A Feature Review of
The Rest of Life: Rest, Play, Eating, Studying, Sex from a Kingdom Perspective
Paperback: Eerdmans, 2012.
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Reviewed by Ben Simpson
The nature of God as Trinity, the meaning of Christ’s atonement, the significance and right understanding of baptism and the Lord’s meal, and other concerns often dominate theological discussion. But those matters, while vitally important, often consume such immense amounts of energy that other matters pertaining to everyday life are left untended. Sensing the gap, Ben Witherington steps in.
In The Rest of Life, we find an exploration of rest, play, study, eating, and sex in light of the reign of God. Each of these areas of life is seldom focused upon at length, though it is in these areas our deepest yearnings are found. Who among us does not wish for more peaceful rest? Who has not wondered how to observe Sabbath in light of Jesus, the fulfillment of the Sabbath? If seen as part of life with God, how might our play, study, food choices, and sexual lives be enriched, fostering a more wholistic experience of life in the Kingdom of God?
*** Books by Ben Witherington
In each chapter, Witherington makes use of an interlocutor, developing his ideas through dialogue with popular or scholarly voices, providing contrast and unique vision for life in the Kingdom. These essays strike a conversational tone. S.K. Tonstad, a Seventh-Day Adventist scholar whose work is the primary focus of the chapter on Sabbath and rest, and Rob Bell, whose Sex God shapes Witherington’s chapter on sex, are two voices among many treated at length. Witherington makes careful use of the biblical text and historical theology to construct a model for engaging life with God, touching on the dimensions of life that have received scant attention from scholars and theologians, despite their role in the whole of life.
In this collection, there is no greater example of this neglect than in the area of play. Witherington notes that since Jurgen Moltmann’s Theology of Play, published in 1972, “there has been almost nothing but the sound of silence.” As Witherington contends, if play truly “anticipates the joy of the eschaton,” we are impoverished not only when it falls outside our reflection, but from our practice. Witherington further states, “turning away from play as if it were frivolous, as if it were something adults should leave behind, is itself a sign of immaturity and reflects a lack of Christian wisdom.” He is right. The theological import for claims such as “God is playful,” games as “exercises in ethics,” and the “teleological” dimension of games (because games are a means to their own ends, they remove us from other arenas of constant striving) should not be missed. Through play, disciples of Jesus can reveal another world is possible, and create occasions for the eschatological discovery of deep joy in God’s good world.
Familiarity with recent publications addressing food and Christian faith (Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge University Press, 2011; The Life of the Body, InterVarsity Press, 2013) is helpful in considering Witherington’s theological framework for care of the body and ethical eating practices, though not essential. I note these titles as a sampling from an immense field, one that appears to be growing. Witherington opens his chapter on eating and food by describing a visit to the Southern Baptist Convention, where he had been asked to speak. Witherington, a United Methodist, learned a great deal from the experience, but walked away saddened by the lack of physical health displayed by the ministers of one of the most numerically significant Protestant bodies in the United States. If the leaders care for their own bodies this way, what did this say of their theology of the body, their practical wisdom concerning food, and the overall health of congregants in Southern Baptist churches?