Saturday, April 27, 2013

Biblical Theology: An Immodest Proposal

Reading Biblical Theology: A Proposal by Brevard Childs has given me a cunning plan: constructing a work of theological reflection based on the text of Isaiah. It would not so much be "The Theology of Isaiah" as it would be "Theology", elaborating on the themes of Isaiah in light of Old and New Testament reflections, the history of interpretation, the preoccupations of dogmatic theology, and, most importantly, in the light of the life of the church which has Christ as its head.

Atonement? Let's look again at Isaiah 53

Non-violence? Let's look again at Isaiah 2

Christian Aesthetics? Let's look again at Isaiah 6

Eschatology? Let's look again at Isaiah 11

Justice? Let's look again at Isaiah 58

Christology? Let's look again at the Servant Songs

It is becoming  clear to me that if theology has any desire to be useful to the church -- and if it doesn't, then what exactly is it doing? -- it must be about the task of illuminating the things in Scripture which theology has often hidden. Indeed, what theology often hides these days is Scripture itself, protecting us from its vulgarity, its poetry, its scandalous affirmations, its unshakeable convictions, its diversity, its preferential option for the poor, the oppressed, the aliens.

I recently read a blog post about the song 'Come Now is the Time to Worship'. The author was writing that he cannot sing this song because the last line -- Still the greatest treasure remains for those who gladly choose you now-- seems to imply some kind of universalism.

Using that same logic, I assume this person also refuses to read Colossians 1:15-20, Romans 5, or Philippians 2:6-11, since these text also seem to imply some kind of universalism.

The point isn't that we should all be universalists because the Bible teaches it (which it does and which it doesn't). My contention is that we have done to the Bible was this person has done to the song, except of course we cannot admit to it because that would be heresy.

It is therefore at this precise point that theology requires a Barthian turn, for Barth's theology was nothing if not a reflection on Scripture in the light of the resurrected Christ. Dialectics therefore wasn't so much a method for Barth as it was a natural consequence of taking Scripture seriously.

As much as Pete Rollins may hope for it, congregations around the world will not be carrying a copy of the latest work by Zizek into church with them, nor will preachers be expounding from Caputo. The church has been given the Word, and we have been searching for it ever since, in many languages, in many contexts, but in the same(ish!) Scriptures.

Which brings me back to Isaiah, the herald of the Word of God. He was known by the early church as the first apostle or the fifth evangelist (after Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). Along with Psalms and Deuteronomy, Isaiah was the book that Paul turned to the most. (Which gives me an idea for another task: a theology based on Deuteronomy (The Law), Isaiah (The Prophets), and Psalms (The Writings.) The church could do with turning to Isaiah again and there discover the Word afresh. Here is one example of such a turning:

Friday, April 26, 2013

If It's Absurd, Then That Just Means It's True

It has been over a year since I first made my proposal. In that time the topic has changed from second century apologetics to Old Testament non-violence to the merits of Starmix vis-a-vis Super Kiddie Mix, and finally, to the ecclesiology of Tertullian. Just under 10,000 words have been squeezed from me. I don't think I'll ever want to see them again.

There are some decent words strung together here and there, though any interpretative framework for understanding Tertullian is bound to have holes in it. That being so, I remain firm in my conviction that Tertullian is done a grave injustice when he is written out of the ecclesiological canon for being a separatist or written back into it for being a forerunner for Constantine. As much as I hate myself for it, I think there might be a third way of understanding him!

If you want to know why I think that, let me know and I will send you a nice pdf copy.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Revelation: The Climax of the Canon

A few posts ago I somewhat facetiously dismissed Revelation as a crazy book that doesn't belong in the canon. But perhaps even more so than any of Paul's letters it belongs in that part of the canon Brueggemann might call "prophetic". A fellow Bible college student pointed me in the direction of a quote by Bauckham that speaks not only of Revelation's role as the climax of the canon but of its contemporary witness to those who think that real power - the power that Christians must fall back on if their weakness is threatened - is clothed only in military garb:

'Is the world a place in which military and political might carries all before it or is it one in which suffering witness to the truth prevails in the end? Thus Revelation offers its readers prophetic discernment guided by the core of Christian faith: that Jesus Christ won his comprehensive victory over all evil by suffering witness....Whereas modern terminology calls martyrdom 'passive resistance', John's military imagery makes it just as active as any physical warfare. While rejecting the apocalyptic militancy that called for literal holy war against Rome, John's message is not, 'Do not resist!' It is, 'Resist! - but by witness and martyrdom, not by violence.' On the streets of the cities of Asia, John's readers are not to compromise but to resist the idolatry of the pagan state and pagan society. In so doing they will play an indispensable part in the working-out of the Lamb's victory.' 
- The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 91-92

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Double Strategy

In various forms over the past few months -- an inauguration speech, an essay, and a book -- I have come across what seems to me a very peculiar ethical position.

The position is what John Milbank -- the author of the online article -- calls a "double strategy". One aspect of the strategy is the sacrificial, peaceable way which refuses to fight evil with evil. The other aspect is the way of "power", which here means some justifiable form of violence. According to this logic, we need both ways working together to achieve the goal of peace. Milbank illustrates this strategy by point to The Lord of the Rings. While the anabaptist Frodo is making his sacrificial way to Mordor to break the spell of evil the constantinian Gandalf is rounding up the troops and leading them into battle.

Barak Obama espoused the same logic in January. He commended the witness of Martin Luther King, but equally commended the brave soldiers who use force to defend and promote American values. We need both, was Obama's message. There is probably some Zizekian psychoanalytic theory that can explain this.

John Stackhouse's book Making the Best of It also embraces this contradictory ethic. He admires Yoder's "pure" position and is in little doubt that he and others like him are doing God's will. But, Stackhouse warns, this is not a position that everyone should take. We need the majority of Christians to join with Gandalf lest we end up being wiped out. This fear of being extinguished and the need for violence to protect Christian existence is also expressed by Milbank:

For the survival of Christianity was enabled by acts of military defiance and its survival otherwise would have been either marginal or non-existent...

Perhaps I have simply read too much Yoder for my own good, but this is surely a wrong approach to Christian identity. When Christianity's life depends on military defiance, one must  ask what kind of Christianity this is and if it merits survival.

What about survival by a non-military form? For Milbank that could only have meant Christianity being marginal or being wiped out entirely. He seems to assume that these are obviously undesirable outcomes, but I beg to differ. A Christianity that is marginal makes reading and applying the New Testament a whole lot more intelligible for starters. The marginality of the church is not an unfortunate situation but a theological fact and a situation of wonderful ethical potentiality. 

And what about a non-existent Christianity? If Christianity has reached a point where the best idea it can come up with is to kill its enemies then, by New Testament standards, this is a Christianity worthy of extinction. Would that the Christianity that picks up the sword be put to death so that we may not trust in human power and wisdom for its survival but in the God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that have ceased to exist.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


The fruit of my learning in a class on the history of evangelicalism, which I wrote on Facebook during a  discussion on "Deconstructing Evangelicalism":

Evangelical is a decent adjective but a crap noun.

I can show you a Presbyterian, a Pentecostal, a Mennonite, a Roman Catholic, a Quaker, several types of Baptist, but I cannot show you an Evangelical. I can show you someone who thinks they are an Evangelical, but then I can also show you someone who thinks they are an Evangelical who thinks that that other person is not an Evangelical. And I can show you someone who thinks etc. In other words, the noun "Evangelical" does very little work. It is a word without a concrete referent. The reason evangelicals think they can make up Christianity (to borrow Hauerwas's phrase) is that evangelicals are themselves made up.

Evangelicalism is real, but real as a sort of phantom tradition whose origins nobody can point to, whose contents nobody can agree on, and whose future is discussed as if the future of Christianity depends on it and its "leaders".

I haven't read Hart's book, but far be it from me to let that get in the way of agreeing with his conclusion: the emperor has no clothes.

Hauerwas on the Implications of Friendship With Gays

For a young Hauerwas, 'Do you believe in the virgin birth?' was the question that people asked to find out if you're really a Christian. Today that question concerns one's position on homosexuality. Hauerwas is troubled by the function of such questions and the subsequent work that the answers do. Hence he has been reluctant to come out with a straight answer.

He experiments with such an answer by beginning with, in a very unHauerwasian move, experience. Hauerwas is distrustful of appeals to experience when it comes to theology, saying that growing up Methodist meant he had enough "experience" by the age of 12 to last him a life time. Nevertheless, he begins to discuss homosexuality by citing the "fact" that he has experienced virtuous friendship with homosexual Christians. Gays are in the church, says Hauerwas, and they are in the church in such a way that the church would be less than it is without them.

Friendship, for Hauerwas, is more than a mere experience, however, but an "epistemological necessity", with friendship being the only context in which activities of virtue and vice can be named. Friendship, to be friendship, must be characterised by virtue, so that it becomes impossible to be friends with gay people while at the same time thinking of them as immoral. In Hauerwas's words, "if 'being gay' names an immoral practice, then surely being a friend of gay people would not be a wise policy for those who would be moral."

And yet, as Hauerwas said earlier, Christian friendship with gay people is a reality. To try to explain this by divorcing homosexuality from virtue is, for Hauerwas, to introduce the destructive notion of a distinction between private and public, between, in this case, being virtuous and being gay. At the same time, we must not make sex more determinant than it needs to be. "Gay people, like the rest of us, have more important things to do than to be gay."

Hauerwas's argument hangs on his robust description of friendship, but I question that description. Jesus's friendships were not characterised by mutual virtue. The disciples whom he called friends would abandon him. He was known as the friend of sinners. Immorality, therefore, was not a stumbling block to his friendships. "But that was Jesus" is not a counter-argument that would carry much weight for Hauerwas. Hauerwas's logic, then, though not necessarily his conclusion, appears flawed.

He is convincing in other ways, though. For Hauerwas, there is nothing virtuous about a man having sex with a woman, nor is there anything vicious about a man having sex with a man. What matters is faithfulness, or the absence of promiscuity and adultery. Virtue is not known by whether one has "straight sex" or "gay sex", but by fidelity and doing good for the community. This reasoning stems from Hauerwas's mistrust of the word "inherently". Put more theologically, however, it may be seen to stem from Hauerwas's mistrust of  "natural law".

Hauerwas's mistrust can be justified. Consider the act of peeing. It is a bodily act, something natural to us as humans. Is it a virtue to pee? Is it a vice? That urine comes out of a male penis is a fact, but we cannot construct an ethic out of this abstract fact. In this sense, peeing is ammoral. What about a boy who learns to urinate in a toilet, however? Or what about the man who decides to pee on his neighbours car? The natural act of peeing is transformed into a virtue or vice by human practices and intentions. When you get up to go to the bathroom instead of pooing in the library or at your work station, then, you are being virtuous. When you don't...well, let's not go there.

In short, it is the context that gives sex its moral quality. For Hauerwas, if that context is a virtuous relationship between two women, then Christianity will have to allow exceptions to its rule.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Learning from the Canon

I have only read a couple of chapters of it by way of escape from what it is I'm supposed to be doing, but Walter Brueggemann's book The Creative Word: Canon as a Model for Biblical Education is giving me that old-fashioned romantic feeling.

He speaks of three layers of authority in the Old Testament canon. The first is the Torah, the second is the Prophets, and the third is the Writings. Instead of flattening out the OT, Brueggemann argues that each of these three parts of the canon "has a different function in Israel, proceeds with a different epistemology, and makes a different claim in Israel." The Torah represents the community ethos. The Prophets represent the community pathos. The Writings represent the community logos.

I wonder if this kind of thinking can be brought to bear on the New Testament canon, if it hasn't already. The gospels were certainly not written first, but they come first in the canon as the community ethos. They are, for Christians, the new Torah, recapitulating the themes of promise, exodus, and the way of life to be embodied by the people of God. As for Jews the Torah functions as the canon within the canon, so the gospels do for Christians. The book of Acts may also be included here, giving us a New Testament Pentateuch.

Next comes the pathos of Paul the prophet. In Romans, Corinthians, and Galatians especially, we see the failure of the communities to embody the ethos laid out in the Gospels, but also the hope that all is not lost. These texts represent a calling back to the vision of the Gospels. Then we have the logos or wisdom of the general epistles (which would include the likes of Timothy, Titus, and Ephesians) which aim to give some concrete order to what went before. They are authoritative but subordinate to the authority of the new Torah and to the prophetic writings of Paul. There is no place for Revelation in this canon, because that book is crazy.

This is all very sketchy and poorly thought out, but it shows that thinking about the canonical process of the New Testament is not just a lesson in history or apologetics. There is a theological and educational aspect to the NT canon which churches would do well to explore.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Post Evangelicalism

I'm unsure of the legality of this, but here are some thoughts that with more discipline and editing may make it into an essay for a class on the History of Evangelicalism...

As Dave Tomlinson (author of The Post-Evangelical) rightly points out, evangelicalism must be described in wider terms than as a set of beliefs. It is perhaps here where Bebbington’s definition falls short. Evangelicalism is also a culture with a unique language and practice. Indeed, it could well be argued that one of the most formative episodes in evangelical identity is the practice of field preaching in the eighteenth century. It is not only what was said by evangelicals that was important, but where it was said. Tomlinson speaks of the contemporary sub-culture of evangelicalism by mentioning its events, festivals, concerts, conferences, magazines, books, merchandise, record companies, mission organisations, holiday clubs, and celebrities.   There is also the distinct language shared by evangelicals, with phrases such as “accepting Jesus in to your heart” proving crucial to evangelical thought and practice.

But if evangelicalism must be understood in light of its practices, then so too must post-evangelicalism. Field preaching was a formative moment in evangelical identity. Pub preaching was a formative moment in post-evangelical identity. In 1990, Dave Tomlinson and some friends began Holy Joe’s, which met in the lounge bar of a London pub on Tuesday nights.  With this alternative location came the possibility of an alternative church life.

On the surface this may appear as nothing but accommodation to the world. That is not a critique without merit, yet evangelicals would do well to remember the roots of the English Reformation, where discussion in the White Horse Inn of Luther’s new and dangerous theology over ale proved to be a catalyst for an alternative church life.  Like the sixteenth century Reformation, post-evangelicalism aims to rethink the way in which the gospel is understood.  Yet unlike the Reformers, the roots of this rethinking are often shallow because the dialogue partners and foils are often shallow. The Reformers were engaged with Christian thinkers such as Augustine and Aquinas. Post-evangelicalism, on the other hand, has often been in dialogue with little more than a bad experience in what Rah calls “baby boomer evangelicalism.”  This is not to suggest that this bad experience is not indicative of deep problems within certain forms of evangelicalism. Yet the deeper roots of evangelical practice and theology that could serve as useful critiques of evangelicalism from within – one thinks of the theological and philosophical work of Jonathan Edwards or Karl Barth’s Evangelical Theology -- are ignored in favour of twentieth century postmodern thought.

Indeed, this shallowness is perhaps one reason why the post-evangelical movement has largely been incorporated back into broader evangelicalism (while still retaining much of its character) rather than becoming its own distinct tradition. Dave Tomlinson, to use one example, is no longer the leader of Holy Joes but a priest in the Anglican church. Moreover, Holy Joes no longer meets regularly, with the same being true for the Belfast equivalent, Ikon. Nevertheless, there remains in some charismatic leaders such as Rob Bell and Pete Rollins a desire to carry the post-evangelical movement further and create new kinds of Christianity self-consciously distinct from evangelicalism. In a paradoxical way, however, one can see this new kind of Christianity not as antithetical to evangelicalism but as the perverse climax of the movement: rather than seeking to bring contemporary Christianity back into line with New Testament church, these leaders are, in their most provocative moments, going back even further and doing away with the New Testament church itself because of its unfaithfulness to the radical gospel of Jesus. The message is, in a sense, that we must return to a form of Christianity that, until now, has never existed.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Church Lives by Public Humiliation

Following Kevin's lead of mentioning a popular American sitcom in the same breath as a patristic theologian...(will this be the new meme that explodes around the blogosphere? No, no it won't.)

Tertullian's On Repentance speaks of an early Christian practice known by the Greek word exomologesis. Foucault thinks of it as a technology of the self, but it was more like a technology of the community. For the  guilty member of the church it involved public confession of sins, weeping, fasting, and beseeching forgiveness from Christ/His body the Church (Tertullian, at times, doesn't make much of a distinction between the two). It functioned to make it publicly known that God is holy, that the church is holy, and that this particular person acted against that holiness. This is not a name-them-and-shame-them practice, with the rest of the church community standing in aloof judgement of the sinner. On the contrary, the community suffers with the penitent person, in the hopes of eventually welcoming him or her back into full and joyful communion.

This may strike us as the kind of legalistic, medieval Christianity that the Reformation did away with, but in an episode of Modern Family last night ("Coal Digger") there was what one might consider a contemporary example of exomologesis that should encourage churches to bring back penance!

Without explaining the nitty-gritty of the show, Claire called her father's new wife Gloria a gold digger behind her back. This transgression eventually came to light through her son. Gloria was upset, and retreated to her room for what turned out to be a very funny scene with Claire's husband Phil. Claire came up the stairs to patch things up with Gloria by admitting to her guilt and asking Gloria to forgive her. Gloria said no. Well, what she said was that she would forgive Claire is Claire humiliated herself by jumping into the pool with all her clothes on. Claire agreed.

She walked to the edge of the pool, showing her willingness to jump in for the sake of forgiveness. She thought this willingness would be enough. It wasn't. Gloria insisted that she jump into the pool. Only then would she know that Claire was truly sorry. So Claire jumped.

That, in a secularised nutshell, is exomologesis.

What happened next? Everyone else dived/got pushed into the pool, sharing in Claire's humiliation.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Impossible Possibility

It brings Scripture to life. It brings us closer to Christ. It reminds us that our Savior, who suffered and died was resurrected, both fully God and also a man; a human being who lived, and walked, and felt joy and sorrow just like us.... 
And there, I had a chance to pray and reflect on Christ’s birth, and His life, His sacrifice, His Resurrection. I thought about all the faithful pilgrims who for two thousand years have done the same thing -- giving thanks for the fact that, as the book of Romans tells us, “just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” 
I thought of the poor and the sick who seek comfort, and the marginalized and the forsaken who seek solace, and the grateful who merely seek to offer thanks for the simple blessings of this life and the awesome glory of the next. I thought of all who would travel to this place for centuries to come and the lives they might know. 
And I was reminded that while our time on Earth is fleeting, He is eternal. His life, His lessons live on in our hearts and, most importantly, in our actions. When we tend to the sick, when we console those in pain, when we sacrifice for those in need, wherever and whenever we are there to give comfort and to guide and to love, then Christ is with us.

On one level, these are inspirational words well attuned to Christian proclamation. On another level, they are harrowing.

What kind of world do we live in that makes it possible for President Barack Obama to exist? Or rather, what kind of Church?

Possession Is King

Speaking of speaking of excelling at things that don't really matter...

Friday, April 5, 2013


Speaking of excelling at things that don't really matter, Roger Ebert -- film critic extraordinaire -- died yesterday. I came across Ebert's work when I started to read film reviews, because when you start to read film reviews it isn't long before you come across Ebert's work.

His review of The Tree of Life convinced me that I wasn't crazy for thinking that it is one of the best films ever made. The words which end his review are fitting: all happens in this blink of a lifetime, surrounded by the realms of unimaginable time and space.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Things In Life That Don't Really Matter

Our greatest fear should not be of failure, but of succeeding at things in life that don't really matter.

This quote by Francis Chan appeared in a blog post I was reading earlier. Being a student of theology, it makes for chilling reading. The blog post was about the new radicals, who -- as my upcoming history of evangelicalism essay may or may not show -- are discovering the Anabaptist roots of evangelicalism.

The Chan quote got me thinking about the film A River Runs Through It, which in turn got me thinking of radical Christianity (aka Christianity). Allow me to explain.

A River Runs Through It is a film about succeeding at something that doesn't really matter. Specifically, it is about excelling at fly fishing. For a Presbyterian minister and his two sons, "there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing". Fly fishing was an art to be practiced and perfected. The film centres around this art form that, at its most excellent, is a vehicle of the glory of God. The father passes his love of fly-fishing to his two sons, and lives to see the younger son surpass him in skill. After his death, the eldest son has these words to say:

Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise. Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.

Fly fishing may seem to qualify as one of those things "that don't really matter", but this film tells a different story. To succeed at something as meaningless as fly fishing is to feel the joy of creaturely existence. Fly fishing may bring meaningless pleasure, but, as Terry Eagleton has argued, this is precisely the kind of pleasure that God gets from his creation. To excel at fly fishing is to be joined to the very life of God.

I don't write this simply to say that Chan is wrong. (Which he is. Our greatest fear should have nothing to do with ourselves. Our greatest fear should be God.) There is a link between all of this and radical Christianity. This, after all, is a Christianity that might point us to passages such as the one where Jesus calls Peter to abandon his fishing rod in order to become his disciple.

The message here is to leave aside fishing for the sake of the kingdom. The message of A River Runs Through It, on the other hand, is that fishing is very much at home in the kingdom.

The question to ask is, when Jesus disarmed Peter did he disarm every fisherman? Or perhaps more pointedly, is the successful evangelist/minister/author-speaker-blogger more worthy of honour than the Christian who makes beautiful pottery or excellent coffee for the glory of God? Are the former pursuits more meaningful than the others? A case could be made for this argument, but a case could equally be made for its opposite. The saving of souls, for example, is not an end in itself. Rather, people are brought into the kingdom so that they can enjoy the beauty of fly fishing in the light of the glory of God. Salvation will only begin to make sense to us when we learn to excel and delight in the things that don't really matter.

In short, the world needs meaningless practices. Our salvation depends on them.