Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Boiling Down the Differences Between Yoder and Jenson

As I make my way through the corpus of John Howard Yoder, not simply as a reader but with an eye toward my thesis, it is startling how much similar ground and how many shared convictions exist between he and Robert Jenson. From the 1960s to the late 1990s (and up to the present day for Jenson), they did work in similar areas and came to similar conclusions on a number of issues:
  • The essential Jewishness of Jesus.
  • The priority of peoplehood.
  • The inescapable and explicit politics of believing and obeying the gospel.
  • The tragic mistake of supersessionism.
  • The message of the resurrection as the heart of the primal apostolic proclamation.
  • The temporal (and not timeless) character of the God narrated by Scripture.
  • The overarching genre of Scripture as narrative.
  • The necessity of the 16th century reformations in response to contemporary ecclesial abuses (through Luther's legacy and Zwingli's radical followers, respectively).
  • The radical project and rehabilitating influence of Karl Barth in 20th century theology.
  • The necessity of attending to concrete history, particularly to that of the church.
  • The importance of reclaiming Scripture as the abiding word of God to the church without succumbing to uncritical biblicism or theories that distort faithful hearing and reading.
  • The core centrality of eschatology for any understanding of Jesus, the church, or Christian hope.
  • Christology as the center of all theological work.
  • The hope of the church not as immaterial or ethereal but as the full and final coming of the kingdom, of new creation, of God's redeeming and timeful materiality come at last.
  • The presence and power of the Holy Spirit as the agent of hope, transformation, obedience, empowerment, and Christ's speech to the church.
  • The work of Stanley Hauerwas as laudable and pertinent, if rambunctious and at times over-reaching.
So what is there to disagree about? I am having trouble pinning it down, and it may be more than one thing; but it does seem as if there is simply an irreconcilable barrier that determines abiding differences between the two. Here is my short list:
  • Ecclesiology.
  • Mission.
  • The relationship between truth, power, and faithfulness.
  • Augustine.
In a sense, the fourth determines the first three. To Augustine's work and project, Yoder offers a decisive "No" and Jenson a hardy "Yes." That is one way of parsing their differences.

Another is the matter of the church: What is it? What is its mission? What is its role in the world? The church and its mission definitively relate to the interrelationship of the latter three concepts of truth, power, and faithfulness -- so in a sense they are all bound up together.

Yoder sees the church as a minority people in exilic sojourn among the nations, a servant community sent on behalf of others and therefore unwilling to exercise coercion for any reason, but just so socially responsible insofar as cruciform servanthood is the grain of the cosmos and the only truly transformative power in human community. In other words, the life of the church is defined by Spirit-enabled apocalyptic discipleship to the concrete sociopolitical life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and risen.

Jenson sees the church...differently. Somewhere he says that the entire mission of the church is "the saying of the gospel." Elsewhere he claims that the community of the church over time is literally the body of the risen Christ on the earth. He also states that, when Constantine asked the bishops to help run the empire, they had nothing else to say but "yes." He believes with Augustine that the only truly just society is one that worships the true God, and that just war is possible in a legitimately Christian society. Finally, he is able to articulate and is energized by the vision and history of a (high) Christian culture, and speaks to American governance in the hopes that a Christian politics -- namely, the right ordering of heterosexual marriage and the consequent protection of the unborn -- might both win the day and lead to the formation of a more coherent society.

Moreover, of course, the church catholic for Yoder is the free church: dogma, creed, papal bull, ecumenical council -- none of it is binding or revelatory for God's people. And for Jenson, dogma is either always and everywhere true and binding for the church, or the church is not the same community as that of Peter and Paul. And to be sure, in a church divided, God may act for unity tomorrow -- in the restoration of communion with Rome. Not so much for Yoder.

Are there and other differences, then, ultimately about ecclesiology? Missiology? Truth and power? An understanding of the gospel? The authority of the tradition? Politics? Something else? Why do such similarly minded men of such similar experiences, training, and conviction come to such profoundly dissimilar conclusions?

I'm still sorting it out, but it's certainly a fascinating question.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Matt Berninger

Just some fun today. I'm enjoying The National's recent album, High Violet, and the song below is probably my favorite so far. Besides, I'm still only reading Franz Wright, and I can't just keep posting his poems. Right?


By Matt Berninger

Someone send a runner
Through the weather that I'm under
For the feeling that I lost today
Someone send a runner
For the feeling that I lost today

You must be somewhere in London
You must be loving your life in the rain
You must be somewhere in London
Walking Abbey Lane

I don't even think to make
I don't even think to make
I don't even think to make corrections

Famous angels never come through England
England gets the ones you never need
I'm in a Los Angeles cathedral
Minor singing airheads sing for me

Put an ocean and a river
Between everybody else,
Between everything, yourself, and home
Put an ocean and a river
Between everything, yourself, and home

You must be somewhere in London
You must be loving your life in the rain
You must be somewhere in London
Walking Abbey Lane

I don't even think to make
I don't even think to make
I don't even think to make corrections

Famous angels never come through England
England gets the ones you never need
I'm in a Los Angeles cathedral
Minor singing airheads sing for me

Afraid of the house, stay the night with the sinners
Afraid of the house, stay the night with the sinners
Afraid of the house, 'cause they're desperate to entertain

Thursday, May 20, 2010

John Howard Yoder on the Bible, God, and Time

"The amillennial view...says that the ultimate fulfillment of the purposes of God for history will be an end to history, but an end that has no duration to it, no time, space or body to it. It will just stop and then there will be eternity. The fulfillment will have about it something like a new Jerusalem coming down from heaven, something like a man returning from the sky, something like a judgment, and something like a bottomless pit. But it will all happen at once. Then it will be over, and we will be in timeless fulfillment. The idea that fulfillment is timeless is itself the most clearly nonbiblical of these [eschatological] positions. It is Platonic. It creates the problem of how you move from a temporal system to an atemporal system. Eternity is not having time anymore. It is getting off of temporal boundedness. A blackboard has only two dimensions. The room has three dimensions. When we get off the board into the third dimension we pay less attention to that limited universe in which there are fewer dimensions. Time does not matter. Eternity is not temporal. It is atemporal. The difficulty with that view is that it is Platonic. In biblical thought, the eternal is not atemporal. It is not less like time, but more like time. It is like time to a higher degree. The kingdom is not immaterial, but it is more like reality than reality is. If real events are the center of history -- certainly the cross was a real event, certainly the resurrection is testified to as in some sense a real event -- then the fulfillment and culmination of God's purposes must also be really historic. The God of the Bible is not timeless.

"In the old debates about the Trinity, one of the ways of stating the question that Tertullian and Origen discussed was whether God was ever speechless. Was God ever without the Logos? The answer was: "No, God from eternity had the Logos." We must say essentially the same thing about temporality if we are to understand the biblical vision of history. We cannot conceive of an atemporal God reconcilable with the biblical vision of God. We can conceive of a hypertemporal God who is more temporal than we are, who is head of us and behind us, before us and after us, above us in several directions, and who has more of the character of timeliness and meaningfulness in movement rather than less."

--John Howard Yoder, Preface to Theology: Christology and Theological Method (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2002), 275-76

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

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

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 some young theologians.

I'll probably re-post this come September, but I thought I'd get the word out sooner rather than later. Looking forward to meeting whoever ends up coming!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Arthur McGill on the Task of Christian Theology

"Christian theology is disciplined and responsible thinking about God as revealed and worshiped in Jesus Christ. It is focused upon Christ as the power of God and the wisdom of God. In their thinking, men may obvious consider all sorts of things besides God. And when they seek an understanding of God they may take other routes than the way of Jesus Christ. Even Jesus Christ himself may be approached in terms other than as the presence and revelation of God -- for instance, as a man who shows historians the world of Palestine in the first century. But all thought that seeks an understanding of God in and through Jesus Christ is Christian theology.

"Christian theologians, however, do not acquire contact with Christ by reaching out toward him with their mental faculties. Rather, they know him as one who affects and informs their concrete living, their own personal way of being. Even before they begin to think about the meaning of Christ, they are already in touch with him, already related to him and aware of him. If they seek to understand him, it is because in some sense they already know him.

"What is this relation to Christ which precedes theology? It is the relation of a person who finds himself turned toward Christ for life and light. ...

"By theologizing, even with the finest intellectual equipment, no man is able to bring himself into fruitful contact with Jesus as the power of God and the wisdom of God. No man can bring about his own birth into the divine life. Every theological investigation can only be undertaken by men who in their actual existence are already oriented toward Christ as the divine life and the divine light of men. Theology always presupposes people who are Christians, in the sense of living with this orientation.

"Theology does have a very special role to play, however, for understanding is the faculty by which we humans participate in openness. A man's understanding is what enables him to see into other people and things, to bring them forth from their hiding. But understanding, especially through the power of speech, is also what enables him to open himself to other people and things. By their understanding, then, men participate in the light -- in the openness -- of God. Theology, as an activity of the understanding, represents a responsible effort to celebrate and share in the light of God, to gather the broken and clouded fragments of human existence into the radiant openness that Christ brings. That is why theology is not an activity restricted to experts. It is to be undertaken by everyone who knows Christ as the light of the world and who exercises his understanding to participate in that light and to share it with others."

--Arthur McGill, Suffering: A Test of Theological Method (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1982) 22-23, 25-26

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

On Christian Seminaries Being Christian: Prophecy and Proclamation

Though I'd never heard it before I came to Candler, I heard it plenty once I arrived: the oft-repeated, well-scorned phrase lavished by parishioners on potential seminarians, "Don't let them take away your Jesus!"

Given the relative merits and demerits of the warning, it does name a reality: that often the experience of attending Christian seminary leads away from, rather than expressly toward, Christian faith. This of course is a bizarre event on the face of it. Christians called to the ministry go to the place purposed to train Christians called to the ministry and regularly find themselves wondering if they ought to be Christians at all.

If this description reflected a rigorous commitment to the ceaseless pursuit of truth -- which, I presume, it may and often does -- and therefore at times such a pursuit rightly leads to the exposing of weak, uncritical, or naive faith, then it ought to be applauded in every way. Bishops and elders complain of diminished sacerdotal ranks; well, the answer is not to fill them with persons unfit for the ministry of God's people.

Having said that, it is not clear to me that this laudable situation is always or even predominantly the case. At the very least, the flip side should equally be true. If in classes seminarians are to be challenged, called out, and led into deeply critical thought in order to test, examine, and purify their faith, it seems also to be right to expect some classes to function as epistemic and theological strengthening of preexistent but vital Christian faith. For example, if a non-Christian were sitting in these lectures and discussions, and in some circumstances might be convinced to remain outside the faith, just so in other classes he or she ought to find the faith beautiful and compelling, precisely because of the penetrating and truthful thought on display.

That is to say: for Christian seminary to be Christian, at times it must be right for the prophetic word, and at times it must be right for proclamation. When the former is absent -- as in some conservative and fundamentalist settings -- the faith becomes mindless magic; when the latter is absent -- as in some mainline and liberal schools -- the faith becomes gnostic self-projection. What we need is time and space set aside for patient, deliberate, thoughtful exploration and articulation of the historic faith for today's world, with nary an obstacle for biting critique nor a whiff of embarrassment at faithful piety.

How possible these goals are, whether they have been achieved in the past, if they are present anywhere today, and how to go about enacting them wherever we find ourselves -- I leave for others to determine.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Franz Wright (II)

I finished Walking to Martha's Vineyard and am on to Entry in an Unknown Hand, but I just can't help myself from sharing a couple more poems by Franz Wright. I'm glad I spread the love to another with my first post last week; here's to a second week inspiring more.

The first of the two poems below may be the most honest vision of baptism I've read: death to "that insane asshole" -- i.e., "the old man" of Romans 6 -- and marriage of the one born in water and the one born in spirit through the one healing word of the One able to speak it.

And the second needs no introduction except to say: either as the culmination of the collection, or from the sheer flat-faced truth of the closing line, or both, when I finished "The Only Animal," I couldn't help but cry. All of Franz Wright's poetry, and no less all of the gospel, may be summed up in the single "and yet" that turns this extraordinary poem.

- - - - - - -


By Franz Wright

That insane asshole is dead
I drowned him
and he's not coming back. Look
he has a new life
a new name
which no one knows except
the one who gave it.

If he tastes
the wine now
as he is allowed to
it won't, I'm not saying it
turn to water

however, since You
can do anything, he
will be safe

his first breath as an infant
past the waters of birth
and his soul's, past the death water, married—

Your words are spirit
and life.
Only say one
and he will be healed.

- - - - - - -

The Only Animal

By Franz Wright

The only animal that commits suicide
went for a walk in the park,
basked on a hard bench
in the first star,
traveled to the edge of space
in an armchair
while company quietly
talked, and abruptly
the room empty.

The only animal that cries
that takes off its clothes
and reports to the mirror, the one
and only animal
that brushes its own teeth—


the only animal that smokes a cigarette,
that lies down and flies backward in time,
that rises and walks to a book
and looks up a word
heard the telephone ringing
in the darkness downstairs and decided
to answer no more.

And I understand,
too well: how many times
have I made the decision to dwell
from now on
in the hour of my death
(the space I took up here
scarlessly closing like water)
and said I'm never coming back,
and yet

this morning
I stood once again
in this world, the garden
ark and vacant
tomb of what
I can't imagine,
between twin eternities,
some sort of wings,
more or less equidistantly
exiled from both,
hovering in the dreaming called
being awake, where
You gave me
in secret one thing
to perceive, the
tall blue starry
strangeness of being
here at all.

You gave us each in secret something to perceive.

Furless now, upright, My banished
and experimental

You said, though your own heart condemn you

I do not condemn you.

Friday, May 7, 2010

And Now, Four Tasks for the Summer

The summer has officially arrived -- in the semester's end and in the sun's return -- and the following are my four tasks:

1. A 12-week internship at my church; an extension of the internship during the year, except this time paid. Always good.

2. Organize, prepare, plan, save, email, coordinate, negotiate, network, and pray and fast in fear and trembling for the coming onslaught of PhD applications this fall.

3. Thesis time! First: read everything published by John Howard Yoder. Second: read everything published by Robert W. Jenson. Third: read Karl Barth, James McClendon Jr., Stanley Hauerwas, and Gerhard Lohfink (but not all of them!). Fourth: also read poetry and novels (perhaps including everything Franz Wright has ever published).

4. Just for fun, add to my ongoing directors list. Two chief goals: move those directors most of whose films I've seen into the "All" category, and see at least one film of those directors of whose films I have seen zilch.

Those are my four chief tasks for the summer. There will also be family, a conference, camping, a wedding, GRE, possibly fun, and perhaps rest. And come August 9th, a short course on theologies of religious pluralism.

Sounds good.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Exegesis, Movie Reviews, and Respect for the Written Word: On Being a Good Editor

Weirdly, I enjoy editing others' written work. In many ways I am a better editor than a writer, more aware of what would make that sentence work better than how to put my own pen to paper ex nihilo. If, by God's grace, I do end up teaching one day, it is a strange joy indeed that I anticipate in assigning and grading papers.

I remember as a sophomore in college, feeling superabundantly confident in my writing skills, and getting my first paper back in Exegesis. It was a sight I had never known before: full of red marks. This ridiculous professor somehow thought that my 20 years of life on the earth had not rendered me edit-proof. It was hard to swallow.

In truth, Glenn Pemberton taught me how to write for the first time that fall semester five years ago. I learned that I had not -- horror of horrors -- learned everything there was to learn about writing before graduation. That kind of knowledge, taken straight and without flinching, is essential, but not always easy to come by.

I remember also an encounter with an entirely different kind of editor the previous semester. Given my love for movies and my enjoyment of writing I thought I would email the school newspaper's arts editor, who usually authored the movie reviews, to see if I could do some freelance film reviews for the paper. I sent her a couple example pieces, and she welcomed a submission.

Unfortunately, because it was February, it was the dregs of the film release schedule, so the only film on offer -- remember, we're in Abilene, Texas; not exactly a burgeoning independent film location -- was Francis Lawrence's Constantine, starring Keanu Reeves in a comic book adaptation of a smart-mouthed, badass exorcist on the hunt for especially pesky demons.

Hey -- you've to start somewhere, right?

So I saw the movie, wrote up my review, meticulously edited it, and with fluttering heartbeats emailed it to the editor. And I waited; waited some more; finally heard back; and eventually learned when the next edition of the paper would be coming out.

So after chapel on a Tuesday morning in February I opened up the Arts section -- one of a dozen in my hands, ready to give to friends and family members -- to find my review. And what did I find?

First: what was the author's name? Brad Etan.

Second: having given the film 2 1/2 stars, what was the rating here? Two stars, full stop.

Third: having fulfilled the word and space requirements exactly, by how much did they trim the review's size? By a third. And within the two thirds that were left, what I had written was completely and utterly unrecognizable.

I was aghast. How was this possible? Was a functionally literate human being actually responsible for this atrocity? Who could have made such enormous mistakes? Were they conscious -- and therefore cruel -- or unconscious -- and therefore incompetent? More importantly, who would have dared to do such violence to another person's words?

Of course, I got over the mishap quickly enough, and it became a funny story to share with people. (Come on: what else can you possibly screw up in a movie review? I guess they could have said I was reviewing Son of the Mask, which opened the same weekend.) Besides, with how chopped up the review came out, I was happy my name wasn't attached to it. But it provided me with an indelible lesson: editors exist, your words are in their hands, and there is nothing you can do about it.

Since then I have become extraordinarily weary of editors unworthy of trust, and equally respectful and conscientious when I have someone else's work in my own hands. Though it would been self-evident anyway, now I know without a doubt: every comma, every dash, every boldface and italicization, every period and ellipsis and idiosyncratic form of citation -- all of it must be replicated exactly as is, or else taken back to the author. Those are the only two options. It's simply a matter of respect, both for the author and for the art and discipline of writing itself. Words -- but not merely "words," particular words written by this person for these reasons -- carry extraordinary meaning, meaning impenetrably thick and wholly inexhaustible, and no finite human editor, much less a goof like me, has the wherewithal or knowledge to disrespect one jot or tittle written by another.

But if you do, be kind enough to change the author's name, too.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Franz Wright

This one goes out to James Smith.

I came upon Dr. Smith's wonderful post on "Poetry and the End of Theology" this week -- remarkable in its own right -- and in his concluding section, he mentioned Franz Wright. I had never heard of Wright, so I went and read his Wikipedia page, which sounded interesting enough, and I was lead from there to this interview he did with NPR more than six years ago about his then recent Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Only eight minutes, I decided to give it a listen.

The interview opens with Wright reading his poem "Year One," and in the middle of the interview he reads "One Heart," both of which are below. Words don't come easy describing my reaction to these poems. The first left my mouth open, and tears filled my eyes by the end of the second. (I react bodily to great music, film, art, prose, and poetry; but I find it difficult to find creative ways to re-state such similar reactions. My body goes taut, my eyes glaze over, my mouth saunters open. What else is there to say, except that all of me gets caught up into the beauty of the thing!) I immediately found Wright's collections at Emory's library, and now have a stack of eight of his books on our bedroom floor.

What a joy to make a new discovery! This may be the sole justifying reason why I read blogs, and indeed, why I have this series of poetry at all.

Thanks again to Dr. Smith. Perhaps another new reader will now be made from here as well.

- - - - - - -

Year One

I was still standing
on a northern corner.

Moonlit winter clouds the color of the desperation of wolves.

of Your existence? There is nothing

- - -

One Heart
It is late afternoon and I have just returned from
the longer version of my walk nobody knows
about. For the first time in nearly a month, and
everything changed. It is the end of March, once
more I have lived. This morning a young woman
described what it’s like shooting coke with a baby
in your arms. The astonishing windy and altering light
and clouds and water were, at certain moments,

There is only one heart in my body, have mercy
on me.

The brown leaves buried all winter creatureless feet
running over dead grass beginning to green, the first scent-
less violet here and there, returned, the first star noticed all
at once as one stands staring into the black water.

Thank You for letting me live for a little as one of the
sane; thank You for letting me know what this is
like. Thank You for letting me look at your frightening
blue sky without fear, and your terrible world without
terror, and your loveless psychotic and hopelessly
with this love