These two books are part of the recent series, “Engaging Theology: Catholic Perspectives.” They are brief but comprehensive volumes by leading Catholic thinkers (according to the series editor, Tatha Wiley) on the central themes of the tradition: God, Jesus, Scripture, Anthropology, Church and Discipleship.
Gerard Sloyan is certainly an authority on Jesus! This short work—an amazing, very literate and accurate condensation of all important aspects of modern Christology—is the fruit of his earlier works: the now classic, Christ the Lord (1960) and Jesus in Focus: A Life in Its Setting (1983)…finally, The Jesus Tradition: Images of Jesus in the West (1986). The style of the writing is conversational and aimed at a general audience (the preface states that the series is meant to be an introductory course in theology), while including background material (on Judaism, modern scholarly methods, the Roman empire, etc.) that one would only expect from a much longer work. The topical headings are frequently literate rather than scholarly—such as “Jesus the Quintessential Jew”, to summarize Jesus’ Jewish background.
My own reaction as a teacher was both delight at Sloyan’s fresh approach to many topics (e.g. “developed short stories” for parables) and frustration at not at first finding expected discussions of the ‘first stage’ of oral tradition. For example, the section on Mark fluently presents Mark 1-3 as one continuous narrative about Jesus’ early teaching that in fact includes all the individual units. Overall a ‘good read’ and refreshing look at the whole range of material on Jesus—starting with the “Story of Israel”, Jesus’ infancy, his preaching, and the contents of the gospels and New Testament, finally, the Christological Councils.
Dianne Bergant’s volume on Scripture is also a valuable summary of the contents of Sacred Scripture (both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament) and background information (world “behind the text”) necessary to understand the Scriptures historically and critically. Her fourteen page summary of the whole historical background of both testaments (chapter 1: “Out of History”) peruses all the important information that a student of the Hebrew Scriptures (and introductions to the Old Testament such as B. Anderson’s) need to know, presented in a lucid style that emphasizes just the right points.
In three chapters she summarizes the background: “In a Place”, “About God” (a discussion of ‘images’, covenants, and worship—a quick ‘theology’ of each testament), and “From God” (the Bible as revelation). In part II (two chapters) she surveys modern scholarly terms (“What Kind of Book is it?”) and explains categories important to the believing community such the canon (“What Did They Believe”). Finally the most impressive part of the work in my opinion is part III: “What Does It Mean?” A first brief chapter summarizes ancient categories of interpretation (typology, allegory, midrash). A longer chapter (“How Do We Do It?”) is a very accurate and useful summary and critique of modern interpretative methods: from historical methods to “text-centered” approaches such as reader-response criticism. I would certainly recommend this work not only for adult bible discussion groups, but also as a kind of “Cliff Notes” version of an academic Introduction to the Bible or to either Testament.