Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Dancing Bear Act of Worship According to Annie Dillard

"A high school stage play is more polished than this service we have been rehearsing since the year one. In two thousand years, we have not worked out the kinks. We positively glorify them. Week after week we witness the same miracle: that God is so mighty he can stifle his own laughter. Week after week, we witness the same miracle: that God, for reasons unfathomable, refrains from blowing our dancing bear act to smithereens. Week after week Christ washes the disciples' dirty feet, handles their very toes, and repeats, It is all right -- believe it or not -- to be people.

"Who can believe it?"

--Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk, p. 20

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

An Open (Love) Letter to Churches of Christ

Dear Churches of Christ,

Recently I have marveled at just how much I owe to you, so I have decided to put it down in writing. Much of my gratitude is due to particular churches, to particular people in those churches, but I thought that I would write to you as a communal tradition, precisely because of how much you have meant to me as a tradition spread out over time and place. Not only that, but more often than not, in media or on the ground, in other churches and in your own, you get a bad rap. Whether that has been earned is not my place to say; however, you have been good to me, and I will count the ways.

You are the only church tradition I have ever known. I have been a member of three different churches of Christ, each in the three different cities in which I have lived -- for 18 years (Austin), four years (Abilene), and one year (Atlanta) respectively.

I owe my faith, my worldview, my knowledge, and my salvation to you. Of course, those are claims you might be uncomfortable with, and rightly so, for you would respond that only God gives such things. But I learned from you -- without ever naming it outright -- that God's home, family, and conduit for giving us his gifts is the church. As I found named later in Stanley Hauerwas and others, there is no salvation outside the mediation of the church. So much of what God has given me has been given through you.

I love your love for Scripture. From the day I learned to listen and to read, I was captivated by the strange new world of the Bible. I didn't know that Scripture could ever be considered optional for Christians; but neither did you beat me over the head with it. Rather, you bathed me in the story of God, his creation, and his people, and I have never left the tub. What problems existed were not unquestionable; what essentials were identified you never became dogmatic about; instead, you taught me gratitude and receptivity and reverence toward Scripture. And they have not left.

You taught me to worship. I remember visiting a different denomination with a friend as a teenager, and when we stood to sing, I grabbed a hymnbook; but my friend's father, along with his sons, gave me a strange look, and he took the book out of my hands and put it back in the pew. Then we listened silently, counting down the time until we could leave.

I could never have imagined such a thing in your assemblies. As if it were possible anyway -- you made me sing! No instruments and no choir make it tough to keep quiet and wait for lunch and football. You invited me to the throne of God -- more, you called me as a member of the household of God to praise the God of the universe. And I did, and I do.

You showed me community. "Church" was neither "thing to do" nor "place to go" -- it was a people. "Church" meant "true family," because I knew that "church" named those who would become my parents if my biological parents died. I knew men and women who would die for me, who would answer a call in the middle of the night, whose love for God meant love for God's people first and foremost. Belonging to that people meant that all who made up that people were responsible for one another, in good times and bad. I knew this not because I was told, but because I was loved and provided for.You raised me up in a sacramental life -- even as an anti-sacrament movement! I never knew church could be done without sharing in the Lord's Supper, or without having before entered into that sharing through baptism. Yet neither did you rob life and its everyday events of their divinely-infused capacities for the presence of God, such that "sacraments" -- not that I ever knew the word -- were the "special" things we did where God was "especially" present in a way God otherwise is not. Rather, I knew from our life together that God could and must be found in what seem to be the most ordinary things possible. And yet: what we did together in communion and baptism, among other things, made us who we were as God's people. Praxis is peoplehood. You taught me that.

You trained me to be a leader in the church apart from any institutional body crowning me as such, precisely because the only authority needed to minister in the name of Jesus is that of Jesus himself, who calls and gifts all, regardless of social status or barrier, to lead and minister in his church. And because Jesus is the head of his church, even as a young boy with nothing to say, you invited me to speak to and before God's people; and even as a teenager with nothing to offer, you sent me to other countries to do the same. Not only inviting or sending, you called me to do such things as the rightful expectation of any member of the community. That I am presently earning a degree in ministry changes nothing about my calling or status in the church, because I no more than any other brother or sister am expected to offer my gifts -- and only my gifts, only in humility -- for the building up of the body.

Even in your darker moments you embodied failure and forgiveness. It never occurred to me that to be a Christian meant perfection, or to be the church entailed a lack of mistakes. Sin's final extinguishing awaits in the eschaton; it is not already here in the church. Instead, the church is that place (that people) where sins are forgiven. Thus what to so many others is a faith-shaking, world-moving fall from grace when leaders confess their sins or it is "revealed" they weren't perfect, is no less tragic, but neither is it a deal-breaking surprise. Men and women will and do make mistakes, even terrible ones: but we are called to forgiveness and reconciliation, not judgment or astonishment. Even when you failed to live up to your ideals in this regard, I knew your heart.

Two things you never taught: prosperity, or sovereignty-as-absurdity. I never thought being a Christian would make me rich, nor that every itty-bitty moment of life was preordained from before all time.

Two things you did teach: faithfulness to the gospel, and hospitality. What was important was not human tradition or family or country or whatever functional idolatry might disrupt the Word of God, but faithfulness to the good news of Jesus Christ and allegiance to his Lordship alone. Similarly, because of that leveling truth, nothing could be discounted a priori as the work of God, nor any church its claims to legitimacy. In a sense, then -- and in deep, happy irony! -- you taught me the catholicity of the worldwide body of Christ, cut across every tribe, tongue, nation, color, class, gender, and (even!) denomination. The work of Christ in the church of Christ by the will of Christ was and is bigger than any human claims to the contrary. You taught me that.

For that reason, and for so many others, I am thankful to have been raised in and formed by and to belong to that ecclesial stream called churches of Christ.

In deepest gratitude and love,


[Images courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art and Daniel Erlander.]

Monday, April 27, 2009

Beware of Movements, and of Claiming Your Own!

To any and all leaders, writers, preachers, politicians, thinkers, poets, et al:

Refuse the temptation to make any claims whatsoever about the group, movement, community, tradition, or church to which you belong "growing," "swelling," "gaining momentum," "hungry for something different," or growing "at the grass roots level."

I watch Christopher Hitchens on C-SPAN's Q&A, and he says that people fed up with religion are growing. I read Jim Wallis and he says that people fed up with the Religious Right and the Secular Left are growing and are hungry for a third way. I read John Piper and he says that Christians across America and the world who ascribe to conservative Reformed positions are growing. I listen to Al Gore and he says that people tired of anti-environmental policies and practices are growing.

So many people, so many groups of vastly disparate worldviews -- all growing, growing, growing.

There are phrases usually bandied about like "We're small now, but more are joining every day" or "Every day people are realizing they're not happy with the status quo, and they're joining our ranks."

It can be implicit or explicit, religious or secular, political or business. If a leader or speaker or writer or whoever has big sales or big crowds or wins a few elections, apparently a movement must have been created, and it must be growing, and it must point to a larger movement nation- or even world-wide.

And I say: Stop it!

In his essay, "In Distrust of Movements," Wendell Berry begins by saying,
I have had with my friend Wes Jackson a number of useful conversations about the necessity of getting out of movements — even movements that have seemed necessary and dear to us — when they have lapsed into self-righteousness and self-betrayal, as movements seem almost invariably to do. People in movements too readily learn to deny to others the rights and privileges they demand for themselves. They too easily become unable to mean their own language, as when a “peace movement” becomes violent. They often become too specialized, as if finally they cannot help taking refuge in the pinhole vision of the institutional intellectuals. They almost always fail to be radical enough, dealing finally in effects rather than causes. Or they deal with single issues or single solutions, as if to assure themselves that they will not be radical enough.
The point is not just that real movements are almost always self-defeating. Neither is the point that for Christians, the only "movement" worth speaking about is the kingdom of God. The point is that any sweeping claim whatsoever for "us," for those of "us" who agree with social justice or environmentalism or conservative theology or atheism, is shallow, narrow-minded, and, ultimately, goofy. No, the whole world is not jumping on the atheist train -- nor the conservative train, nor the justice train, nor any other all-for-one train. It's just not happening. Acting as if it is happening -- usually out of comparatively tiny experiences -- is merely narcissism writ large. What is important to me and to these people who buy my books or pay to listen to me speak must represent the rest of the nation -- nay, the world!

Nope. Not even close. Your little cultural momentum will ebb and flow for a bit, before finally being swept out into the sea of history as a small blip on the radar of briefly popular fads that, like so many, took hold quickly and let go just as fast. Your work's importance is not predicated upon its expansion into macro dominance or its long-lasting effects. If it is important work, value it in all its smallness. Value it for how it improves the lives of human beings. Value it for the time it lasts, for the time it has been given.

But do not make claims which are not yours to make. And do not presume you are changing the world, much less the nation, much less the state, much less the city. Be content to be changed yourself, and for those around you to have been so changed, too, by a great miracle. Be thankful, and learn silence before speech.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Kim Fabricius

Ben Meyers' blog over at Faith and Theology is the premier theological blog on the internet. One of the primary reasons for that is the wonderful, constant presence of Kim Fabricius, an expatriate American minister in the United Reformed Church in Wales. A few weeks ago I had the happy experience of reading through his Propositions on Christian Theology: A Pilgrim Walks the Plank, which was a downright joy. In between each of his sets of ten (or so) propositions on some theological subject is a hymn/poem of sorts -- and, as he says in the Introduction, because they were written before the propositions, in a sense they are the text on which the propositions are the commentary. All that to say, they are deceptively profound, and below is my favorite from the book.

My own poem afterward is mostly unrelated, but written this week, it expresses my persistent frustration at my own fear of God's good presence.

- - - - - - -

Children die from drought and earthquake

By Kim Fabricius

Children die from drought and earthquake,
children die by hand of man.
What on earth, and what for God's sake,
can be made of such a plan?
Nothing -- no such plan's been plotted;
nothing -- no such plan exists;
if such suffering were allotted,
God would be an atheist.

Into ovens men drive "others",
into buildings men fly planes;
history's losers are the mothers,
history's winners are the Cains.
Asking where was God in Auschwitz,
or among the Taliban:
God himself was on the gibbets --
thus the question: Where was man?

God of love and God of power --
attributes in Christ are squared.
Faith can face the final hour,
doubt and anger can be aired.
Answers aren't in explanation,
answers come at quite a cost:
only wonder at creation,
and the practice of the cross.

- - - - - - -

The Violence of Peace

Your silence is hard, like
a barricade before
my freight train of busy
industry. I fear your
eyes met in prayer more than
the flames -- for there, there will
be cries and gnashing of
teeth interminable.
But alone with you I
am invaded by what
is alien to my
soul: the violence of peace
which you refuse, by what
is called grace, to forfeit
for my sake. I stop, in
terrified quiet, still
before divine glory.

- - - - - - -

Previous Sunday Sabbath Poetry

8.31.08 - Wendell Berry
9.7.08 - Will Oldham
9.14.08 - Sam Beam
9.21.08 - Woody Guthrie
9.28.08 - Derek Webb
10.5.08 - David Berman
10.12.08 - Michael Nau
10.19.08 - Sufjan Stevens
10.26.08 - Wendell Berry
11.2.08 - Maynard James Keenan
11.16.08 - Wendell Berry
11.23.08 - Psalm 44
12.10.08 - Mid-Week: Derek Webb, Rowan Williams, Cormac McCarthy, Psalm 137, and Jesus
12.21.08 - Placide Cappeau
1.04.09 - Robin Pecknold
1.11.09 - Thom Yorke
1.25.09 - Reese Roper
2.1.09 - Chris Martin
2.15.09 - Wendell Berry
3.01.09 - C.S. Lewis
3.8.09 - George Herbert
3.15.09 - Gerard Manley Hopkins
3.22.09 - Rowan Williams
3.29.09 - Walter Brueggemann
4.5.09 - Dan Haseltine
4.12.09 - Easter: Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Colin Meloy, Michael Nau, Rembrandt
4.19.09 - Jeff Tweedy

Friday, April 24, 2009

Must We Like God?

While shelving in the stacks yesterday, I came across a book by a well-known mainline bishop who writes about Christianity, faith, and culture at a popular level. As I am wont to do -- at the risk of my job! I am getting better -- I opened to the table of contents and thumbed through the book. I came to the section where a set of chapters were devoted to lambasting Scripture's supposed anti-woman misogynistic texts, none more so (to this author) than Genesis 2-3. His critique was standard hand-wringing -- all fury, no context, everything "clear to all" -- but it got me thinking about an interview I read a few weeks back with this same bishop, in which he went off on a certain highly visible and influential Christian leader for not having the courage to do or say so-and-so about such-and-such issue.

The point is neither the bishop, nor the other leader, nor his critique of the Bible. The point is this bishop's view of God and what kind of God the real God ought to be and is, and how that sheds light on Christians' relationship with, feelings about, and orientation to the God we believe is somehow witnessed to in Scripture.

Namely: Must we like God? It seems a simple question, but I have been turning it over in my mind and don't have a simple answer. This bishop, in his critique of what he perceived to be hateful texts prevalent throughout Scripture and, accordingly, the God those texts portray, sought to correct distortions of human understanding of God in order to present a proper, healthier, "truer" vision of God.

But the question is, Where did the bishop get his right understanding of God? Whence did he receive it? By revelation? By experience? By other religious traditions? By study? By reason?

The answer, so far as I can tell, and put simplistically, is that the God spoken of in the texts in question is a God the bishop did not like. This God insulted modern assumptions about what a "good" or "loving" God looks like -- about what the "one in charge" ought to be like. And so he corrected the texts' mistakes.

Now -- as I hope would be apparent to any reader of this blog -- I have no interest in swinging to the fundamentalist side and merely taking whatever the Bible (or tradition, or experience, or whatever "text" in discussion) says at what seems to be "face value," pointing and saying, "Hey, we didn't write it. That's what it says. No more thought required. Accept it, believe it, don't question it." As I've written about previously, taking cues from Brueggemann and from the Jewish community, texts always require (and indeed, even if we don't recognize it, are always in the midst of) negotiation. We see this in the texts themselves as much as anything -- in, say, the dispute over Gentiles and circumcision in Acts 15, or ritual purity laws in Jesus' ministry. Texts are not self-evident, texts are not simple. The church interprets by the guiding presence of the Holy Spirit, and is never a non-interpreting community. The moment it (thinks it) stops interpreting, it ceases to live under the authority of Scripture.

However, the question remains: Must we like God? And not merely in the abstract, as an "ought," but do we -- in concrete faith lived day to day, do we like God? And is it possible to follow Jesus, to be a member of the church, to believe, and yet not like God?

To some extent, the response of faith to the proclamation of the gospel must entail some "liking," just to the extent that the message heard and believed is heard and believed as good news. On the other hand -- and this is the dangerous end about which I find myself so concerned -- if we must and/or do "like" God as a requisite or corollary of being a Christian, does that not ultimately succumb to the critique that every religion's god is merely an extension of the self? that ultimately worship is exaltation of the self? that "God" or "spirit" or whatever is only a reflection of human beings, not of the transcendent or the Other?

Experience seems to confirm that, for the most part, we make the God we believe in into a God we can believe in: If God is or does x, and x does not sit well with me, God must not be or do x. I could not believe in that God. So I don't.

Is this right? Is it coherent? Is it Christian?

These are rich, complex questions. For now, I'll leave them for contemplation. Next week, we'll jump in and see what we find.

[Image courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.]

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Gentle Washing for the Bruised and Broken: A Cinematic Meditation on Hosea 1-2 and Rachel Getting Married

The opening chapters of the book of Hosea, the first of the "minor" twelve prophets, tell of Yahweh telling Hosea to marry a promiscuous woman (possibly a prostitute) and to have children with her (1:2-3). Israel's prophets often acted in such ways as symbolic sign-acts, embodying in their life (and not just in their speech) the word they received from Yahweh for the people. Here the symbolization is found in the unfaithfulness of Hosea's wife, Gomer, who functions as unfaithful Israel to Hosea's faithful Yahweh.

Their children are named Jezreel, Lo-ruhamah ("not pitied"), and Lo-ammi ("not my people") -- in turn, because of the injustice of the massacre in the valley of Jezreel; because Yahweh "will no longer have pity on the house of Israel or forgive them"; and because "you are not my people and I am not your God" (1:4-9). Harsh words for a rebellious people.

Verses 10-11 seem to break the rhythm with words of hope, perhaps previewing the next chapter in miniature, but 2:2-13 detail Israel's infidelity and punishment. However, verses 14-23 proclaim triumphant hope:

"Therefore I am now going to allure her;
I will lead her into the wilderness
and speak tenderly to her.

"There I will give her back her vineyards,
and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
There she will respond as in the days of her youth,
as in the day she came up out of Egypt.

"In that day," declares the Lord,
"you will call me 'my husband';
you will no longer call me 'my master.'
I will remove the names of the Baals from her lips;
no longer will their names be invoked.

"In that day I will make a covenant for them
with the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky
and the creatures that move along the ground.
Bow and sword and battle
I will abolish from the land,
so that all may lie down in safety.

"I will betroth you to me forever;
I will betroth you in righteousness and justice,
in love and compassion.
I will betroth you in faithfulness,
and you will acknowledge the Lord.

"In that day I will respond,"
declares the Lord—
"I will respond to the skies,
and they will respond to the earth;
and the earth will respond to the grain,
the new wine and the olive oil,
and they will respond to Jezreel.

"I will plant her for myself in the land;
I will show my love to the one I called 'Not my loved one.'
I will say to those called 'Not my people,' 'You are my people';
and they will say, 'You are my God.' "

Preaching on this passage, Barbara Brown Taylor says:
The moment the rains failed or the cows ran low on milk, [Gomer] was gone, leaving nothing but a note on the kitchen table: "Gone to see if I can't do better than this."

Where did she go? To other lovers, who promised everything her heart desired. ... With Ba'al, there was no dreary talk of commitment or honor, no Where-were-you-last-night? and Have-you-thought-what-this-is-doing-to-the-children? Everything was spontaneous. You did what you felt like doing when you felt like doing it, and the only rule was to do what felt best at the time. No one knew your name and you did not know anyone else's, but it did not matter. All that mattered was giving in to the sweet, hot pulse of life.

Israel always came home again, once she had taken the edge off her appetite, once she had been reminded for the umpteenth time that the grass of the other side was never as green as it looked. One morning Yahweh would hear the screen door slam and he would smell her before he saw her: cigarette butts, musty sheets, stale beer. Then she would come into the room and lean against the door jamb looking at him, a cut on her upper lip and the fading bruise of someone's strong grip on her arm, home to the husband who took her by the hand and drew her bath and tugged her torn clothes over her head while she held her skinny arms up for him like a child. (Gospel Medicine, p. 51)
This profound image recalls a similarly moving scene from Jonathan Demme's film, Rachel Getting Married. Kym, out of rehab for the wedding of her older sister Rachel and weighed down by baggage -- of addiction and, worse, of the responsibility for her younger brother's death -- commits one social faux paus after another, embarrassing herself, her sister, and her family. Events worsen after she confronts her distant, detached mother (divorced from her supportive, but still grieving father), which descends into a screaming argument and a violent strike to her mother's face. Stumbling away in horror and weeping uncontrollably, Kym attempts to drive home, but, in her disturbed state, drives straight into the woods off the road and slams into a tree. She wakes up early the next morning -- the morning of the wedding day -- the police having arrived, her eye bruised black, everything gone to hell.
She finds a ride home, walks past her father into the house, strides up to the door of Rachel's room -- having earlier not only embarrassed her sister but also gotten into a screaming argument about being her maid-of-honor -- and knocks. The door opens upon this heart-wrenching, gutted-out shell of a woman, and her sister takes in the sight slowly, up and down, a knowing look of grace already beginning to etch its way down her face, and she opens the door for Kym to enter.

The next scene is silent, except for the soft spray of the showerhead as Rachel gently bathes her sister Kym. The two exchange glances, and as Kym sits in the bathtub, her nakedness is not only literal but emotional, spiritual, familial: this is all she is, and all she has. And this washing is enacted forgiveness, the unearned grace of a sister who does not care what has happened before, but only that she might be clean again. And so they purify their animosity in an embodied reconciliation that, while it changes nothing of what has been or will be done, makes possible the space for Rachel to be married happily in mere hours, and for both to celebrate together in the free release of subsequent music and dance. That space, made possible by return and forgiveness, is love.

We are Gomer; we are Kym; we are Israel. Broken and dirty, undeserving and conscious of our sin, we return to the one who stands at the door, leaning against the door jamb, uncertain of the response. And by his two hands, Word and Spirit, he takes our own hands in silence and draws the bath, tugging our torn clothes over our head as we hold up our skinny arms for him like a child, and washes us clean.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Salutation on the Occasion of Earth Day...

To that great eminent theologian;

To that dutiful daughter of the exalted Lacey matriarch;

To that more recent, yet immediately faithful, member in the household sometimes called "Duncan" or "Spurs";

To the one who owns a Robert Horry jersey;

To the one who speaks intelligibly on matters pertaining to the National Basketball Association;

To that more recent, yet immediately faithful, member in churches of Christ;

To the one unbounded by the expectations of men or bigwigs;

To that devourer of novels, said to be able to read an entire book in a single sitting;

To the one unintimidated and unimpressed by all things Theology;

To the one slow to speech and quick to service;

To the one always giving priority to children before adults, the poor before the rich, the hungry before the fed, the ignored before the popular;

To the one always giving priority to laughter before solemnity, work before docility, play before business, simplicity before complexity;

To that fierce model of hesed to her family, immediate and extended;

To that lover of the 80s, of Goodnight, Moon and East of Eden, of The Wire and Gilmore Girls, of Sufjan Stevens and Fleetwood Mac, of Mexican food and guacamole, of Bob Schneider and Austin, Texas;

To that liberal to the end;

To that social worker disciple of the one she calls the First Social Worker;

To that beautiful, goofy, fierce, gentle, sharp woman who, happily for me and happily for our families and happily for our future children, deigned, after a long and arduous period of profound persuasion, to become my wife;

Happy Birthday!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Summer Theological Reading: What Should It Be?

Summer is a unique time for a graduate student of theology, because, while it is and ought to be a time of rest and recharging from the strenuous school year, it is also a time to read and to do all the things the normal rigors of daily graduate school life deny. Especially for someone like me planning to continue education into doctoral work in the hopes of eventually teaching, the summer is the ideal time to read all the things that don't get assigned for classes, or won't for a while.

Unfortunately, since I'll be taking German in July, I won't have the full four months of May through August for reading, but primarily May and June with a bit of August at the end. That's about 8-10 unadorned weeks (not including, of course, "real life" things like being a groomsmen in two out-of-state weddings), without homework or writing assignments, ready and hungry for self-chosen reading.

In light of such freedom so near on the horizon, I've been scouring various blogs and other resources to figure out what books would be best to give myself to. The ideal combination for which I'm searching is smaller size written by an author whom I have yet to read. At the same time, the bigger tomes are the exact books I am never able to read during a normal semester, so those might be preferable, too.

Below, I'm going to share a few generic lists I have going so far of books that seem to meet these or other qualifications. I'm hoping to be reading at least one of these per week on average (if not more), and ideally they will provide excellent blog fodder as well. Please, please, please offer any and all suggestions for other essential theological reading, whether big, small, fiction, poetry, whatever. Calling all readers and commentators! Advise me in such matters.

I should also add: For someone like me, whose "worthiness" and future depend on well-read-ness, this kind of thing is a little bit embarrassing, a kind of literary nakedness for all the world to see. It kills me that I have yet to read these guys, so important in literature and in theology! So be kind to my unlearnedness. I am working on not being overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of the task ahead.

One more note: Advise both on any further suggestions as well as what I should prioritize. I only have so much time, and want to knock out as much as possible.

Thank you in advance!

- - - - - - -

  • My People is the Enemy by William Stringfellow (currently reading, almost done)
  • Body Politics by John Howard Yoder (also reading, should be done soon)
  • Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (read through before, but need to reread)
  • The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann (same, but need a second read)
  • Dogmatics in Outline by Karl Barth (likely reading in the fall for my Systematic class)
  • The Nature of Doctrine by George Lindbeck
  • The Humanity of God by Karl Barth
  • An Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis
  • Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman
  • Love Alone is Credible by Hans Urs von Balthasar
  • The Problem of Historicity by Gerhard Ebeling
  • How (Not) to Speak of God by Peter Rollins
  • Yahweh is a Warrior by Millard Lind
  • Christ, History, and Apocalyptic by Nathan Kerr
  • Systematic Theology by Robert Jenson
  • Epistle to the Romans by Karl Barth
  • The Doctrine of the Word of God by Karl Barth
  • The Crucified God by Jurgen Moltmann
  • The One, the Three, and the Many by Colin Gunton
  • Violence and the Sacred by Rene Girard
  • Jesus -- God and Man by Wolfhart Pannenburg
  • Catholicism by Henri de Lubac
  • Ethics: Systematic Theology by James McClendon, Jr.
  • The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
  • The Gospel in a Pluralist Society by Leslie Newbigin
  • After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre
  • Engaging the Powers by Walter Wink
  • The Depths of the Riches by S. Mark Heim
  • Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein
  • The Beauty of the Infinite by David Bentley Hart
  • Between Cross and Resurrection by Alan Lewis
  • Watership Down by Richard Adams
  • The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
  • Silence by Shusaku Endo
  • The Brothers K by David James Duncan
  • Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • The Maytrees by Annie Dillard
  • Rabbit, Run by John Updike
  • Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Runaway by Alice Munro
  • What is the What by Dave Eggers
  • Rowan Williams
  • George Herbert
  • Gerard Manley Hopkins
  • W.B. Yeats
  • Walt Whitman
  • Robert Frost
  • Gjertrud Schnackenberg
  • Emily Dickinson
  • Mary Oliver
  • John Updike
  • R.S. Thomas
  • Billy Collins
  • W.H. Auden

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Jeff Tweedy

Tomorrow my wife and I are driving to Athens to see my favorite band, Wilco, for her birthday. I needn't add how happy I am to participate in such a gift! But in honor of that wonderful event -- and it is indeed an event; having seen them twice, I can testify: their 2-hour, 24-song, double-encore set in Dallas two years ago was the best concert I have ever attended (with Radiohead a close second) -- and in anticipation of their new album coming in June, I thought I would share the glorious lyrics of Jeff Tweedy. This song in particular ought to function as a playful but serious reminder in a theological forum like this one. Truly, we theologians don't know nothin' about Jeff Tweedy's soul.

My own poem hopefully offers a similar self-critique of the possibilities for capital-T "theology" to lose its footing in the actual world of messy, lived life, unable to find joy in the small, potentially "compromised" events that make up shared, neighborly culture.

First, though, let's hear Tweedy sing one of my all-time favorite songs, "Airline to Heaven." It's not an original, but part of the "Mermaid Avenue" collaborations between Wilco and Billy Bragg in which they rewrote and covered Woody Guthrie songs.

- - - - - - -


By Jeff Tweedy (of Wilco)


They don't know nothing
About my soul
About my soul

I'm an ocean
An abyss in motion
Slow motion
Slow motion

Illitterati lumen fidei
God is with us everyday
That illiterate light
Is with us every night

That don't know nothing
About my soul
Oh they don't know

They thin my heart with little things
And my life with change
Oh in so many ways
I find more missing every day


I'm going away
Where you will look for me
Where I'm going you cannot come

No one's ever gonna take my life from me
I lay it down
A ghost is born
A ghost is born
A ghost is born

I'm an ocean
I'm all emotion
I'm a cherry ghost
Cherry ghost

Hey I'm a cherry ghost
A cherry ghost

- - - - - - -

In Defense of the Super Bowl

I do not hate the Super Bowl.
The wild spectacle of it—
I know its spinning momentum,
so dizzying and addictive,
so nominally anti-gospel.
But memories testify
to good food and good times
spent in good togetherness
with rowdy men and laughing
women and playful children.
Such testimony speaks a
better word than the crass
critical apparatus of
academic theology.

- - - - - - -

Previous Sunday Sabbath Poetry

8.31.08 - Wendell Berry
9.7.08 - Will Oldham
9.14.08 - Sam Beam
9.21.08 - Woody Guthrie
9.28.08 - Derek Webb
10.5.08 - David Berman
10.12.08 - Michael Nau
10.19.08 - Sufjan Stevens
10.26.08 - Wendell Berry
11.2.08 - Maynard James Keenan
11.16.08 - Wendell Berry
11.23.08 - Psalm 44
12.10.08 - Mid-Week: Derek Webb, Rowan Williams, Cormac McCarthy, Psalm 137, and Jesus
12.21.08 - Placide Cappeau
1.04.09 - Robin Pecknold
1.11.09 - Thom Yorke
1.25.09 - Reese Roper
2.1.09 - Chris Martin
2.15.09 - Wendell Berry
3.01.09 - C.S. Lewis
3.8.09 - George Herbert
3.15.09 - Gerard Manley Hopkins
3.22.09 - Rowan Williams
3.29.09 - Walter Brueggemann
4.5.09 - Dan Haseltine
4.12.09 - Easter: Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Colin Meloy, Michael Nau, Rembrandt

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Best Time of the Year: NBA Playoffs!

April is a big month in the East house. If it weren't for taxes and end-of-semester insanity, it would be the best month. Easter, Katelin's birthday (=Earth Day), sometimes Spring Break ... and the NBA Playoffs!

I love the NBA. Some of my richest memories are of moments scattered through my childhood and teenage years, watching and falling in love with playoff basketball. Initially it was all Jordan, all the time, but once my devotion coalesced around the San Antonio Spurs, everything was Spurs-centered. In the same way that I can often pinpoint the month and year, person and place of most movies I've seen, I connect climactic Spurs- or NBA-related moments with where I was, whom I was with, etc.

For example, this clip? Watching breathlessly with my roommate in my dorm, jumping from my chair with each spectacular Kobe shot (even as my sworn enemy!).

This one? (Sorry for the lower quality.) One year ago, the first Saturday of the playoffs, with a bunch of guys sitting in Katelin's and my tiny little first apartment in Abilene -- and our explosion, exclamation, dancing on the couch as the inexplicable comeback materialized.

So: I love the playoffs. (Click here to see all of this year's playoffs commercials.) No, the NBA is not the so-called boring NBA of 10 years ago -- the quality of play today is at its highest level in at least 15 years, if not more. The possibility of LeBron vs. Kobe in the Finals ... I can't even put into words how excited that makes me.

As for my Spurs? Back in October I predicted them prevailing over the Cavs in the Finals, predicated on health, alongside the Rockets taking care of the Lakers in the Western Semifinals. With Ginobili out through the playoffs, it is almost completely inconceivable, barring a monumental collapse by Los Angeles, for anyone but the Lakers to make it out of the West. However, my great hope is for my friend Josh Love's beloved Trailblazers to deliver, somehow, a great unexpected blow and defeat them in the second round. Unlikely ... but I can hope. We'd still likely lose in the Finals to the Cavs -- but I can hope.

Let's look at my predictions for the final standings before getting to playoffs predictions. (Actual in bold.)

Western Conference
1. Los Angeles Lakers (58-24) // Los Angeles Lakers (65-17)
2. New Orleans Hornets (56-26) // Denver Nuggets (54-28)
3. Houston Rockets (54-28) // San Antonio Spurs (54-28)
4. Utah Jazz (50-32) // Portland Trailblazers (54-28)
5. San Antonio Spurs (52-30) // Houston Rockets (53-29)
6. Portland Trailblazers (48-34) // Dallas Mavericks (50-32)
7. Phoenix Suns (46-36) // New Orleans Hornets (49-33)
8. Dallas Mavericks (44-38) // Utah Jazz (48-34)
9. Denver Nuggets (42-40) // Phoenix Suns (46-36)

Not bad, if I do say so myself. The only slip-up was unknowable: the Nuggets acquired Billups and Amare's injury tanked the Suns' chances. The Lakers did better than I expected -- I figured chemistry would implode at some point, and it may have if Bynum's annual injury hadn't come when it did -- and the Hornets didn't take the next step so many predicted. Other than that ... not too shabby.

(Allow me also to exult in the Spurs' unbelievable performance last night to clinch the third spot in the West and the Southwest Division crown. Down the whole game, six seconds left, down by three ... and of course Finley nails it. And of course Duncan delivers a masterful performance. And of course Duncan has now been to the playoffs all 12 of his seasons in the league, whereas neither Shaq nor Kobe nor KG can make the same claim. Count me one proud fan. Even knowing we won't get to the end, I am so excited about these playoffs.)

Eastern Conference
1. Boston Celtics (60-22) // Cleveland Cavaliers (66-16)
2. Detroit Pistons (56-26) // Boston Celtics (62-20)
3. Cleveland Cavaliers (52-30) // Orlando Magic (59-23)
4. Orlando Magic (48-34) // Atlanta Hawks (47-35)
5. Philadelphia 76ers (50-32) // Miami Heat (43-39)
6. Toronto Raptors (48-34) // Philadelphia 76ers (41-41)
7. Washington Wizards (40-32) // Chicago Bulls (41-41)
8. Miami Heat (40-32) // Detroit Pistons (39-43)

My one big prediction -- the Heat in the playoffs solely on the back of Wade -- came true, while my thinking that the Pistons, 76ers, Raptors, and Wizards would show up this year was totally off. Really, the Eastern conference is three teams with two honorable mentions, and that's it. Although as you'll see below, I am excited to see Mr. Dwyane Wade do his postseason thing.

Now for the playoffs predictions proper.

Western Conference First Round
Los Angeles Lakers (1) over Utah Jazz (8) in 4 games
New Orleans Hornets (7) over Denver Nuggets (2) in 7 games
San Antonio Spurs (3) over Dallas Mavericks (6) in 6 games
Portland Trailblazers (4) over Houston Rockets (5) in 6 games

Lakers and Spurs picks are easy (at least for me!); the other two are tough. I say it's clear that the combination of homecourt advantage, a frothing-at-the-mouth fanbase, and a slew of primed-and-ready athletic young guys, the Blazers will take the Rockets. The 2-7 match-up between the Hornets and Nuggets is the most fascinating: two relatively even teams, each where the other was predicted by the pundits to be at the end of the year. But with the Hornets healthier than they have been, and (as Bill Simmons would say) with the best player on the court in Chris Paul, I'm taking the Hornets in seven.

Eastern Conference First Round
Cleveland Cavaliers (1) over Detroit Pistons (8) in 5 games
Boston Celtics (2) over Chicago Bulls (7) in 6 games
Orlando Magic (3) over Philadelphia 76ers (6) in 6 games
Miami Heat (5) over Atlanta Hawks (4) in 6 games

Cavs, Magic, and Heat are easy. And even with the Garnett injury, the Celtics still have the Bulls' number.

Western Conference Semifinals
Los Angeles Lakers (1) over Portland Trailblazers (4) in 6 games
San Antonio Spurs (3) over New Orleans Hornets (7) in 7 games

I think the Blazers can give the Lakers a run for the money, but once again -- only the Lakers are beating the Lakers. And, whether it's the Hornets or the Nuggets, I have faith in Timmy, Tony, and Pop -- we can make it to the Semis.

Eastern Conference Semifinals
Cleveland Cavaliers (1) over Miami Heat (5) in 6 games
Boston Celtics (2) over Orlando Magic (3) in 7 games

More than any other series other than LeBron vs. Kobe, I am beside myself with excitement over LeBron vs. D-Wade. The Cavs will prevail, but it's going to be a blast to watch. Possibly more controversially, I've still got the KG-less Celtics over the Magic. I just can't see a beat-up, trash-down-the-stretch Magic team triumphing over the heart, veterans, and Rondo-Allen-Pierce combo.

Western Conference Finals
Los Angeles Lakers (1) over San Antonio Spurs (3) in 5 games

A sad, sad sight for my eyes, but it's inevitable without Ginobili. We just won't have enough.

Eastern Conference Finals
Cleveland Cavaliers (1) over Boston Celtics (2) in 6 games

Still would've picked this with Garnett fully healthy, but now, with the way they play at home, the Cavs have it in the bag.

NBA Finals
Cleveland Cavaliers (1) over Los Angeles Lakers (1) in 7 games

And ... ladies and gentlemen, your 2008-2009 NBA World Champions: the Cleveland Cavaliers, starring Finals MVP LeBron James in an historic performance!

Be sure to keep up with all thing Spurs-related with Graydon and Tim over at 48 Minutes of Hell. Those guys are the best in the business.

And now, see you on the other side of two months. Tip-off is this Saturday, and I'll be watching that night with a Mavs fan here in Atlanta, cheering on the semi-renewed rivalry.

I love this game.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Consummation of Consolation: Yahweh's Sovereign Reversal of Exile in Isaiah 55


What to speak to a people in exile? What speech is left, prophetic or otherwise, that remains faithful without surrendering either to falsity or sentimentality? After Isaiah 1–39, in which the judgment spoken by the prophet against Israel in the late 7th century ultimately results in destruction, devastation, and deportation, a new voice speaks in 40:1: “Comfort, comfort my people.” So begins the surprising new word of consolation out of the chaos of exile in chapters 40–55, one of the most theologically and poetically rich sections of the entire biblical canon.1 Continuing in the prophet Isaiah’s tradition, the speaker has been given various labels, but for reasons to be explored below, we will refer to this nameless speaker as the prophet-preacher.

The message begins in words of comfort and sustains the theme throughout its 16 chapters, expounding and proclaiming the sovereignty of Yahweh the God of Israel over and above the nations and history (40:12-26; 45:1-19; 47:1-15); the time of punishment being over for God’s people Israel, and thus return from exile (40:2-5; 43:1-7; 48:14-22); the raising up of Cyrus, Yahweh’s anointed, to deliver Israel from captivity in Babylon (41:1-4; 44:21-28; 45:1-17); the radical nothingness of idols and their worthlessness before the one true God, Yahweh the creator of all (41:21-29; 44:9-20; 45:20–46:13); and the enigmatic salvific mission of the suffering servant(s) of Yahweh (42:1-9; 49:1-7; 52:13–53:12). In light of this larger context, Isaiah 55 is the rhetorical and theological climax of the comforting good news that Yahweh, the inscrutable God of Israel—next to whom there is none and whose word is creation’s command—is acting dramatically to lead his people out of exile and back into newly promised and restored life in the land.

Outline of Isaiah 55:1-13

I. Yahweh’s Providential Invitation to New Life (vv. 1-5)
a. Summons to Flourishing Life of Provision (vv. 1-3a)
i. Call to thirsty and hungry to eat and buy for free (v. 1)
ii. Rhetorical questioning about false food and labor (v. 2a)
iii. Exhortation to listen and receive abundant life (vv. 2b-3a)
b. Covenantal Act of Confirmation (vv. 3b-5)
i. Extension of Davidic covenant of hesed to all Israel (v. 3b)
ii. By Yahweh’s doing, David a witness and leader for the nations (v. 4)
iii. Yahweh’s exile-reversal: foreign nations will now run to Israel (v. 5)
II. Yahweh’s Sovereign Exile-Reversing Salvation (vv. 6-13)
a. Call to Repentance (vv.6-7)
i. Exhortations to turn from exilic alienation to God’s forgiveness (vv. 6-7)
b. Divine Warrant (vv. 8-11)
i. The ways and plans of Yahweh wholly unlike those of mortals (vv. 8-9)
ii. God’s word effectual like the life-producing rain and snow (vv. 10-11)
c. Promise of Return and Restoration (vv. 12-13)
i. Israel will return from exile in the celebration of all creation (v. 12)
ii. From hostile nature to forever flourishing, for Yahweh’s name (v. 13)

New Manna, New Covenant

Isaiah 55:1 begins explosively: “Ho!” The same word translated “woe” or “alas,” hoi here functions not as a negative reproval or cry of regret, but rather as a rhetorical call to arms: the beginning of the final surge of the prophet-preacher’s long message of comfort.2 The speech moves directly from this attention-getter into a string of twelve imperative or jussive verbs (vv. 1-7).3 The speaker is Yahweh, continuing from chapter 54,4 calling Israel out of the waste and nonexistence of exile, where on the surface needs may be met, but true fulfillment—abundant life by the hand of God—awaits elsewhere. As in Egypt long before (Exod 14:10-12), Israel may find itself content in captivity in Babylon (Isa 55:2a), yet Yahweh, as in the exodus, will richly provide all Israel’s needs and more. Specifically, just as Yahweh sent manna from heaven (Exod 16:1-16) and brought forth water from the rock (Exod 17:1-7), so in Israel’s coming departure Yahweh promises water and bread in plenty (Isa 55:1, 2b).

These echoes of tradition are not foreign to Isaiah 40–55. Though the prophet-preacher says in 43:18, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old,” in 46:9 he says, “remember the things of old.” On the one hand, what Yahweh is doing now is a decidedly new thing—yet the nations and their gods, and even (especially!) Israel, should have known from the past what Yahweh is capable of and prepared to do.5 The central figures in Israel’s history are prominent: the “first ancestor” (43:27; Adam?); Abraham, God’s friend and original covenant-partner (41:8; 51:2); Sarah,6 Israel’s mother (51:2); Noah of the flood and second covenant-partner (54:9); Moses (though unnamed), who led Israel out of Egypt and struck the rock in the desert, and partner to the Sinai covenant (48:21); and David, anointed one, who also formed covenant with Yahweh (55:3). Alongside these famous persons, the Zion and exodus traditions suffuse Isaiah 40–55, the former representative of the strength and vitality of Jerusalem (“Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion! Put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem”; 52:1), the latter a type for what Yahweh is about to do for captive Israel (“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you”; 43:2). In sum, the exilic prophet-preacher is awash in the formative stories of his people’s ancestral faith.

The style of these opening verses recalls Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 9:5, 11: “‘Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.’ …For by me your days will be multiplied, and years will be added to your life.”7 Westermann suggests also the evocation of the image of the water-seller in the market, crying aloud to any and all thirsty buyers,8 and Oswalt connects the language of water with the pouring out of Yahweh’s spirit in Isaiah 32:15 and 44:3.9 The call of 55:1-3a gathers all of these images, together with the manna echoes discussed above, to form a potent invitation to new and abundant life contra exilic survival. Captivity, whether in Babylon or in Egypt, is unacceptable for the people of the one true sovereign God of the earth; this call is therefore not merely material, nor a spiritualization of the material, but rather a confluence of the material and the spiritual together: all of Israel’s needs and longings and desires met and rescued and gratuitously exceeded by Yahweh the exodus God.

Verse 3b speaks the name of David for the first and only time, and “covenant” the third and last time, in all of Isaiah 40–55. Isaiah invokes David’s name in chapters 1–39 as mostly scattershot references to the “house of David” (7:2; 16:5; 22:22) or the “city of David” (22:9; 29:1), but in 55:3 it comes as a surprise, the exilic prophet-preacher’s purposes seemingly unfocused on issues related to the monarchy. Connected to berith olam, however, the reference resounds harmoniously. As discussed above, all of the major players in previous covenants show up (explicitly or implicitly) in Isaiah 40–55. The word berith itself is found twice: in 42:6, employing the notion that Israel’s covenant with Yahweh exists somehow for the sake of the nations (see Gen 12:1-3; Exod 19:4-6); and in 54:10, in comparison with the days of Noah, less an explicit reference than a poetically rich promise that Yahweh’s hesed will never depart from Israel.

In the case of 55:3b, the prophet-preacher takes up the singular pressing question for the Babylonian exiles: Has the Davidic covenant been abrogated in the destruction of Jerusalem? Psalm 89 reveals this question in bitter pathos:10 after praising Yahweh for his hesed and for his sovereignty over all creation (also themes of Isaiah 40–55), verses 19-37 recount the abundant promises made by Yahweh to David’s house as God’s anointed. Verse 38, however, ruptures the happy report: “But now you have spurned and rejected him; you are full of wrath against your anointed.” Verse 39 names the horror: “You have renounced the covenant with your servant.” The rest of the psalm goes on to describe the ways in which Yahweh has acted destructively against Israel and (the house of) the anointed. The language of 2 Samuel 7:7-16 and 23:5 speaks of an everlasting (olam) covenant, the establishment of David’s kingdom forever—yet Jerusalem lies in ashes, God’s people unable to “sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land” (Ps 137:4).

The prophets Haggai and Zechariah responded to this crisis with suggestive promises of a restored Davidic rule, making Zerubbabel “like a signet ring” (Hag 2:23) and including him as one of “the two anointed ones” (Zech 4:14). Even the pre-exilic Isaiah tradition speaks of “a child…born for us…and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom” (Isa 9:7). The prophet-preacher in exile, however, radically shifts the focus and meaning of the Davidic covenant. The covenant, once directed at one individual (and thence through his line), is now, in the coming reversal of Babylonian exile, spread to the entire people. Yahweh’s hesed for David (here in the intensive plural, possibly acting as a distributive) which made him God’s witness to the nations (55:4), now extends to all of Israel (vv. 3), so that Israel (spoken to in v. 5 in the first person masculine singular) functionally acts as that to which foreign nations now come running because of Yahweh and what he has done.11

Inscrutable, Sovereign Homecoming

Although Isaiah 40–55 is a kind of sustained new orientation after the disorientation of 1–39,12 the message of comfort is not devoid of language pertaining to the reason for exile—namely, Israel’s sin. Thus, while some scholars read 55:6-7 as a later pious interpolation into a prior cohesive speech,13 the call to repentance is not only coherent with Israel’s exilic mindset in general, it fits well in the prophet-preacher’s overall message in particular. “Who gave up Jacob to the spoiler? …Was it not the Lord, against whom we have sinned…?” (42:24). But deliverance is not conditional upon repentance; rather, repentance is a response to what Yahweh is doing and, indeed, has already done:14 “I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and will not remember your sins” (43:25). Homecoming itself is forgiveness—now is the call to turn and face Jerusalem.

As in preceding chapters (40:12-26; 45:9-19), in 55:8-9 Yahweh is the ultimate inscrutable God, utterly beyond the minds and purposes of human beings. The ways and thoughts of Yahweh are as transcendently beyond mortals as the heavens tower over the earth (v. 8-9), and so the “wicked” and “unrighteous” ought to “forsake their way…and thoughts” (v. 7).

Verses 10-11 proclaim the sovereign God whose word is creation’s command. In this concluding section, the prophet-preacher returns again to the subject of the initial oracle: “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever” (40:8).15 The Hebrew word dabar stands both for “word” and “deed” (cf. Deut 8:3), an inextricable connection between speech and action, and Yahweh’s speech is the supreme blending of the two, “the externalization of his person.”16 Like the rain and the snow always bring forth new life in the earth (v. 10), when Yahweh speaks things always happen—and so, just as Yahweh’s will prospers (tsalach) through his suffering servant (53:10), so Yahweh’s mission will prosper (tsalach) through his word (55:11).17 For the prophet-preacher’s audience, the word of comfort from beginning to end is categorically confirmed: God has spoken; you are going home.

The final two verses deliver the rhetorical coup de grâce: Israel will march out of Babylon, through the wilderness, in gladness (simchah) and restored wholeness (shalom), to the effusive, ecstatic celebration of all creation. These joyful themes have pervaded all of Isaiah 40–55: “Sing to the Lord a new song” (42:10); “break forth into singing, O mountains” (44:23); “Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth” (49:13). Though heretofore Yahweh, as creator, is often portrayed as sovereign destroyer of nature (“I will lay waste mountains and hills, and dry up all their herbage”; 42:15), finally nature resounds with praise to the God of exile-deliverance, transforming from hostile to hospitable before the word of Yahweh, for the sake of his people’s return.18 The text plants eschatological seeds for the next generation, finding its ultimate fruition in Isaiah 65:17: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth.”

Verse 13, speaking of an everlasting sign (oth olam) never to be cut off (carath), creates an inclusio with verse 3, where Yahweh makes (literally “cuts”; carath) an everlasting covenant (berit olam) with Israel.19 The return from exile, and specifically Israel as a people, will stand time immemorial leshem (literally, “for a name”; see 2 Sam 18:18; Isa 56:5) for Yahweh, as a new and everlasting sign (oth olam), having no time for the signs and wonders (othoth umophetim; Deut 6:22) of old (Isa 43:16-21).20

So far we have yet to address the designation “prophet-preacher.” The reason is simple: beside all the other traditions that pervade and enliven its words, Isaiah 40–55 is positively bathed in the language of the Psalms.21 The larger forms of lament (49:14-26; 51:9–52:3) and praise (40:12-31; 42:10-13) are present, as well as more specific language, such as Yahweh as creator (44:24-28; cf. Pss 19; 104) or creation praising God (49:13; 55:13; cf. Pss 98; 96:12: “Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy.”). In other words, the Isaianic prophet of the exile was formed by and spoke within the context of worship. He was not divorced from the life of his people, nor was he a lonely outsider speaking to those without ears to hear: he was a preacher with a congregation.

Memory, Despair, and New Life

Isaiah 40–55 is one of the most important, most contested, most appropriated sections in all of Scripture. Undoubtedly it was uniquely formative for both Jesus’ and Paul’s self-understanding of their mission and ministry. No less for Christians, the message of Yahweh’s faithful return to Israel in powerful deliverance from exile yet again was and is a central text and claim for the Jewish people. I want briefly, then, to address an issue of abiding theological importance that this text, Isaiah 55, speaks to us in particular.

God’s own people (properly oriented) were defeated and deported, drowning in the despair of exile, all hope seemingly lost (disoriented)—and yet… God showed up! The God of Israel, the one who parted the seas and delivered the law and covenanted with a people, even the one who came in wrath and destruction, that very same God of life appeared when it seemed apparent to all that death had finally had its say. Yahweh graciously delivered Israel into a new orientation of liberation, freedom, abundance, and life. And this same God is the one Christians believe submitted to the triumph of death on the cross only to burst forth into new and unbelievable life in the resurrection. This God—the God of Israel, the God of Jesus of Nazareth—is the God of the ekklesia, the God of the church, who has the power to liberate and to free and to enliven even today.

Believers in this God often fall into the trap of supposing that the absence of dramatic miracles, or the presence of suffering, exposes the truth that the God who “once” did x or y in “Bible times” is unable to work similarly today. Isaiah 55, as the crowning climax of its preceding chapters, speaks a different word: remember the things of old, because today’s God is yesterday’s God; yet do not remember the things of old, because today God is doing a new and different thing than yesterday. Just as Yahweh brought up Israel out of Egypt through the parting of the waters yet brought home the exiles from Babylon through his non-Israelite messiah Cyrus, so too God can and will come near and save us today in fresh, unexpected ways.


Isaiah 55 is the climax of the exilic prophet-preacher’s message of consolation, beginning in chapter 40, that Yahweh, the sovereign and inscrutable God of all the earth, is acting profoundly and unexpectedly to redeem and rescue Israel from exile in Babylon. Rhetorically, chapter 55 rehearses (not regurgitates) themes prevalent throughout the preceding chapters, such as new exodus, reversal of exile, new covenant, Israel’s history, Yahweh as transcendent, inscrutable, creator, and deliverer, the effectual word of God, and the doxological participation of all creation. It provides a fitting conclusion to one of the most important and influential portions of all of Scripture, and stands as the rhetorical peak of the good news for Israel that Yahweh is bringing the exiles home. As the prophet-preacher makes abundantly clear, there is only one proper response: worship.

- - - - - - -

[1] Broadly speaking, chapters 56-66 step ahead in time again, into post-exilic life in the land. For a helpful discussion, see David Petersen, The Prophetic Literature (Louisville: Westminster, 2002), 47-63.
[2] See John Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66 (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 435.
[3] Ibid., 433.
[4] See Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66 (OTL; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), 280-81.
[5] See Westermann, Isaiah, 21-27; Paul Del Brassey, Metaphor and the Incomparable God in Isaiah 40-55 (North Richland Hills: BIBAL Press, 1997, 2001), 131-32.
[6] Incidentally, this is the only place outside of Genesis where Sarah is named in the Hebrew Bible.
[7] Westermann, Isaiah, 281. For a historically later sapiential example, see Ecclesiasticus 24:19.
[8] Ibid., 282.
[9] Oswalt, Isaiah, 435. Andrew Wilson, The Nations in Deutero-Isaiah (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen, 1986), 222-23, compares the call to Cyrus’ free liberation of peoples back to their homelands, and references Clifford’s envisaging a grand cultic feast. Brassey, Metaphor, 130, contrasts the lack of cost to the cost of building idols, as well as to the tribute due suzerainty.
[10] See John McKenzie, Second Isaiah (AB 20; Garden City: Doubleday, 1967), 142; Paul Hanson, Isaiah 40-66 (Interp; Louisville: John Knox, 1995), 178-80; Westermann, Isaiah, 283-83.
[11] See George Knight, Servant Theology: A Commentary on the Book of Isaiah 40-55 (ITC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 193-94. It is interesting to wonder if David is left unmentioned until this point precisely because Yahweh’s newly anointed one, Cyrus, is so central to the overarching message. However, see Walter Kaiser, Jr., “The Unfailing Kindnesses Promised to David: Isaiah 55.3,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 45 (1989): 97, who posits that the “promise given to David is not transferred to Israel in Isa. 55.3-6; it is shared with Israel in the inception of the Davidic covenant in 2 Samuel 7.”
[12] See Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), 9-23. See also Donald Gowan, Theology of the Prophetic Books: The Death and Resurrection of Israel (Louisville: Westminster, 1998), 1-21, 146-162.
[13] Westermann, Isaiah, 288. Wilson, Nations, 278, finds in verses 6-11 a structural parallel to verses 1-5.
[14] Knight, Servant, 195-96.
[15] See Westermann, Isaiah, 289-90.
[16] McKenzie, Second Isaiah, 144.
[17] See Hanson, Isaiah, 182.
[18] For further exploration of Yahweh and nature imagery, see Brassey, Metaphor, 78-81.
[19] Wilson, Nations, 231.
[20] Ibid., 230.
[21] Here I follow the expert analysis in Westermann, Isaiah, 27-30.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

N.T. Wright, aka Mr. New Testament

I am deep in end-of-semester exegetical and theological swamps, trudging through ever so slowly, only now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Rest. Sleep. Two months of no homework (except that self-imposed...) until German in July. I am living and breathing imminent eschatology.

So, a thought and a question. Nicholas Thomas Wright is one of the most prominent, respected, and well-known New Testament scholars in the world. His scholarly pen name is N.T. Wright, which just so happens to be the same abbreviation for his field of work, the New Testament. N.T. Wright does N.T. work. Isn't that a little crazy?

Is this a unique happenstance? Is it true of anyone else? Some formulation of one's own initials is the same as the abbreviated initials of one's field of specialty/work/occupation? Does there exist any of the following:
  • Nate Bradley Adams?
  • Aaron Newton East?
  • Oliver Travis Stevens?
  • Erin Lane Crockett?
  • Pamela Draper Smith?
  • Matthew Lewis Barton?
  • Peter Reynolds Bale?
  • David Taylor Price?
  • Nathan Fuller Langston?
  • Fabio Lauderdale Snyder?
Feel free to suggest new names, match those names to their respective fields, comment on this strange phenomenon, and/or reveal actual people who also exist as abbreviations of their expertise. What a strange thing!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Cavalcade of Easter Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Colin Meloy, Michael Nau, Rembrandt

Easter is best met with a shout. So with the deepest joy and revelry let us step through this maze of a chorus of poets aching with the first fruits of new life. No other word of introduction is necessary, other than to say that the Berry and Dillard poems are edited from significantly longer works, and that the poem after Rembrandt's masterpiece (an altered portion of which is the banner for this blog) is my own reflection on the painting, which I had the great gift of seeing in person two years ago at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia.

But on to more important things: on to good news.

Christ is risen!

- - - - - - -

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

By Wendell Berry

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

- - - - - - -

Feast Days: Thanksgiving - Christmas

By Annie Dillard

Thanksgiving, creation:
outside the great American forest
is heaving up leaves and wood from the ground.
Inside I stand at the window, god,
with your name wrapped round my throat like a scarf.

. . .

I dreamed I woke in a garden.
Everywhere trees were growing;
everywhere flowers were growing,
and otters played in the stream, and grew.
Fruit hung down.

An egg at my feet
cracked, opened up,
and you stepped out,
perfect, intricate lover.

. . .

Woman, why weepest thou?
Whom seekest thou?

. . .

God send us the springtime lamb
minted and tied in thyme
and call us home, and bid us eat
and praise your name.

. . .

God empties himself
into the earth like a cloud.
God takes the substance, contours
of a man, and keeps them,
dying, rising, walking,
and still walking
wherever there is motion.

. . .

Shake hands. When I stand
the blood runs up.
On what bright wind
did god walk down?
Swaying under the snow,
reeling minutely,
revels the star-moss,

And to all you children out there with Easter bunnies
I would like to say this:
If they are chocolate, eat them.
If they are living, tuck them in your shirt.
There's always unseasonable weather.
Hose down the hutches.
For a special treat
to brighten up their winter
offer the early shoots of the wild American orchid,
the lady's-tresses,
in either of three varieties:
the slender, the hooded, or the nodding.

- - - - - - -


By George Herbert

Rise heart; thy Lord is risen. Sing his praise
Without delayes,
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
With him mayst rise:
That, as his death calcined thee to dust,
His life may make thee gold, and much more just.

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
With all thy art.
The crosse taught all wood to resound his name,
Who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day.

Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song
Pleasant and long:
Or since all musick is but three parts vied
And multiplied;
O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,
And make up our defects with his sweet art.

I got me flowers to straw they way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought'st thy sweets along with thee.

The Sunne arising in the East,
Though he give light, & th' East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.

Can there be any day but this,
Though many sunnes to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we misse:
There is but one, and that one ever.

- - - - - - -


Gerard Manley Hopkins

Break the box and shed the nard;
Stop not now to count the cost;
Hither bring pearl, opal, sard;
Reck not what the poor have lost;
Upon Christ throw all away:
Know ye, this is Easter Day.

Build His Church and deck His shrine,
Empty though it be on earth;
Ye have kept your choicest wine--
Let it flow for heavenly mirth;
Pluck the harp and breathe the horn:
Know ye not 'tis Easter morn?

Gather gladness from the skies;
Take a lesson from the ground;
Flowers do ope their heavenward eyes
And a Spring-time joy have found;
Earth throws Winter's robes away,
Decks herself for Easter Day.

Beauty now for ashes wear,
Perfumes for the garb of woe,
Chaplets for dishevelled hair,
Dances for sad footsteps slow;
Open wide your hearts that they
Let in joy this Easter Day.

Seek God's house in happy throng;
Crowded let His table be;
Mingle praises, prayer, and song,
Singing to the Trinity.
Henceforth let your souls alway
Make each morn an Easter Day.

- - - - - - -

Sons and Daughters

By Colin Meloy (of The Decemberists)

When we arrive, sons and daughters
We'll make our homes on the water
We'll build our walls aluminum
We'll fill our mouths with cinnamon, now

These currents pull us 'cross the border
Steady your boats, arms to shoulder
Till tides will pull our hull aground
Making this cold harbour now home

Take up your arm, sons and daughters
We will arise from the bunkers
By land, by sea, by dirigible
We'll leave our tracks untraceable, now

When we arrive, sons and daughters
We'll make our homes on the water
We'll build our walls aluminum
We'll fill our mouths with cinnamon


Here all the bombs fade away...
Here all the bombs fade away...
Here all the bombs fade away...
Here all the bombs fade away...

- - - - - - -


By Michael Nau (of Page France)

I will sing a song to you, and
You will shake the ground for me
And the birds and bees and old fruit trees
Will spit out songs like gushing streams

And Jesus will come through the ground so dirty
With worms in his hair and a hand so sturdy
To call us his magic, we call him worthy
Jesus came up through the ground so dirty

I will sing a song for you, and
You will stomp your feet for me
And the bears and bees and banana trees
Will play kazoos and tambourines

And Jesus will dance while we drink his wine
With soldiers and thieves and a sword in his side
And we will be joy and we will be right
Jesus will dance while we drink his wine

La la la la, la la la la...
La la la la, la la la la...

Jesus will come through the ground so dirty
With worms in his hair and a hand so sturdy
To call us his magic we call him worthy
Jesus came up through the ground so dirty...

- - - - - - -

Return of the Prodigal Son

There are faces in the darkness
Unscrapeable, candle-whispered
The sun’s shift, tiptoeing lean
And it is my face shrouded, black

There are eyes bent different ways
Impenetrably deep, pointed
Toward embrace or rejection
The hollowed shell of what should be

There are colors in the clothing
Orange cloaks and silver jewelry
A family key for who is whose
Not one not knowing the mishue

There are mistakes in memory
So forgetful through fallen time
Knees are broken like the necks of
Swine, shoes torn and slipped, head buried

There are smells unfit for a man
Trough feed and pagans intermixed
But family is pungency
Triumphant, merciful in taste

There are fits of tears surrendered
They fall like oil down Aaron’s beard
Like sprinkling an infant’s head
Drops expanding a forehead’s splash

There are hands each of another
There is no divorce of welcome
Every mother, every father
Running, running, running to meet

There are human beings embraced
In a love whose type is Father
We all, knees bruised, dung-stenched, done in
Stumble home, caught by rushing arms

There are father, son—and brother
In triune discord, jealousy
Like murky shadows on canvas
We know who we are, and we return