Flannery O’Connor and Richard Vinson Read Luke

“Have you ever been Baptized?” the preacher asked.
   “What’s that?” he murmured.
   “If I Baptize you,” the preacher said, “you’ll be able to go to the Kingdom of Christ. You’ll be washed in the river of suffering, son, and you’ll go by the deep river of life. Do you want that?”
   “Yes,” the child said, and thought, I won’t go back to the apartment then, I’ll go under the river.
   “You won’t be the same again,” the preacher said. “You’ll count.

–Flannery O’Connor, “The River,” quoted in Richard Vinson’s Luke

Luke by VinsonWhen I preached through parts of Luke this past fall, one of my favorite commentaries to consult–and the one that always felt the freshest–was Richard Vinson’s Luke in the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary series. Here is how the series preface describes the series:

The Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary is a visually stimulating and user-friendly series that is as close to multimedia in print as possible. Written by accomplished scholars with all students of Scripture in mind, the primary goal of the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary is to make available serious, credible biblical scholarship in an accessible and less intimidating format.

What stands out to me most about Luke is that it’s not only accessible but creative in its literary read of Scripture. Vinson knows Luke and its background well; he also knows modern history, culture, literature, and art in a way that allows him to explain the biblical text in a really fresh and engaging way. His primary audience is “pastors and other Bible teachers.”

The introduction is a concise 20-some pages, covering essentials like authorship, dating, sources, structure, and themes found in Luke. (This for me was the highlight of his introduction, as he discussed gospel sources, yet with his target audience in view–“So I will content myself with the occasional ‘if Q really exists’ and worry about more important issues.”)

There are times when reading the commentary is like reading a sermon–a good sermon. To take an example, the passage on Luke 18:1-8 (about prayer, the apathetic judge, and the persistent widow) begins like this:

The title of an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education caught my attention: “Study of Prayer’s Healing Power on Surgery Patients Finds No Effect.” The article described an experiment in having people pray, by name, for persons recovering from heart bypass surgery. [Does Prayer Work? sidebar] None of the pray-ers knew the pray-ees; some of the pray- ees knew they were being prayed for, while others were told only that it might be true for them. Would the prayers have a statistically measurable effect—would the persons prayed for suffer fewer complications than those who were not prayed for? In this test, under these conditions, not so much…. I find I have mixed reactions to the finding that prayer does not always bring the desired results: (a) surely that’s not news to anyone who prays regularly; (b) at least now I know that I’m not the only one, and that God isn’t singling out my prayers to ignore; (c) maybe the experiment proves that there is no God who can be controlled by specific human behaviors, even if the desired outcome is unobjectionable.

The study itself (detailed in a sidebar) is a little silly. But it’s a nice entry into the question that such texts raise: Will God answer my prayers? And if the outcomes I’m praying for don’t obtain, what is going on?

Art from the commentary
Art from the commentary

From there it moves into exposition of the passage. Exegesis in the commentary is passage-by-passage, rather than verse-by-verse. There’s not always a lot of technical detail, but I still felt like Vinson did justice to whatever passage was under consideration. He gives the Old Testament “job description” of the judge in the passage mentioned above, as well as the larger biblical context for the importance of widows. Comparisons to other Gospel accounts, as well as the occasional word studies for important words (with reference to Greek), make this as good a starting point as any.

And yet what commentary will also reference Flannery O’Connor, Hank Williams, and Wendell Berry’s Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front? Vinson’s creativity and honesty as he seeks to make sense of a text are refreshing, and often set me at ease when facing the prospect of preaching on a challenging passage.

The commentary comes with a CD-ROM that has a pdf of the entire book, with Table of Contents and easy navigation (as pdfs go). You can keyword search it and make annotations. This is a step in the direction of my dream that one could own both print and digital with one purchase. And the print edition is quite nicely constructed, too–sewn binding and all (so it lays flat), which seems to be increasingly rare these days.

I had not heard of this series until recently, but for any book I preach out of (there are both OT and NT volumes), I’m going to try to get a hold of the corresponding Smyth & Helwys volume from here on out.

I am grateful to Smyth & Helwys for the gratis review copy of this commentary, which was sent to me for this review. You can find the book on Amazon here. The publisher’s product page is here. All the published volumes in the series are here.

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