Eric D. Huntsman, God So Loved the World: The Final Days of the Savior’s Life, Deseret Book, 2011.
More common than tinsel are wistful pleas to “put Christ back into Christmas,” but you’re more likely to find a brussel sprout in a plastic egg than someone reminding you to “put Christ back into Easter.” Which is a theologically vacant state of affairs, if you stop and think about it.
What would you do to put Christ back into Easter? How about starting with a book rich with ideas for study, contemplation, scripture reading, art, and music? Eric Huntsman has written just such a book, and if you are looking to emphasize Easter in your personal or family study, I recommend it. It is divided into chapters for each day of the last week of Jesus’ life (called “Holy Week” in some Christian traditions). Since the entire book is just over one hundred pages, each chapter is short enough to read on the relevant day during the week before Easter.
Each chapter contains gorgeous artwork on nearly every page, including some that are perhaps particularly lovely for being outside the norm for LDS art, including Grey Day at Golgoltha, The Meal in the House of the Pharisee, and Triplus, No. 3. So even though this is a book for adults, I could see reading it ahead of time and then summarizing key points while sharing the artwork with children each day of Holy Week.
There are also lots of crisp photographs here: some of traditional sites for key events and some of modern pilgrims visiting those sites. I’m not sure about the pilgrim pictures, as they tend to consist of a crowd of the backs of people’s heads, although I found the variety of headgear (red baseball caps to nun’s wimples) charming.
You won’t be surprised to learn how pleased I am that Huntsman made an effort to keep each gospel story separate instead of harmonizing them completely, and he does a fine job of showing how each writer shapes the story of Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection in unique ways. However, given that some of the audience for this book may never have considered the (often virtually impossible to reconcile) differences between the gospels, I wonder if someone expecting a total warm-fuzzy from a BYU Religious Education professor (published by Deseret Book, of course) is going to have a touch of cognitive dissonance when reading, for example, that Mark “delays” the story of the cleansing of the temple from one day to the next “for symbolic and literary reasons” (page 12) or “John differs from the other Gospels, however, in the timing of the dinner: while the synoptic Gospels make it clear that the Last Supper was a Passover meal, John indicates that the Passover began at sunset the next day, the day when Jesus was crucified.” (page 51, italics in original). The question naturally arises: If Mark or John could move an event to a different date, what other facts might have been changed, and how then can we trust the gospels? If you are reading T & S, you are probably familiar with these issues and their various possible solutions, but if you aren’t . . . I wish Huntsman had had a paragraph or two about how to process the implications. I’m all for inoculation, but there’s a reason they always have a band-aid and lolly pop ready immediately afterwards.
I could also quibble with some of the choices made regarding what to cover: dismissing the story of the widow’s mite in one sentence made my heart hurt, especially when nearly two pages (of a 135 page book) were devoted to the issue of where Jesus was buried.
But I hope those concerns won’t take away from what is definitely a remarkable book. Huntsman presents an interesting way of understanding Holy Week as framed by the two anointings of Jesus. While there is endless scholarly debate regarding how many separate anointings there were (see Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, Luke 7:36-50, and John 12:1-8), he chooses to read–at least symbolically–the anointing in John’s gospel as happening at the beginning of Holy Week, functioning as a kingly anointing, and introducing the royal themes that permeate the first part of the week. The anointing in Matthew and Mark is read separately, occurring on Wednesday, functioning as a priestly anointing, and introducing the priestly themes that fill the second half of the week. This is an intriguing reading, and while I’m not 100% convinced by it, I’m beyond overjoyed to see the anointing stories getting serious attention from LDS biblical scholars. (But I’m not exactly unbiased in any of this; I wrote my thesis on the anointing in Mark.)
Huntsman excels at teasing out the symbolism of the events that he recounts and the symbolic connections that he reveals are truly the highlight of the book. I could recite examples at length, but I don’t want you think you can skip this title because I gave you the crib sheet. He also has a sidebar with devotional considerations for each day.
He deals delicately but directly with situations where LDS authorities have staked out positions on various interpretive issues as a result of, we might suppose, their exposure to 19th century biblical scholarship instead of direct revelation. He does this with such finesse that most readers probably won’t even realize what is happening, but those of us familiar with the interpretive history will thank him for blazing a clear and gracious path.
I’ve focused on some interpretive and controversial issues in this review because that’s the kind of thing I notice since I’m a biblical studies geek. And other geeks will want to check this title out because of the way in which Huntsman is moving LDS NT studies forward in compelling directions. But for the rest of us (and I include myself here with my Mom hat on), this is a welcome volume that could easily and beneficially be incorporated into personal or family study to make Easter week something truly special.
(Two other reviews of this book are available here and here. Eric is apparently scheduled for something called “Ladies’ Night” at the DB in SLC during GC [boy, aren't we LDS thick with acronyms?], at least until his wife hears about it . . .)
Note: The publisher provided me with a review copy of this book. And Eric thanks me in the acknowledgments (unless that is some other Julie Smith; sometimes it is tricky, having such a common name).