Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Two Sentences on Faith, Sincerity, and Going Through the Motions

Faith is not "meaning it" instead of "just doing it." Faith is meaning to mean it, and therefore doing it even when you don't mean it.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Calling for Christmastime Recommendations: Favorite Essayists/Prose Writers

As swarms of newcomers continue to swell the ranks of our 2011 book reading venture, I wanted to ask for recommendations from any readers who might have something to share. Specifically, I am looking for new and worthwhile essayists to read.

My five favorite living writers of prose (in the English language, of course, though that is probably as obvious as it is regrettable) are, in no particular order, Marilynne Robinson, Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Christopher Hitchens. When I say "prose" I mean especially the essay or nonfiction occasional form -- steering away, with purpose, from my co-religionists in the field of theology, or for that matter any academically housed discipline. These five writers, apart from their insight and wit and diversity of topics covered and much other besides, are simply a joy to read, whatever it is they are writing about; and reading each of them has made me an incalculably better writer myself, literally by the page -- even by the microscopic harmony of each solitary sentence they whip and tender my eager way.

What I realized recently, however, as I concluded Christopher Hitchens' memoir, is that beyond these five, I know precious few others like them, or at least -- what is the same -- I have read little else which is similar (less in style than in flavor or quality). But I would like that to change, and quickly.

So I would love to hear from others: who are your (say) five favorite essayists, beloved writers of prose, polymath explorers carving their way in unfabricated worlds with only tools of grammar and verbiage? I know David Foster Wallace, of course, and Terry Eagleton, and Chuck Klosterman; and a few more well-known names. But I also know my severe ignorance is matched by knowing minds in love with various works and writers. So I say, with expectation: enlighten me!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Book Reading Group for 2011: Eccentric Existence by David Kelsey

Each year my brother Garrett and I assign each other two books to read, one smaller and one larger. This plan came about because, though our reading overlaps at many points, it is often relegated to different subjects -- he more in missiology and practical theology, I more in systematics and ethics -- as well as to diverging personal interests (he read novels, I read poetry). Heftier books have included Jenson's Systematic Theology, Lohfink's Does God Need the Church?, and Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, smaller books Kallenberg's Live to Tell, McCarthy's The Road, and Wendell Berry's A Timbered Choir. It's been a wonderful little system so far, serving its purpose well.

This upcoming year, however, we're doing something a bit different. We are going to take the bulk of the year to work our way, patiently and methodically, through a single daunting work: David Kelsey's crowning achievement of a lifetime of serious scholarship and classroom teaching, Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology. The two volumes comprising this imposing tome total close to 1,100 pages, and rather than try to do it on our own (waiving accountability) or wait until it becomes a class assignment (speeding through it in a month), we wanted to go ahead and just do it, but with each other and with others.

So: you are invited, beginning the second week of January, to dedicate the subsequent 10-11 months to a slow and careful journey in theological anthropology, with a seasoned master as guide. You won't be alone, and you'll be able to keep up. Personally, I will be planning to serve as a kind of home base for weekly/monthly reflections on and interrogations of the reading; but I am also hopeful that others who join in will be able to write up their own thoughts and reactions, which can be posted here or on their own blogs.

At this point, there are about half a dozen of us (here's a couple), but by all means, join us if you are interested. Drop me a line by email, or comment below, and we'll get organized over the next few weeks. I've already got the reading apportioned out by month -- never less than 80 or more than 120 pages -- and I'll be sure to post January's weekly sections by Monday the 3rd, if not before.

I look forward to hearing from those of you who are interested, and most of all to taking time to read and dissect and discuss share in what I am sure will be a work of lasting significance.





(Credit where credit is due: Garrett and I initially got the idea to connect our long-form reading plan -- which of course is not new, but only to us, and in this way -- with Kelsey's book from this brief post by James K. A. Smith, as well as, even prior to that, from Geoffrey Hoare, Rector of All Saints Episcopal here in Atlanta. Geoffrey has a small group of ministers, pastors, and theologians across the ecumenical spectrum who meet once or twice a year for a few days to discuss a major work they've all agreed upon, and last year's was E.E. Thanks to both for inspiration!)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Cecil Francis Alexander (Advent #2)

I continue to marvel at Christmas hymns I either never sang as a child or whose words I never comprehended. Like "O Holy Night," "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming," and "The Friendly Beasts," "Once in Royal David's City" is an elegantly simple song -- originally a poem -- whose words are profound. I would love to sing this song in church sometime this month.

(I should note that I prefer certain arrangements that limit themselves to the first, second, and fifth stanzas, staying away from the somewhat curious -- though understandable, given that it was composed as a song for children -- emphasis on imitating Jesus as a child, and so on. However, I wanted to include the lyrics in their entirety, if only out of respect for their author.)

- - - - - - -

Once in Royal David's City

By Cecil Francis Alexander

Once in royal David's city
stood a lowly cattle shed,
where a mother laid her baby
in a manger for his bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little child.

He came down to earth from heaven,
who is God and Lord of all,
and his shelter was a stable,
and his cradle was a stall;
with the poor, the scorned, the lowly,
lived on earth our Savior holy.

And, through all his wondrous childhood,
he would honor and obey,
love and watch the lowly maiden
in whose gentle arms he lay:
Christian children all must be
mild, obedient, good as he.

For he is our childhood's pattern,
day by day like us he grew;
he was little, weak and helpless,
tears and smiles like us he knew.
and he feeleth for our sadness,
and he shareth in our gladness.

And our eyes at last shall see him,
through his own redeeming love;
for that Child who seemed so helpless
is our Lord in heaven above;
and he leads his children on
to the place where he is gone.

Not in that poor lowly stable,
with the oxen standing round,
we shall see him; but in heaven,
set at God's right hand on high;
when like stars his children crowned,
all in white shall wait around.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Ephrem the Syrian (Advent #1)

Ephrem the Syrian is the great poet theologian of the church, writing and teaching and ministering in Syriac-speaking communities in the fourth century. Due to his language, location, and time period, he is much neglected, and unjustly (though I should not feign serious knowledge, either, even if he is at the top of my list). I couldn't resist sharing the following hymn, however, as it is an extraordinarily beautiful (and deeply imaginative) Advent song placed on the lips of Mary. Blessings from our brother Ephrem in this time of remembering the child Jesus and the miracle of the Incarnation!

(Note: This version is translated by Kathleen McVey and taken from pages 145-47 in Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns [New York: Paulist Press, 1989].)

- - - - - - -

Hymn on the Nativity: 15

By Ephrem the Syrian

"With You I shall begin, and I trust
that with You I shall end. I shall open my mouth,
and You fill my mouth. I am for You the earth
and You are the farmer. Sow in me Your voice,
You who are the sower of Himself in His mother's womb."

Refrain: Glory be to You, my Lord, and through You to the Father, on the day of Your nativity.

"All the chaste daughters of the Hebrews
and virgin daughters of rulers
are amazed at me. Because of You, a daughter of the poor
is envied. Because of You, a daughter of the weak
is an object of jealousy. Who gave You to me?

"Son of the Rich One, Who despised the womb
of rich women, what drew You
toward the poor? For Joseph is needy,
and I am impoverished. Your merchants
brought gold to a house of the poor."

She saw the Magi; her songs increased
at their offerings: "Behold Your worshipers
surround me, and their offerings
encircle me. Blessed be the Babe
Who made His mother the lyre of His melodies.

"And since the lyre looks toward its master,
my mouth looks toward You. Let Your will arouse
Your mother's tongue. Since I have learned by You
a new way of conceiving, let my mouth learn by You
a new way of giving birth to new glory.

"If difficult things for You are not difficult
but easy, so that the womb conceived You
without intercourse, and without seed
the womb gave birth to You, it is easy for the mouth
to be fruitful and to multiply Your great glory.

"Behold, I am slandered and oppressed,
but I rejoice. My ears are full
of scorn and disdain, but it is a small matter to me
how much I shall endure, for a single word of consolation from You
is able to chase away myriads of griefs.

"Since I am not despised by You, my Son,
I am confident. I who am slandered
have conceived and given birth to the True Judge
Who will vindicate me. For if Tamar
was acquitted by Judah, how much more will I be acquitted by You!

"David, Your father, sang a psalm to You
before You came, that to You would be offered
gold of Sheba. The psalm
that he merely sang now in reality
heaps before You myrrh and gold.

"The hundred and fifty psalms he sang
were flavored by You since all the words
of prophecy are in need
of Your seasoning. For without Your salt
all wisdom would lose its savor."

Monday, November 29, 2010

Links Round-up, Holiday Tumbleweeds Edition

As always, Thanksgiving marks a six to eight week hiatus in serious posting around these parts, what with traveling, conferences, finals, applications, and so on. I'll plan to have a new round of annual Advent poems/hymns on Sundays, along with some short posts or quotes during the week, but it'll likely be pretty scarce through the new year. With that, though, enjoy a few links on me:
  • One of my favorite television and film critics, Matt Zoller Seitz, writes poignantly of the various pieces of pop culture that remind him of his late wife. (This article in turn reminded me of Rob Sheffield's wonderful book about his late wife, Love is a Mixtape.)
  • James K. A. Smith's piece on giving up Facebook resonated powerfully with me, particularly his vexed relationship with snail mail and email. (See also his excellent post on Thanksgiving.)
  • If you didn't see it: Zadie Smith's incisive essay on Facebook and The Social Network.
  • Let me add my hits-exploding voice to the mix: go check out the superb new blog Women In Theology.
  • Barth, always prescient, on church growth.
  • Cornel West was on my man Craig Ferguson's show!
  • My Spurs are doing quite well these days.
  • And finally, be sure to follow this third and final week of the Karl Barth Blog Conference, with some of the best folks (authors and subjects) yet to come.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Richard Beck on Gender, Submission, Abuse, and 1 Peter 3

All I can say is amen. Please, go read Richard's superb reading of 1 Peter in context and learn why he can therefore conclude with these words:

"1 Peter 3 isn't God's plan for marriage. In fact, it's the exact opposite."

Preach it, brother.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Brief Thoughts on Humanity Being "Basically Good"

Recently, conservative Jewish commentator Dennis Prager has written that humanity ("man") is not basically good, to much (predictable) fiery repudiation on the part of Jews and liberals alike. Prager (again, predictably) sees this reaction as only another confirmation of the sad state of affairs that is American liberalism, to which most American Jews subscribe. It is, in his estimation, the most basic evidence of liberals' inability to accept "sad facts" that, though unavoidably sad, are nonetheless true.

The Christian tradition has its own spin on this question, grounded most radically in Augustine, Luther, and Calvin. However, this reigniting of past debates got me thinking about a simpler, more straightforward interpretation of modern Americans' (in general) and American liberals' (in particular) vehement response to the suggestion that humanity is not basically good.

It seems that there are at least two concerns finding focus here. The first is the question of human value: to say that humanity is not basically good may involve, not moral estimation of men and women, but rather valuation of their worth -- such that a humanity that is not finally "good" is not finally "valuable" or "worth enduring." If this is the case, it seems all can agree that humanity is good at least insofar as humanity, as a whole and individually constituted, is of an incalculably high value.

The second concern has to do with what may be called the negative implications of the statement that humanity is not basically good -- that is, that humanity is basically bad or evil. In other words, the statement might be taken to imply that humanity's apparent lack of goodness goes all the way down. But do Jews or Christians ever want to say this, to go this far? It seems that all can agree that humanity is not devoid either of goodness or of evil, but is rather a mixed bag, so to speak, not finally "basically" anything.

The way Christians are able to parse out this dialectic is by positing an original beginning created good, then somehow spoiled, then deemed and sought as desirable (that is, of great worth) by God and made good over time through having been found, saved, and kept by God. In this sense humanity is "basically" good to the extent that it is "originally" good -- created good by God both anciently and presently -- and simultaneously "basically" evil to the extent that its original goodness is bent and broken to horrifying effect. How practicing Jews might want to modify this distinctly Christian conception I haven't much of a clue, but at the very least it seems like a promising possibility for mutual learning and shared anthropological understanding.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Garrett East on Leadership Structures in the Church

Things are busy these days, what with final application matters, final papers, final traveling arrangements and SBL plans, so I will continue with my trend of quoting wholesale my brother Garrett's wonderful and ongoing insights:
Leadership structures in the church are always shaped by their context. This was true in the 1st century with Paul, the 2nd century with Irenaeus, the 3rd century with Cyprian, the 4th century with Athanasius, the 6th century with Pope Gregory I, the 9th century with Pope Leo III, and the 21st century with a host of denominations in America (and the rest of the world). Although many Christians, throughout history and throughout the world, could probably find some form of biblical justification for their leadership structures, there is a reason that most leadership structures in America today look either like a business with a board of directors or a democratic republic. This is not something I think we should lament. There is no getting back to the Bible or the early church, at least not by direct imitation.

Instead, the question we need to ask ourselves is this: how can the leadership structures of the church be normed and shaped by the gospel and the apostolic testimony in scripture? How can we infuse them with the cruciform life of Jesus? How can they embody the power of Jesus' resurrection? Once we ask ourselves these questions, we might need to transform our current leadership structures (likely borrowed from our context or someone else's) into something new. Or, we might need to scrap them and start all over. Or, they might only need tweaking here and there. It just depends on the structure and to what extent it needs redeeming. Regardless of the structure, though, we need to shift our conversations away from "the biblical model of leadership" or "the leadership structure of the early church" or (as many discuss today) "the most effect leadership structures in business and government," and start reflecting deeply on the best way to embody the death and resurrection of Jesus in our leadership structures in our context.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

On Thomas Oord, Embodiment, and Pacifism

As I mentioned in my AAR round-up last week, Emory's Tim Jackson hosted a dialogue on Thomas Oord's book, The Nature of Love, as a special pre-conference event. I also briefly registered the challenge I extended to Oord regarding the logical implications of his claim that God is "noncoercive all the way down" -- namely, that he should be a pacifist. Oord welcomed the challenge and was gracious in his response, but I thought his answer telling, and worth considering in greater detail.

After sharing that he wants to be a pacifist, he said that when he thinks about it for too long he realizes he can't go "all the way" (given what he would do if his family were attacked, thinking about past justified wars like World War II, etc.). After pressing him on the undeniable thrust of his claim that we ought to imitate God's noncoercive love, he then said this: "The reason I might need to be coercive is because I have a body -- but God does not have a body. And with the body comes particular limitations and conflicts that may lead to situations in which I ought to act coercively against another person."

In my view, this is an ideal point of departure for this question, resulting from a severe theological misunderstanding. For what is the only faithful Christian reply to the claim that God does not have a body? God does have a body! The heart of the most basic Christian confession is the incarnation, the enfleshment of God in and as a body. And the normative ethical claim follows directly therefrom. When the one true God assumes, becomes, lives in and as a finite, material human body -- when we are confronted by the story and person, the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth -- what we discover is straightforward and universally uncontested, though surprising, nearly unbelievable: He refuses to kill others, all the way to his body's tortured agony and death. This one, God in the flesh, Creator creature, invisible visible, eternal life seen and touched, this one loves his enemies and rejects the sword and, to the end, accepts the consequences of finitude, conflict, embodiment in a fallen world. God dies rather than kill those who would kill him.

Whatever we say about violence or ethics in general, wherever we find ourselves in the ongoing conversation about what it means to live faithfully as Christians, the one thing disallowed by the incarnation is any statement remarking that "x is true of us, but not of God." Everything that we are as human beings, God became in Jesus Christ. First and foremost, that includes our bodies; more to the point, when conceived and understood holistically, the moral implications of the incarnation's normativity for Christ's disciples are, to put it mildly, revolutionary.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Wendell Berry on Unintentional Community

The interview is from about a month ago, but I saw this response from Wendell Berry and just loved it:
Jackson Hole Weekly: What happens to our sense of community if we create pockets of like-minded people?

Wendell Berry: I can’t talk much about intentional communities; I’ve never lived in one. My community is an unintentional community. This gang of people just turned up here. And it raises perhaps more interesting questions than the intentional community. A diversity of people with their diversity of opinions, prejudices, practices, good and bad, habits – how do they avoid either exploiting or killing each other? How do they get along? How do they keep the local conversation going?
How does this critique ecclesial communities, and in particular Christian intentional communities?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Sufjan Stevens (III)

Last night my wife and I got to see Sufjan Stevens in concert at The Tabernacle in downtown Atlanta. The venue is relatively small, with an open floor in front of the stage and two levels of seats above and around the stage like an old playhouse or drama theatre. Somehow, we got to be on the third level, with seats on the front row in the exact center, so that we had a perfect view of the entire stage (and thus of all 11 musicians) with Sufjan directly in front of us. Remarkable!

And the show, per the high expectations, was magnificent. It was aesthetically overwhelming, presentationally bizarre, self-consciously unpopulist, and neurotically intentional; in other words, exactly what one hopes for in seeing Sufjan Stevens in person. It was one great amalgam of apocalypse, therapy session, digital bombast, and quiet harmonies. And now that he is off the "Must See Live If In Town No Matter What The Bank Account Says" list, Iron & Wine is next up -- this Tuesday!

The song below wasn't actually played Saturday night, but it is one of my favorites off the recent All Delighted People EP: the 17-minute "slow rock jam" that ends the album. The actual singing starts about 12 and a half minutes in, and reveals the song as a whole to be a kind of sequel to "Sister" on Seven Swans, both musically and lyrically.


Djohariah


By Sufjan Stevens

I know you won’t get very far
With the back seat driver in the carpetbagger
With the dagger heart grabber stuck in your car

And the yard is grown to a hilt
And the money spent money spent where it went
Embarrassment, embarrassment to pay for the car

And the man who left you for dead
He’s the heart grabber back stabber double cheater wife beater
You don’t need that man in your life

And you worked yourself to the bone
While the people say what they say
It’s the neighbors anyway
They don’t know what’s good for your life

And I see your head hangs low
In the black shadow, half shadow
Living room is fitting is sitting room is fit for your crying

Don’t be ashamed—don’t hide in your room
For the woman is, woman is the glorious victorious
The mother of the heart of the world

Djohariah, Djohariah...
Djohariah, Djohariah...
Djohariah, Djohariah...
Djohariah, Djohariah...

And the time you held to the light
When water ran water ran with the strange attic
And when the walls were wet with your life

And you pushed yourself to the floor
And the spirit went where it went
Hovering discovering uncovering your life, on the floor

And the walls were wet with your love

For the mother is, the mother is the glorious victorious
The mother of the heart of the world

Don’t be ashamed, don’t hide from me now
For the woman is the woman is the glorious victorious
The mother of the heart of the world

Djohariah, Djohariah...
Djohariah, Djohariah...
Djohariah, Djohariah...
Djohariah, Djohariah...

Don’t be ashamed, don’t cry in the bath
For it’s the story of, story of, morning glory story
It’s the gloriole that comes to your path

There is a time when the lights will arise
For the mother is, the mother is the glorious victorious
The mother of the heart of the world

Go on! Little sister! Go on!
For your world is yours, world is yours
All the wilderness of world is yours to enjoy

Go on! Little sister! Go on! Little sister!
For your world is yours, world is yours
All the wilderness of world is yours

Go on! Little sister! Go on! Little sister!
For your world is yours, world is yours
All the wilderness of world is yours

Go on! Little sister! Go on!
For you’re beautiful, beautiful
All the fullness of the world is yours

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Garrett East on the Timefulness of the Gospel

From Garrett's post:
The word "timeless" is often used to describe the gospel. For a while now, that has struck me as very peculiar language with which to describe the gospel. The gospel is certainly not timeless. It is an announcement of a very specific event at a very specific time. It tells the story about a 1st century man from Nazareth who was crucified by the Roman Empire. The gospel is an event in time.

Nevertheless, I think most people are aware of this at some level. When people use the language of "timeless" to describe the gospel, I think what they are trying to say is that the gospel endures. It has a word to speak into every context, every place, every language, every time. The gospel, the announcement of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is a message that has endured from the 1st century to the present and it is a message that will endure forever and ever.

I have been thinking about this lately because I think we need to get this straight in our discourse about the gospel. Basically, I think we need clarity here. We need to be clear that the message we preach is not timeless, not ethereal, not general, not abstract, but time-bound, historical, concrete, specific, and enduring.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

AAR: Meetings and Musings

Theologians and religious scholars of all stripes descended upon Atlanta this past weekend, and from Thursday afternoon through Monday night, my time and energy were consumed by the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. It was my first time to attend, and turned out to be an especially good experience. I had the gift of hosting some doctoral students from Aberdeen (to a man, of course, working under John Webster) who were a blast both to hang out with and to show off Atlanta to. Moreover, I finally got to meet various bloggers and distant acquaintances, as well as scholars, including Ben, Halden, Ry, Adam, Myles Werntz, Peter Kline, Nate Kerr, and others. With all of them, it was nice to finally be able to put a face to the name (or, better, to the persona presented through the texts of book, email, and blog).

The sessions I was able to attend were across the board exceptional. Here were some highlights:
  • On Thursday night, it was an early treat to hear Timothy Jackson, LeRon Shults, Craig Boyd, and Amos Yong respond to Thomas Oord and his work The Nature of Love, in a small gathering and open discussion at Emory. I found myself disagreeing with Oord in many respects (at one point I pushed him to consider the fact that his "noncoercive all the way down" metaphysics of God's love leads logically to pacifism), but he was disarmingly gracious in his reception and response to the shared critiques.
  • The next morning, Ian McFarland hosted Paul Nimmo at Emory, for a lecture on Barth's (potential) theology of the Eucharist "and the witness of reconciliation."
  • Friday night, downtown at the conference Thomas Oord hosted a "pre-event" as part of the "Word Made Fresh" progressive evangelical group. It was a packed house, and rightly so, to hear J. Kameron Carter and Serene Jones respond to Amos Yong's recent book, In the Days of Caesar: Pentecostalism and Political Theology. It was a rousing, engaging, autobiographical, almost congregational atmosphere and conversation. All three had rich thoughts to offer on all fronts, and though the rest of the conference was excellent, this was probably my highlight.
  • Saturday morning the panel of papers responding to Kathryn Tanner's Christ the Key (by Ian McFarland, Janet Soskice, and Hilda Koster) were all thoughtful engagements of Tanner, and it was enjoyable to hear Tanner respond.
  • Shortly thereafter, in a different session D. Stephen Long opened up a more casual and appreciative conversation with James K.A. Smith about his book, Desiring the Kingdom. I greatly enjoyed the challenges and questions that arose during this session, and hearing Smith respond got me finally to pull the book off the shelf and start it.
  • Saturday night, it was a delight to hear Christopher Morse respond to papers -- and, at various points, get to preachin' -- engaging his recent book, The Difference Heaven Makes. Though I remain unclear what talking about "heaven" does over against language of the "kingdom," Morse was hugely compelling and entertaining. I hope to be able to get to his book soon.
  • Sunday morning, Philip Ziegler's paper on Barth and Kierkegaard (specifically on the "promeity," i.e., the pro me character of their projects) was superb in every respect, and was reflective of Ziegler's overall professional and scholarly presence at a number of panels and sessions.
  • The panel on the Washington Post blog On Faith was interesting, though a bit plodding at times, and certainly showed its colors as a visiting presence at AAR; but it was worth it if only for the dynamic presence of Susan Thistlethwaite, whose rollicking wit matched the fact that she looks like she might be Maya Rudolph's mother.
  • Jeffrey Stout's paper responding to Bonnie Honig's book Emergency Politics was good enough on its own, but he stole the show when, in an answer to a question from the audience, he narrated the political story of Obama's fusion of campaign organization and supposedly "grassroots" administration from his compromise "with the machine" in June of 2008 up to the present, concluding with the word "disastrous."
  • Sunday afternoon, Matthew Myer Boulton read a paper entitled, "Conceiving God: Karl Barth, the Virgin Birth, and a Theological Poetics of Scriptural Interpretation." This was probably my favorite paper of the conference, masterful in the whole and deeply insightful in its multiple argumentative moves. Despite rumors to the contrary, I did not ask him to sign Butterflyfish liner notes.
  • Sunday night's session on apocalyptic included four different papers on Johann Baptist Metz, and Matthew Eggemeier's paper, which located Metz in relation to Nietzsche, was especially stimulating.
  • Monday morning, Ben Myers read a paper on George Herbert and sacramental poetics, which was predictably wonderful. (He has an excerpt up on his blog.) Note also that, in the presence of his self-admitted "favorite contemporary poet," Kevin Hart, Ben spontaneously recited the second half of Hart's poem "The Last Day." (Second note: Thomas J.J. Altizer was present and read a paper, and that was a unique experience entirely unto itself.)
  • Monday afternoon I listened to Adam Nigh -- one of my Aberdeen guests -- read his paper on "Scripture as the Divine Assumption of Fallen Human Language," which was both happily succinct and theologically constructive, each a sometime rarity at AAR.
  • After Adam finished, I left for another session, and heard Shelly Rambo's thought-provoking paper on the "spectral Jesus" and America's ideological myths. In the same session following Rambo (Dr. Rambo? Professor Rambo? Mrs. Rambo? I'm sure her students have all sorts of fun with that name), Adam Kotsko read his paper on Zizek, the body of Christ, and possible intersections with liberation theology (which he also has posted on his blog). This was another personal favorite of the conference, for its ingenuity, political implications, and surprising theological connections; I highly recommend checking it out.
I'll leave it there; it was a great conference, and I look forward to seeing everyone at San Francisco next year.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

John Howard Yoder on the Historical Scarcity of the Just War Tradition in the Thought and Practice of Ordinary Christians

"Contrary to the standard history, the just-war position is not the one which has been taken practically be most Christians since Constantine. Most Christians (baptized people) in most wars since pacifism was forsaken have died and killed in the light of thought patterns derived from the crusade or the national-interest pattern. Some have sought to cover and interpret this activity with the rhetoric of the just-war heritage; others have not bothered. The just-war tradition remains prominent as a consensus of the stated best insights of a spiritual and intellectual elite, who used that language as a tool for moral leverage on sovereigns for whom the language of the gospel carried no conviction. Thus just-war rhetoric and consistent pacifism are on the same side of most debates. When honest, both will reject most wars, most causes, and most strategies being prepared and implemented. ...

"Not only was the just-war tradition not really in charge in history, but it was not dominant in spirituality. When a history of thought is based on the writings of a magisterial elite, then it is the just-war tradition which we must report. But how many people like that were there, and how many more drew spiritual sustenance from them?

"If, on the other hand, we were to ask how through the centuries most people -- who were at the same time somehow authentic Christian believers and lived their lives of faith with some explicit sincerity -- thought about war, then we should have to report that their lives were sincerely burdened, not nourished, by the just-war grid. Their lives were nourished, not by the summas of the academicians, but by the lives of the saints. Most of the saints were tacitly nonviolent. Most of the martyr-saints were expressly nonviolent. The rejection of violent self-defense or of service in the armies of Caesar was sometimes the reason for which the saint was martyred. The lives of the saints are told to incite the hearer to trust God for his or her surviving and prospering. Even those saints (like Francis) who lived in the midst of war and the few who were soldiers were not Machiavellian. They cultivated a worldview marked by trusting God for survival, a willingness to suffer rather than to sin, and an absence of any cynical utilitarianism in their definition of the path of obedience. The penitent and the pilgrim were normally, naturally defenseless. The stories of the saints abound in tales of miraculous deliverance from the threats of bandits and brigands.

"It is a source of deep historical confusion to identify the history of Christian morality as a whole with the record of the thought of academic moralists, where just-war thought in Christendom has been located. Such academic formulations may, in some cultures, make a major contribution to how people will actually make decision in the future, if local preachers or confessors take their cues from the professor. But in other traditions, where the instrument of enforcement that the confessional provides is not used, the relation between the academic articulation and the real life of the community is more like that of the froth to the beer."

--John Howard Yoder, When War is Unjust: Being Honest in Just-War Thinking (2d ed.; Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1996, 2001), 68-70

Monday, October 25, 2010

Karl Barth's Knocking on the Door...

It was almost 7:00 in the evening, and friends had just arrived for dinner when I heard a knock on the door. I opened it to find a delivery man with a box for me...

I opened it to see what was inside...

And now, it begins.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: William Stafford

Like Ted Kooser last week (except that Kooser is still with us!), William Stafford was a great American poet of the 20th century, and in 1970 was appointed the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the U.S. Library of Congress. He was also a pacifist and a registered conscientious objector who was put to the service camps during World War II. Born and raised in Kansas, he lived and taught for the most part in Oregon; apparently he wrote more than 22,000 poems in his life, and around 3,000 or so are published. He died in 1993.

The poem below is from his collection The Rescued Year, published in 1965.

- - - - - - -

Bi-focal

By William Stafford

Sometimes up out of this land
a legend begins to move.
Is it a coming near
of something under love?

Love is of the earth only,
the surface, a map of roads
leading wherever go miles
or little bushes nod.

Not so the legend under,
fixed, inexorable,
deep as the darkest mine
the thick rocks won't tell.

As fire burns the leaf
and out of the green appears
the vein in the center line
and the legend veins under there,

So, the world happens twice --
once what we see it as;
second it legends itself
deep, the way it is.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Predictions for the 2010-2011 NBA Season

It is my annual tradition to offer my predictions for the upcoming NBA season, and as the 2010-2011 season will be upon us next week, you will find my stated expectations below.

Usually I offer extensive commentary on the state of the Spurs, as well as on the rest of the league, but little of that this year, primarily due to the Spurs' lack of championship contention and the anticipated juggernaut bout between the Lakers, Heat, and Celtics. I am hopeful (and anticipate) that the OKC Durants will give the LA Kobes a run for their money; but at the end of the day, my predictions are largely boring and in agreement with others. Some years it's like that; the interest this year will instead be about the new makeup of so many teams, the looming trades of key players like Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul, and which of the juggernauts will finally emerge victorious.

Plus, there's still all the basketball to play. So there's that, too.

- - - - - - -

Western Conference
1. Los Angeles Lakers (58-24)
2. Oklahoma City Thunder (56-26)
3. Utah Jazz (54-28)
4. San Antonio Spurs (51-31)
5. Dallas Mavericks (51-31)
6. Portland Trailblazers (46-36)
7. Phoenix Suns (45-37)
8. Los Angeles Clippers (44-38)

9. Sacramento Kings (41-41)
10. Houston Rockets (39-43)
11. New Orleans Hornets (37-45)
12. Denver Nuggets (34-48)
13. Memphis Grizzlies (30-52)
14. Golden State Warriors (22-60)
15. Minnesota Timberwolves (15-67)

Eastern Conference
1. Miami Heat (67-15)
2. Orlando Magic (62-20)
3. Boston Celtics (58-24)
4. Chicago Bulls (52-30)
5. New York Knicks (48-34)
6. Atlanta Hawks (44-38)
7. Charlotte Bobcats (42-40)
8. Milwaukee Bucks (40-42)

9. Washington Wizards (38-44)
10. Cleveland Cavaliers (35-47)
11. New Jersey Nets (31-51)
12. Philadelphia 76ers (30-52)
13. Detroit Pistons (27-55)
14. Toronto Raptors (19-63)
15. Indiana Pacers (14-68)

Western Conference First Round
Los Angeles Lakers (1) over Los Angeles Clippers (8) in 5 games
Oklahoma City Thunder (2) over Phoenix Suns (7) in 5 games
Utah Jazz (3) over Portland Trailblazers (6) in 5 games
San Antonio Spurs (4) over Dallas Mavericks (5) in 7 games

Eastern Conference First Round
Miami Heat (1) over Milwaukee Bucks (8) in 4 games
Orlando Magic (2) over Charlotte Bobcats (7) in 6 games
Boston Celtics (3) over Atlanta Hawks (6) in 5 games
Chicago Bulls (4) over New York Knicks (5) in 7 games

Western Conference Semifinals
Los Angeles Lakers (1) over San Antonio Spurs (4) in 5 games
Oklahoma City Thunder (2) over Utah Jazz (3) in 7 games

Eastern Conference Semifinals
Miami Heat (1) over Chicago Bulls (5) in 6 games
Boston Celtics (3) over Orlando Magic (2) in 6 games

Western Conference Finals
Los Angeles Lakers (1) over Oklahoma City Thunder (2) in 7 games

Eastern Conference Finals
Miami Heat (1) over Boston Celtics (3) in 7 games

NBA Finals
Los Angeles Lakers (1) over Miami Heat (1) in 6 games

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Go Read James K.A. Smith's Review of Brett McCracken's Hipster Christianity

This is two weeks late, but for anyone who missed it, be sure to read James K.A. Smith's review of Brett McCracken's Hipster Christianity over at The Other Journal, entitled "Poser Christianity." I had recalled Halden discussing the project last year (a full year and a half ago!), then flipped through the book when Pitts acquired it earlier this month -- and I quickly found my originally piqued interest in what I assumed would be a goofy take on American evangelical faddism transformed into morbid surprise, particularly in the concluding section. Specifically, I agreed with Halden's double take: wasn't McCracken conflating "hipster" with, as Halden put it, "pretty much any Christian under 35 who isn’t a party line conservative evangelical"? And then to discover that the book takes the form of an argument, culminating in a call for the "unchanging eternal gospel" and such like -- it was a bit wearying.

So I was delighted to see Smith's review, and to see that he takes the book to task for all the right reasons. In a sense, speaking personally, it comes down to one question: Do I read (and commend to others!) the work of Wendell Berry because of some sort of image it creates or trend I like, or because I believe it to be true? (And true, moreover, not to some reality or ideology external to the gospel, but precisely to the God and good news and good creation of Christian faith.) My answer, of course, is obvious to anyone who reads this blog; but more importantly, it should be obvious to anyone at all who has taken the time to read Berry or to get to know someone who reads Berry. And the same goes for many of the other authors, ideas, and causes (though certainly not all: there are, as Smith rightly points out, some true posers included) listed by McCracken.

I'll stop there -- no need to regurgitate Smith's excellent review. Go read him to get the full account.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Ted Kooser

Ted Kooser is one of the most celebrated and lauded American poets living today. He won the Pulitzer in 2004 for his collection Delights & Shadows, and, according to his website, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress from 2004 to 2006. The two poems below are from his 1985 collection One World at a Time.

- - - - - - -

Just Now

By Ted Kooser

Just now, if I look back down
the cool street of the past, I can see
streetlamps, one for each year,
lighting small circles of time
into which someone will step
if I squint, if I try hard enough --
circles smaller and smaller,
leading back to the one faint point
at the start, like a star.
So many of them are empty now,
those circles of roadside and grass.
In one, the moth of some feeling
still flutters, unspoken,
the cold darkness around it enormous.

- - - - - - -

An Empty Shotgun Shell

By Ted Kooser

It's a handsome thing
in its uniform --
all crimson and brass --
standing guard
at the gate to the field,
but something
is wrong at its heart.
It's dark in there,
so dark a whole night
could squeeze in,
could shrink back up in there
like a spider,
a black one
with smoke in its hair.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Richard Hays on Christian Repudiation of Biblical Authority

This week I began re-reading Richard Hays' The Moral Vision of the New Testament for one of my classes, and apart from being struck again at Hays' articulate brilliance and the scope of his project, I also noted a rather dry crack he makes in the last footnote of the introductory chapter. Hays is usually quite measured in his critiques of others, and so this comment stands out all the more. After claiming that "normative Christian ethics is fundamentally a hermeneutical enterprise: it must begin and end in the interpretation and application of Scripture for the life of the community of faith," he notes that "[s]uch a pronouncement will prove controversial in some circles" (p. 10), which then leads to this footnote:
Indeed, there are many -- including some who would identify themselves as Christian theologians -- for whom the Bible is seen as a source of oppression and moral blindness, particularly with regard to issues of sexual ethics; for such interpreters, the most crucial question about the moral teaching of the NT is how we can get critical leverage against it. ... Such forthright repudiation of biblical authority by self-identified Christian thinkers is a historical phenomenon that is both relatively recent and unlikely to exercise any lasting influence within the church. (p. 11n.29)
As it happens, I noticed this comment immediately following an engagement of Rosemary Radford Ruether, which of course made for interesting reflection on exactly who Hays has in mind. In any case, it was certainly good to see Hays getting his polemic on.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

More Theological Readings of No Country For Old Men

Be sure to check out the various spin-off (or stand-alone) takes on No Country For Old Men around the blogosphere:
Beck's piece in particular is superb, and highly thought-provoking. Whatever Jon and I did to contribute to this, I'm happy to have played a part.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Check Out My KBBC Contribution on Barth and No Country For Old Men

Back in early June David Congdon graciously asked me to participate in the upcoming Karl Barth Blog Conference, and I was happy to agree, not least because of the brilliant idea for the topic: Barth in conversation with the Coen Brothers! Jon Coutts, Barthian student extraordinaire from Aberdeen, has written the primary piece -- a creative dialogue between the Coens and Barth -- and I have written the response, both of which are now live and ready to be endlessly dissected. Be sure to go check it out!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Paul Mariani

Paul Mariani is a 70-year old American poet living and teaching in Boston, and the poem below is taken from one of his collections from the early 1980s. Little time for other introductory matters, so enjoy!

- - - - - - -

A Bad Joke

By Paul Mariani

Because they had to cut deep
to get the caner in his throat,
my father-in-law was wheezing out

this joke in his old stage manner,
the one about the woman who tells
the butcher to keep on slicing

till he's halfway through
the roast beef before she tells him
dat's good dankyou now she'll take

the next two pieces. I took him
by the arm as we crossed the street,
one eye on the lookout for idiots

peeling up the avenue, the other
on those hip-cracking ice slicks
(the Christmas sun up over

the new high-risers useless
to stop the stupid wind from moaning
off the ocean) and thinking

all the while of my fifteen-year-old
son, whose voice is boom-bellowing
into manhood now and who just last week

was joking at the kitchen table
when all at once I could see
his lanky frame start shaking

as the thing crawled crab-like
over him again: his fear of turning
into elements the way the brilliant

lemur-snouted kid in Chem class
told him happens when you die,
so that I had to grab him

by the elbow as he pushed past
my chair to hold him, his rib-cage
heaving as I told him not to worry

while had had his old man there
to help him, for which white lie,
or worse, bad joke, I beg him

some day to forgive me.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Reflections on What It Means to Trust (in) God

For some time during my undergraduate years, I struggled enormously with the popular and oft-repeated notion of "trust in God." A professor and mentor preferred this phrase to "faith" or "belief" in God, as the former carried so much baggage and the latter implied mere intellectual assent; and of course in the ordinary discourse of many Christians, one is counseled continuously to "trust God" or "trust in God."

The phrase troubled me because I had no substantive content to supply its meaning. In its poorest and most unthoughtful use -- if also its most well-worn -- people mean by it to trust, in seemingly insurmountable situations, that God will do something. But this is clearly meaningless, for God does not always "do" something in response to our problems, and even when we might affirm the case, it is just as likely not to be in our favor or assumed well-being as to be what we hoped for.

Nor can it mean to trust that all will work out well. At best that is an eschatological statement, at worst -- and more usually -- it is a bourgeois projection of a benign cosmos, an in fact heretical reification of the way things are as the best of all possible worlds. But things do not always work out well: loved ones die, the cancer spreads, the interview fails, the attempted reconciliation backfires.

So what is trust? What does it mean to trust God, to place one's own or a community's trust in God?

It means to trust that God will be God. To trust God is to believe that he is who he says he is, that he will do what he has said he will do, that he will be faithful to his promises. To trust God means that, in what feels like life's perpetually tilting scale of bad news, we continue to believe that God rules, that the evidence to the contrary is not in fact evidence to the contrary, and that our destinies reside with him -- for better or for worse. Trust in God is the explicit, lifelong unclenching of our fists around our lives' contingencies, failures, risks, and possibilities. When we trust God, we say that we are not God, that whatever happens God will be God and we will be his creatures -- and that our only hope, come what may, is in him.

Sickness, rejection, tragedy, accidents, mistakes, failures, and death will all have their say, and often nearly overwhelmingly so. Trust in God is simply -- though it is worlds away from simple or easy -- the resolute conviction, and consequent practice, that in the face of all these contradictions, God will triumph over all of them. And if God is who he says he is, his victory is both trustworthy, and our own victory, too.

Monday, October 4, 2010

On Disagreeing With Your Heroes: Robert W. Jenson and American Civil Religion

At times I find myself wondering, as I spend so much time reading my theological heroes and teachers, whether I simply imbibe their views and opinions without critical inspection or suspicion, whether I am only a drone lapping up whatever they happen to be pontificating about. And then I come across a passage like this one, and I am reminded that, thankfully, I needn't worry so much:
It is not, however, so often asked what America would have been like without such vision [of divine election]. It is surely worth noting that the one great American enterprise so far undertaken by leaders thoroughly disabused of "moralism" in public policy, was the Indochinese intervention. America cannot deny power; the only question is by what warrants we will determine its use. One need not share politically recrudescent evangelicalism's mission to save the world from Communism, to think America must have some mission, if God's providence lives.

If, as chastened and demythologized post-millenialists, American Christians were still to insist that there can be a better future also in this world, and this by the standards and energy of the gospel; and if we were to think that God's providence can hardly have left our nation with no role in the coming of this future; what might that mission be? The suggestion that can come from [Jonathan] Edwards is surely: advocacy and practice of a human solidarity whose very principle is its transcendence of all barriers of interest or historically momentary affiliation. There has never been a peace-loving nation. But why should there not be?

And if indeed, as seems likely, only common worship of the true God could enable such endlessly self-transcending mutuality, the question of civil religion is reopened. Is it really so, as mainline American denominations have recently argued, that a civil religion can only be a despicable 'lowest common denominator' of various real faiths? Might there not be an appropriation of the biblical eschatology, and even a civil worship appropriate thereto, which can be shared also with those not called to baptism or the prayer of the synagogue? (Robert W. Jenson, America's Theologian: A Recommendation of Jonathan Edwards [New York: Oxford University Press, 1988], 173)
The count of scribbled "no!"'s on this page is nine, including a stand-alone "!?". How fitting that the reason I read this book was for a synthetic comparison with John Howard Yoder. And how reassuring to know that, in fact, I do not simply agree with everything I read.

(And by the way, the correct answer to Jenson's last two rhetorical questions are, happily and conclusively and adamantly, "Yes, it really is so" and "No, there is not.")

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Re-post: For Friends, Acquaintances, and Friendly Theo-Bloggers Coming to Atlanta for AAR or SBL: Welcome! How Can I Help?

I posted this back in mid-May, but as it is exactly one month away from AAR -- and the last day of reduced rates for both AAR and SBL -- I thought I'd re-post it for anyone like me a year ago who didn't know how to handle or afford Montreal. I'm already happily planning to host an old friend at our apartment, as well as busy finding a place to stay for a couple others who have contacted me and answering questions about MARTA, Atlanta, etc. Please feel free to let me know if you happen to have any questions or need any help; regardless, I'm just looking forward to the meetings.

Below is the original post.

- - - - - - -

This fall I have the wonderful opportunity to attend my first gatherings of both the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature, as the annual meetings of each will be here in Atlanta. AAR will be the weekend of Halloween (Saturday, October 30, through Monday, November 1) and SBL the weekend before Thanksgiving (Saturday, November 20, through Tuesday, November 23).

A close second to attending and hearing so many excellent scholars for the first time will be meeting the various acquaintances, friends, and bloggers I have encountered, read, and dialogued with over the last couple of years. In looking forward to the meetings, I also realized that, living in Atlanta, I should do my best to welcome people to the city. Atlanta may not be as intimidating as Montreal (or is it?), but I certainly know that on top of the financial commitment, flying into an urban metropolis is not so easily navigable.

So, just to get the word out early: if you are planning to come to Atlanta for either or both meetings, by all means let's grab a drink or a bite to eat, and get others in on it, too. Beyond that, feel free to let me know if you don't have a place to stay, have questions about the city, or anything else. We don't have much room to offer guests in our one-room apartment, but we do have many friends who'd love to host burgeoning theologian scholars.

Looking forward to meeting whoever ends up coming!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Commending to You: "Half the Church: Exploring and Embracing Gender Inclusivity in Churches of Christ"

I'm late with this link, but I highly recommend checking out the new online resource, "Half the Church: Exploring and Embracing Gender Inclusivity in Churches of Christ." It contains a recorded panel conversation (from ACU's annual conference Summit) of women sharing their experiences in churches of Christ as women, and the problems and solutions raised in the process. I had the opportunity of participating in something similar last summer (2009) at the Christian Scholars Conference in Nashville, and it was an enormously affecting experience, as it seems this was as well.

Along with nationalism and violence, the question of gender -- as it relates to leadership, worship, charism, ministry, partnership, marriage, witness, culture, the very substance of the good news we proclaim -- is one of the most pressing challenges for the faithfulness and vitality of churches of Christ today. This new resource succeeds precisely because it recognizes that the most important, the very first thing we must do -- particularly when the "we" in question are male -- is to listen to the actual women who have endured and undergone so much in our churches. Only by listening, by creating space for the Spirit to move our hearts together in unity and creative response, may we be given to move forward in healing and, by God's grace, to the profound kind of transformation called for by the gospel.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Karl Barth Blog Conference Has Begun!

Head over to Der Evangelische Theologe for the opening post and initial outline and biographical sketch for the fourth annual Karl Barth Blog Conference. My contribution won't be coming for a couple weeks, but the overall theme, topics, contributors, and analyses look to be superb. Be sure to check it out, to stay with it over the next few weeks, and to comment often -- not to mention to donate to the fund for publishing the expanded proceedings in a book next year!

(The tone of this post's title should be read, for the record, in the spirit of Tobias.)

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Matthew Myer Boulton & co. (II)

I am idiosyncratically evangelistic about random things: Wendell Berry, The Wire, the city of Austin, and so on. Let's add more to add to the official list: Butterflyfish, the folk-and-gospel children's band headed up by Harvard Divinity Professor Matthew Myer Boulton.

I devoted a Sunday Sabbath post to a song from their first album, Ladybug, exactly a year ago; and now that I have finally been able to get my hands on their second release, Great and Small, I thought I would share another. The best thing about Butterflyfish -- which, in explicit form, is more or less nonexistent in current music -- is the richness of its theological vision. By way of beautifully straightforward lyrics, gorgeously blended harmonies, and melodies as catchy as they are musically dynamic, the band performs the gospel with absolutely no loss between art and faith. In short, this is the music I hope my children will be listening to one day, at least inasmuch as they'll have to listen to it, because I'll be listening to it.

With that, I leave you with the wonderful lyrics -- whose vision, by the end, you will be wishing reflected the western church's hymnody, rather than what is the case -- to "The Gospel Story."


The Gospel Story


By Matthew Myer Boulton

I ain't goin' up to heaven in the sky
I ain't flyin' with the angels when I die
I ain't gonna rise up in the clear
Cause I do believe my dear
Heaven's comin' down here

It's comin' down here (comin' down here)
It's comin' down here (comin' down here)
I said heaven's comin' down here
I ain't gonna rise up in the clear
Cause I do believe my dear
Heaven's comin' down here

That's the gospel story
That's the gospel plan
Kingdom of glory's right here at hand
So don't you worry, woman and man
That's the gospel story
That's the gospel plan

Well when Jesus said, "Follow me"
He didn't go up to a church or say a creed
Out in the open air
He did his preaching and his prayer
That's what he did when he said, "Follow me"

"Follow me" ("Follow me")
"Follow me" ("Follow me")
That's what he did when he said, "Follow me"
Out in the open air
He did his preaching and his prayer
That's what he did when he said, "Follow me"

That's the gospel story
That's the gospel plan
Kingdom of glory's right here at hand
So don't you worry, woman or man
That's the gospel story
That's the gospel plan

Well I ain't goin' up to heaven in the sky
I ain't flyin' with the angels when I die
I ain't gonna rise up in the clear
Cause I do believe my dear
Heaven's comin' down here

That's the gospel story
That's the gospel plan
Kingdom of glory's right here at hand
So don't you worry, woman and man
That's the gospel story
That's the gospel plan

(Heaven's comin' down here...)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Brief Word on Supposedly Innocent Pejorative Labels

Calling the person or position of someone like John Howard Yoder "sectarian" in a scholarly context in 2010 -- and doing so in the guise, believed or not, of such a label being innocent or purely descriptive -- is roughly the same, in an ecumenical context, as identifying Catholic understanding of the Eucharist as "magical."

In other words: it just doesn't fly.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Questions Concerning the Contemporary Role of the Theologian in America

In contemporary America it seems there are two perfectly bifurcated roles for the station of theologian: holding court as a kind of absolute authority for all questions of vital religious and existential importance, or an assumed irrelevance of such totality that the very notion of theological engagement is laughable.

Whether this is a sorry state of affairs to be lamented or a gift to be celebrated and maintained, likely depends on ecclesial commitments and one's vision of the theological task in relation to church and world. But regardless of preference or conviction, can there actually be a third way in late modern societies? That is, is this situation something worth striving against, something capable of being resisted, even if it is not to be welcomed or endorsed?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Hilarious and Brilliant Opening Paragraph to G.K. Chesterton's Autobiography

"Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment of private judgment, I am firmly of opinion that I was born on the 29th of May, 1874, on Campden Hill, Kensington; and baptised according to the formularies of the Church of England in the little church of St George opposite the large Waterworks Tower that dominated that ridge. I do not allege any significance in the relation of the two buildings; and I indignantly deny that the church was chosen because it needed the whole water-power of West London to turn me into a Christian."

--G.K. Chesterton, Autobiography (Thirsk, North Yorkshire: House of Stratus, 2001), 1

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Not Only Hauerwas, But Isaiah Berlin Also as Hannah's Child

"Isaiah was not the first-born. His mother had had a stillbirth in 1907 and been told she would never be able to have children again. His parents greeted his arrival with the astonishment reserved for miracles. These facts -- the stillborn sister, the longed-for realisation of his parents' wishes, the injury at birth, an only child -- are vitally important, though interpreting their signifiance is not easy. He himself never liked interpreting them at all. But there is a story in the Bible that might be taken as an oblique fable about his own beginnings. It is the story of Hannah, the barren women who goes to the temple to pray for a son, and who is so distraught that the high priest takes her for mad: 'And she was in bitterness of soul, and prayed unto the Lord, and wept sore.' In her desperation, Hannah promised that if God would grant her a son, she would give him into His service. Her faith -- her primitive, intense desire for a child -- was eventually rewarded. She and her husband Elkanah had a child, who grew up to become the prophet Samuel. Isaiah's mother, Mussa Marie Berlin, was intensely moved by these verses and by the promise of hope that they contained, for they spoke so directly to her own desperation: having lost one child, having been told she would never give birth again. She was at the relatively advanced age of twenty-nine when her deliverance came. It is easy to see why, whenever Berlin himself brought to mind the desperate faith of Hannah, his eyes would fill with tears."

--Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), 10-11

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Beautiful Picture of Austin, Texas

Things shall continue to be quiet around these parts this week, perhaps a quote here or there but not much more; school's in full-fledged gear, and with PhD applications on top of that I'm finding myself with little time.

And so I thought I'd share a picture of home, a photograph captured and edited by my friend Patrick Gosnell, from our East-Gosnell road trip from Atlanta to Austin back in February. Patrick gave a framed copy of it to me as an advance birthday gift, and it now hangs in our living room. To distant strangers: come visit the greatest city in the world! To friends, visitors, and fellow Austinites: kudos if you know (as well you should) exactly where he is standing when taking this picture.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Aaron Baker

Aaron Baker grew up in a remote village in Papua New Guinea as a son of missionaries, and his first collection of poems, Mission Work, reflects this particular context. It is filled with intersections and overtones of both Christian cultural crossover and the indigenous myths and stories he imbibed growing up. The poem below beautifully captures the network of imagery and situations explored throughout the entire collection, as well as the challenging inherited experiences that constitute Baker's story. Enjoy!

- - - - - - -

A Prayer

By Aaron Baker

My father, deep in malarial fever, keeps floating away
on his bed.
Damp rag in my fist. Knot in my neck.
Night beyond the curtains is gathering silence.
My father's slick face twists, as if in deep concentration
on a single idea.
Sick light of a lantern, stink of vomit and sweat.
My mother keeps putting her hands on my shoulders.
My father sits up, I hand him the bucket.
When he's done with it, I give him water.
"Put your hands on me," he asks, so we do it.
My mother folds her hands in his. Mine go palm-down
on his chest.
Deep breaths in the stillness.
He flutters hie eyelids.
I intone, as he's taught me,
a request for God's mercy if it's His will to give it,
for His strength if it's not.
My father's whole body trembles.
His life rises again and again in my hands.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Personal Reflections on Two Years of Blogging

Ironically enough, the week marking two years here on Resident Theology coincided exactly and, so far, perpetually with a crippling case of blogger's block. I don't say "writer's block" because I have actually been writing a great deal, only not on the blog; and that is not due merely to other responsibilities, but indicates a severe case of not having the energy, resolve, or content to throw up anything on the online canvas here. A strange coincidence worth noting, but in any case, we'll push on.

Upon considered reflection, my "placement" online is a bit odd. In getting into the theo-blogging business, I did not at the time personally know anyone who was doing it, nor did I know of or follow the retinue of excellent blogs populating my current blogroll. Nor still, two years later, do I actually know of a single personal friend who is not a family member that regularly reads the blog. (Explanations, cordially received, usually revolve around the scholarly or technical tone.) And yet, in late August of 2008 I decided to start blogging theologically on a regular basis, and I presently find myself in a richly interconnected network of bloggers and their online abodes, discovering, to my delight and surprise, that I have some kind of a regular readership.

The benefits of blogging, the blessings that have come of it and the unforeseen gifts to have plopped in my lap, are legion. As one who felt like an outsider (and, to be sure, a marked amateur) initially, and still a relative stranger in any normally conceived understanding of friendship or personal interaction, I am startled and grateful to note all the kind links my way from exemplary scholars, students, and bloggers in the theological corner of the internet. One of the many reasons I am excited for both AAR and SBL being in Atlanta this fall is the wonderful opportunity to meet all these people whose reading I have enjoyed, whose engagements I have appreciated, and whose graciousness makes a medium known for its impersonal brutality a happy lodging for pilgrims thinking themselves along the way.

Somehow, in other words, without prior connection or ongoing face-to-face interaction, I have found a place online -- that postmodern height of placelessness itself, chief culprit of inhospitable disembodiment -- and just so have found and expect to continue to find personal surprises and friendships in the process.

Professionally, it has been an enormous boon -- and that, again, prior to any sort of professional career having begun! I published my first article based on a brief blog post expanded into a full piece, by way of contacting an editor through an online call for papers posed on another blog. I am participating in the upcoming Karl Barth Blog Conference, solely based on David Congdon having appreciated my previous interactions with film here on the blog. I will soon be in the process of editing a portion of a blogging scholar's upcoming book, and analogously I have a piece out to a handful of folks I've met through blogs that are looking it over for me in the hopes of submitting it to a journal. I have discovered fellow Yoderians and Jensonians through my thesis meanderings since May who have helped me enormously in my research and whom I have pointed in particular directions as well. And allow me to note once again how utterly bizarre it is to come upon a footnote (37n.1) in Yoder's For the Nations, published in 1997, in which he shares that the essay in question was presented as a lecture per the invitation of one (then dean) Dr. Michael Gorman -- the very same New Testament theologian who inexplicably links to me from his current blog!

But it has not simply been happy connections fostered and professional futures enabled -- the point of my starting Resident Theology was to carve out space for taking time to think the gospel; and just so, the essential components of that practice -- individual and communal -- have obtained.

On the one hand, I have been moved over and over again by the extraordinary quality of theological blogging on offer to reconsider established thoughts, to engage important questions, to entertain questionable notions, to question tenuous doctrines. I have expanded my grammatical, rhetorical, philosophical, and theological landscape. (As a side note, it is telling -- and, so far as I see it, in a positive sense -- that in almost no discernible way do I belong to the "church of Christ" blogging world, though that too has its own cubby hole in the online churchly discourse. I am happy to present myself sufficiently an ecumenical theological blogger!) I have received suggested authors and books whose works -- particularly given my present academic location -- I would not have heard of for years. (Another note: I didn't know Lewis Ayres was Lewis Ayres until after I had already had him for a class on Christian history. Trust me: I would have paid more attention had I known.) I can state for a fact that the only reason I have read, and/or paid serious and sustained attention to, Karl Barth, Robert Jenson, William Stringfellow, J. Kameron Carter, Rowan Williams, Augustine, Nicholas Healy, Arthur McGill, and many others is because someone in a blog post or email referenced or appropriated them and in so doing made me realize they were important thinkers I had to attend to.

And in light of that sentence-ending preposition, it has been a singular gift of this blog to learn how to write. I often tell the story of my first one-page reflection paper for an exegesis course in undergrad, that I had never seen a red mark on a paper of mine in my life until I received that single piece of paper back, looking like it was dripping with blood it was so marked up. My professor, Glenn Pemberton, taught me the essential first lesson that I had no idea how to write -- utterly crushing at the time -- and then proceeded to teach me what I did not know.

Blessedly for its practice and its practitioners, theology is the unending task of what Hauerwas rightly calls "word work": attending to language, to talking and writing, as the medium and performance of truthful speech about God and God's works. Precisely in that spirit, to the extent that I have learned over these last two years to write better and better, I have also been learning, through writing, how to speak about God more and more truthfully. Two years ago I would not have been able to articulate a single coherent thought about the historic nature/grace debate, if only because it was so bewilderingly dense. Recently, however, I was finally able to put my finger, in a single sentence, on what had always troubled me: it's ungospeled, and therefore relatively unbiblical, presuppositions regarding its own terms and the content of the message about the crucified Christ. My entire time working through writing thousands upon thousands of words on this blog -- and simultaneously reading just as many, in print and online -- could be fairly and representatively reduced to the patient process of learning how to respond, and how to do so well, to that all-important question of grace and nature.

In the end, whether I am right or not is not the point. The point is that, through this beguilingly unbridled medium, I have joined the conversation.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Single Corrective Sentence on Grace and Nature

Grace does not destroy nature, but neither does it perfect it; rather, grace crucifies nature, then raises it from the dead.

The Fall 2010 Course Load

Following John's lead -- especially as the pre-semester blogger's block has hit in full force -- I thought I'd share about the courses I'm taking this fall. I'm planning on returning by the end of the week with reflections on two years of blogging; hopefully the words will start flowing by then.

Theologies of Religious Pluralism (Jenny McBride)

This was the two-week short course I mentioned in August, which is already done and only awaiting a final paper. The class was split into two parts: one week devoted to various Christian theologies of religion (inclusivism, exclusivism, universalism, etc.), and one week devoted to Jewish-Christian relations. The class culminated in the last day of class, in which Jewish colleagues and students were invited to come share the time with us in the practice of Scriptural Reasoning together (which, by the way, was a phenomenal experience).

Jews and Christians: People of God, edited by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson
Abraham's Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations, by Michael Wyschogrod
The Bonhoeffer Legacy: Post-Holocaust Perspectives, by Stephen R. Haynes

The Theology of Karl Barth (Andrea White)

This course is exactly what its title announces, and will be centered on Barth's doctrines of God and of the human person in conversation with each other, though we will be beginning with Romans. (Note: Out of the 20+ persons in the class, the range of familiarity extends from some who had only heard Barth's name secondhand prior to the course -- and then still unsure about the pronunciation! -- to others who read German fluently or who have already read much of the Dogmatics. Should be interesting.)

The Epistle to the Romans (6th ed.)
Church Dogmatics II/1: The Doctrine of God
Church Dogmatics III/2: The Doctrine of Creation
The Humanity of God

Sex, Sin, and Salvation (Ian McFarland)

This is a course in McFarland's specialty, theological anthropology, which will be a perfect set-up for his new book coming out in November, In Adam's Fall: A Meditation on the Christian Doctrine of Original Sin. The class will especially be focusing on the relation of gender, sexuality, and the body to a doctrine of the human person and the reality of sin. (Much of the reading will be selections from church history, beginning with Irenaeus all the way up to the present, which isn't reflected in the books listed below.)

Christ the Key, by Kathryn Tanner
Sexuality and the Christian Body: Their Way Into the Triune God, by Eugene F. Rogers, Jr.
Bound to Sin: Abuse, Holocaust and the Christian Doctrine of Sin, by Alistair McFadyen
Postcolonial Theologies: Divinity and Empire, edited by Catherine Keller, Michael Nausner, and Mayra Rivera

New Testament Ethics (Luke Timothy Johnson)

Unfortunately, this will be my first time to have Johnson for a class in my time at Candler, so I will be making the most of it. Fortunately, I have already read Hays' volume, so it will be enjoyable to be able to read it again without the anxiety of a first time through. The course is what it sounds like: an exploration of how the New Testament informs and is able to direct Christian morality, including diverse proposals for methodology.

The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics, by Richard B. Hays
Scripture and Discernment: Decision Making in the Church, by Luke Timothy Johnson
Scripture and Ethics: Twentieth Century Portraits, by Jeffrey Siker
The Origins of Christian Morality: The First Two Century, by Wayne A. Meeks
The Ethics of the New Testament, by Wolfgang Schrage

Cosmopolitanism and Theology (Felix Asiedu)

This is a 1-hour directed study, which will more or less entirely be devoted to reading and discussion with few assignments. I'm joining Dr. Asiedu and my friend Leonard (with whom I did City of God and De Trinitate in the spring) to explore Isaiah Berlin and Charles Taylor in dialogue with each other -- a subject, and authors, outside my field of expertise, which is exactly why I am doing it.

The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays, by Isaiah Berlin
Isaiah Berlin: A Life, by Michael Ignatieff
Charles Taylor, by Ruth Abbey
Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, by Kwame Anthony Appiah
A Secular Age, by Charles Taylor
A Catholic Modernity?, by Charles Taylor
Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, by Charles Taylor
Philosophy in an Age of Pluralism: The Philosophy of Charles Taylor in Question, edited by James Tully

Thesis Research: Yoder and Jenson

Since May I have been documenting my ongoing thesis research, so there's no need for me to repeat myself here. This week I am finishing Jenson' Canon and Creed, The Triune Identity, and The Futurist Option, as well as Yoder's He Came Preaching Peace. After those are done, all I will have for each author is listed below, which according to plan will be done by the end of October. After that I will have supplementary reading by Nation, McClendon, Lohfink, and Jones, to be finished by Christmas.

Yoder: The Christian Witness to the State; Nevertheless; Nonviolence; To Hear the Word; When War is Unjust; The War of the Lamb; Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution

Jenson: Lutheranism; A Religion Against Itself; Christian Dogmatics; America's Theologian; The Knowledge of Things Hoped For; Visible Words; Alpha and Omega; God After God

Other: John Howard Yoder by Mark Thiessen Nation; Doctrine: Systematic Theology Volume 2 by James McClendon; Witness: Systematic Theology Volume 3 by James McClendon; Does God Need the Church? by Gerhard Lohfink; A Grammar of Christian Faith: Volumes I and II by Joe R. Jones