AUSTRALIAN BIBLICAL REVIEW
BOOK REVIEW Published in Volume 57, 2009
WILLIAM LOADER, The New Testament with Imagination: A Fresh Approach to its Writings and Themes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007). Pp. x + 206. Paperback. $US16.00.
The New Testament with Imagination claims to provide a “unique, original way of approaching the New Testament (back cover).” William Loader’s goal is to allow a greater insight into key biblical texts, and thus the emotions and experiences of the biblical writers, through the “vehicle of imagination,” which can “take us into the ancient world more directly than long descriptions” (x). It is an unashamedly theological approach: Loader is more interested in teasing out how we are to understand Jesus’ teaching and actions than in trying to ascribe historical veracity to them.
After a brief introduction, Loader leaps straight into an imaginative exercise, setting the tone for the whole work. This involves a narrative method approach, with a second person perspective. In Chapter One (“Jesus and Capernaum: Hope and Change”) the reader is introduced to Capernaum—what sights and scents are to be encountered, people to be met and activities to be experienced, from a local’s point of view. A man named Jesus has been causing something of a stir—what’s all that about?
Loader then moves on to the second phase of his approach—discussing key biblical passages relating to this imaginative exercise, both in light of the exercise and to further enhance the reader’s understanding of it. In Chapter One this entails exegesis of Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue (Luke 4:14–30), the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:17–48) and Jesus’ stance on social issues (Mark 10). Loader gradually teases out the complex themes of the passages, leading the reader step by step on the path to understanding their meaning through a combination of exegesis and imagination.
The subsequent chapters follow this structure: Chapter Two (“Jesus and Conflict: Death and Resurrection”) examines conflict between Jesus and others in detail before moving on to the Passion Narrative; Chapter Three (“Paul amid the Turbulence of the Church”) investigates the tempestuous early days of the Christian movement from within; Chapter Four (“The Gospels: Putting the Story Together”) probes the issue of Gospel composition, and Chapter Five (“John and Beyond: Faith and the Future”) focuses on the Johannine works.
I freely admit that the imaginative exercise is a strategy I am not entirely comfortable with—it is a technique that has both value and drawbacks. On the one hand, it can allow greater empathic understanding of the Bible and deeper immersion into its world, but on the other, can one truly carry out an imagination exercise without overlaying one’s preconceived notions on the world under scrutiny? While this is true of any analysis to an extent, imaginative exercises can remove the safety net, as it were—the checks and balances of most methodological approaches that alert you when you veer from scholarship to fancy. Loader deals with this issue masterfully—he does not go beyond what history and the Gospels have given us—indeed, to do so would be against his core aim in this work: to try and understand ancient peoples as they view themselves, rather than through the filter of our own desires. This requires both discipline and imagination (184–86).
The imaginative exercises give historical context to the passages in a subtle, entertaining way, rather than burdening the reader with dry historical data. Yet this data can also be followed if the reader so chooses—Loader provides a list of passages that he has drawn upon at the end of each imaginative exercise. This allows the reader the freedom of selecting their own level of engagement—whether they will follow along solely with Loader, or read further for themselves. Thus, Loader encourages the reader to strike out on their own from the springboard he has provided. The work includes charts demonstrating the relationship of New Testament texts to one another and of the relations between both Matthew and Luke, and Mark. A timeline of significant Jewish dates is present, as well as a small selection of recommended reading for those inclined to investigate further. My only criticism of the work is that Loader fails to specify the mechanism by which he terms passages ‘key’ and selects texts to examine in detail.
The New Testament with Imagination is written in a very accessible style that opens up the world of the New Testament to the reader without patronising or overly-simplifying the material. It is a valuable text for classroom study at the high school or undergraduate level and further provides new insights to familiar material for more experienced readers as well, scholars and lay readers alike.
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