, my theology is nothing but the noisy beating of a snare drum. And if I give myself to resolving the debate between supra- and infralapsarianism, and to defending inerrancy, and to learning the Westminster Catechism, yea, even the larger one, so as to recite it by heart backwards and forwards, and have not love, I have gained nothing.” (p. 180)

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