Thursday, January 29, 2009

21 Theological Themes for the New Year: Inaugural Prolegomena, 1-7

In the last 24 hours I have spent time discovering and naming 21 theological questions, propositions, themes, practices, and hankerings that have arisen in recent weeks and that I expect will be following me throughout the year. They're like new year's resolutions, only theological and mostly involuntary. I have a feeling they will be making return appearances here on the blog in 2009, so I figured a kind of inaugural blogging prolegomena were in order.

Throughout the day, off and on, I wrote on each one, originally thinking this would be a brief post. The entire thing ended up being 5,000 words long, so ... I figured I'd do it in installments. This is the first of three. Enjoy.

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1. The question mark of the people Israel. I am almost done with Douglas Harink's Paul Among the Postliberals, in which he has a 60-page chapter devoted to the question of the relationship between Israel and the church, explored through a severe critique of N.T. Wright, a new reading of Romans 9-11, and an explication of John Howard Yoder's work on and theology of Israel. I have read a good deal of both Wright and Yoder, and while Harink's chapter was unsettling and provocative, after going back to Romans 9-11 I remained unconvinced. On the other hand: I have no idea what to think on the topic. In some essay Hauerwas refers to "the" definitive book on the church and Israel, as yet to be written, and that's what I feel like: none of the options seem to work. Where is Israel in the economy of God's salvation? How does it relate to the church? How should Christians and Jews go forth? How does the rest of the New Testament outside of Romans 9-11 supplement, compliment, or detract from the project? I am truly in the dark.

2. Gendered language regarding God. My most recent Sunday Sabbath Poetry post included a poem I composed recently entitled "When in Seminary," in which I wrote, "Rather, know that God is not a male." That is, don't worry about all of that biblical, theological, systematic, ministerial nonsense -- just be sure not to call God "him." Obviously my tone is sarcastic, but it comes from deeper questions about how to speak of God.

I grew up in the Bible Belt as well as in a predominantly conservative tradition, so I would never have thought it odd to speak of God as "he" or "him." At the same time, I never had a conception of God as a male. My poem was written in response to what I perceive to be a radically overwrought reaction to anything not conceived or spoken of in perfectly egalitarian language; thus we come to the absurdity that it is more important to know that God is not male than that, or who, God is at all. At the same time, I recognize the importance of not raising our sons and daughters, of not teaching our adult men and women, to think of God as the great male in the sky; the overreaction of conservative churches to even speaking of humanity as anything other than "mankind" or "Man" proves the point.

But where do we go from here? It bends language to the breaking point to render sentences sans pronouns: "God loves out of God's own character which is God's own glorious triune relationship with God's self." Bah! In a tradition where everybody leads worship -- not a formally trained clergy -- it is incomprehensible to imagine normal people speaking in such a way. Not to mention the fact that it dissolves God of any personal nature; God is not a person, or persons, but a "God" that demands "God" language reserved "God" alone.

And finally, to shift from the trinitarian formula of Father, Son, and Spirit to Creater, Redeemer/Word, and Reconciler -- out of purely gender concerns -- is disconcerting because it loses the fundamental understanding of God as a parent-child relationship in his own being, and in his relationship to us. I heard the "new" lyrics for the classic hymn "Doxology" the other day, and I was beyond confused when, instead of singing "Father, Son, and Holy Ghost" an alternative swell of voices sang "Creator, Christ, and Spirit, One." We can't write simply write new songs with more inclusive language for God -- we have to change lyrics to old hymns, too?

I am perplexed. But I am also a man. I am from the South and part of a conservative tradition, even if I disagree with that tradition at many points. I know I have a bias. But that still doesn't ease my discomfort.

(Peripheral note: A line that always rings in my head here is from the preface to James McClendon's Ethics, where, in explaining that he retains language of Father, Son, and Spirit, he explains by saying something like, "having my own ideas about authentic inclusiveness.")

3. Sovereignty, glory, and the character of God. I recently shared with my wife how what I call "the specter of John Piper" overlays a great deal of my theological thinking. His theology influences not a few of the following themes, because while I have a deep respect for the man's service to and fierce love for God and God's church, his theology endlessly frustrates me. Some of it I merely dislike; but some, in my estimation, is borderline dangerous.

The reason is that theology is never abstract: it always finds legs and starts to walk around; and precisely then, on the ground, is when we can assess its value. And Piper's theology embodied (at least in my experience) often leads to ugly, impersonal, other-worldly faith that seems a far distance removed from anything resembling the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth. At the same time, I have numerous friends who are avid Piper readers or who attend "Piperian" churches -- you know these by counting the number of times he, or his recognizably particular language, is quoted in sermons -- who, faithful Christians all, find a great resource in his work for thinking, living, worshiping, and serving God in the midst of a hostile world. And I have no intention of puffing myself up to the arrogant stance of the "learned theologian" who dismisses such an influential and well-received minister of the gospel.

But he haunts me in my thoughts, and in this case, about the nature of God's sovereignty and his glory. Does God know the future in its fullness? Is everything that happens a direct result of God's choosing or ordaining it? Does God magnify himself? In response to all three, with various nuance and qualification, I say no. But neither am I done asking the questions.

4. Clergy and laity in the church catholic. I keep mentioning my tradition, churches of Christ, but that probably stems from the fact that I am largely an ecclesial and theological alien in a predominantly mainline Protestant seminary, and am thus daily confronted with the fact that I think and have been formed in vastly different ways than my peers. In that same vein, I have an instilled reaction against the flowing robes and formal distinctions of "clergy" and "laity" in Catholic and mainline, and even in some evangelical (I am unclear what that word means, but you probably know what I'm thinking of), traditions. Thus it is good for me to be learning in a place where I am forced to confront my assumptions against the clergy; at the moment, though, I just don't know what I am supposed to learn from it.

5. Discernment between acceptable disagreement and named heresy, and how to fellowship with Christians whose theology one dislikes. This leads, too, from the Piperian Specter mentioned above: namely, what to do with bad/destructive/dangerous theology? How to know the difference between orthodoxy and personal preference? What does it mean, what does it look like concretely, to be brother or sister to and with and for a fellow Christian whose theology (which always includes, and names, theology in practice) one finds disagreeable or even abhorrent? I realize the name for this is "church"; and it is not like I don't have friends who disagree with my theology and vice versa. I am just wondering how, in situations more serious and more drastic, discernment works in such a context.

6. Connections between Scripture, theology, and the freeing guidance of the Holy Spirit. I love theology. I love good theology. But a lot of theology, and even good theology, seems strangely removed from the witness, language, and emphases of Scripture. Now, I want to distinguish between exploratory theology (like Richard Beck's) and dogmatic theology. Theology that seeks to explore the contours of the endless playground of God, as Beck does so well, is the kind of wonderful, Spirit-led, playful practice in which more Christians should participate. But to a large extent, the point, the telos, is not to "arrive" at some quantifiable destination of certainty; rather, it is to run around, joyfully but seriously, in the wide world that is talk about God (theo-logy). The point is the doing, not the ending. The ending is the doing.

Dogmatic theology, on the other hand, at least as I understand it, seeks to make truthful claims about God, God's character, and God's creation. When Christians do it they do so under the authority of Scripture. Thus good dogmatic theology ought to be, in some perceivable way, biblical.

But how often do we read theology that would be totally unrecognizable to the authors and communities of the Bible? Not that there aren't a thousand things that concern us today that they wouldn't recognize, or that theology ought not to address philosophical (and ecclesial, and political, etc.) developments since the first century. All I mean is that theological claims are made with which the New Testament would likely, undoubtedly, or even outlandishly disagree. My question is: What to do with such theology, how does or ought it relate to the Bible, and what does the presence of the Spirit in the church mean for doing it?

7. Art, violence, and Christian criticism. Raised as a male in late 20th century America, I love action movies. Since developing some sense of cinematic criticism, I appreciate less the dumb action movie, but still (even more so?) appreciate the well-made action movie, or action done within a movie. Further, having come to understand the call of the gospel as a call to follow the peaceable, nonviolent, suffering and crucified Jesus as Lord, I have increasingly questioned how to understand, view, appreciate, critique, and/or enjoy action and violence in film. Concretely: I'm not quite sure I can lustily cheer on William Wallace in Braveheart with my Christian buddies. Cinematic bloodlust remains bloodlust. And we are powerfully formed by the art and entertainment intake to which we expose ourselves.

So what to do? Mark Love once spent Lent excluding violence from his life. That, in itself, names the problem for an American male: How hard must that have been! Not simply from desire, but purely pragmatically, how difficult it must be in our culture to not participate in any form of violence.

But that raises questions. What to do with the violence of the Bible? What to do with the violence of film and literature that serves a larger purpose (e.g., Schindler's List)? What to do as a(n amateur) film critic? Can I enjoy Quantum of Solace, or the Bourne trilogy, or superhero films? Are they off limits in the same way pornographic films similarly are (or should be)?

The thematic concern begins to sound familiar: I have no idea. But I'm thinking about it.


  1. I sympathize with your difficulties about violence in films. As a Christian similarly committed to peace and nonviolence, I too have found action movies to be something of a problem. My pacifism takes a hit every time I watch "Batman". There's nothing like a well-crafted story to make one feel that what Walter Wink calls the "myth of redemptive violence" may have some truth after all.
    I look forward to reading your thoughts on this issue as the year goes on.

  2. Sounds like a good year coming up for Resident Theology. I am particularly looking forward to 5 and 7. They are big questions I ask a lot as well.

  3. Matt,

    Do you think it is possible to watch Batman without buying into the myth? I'm wondering to what extent a superhero figure responds imaginatively to a need we all hunger for -- an agent of justice able, at all times, to dispense it -- and is in a different category than something like Die Hard.