In Untimely Christianity: Hearing the Bible in a Secular Age, Michael Edwards brings a wide range of literary and artistic skills to the task of interacting with the Bible and encountering God’s self-revelation in this sacred text. As a poet, theologian, and literary scholar, Edwards’ thesis is to “recover the Christianity of the first believers and of those who century after century and in all confessions of the church–those of Christians in Christ–have lived the same faith under the impulse of the same grace” (xvi). Edwards responds to the tendency of each age to render the meaning of the Bible according to its own wisdom, stating, “the voice of fallen humanity is given a privileged status. Each modernity, which can contain good and is never abandoned by God, is nevertheless the product of our fallenness” (xvii). Edwards seeks to recover a Christianity and way of reading the Bible that are countercultural, disruptive, strange, and untimely.
In the opening chapter, the author attempts to elucidate how contemporary Christians might read the Bible and be read by it. The faithful reader is confronted not with a mere book, but with the revelation of God trough written text. Throughout this chapter Edwards critically engages the work of Rudolph Otto and any notion that the God of the Bible might be understood according to human rationality. The God revealed in the Bible might not make sense to the human understanding of the divine and this may be precisely the point. Edwards writes, “The power of the Bible everywhere questions our assumptions. Every opening toward the sacred challenges them” (18). Edwards’ exegetical acumen is occasionally on full display, as when he investigates how people in the gospels experience fear when encountering Jesus. The reader’s assumptions are undermined when considering how the Jesus of welcome and love elicits such trepidation in those he meets.
Chapter 2 establishes Edwards’ concept of faith as a type of secure knowing that goes beyond a simple set of beliefs. He is clear that faith is not like scientific knowledge, but akin to the active knowing of another in a relationship. In the New Testament, faith has the power to heal and to save. Christian faith is also a gift from God and “it comes from beyond, like all gifts” (33). Biblical examples of faith are often paired with healing and salvation. For Christians, Edwards contends that “one must always pray with fervor, but it is only when we know, by the faith given us, that such is the will of God that the miraculous occurs” (39).
The remaining chapters illuminate a variety of themes with occasional overlap. Chapter 3 explores joy in the Bible alongside poetry and prose from Shakespeare, Coleridge, and even Spinoza. Chapter 4 is a winsome exposition of the Lord’s Prayer as poetry that allows the reader to “grasp the indissoluble link between the poetic and spiritual” (60). Chapter 5 focuses on the countercultural nature of the incarnation of Christ in both the 1st-century context and our own. Chapter 6 examines the ways art expresses hope and expectation analogously to the biblical texts. Chapter 7 utilizes the exacting and complex work of the poet to understand the act of biblical translation. Chapter 8 compares the poetry of Lamentations and several Psalms with that of Milton and Shakespeare. Chapter 9 narrates ways that people seek and find God in nature, in others, and even in repentance. The book closes with Chapter 10, where Edwards centers upon Jesus’ claim to be the way, the truth, and the life. Jesus’ truth is truth itself and goes beyond human understanding and logic. The Christian task is to act, think, and be like Jesus, “to have his life in us” (168).
Untimely Christianity is noteworthy for combining a poet’s experience with historical and exegetical biblical study. In the final chapters, Edwards weaves together biblical citations and reflections on art that draw the reader’s imagination to new and inspired ways of living the Christian life. Especially helpful is Edwards’ emphasis on hope in the Christian life. Biblically inspired artistic endeavors “project glimpses of a new humanity upon a new earth” (82). Biblical translation and interpretation, like poetry and painting, are forms of artistic expression that allow humanity to transcend the sorrow and death of this life and give birth to beauty and hope for change. Such hopefulness in today’s world would indeed attest to an untimely Christianity.
Kyle A. Schenkewitz is an assistant professor of religious studies at Mount St. Joseph University.
Date Of Review:
August 9, 2022
Sir Michael Edwards is a celebrated poet and literary scholar. He is an Honorary Fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge; Emeritus Professor at the Collège de France; and the first British person elected to the prestigious Académie française. He is the author of numerous scholarly books on literature, art and theology, as well as several collections of poetry.
John Marson Dunaway is professor emeritus of French and Interdisciplinary Studies at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia.
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