The State of the Evangelical Mind

Shortly before the turn of the millennium, Mark A. Noll (then Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College) penned what amounted to a manifesto scolding the intellectual shallowness of American evangelicalism. He writes in his preface to his famous Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, “the thought has occurred to me… that… it is simply impossible to be, with integrity, both evangelical and intellectual.” This, of course, is not Noll’s stance, but a temptation that he confesses to as faced with a severe spiritual and intellectual crisis. Is it legitimately possible to live both these worlds?

The State of the Evangelical MindPerhaps I come to this book self-implicated, as a person brought up through the evangelical world and yet, as I presently find myself, striking out to live more fully in the intellectual / academic world, I too find Noll’s questions and concerns worth asking, even two decades on. As such, it is well past time that we re-consider the claims of Noll’s Scandal and ask whether the evangelical mind is still scandalously vacant, or if the cultural, social, and theological shifts of the early 21st century have proved beneficial for the movement? This new collection from IVP Academic seeks to address this question of contextualizing Noll twenty-five years later.

The Scandal, Reversed?

Perhaps the first question proposed by the interlocutors in this collections is the question of the very possibility of an evangelical mind. Mark Noll himself points for hope beyond the shuttering of Christianity Today’s Books & Culture. In the wake of Books & Culture‘s (premature, we say!) demise, new culturally-adept, intellectually-advanced sources of Christian thought and engagement have arisen, with several (here one thinks of Image Journal and Comment Magazine) that are either explicitly or implicitly evangelical in lean. The communities of evangelical thought whose minds were prepared by Books & Culture (and, so Noll notes, Reformed Journal) still exist in the wake of its demise, and they are still intellectually hungry.

So, too, we see, are the minds of the young evangelicals coming to college campuses and being prepared for study and for the world (and for mission) by organizations like Cru and InterVarsity. Here David C. Mahan and C. Donald Smedley’s essay on parachurch organizations serves as a useful insider-look for those unfamiliar with such ministries. (It should be noted that, as of the time of this review-writing, all reviewers at Theologian’s Library are present or former InterVarsity staff members.) Whereas the local church has struggled in preparing young people for the existential, epistemic, and ethical quandaries that present themselves in the university world, these ecumenical evangelical campus ministries invest tools and strategies that allow students to grow not only in their faith-walks but also in their intellectual development. (And Pew has some incredible statistics to this point as well.)

Beyond the secular university, Lauren Winner speaks laudably regarding the future of the Christian seminary, as well she should, representing Duke Divinity School, perhaps the only major seminary in the United States that lives at the boundaries between evangelicalism, mainline Protestantism, and the secular academy. In the church, Jo Anne Lyon, former general superintendent of the Wesleyan Church, speaks proudly of evangelical churches picking up, once again, those core Christian commitments to justice, mercy, radical generosity as a result of a renewal in Christian theology.

Is Evangelicalism… Healthy, Then?

That being said, there are some troubles underneath the thesis of a “renewing” evangelical mind. Sure, movements like InterVarsity or intellectual magazines like Image or institutions of Christian education like Duke or Seattle Pacific may represent some of the best and the brightest that evangelicalism has to offer, and, yet, … it does not necessarily follow that the evangelical mind is free from “scandal.”

Easily the best essay in this collection is the penultimate one written by James K.A. Smith. After five chapters of broadly positive contributions, uplifting and hopeful thoughts, Jamie Smith antagonizes the whole project. His challenges here, I think, are worthy ones that evangelicals need to highly consider, especially in light of the culminating corruption of our political gods. With an ever-growing #Exvangelical movement amid young adults (including those who loved, for instance, their campus ministries or university church groups), a serious question looms on the horizon for the evangelical church: is it worthwhile to be “evangelical”?

After all, as Smith reminds us, evangelicalism doesn’t hold the corner on Christian faith, let alone orthodox Christian faith (narrowly defined as creedal belief). There is a worldwide Christianity that is far more diverse, far more complex, and far less caught up in America’s self-importance than this subdivision we find ourselves within. Smith’s contention is that the future of the evangelical mind is actually a rediscovery of the catholic Christian mind, a Christianity defined by our core confession rather than our debated peripherals.

This, in some sense, challenges the notion that there should be an “evangelical” mind, however. If the growths in evangelical intellectualism has moved more evangelicals toward, for instance, Anglicanism or Catholicism or Orthodoxy, or the strides made by evangelical academics have been made in, as another example, mainline institutions like Duke or Yale, then the question remains whether these count as victories for the “evangelical” mind or for the Christian mind, the catholic mind? Could it be that what Noll sought as an “evangelical” mind is really just a Christian mind beyond the narrow confines of evangelicalism? Or is this just the result of the complicated wrestling for the identity of evangelicalism that is currently being fought?

To put it in perhaps more stark terms, is [American] evangelicalism simply the non-denominational Baptist theology of Billy Graham propagated for a wide variety of communities, or is it deeper than that? can it include the Presbyterians, the Lutherans, and the Anglicans? can it include its liberal / progressive political wing? can it include theories of atonement beyond the penal variety of substitution? This is really what is at stake in Smith’s essay: is “evangelical” a broad term, or a narrow one? And if narrow, then should we be seeking its intellectual renewal, or, instead, seek to re-insert ourselves into the continuity of the Church catholic?

Final Thoughts

As I finished this collection, I found myself in two minds. As an evangelical thinker formed by my time as a student and staff member in InterVarsity, I have seen firsthand the fruits that Mahan and Smedley have pointed to in their essays. And, yet, I too, like Smith, question [American] evangelicalism’s capacity to move beyond its present spiritual and intellectual quagmire. But the debate is a live one, still unfolding, and I appreciate this volume and these voices who are continuing to wrestle with the future of the evangelical mind. In another twenty years, who knows what may happen? Image Journal (currently lead by Smith as editor-in-chief), CommentChristianity Today, the academic printing presses (IVP, Baker, Eerdmans, etc.) may yet save the evangelical mind; or it may change beyond recognition, either into further politicized corruption or into catholicity.

The State of the Evangelical Mind
ed. Todd C. Ream, Jerry Pattengale, Christopher J. Devers
IVP Academic, 2018. 180pp.

I would like to thank InterVarsity Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.

 

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Twelve Lies that Hold America Captive

Jonathan Walton is not the first voice to speak on the disastrous consequences of marrying Christian faith to American nationalism, nor is he the most prominent (if you’re not in the InterVarsity club, this will likely be the first you’ve read him). He doesn’t analyze every last subclaim to its final epistemology, nor elaborate on assertions left hanging. He is not the only prophetic voice calling out and warning of danger.

But goodness gracious he is, without a doubt, the most Christlike of these prophets. How often do we hear so-called “prophets” repeating the same false promises they denounce? How often, in the rejection of a maxim, do we see the “prophets” living the very values they reject? We have, I fear, become inured to the image of the professional hypocrite, whether they be “radical Christians” whose “radicality” opts for violence against their political opponents, or “conservatives” whose “conservatism” defends systems of anti-Christ values. Jonathan Walton beats to the tune of a different drum altogether, and, praise the Lord!, it is the drum of the crucified Nazarene.

“White American Folk Religion”

Twelve Lies could be summed as a cultural exegesis of the beliefs and values of an idolatrous atheological system that Walton terms “White American Folk Religion,” or WAFR, for short. To make his case for its atheology he presents twelve claims that this belief system advocates, from the obviously idolatrous (“America is the Greatest Nation on Earth”) to the more subtly so (“We are a Nation of Immigrants”).

Even in the earliest moments of the book, he pulls no punches regarding the possible controversies in his topics: he opens with optimistic feelings regarding former Pres. Obama and overt critiques of Pres. Trump, he discusses his blackness with unapologetic clarity, and he jumps straight in on the issue of police brutality. Then, with prescient attentiveness to his possible readership, he adds: “To stop reading here because you disagree is cowardice.”

Walton does not pussy-foot around; he is acutely aware that the crisis of mixing civic religion with biblical faith has reached a climax that demands serious repentance. To that point, he makes some edges sharp, some points cutting.

A Personal Prophet

Jonathan Walton

That being said, there would be little difference between Walton’s book and so many others, whose voices add to the cantankerous spirit of our day, if it were not that his response is so… … personal. Embedded in every chapter of Twelve Lies is more than political theology and critique; there is also personal stories of the work of the Holy Spirit, the movement of God, and Walton’s own confessionals. This book is not a soapbox of Walton’s political ideals (although one could reconstruct his angles on certain key issues): this book is a public confession regarding the supernatural work of God through His Gospel, His Spirit, His People in healing a man from the lies that have sought his destruction.

What makes Walton’s argument against our American atheologies, against WAFR, so effective at the end of the day is that he does not replace it with a rival “folk religion,” as so many of our pundits often do. In fact, his critiques cross political lines. When the American GDP is worshiped by Right and Left, when our Freedom or our Greatness or whatever other sinful overdetermination we have applied to ourselves becomes our all-encompassing visions, Walton’s book here re-adjusts our vision to focus on Jesus Himself.

Walton’s call is not to a specific theological or political brand or identity; it is to the life that is only found in the Wounded Healer.

Concluding Thoughts

Twelve Lies

It strikes me that some will pick up Twelve Lies and immediately disregard it because they feel something like their “identity” at risk. Like Walton, I want to say, “Press in, don’t look away.” Maybe it is okay for your conservatism or your liberalism to be at risk for the sake of Jesus. Maybe these precommitments are a greater risk to you than you know. In the New Testament, the Apostle John says it best: “Little children, keep away from idols.” (I John 5:21) It is with such tenderness and intensity that Twelve Lies lands on the heart, and I highly recommend it for all believers seeking to engage the tensions between Christianity and the values of this world.

Twelve Lies That Hold America Captive
Jonathan Walton
InterVarsity Press, 2019. 213pp.

I would like to thank InterVarsity Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.

 

Oh, the Humanity! The Challenges of Being Human, Together

A couple pieces of media that I engaged with yesterday and today have got me thinking. One seems harmless enough while the other is on front pages everywhere and yet in their basic motivations and psychological factors they seem to be quite similar.

920x920
A shot from the film Eighth Grade, which perfectly captures the way relational dynamics work today, especially for teens and pre-teens.

The first piece that I watched yesterday was the movie Eighth Grade, a film that would be entirely unremarkable in its portrayal of pre-pubescence if it wasn’t for the fact that it captures what growing up is like in the age of the 24-hour feedback loop of teenage connection. It shows all of the stereotypical anxieties of teens and pre-teens that have been true since at the least the 60’s and the age of authenticity but now magnified exponentially by new avenues of “connection” and narcissism. No longer can teens and pre-teens escape the crushing pressure of fitting in once the bell rings at 3:00 pm but rather they take the middle school hallway with them in their pocket when they go back to their parent’s car.

I graduated high school in 2005, maybe one or two years before the smart phone was mass released and watching Eighth Grade, I was profoundly grateful that I wasn’t born any earlier. (I just checked, Jobs announced the iPhone in January of 2007.) So for Kayla, the protagonist in the film, not only is she humiliated when she is named “Most Quiet” in the 8thgrade superlative assembly, she also goes home and in a devastatingly lonely moment, isolated in her bedroom, makes one of her YouTube videos, confesses that, “I don’t really know if anyone even really watches these videos.” Whereas I used to be able to go home after the final bell, maybe thinking about all of the moments in the day where I missed out on what everyone else was doing, I would be able to forget after watching an episode of Arrested Development, because I wasn’t worried about how many times my phone would buzz in my pocket or how many thumbs up I was getting on some website. It’s one thing for adults to say who cares or get over it but if we think back to what that time of life was like, it’s simply not that easy.

Grieving-members
Men outside of Christchurch who show us that the online world has devastatingly human consequences.

The second event that I heard about yesterday but didn’t read anything about until this morning’s paper was the shooting in Christchurch. The details of the mass murder reveal that the young man responsible for the killing those gathered for prayer in the two mosques was unhinged from reality because of his time and the murderer, just before going in to the mosque says, “Remember, lads, subscribe to PewDiePie” a reference to a YouTube internet meme. One struggles to even know how it’s possible that a person could say something like that in such a moment. The only possible explanation is the extent to which they are enmeshed in the online world and have given up real life for a virtual one. The New York Timeswrites that it is a shooting “disturbingly rooted in the internet” and quotes a remark from by the murderer on 8chan, a discussion site, where he describes his soon to be action as a “real life effort post”.

Now admittedly, these two situations are worlds apart in their motivations and real-world consequences, but at their core they seem to be rooted in the same need for acceptance and recognition. It’s often reported now that emergency rooms are seeing a rise in attempted suicide rates for young people and that experts see a link between the increase in suicide rates in the last ten years and the pressure of being online.

So the question is how can Christians make sure it is known that true acceptance and belonging is found in Christ and in a community of believers? How can pastors let people who sit in their pews know that to feel true acceptance, one must surrender to God and also to the difficulties of being in real, messy community with one another. It would be a beautiful thing if churches could be the place where teens look up from their phone screen and see a real avatar (a person!) with a real emoji on their face (a smile!) welcoming them in to the community to be seen, known, and loved. Because it’s evident now that the lack of real flesh and blood relationships is having horrible effects on our world.

 

Note: I do recognize the hypocrisy of saying this online of all places. But I wanted to try and connect some thought that the past 24 hours have brought. I will, however, see you at Christ Church Mission on Johnson Drive tomorrow in flesh and blood!

Losing My Religion – A memoir from an Orthodox Priest

Losing My Religion
Losing My Religion, a 2018 memoir by William C. Mills, gives a humble picture of the beauty and pain of life in community.

Last month the Roman curia took the extraordinary step of calling a meeting of bishops in order to address the horrific sex abuse scandals that have undermined the world’s faith in the oldest and most venerable institution in the West.

Everyday, it seems, the headlines are filled with scandalous new revelations or accusations, announcements of inquisitions and depositions, and poignant pictures of parishioner abused by those placed in positions of trust and authority. One shudders to think of the words of judgment that they will receive from the lips of the Righteous Judge when the day comes where they will be held to account for their actions.

It’s a bit bizarre then to read William Mill’s book Losing My Religion in which suffering occurs to a priest at the hands of the church faithful. Now I will say that I was disappointed in how mundane the conflict Mills describes was which ultimately led to “a third of his congregation leav[ing] in a public power play.”

I was hoping for some kind of captivating power grab or a scandal involving his decision to remain true to the Nicene Creed when a parishioner was screaming for an acknowledgement of the truth of Arianism (I’m a nerd, I know); alas, the conflict involved nothing more than an aggressive deacon publicly berating Mills for an increase to his salary.

Reading the episode, I couldn’t help but think that if Mills would have stood up and calmly, yet directly confronted the antagonist, then all would have likely returned to normal. Mills, for whatever reason, remains in his seat, silent: “The more Walter talked the more I became passive,” he says. “Was this a sign that I should leave?”

One jerk rudely excoriating a pastor in front of the elders of the church is not a sign that a pastor should leave. And yet this episode truly has a massive impact on Mill’s life. One can’t help feeling sympathetic and exasperated at him in the same moment.

I felt that way often as I read the book. The story of Mills seeing his future parish and meeting the parish council is hilarious, heartbreaking, and pathetic all at the same time. There were confusing moments: “is that person just introduced his secretary, his wife, a friend?  Wait, it’s his wife that he’s just named at the beginning of a chapter a third of the way through the book without even so much as a mention of her anywhere previously?”

But there were also profound moments. The true gift of Mill’s book, though, is in its normality and its simplicity.  There are wonderful descriptions of Mill’s parents, his childhood priest, his childhood home and everyday life growing up in an Eastern Orthodox parish. Here’s a description of an Easter vigil gathering:

The serviced ended around one o’clock in the morning and we’d all go downstairs and Father Paul would walk around the hall blessing Easter baskets. After he was done we would sit down together and share our food. The smell was overpowering —table after table filled with smoked sausage, ham, pork roasts, homemade farmers cheese, hard boiled eggs [sic], freshly baked breads, and sweet deserts. People brought along wine, beer, and vodka to share too.

It makes you want to be a part of a community where you can experience such remarkable, ordinary moments, doesn’t it?

Losing My Religion is a book that you might read in one sleepy long afternoon; grateful that its language has slowed your pace of life down and allowed you to remember your childhood church with all of its smells and the smiles of its hardworking, warm-hearted, everyday people.

I’ll end with a quote that seems to capture Mill’s honest simplicity quite well: “I learned that my job isn’t to change people, but to encourage and inspire them, that’s all I can do.”

 

Book Review: Conformed to the Image of His Son

Conformed to the Image of His Son
Haley Goranson Jacob
IVP Academic, 2018. 302pp.

There is a dirty little secret in academia that folks do not like to talk about, mainly because it will discourage the doctoral candidates. Dissertations make for terrible monographs. That does not mean that dissertations are impossible to publish, of course: there is one publisher in particular, Mohr Siebeck, that has a series practically dedicated to the promulgation of dissertations. But, typically speaking, a dissertation is not suitable for publication.

Haley Goranson JacobThus, when I began reading Haley Goranson Jacob’s first monograph, heralded as it was by N.T. Wright (who, we might note, was her adviser at St. Andrews), I was skeptical. Dissertations, after all, are written with a different audience in mind, with different assumptions and standards, even with different goals, than monographs (see a more thorough discussion on this here). In a dissertation, for one, the budding scholar attempts to convince their doctoral committee that they have truly mastered the topics of their study with such thoroughness and quality that they deserve to hold the title of “doctor of philosophy.” As such, whereas a monograph might only deal with a pared-down bibliography, a dissertation must use a robust, even at times overfilled, one. Likewise, because a dissertation needs to engage with the present reception of a given academic topic it can also become disconnected to audiences who are less interested with the debates of the ivory tower.

Much to my surprise (and joy!), Haley Jacob’s Conformed to the Image of His Son evades both these problems as stands on its own two feet as an exemplary presentation of high-quality scholarship that is, nevertheless, useful for the non-academic theologian or theological practitioner. While it retains much of its dissertation-like quality — after all, Jacob’s bibliography is 26 pages long, which might be a record for IVP — she has done a magnificent job of taking in-depth exegetical research, complicated nuanced argumentation, and theological interventions and presenting them in a such a way that Romans-readers will never read chapter 8 the same way again. That is a feat worth celebrating.

“The hope of glory…”

At its core, Conformed to the Image of His Son is as thorough an exegesis as possible engaging the titular phrase from Romans 8:29b: “συμμόρφους τῆς εἰκόνος τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ…” This central verse is handled for its component pieces (what does “conformity” mean? what does “the image of His Son” mean?), in its Romans 8 context, and with broader theological considerations. Of especial interest is the concluding term of Ro. 8:30, ἐδόξασεν, and its root, δόξα. For Jacob, bringing together conformity to the image of God’s Son and the glorification that awaits the people of God is crucial for interpreting this pillar of Paul’s argumentation.

Surprisingly, then, Jacob’s literature review finds very few who consider these terms in relation with one another. If there’s a big takeaway from her justifiably critical engagements with Romans commentators it is most certainly that very few are as careful interlocutors with Paul as they claim to be. This is not because Jacob has an adversarial agenda nor because her bibliography too small; on the contrary, she is extraordinarily fair even to commentators whose precommitments are far afield from her own, and, as I mentioned earlier, her bibliography has left no stones unturned. What is surprising, actually, is what Jacob’s review reveals: how rarely Protestant assumptions regarding glory, conformity, and even the meaning, here, of “His Son” are questioned, and how often commentators propose solutions without much scholarly proof.

Jacob, on the other hand, takes a much more careful, slowly realized, approach. She dedicates the beginning chapters to investigating the relationships between the NT’s δόξα and the OT’s כָּב֥וֹד, engaging with the apocalyptic interpretations of “glory” in Daniel and 1 Enoch, and then approaching the term in the NT and the Pauline corpus in particular. From all this evidence, Jacob lands at her first essential jab at all previous Pauline scholarship: glory has more to do with God’s divine kingship than with His radiant [i.e. shiny] presence.

“And those whom He predestined…”

From there, Jacob charts a course of applying this interpretation of glory to Paul’s letters and the concept of conformity. It’s a nuanced and complicated argument, so I’ll leave my readers to read Jacob for her own claims. What is suitable to say here, however, is that Jacob’s rereading of the Pauline corpus in light of her discussion on δόξα reveals a facet to Christian glorification that has rarely been touched upon: that of co-regency with Christ on this side of the Eschaton.

When theologians and pastors discuss the “Kingdom of God,” it is typical (these days, at least) to use the phrase “the Now and the Not-Yet.” Often, justification and sanctification are seen as parts of the “Now” and glorification as part of the “Not Yet,” with “Kingdom theology” existing somewhere between the two. Jacob’s reading of glory puts glorification, radically, as a present reality (albeit, one that is not yet completed). Those familiar with Paul’s proto-ordo salutis in Ro. 8:30 will be familiar with his “golden chain”: “And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (RSV)

Of course, all of this is in seed-form in the early half of her project. Much time is spent investigating all of the various pieces from contemporary interpretation of Ro. 5-8 to glorification to a very intriguing engagement with Michael Gorman’s concept of “cruciformity” and some insightful adaptations of Hays’ “echoes” and Tooman’s categories for understanding how Scripture utilizes Scriptures. Jacob even takes a stab at troublesome verses like Ro. 8:28, proposes a vocational-participatory conclusion for Ro. 8 as a whole, and upends (with plethora of evidences) an endless array of dogmatic assumptions. There truly is a lot in this volume!

“Conformed to the image of His Son…”

Altogether, Conformed to the Image of His Son is a stimulating read filled with high-quality scholarship, making for a worthy first-entry in this young scholar’s career. It is without a doubt one of the cleanest dissertations I’ve ever read adapted for publication. For those who may be questioning whether or not they might understand Jacob’s more nuanced arguments, I’d also add that the lexicon and concordance charts on pp. 36-39 are worth the price of admission alone! I will never go to a NT text involving δόξα without them. For the responsible preacher, this book is a must.

That being said, Jacob’s carefulness and close-reading lends her writing to a level of dry scholarly repetition that some readers might find tedious. Those who are not up-to-date with contemporary NT scholarship might find themselves lost, and even those adept with Greek might find the book too daunting. This is all no fault of Jacob’s; the nature of her work demands the intensity of scholarship that this book represents. But even for those readers, I suspect Jacob has something for them. The non-academic / non-bookish pastor should at the very least thumb through and find some of the gold nuggets, even if they do not wish to commit to reading it in full.

Conformed to the Image of His SonWhat is so revolutionary about Jacob’s thesis is that it is at once so surprising — no Protestant theologian (to my knowledge) has ever suggested that “the telos of salvation… is… glorification”! — and, yet, thanks to her incredibly precise and complete account, so sensible. It does not feel like a ground shift (it should!), since Jacob so thoroughly accounts for it from Paul’s thought, the apocalyptic literature, and the Old Testament.

I wholeheartedly commend Jacob’s scholarship; I am convinced that no future scholarship on Romans can ever again gloss over glorification now that she has put the spotlight on it.

I would like to thank InterVarsity Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.

 

Book Review: George MacDonald in the Age of Miracles

George MacDonald in the Age in Miracles
Timothy Larsen
IVP Academic, 2018. 142pp.

As a book reviewer, it has been typical for me to present books that “caught my eye,” that have some kind of special spark or significance to me, and then present them as I have found them to be, with all their strengths and imperfections. Some meet or exceed expectations and others have fallen woefully low.

But I must put this present fare from Timothy Larsen, McManis Professor Christian Thought at Wheaton College, in another book-review category altogether. As a lifelong admirer of George MacDonald, as a member of a grad school Bible study who called ourselves “The George MacDonald Fan Club,” and as someone who has spent considerable intellectual energy on MacDonald over the past three years, I picked up this volume knowing that my response to it would be emotionally and intellectually charged. There is simply too much at stake for us MacDonald-ites to write in the conventional “unbiased uninvolved” manner. I knew when I requested it for review that this would either be a work of academic excellence or it would fall into a deep vat of mediocrity.

Refreshing, Invigorating Scholarship At Its Best

One reason why such a book could be so dichotomous has been the absolute horrid state of MacDonald scholarship in the preceding decade. For every quality essay or article or book section entry, there are at least ten more that are poorly-written, poorly-researched, and poorly-implemented. This is not unique to MacDonald, of course; it is symptomatic throughout the literary scholarship on fantasy writers in general. One sees the same few threads, the same few arguments, repeated ad nauseum, until the literary scholar begins to question: Is it worth continuing to study fantasy at all? Often it can feel like the study of certain fantasy writers (including MacDonald alongside Carroll or Lewis or Tolkien, etc.) has gone as far as it needs to be and that there is nothing worthwhile to ask anymore.

Timothy Larsen, however, brings some incredible new resources to the conversations surrounding MacDonald. Working from the angle of a historian of Victorian religious culture, Larsen unfolds three accounts for how MacDonald’s thought — explicitly stated in his Unspoken Sermons and private letters; implicitly deployed in his fictions, fairy tales, and fantasies — engages and contends with the broader socio-theological context of Victorian England. The MacDonald who emerges from this historicizing framework is a more robust, more realistic, and more human figure than the one most MacDonald-ites are familiar with (e.g. the Christ-like MacDonald of Lewis’ The Great Divorce).img_2889

For the first time in my experience reading MacDonald scholarship — and, for full disclosure, I wrote a full-length master’s thesis on the man! — I actually felt re-invigorated to do more research, more reading, and more investigating. Whereas so many scholars in MacDonald’s field take him and his words at face-value, Larsen’s studies here really uncover the subtext and context of MacDonald’s life and work in such a way that makes his writings come to life in an even more vigorous fashion.

Re-enchantment in a Secularizing, Victorian World

The format of the book follows a series of three lectures, with respondents, written by Larsen for the Hansen Lectureship Series at Wheaton College. Each lecture takes on a theme of Victorian culture and follows that theme in MacDonald’s writings. The themes here should seem pretty familiar to us, as they are themes that have recurred throughout modernity: the tension between Redemption and Incarnation; the conflict between Faith and Doubt; and, lastly, the need for Re-enchantment in a Dis-enchanted world. These lecture-essays constitute something like a Charles-Taylor-in-miniature. In fact, setting aside the need for a thoroughly-philosophical account, I’d recommend Larsen’s essays here as a suitable (and more readable) replacement for A Secular Age.

Timothy LarsenLarsen’s familiarity with Victorian culture allows him the ability to comment on MacDonald with verve and context, constantly reminding readers that the Christianized Victorian world of our Dickensian memories is an illusion at best. MacDonald is pictured as an artful enchanter in a world where the Industrial Revolution’s cultural upheaval has brought to question the assumptions of Christian Britain. Various theological crises of the day and age are put under the microscope. I especially enjoyed the interplay of the Evangelical movement’s newfound (at that time) love for the doctrine of the Incarnation in contrast to their previous dedication to the doctrine of Redemption. MacDonald’s deep love for Christmas, privileging it beyond Easter, fits in a broader socio-theological conversation debated in Victorian Evangelical (and Nonconformist) churches.

Final Thoughts

I have a lot more to say about this small book. The respondents’ short essays are each worth the read, especially when they “improvise on the theme” rather than simply extrapolating from Larsen’s lecture. Even though a respondents’ essay is considered a “minor” work in academic circles, I’d commend each of these three essays as quality MacDonald work and more interesting than most of the academic work already done on him. Larsen’s emphasis on the realist work of MacDonald — David ElginbrodAdela CathcartWhat’s Mine’s Mine, and Thomas Wingfold, Curate — fills out a field of MacDonald discourse that is often neglected, while his historical perspectives put MacDonald’s works on the imagination (from A Dish of Orts, etc.) in conversation with his context, something I personally think crucial for understanding his writings. There are even some surprises in store for long-time MacDonald fans (for instance, Larsen refutes Greville MacDonald’s assertion that his father was removed from the ministry for his theology).

Altogether, while I especially recommend this collection for MacDonald scholarship, it is a good read for MacDonald-ites of all shapes and sizes. Whether a reader has an academic or personal interest in MacDonald, they’ll find that Larsen’s lecture-essays bring a new depth, breadth, and vibrancy to a writer whose work is already deep and mysterious.

I would like to thank InterVarsity Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.

Book Review: Religion and Human Enhancement

Religion and Human Enhancement: Death, Values and Morality
Ed. Tracy J. Trothen and Calvin Mercer
Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. 377pp.

While society mostly considers transhumanism a fringe movement based on science-fiction concepts, technology continues to shape humanity. Technologies that enable lifespan extension, cognitive enhancement, and precise gene editing in humans are not far off. The Church must be prepared to offer a response to transhumanism and the technologies of human enhancement, lest individuals and communities uncritically embrace technologies simply due to societal trends. A groundswell of Christian thinkers engaging these issues from a variety of perspectives appears to be building. Earlier this year the Christian Transhumanist Association held its first conference and hosted radical lifespan extension advocate Aubrey de Grey. In Religion and Human Enhancement, scholars from a variety of religious traditions engage issues around human enhancement technologies.

Because this volume includes contributions from several different religious perspectives, many of the essays argue from beliefs and presuppositions that conflict with orthodox Christianity. Several chapters, however, should be given serious attention by Christian theologians.9783319624877.jpg

For Christians unfamiliar with transhumanism, this book introduces many of the concepts and technologies that are commonly discussed. Ron Cole-Turner helpfully outlines the ways that secular transhumanism is opposed to Christian theology and proposes a way forward for “Christian transhumanism.” In this model, God’s gracious transformation of individuals and the cosmos occurs through technology. Cole-Turner takes seriously the embodied nature of the Christian faith and challenges Christians to see God at work through technology, not for the sake of “self-improvement or self-enhancement [but]…self-surrender that opens up the possibility of gracious transformation.” While I find much of value in Cole-Turner’s work here, I remain unconvinced that Christians can embrace a form of transhumanism.

Brent Waters offers perhaps the most contrarian essay, “Is Transhumanism a Distraction? On the Good of Being Boring.” Waters builds on the work of Albert Borgmann to consider the mundane activities of life as focal things that are formational and not superfluous. Waters notes that transhumanists have little to say about housekeeping, yet routine (and tedious) tasks shape individuals and families as they engage bodily in the daily and weekly rhythms of household upkeep. Children are not given chores simply to lighten the load of parents, but also to teach responsibility. Even preparing and eating a meal is avoided by some transhumanists who instead adopt a bland diet filled with supplements to enhance longevity. Waters defends the mundane practices as essential to a human life well-lived. Through the engagement of heart, soul, mind, and strength, we are formed into people ready to serve a world in need, rather than those who expect desires to be filled on demand.

Other notable contributions include critiques of moral bioenhancement from Celia Deane-Drummond and Todd T. W. Daly, as well as a consideration of the fear of death latent in transhumanism by Noreen Herzfeld. 

As editor Tracy Trothen notes in the book’s conclusion, “Now is the time for sustained grappling with the implications of human enhancement.” Technologies of human enhancement are coming quickly and our modern world has already embraced a transhumanist mindset in many ways (a subject I hope to write more on soon). Christian theology and ethics must be brought to bear on these issues so that the church is equipped to respond well when the time comes. What does it mean to be human, and what is God’s vision for humanity? I look forward to reading and reviewing the next volume in this series from Palgrave—Christian Perspectives on Transhumanism and the Church—in which solely Christian scholars reflect on technology and the future of humanity.

Book Review: Early Christian Readings of Genesis One

Early Christian Readings of Genesis One
Craig D. Allert
IVP Academic, 2018. 330pp.

In recent years, there has been quite a resurgence in evangelical circles of “returning to the Church Fathers.” Reformed Christians champion St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom, while those allured toward Eastern Orthodoxy quote at length the prodigious contemplations of the Cappadocian Fathers, and everyone, Christian or not, loves to share the meme of the real St. Nicholas, “bringing gifts and punching heretics.”

It is not surprising, in the midst of such a resurgence, to encounter a wide variety of adaptations of the Church Fathers for a wide variety of ends. Augustine is particularly famous for this: one could take his Confessions as a mark of approval for all existentialist philosophy, or for Platonism, or for Calvinism, or for credobaptism, or for just war theory, or what-have-you. Even those mired in the “Creation-vs.-Evolution” debate have leaned into the Church Fathers for inspiration, resulting in a rigid six-day, thoroughly historical interpretation of Genesis 1, as per, these debaters assert, St. Basil’s or Efrem the Syrian’s literalism.

To the Fathers’ rescue comes Craig D. Allert, with this useful entry on the Ancient Church’s hermeneutics. Those from Ken Hamm’s sector who would adapt the Fathers for the sake of rigid Creationism, Allert asserts, succeed only in misrepresenting the views of the Church Fathers and only further muddy the waters. Concerned for the Fathers’ late-modern reception, Allert proposes a close look at various cross-sections of the Genesis 1 debate and divulges their true usefulness in a book that I am sure will allow the patristic novice new access to the works of the Fathers.

Background: Hermeneutical Considerations

From the beginning, Allert finds he needs to clarify some hermeneutical terms and conditions first and foremost. For the reader familiar with philosophical hermeneutics (see: James K.A. Smith, The Fall of Interpretation, for instance), this section can be skipped over; but for the student unfamiliar with some of the complexities regarding hermeneutics and interpretation, this section serves as an invaluable introduction to some of the issues at stake in the “literalist” debate.Early Christian Readings of Genesis One

Here Allert has really put his thumb on what is undoubtedly one of the most significant issues in modern hermeneutics today, rightly discerning that when someone like Ken Hamm says “literal” or “as it is read” that they are, in reality, imputing foreign information into their text, as though it were truly as obvious as they say it is. Without needing to rely on too many heady philosophical terms, Allert deftly upturns some of the claims of the “Grammatical-Historical” school of interpretation, interrogates the doctrine of the “perspicuity” of the Scriptures, and reminds the reader, constantly, that the world of the Ancient Church is, simply put, worlds away from our experience.

Creating distance between the hermeneutical frames of the Church Fathers and that of Grammatical-Historical interpreters, Allert establishes a solid foundation for re-engaging with the words of the Fathers themselves, allowing them to speak in their own defense regarding the conversation on Genesis 1.

Literally Literal?

The premiere father to be cast into claims of literalism is St. Basil the Great, one particularly noted for his homilies on the Creation, The Hexaemeron. In this famous collection of sermons, Basil says explicitly: “let [the text] be understood as it is written.” (Hex. 9.1) He refutes those who would read “grass” as anything other than “grass,” or who would read “waters” as anything besides “waters.” Surely, suggest some, Basil understands Genesis to be a literally literal description of all the details of God’s creative activity, right?

And, yet, aside from this proof text, as Allert shows his readers, it would appear that Basil himself, as opposed to the claims made on his behalf, participates in what some might call an “allegorical,” rather than “literal,” method for interpreting the days of Genesis. In Homily 6, Basil discusses God’s creation of the sun, moon, and stars, and he begins contemplating the difference between the sun and the moon to discuss the difference between God and mankind. One is unchanging and constant, the other changeable and dynamic.

In short, as Allert demonstrates adequately, it would seem that Basil is not the “literalist” he’s cracked up to be. Rather, when he speaks of the “plain text” of the word, he’s in particular opposing a group of allegorizers who have a particular (and heretical) aim in mind. Basil, for one, demonstrates that the option of reading Genesis 1 allegorically or symbolically ought to still be a live option.

This kind of approach continues as Allert engages with the more tricky question of how the ancient Fathers, and Basil in particular, deal with the topic of the seven days of Creation, the topic of time, the origins of light, and other sub-topics in the broader scheme of the Creation story.

The Beginning of the Beginning

One of the highlights of this book is the chapter dedicated to St. Augustine’s views on Creation. In all honesty, one of the few critiques I have of Allert’s book is that it feels like he’s set too grand a task for himself: a survey of the claims of all the Church Fathers? In reality, it feels like he barely has room to cover the two he highlights, Basil and Augustine! It would be worthwhile, I think, for Allert to take the groundwork he’s laid here with this general overview book and write two focused monographs on just Basil and Augustine’s views.craig-allert

That being said, the chapter on Augustine gives a really interesting angle into the whole debate. For one, as most readers familiar with Augustine know, his On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis is perhaps the biggest opponent of any modern-day “literal” interpretation. Allert does a fantastic job of summarizing two of Augustine’s more sublime and philosophically nuanced bits of writing, his discussion on the nature of time from The Confessions and his discussion on the creation of light from City of God.

Augustine is a very different kind of writer than Basil, so the compare-contrast between the two and how they both engage in a variety of hermeneutical interventions is fascinating to see. One of Allert’s stronger accomplishments in this book is to allow these Church Fathers to speak in dialogue with one another, simply by giving their words space to breathe.

Final Thoughts

Altogether, Early Christian Readings of Genesis One is a worthwhile read, especially for those unfamiliar with either patristic exegesis or with ancient cosmological assumptions. Allert could have done with less jabs at AiG (and other young earth creationists); as is often true, an argument framed against an interlocutor can sometimes be less persuasive than one that is more positive (it is better to promote an idea than to fight its opposite). Fortunately, after his introductory sections, Allert dispenses with referring back to his originating battle and focuses on the texts at-hand, which are far more interesting.

The sheer bibliographic value of this book for the sake of those new to reading Basil and Augustine, in particular, is immense. Those who read the Fathers are often overwhelmed by how dense their writings can be, and how hard it is to find one’s place. Allert has here collected a solid chunk of primary source materials that can be returned to by the reader time and again.

In the end, Allert’s thesis is rock-solid. We simply cannot assume that the Fathers mean “literal” the same way we do, and Allert has done a good job of demonstrating the cracks in such “literalist” claims by letting the Fathers talk. This is a suitable introductory book for beginners interested in either the Church Fathers or the historic interpretation of the Book of Genesis.

I would like to thank InterVarsity Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.

Book Review: Disruptive Witness

Disruptive Witness
Alan Noble
InterVarsity Press, 2018. 189pp.

It is quite apparent to anyone paying much attention that the world of late-modern Western capitalism is ever-the-more distracted, confusing, and messy. And, in the midst of all that messiness, the Western Christian Church finds itself languishing. It is all-too-easy to point the fingers of “poor doctrine” or “weak discipleship” when this languishing is occurring across the spectrums of “good,” “bad,” and “ugly.” For ages evangelicals have pointed at the mainline’s decline in membership and blamed it on their politics; recent polls show that the Southern Baptist Convention  – America’s largest evangelical denomination – is on just-as-serious a decline.

Disruptive Witness

Perhaps, then, the decline of the Church in the modernized, secularized West has far less to do with that of weakening or stagnant or calcifying dogmas, perhaps it has far less to do with where one lands on the mainline-to-evangelical plotline, and more to do with our context. Maybe the ground has shifted under our feet, and we do not yet recognize it.

A Secular (and Liturgical) Age

Alan Noble, in his debut work, sees this trajectory, and, translating the work of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and James K.A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies for a more general audience, takes careful aim in how to dismantle and address the impacts and effects of the secular culture. Especially for readers unfamiliar with Taylor’s landmark work, Noble’s summations will be invaluable general theological-philosophical introductions (A Secular Age is, after all, *that* daunting 800+ page book on your shelf that you spent $40-$50 on, but are unsure you’ll be reading anytime soon), as will Noble’s adjustments to the commonly-received “worldview” terminology used by evangelical missiologists (ad nauseum).

By articulating a missiology in the midst of Taylor, Smith, and in contradistinction to “worldview” approaches, Noble very carefully – and successfully – attempts to carve out an evangelism-within-the-secular that does not reproduce the secular’s own methods. This is tricky business, as he himself admits, since so much of the Church’s evangelistic language is coded with modern, secular values. Noble uses a bit of self-deprecation to good effect, and his illustrations function quite well to paint the picture of the problem of Christian evangelism under-modernity.

Double Movements

O Alan Noble.jpg

The second half of Noble’s work is devoted to praxis, and here we find a little bit of stumbling. I think the first instance is simply a clunky term. Maybe he’s channeling a bit of Charles Taylor here – neither “the immanent frame” nor “nova effect” are great turns-of-phrase in technical philosophy (this is the discipline with deep neologisms like being-in-itselfDasein, and noumenon, after all) – but “double movement,” although I feel like I understood it implicitly, doesn’t quite ring with the experience it attempts to circumscribe.

That being said, ignoring the terminological clunkiness, the double movement is indeed a crucial insight for how to apply a missiological response to Taylor. If we live within a frame-of-reference in which all existence is referred back to the immanent materiality, then developing practices that allow us to adopt a stance of recognizing and responding to the transcendent in everyday life is crucial. (Okay, I guess the previous sentence makes “immanent frame” useful; I recant. “Nova effect” is still dumb, though.) Noble provides some sketches of how to accomplish this both within individual, personal lives and, crucially, in ecclesial contexts. In the latter he borrows heavily from J.K.A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies, so those familiar with Smith’s claims in Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom won’t find much groundbreaking here.

Aesthetics as Disruption

But what I personally found most compelling about Noble’s praxis were his overtures to the power of the aesthetic world – art, music, film, literature – and its ability to cause disruption in our lives. This is the point at which Noble’s own speciality, English literature, shines through. His brief vignettes on Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and The Road, a reflection via Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, some engagements with film and music, are among the highlights of how Noble understands the aesthetic to serve as disruption. One autobiographical example from his professorship and the ability of 20th-century literature to disrupt our assurances was particularly telling, and I, for one, deeply appreciate his willingness to confront unhealthy evangelical attitudes towards art head-on.

Final Thoughts

All-in-all, I found Disruptive Witness to be an excellent introduction for both students and evangelists on some of the basic frameworks of what witness in a modern world must look like. It does leave me hungry for more – but I chalk a lot of that up to my own familiarity with the work of James K.A. Smith, which is no fault of Noble’s! – but on its own, given to campus ministers, evangelists, and pastors young and old, this book serves as an excellent starting-point for learning and discerning how to bear witness in a secular world without compromising to its values.

I would like to thank InterVarsity Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.

Book Review: Come, Let Us Eat Together

Come, Let Us Eat Together
Ed. George Kalantzis and Marc Cortez
InterVarsity Press, 2018. 252pp.

Essay collections can be a tricky matter to balance well. At times, even the b

est of collections (see, for instance, my review of The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, ed. Hauerwas and Wells) can drag if one reads them cover to cover, simply because one covers the same materials in different formats from different voices. The same can easily be said of essay collections that are, in essence, the collected works of symposia, as the Wheaton Theology Conference and its correlated IVP book series are.

But Come, Let Us Eat Together drew me in. Maybe it was the incredible diversity of the writers (= speakers), or the panoramic insight of the varied angles, or, even, (and this surprised me the most) the sense that even at a conference with pre-prepared talks and papers, the interlocutors were engaging with the speaker or writer before them.

come let us eat together

And that is how it should be! When one covers the topic of “Sacraments and Christian Unity,” navigating the tricky lines between sacramental theology / ecclesiology on the one end and eschatology / ecumenism on the other, one would hope that each essay and each author would be “speaking” with one another. That, after all, is a crucial essence to the modern ecumenical movement.

Talking Together, Eating Together?

Of course, talking together, an essay collection from a conference with Catholic and Orthodox, Reformed and Anglican, Lutheran and (Ana-)baptist, is, as the essays assert, not enough. The chief question is: Can we share the table with one another?

Here the essays portray a vast array of views. Cherith Fee Nordling’s essay on the ascension of Christ, on the one end, gives a positive, eschatological assertion on the essential nature of the Church as unified; so too Paul L. Gavrilyuk’s (surprisingly) optimistic essay on the same theme from an Eastern Orthodox perspective. But Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy’s address of the topic from the Roman Catholic end of the conversation is less optimistic, observing some of the crucial fault-lines between the “orthodox episcopal” churches (i.e. the RCC and EO) and the Protestant churches; and Marc Cortez’s incredibly helpful discussion on the history of Baptist views on sacrament concludes with similar difficulties.

It might be easy, especially for someone like myself who has emerged from Pentecostal free-church traditions, to say that doctrine ought not separate us at the table. What is perhaps most surprising throughout Come, Let Us Eat Together is how relatively small the problem of doctrine is in comparison to other, largely ecclesiological, problems. With only a few exceptions, the conversation on transubstantiation versus Sacramental Union (the Lutheran view) versus real presence is glossed over very lightly. Far deeper is the historical realities and ecclesial distances between the various wings of the Church.

 

Wheaton Theology Conference (Bradley Nassif)And, as a result, the argument against open communion is, to my surprise! (being a lifelong open communionist), robust and reasonable and, at the end of the day, uninterested in doctrinaire authoritarianism. The historic relationship between baptism and Eucharist, for instance, cuts to the core of most sacramental debates (Cortez touches on this from the Baptist end, and so does Kalantzis from an early Christian historical lens). The question of the episcopacy and whether it descends from the apostolate also emerges as a central theme (one that Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen tackles valiantly in his essay). It turns out, and this has been an interesting surprise to me, that open communion is not as gracious or mindful or, even!, ecumenical as its proponents might say. The whole topic is far more complex; extending the right hand of grace and mercy to the disparate parts of the Christian Church might actually look more like learning the various wings’ views and traditions and honoring them. (InterVarsity actually does this actively at their Urbana conference, where Catholics and Lutherans are invited to join in the time of prayer at communion, knowing that many would bow out from full participation.)

 

Overall, Come, Let Us Eat Together is a fantastic volume on a particularly tricky subject. The wisdom of this particular set of authors, their diversity both externally (i.e. from different traditions) and internally (i.e. within a given tradition) provides the unique ecumenical balance necessary for accomplishing a book like this. And Kalantzis and Cortez, as editors, have done an excellent job of preserving the “conference” feel in the essays, even in the transition to print; the essay-writers “speak” with one another. Even the less intriguing essays contribute to the overall polyphony of the Church, and one can sense underneath this polyphony there is a powerful, supernatural work of God’s Spirit that will, before the end, bring all His people together again as one flock under one shepherd.

May it be so.

I would like to thank InterVarsity Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.