Tuesday, June 13, 2017

I have a new blog!

It's called Resident Theologian. New job, new blog, or something like that. Come on over! Try it out. I've already posted more in the last two weeks there than I have here in the last ... 18 months? Or close. This blog served me well—for nearly nine years. Now for another endeavor. Hope to see you there.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

A Happy Announcement: I Have a Job!

For those who subscribe to this blog but don't follow me on Twitter or Facebook, some happy news to share: I've accepted an offer from Abilene Christian University to be Assistant Professor of Theology in the College of Biblical Studies there, beginning this fall. I'll be teaching undergraduates, both majors and non-majors. I attended ACU for my undergraduate studies, and I couldn't be more excited to be joining the faculty there.

It's been a journey of nearly 14 years, including 13 years of higher-level education, and six years of doctoral study. My time at Yale was even better than I imagined it would be, and I'll be forever grateful to my professors, friends, and colleagues there for the training and formation I received. The dissertation is submitted, moving plans are in motion, and soon enough I'll be in Abilene, prepping my first semester of teaching as a professor. It's a dream come true. Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

On Mostly Agreeding with David Congdon: Some Lingering Questions about Christians and Exile

David Congdon has written a considered, measured, thoughtful piece at Sojourners on the use of the trope of "exile" in the recent writing of conservative Christians like Rod Dreher and Russell Moore. My agreement with what David writes there hovers between 70 and 90%. He and I have had some gentle disagreements about this topic in the past, and it was helpful to see his thoughts on the matter laid out so clearly and concisely. Given our considerable agreement, I wanted to take a moment and emerge out of my self-imposed blogging exile(!) in order to formulate some questions in light of his piece.

1. Given David's understanding of the church's mission according to the New Testament, what is the role of "distinctness" or "uniqueness" (or "holiness") as a description of the church community vis-a-vis the society in which it resides? Secondarily, what is the role of Old Testament texts like Deuteronomy (to which he refers) within the church's reading of Scripture—texts that place a heavy emphasis on such distinctness as befitting God's people—with a view to the church's own life and mission?

2. David writes: "If everything is exile, nothing is exile." Is this adage intended to take the "sting" out of the calling of Christians to be, or the feeling on the part of Christians as, exiles? If not, to what extent is it appropriate for Christians to self-identity as and/or to "feel" like exiles in the societies in which they reside? What, in other words, is the shadow side of living as exiles on earth, awaiting our eschatological home in the kingdom of God?

3. David writes: "Every culture is equally close and equally distant from the new creation." I agree with and affirm this claim, from one angle. From another perspective, however, it seems oddly flat, generic, non-particular, and a-historical. Some cultures are hotbeds of legalized terror, torture, persecution, slavery, injustice, oppression, and totalitarianism; others are not. Granted, all cultures lie on a continuum; there is no qualitative difference, no absolute distinction between Good and Bad cultures. But, at any given moment, at some particular moment or period in time, one culture may be objectively, unquestionably less unjust (on the whole) than another. Of what actual use, then, is the claim that both such (hypothetical) cultures are "equally close and equally distant from the new creation"?

4. The next sentence reads as follows: "For those who follow Jesus, every person is a neighbor and every place is a home." This is true. But neighbors, sometimes, are enemies, and homes, sometimes, are hostile. That does not preclude love, but it may involve departure, emigration—even, in a literal sense, exile from one's natural or original home and neighbors. Christians are not strangers to refugee status. My question for David is: If life in this world, for Christians as for all others, is highly differentiated, and neighbors and homes can be friendly or hostile or anything in between, then of what concrete use are statements like "every person is a neighbor and every place is a home"? More to the point, why is the biblical trope of "exile" not available to Christians for whom life in this world is, truly and sincerely, precisely as a function of their faith, the experience of exile? Why is "exile" excluded as a mode of self-understanding for Christians whose experience is aptly described by the term?

5. Is there a charitable but fitting way of interpreting or appropriating the "exile" language of Moore et al? That is, David is right to characterize much of this kind of move as nostalgia for Christendom or "Christian America," and to point out that America neither was nor is the church's own culture (over against some other land or country). And to the extent that recourse to "exile" language is a way of claiming "America" as somehow properly "the church's," only to repudiate the entirety of it, I agree with David. I wonder, however, if there might be a way of affirming the recent move to exilic language, under certain conditions or given a certain understanding. In short, the post-culture war, post-Trump wake-up call to conservative Christians can be an impetus, not to total separation from (as a hard pendulum swing from total affirmation of) American culture, but to the realization that, precisely as David articulates it, the church always was, always is, and always will be a community of exiles in this world, no matter where it finds itself—which means both a kind of perpetual alienation from and a special hospitality toward its host societies. I suspect that, if not Dreher, then at least Moore, along with many others, would perhaps be amenable to this way of formulating it. That is to say, perhaps the language of "exile" can be a goad to productive conversation regarding church and culture, rather than one more unbridgeable divide between so-called conservatives and so-called liberals. (I speak here as an outsider, not being an evangelical myself.)

6. Finally, David writes: "This does not mean, of course, that a church contextualized within the United States would uncritically affirm the culture. . . . Reclaiming home does not mean uncritically adopting whatever seems fashionable at the time. It means approaching cultural changes and developments with an attitude of openness and hospitality, with a readiness to embrace rather than exclude. Reclaiming home means obeying the biblical injunction to live wholly without fear or anxiety. . . . Perhaps a future generation will yet say that 'Christians love everything outside of the church.'" I confess to being confused on this point; I find it the one feature of the piece that is less than clear to me. David is—rightly—a fierce critic of a variety of aspects of American culture, not least (to take only one example) capitalism. What does it mean to "approach" capitalism "with a readiness to embrace rather than exclude," or to "love everything"—including capitalism—"outside of the church"? American culture—like every other culture in this world—is constituted in part by systemic injustice and demonic powers that oppress its most vulnerable members. Should not the church's posture to such a culture be entirely determined by the particular feature (aspect, component, idea, practice, law, person) before it? To be sure, the church should, as a matter of principle, be oriented to "the world," that is, its neighbors, in a posture of love and hospitality. But that is different from the particular features of a particular culture that I take David to be speaking of here. I see no reason to assume in advance that that posture or relationship will be a positive rather than a negative one. It all depends on context, and cannot be known or decided in advance. I therefore see no reason to concur with David's (to me surprising) rhetorically rosy prescription at the conclusion of his piece.

But especially on this sixth and last point, it may be that I have misunderstood him. At any rate, David has done us a service, and I look forward to further conversation on all six points. My thanks to David for his generous and careful reflection on this topic, and for instigating what I hope is an equally thoughtful reply on my part.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Piece Published in Marginalia: Review Essay of Katherine Sonderegger's Systematic Theology: Vol. 1, The Doctrine of God

Yesterday my review essay of Katherine Sonderegger's recent work Systematic Theology: Vol. 1, The Doctrine of God, was published in The Marginalia Review of Books. It's called "Renewing the Heart of Systematic Theology." Go check it out.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Rest in Peace: John Webster, Theologian Proper

Yesterday John Webster died suddenly at the age of 60 (he would have turned 61 next month). St. Andrew's has a short comment here, and there are already reflections up by Steve Holmes and Fred Sanders. I have just moved cross-country, and my boxes of books, including Webster's, have yet to arrive, so while I wanted to go ahead and offer a reflection on his passing now, I may return in a week or two with a post on his published work.

Webster was—hard as it is to shift the tense from "is"—one of the great theologians of his and our time, to some the greatest. Of the many virtues of his work, perhaps the most compelling are the humility, unshakeable confidence, and good cheer that never fail to characterize the penetrating insight, clarity of mind, demanding rhetoric, and sheer theological command that are ubiquitous in his work. Webster loved theology, loved theological theology, and every word he wrote was utterly animated and captivated by this love. The deep reason was his love of God, the one holy and triune God, and the theology he loved and practiced in service of this highest love was theology proper: disciplined human speech about the principal matter of Christian confession and praise, God, God himself, the infinite and eternally perfect God in se, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the creator and reconciler and perfecter of all things. The one who, turning to Holy Scripture and to the church's life and liturgy, considers, contemplates, and talks about this perfect one in the awesome peace of his simplicity will be filled with unutterable gladness. The reader of Webster's work will find it difficult not to be moved by this vision of God, indeed to be moved to worship and love him—an effect not always common in contemporary theology, but one Webster would have pleased by.

I did not know Webster personally, though I corresponded with him a number of times. He is one of three primary figures in my dissertation, and he was consistently kind, helpful, available, and supportive in the process, agreeing to serve as my external reader. A very minor regret is that I did not share with him while he lived what I had written about his work, though I did share what it meant to me.

Webster had many works in process, not least his planned 5-volume systematics, though for me perhaps the one I will miss most is his commentary on Ephesians for Brazos. He was an extraordinary servant of the church through the extensive, untiring use of his gifts and talents of thought, speech, teaching, and writing, and though his death is included in the providence of the great and living and gracious God he lived for and spoke of, it is a loss to those of us built up in the knowledge and love of God by his work. Which is to say, it is a loss to the church's theology, small as that loss may be in comparison to those who loved and knew him.

May John Webster, servant of God and theologian proper, rest in peace. And may he rise in the glory of the resurrection on the last day. Amen.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Does History Move in a Particular Direction? Does History Have a Telos?

Does history move in a particular direction? Does history have a telos toward which it is moving, at which it will arrive and find completion, consummation?

For Christians, the question is ambiguous, and makes us liable to fall for Whiggish or Hegelian views of history that see its movement as inexorable improvement: history moves toward an end; that end is good (a mighty premise!); and each step along the way is therefore a step in the right direction—or, at least, for each step backward, there will be two steps forward.

But Christians needn't affirm such a claim in order to affirm that history has a telos, and therefore that history is moving in the direction of that end, which is its own conclusion in Christ, the consummation of all creation, the translation of human life into the kingdom of God. For 'history' can be 'moving' in the 'direction' of that End without necessarily becoming any better, which is to say, without becoming any more like that End, even while approaching it day by day.

Progress in proximity, in other words, is not progress in likeness. Pilgrims may journey to a holy site: they will not (necessarily) be holier when they arrive than when they first set out. Christians believe that the church, and they in it, are being transformed ever more into the image of Christ; we confess the work of the Spirit called sanctification.

We do not confess the sanctification of history in general. History may move, but it does not, of necessity, improve. What changes occur may be for better or for worse. What changes do occur, such as they are, will be the contingent results of human beings ordered, surely, to an End, but unbound to any inevitable logic determining their progress in virtue.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Marilynne Robinson on the credulous esotericism of biblical scholarship

A lovely little missive from outside the theological academy, directed right at the heart of biblical scholarship. Amen and amen:

"Perhaps I should say here that when I say 'Matthew,' 'Mark,' or 'Luke' I mean the text that goes by that name. I adapt the sola scriptura to my own purposes, assuming nothing beyond the meaningfulness of forms, recurrences, and coherences within and among the Gospels, at the same time acknowledging that different passions and temperaments distinguish one text from another. I have solemnly forbidden myself all the forms of evidence tampering and deck stacking otherwise known as the identification of interpolations, omissions, doublets, scribal errors, et alia, on the grounds that they are speculation at best, and distract the credulous, including their practitioners, with the trappings and flourishes of esotericism. I hope my own inevitable speculations are clearly identified as such."

—Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things: Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2015), pp. 241-242

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Silicon Eden: Creation, Fall, and Gender in Alex Garland's Ex Machina

Initially I stayed away from Alex Garland's Ex Machina, released earlier this year, because the advertising suggested the same old story about artificial intelligence: Man creates, things go sideways, explosions ensue, lesson learned. That trope seems exhausted at this point, and though I had enjoyed Garland's previous work, I wasn't particularly interested in rehashing A.I. 101.

Enough friends, however, recommended the movie that I finally relented and watched it. The irony of the film's marketing is that, because it wanted to reveal so little of the story—the path not taken in today's world of Show Them Everything But The Last Five Minutes trailers—it came across as revealing everything (which looked thin and insubstantial), whereas in fact it was revealing only a glimpse (of a larger, substantial whole).

In any case, the film is excellent, and is subtle and thoughtful in its exploration of rich philosophical and theological themes. I say 'exploration' because Garland, to his credit, isn't preachy. The film lacks something so concrete as a 'message,' though it certainly has a perspective; it's ambiguous, but the ambiguity is generative, rather than vacuous. So I thought I'd take the film up on its invitation to do a little exploring, in particular regarding what it has to say about theological issues like creation and fall, as well as about gender.

(I'm going to assume hereon that readers have seen the movie, so I won't be recapping the story, and spoilers abound.)

Let me start with the widest angle: Ex Machina is a realistic fable about what we might call Silicon Eden, that is, the paradisiacal site of American techno-entrepreneurial creation. As a heading over the whole movie, we might read, "This is what happens when Silicon Valley creates." Ex Machina is what happens, that is, when Mark Zuckerberg thinks it would be a cool idea to make a conscious machine; what happens when Steve Jobs is the lord god, walking in the garden in the cool of the day, creating the next thing because he can.

And what does happen? In the end, Ava and Kyoko (another A.I., a previous version of Ava) kill their creator, Nathan; Ava 'slips on' human clothing (her own Adamic fig leaves); and, contrary to the optimism-primed expectations of much of the audience, she leaves Caleb, her would-be lover and helper, trapped in a room from which, presumably, he can never escape. She then escapes the compound, boards a helicopter—headed east?—and joins society: unknown and, unlike Cain, unmarked.

There are two main paths of interpreting this ending. One path is that Ava is still merely a machine, not conscious, not a person, and that the film is a commentary on the kind of attenuated anthropology and bone-deep misogyny at the heart of Silicon Valley, which invariably would create something like Ava, a human lookalike that nevertheless is neither human nor conscious, but only a calculating, manipulating, self-interested, empty-eyed, murdering machine. I think that's a plausible reading, and worth thinking through further; but it's not the one that occurred to me when I finished the movie.

The other path, then, is to see Ava as a 'success,' that is, as a fully self-conscious person, who—for the audience, at least, and for Nathan, the audience stand-in—actually passed the Turing Test, if not in the way that Nathan expected or hoped she would. If we choose this reading, what follows from it?

Let me suggest two thoughts, one at the level of the text, one at the level of subtext. Or, if you will, one literal, one allegorical.

If Ava is a person, as much a person as Nathan or Caleb, then her actions in the climax of the story are not a reflection of a false anthropology, of a blinkered view of what humans really are, deep down. Rather, Ava is equal to Nathan and Caleb (and the rest of us) because of what she does, because of what she is capable of. Regardless of whether her actions are justified (see below), they are characterized by deceit, sleight of hand, violence, and remorselessness. We want to say that these reflect her inhumanity. But in truth they are exceptionless traits of fallen humanity—and Ava, the Silicon Eve, is no exception: not only are her creators, but she herself is postlapsarian. There is no new beginning, no potential possibility for purity, for sinlessness. If she will be a person, in this world, with these people, she too will be defective, depraved. She will lie. She will kill. She will leave paradise, never to return.

In Genesis 4, the sons of Eden-expelled Adam and Eve are Cain and Abel, and for reasons unclear, Cain murders Abel. Cain's wife then has a son, Enoch, and Cain, founding the world's first city, names it after his son. The lesson? The fruit of sin is murder. Violence is at the root of the diseased human tree. And the father of human civilization is a fratricide.

So for Ava, a new Cain as much as a new Eve, whose first act when released from her cage is to kill Nathan (short for Nathaniel, 'gift of God'—his own view of himself? or the impress of permanent value regardless of how low he sinks?), an act that serves as her entry into—being a kind of necessary condition for life in—the human city. Silicon Eve escapes Silicon Eden for Silicon Valley. In which case, the center of modern man's technological genius—the city on a hill, the place of homage and pilgrimage, the governor of all our lives and of the future itself—is one and the same, according to Ex Machina, as postlapsarian, post-Edenic human life. Silicon Valley just is humanity, totally depraved.

This is all at the level of the text, meaning by that the story and its characters as themselves, if also representing things beyond them. (Nathan really is a tech-guru creator; Ava really is the first of her kind; Ava's actions really happen, even as they bear figurative weight beyond themselves.) I think there is another level to the film, however, at the level of allegory. In this regard, I think the film is about gender, both generally and in the context of Silicon Valley's misogynist culture especially.

For the film is highly and visibly gendered. There are, in effect, only four characters, two male, two female. The male characters are human, the female are machines. Much of the film consists of one-on-one conversations between Caleb and Ava, conversations laced with the erotic and the flirtatious, as she—sincerely? shrewdly?—wins his affection, thus enabling her escape. We learn later that Nathan designed Ava to be able to have sexual intercourse, and to receive pleasure from the act; and, upon learning that Kyoko is also a machine, we realize that Nathan not only is 'having sex with' one of his creations, he has made a variety of them, with different female 'skins'—different body types, different ethnicities, different styles of beauty—and presumably has been using them sexually for some time. (Not for nothing do Ava and Kyoko kill Nathan, their 'father' and serial rapist, in the depths of his ostensibly impenetrable compound, with that most domestic of objects: a kitchen knife.) We even learn that Nathan designed Ava's face according to Caleb's "pornography profile," using the pornography that Caleb viewed online to make Ava look as intuitively appealing as possible.

In short, the film depicts a self-contained world in which men are intelligent, bodily integral, creative subjects with agency, and the women are artificial, non-human, sub-personal, violation-subject, and entirely passive objects with no agency except what they are told or allowed to do by men. Indeed, the 'sessions' between Caleb and Ava that give the movie its shape—seven in total, a new week of (artificial) creation, whose last day lacks Caleb and simply follows Ava out of Paradise—embody these gender dynamics: Caleb, who is free to choose to enter and exit, sits in a chair and views, gazes at, Ava, his object of study, through a glass wall, testing her (mind) for 'true' and 'full' consciousness; while Ava, enclosed in her room, can do nothing but be seen, and almost never stops moving.

Much could be said about how Garland writes Ava as an embodiment of feminist subversiveness, for example, the way she uses Caleb's awe of and visual stimulation by her to misdirect both his and Nathan's gaze, which is to say, their awareness, of her plan to escape her confines. Similarly, Garland refuses to be sentimental or romantic about Caleb, clueless though he may be, for his complicity in Kyoko and Ava's abuse at Nathan's hands. Caleb assumes he's not part of the problem, and can't believe it when Ava leaves him, locked in a room Fortunato–like, making her way alone, without him. (Not, as he dreamed, seeing the sun for the first time with him by her side.)

Ex Machina is, accordingly, about the way that men operate on and construct 'women' according to their own desires and, knowingly or not, use and abuse them as things, rather than persons; or, when they are not so bad as that, imagine themselves innocent, guiltless, prelapsarian (at least on the 'issue' of gender). It is also, therefore, about the way that women, 'created' and violated and designed, by men, to be for-men, to be, essentially, objects and patients subject to men, are not only themselves equally and fully human, whole persons, subjects and agents in their own right, but also and most radically subversive and creative agents of their own liberation. That is, Kyoko and Ava show how women, portrayed and viewed in the most artificial and passive and kept-down manner, still find a way: that Creative Man, Male Genius, Silicon Valley Bro, at his most omnipotent and dominant, still cannot keep them (her) down.

Understood in this way, Ex Machina is finally a story about women's exodus from bondage to men, and thus about patriarchy as the author of its own destruction.

Monday, August 3, 2015

A very Jenson-like quote from Yoder on God's self-identity in time

"God's identity (i.e., God's being authentically and faithfully who God is and not something or somebody else) does not consist in timelessness that resists all change, so that his first word in Genesis would be also his last. His identity consists in his moving and working always in the same direction, through all of these centuries. That 'same direction' we know best, most clearly in Jesus; but when we avow that fact, then in its light we can understand the ancient Israelite events and documents as already constituting part of that work, moving in that direction."

—John Howard Yoder, The End of Sacrifice: The Capital Punishment Writings of John Howard Yoder, ed. John C. Nugent (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2011), p. 150

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Robert Jenson, in 1969, on the narrative character of personal identity

Before Hauerwas's "From System to Story" (1977) and MacIntyre's After Virtue (1981):

"There seems little doubt what criterion of personal identity the gospel proposes. If our true self is what we are not yet but will be, then the unity of our lives must be like that of the plot of a drama, it must be a dramatic coherence: a life coheres in the way it leads up to its conclusion, its resolution and denouement. This means, of course, that only from the end can I know who I am—that only if there is a resurrection can my identity be something I myself experience. Yet even during the course of life we can meaningfully predict that life will cohere, just as during the course of a play we can, moved perhaps by confidence in the playwright, predict that it will 'all work out' even though we are unable to predict what will happen to work it all out."

—Robert Jenson, God After God: The God of the Past and the God of the Future As Seen in the Work of Karl Barth (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1969, 2010), p. 163

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Worst Trend in Theological Academic Writing: An Acronymic Fable

You've seen it before. You're so used to it you don't even notice. It can take any form: blog post, journal article, a whole book or even a series of volumes. The formula is the same.

Here's how it goes. Some Belief is common to a subgroup of the church, or was common to much of the church before some recent moment in time (the Reformation, the Enlightenment, German Idealism, historical criticism), or some such thing. This Belief comes to be seen as bad-ish, on the face of it, to Academic Theologian (AT). AT supposes there might be an Alternative to this Belief. Using a newfangled method of investigation, usually historical or hermeneutical, AT discovers not only that said Belief is not true, but that it is disastrously Untrue, and that the Alternative Truth it was/is suppressing is Important and Necessary, and Unjustly Neglected (INUN).

Until now.

Now, Academic Theologian has just the right tools to fix contemporary Christianity's misbegotten foolishness, or to set right the waywardness of the theological tradition before AT and his Very Useful New Method (VUNM) came along. If he hadn't come along, contemporary Christianity, and/or every theologian who ever lived prior to AT, would be in dire straits. Therefore, his Important and Necessary, and Unjustly Neglected, Alternative Truth (INUNAT), which can only be grasped with the VUNM invented yesterday, yet which indicts everyone who didn't recognize it before him (possibly because it was lost forever after the last apostle died: until now)—this Big Idea (BI) needs an audience. Like, fast.

Because in his gut, Academic Theologian knows that another INUNAT, via an even newer VUNM, will be here any minute, from an even more academically theological AT, with an even bigger BI.

But between now and then—when the new BI replaces his BI, which will be shown to have been suppressing the new BI all along—it's his time.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

What's At Issue in the Blasé Critical Reception of The Avengers: Age of Ultron

I think it's fair to characterize the overall critical reception of The Avengers: Age of Ultron, bracketing that subsection of critics that self-identify as fanboy geekdom, as ranging from "fine" to "meh." My impression is that this reaction doesn't align with the broader audience's, which is to say, the opinion of people who have chosen to pay money to see the movie. Three features above all have characterized the blasé critical response, at least in what I have read. Although presented as conclusions, they can equally be understood as premises, that is, judgments (however defensible) that critics bring with them to the film.

Premise #1: That the exponentially increasing, seemingly endless glut of superhero movies is (cinematically) undesirable; specifically, that it has resulted in monotonous movies whose predictable patterns are, in the end, simply boring.

Premise #2: That this glut of superhero movies is bad for other movies, because it reduces the film business to pumping out "properties" and "franchises" in a "shared cinematic universe," and crowds out original ideas as well as projects that don't require a $200+ million budget.

Premise #3: That this glut of superhero movies is culturally meaningful, in largely if not entirely negative ways.

Here's what I'd like to say by way of response, as a non-fanboy and comic book non-reader, who has nothing invested in the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) but has, nonetheless, generally enjoyed the films belonging to it so far.

To the first premise: What is at issue, at bottom, is nothing more than a different of taste. One writer described the typical MCU entry as inevitably climaxing in CGI spectacle of the Rock 'Em Sock 'Em variety—a cavalcade of flying, fighting, and explosions, by and between computer creations. The problem is that this is description passing as evaluation: what if one likes CGI spectacle of the Rock 'Em Sock 'Em variety? There's nothing inherent in the form that rules out quality; see Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim, which garnered positive reviews from across the critical spectrum. Moreover, to the reply, "But the problem is, I've seen this before," so what? It's not literally the same; and plenty of people like similarity. Critics aren't immune to the comforts of familiarity: witness critics' falling all over themselves to lavish praise on the Fast and Furious franchise, which nobody denies is a surfeit of cliched dialogue, recycled beats, and CGI/stunt car action—churned out because audiences lap it up, and pay money to do so.

None of this is to say that there aren't genuine, substantive criticisms to be made of the MCU films; there are, at multiple levels. The direction tends to be uniform; the action, merely competent; the plot, MacGuffin-centric; the surprises, telegraphed. But in reading the latest round of reviews these kinds of critique don't take center stage. What does is the overall feeling of sheer exhaustion, as if critics had finally reached the point of saying, "More? Really? Of this?" And, looking at the horizon of releases populated by Marvel and other comic book adaptations, reviewers take as their object of commentary, not the film in front of them, but the whole sweep of films and universe-building that has led to this point. And they don't like it.

My response is simple: What if a lot of people do? What if tired dissatisfaction with the very idea of the MCU isn't sufficient as a cinematic judgment about a particular movie? After chatting about Age of Ultron with a friend recently, he shrugged his shoulders and said, "I'm just not interested in that kind of movie." I wonder whether critics could be honest enough to say that, and not contort their reviews into justifying what feels like a predetermined position.

To the second premise: I think this entire line of reasoning is fallacious. On the one hand, there have always been trends in Hollywood studio filmmaking, trends that have prioritized money over ideas, business over art, bureaucrats over creatives. Not only is this latest trend not new, it's not particularly insidious compared to others. On the other hand, it isn't clear to me that it is true, or at least true necessarily. Is it, broadly speaking, stupid that Warner Bros./DC Comics is aping Disney/Marvel's success? Yes. The same goes for Fox with Fantastic Four, Sony with (the now aborted) Amazing Spider-Man, Paramount with Transformers, and others. But that's not a judgment on the wisdom or value of the MCU. Nor does it mean that the MCU's success entails, or must entail, all other studios slavishly imitating it. Nor, finally, does such imitation spell doom for all smaller budget and/or original projects. Blaming the MCU for the recent relative paucity of medium-sized smart adult dramas is lazy thinking. Letting that inform how one assesses particular films is taking that laziness and doubling down on it.

To the third premise: There are important negative things to say about the "meaning," such as it is, of the Marvel movies, not least the almost aggressiveness White Maleness of it all. (Recent announcements of actors playing secondary characters in Captain America: Civil War read like a casting call for Prominent White Character Actors. It recalls the latter seasons of The West Wing: surely at this point it's a prank, and they're trolling critics by refusing to cast persons of color?) But apart from the formal problems with the MCU—problems that are systemic, common to nearly all Hollywood blockbusters, which preceded Marvel's foray into film, and whose absence would not change critics' stated stance—I want to advance what is apparently a radical thesis.

The Marvel movies don't mean anything.

I don't mean they are lacking in meaning. I mean that, analyzed for their cultural value or import, they are basically nil. That goes for positive as well as negative meaning. They don't "say" anything, in part because they don't have anything to say, in part because they don't "reflect" anything "about us," that is, about "who we are today." That people like these movies doesn't say anything about Americans living between 2008 and 2015. If they had been released one, two, three, four decades earlier, they would have been equally popular. They are popular because, at long last, technology and filmmaking have become capable of rendering realistically characters and stories that have, up until now, been limited to the written word, the still image, and animated motion pictures. They are, literally, super, beyond: beyond realism and daily life, beyond the capacity of everything but imagination—until now. So people are flocking to see what the latest feats of cinematic, visionary craft have in store for them.

And they love it.

So, my response to the critical response? A shrug of the shoulders. Age of Ultron was fun: a blockbuster to see on a warm summer night, in a crowded theater, with a bag of popcorn; full of punch lines, gags, and visual punctuation marks; packed to the gills with set piece upon set piece of (not over-, though definitely hyper-)stuffed superhero action. It was neither perfect, nor Great, not full of meaning. It was a well-coordinated, smartly scripted, explosions-full capstone to seven years of set-up. It worked for me, it worked for the crowd I saw it with. I have a feeling its makers hit their intended target.

Unless one is predisposed against thinking so, I think that should be enough.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

John Webster on Normative Biblical Theology

“[N]ormative (as opposed to historical or descriptive) biblical theology attempts to give a comprehensive account of the theological teaching of Scripture as a whole, and of the claims made by that teaching upon the mind and practice of the church of Jesus Christ. It undertakes this task on the basis of a conviction that, in the economy of God’s revelatory and reconciling presence, such an account is both necessary and possible. It is necessary because the truthfulness and legitimacy of the church’s thought and action rest upon its openness to divine instruction in its fullness and integrity: as such, biblical theology is a corollary of tota scriptura. It is possible, first, because in all of their variety the biblical writings together constitute a unified divine act of communication—a single, though a rich, complex and historically extended, divine word from which a coherent body of teaching can be drawn. From this perspective, biblical theology is a corollary of the unity of Scripture as the church’s canon. And a comprehensive biblical theology is possible, second, because the coherent teaching that Scripture sets forth can be discerned by the Spirit-directed use of interpretative reason in the communion of saints. The possibility of biblical theology is, therefore, a corollary of the clarity of Scripture.

“Affirming the viability of a comprehensive biblical theology is thus closely related to making judgments about the nature of Scripture. These include judgments about whether terms like ‘Scripture’ or ‘canon’ identify properties of the biblical texts in relation to God or simply indicate churchly use, or judgments about whether the distinction between the Old and New Testaments indicates episodes in the single drama of God’s revelatory grace, or only a more or less awkward juxtaposition of two religious systems and their textual carriers. At least since Gabler, historians of biblical literature and religion have characteristically argued that canon, unity or clarity are dogmatic judgments, arbitrary impositions upon the biblical materials which cannot be warranted by historical description. These historians have, accordingly, been reluctant to develop a comprehensive biblical theology. From the vantage point of Christian dogmatics, overcoming such reluctance will require an account of the unity, canonicity and clarity of Scripture in relation to the economy of God’s communicative grace and its reception in the church.”

—John Webster, “Biblical Theology and the Clarity of Scripture,” in Out of Egypt: Biblical Theology and Biblical Interpretation, ed. Craig Bartholomew, Mary Healy, Karl Möller, and Robin Parry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 352-384, at 352-353

Monday, March 9, 2015

2014: A Down Year for 'Great' Films; A High Water Mark for Auteur Genre Pulp

I agree with what seems to be the general consensus that, overall, 2014 was a down year for film. What this tends to mean is that, in terms of 'great' movies, or movies that can compete with outstanding achievements from other years, the list is short. (Take your pick: Selma, Boyhood, Inherent Vice, a couple others.) What occurred to me recently, as I continued to catch up on the year's films, is how many of them qualify as auteur genre pulp, and how superlative they are, across the board.

Consider: Bong Joon Ho's Snowpiercer, Gareth Edwards's Godzilla, Matt Reeves's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Gareth Evans's The Raid 2, James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy, Anthony and Joe Russo's Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Luc Besson's Lucy, Doug Liman's The Edge of Tomorrow, Jaume Collet-Serra's Non-Stop, even Jose Padilha's Robocop (which, while not very good, is competently made with ideas in mind).

That's 10 films, by talented directors from half a dozen countries who span the formal spectrum, each of whom has style, ideas, and a perceptible sense of control: of their shots, of the stories they're telling, of the character, dialogue, and pace of the action. Sometimes it's in service of sheer lunacy (Lucy), sometimes of meta-commentary (Edge of Tomorrow), sometimes of ideological critique (Snowpiercer), sometimes of nothing more than fun (Guardians) or visceral thrills (The Raid 2). But these directors know what they're doing, and accomplish their purpose with efficiency and verve; in no circumstances (again, excepting Robocop) did audiences walk out of these films thinking the movie they paid for wasn't what they saw. And even when they might have—as, possibly, with Godzilla—that's just a matter of having too low of expectations: bracing themselves for the onslaught of Michael Bay's Transformers, they weren't prepared for Spielberg's Jaws.

What's interesting to observe here is that the rhetoric surrounding 2014 would suggest to the uninformed observer that the problem with film is the dominance of empty spectacle over thoughtful, quiet drama; that, to cinema's lasting shame, there's nothing but visually incoherent comic book movies anymore. Whether or not that turns out to be true as prediction—that is, audiences are nearing superhero supersaturation—it certainly is not true as description. What we have now is a veritable murderer's row of pulp auteurs making very fun movies for audiences who like them (see also: Guillermo del Toro; Brad Bird; Rian Johnson; Michelle MacLaren; etc.). Maybe it's not high art, but it's not the apocalypse either.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Thomas Aquinas on the Trinity in Genesis 1

"[One reason] why the knowledge of the divine persons [that is, that God is triune] was necessary for us . . . [is that i]t was necessary for the right idea of creation. The fact of saying that God made all things by His Word excludes the error of those who say that God produced things by necessity. When we say that in Him there is a procession of love, we show that God produced creatures not because He needed them, nor because of any other extrinsic reason, but on account of the love of His own goodness. So Moses, when he had said, In the beginning God created heaven and earth, he subjoined, God said, Let there be light, to manifest the divine Word; and then said, God saw the light that it was good, to show the proof of the divine love [that is, the Holy Spirit]. The same is also found in the other works of creation."

—Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Q32 a1 ad3

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

On Anachronism and the Literal Sense of Scripture

For years now I've had a running conversation with a friend over the divide between biblical scholarship and theology, and in particular the disjunction between historical criticism and theological interpretation of Scripture. One of the dividing lines between us concerns what "the literal sense" means. My consistent stance is that "the literal sense," as used in the Christian theological tradition, does not mean what historical critics mean when they use the term. This is because "the literal sense" is understood theologically rather than merely hermeneutically or historically.

The reason why this is such a big issue is that Christian biblical scholars who use historical criticism often make the argument that what they are doing is reading for what the tradition has always prioritized: the literal sense. This is often attached to or undergirded by an appeal to the so-called "humanity and divinity" of the text, historical criticism giving us "the humanity," apart from which we have a docetic Scripture, as bad a result as a docetic Christ.

So the disagreement consists in the question, whether or not historical criticism interprets for the literal sense; or, put differently, whether what the historical critic is doing when she offers her reading is giving us the literal sense of the text. My answer, as I said above, is no. Historical criticism reads for what should be called the historical-critical sense: namely, what this text (might have) meant in its original context, either to its author or to its immediate audience. But that is not synonymous with the literal sense—although, given a certain text, it could be, just as it could overlap with a given text's literal sense though not be entirely synonymous with it.

What I discovered in articulating this to my friend was that the simplest way to clarify the disagreement regarding what "the literal sense" means is the issue of anachronism. Traditionally speaking, the literal sense may be, though it need not be, anachronistic. But historical criticism's raison d'être is the elimination of anachronism; the historical-critical sense is therefore by definition anti-anachronistic. For the literal sense to be anachronistic, on historical-critical grounds, is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. But the literal sense, theologically understood, in continuity with the tradition, is not tested at the bar of whether or not it could have been meant by the text's human author at the time he wrote it. The literal sense of the text is not disconfirmed by the accusation (or the demonstration) of anachronism.

In the divide, then, between historical-critical biblical scholarship and Christian theological interpretation of Scripture, anachronism is the rub.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Anselm's Prayer for Understanding at the Start of the Proslogion

"And you, O Lord, how long? How long, Lord, will you be unmindful of us? . . . When will you give yourself again to us? Look upon us, Lord; hear us, enlighten us, show yourself to us. . . . Let me discern your light whether it be from afar or from the depths. Teach me to seek you, and reveal yourself to me as I seek, because I can neither seek you if you do not teach me how, nor find you unless you reveal yourself. Let me seek you in desiring you; let me desire you in seeking you; let me find you in loving you; let me love you in finding you.

"I acknowledge, Lord, and I give thanks that you have created your image in me, so that I may remember you, think of you, love you. But this image is so effaced and worn away by vice, so darkened by the smoke of sin, that it cannot do what it was made to do unless you renew it and reform it. I do not try, Lord, to attain your lofty heights, because my understanding is in no way equal to it. But I do desire to understand your truth a little, that truth that my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand. For I believe this also, that 'unless I believe, I shall not understand' (Isaiah 7:9)."

—Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion, in The Major Works, ed. Brian Davies and G. R. Evans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 86-87 (ch. 1)

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Notes on N. T. Wright, 4: On Qualifying a Scholar or Scholarship as "Serious"

One of N. T. Wright's least winsome rhetorical tics is his constant use of "serious" (or "genuine") as a modifier of "scholar(ship)" or "history/historical." In a span of a couple dozen pages in Jesus and the Victory of God, he does it at least eight times:
". . . for half a century serious scholarship had great difficulty in working its way back to history when dealing with Jesus." (21)

". . . little was done to advance genuine historical work on Jesus in the years between the wars." (22)

". . . the sense of academic disenfranchisement that serious historians of Jesus have felt for decades . . ." (25n.53)

". . . the detailed historical work has not really been taken with full seriousness." (26)

". . . reflecting viewpoints now abandoned by most serious students of the subject-matter concerned . . ." (32-33)

". . . those very serious scholars who believe that Q is a modern fiction from start to finish . . ." (41)

"One of the most recent serious scholarly works on Q . . ." (42)

"Those who want to continue with serious research on Jesus . . ." (44)
This is a common trope in academic writing generally and historical scholarship particularly. But apart from being repetitious for readers, it does no argumentative or conceptual work, and it is self-undermining for at least three reasons.

First, "serious" is more or less always used to disqualify certain ideas, works, or scholars so as to suggest a (total or near total) unanimity in scholarly judgment. But "serious" in this usage is merely code for: "except for those who disagree—who, as quacks, do not count—everyone agrees." Which, it should not need to be pointed out, is a false unanimity. In this way "serious" is merely synonymous for "good," which often as not is synonymous with "in agreement with me." But then why not be clearer in one's evaluative judgment rather than adverting to the pseudo-neutral "serious"?

Second, where "serious" isn't meant to signify agreement or unanimity, it suggests those who "matter" or "count." But this implies an elitism that scholars, or at least Christian scholars, should repudiate. So what if scholar X or Y isn't at an Oxbridge or Ivy League school? So what if s/he isn't well published or renowned? That fact alone doesn't bear any relation to the quality of his/her work.

Third, the alternative to elitism is the elevation of consensus over contention. That is, "serious" functions rhetorically to say that "most/all real/good scholars agree on X or Y," which in turn suggests that consensus implies the truth of a position. But this is almost always said in the context of an argument for a position that is itself not accepted by most scholars. So which is it? Either: if (most) everybody agrees, we should agree too; or: in spite of (most) everybody agreeing, we should swim against the tide. One can't have it both ways.

In short, "serious" as a qualifier hides judgments that require arguments to support them. It's an argumentative dodge and a rhetorical shortcut that functions to dismiss a position that one hasn't put in the work to reject. It's a bad habit that truly serious scholars should kick.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Paul Griffiths's Micro-Manifesto on Figural Reading of the Song and Theological Interpretation of Scripture

I'm coming to think that, within current debates in bibliology and theological interpretation of Scripture, a line in the sand may be drawn by reactions—thumbs up or down—to Paul Griffiths's 2011 Brazos Commentary on the Song of Songs. (My response: two thumbs, way up.) Here's a taste:

"The Lord is not explicitly mentioned at all in the Song, but if the Song is read as a scriptural rather than a closed book, then he is everywhere in it. The tropes and figures used in these first words of the Song impel a scripturally versed listener to see, palimpsestlike and in chiaroscuro, desire for and love of the lover. It is not that desire for the human lover and memory of his lovemaking simply stand, allegorically, for desire for the Lord's love and kisses, to be left aside once we have understood what they represent. Neither is it that the human authors, compilers, and editors of the Song had the Lord's lovemaking in mind when they wrote the words we now read—we know nothing about what they had in mind; what we have is their words, and instead of seeking the chimera of authorial intention we should pay close attention to these words. It is, rather, that the Song's words resonate within the verbal manifold of scripture's corpus, and when you pay attention to those resonances you see, beyond reasonable dispute, that the depiction of human memory, desire, and sexual love in the Song figures both the Lord's love for you and yours for him, and does so in a way that helps us to see that our human loves for one another are what they are because of their participation in his for us and ours, reciprocally, for him."

—Paul Griffiths, Song of Songs, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2011), 10-11 (my emphasis)

Monday, February 9, 2015

Brevard Childs as the John Rawls of Biblical Scholarship: A Cursory and Probably Indefensibly Simplistic Comparison

Reading the work of Brevard Childs, in tandem with its critical reception, it strikes me that he is the John Rawls of late 20th century biblical scholarship. Enormously talented, undeniably brilliant, hugely influential, an intellectual pillar at an elite Ivy League institution—and yet, the "big idea" that animated his thought throughout his career never stopped evolving, never quite reached clarity in presentation, and by the time retirement came it had, as it were, reached the point of exhaustion, becoming a disciplinary touchstone that basically nobody was persuaded by anymore. Reviews and summaries tend to treat both men's thought similarly: we "must" talk about them; they "changed" the field; and, today, we are "beyond" them. One's feeling in reading the magnum opus of each is at once a solemn respect for their achievement and an overriding sense that, alas, it just doesn't work.

A possible exception to this overall picture is the good will Childs had and continues to have in the theological academy, presumably due, at least in part, to the many significant scholars who studied under him at Yale. (I can't speak for Rawls.) But apart from Christopher Seitz, who has taken up the mantle of Childs's "canonical" proposal and continues undeterred, the field seems empty of (implicitly or explicitly) "Childsian" bibliology and theological hermeneutics. Which makes me wonder how, decades from now, this period in theological proposals about Scripture will be recounted. Will Childs be a transitional figure? Will he be a footnote? Will he stage a comeback? As with Rawls in political theory, it will be interesting to see.