Saturday, May 30, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: David Ayres

David Ayres is an undergraduate student at Abilene Christian University, majoring in Bible. He was a fellow groomsman in my brother Garrett's wedding last weekend and wrote this prayer for that day, and posted it on his blog. David posts a new poem every few days, and his blog has become one of my favorites for that reason. (At the wedding we talked about wanting to find more like it, places online that collect or publish new poetry on a regular basis. If you know of such a resource, point us toward it!)

Anyway, I've paired David's wonderful poem with one I wrote recently about Dennis Prager's oft-repeated claim that unconditional love is neither biblical nor coherent when applied to God -- that it makes God a "love machine" wherein sadists and genocidal dictators are equally the recipients of God's love as children and virtuous persons. I taught a class at church once in response to Prager's argument, but perhaps poetry is the better medium. Enjoy.

[Update: I have taken down poems I am in the process of submitting for publication. I apologize for the confusion and/or inconvenience!]

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Prayer For The Day

Saturday, May 23, 2009

By David Ayres

Usually bread and wine are on the altar
to jog our memory
of things done in the past,
to remind us
of the distance left to go,
to bless us
who are so convinced of our unworthiness.
But today there are only white flowers on your table,
in celebration of our arrival to a kingdom
where your will is done.
Today we catch a glimpse of our true and present reality
us: the bride, enthralled and shining white,
you: the groom, wiping tears from your eyes.
We can't help but smile at the awesome scene,
your climactic vision.
And we thank you for being the God
of white flowers
just as you are God
of bread and wine.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Grammar of God, Part V: N.T. Wright on John Piper's Definition of God's Righteousness—Full Stop

"Fifth, there is a sense in which what Piper claims about 'God's righteousness' could be seen as going in exactly the wrong direction. He sees it as God's concern for God's own glory, which implies that God's primary concern returns, as it were, to himself. There is always of course a sense in which that is true. But the great story of Scripture, from creation and covenant right on through to the New Jerusalem, is constantly about God's overflowing, generous, creative love—God's concern, if you like, for the flourishing and well-being of everything else. Of course, this too will redound to God's glory because God, as the Creator, is glorified when creation is flourishing and able to praise him gladly and freely. And of course there are plenty of passages where God does what he does precisely not because anybody deserves it but simply 'for the sake of his own name.' But 'God's righteousness' is regularly invoked in Scripture, not when God is acting thus, but when his concern is going out to those in need, particularly to his covenant people. The tsedaqah elohim, the dikaiosyne theou, is an outward-looking characteristic of God, linked of course to the concern for God's own glory but essentially going, as it were, in the opposite direction, that of God's creative, healing, restorative love. God's concern for God's glory is precisely rescued from the appearance of divine narcissism because God, not least God as Trinity, is always giving out, pouring out, lavishing generous love on undeserving people, undeserving Israel and an undeserving world. That is the sort of God he is, and 'God's righteousness' is a way of saying, 'Yes, and God will be true to that character.' Indeed, it is because God will be true to that outward-facing generous, creative love that he must also curse those ways of life, particularly those ways of life within his covenant people, which embody and express the opposite. It isn't that God basically wants to condemn and then finds a way to rescue some from that disaster. It is that God longs to bless, to bless lavishly, and so to rescue and bless those in danger of tragedy—and therefore must curse everything that thwarts and destroys the blessing of his world and his people."

—N.T. Wright, Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision, pp. 70-71

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Come Let Us All Praise God For Love

Somewhere -- I believe in the beginning of his Works of Love -- Soren Kierkegaard connects the reality of God, or lack thereof, with that of love: If we know a priori that there can be no such thing as God, how can we explain the pervasive existence and acceptance of something as ephemeral, unwieldy, and invisible as love? The question recalls the later theme which marked all of G.K. Chesterton's work -- namely, the problem of pleasure: Why not ask, instead of why there is so much pain and suffering in the world, why there is so much good, so much that is joyful and happy? The widespread presence of pleasure reveals for Chesterton -- as clearly as anything might -- the inexhaustibly overflowing source and giver of all good gifts, a God who has created and infused the world with his own exuberant giddiness.

The suggestions of both men came to mind this past weekend in the midst of my brother's wedding festivities. My wife and I got married about a year and a half ago, I was in a wedding last October, I was a co-best man for my brother this weekend, and I'm in two more weddings this coming August and October. Weddings are on the mind! 'Tis the season.

And so I was surprised to find myself so baffled and bowled over by the sharp-lined, clear-eyed face of love that found me and stared me in the eye this weekend.

At my own wedding there were a thousand things going through my mind leading up to, during, and afterward: pack, remind, meet; eat, drive, dress; sit, stand, wait; walk, stop, don't lock knees; watch, listen, repeat. So many things, all at once. I was in the moment during the ceremony but I was also caught in the waves of myriad thoughts, memories, feelings, and duties, such that clarity was probably the only thing not mixed up in the swirl that is the experience of a wedding. And that is undoubtedly a good thing.

But this weekend, whether because it was my brother or because it wasn't me (or for some other reason), I felt the gift of clarity. And in the momentousness of the events I was lead over and over to this central question: Why love? Why do we assume love is normal? How can we possibly take it for granted? There is, hands down, nothing normal about love. It is, as was read during the ceremony from Song of Songs, as strong as death. It overwhelms the senses, the mind, the heart. It is bodily yet out of our hands. It hits us without request and may leave when desired most. It commits us to the most radical persons and causes and groups, and leads us to reject just as many. It tells us time and time again that at this time, in this moment, in this place, whatever I say is unquestionably right. And we trust that voice. We give ourselves to it. We say, My life is now in your hands. We are undone by love, recreated by love, handed over to our best or worst selves by love. Love is never not the pursuit, never not the telos, never not the essence of a life well lived. To live is in so many ways to be able to say, I have loved and have been loved. Love encapsulates human life.

Yet we think this ordinary! We think it normal! We think it everyday and part of the stages of growing up!

Nonsense.

Love is not ordinary, normal, natural, or intrinsic. Love is not anything we could rightfully expect or even ask for. Love, put as simply as possible, is not ours to have.

Love is gift. Love is from God and is God. Love is the best and only way we know to name the one who is our source and end, our sustainer and savior, our judge and friend. The one who eternally is love, in himself, in his own self-relation, that one gives unaccountably and inexhaustibly to us of himself, of the love that is his own life. And we know and have and give and share in love only to the extent that Love Himself knows and has and gives and shares with and for and to and in us.

That is what I came face to face with so abruptly and startlingly this weekend. It is not our possession; it is not natural; it is nothing to assume or take for granted.

But it is real, and it is ours as a gift.

Praise God for the gift of love.



[Image courtesy of Daniel Erlander.]

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Kevin Hart

I discovered the Australian poet Kevin Hart through the off-hand recommendation of Ben Meyers on some random post of his, and scribbled the name down, hungry for a living Christian poet worthy of commendation by a theologian! I'm still working my way through one of his collections, Flame Tree, but I have already fallen in love. The poem below is my favorite so far, and I also read it as a blessing for my brother and (now) sister-in-law at their rehearsal dinner Friday night, both being wonderfully eschatologically-minded and planning to do international mission work in the future. In light of Hart's poem, my own afterward is a kind of satirical mirror, something I wrote more than a year ago in the midst of a minor poetic renaissance with Wendell Berry's sabbath poems as the central impetus. With that in mind, enjoy!

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The Last Day

By Kevin Hart

When the last day comes
A ploughman in Europe will look over his shoulder
And see the hard furrows of earth
Finally behind him, he will watch his shadow
Run back into his spine.

It will be morning
For the first time, and the long night
Will be seen for what it is,
A black flag trembling in the sunlight.
On the last day

Our stories will be rewritten
Each from the end,
And each will end the same;
You will hear the fields and rivers clap
And under the trees

Old bones
Will cover themselves with flesh;
Spears, bullets, will pluck themselves
From wounds already healed,
Women will clasp their sons as men

And men will look
Into their palms and find them empty;
There will be time
For us to say the right things at last,
To look into our enemy's face

And see ourselves,
Forgiven now, before the books flower in flames,
The mirrors return our faces,
And everything is stripped from us,
Even our names.

- - - - - - -

Marcionites, Unite!

O friends of the earth, you are
my enemy. There is a
violence within me—it is
irreconcilable. Your
friendship is despicable,
your stewardship revolting,
your hospitality a
farce. As if the world will not
end. Ever. Your eyes are blind
to the fire of God—it is
coming, and you haven’t a
prayer. Your conservation will
come to naught: a laughingstock
of misplaced priorities.

Where, O huggers of trees and
bastard children of mother
earth, will your vaunted crea-
-tion be then? It will be done.

And the lilies and the sparrows,
the lions and the lambs, the
trees and tombs and skies and seas—
don’t you know? The elements
will be consumed! Consumed by
the mouth of a God repulsed
by your ways; and more, by the
dirt, and muck, and sloppiness
of your holy ground—your land—
your seasons—your mercy seat—
your infestation—your hell.

Thank the God of the heavens
that a day of judgment is
coming. For you and your ilk.
For you and your beloved
dirt. For you and that which the
eternal neither loves, nor
forms, nor sustains, nor enters.
Our God is in the heavens,
and we will bid this wretched
place a final farewell at
last. On second thought, keep it;
who’d want the thing anyway?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: A Liturgical Reading of Psalm 51 and Romans 7:14-8:1

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.

Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.

As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh.

Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge.

For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.

Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.

Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;

you taught me wisdom in that secret place.


For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.

Let me hear joy and gladness;

let the bones you have crushed rejoice.


So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.

Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.


For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

Do not cast me from your presence

or take your Holy Spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation

and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways,

and sinners will turn back to you.


What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Deliver me from bloodguilt, O God,
you who are God my Savior,

and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.

Open my lips, Lord,
and my mouth will declare your praise.

You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;

you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.


So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God's law, but in my flesh a slave to the law of sin.

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart

you, O God, will not despise.


Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Hello Again, Dusty Flatlands of Western Texas

My wife and I are off to dusty ol' Abilene for the next week and a half for my younger brother Garrett's wedding. I'll do my best to post when I can, but other than a couple Sunday Sabbath Poems, there'll probably be as many tumbleweeds around these parts as those attacking my sinuses in west Texas. A few notes before I head out.
  • Anyone see Lost's phenomenal season finale? I can't believe we are 17 episodes away (although still another year) from the end. For endless talkback and theories, see AICN's post; here's a solid wrap-up by Drew McWeeny; and I'm sure Todd VanDerWerff will have his huge write-up by tomorrow afternoon over at The House Next Door. (On a biblical-theological note, just like Battlestar Galactica, the spiritual themes are potentially becoming overt rather than covert. The talkbackers are already deeming the "other guy" with Jacob as none other than Esau. Can't wait to explore this next year.)
  • You'll be hearing much more from me about him soon enough, but for now: Go read Kevin Hart.
  • June 30 is the day Wilco (The Album) comes out. Now is the time you can hear it for free streamed online.
  • An epic three-part email exchange/debate (largely centered around NBA matters!) between Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell!
  • From a guy raised by his dad on all things Star Trek, who got to watch J.J. Abrams' magnificently fun, gloriously faithful reboot on IMAX on opening night: Thank you, sir. Thank you.
  • So, my NBA playoffs predictions haven't turned out so hot. The Finals pick stands.
  • In the classroom that plays in my head, stashing away ideas for the future, I open class by playing these two videos back to back: Dr. King's famous speech against Vietnam, and John Piper's response to President Obama on abortion. I can only imagine the wealth of riches that would open up in the ensuing discussion (if engaged with grace and without vitriol) on Christian ethics, the witness of prophetic preaching, and the call of the church in America. I recall Stanley Hauerwas asking when was the last time you heard a sermon on abortion or war. There you go!
  • A fascinating but ultimately sad strand of comments following a post which was originally in response to a host of questions around the theological blogosphere. My God, we have to learn to talk to one another. Or we have to learn when to close the laptop and when to grab coffee together. Or, most importantly, we have to learn how to worship with one another. So many of our problems seem rooted in that unfortunate inability. May God help us to find peace and healing in and from our division at his table alone ... and then, only then, may we return to blogging.
And with that, I'm off. See you soon.

Monday, May 11, 2009

From Basketball to Theology: A Brief Story of Love and Vocation

In elementary school I was a three-sports kid, each according to the season: soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter, baseball in the spring. In third grade I decided I would leave behind baseball, my least favorite but best played sport. While I would continue to play recreational soccer for a couple years, that sport, my second-best played, would also fall away. Most importantly, I declared to my parents, I would put all of my energies and hopes into that sport in which I had no particularly clear skills or physical advantages yet was unequivocally my favorite.

Basketball.

A bewilderment to my parents, the logic was clear as day to me. I didn't like baseball, soccer was fine -- but I loved basketball. It had stolen my heart. So it was beside the point that I was neither tall nor quick, neither post nor shooter, neither dribbler nor defender. Why would I possibly give myself to anything else?

So I played. And I improved, to a point. My last days of glory were spent riding the bench of the JV team my sophomore year of high school -- a team, as it happened, led by A.J. Abrams to a season one-missed-buzzer-beater-short of undefeated -- and that was that. I never questioned my decision, because it was one made out of love, and not out of peer pressure, parental pressure, or (God forbid) a realistic consideration of my talent. And now my love lives on vicariously in the San Antonio Spurs.

This story came to mind in reflection on theology as vocation. I was always a bit of a nerd, always got good grades. Both of my parents earned their degrees in electrical engineering, and my dad has been with IBM for more than 25 years. Apart from my NBA ambitions (ahem), I always assumed implicitly that I would follow in the general family path of engineering/business/management. Why not? I'd be good at it, I'd make money, my family would be provided for. Sounds like a good life.

But like baseball, I had no love for that future. I know plenty of people who have and do, so it is no slight on that realm of professions to say it held no interest for me. My vocation simply did not and could not lie in that direction.

Film was probably the soccer element here. I did and do have profound love for cinema, and considered going into the film industry as a writer and/or director (or cinematographer!). But for various reasons I decided against that future, not least due to the slow realization of my calling.

So, sitting at the dining room table on the cusp of my senior year in high school, tomes full of college and career advice and information spread out before my parents and me, what was the ticket? What might be my future? To what was I called? What was my vocation?

What, in other words, did I love?

There was the answer. I knew I loved theology: that wide mystical world of endless talk about God, and everything having to do with God, and all the endless spirals and tangents bursting out from that supreme Subject. The moment I heard the suggestion, there was no turning back -- and in six years, I haven't for a moment. There was an actual profession open to me which would consist in reading, teaching, speaking, thinking, discussing, and writing on the things pertaining to God. How could I refuse? That vocation into which I have been called will even pay the bills -- won't it? -- and with my whole heart, billowing up out of the depths of my life and my mind, expanding into every facet of experience and thought, I love it.

And, in the profound knowledge that so many either do not have the opportunity to realize such a decision or are not given the answer in as blinding a clarity or as early a time, I have only gratitude.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Waldo Williams

I came across Waldo Williams at the end of The Poems of Rowan Williams, in which the Archbishop translates a handful of poems from various Welsh poets. Waldo Williams (should I just refer to each by his first name?), according to Rowan, "was perhaps the foremost poet of his generation in the Welsh language, a visionary pacifist whose moral and cultural influence was (and is) immense; he was a brilliant exponent of classical Welsh forms, though he could also write in a more 'free' style" (p. 24). Sometimes the poem I share has been something that has stuck with me for a while; this one I'll be living with in the coming weeks. The last sentence seems to share deep affinity with Yoder's famous passage about apocalyptic that serves as the epigraph of Hauerwas's With the Grain of the Universe: "the apocalypse of a glory pain lays bare."

Amen and amen.

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Die Bibelforscher

For the Protestant martyrs of the Third Reich

By Waldo Williams (as translated from the Welsh by Rowan Williams)

Earth is a hard text to read; but the king
has put his message in our hands, for us to carry
sweating, whether the trumpets of his court
sound near or far. So for these men:
they were the bearers of the royal writ,
clinging to it through spite and hurts and wounding.

The earth's round fullness is not like a parable, where meaning
breaks through, a flash of lightning, in the humid, heavy dusk;
imagination will not conjure into flesh the depths
of fire and crystal sealed under castle walls of wax, but still
they keep their witness pure in Buchenwald,
pure in the crucible of hate penning them in.

They closed their eyes to doors that might have opened
if they had put their names to words of cowardice;
they took their stand, backs to the wall, face to face with savagery,
and died there, with their filth and piss flowing together,
arriving at the gates of heaven,
their fists still clenched on what the king had written.

Earth is a hard text to read. But what we can be certain of
is that screaming mob is insubstantial mist;
in the clear sky, the thundering assertions fade to nothing.
There the Lamb's song is sung, and what it celebrates
is the apocalypse of a glory
pain lays bare.

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Prayer for Silence

Heal my noise, O God.
Drown the bayonet-
Fit tides of volume
Rising within the
Skull from chin to crown.

Silence my violence,
O God, within the
Gnarly thorns of your
Bloody shalom. Find
Me in paradise.

Be still all my wars,
Lion of Judah.
By an outstretched arm,
Sullied by nail's round
Socket, wash me clean.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

11 Theses on Faithful Theological Dissent, or: How to Be a Heretic Without Being a Tool

In the same way that college is that time when students cast off the chains of tradition or parental bounds or conservative ideology or whatever, seminary is that place where students feel liberated from their previous (insert word for whichever prior unenlightened perspective they held) and accordingly feel free to preach the good news to any and all within earshot, in a spirit of evangelistic fervor and confidence they heretofore had never felt for the actual gospel. Because serious theological reflection is a virtue in seminary, and thus students ought to have their worlds shaken to some extent, the ensuing theological shrapnel, disordered and painful, ought not to be discarded or ignored or discouraged as if the experience is unexceptional. Rather, students ought to be taught, led, and formed in such a way that the theological bombshells laid before them neither send them running for cover nor lead them to the high-and-mighty condescension of having finally reached the theological nirvana unmet by so many of their peers -- "peers" meaning "congregations." There is a way to be faithful in the midst of so much tension and questions; and the following are some suggestions to keep one's theological head on straight even in disagreement.

(A reference and a caveat: I especially appreciate Ben Meyers' thoughts on theological education, so go read them first. As well, know that I am speaking of and to orthodox Christians in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan tradition. Even writing that sounds haughty or exclusive, but it is the best identifier I know, and I have no idea what guidelines might be offered to "anyone" experiencing theological education. With that in mind, enjoy!)

1. No scholar, theologian, saint, bishop, deconstructor, ideology, professor, or preacher in all of history has discovered the answer. Attachment, therefore, in rigid discipleship to any such person, ancient or living, is foolish and unhelpful to the extent that it both creates an allegiance which makes enemies of those those who do not share membership in the club and substitutes a merely human expositor of Christ for Christ himself.

2. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever identify your own perspective on any issue whatsoever as "radical." Nearly every viable theological perspective strives in some way to be, or to present itself as, "radical" because "radical" means "revolutionary" as well as "from the root" -- all things attractive to non-members. What it really means, however, in academic jargon is "more committed to x issue than you." If you value being radical -- whether regarding church, politics, poverty, sex, gender, race, media, whatever -- live out your convictions. Do not inform others of your own radicalism.

3. Develop the self-awareness to know that any overarching, newly discovered, or subordinate theological or social system of thought is inherently transitory. That is not to say one ought to reject such systems of thought (Thomism, dialectical theory, Radical Orthodoxy) or to treat them with disdain -- only to remember that not only are they not The Answer (see #1), but also that what you believed yesterday is not stupid, what you believe today is not infallible, and what you believe tomorrow may yet replace today's yet-to-be-discovered flawed worldview -- and tomorrow's will still not be "it"!

4. Explicitly or implicitly the centrality of Scripture for Christian faith and praxis cannot and must not be replaced. Origen, Augustine, Thomas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Barth, Yoder, et al, are, every one of them, servants of the Word. The same goes, in various ways, for the traditions they represent. Their and others' writings, alongside your own opinions, do not negate or antiquate the question, "What does the Bible say?" It is not the only question, nor is it necessarily the most important (for example: "What is the will of God?"), but it is the question for the people of God when treading the depths of theological thinking and especially when training ministers and theologians for service in the church. The moment that question becomes passé is the moment "Christian" is removed as a descriptor for theology or ministry.

5. If you are led by a class, your reading, or experience seriously to question, reformulate, or reject a practice or tenet of faith kept by the church's tradition throughout history, do not be hasty in your judgment or decision. It may well prove that you are right or that you cannot honestly go on without changing your belief or practice, but beware of swift turnabouts devoid of long discernment and communal wisdom. Perhaps you read Yoder and cannot go back regarding violence and discipleship, or you hear a compelling case made for the ordination of gay Christians and are shot to the core; but do not reject your friends, leaders, church, tradition, or previously-appreciated authors: in fact, do not reject anything. Be patient in prayer and discernment, and trust that God has not abandoned you to discover alone what is true and right. You belong to a people, and the fact that university education in America wants you to believe that you are an individual master who must settle in your own mind a thousand minute points of fact or opinion does not mean seminary, however similar in practical function, asks the same of you.

6. Learn the virtuous practice of hospitality to strangers -- both personal and ideological. There is a rhetorical way of excluding any possibility of sane disagreement with you, and it goes something like this: "I know of no respectable scholar who holds such a view..." Such a statement is the equivalent of saying, "Nobody likes that guy. He's a dork." Instead, learn the practices of friendship and of love for enemies, otherwise known as hospitality. There will be fellow students whom you dislike, just as neighbor and congregant alike are not tailor made for your pleasure; this is for your benefit. Learn to love them, to be their friend -- and likewise to love their (potentially) wrong opinions, to befriend their thoughts. You never know when you might be entertaining (theologically proficient yet simplistically deceptive) angels. Practically, this means reading John Piper if you prefer Joel Green, Neuhaus alongside Hauerwas, Heim next to Hick. Learn to listen.

7. Find and bind yourself to a church community. You will be swept away by the tides of ever-changing theological perspectives if you do not belong to a local church (and, furthermore, if you do not have some kind of spiritual mentor). This might be my greatest pet peeve: Listening to a fellow seminarian discuss some subject derisively regarding an item of high regard in most churches, him or herself not actually belonging to or even attending a local church body. Not only does it slice the legs of your credibility right out from beneath you; it ensures from the outset that you will be a cloud without rain, carried along hither and thither, rather than rooted in the foundation of the life of God's people.

8. Unequivocally, it is okay -- indeed, not only okay but properly Christian -- not to know everything. To be sure, theology as vocation (ministry included) is a hard road. You are expected to be able to comment intelligently on just about every subject under the sun. But it is essential to recognize human limitation: theologian neither as renaissance man nor as intelligentsia. Nor as con man. It is untenable to know every good theological book, every good literary work, every good poet, every good movie, every good composer, every good band, every good piece of art, every historical event, every modern political machination, every religious fact. It is not only untenable but impossible and ludicrous. Thus you will be tempted to act as if you know these things even when you do not. To be a commentator when not a reader or participant. Do not quote or cite or offer an opinion on that which you do not know! It is academic gossip, and nothing less.

9. Keep following Jesus. The joy of obedience does not find its vacuum in seminary. Supposed liberation from this or that "archaic" tradition or moral injunction does not free you from continuing to walk the narrow path of discipleship. So you realize the Bible is not the Prohibitionist Manifesto -- don't start getting drunk! So you hear someone wax an elephant (hat tip, John Willis) on Christian sexual ethics as properly lax -- don't start sleeping around! In the same way, social issues, however important, cannot trump Jesus or his church such that they become a means to a larger social end. Rather, learn true sociality (and thus true justice) in the life of that church which follows Jesus Christ.

10. Be on your guard against prefacing comparisons or explanations of your theological perspectives, especially with or over against others', with "my." To describe a conviction you hold as "my ethics," or to explain your difference of opinion with another by beginning, "My theology is/does not..." is narcissistic and even goofily overbearing. "You" do not have "an" ethics or "a" theology. You have theological, ethical, social, ecclesial views and perspectives and opinions and thoughts -- all belonging to a mostly disordered but perhaps sometimes coherent worldview -- but the only capital-T theology which is "yours" is that of the church. It is (sometimes) good to differ in opinion or even conviction from the church on this or that matter, but you are differing precisely on a matter which belongs to the church -- to which you belong! Thus "you" do not "have" a hermeneutics; you submit to a hermeneutics found in the church's reading of Scripture. Theology is not an Easter egg hunt in which you run around like a chicken with its head cut off, swiping this or that opinion until you build up your own personal mountain of unassailable Truth. The people to which you belong, the church, is the proper home in which theology abides. To the extent that you are welcomed and schooled in the practice of participating in it, do so. But it is never your possession, and it is never atomistic. Do not fall into the temptation to think otherwise.

11. Swearing is not cool. What society deems vulgar or unfitting language may be required or defensible at times -- following not far behind the daring speech of Israel's prophets, or, analogously, Stanley Hauerwas -- but you have not discovered what was so long stifled or repressed in small or conservative communities yet now gloriously revealed, namely, that cussing is awesome. Consumerist hip culture might have goaded you into thinking that such "rebellion" is cool but it is not. If what you have to say can only be said coated in language offensive for the sake of being offensive, learn again the virtue of disciplined speech -- and better yet, silence.




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

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Towards or Away From Suffering?: The Legend of Quo Vadis

A guest post by Garrett East


I first encountered the legend of Quo Vadis while reading The Cross In Our Context by Douglass John Hall. It is a story that comes from a 2nd century apocryphal document called The Acts of Peter. I wish it made it into our Bibles. I think it provides a vision for the Christian life better than almost anything I have read. Here is how the story goes:

Peter is walking along the Appian Way having just escaped being crucified in Rome. Behind him smoke is rising from Rome where Christians are being crucified and burned alive by Nero. As I understand the story, Peter is not walking away out of fear or cowardice, but because he has been convinced by the Christians in the city that he is too important to the Christian movement to allow himself to be killed in Rome. He must get out and continue to lead the church elsewhere.

As he is walking, though, he has a vision of Jesus walking past him towards Rome carrying a cross over his shoulder. Peter asks him, Quo vadis, domine? “Where are you going, Lord?”

Jesus responds, “To Rome, to be crucified again.”

Hearing this, Peter turns and follows Jesus back into Rome where the legend says he is crucified upside down.

What would it look like for Christians to embrace this story as paradigmatic for the church's mission in the world? Maybe we would be people defined by walking towards the suffering of the world, rather than away from it. Maybe we would be people who, rather than asking where we should go, would continually ask the question, Quo vadis, domine? Where are you going, Lord? And we might then respond to Jesus by following him into the places he is going. Maybe we would be people who recognize that the cross is not a loss, but a victory; that self-giving rather than self-preservation is the way of Christ; and that sometimes, being with people in their suffering is more important than being for them.


[Image courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art.]

Monday, May 4, 2009

Notes for the Professor, #3: Anathema on All Snobbery and Aloofness

This is an ongoing series I began back in February, intended to aid both myself as a (hopeful) future professor and anyone currently in the field looking for pointers from the other side. I am convinced that the single greatest trait a professor can have is openness, willingness, intentionality about exploring new and better ways to teach -- including stopping bad habits. So I hope to nip bad habits in the bud before they happen, and to form good habits before I start. I intend to be more specific than teaching in general: concrete actions or focused principles that will enhance an actual university (or seminary/graduate) class of students. Feel free to get in on the conversation, to critique my ongoing notes, or to suggest new ones I have yet to think of.

Note #1: Novels/Poetry as Assigned Reading
Note #2: Never Penalize Good Decisions

Professorial Note #3: Anathema on All Snobbery and Aloofness

Snobbery is one of the most dangerous and harmful aspects of the modern university system. Everybody knows the stereotype of the snooty professor looking down his nose on the pitifully stupid student. Similarly, a professor may not act higher and mightier than students, but it is abundantly clear how removed he or she is from any concerns about grades, life, whatever. And to be sure, the combination of these traits is supremely deadly!

It should go without saying that there is no place for such characteristics in a seminary or school of theology. Fortunately, I have had little contact with such professors, but the sad fact of the history of academic theology is that too often it has been conducted by stuffy white men not only external to the church but unfamiliar with (or unfriendly toward) normal forms of non-academic life. One conjures the image of the gray-haired, bow-tied, bespectacled man -- grave and measured in his impeccable speech -- unable to have a conversation with the "hip" younger guy in everyday language.

Snobbery is obvious; we know it, we know why it's unacceptable. Aloofness, however, is more complicated. Aloofness is a message the professor speaks silently to students, a kind of teacher-pupil body language, namely: I don't care enough about you to do more than the minimum required by my job. You may think grades are important; ho hum. You may have been sick but not gotten a note; thanks for sharing. You may not learn the one way I teach; that's nice. If your concerns are not my concerns already, I have no interest in listening to you.

Any person self-identified as a teacher who exhibits this kind of attitude toward students doesn't deserve the name and disgraces the vocation. The refusal of empathy is profound in its derisiveness. Grades matter; life outside of the confines of class matters; actually learning the material matters. Not caring, or floating along unaffected by such concerns, is simply unfitting for a professor.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Gjertrud Schnackenberg

A friend recently introduced me to the poetry of Gjertrud Schnackenberg, a present-day award-winning American poet, and in contrast to much of my usual preferences, her long-form narrative style is intoxicating. Her poem below is the first of a three-part meditation on 15th-century Venetian Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna's painting The Lamentation Over the Dead Christ, posted below it.

My own is simple enough, but not unrelated. (I continue to introduce my own poems with one-word sentences that reveal nothing. Should I just leave well enough alone? Hm.)

Anyway, I hope you find her depth of reflection and language equally meaningful.

- - - - - - -

Christ Dead

Andrea Mantegna

by Gjertrud Schnackenberg

Found among the painter's
Possessions at his death,
Something, of which one glimpse
Will wound your soul forever

Something you seem to glimpse
Through intermediate planes of haze,
As if beyond overturned blocks
Of carved, square stone,
Something lying at rest,
Lying alone, even beyond
The nameless "uncarved block"—

As if you put your eye
To a chasm in the wall and beheld,
Through a caesura in the kingdom,
Through a space you cannot squeeze through,

The radiance of true exile
Where he lay in Sion a stumbling block
And a stone of offense, but here
Pictured in a perspective so narrow
You may only rest your forehead
On the ancient mortarwork
That holds you back from him.

So that, before this open tomb,
Pressing your face against the stone,
Seeing these lips that have touched
The bitter bread, halted
Before these wounded feet you cannot help
But reach for, as if you could
Take them in your hands,
You cannot refuse
To bow your head.

- - - - - - -

Last Gasp of the Old Man

O, that the tendrils of
your peace would wrap around
my neck and squeeze the life
out of the old man, like
a beast out of time, like
a dragon from the sea,
like Lewis's angel
fierce in stare and spear's thrust,
like a great horror from
the minds of Lovecraft and
King come to put me to
death: asphyxiation
no different in kind than
your own crucifixion.

- - - - - - -

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
4.26.09 - Kim Fabricius

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Grammar of God, Part IV: Honoring Bad Theological Language

Sometimes proper speech for God means first honoring improper speech for God. While it is eminently important that we discover through wise discernment how our speech does and does not faithfully speak of the triune God revealed in Christ, it is even more crucial that we learn the humility and grace not to be Theology Nazis who patrol churches and seminaries, books and blogs for "bad" language in need of our "good" correction. Listen to Marilynne Robinson describe "simple snobbery" in her essay "Puritans and Prigs" (The Death of Adam, pp. 163-64):
Recently I saw a woman correct a man in public -- an older man whom she did not know well -- for a remark of his she chose to interpret as ethnocentric. What he said could easily have been defended, but he accepted the rebuke and was saddened and embarrassed. This was not a scene from some guerrilla war against unenlightened thinking. The woman had simply made a demonstration of the fact that her education was more recent, more fashionable, and more extensive than his, with the implication, which he seemed to accept, that right thinking was a property or attainment of hers in a way it never could be of his. To be able to defend magnanimity while asserting class advantage! And with an audience already entirely persuaded of the evils of ethnocentricity, therefore more than ready to admire! This is why the true prig so often has a spring in his step. Morality could never offer such heady satisfactions.

The woman's objection was a quibble, of course. In six months, the language she provided in place of his will no doubt be objectionable -- no doubt in certain quarters it is already. And that is the genius of it. In six months she will know the new language, while he is still reminding himself to use the words she told him he must prefer. To insist that thinking worthy of respect can be transmitted in a special verbal code only is to claim it for the class that can concern itself with inventing and acquiring these codes and is so situated in life as to be able, or compelled, to learn them. The more tortuous our locutions the more blood in our streets. I do not think these phenomena are unrelated, or that they are related in the sense that the thought reforms we attempt are not extensive enough or have not taken hold. I think they are related as two manifestations of one phenomenon of social polarization.
Later in a different essay Robinson speaks of a separate but related reality, what she calls "the tyranny of petty coercion": "the conservation of consensus, that is, the effective enforcement of consensus in those many instances where neither reason nor data endorse it, where there are no legal constraints supporting it, and where there are no penalties for challenging it that persons of even moderate brio would consider deterrents" (p. 256).

These words from the master -- being the author of both Gilead and Home, I can think of no more fitting title -- provide a healthy foundation for the kind of infusion of grace we need as Christians, but especially as theologians and ministers. Two brief case studies should suffice.

The first is from Ben Meyers' wonderful blog Faith and Theology, a recent post he wrote on the Green Bible. Apparently the language from the Green Bible's self-description, about "caring for the earth [being] not only a calling, but a lifestyle," irked Meyers' sensibilities, particularly the phrase "lifestyle" -- as if the Christian vocation is one "lifestyle choice" among a host of others, which we put on and take off like any of the other hipster fad t-shirts in our closet. And to be sure, he has a great point, and I defended the post in the comments.

But there is a larger context here. Perhaps the editors and collaborators on the Green Bible should have known better as professionals, but if I were to hear a member at church refer to discipleship or faith (or caring for the earth) as a "lifestyle," I would rightly hear what they meant but likely did not have the words for: vocation. Which is only to remember that few people have the time, training, or faculties to be constantly on top of what this or that word means at any one moment. That is why theologians and preachers are those who should "be up" on such matters, as they are the ones who most (or ought to) form our language and thought worlds -- but we cannot expect such professional accuracy of the average Christian!

The same goes for books representing "bad" theology, or whose messages we don't like. For example, Rick Warren is an easy whipping boy for theology's self-proclaimed guardians (at least by their actions) of orthodoxy and proper speech, and I have no doubt I share their criticisms. But I also know many faithful Christians who read men and women like Rick Warren, yet, while their language might not impress anyone paid (or self-taught) to know the "right" words, whose lives and wisdom tower as models of discipleship and witness to the power of the Spirit and the way of Jesus. I assume I am not the only one who sits in pews next to such people. How then can we go on in anything like such veiled condescension toward those who don't know the "in" language or read the "right" books?

Sometimes language doesn't reveal content as much as social location. And sometimes language or resources deemed by the professional guild to be lacking or flawed -- whether that judgment is right or wrong -- veil rich theology and faith in those who speak and read them. Only, first we must know such people before the veil is lifted. And when it is, we might discover it is not their language that stands in need of correction.

Rather, it is our lives.