We Give Our Thanks Unto Thee

For me, discovering Alexander Schmemann and liturgical theology was a natural outgrowth from other avenues of reading and research. My introduction came from two theological fronts: the ecclesio-centric ethics of Stanley Hauerwas (exemplified by the Mass-shaped structure of his and Samuel Wells’ Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics) and the formational theology of James K.A. Smith (via his Cultural Liturgies series, especially the middle one, Imagining the Kingdom). Under both these theological avenues, divergent in subfield (ethics and ecclesiology for Hauerwas, postmodern philosophy and formation for Smith), Schmemann’s presence could be felt. Underneath Hauerwas, there is that sense that the theology of the Church manifests in her liturgy for the sake of forming believers to engage particular ethical quandaries; underneath Smith, the sense that human being’s embodied (incarnational) nature confronts the disembodied (“excarnational”) character of modernity.

Naturally, I eventually turned to the source for some of these claims, primarily For the Life of the World, Schmemann’s famous short essay on sacrament, mission, and Church. This work proved to be deeply stimulating to me, so much so that in the year I served as pastor of a small rural congregation I preached through a month-and-a-half sermon series on the topic of the “Feast of God,” drawing upon Schmemann’s writings and visions of the heavenly feast written in Isaiah, Matthew, and Revelation. (Looking back, I feel a little shocked that I was so brazen to preach such a series in a Baptist church, of all places!)

Porter C. Taylor’s new collection of essays serving as a posthumous Festschrift for Schmemann delves beyond the Orthodox priest and professor’s famous one-offs, analyzing elements of his academic writings, his personal journals, and his uncompleted works. The scholars represented in this work demonstrate the broad receptivity of Schmemann, including Catholic and Orthodox (as one might expect), Anglican, Methodist, and even Evangelical authors, working in both academic and seminary settings.

For the Life of Liturgical Theology

PICKWICK_TemplateFirst and foremost, the main beneficiaries of this work will be liturgical theologians (and those directly impacted by their work). There is a good dash of the history of liturgical theology spread throughout the varied essays, especially in the first, historical, section, that will help the reader orient themselves with regards to Schmemann’s initial impact and his influence. It will be shock, I suspect, to those well-versed in liturgical theology as it has grown in today’s time, to discover how relatively taken-for-granted the liturgy of the Church (whether Catholic or Orthodox or Protestant) was in Schmemann’s time. But even more surprising is how Schmemann’s initial conflict was over the blasé approach to the liturgy within his own Orthodox Church in America. The fact that he saw this as his primary task, confronting, as he saw it, divisive nationalisms within American Orthodoxy’s over-diverse liturgical practices, and that he first wrote For the Life of the World as an ecumenical address introduces us to a Schmemann who was incredibly pastoral, active, and public in his theological work.

This explains, on the one hand, the at times oversimple dichotomizations of For the Life of the World, between modernity and Christianity, between the secular and the sacred. (Of course, Schmemann is writing decades before Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age.) But there is a difference between piercing philosophical-theological critique and more generalized theology written for a popular (and diverse) audience. The aspects of For the Life of the World that feel most criticizable from an academic perspective make perfect sense written by a pastor-teacher seeking to mobilize the Church’s worship.

Schmemann’s more serious works on the topic, as a result, are at the center of most of this collection’s essays (namely Introduction to Liturgical Theology and The Eucharist) as the writers wrestle with his theological and academic reception. From these, the collection constellates a multifarious and complex picture of his thought and his unique contributions to the grounds of modern liturgical theology (and not without some troubles and problematics!), including the relationship between Eucharist and the world, the formation of the congregation through liturgy, and the historical-cosmological valences of sacrament.

For the Sake of the Church[‘s Theology?]

Porter C TaylorMost of the essays in this collection gesture, at least, at Schmemann’s ecclesio-missiological purpose. That is, that the worship of the Church historically said something both about those gathered and sharing it as well as something about the world outside its walls (the “world” of For the Sake of the World). Sister Zimmerman’s dense and poignant reflection on pastoral liturgical theology and Fagerberg’s missiological interventions alongside (and sometimes in contradiction to) Schmemann both work at the level of the Church and call for pastoral reflection and leadership.

Yet there are a few essays whose interests are in the more theoretical / [explicitly] theological domain: the editor (Taylor)’s essay on the cosmic nature of the Eucharist (a natural combination of present Eucharistic discourse in Anglicanism and Schmemannn), Belcher’s complicated discussion on Sunday and Shabbat in cross-religious lens, and Morrill’s contentious essay challenging Schmemann to pick up the political as part-and-parcel with the liturgical, the sacramental, and the ethical.

That third essay is without a doubt both the most oppositional (in a friendly way) to Schmemann in this collection as well as the most productive, as a result. Schmemann too often, we discover from Morrill’s research, blunted the full sharpness of liturgical theology by attempting to divorce the political from his theological aims. As we have learned in the decades since, this kind of attempt is naive at best, and Morrill’s critique results in more than a few necessary adjustments to Schmemann’s theology (leaving his core, thankfully, intact).

Altogether, I found this to be precisely the kind of volume that a Schmemann-fan or neophyte would appreciate, both for the contextual framing of its first half as well as for the incisive engagements of the second half. As I come to Schmemann from a different angle — less from liturgical theology and more from philosophical theology, let’s say — I found that only a few of the essays quenched my own thirst for philosophical reflection on liturgy, sacrament, formation, etc. But I do not see that as a detriment to the volume, as it strikes me as a work that will do a great job introducing Schmemann to new readers, especially church leaders, for decades to come.

We Give Our Thanks Unto Thee
ed. Porter C. Taylor
Pickwick, 2019. 242pp.

I would like to thank Wipf & Stock 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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Balm in Gilead

Let me come right out and say it: sometimes I loath the work of literary scholarship. With a master’s degree in literature (and the thesis to prove it) and more graduate school ahead of me, sure, I love doing research, I love reading novels, and I even love puzzling over the right way to turn a phrase or compose a bibliography. But there are times in which I run into a monograph on a particular topic — be it a novelist or an era of novelists — and I feel as though an original, beautiful, glorious thing has been reduced to a pile of worthless words on a page. I feel obliged to note that this is common in one of my specific fields, George MacDonald scholarship (there are, thankfully, exceptions to this).

To do written work that both critically excavates the powers of a narrative work whilst preserving its unique character is extraordinarily hard, and this becomes all the harder when one feels the temptation to tilt a narrative towards one’s own ideological goals. The novels and essays of Marilynne Robinson, writer of such masterworks as The Death of AdamThe Givenness of ThingsGileadHome, etc., are magnificent, radiant, and unique works of literature, and this volume, Balm in Gilead, faces the unenviable plight of discussing her works while preserving their radiance.

Thankfully, it is successful in that nigh-impossible task.

Theology and Narrative, Embodied

There are many excellent essays to parse through to make the case of this volume’s particular successes, but two stand out as especially worthy of attention:

First, there is Rev. Dr. Lauren Winner’s delightful essay on the homiletics of Gilead and its preacherly protagonist, the Rev. John Ames. Here the topic of homiletics leaves its lofty, intensive home at the seminary to embed itself within the particularity of weekly preaching practice. Ames, famously, has a large collection of his former sermons piled end to end in his attic, which he hopes his wife will burn someday. “They mattered,” he thinks, “or they didn’t.” Winner, a preacher as well as a professor, notes the significance of this throwaway line to the everyday pastor — how much energy and work goes into producing a single subsection or illustration of an overarching theological treatise that nevertheless, somehow, has to manifest for the common good, and then how often Sunday’s sermon goes unheard, forgotten, deemed unimportant.

Others have discussed (see Part III of Hauerwas and Wells’ Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, for instance) the relative unimportance of the every week sermon compared to the weekly practice of listening; but Winner highlights, using Ames’ as her case-study, the surprise significance of these throwaway sermons. Who knows when a turn of phrase or line might land in just the right way? Those who preach weekly (or who have done the practice) will recognize the depths of wisdom elucidated here by both Winner and Robinson.

Balm in Gilead

Another delightful treat is the essay from Joel Sheesley, professor emeritus of art at Wheaton College, where he takes a very serious aesthetic approach to Gilead, comparing Robinson’s work with a theological brand of landscape. As opposed to, for instance, Romanticism’s sublime or modernism’s nihilism, Sheesley uncovers Robinson’s aesthetic [narrative] theology that turns the everyday into a veil through which shines the glory and beauty of God. Here Robinson’s poetics, more than her thought, is at the forefront, and we see a kind of cooperation between form and function, style and substance. Alongside this, Sheesley’s addition of landscapes as plates to the collection is very welcome and goes alongside it all quite nicely.

I could go on, as most of the essays gathered here are of a high-caliber quality: there are discussions on the shared Protestant heritage of Ames and Wheaton College which, while a bit over-particular (and thus a little un-useful, academically speaking), frame the collaboration between Wheaton (an evangelical institution) and Robinson (a mainline layperson) in a broader complex of American Protestant history. There is a metaphysical discussion from Keith L. Johnson that is very intriguing, sparking some Protestant-Catholic tensions regarding the nature of grace in a much-discussed review.

Plentiful Grace (for the Readers!)

As if the essays of the interlocutors were not enough, the volume includes three especially delightful works at its end that feel almost as an appendix, except for the fact that all three works are worth the price of admission!

One is an essay from Rowan Williams discussing the nature of Grace and that tenacious (and difficult) word “inclusion” from the standpoint of Robinson’s novels. The second is Robinson’s own reflection on the essential character of Protestantism — its freedom of conscience, its ever-reforming reformations. These are both precisely what a reader expects from these two intellectual and rhetorical giants.Marilynne Robinson and Rowan Wiliams

But the special treat is immediately after: the whole collection is concluded with an in-depth interview, first of a discussion between Robinson and Williams, and the second with Robinson on her own. The discussions begin with reflections on the character of fictional works in doing theology, in creating communities, and then move on its role in democracy and society at large. Then in Robinson’s solo interview, she handles her biography, her formation through the works of Jonathan Edwards (et al.), and, as always, her reflections on the centrality of grace.

Final Thoughts

With a collection as thorough and robust as this one, handling so articulate an author as Marilynne Robinson, I feel that my review is a very poor etching of what is an extravagant painting. The collection, however, has done that work with exceptional skill, ease, and clarity, leading to some of the best writings on Gilead (etc.) that I have seen. For fans of Marilynne Robinson and Christian literary scholars seeking some guidepoints for how to do the work of literary scholarship, I heartily recommend this volume.

Balm in Gilead
ed. Timothy Larsen and Keith L. Johnson
IVP Academic, 2019. 218pp.

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.

Literature as Witness

Literary criticism is an unregulated wilderness full of a wide variety of intellectual on-ramps for successful engagement. One could, for instance, consider the social criticism that Charles Dickens’ makes in his works and logically extrapolate its consequences and interrogate his consistency, or, as another direction, one could propose a study of social criticism of Charles Dickens’ works, diagnosing his insufficiencies and failures. A novel could be read for the sake of proposing a new exegesis of a particular detail, or take an established reading to new heights, or consider it for the sake of its narrational substrata, and so forth and so on. But the overriding principle of criticism, in all its varied forms, is that a proposed line of inquiry must be interesting.

Now, to be clear, “interesting” in academic work does not necessarily equate to “well-written” or even “riveting prose.” It is not a genre that intends itself to be for primarily entertainment purposes. What “interesting” implies for the academic study of literature is that the scholarly work in question — whether article or monograph — proposes a new avenue of thought that advances, in some way, the scholastic discourse on a work or idea. Put more directly, “interesting” literary criticism must be a note in a conversation, from a certain group of people (or field of study) to another certain group of people (or field of study). Literary scholarship is a communication. It is an appeal from the midst of an academic community to that same community (or others) that a thing once understood as X should instead / also / with slight variation be considered as / with Y. And “interesting” would be work that succeeds, in some degree, at proposing a question that would accomplish such a communication.

With those definitions of literary scholarship aside, Literature as Witness stakes for itself far too broad a thesis with far too narrow a discussion, two problems that challenge its ability to be effective literary criticism. The thesis, taken from the introduction (but repeated throughout), is that “In every case [e.g. the narratives discussed] that code is Christianity [sic].” I share the quote to observe the odd formulation this thesis takes. At the end of the introduction, it stands on its own as if testament to some monumental discovery. It proposes itself, whenever it pops up in the book, as a significant thesis.

But it is the content of this thesis that is most baffling. To paraphrase the thesis, the author seems to be asserting that what binds the five works he has chosen to discuss together is that they share a commitment to the Christian faith, in some degree. Two questions immediate arise from such a formulation: In what degree does this thesis propose to investigate its question (are they committed to a Christian ethics? if so, what category of ethics is discussed? etc. etc.), and why these representative works taken from such a vast array of genres and periods? This is not, as it could have been, a historicizing work that took Shakespeare, Milton, and Spenser together to make a case for some claims regarding Christianity in 16th/17th century England. For some reason, Hawthorne and Dostoevsky have been tossed into the mix. Nor does the work attest some genre consistency such that we are discussing only novels, as we have an array of prose, poetry, and drama collected here.

Literature as Witness

So what binds them together? Perhaps the linking matter is Streiter’s familiarity with the texts, allowing for his extended exegesis that makes the bulk of the work. He is, according to the articles I found of his from JSTOR, a professor interested in the art of teaching, so these texts have likely been chosen after four decades of student engagement. It certainly cannot be (at least, I hope not) that he chose these texts because he felt they best exemplified the “Christian code” that he claims to be investigating — after all, pretty much any Western narrative up until secularism really takes hold would qualify, and then our question begins again “why these five?” But either way, the monograph seems to take on the forced character of chance association, like when my students write a comparison between Pan’s Labyrinth and Moonrise Kingdom simply because we watched them one after another in my film class.

The book, thus, strikes me as highly contrived and surprisingly unacademic, coming from a forty-year-plus veteran of the professorial career. I’m not entirely sure if the author’s goals were well-asserted in his introduction — is this intended to be original research (a “study” as the back of the book claims) or an introduction to great literature for Christians (a suggestion made nowhere, but would make sense given the writing within)? If there is a fatal flaw here, I vacillate between seeing it as the lack of a central (and highly specific) thesis or the lack of a broader conversation with the literary criticism world. Both flaws are present, unfortunately, turning the monograph into a simple collection of five exegetical essays discussing Christian themes in famous works of literature and saying nothing especially “interesting” beyond what has already been said on those works.

Literature as Witness
Aaron Streiter
Wipf & Stock, 2018. 205pp.

I would like to thank Wipf & Stock 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.

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.

 

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.