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A Review of
Sacred Sense: Discovering the Wonder of God’s Word and World
William P. Brown
Paperback: Eerdmans, 2015
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Reviewed by Debbie Philpott
Every man discriminates between the voluntary acts of his mind, and his involuntary perceptions, and knows that to his involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due. He may err in the expression of them, but he knows that these things are so, like day and night, not to be disputed.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance
When reading William P. Brown’s In Sacred Sense: Discovering the Wonder of God’s Word and World, I was reminded of an encounter with an Old Testament scholar and chaplain whose longing touches me still.
A few years ago, I engaged in a one-on-on conversation with the chaplain as part of the standard interview process for professorship at a traditional Christian university campus. Ours was a phone interview due to the distance between us and the timing of the interview. He asked many of the standard questions for which I had already prepared a response—questions regarding my testimony and my beliefs, and how my beliefs aligned with those of my potential future employer. Nearer the end of our lighter conversation, he asked a final question that I found troubling, then and still.
It was not a matter of how he phrased the question that disturbed me so, but rather the strong intuited sense that his question was deeply personal, residing in his inner being and begging to be answered, a haunting question which up to that point had found no satisfying response. The essence of his question was to ask me how I had come to such a strong, seemingly unwavering view of the Bible as God’s living, holy, authoritative word and dynamic sustenance for my life. I answered as best I could and found myself innately witnessing to this seasoned OT scholar who seemed to have become estranged from his first love. It was as if he had asked me for directions that would lead him down a pathway toward their reunion. Right or wrong, my sense was that he longed to once again know Scripture for the pure pleasure and bliss of the encounter and not, as it were, to use the Bible “to find answers to pressing questions, prove a point, win an argument, formulate dogma, reconstruct ancient history….” (4).
There is a strangely familiar thread running through Brown’s discourse, a haunting similarity that bespeaks of a longing for reunion and “unrestrained” love of Scripture. (Perhaps, I ponder, it is a formidable hazard of the profession of OT scholar.) Yet, notwithstanding, and to Brown’s delight, he seems to have found (re)union and relishes in the fact that he has “discovered the gift of pondering ambiguities and imagining new possibilities” (viii).
Unshackled by the rules of exegesis and shedding the stranglehold of proper hermeneutics (well, almost), Brown takes on what some biblical scholars would refer to as ghastly: eisegesis. He gives himself—and us—permission to engage with Scripture in an encounter of the seventh sense kind: WONDER.
In Sacred Sense, Brown takes on the self-proclaimed role of docent, whose purpose in the book is to take the reader on a tour of select biblical text, “to bring the ancient Scriptures to life and through them to point the reader toward new imaginings, new ways of reading biblical texts, even those texts that remain ‘dead and buried’ in their suffocating familiarity” (vii).
Wait a minute. Aren’t we still talking about Scripture here?
Yes. And therein lies the irony.
Those readers who may have as their starting point the desire for Brown to act on their behalf, to resurrect “lifeless” Scripture, are more likely to discover their own need of resuscitation. In Sacred Sense, readers. who—having lost touch with the art and practice of ‘going marveling’—may once again be revived and awakened to their sense of wonder about God, creation, and humankind.
“[For] without wonder, faith in a God who ‘works wonder(s)’ remains stuck and stagnant” (3).
Brown appears to have become ‘unstuck’ from his rigid OT scholarly ways, and now desires to share with all the world his discovery of wonder and his experiences of wondrous escapades. One problem is that as curator of his own experience, Brown sometimes faces the difficult task of trying to describe the oft indescribable nature of wonder, which leads to what can only be called an overdose of the verbose, as evidenced in the opening paragraph of the first chapter, Cosmic Wonder:
Given its pride of place, Genesis 1:1—2:3 (hereafter Genesis 1) serves as the official gateway to the Bible, a towering, majestic entrance into all of Scripture. Put to music, Genesis 1 would be something like a Bach organ fugue, full of contrapuntal variations filling every nook and cranny of a Gothic cathedral. But instead of resounding notes, we hear divinely spoken cadences reverberating throughout an intricately ordered universe (15).
As an orchestrator of words, Brown sometimes produces cacophony. The good news is that it does get better as the author begins to balance the ecstatic nature of his wonderment with groundings from Scripture and creation.
Brown defines wonder as “the emotion excited by the perception of something novel and unexpected, or inexplicable; astonishment mingled with perplexity or bewildered curiosity” (4). With reference to the works of Celia Deane-Drummond (Wonder and Wisdom) and Sam Keene (Apology for Wonder), and building on the foundation of his own prior research: The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder and Structure, Role and Ideology in the Hebrew and Greek Texts of Genesis 1:1—2:3, he introduces sixteen kinds of wonder (not intended to be an exhaustive list)—one for each chapter in the book—with each chapter named for the wonder that was stirred by his personal encounter with a particular biblical text.
Wonder is not limited to the Bible, however. Brown proposes that wonder is common to art and science and faith (or religion): “If wonder is what drives good science, if wonder is what inspires great art, perhaps wonder also lies at the heart of biblical faith. Such is my thesis” (10). Although few persons would likely argue for wonder’s absence from these, a claim might be made regarding his validity for segregating faith from science and faith from art. In fact, it is surprising that Brown would make such a distinction given his ecological passion and the several associations of Scripture with science, and Scripture with art, that he makes throughout his book (e.g., mathematical intricacy in Genesis 1; erotic love found in the poetry of Song of Songs). It is these seemingly loose connections between the author’s thesis, methodology, and discoveries that make the book feel somewhat incomplete, but that may arguably be owing more to the ambiguous nature of wonder and the true focal point of the book.
Admittedly, when I first read the title of the book, Sacred Sense: Discovering the Wonder of God’s Word and World, my initial thought was that its author would give instruction on how readers might (further) develop a sacred sense, by disclosing the means for discovering wonder in scripture and creation. Instead, the author provides a hint of his generative Bible study method because the real focal point is that “the book represents [Brown’s] own journey through the Bible” (viii).
Sacred Sense was written with a general readership in mind, with an open invitation to individuals as well as Bible study groups. Pastors are also identified as a target audience because a number of the chapters had their start as sermons. However, the book was not written for those who are ill at ease with ambiguity or multiple perspectives, especially as it relates to biblical text.
Debbie Philpott is an assistant professor of human resource management at DeVoe School of Business, Indiana Wesleyan University.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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