A is for Alabaster
52 Reflections on the Stories of Scripture
by Anna Carter Florence
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Pub Date 03 Oct 2023 | Archive Date Not set
Beloved preacher and writer Anna Carter Florence brings winsome insight to an array of characters and stories in the Bible—some celebrated and some overlooked. From courageous Abigail to Zelophehad’s daughters, and from an alabaster jar of ointment to Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree, Florence takes readers on an enchanting tour of the Old and New Testaments with reflections that reveal ancient wisdom and spark imagination anew.
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The phrase A-to-Z is commonly used to give us a grasp of the scope of any particular topic. When we say, "Let me give you the A-to-Z of the matter," it simply means the salient points to help us appreciate the gist of the matter. It is a convenient way to use the alphabet to run down the list of things that we could share. It is not meant to be comprehensive. Rather, it is a popular framework to sample anything. In this book, author Anna Carter Florence adopts this framework to talk about the Old and the New Testaments. Altogether, there are 52 reflections, based equally on both testaments of the Bible. The purpose is to show us that just like God has participated and revealed Himself to His People over the ages, God is also present in our lives from A to Z. Inspired by Frederick Buechner's Peculiar Treasures, this book is originally written as a "Who's Who" in the Bible, the content has been expanded from just names and people to include animals, places, themes, objects, and other stories in the Bible. Each chapter begins with a letter, a Scripture passage, and a key theme as depicted by the word. From the context of the biblical passage, the author guides us through her reflections. From the ancient stories, she connects us to modern cultural sensitivities such as community, gender acceptance, nationhood, power politics, war, etc, to spiritual themes like grace, honesty, hope, patience, wisdom, etc. Some helpful reflections come from rare passages such as Numbers 27, animals from Genesis 2, Quirinius in Luke 2, allusions to the country of India in John 20, and so on. What we have is a delightful collection of reflections from both well-known and other relatively obscure parts of the Bible.
Let me give three broad thoughts about this book. First the depth of reflections. When I first read the first few pages of the book, I was surprised at the depth of reflection that goes beyond the standards of ordinary devotionals. There is a consistent grip on the big idea that is derived from the passage selected. For students of the Big-Idea Preaching method, this book is a godsend. Beginning with A for Abigail and ending with Z for Zelophehad's daughters, readers are treated to one of the best selections of seeing the big picture from the Bible passage concerned. The reflection on Abigail contrasts the wisdom of a wife and the folly of a selfish husband. The chapter on Zelophehad's daughters reminds us of the critical role of parents in passing on their stories about faith through history. The reflection strikes me as profound teachings of core biblical messages we all need to learn. Sometimes, even preachers tend to focus more on popular passages of the Bible in their preaching. By highlighting some of the less prominent verses, we can learn to move beyond the familiar toward the less studied portions of the Bible. I marvel at the frequency of sharing from the Book of Numbers. There are at least three references out of the 26 alphabet. For the chapter on Z, the author highlights the need for order in the midst of chaos.
Second, there is a pleasant breadth of coverage of the biblical story from A to Z. Not only are the letters used to describe key characters and events in the Bible, I notice a conscious orientation toward female characters. In spite of an ancient patriarchal society, there are essays written about Abigail, Esther, Naomi, Puah, the Queen of Sheba, Rahab, Tamar, and even the short-lived Queen Vashti. In fact, the number of male characters is disproportionately fewer. Not that I am gender-biased, I am simply intrigued by the emphasis. Is it because the author is a woman? Perhaps. Was this influenced by the recent rise of championing gender rights, such as the #MeToo movement? Maybe. Personally, I think it is a noble attempt to bring to the fore these female characters who have often been ignored. More importantly, if we could remember that male or female, we can learn from everyone. God's Word is for all people, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.
Third, I ask myself what the book has to say about the height of our relationship with God. My sense: Moderate. Compared to the focus on the various persons of character, the events of interest, and the historical lessons to bear, there is more description of Bible stories compared to any meditative inference on the Divine relationship with God. One of the objectives of the book is to realize that "God is everywhere in the stories." However, I feel that some of the connections from the alphabet to the Bible story do not necessarily make that connection clear enough. In other words, the A to Z of making these connections are wide and varied. They do not hit the mark all the time. There are some that are more explicit. One needs to be consciously mindful of this in order to sense the God connection. For example, in the chapter on Q, the Queen of Sheba, I need to make a sizable mental jump to connect the story with the Person of God. To be fair, some parts of Scripture are like that as well. For instance, the book of Esther does not even mention the name of God! Having said that, maybe if the author was to come up with a second edition of the book, she might want to choose topics that make it easier for the lay reader to connect the story with the Person of God.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed this book and would readily recommend it for all.
Anna Carter Florence is the Peter Marshall Professor of Preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. She is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); the author of several books, including Preaching as Testimony and Rehearsing Scripture: Discovering God’s Word in Community; and a frequent preacher and lecturer in the United States and abroad.
Rating: 4.25 stars out of 5.
This book has been provided courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press via NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.