Tuesday, January 31, 2012

On Biblicisms Possible and Impossible: The Deeper Issue Between Richard Beck and Christian Smith

Last Friday Richard Beck posted a thoughtful piece on Christian Smith's recent book, titled "Why The Bible Made Impossible is Impossible." Thought I haven't read Smith's book, I felt Beck left unexplored an important aspect of what I understand to be the position Smith is representing and thereby bringing to bear on his former evangelical brethren. I emailed Richard and he effectively agreed, having simply decided to go in a different direction (in more than one way, as you'll see below). I thought I would share my response here as well for others' reflection.

In reading the piece, what most interested me was the fact that Beck didn't mention Smith's conversion to Catholicism. And as I understand the Catholic position more broadly -- less so the specific argument of the book -- it is that the ambiguity of the Bible, and the acceptance of that ambiguity, is not a psychological problem in need of addressing in the way Beck presents it. Why? Because we needn't worry about every single person in the pew reading, say, Ezekiel and Ecclesiastes and Chronicles and Revelation, and wondering how to fit it all together. That just is not what ordinary Christians ought to be doing in their spare time. Sure, they should read Scripture: Torah, Psalms, Proverbs, Amos, the New Testament, and the rest. But the call of theological interpretation and authoritative harmonization isn't something laypersons have to worry about, isn't something they must accomplish or achieve on their own, because they trust -- in the most robust sense of the term -- the leading of God's Spirit in the teaching office of the church. That is to say, on this view one's faith as a Christian is just the faith of the church; it is not contingent upon a personal, individual ability to make sense of the Bible on one's own.

Of course, Beck doesn't exactly endorse the latter approach (at least I don't think so -- though perhaps he might say it's not an unworthy endeavor for anyone who wants to try). However, the perspective he finds himself representing at the end of the argument does seem to inhabit that latter view; and this for a simple reason. It's his people and my people, church of Christ-ers -- i.e., the biblicists.

But isn't that Smith's very argument? The issue starts to feel a bit circular.

Smith says: Biblicism doesn't work because of pervasive interpretive pluralism. Beck rejoins: That's great for psychologically hyper-healthy folks, but not for most! To which Smith responds: Who said you should come to the Bible with that mindset in the first place?

That is: don't merely come to the Bible expecting ambiguity, and prepared to accept it. Rather, don't come at all carrying the assumption/hermeneutical M.O. that it is your job (uncalled as priest, untrained as theologian) to read-it-all, make-sense-of-it-all, put-it-all-together. It's okay to come for other things -- reassurance, faith, edification, devotion -- than just the logical, kataphatic component. And it's okay to come expecting not to understand, and nonetheless believing based on the authority of trusted others by and through whom God speaks and leads. But a chastened hermeneutic primed for ambiguity is not the final goal; the supposed charge to come to Scripture with the task of Comprehensive Understanding is already suspect from the first, and invariably doomed to fail.

Put another way, one ought to avoid being a biblicist on both the front end and the back end.

Thus, what seems to be the deeper point of disjunction here are the respective ecclesiologies underlying Smith's and Beck's perspectives, not their bibliologies per se. Unfortunately (or fortunately, as some may see it), while that clarification opens up space for dialogue on a different front, it also makes quite clear, with Beck's and Smith's (along with one's own) ecclesial commitments on the table, just how deep the differences really are.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Czeslaw Milosz

If last year was the year of R.S. Thomas, this will be, at least in part, the year of Czeslaw Milosz. Before Christmas I began his complete New and Collected Poems (1931-2001), and I'll be slowly making my way through it as the months go along. Expect this post, therefore, to be the first of many. Blessings.

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By Czeslaw Milosz

When we were fleeing the burning city
And looked back from the first field path,
I said: "Let the grass grow over our footprints,
Let the harsh prophets fall silent in the fire,
Let the dead explain to the dead what happened.
We are fated to beget a new and violent tribe
Free from the evil and the happiness that drowsed there.
Let us go"—and the earth was opened for us by a sword of flames.

Goszyce, 1944

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

On Christians and Modernist Poetry

This week a friend passed along Mark Signorelli's recent article, "The Meaning of Modernism." In it Signorelli argues, first, that artistic (and specifically poetic) form is inseparable from content; though not a propositional statement, the form of a work embodies the philosophical (or political, or religious) perspective of the artist, and more broadly the artist's culture, who created it. He goes on to argue, second, that modernist poetry naturally embodies the philosophy undergirding it, a philosophy whose conception of freedom is damaging and untrue, masking and choking thereby whatever beauty one might otherwise have hoped would emerge in the art. Signorelli believes the temptation to ignore this fact, and to submit to the modernist paradigm anyway, is especially perilous for Christian poets today.

I want to comment briefly on this, though I admittedly need to learn more about the precise terminology in play; "modernist" may be specific enough to mean a particular sort of self-consciously methodological poetry in the vein of T.S. Eliot, or generic enough to mean most meter-less poetry in the last 100 years. If Signorelli means the latter, I think he's missing something important.

For example, the poetry of someone like Franz Wright is formless, meter-less, without predetermined shape, precisely as an embodiment of Wright's central concerns: beauty in brokenness, grace amidst pain, light in darkness. The shape of his poems does embody his content, and from one vantage point (though not the only one), it consequently tells the truth of the gospel better than rigorously defined, beautiful-with-a-capital-B classical poetry.

Moreover, it seems to me that in a real sense, once one's culture has fragmented to the extent that ours has in the last century, so that the world in many ways lacks the kind of fundamental, ordering beauty taken for granted in previous times, the proper response needn't be to impose a towering alien transcendental on it. Rather, Christian poets ought to practice their art from the ground up, within the welter as it stands (and trembles), speaking truth and beauty in the table scraps recognizable by ordinary, fractured people. Mary Karr, Andrew Hudgins, and Li-Young Lee, among others, come to mind in this regard.

I will have to think more about the issue of freedom and form, and the interplay between them in recent non-metered poetry. I suspect there is a substantive answer here, but because it is an important issue, I will leave it there for others to consider rather than suggest a hasty solution.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

My Spring 2012 Course Load

As I do at the start of each semester, I have shared below the courses I am taking this spring, with whom, and the respective book lists. I am especially excited about this semester, as three of my four classes are directed readings focusing on theological texts that are either crucial to know or ones I have not read before. In related news, I may not be coming up for air until spring break, given the reading requirements. We'll see.

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Medieval Christology and Atonement Theory (Junius Johnson)

There are two guiding questions for this course: 1) What, according to Scholastic theology, is the work that human salvation requires Christ to accomplish, and 2) what sort of person must he be in order to accomplish that work? This course will examine the answers of thinkers from Anselm (1033-1109) to Luther (1483-1546) on these questions.
  • Anselm, Basic Writings
  • Bonaventure, Itinerarium Mentis in Deum
  • John Dillenberger, ed., Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings
  • Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love
  • Damian McElrath, ed., Franciscan Christology
  • Eugene R. Fairweather, ed., A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham
Readings in Patristic Trinitarian Theology (Christopher Beeley)

This course focuses on four decisive patristic figures in fourth-century trinitarian theology: the Cappadocians -- Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus -- and Augustine of Hippo. We will be reading both primary and secondary texts the better to understand these foundational theologians, the particularities of their reflections on and conceptions of the Trinity, and more generally the trinitarian faith itself in its early formulation.
  • Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea
  • Augustine of Hippo, De Trinitate
  • Lewis Ayres, Augustine and the Trinity
  • Christopher Beeley, Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God
  • Basil the Great, Against Eunomius
  • Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit
  • Gregory of Nazianzus, Select Orations
  • Gregory of Nazianzus, Theological Orations
  • Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius
Readings in Historical Theology (Miroslav Volf)

This course, like the next one, is in service to preparation for comprehensive exams, both on the horizon and farther down the line. We will be reading a large number of smaller, discrete texts from important thinkers in three eras -- patristic, medieval, and reformation -- regarding four loci: biblical interpretation, faith and reason, Christology, and politics and society.
  • Patristic: Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Gregory of Nazianzus, Augustine of Hippo, Cyril of Alexandria, Leo the Great, Maximus the Confessor, John of Damascus
  • Medieval: John Cassian, Gregory the Great, Bernard of Clairvaux, Hugh of St. Victor, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Nicholas of Lyra, John of Salisbury, William of Ockham, John Wyclif
  • Reformation: Martin Luther, John Calvin, Cornelius a Lapide, Johann Gerhard, Desiderius Erasmus, Francisco de Vitoria, radical reformers
Readings in Systematic Theology (Kathryn Tanner)

This course, like that above, is aimed at filling gaps and providing space for reading texts which will come up in our comprehensive exam on contemporary theology (i.e., post-Kant); unlike it, though, we are reading multiple works in full from only about a dozen or so influential figures. The three areas organizing the texts and concerns of the course are: theological methodology, the nature and interpretation of Scripture, and ecclesiology.
  • Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1; I/2
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio
  • William Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist; Theopolitical Imagination; Being Consumed; Migrations of the Holy (selections)
  • Henri de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis (selections)
  • Hans Frei, The Identity of Jesus Christ; The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative
  • Nicholas Healy, Church, World, and the Christian Life
  • David Kelsey, Proving Doctrine; Eccentric Existence (Chapter 3B)
  • George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine
  • Gerhard Lohfink, Does God Need the Church?
  • Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith
  • Kathryn Tanner, Theories of Culture
  • Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine
  • John Webster, Holy Scripture; Word and Church; Confessing God

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

On Cultivating Virtues in the Academy: Sabbath

The deeper I went into Master's work, the more my Saturdays became homework days. By my third and last year, it was an ideal work day, particularly if my wife was planning on doing something with friends. Sunday was already a work day, but usually better for reading; Saturday, as it turned out, proved great for writing: no responsibilities other than the yet-to-be-written paper sitting before me on the blank computer screen. By spring of last year, writing my thesis, I could apportion a piece of my writing schedule -- one chapter per week -- to every day of the week; so if a chapter was about 25 pages long, I need only plan 3-4 pages of writing per day.

Needless to say, when I began doctoral work in the fall I went into it with the unquestionable assumption that, given what would assuredly be a sizeable increase in workload, weekends would be work days as much as weekdays -- with slight allowances made for fun (Saturday) and church (Sunday). In theory this would relieve each day's work by some slight but meaningful percentage, thus creating post-work time within each day for other things (whether relational, marital, practical, etc.).

A few weeks into the semester I noticed that my fellow first-year in theology, Ross -- he and his wife already fast friends of ours -- was keeping a sabbath day each week. Sundays were intentionally free of homework, so as to create unintruded, unintrudable space each week for worship, family, exercise, leisure, fun, and rest.

Initially, this seemed appealing in the abstract, but impractical in reality -- a nice idea, like how we'd all appreciate an eighth day of the week. Unfortunately, there are only seven.

However, the appeal only grew with time, and I realized -- in discussion with Ross as well as with my wife -- that its impracticality rested entirely on my decision to make it so. If I decided that one day a week was off limits (you know, like an entire people group has done for 3,000 years), then it simply would be.

So I tried it.

And I never looked back.

Since mid-October I have practiced a homework sabbath every Saturday, without exception, and I cannot exaggerate how much of a blessing it has been. I chose Saturday instead of Sunday for a number of reasons, but it has had a significant, though unintended, rest-extending consequence: Because I usually finish my school reading sometime Friday afternoon (always by 6:00 pm), and I don't pick it back up until after lunch on Sunday, the sabbath actually regularly approaches something like 42 hours in total, even some weekends spanning a total of two full days in real time.

Academics are a notoriously anxious bunch, and I am no exception. There is always another book to be read, another article to print, another paper to write, another proposal to submit. What a specifically school-work sabbath does is what the sabbath does more generally: remind you that you are not the still center of the spinning cosmos. (Reminding you also, of course, who is.) Just as the world will keep turning without your busily working self -- and this is good news! -- your academic career (or semester grades, or final paper, or . . .) will, without fail, not collapse in a heap of failure if you take a day off.

Most of us need this reminder.

Among other benefits, it is difficult to describe, in this my eighth consecutive year of post-secondary education (following 13 years of primary+secondary!), what a psychological relief it is to spend an entire day -- or two -- at rest, utterly carefree, sans work commitments and the guilt that ordinarily accompanies leaving them unattended. It is simply extraordinary.

So I commend the same to others: choose some specific amount of time each week, set it aside for whatever you like except academic work, and keep it holy. It may seem like law at first, but rest assured that it will be pure gospel. What seems to constrain will invariably work to free you. Try it.

Monday, January 16, 2012

On Cultivating Virtues in the Academy: Introduction

These past few weeks I have spent some time reflecting on the sort of habits I want to be cultivating as a doctoral student. The fall semester, like all first semesters in PhD programs, was one long exercise of learning as I went, adapting on my feet to the new and unique challenges present in this next stage of graduate study. Following that, the Christmas break afforded a bit of sustained time to reflect on the experience and make intentional plans for how to grow and succeed in substantive ways this semester and on.

I have already begun to share some of those reflections, in the form of goals for becoming a better reader and setting aside time each day for quiet and prayer. The nice thing about being a graduate student and preparing for a career in the academy is that the habits and virtues developed at this point in the track are largely transferable into life as a professor (granting all the various differences between them).

I also understand the challenges the academy poses to its members to be distinctively pernicious to those of us seeking, at the same time, to be faithful Christians. The temptations run in every direction: ambition, narcissism, snobbery, elitism, greed, deification of knowledge, idolatry of this person or that idea, sacrifice of family for career, lack of belonging to any particular place, locating value in others' esteem rather than God's, substitution of talk for action, entitlement mentality, loss of ability to listen to others, relentlessly critical attitude to the exclusion of gratitude or joy, homogenization of what matters in life in terms of what matters to you (and "your field"), and so on and so forth.

So I thought that, since I'm already thinking about these issues, and apparently writing about them without larger intentions, I would share my reflections in a little ongoing series. Life in the academy today is a strange and unwieldy thing, and I know I have benefited from others' wisdom before me. Hopefully my own small contribution will be similarly helpful, along with the comments of friends and colleagues (prospective and actual) who find themselves on the same path.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: A Prayer for Concluding Prayers

One of my regular spiritual disciplines is to spend time in silent prayer after lunch every weekday. I have always struggled to find a time "set aside" specifically for stillness, quiet, and prayer, as mornings are out of the question and evenings invariably find a way to intrude with alternatives. But since I spend much of my time each day during the week reading or writing in my office at home, often eating lunch there alone, I discovered early last semester that committing to daily prayer after lunch was both a good idea (spiritually) and a realistic idea (practically).

My praying often takes different forms, whether meditative, intercessory, freewheeling, or whatever. One constant, however, has developed entirely organically, and to my happy surprise: a sort of fixed concluding prayer to close my time in prayer as a whole. Unwritten, pieced together ad hoc as various phrases and petitions came forth naturally, it has coalesced into something like a set liturgical denouement -- even to the point of crossing myself when I end with the triune name, something I had never done before but just felt fitting one afternoon, and which I have continued ever since.

As I have with other similar compositions, I thought I might share this prayer for prayers' concluding for whatever benefit others might gain from it. Enjoy.

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A Prayer for Concluding Prayers

Speak to me, Lord;
help me to listen;
make me to hear your voice.

Let me come to know you as you are,
O God of infinite and perfect love --
you who made the sun and the stars,
and came near in Christ.

Forgive me my sin,
and deliver me into new life.

Free me
from the fear and the power of death.

Make me your servant,
faithful to the way of Jesus.

For I do believe, Lord;
help me in my unbelief.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Week's Reads: Marilynne Robinson, Guantanamo Nightmare, Intelligent Design, and More

Here's some of what I enjoyed reading this past week:

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Karl Barth on (Not) Attending to the Center of the Church's Life

"How disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if, on whatever pretext, it can dream of being able to undertake and achieve anything serious in what are undoubtedly the important fields of liturgical reform or social work or Christian education or the ordering of its relation to state and society or ecumenical understanding, without at the same time doing what is necessary and possible with reference to the obvious centre of its life, as though it were self-evident, as though we could confidently count on it, that evangelium pure docetur et recte administrantur sacramenta! as though we could confidently leave this to God and in the meantime busy ourselves with the periphery of the Church circle, which has perhaps been rotating for long enough around a false centre! as though we could put ourselves in God’s hands without a care in the world for what happens at this decisive point!

"Again, how disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if it can imagine that theology is the business of a few theoreticians who are specially appointed for the purpose, to whom the rest, as hearty practical men, may sometimes listen with half an ear, though for their own part they boast of living 'quite untheologically' for the demands of the day ('love'). As though these practical men were not continually preaching and speaking and writing, and were not genuinely questioned as to the rightness of their activity in this regard! As though there were anything more practical than giving this question its head, which means doing the work of theology and dogmatics!

"Again, how disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if it can imagine that theological reflection is a matter for quiet situations and periods that invite contemplation, a kind of peace-time luxury for which we are not only permitted but even commanded to find no time should things become really serious and exciting! As though there could be any more urgent task for a Church under assault from without than that of consolidating itself within, which means doing theological work! As though the venture of proclamation did not mean that the Church permanently finds itself in an emergency! As though theology could be done properly without reference to this constant emergency!

"Let there be no mistake. Because of these distorted ideas about theology, and dogmatics in particular, there arises and persists in the life of the Church a lasting and growing deficit for which we cannot expect those particularly active in this function to supply the needed balance. The whole Church must seriously want a serious theology if it is to have a serious theology."

--Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, 76-77 (originally a single paragraph)

Thursday, January 5, 2012

On (Not) Being a Good Reader: Making Goals, Resisting Bad Habits, and Re-Reading Good Books

I am not a very good reader. Though my chosen career entails a life of reading, reading itself does not come naturally to me. Or at least, not always, and not in the same way.

For example, I am an extremely poor reader of novels. I just did not learn the requisite skills in high school, and more or less degenerated in college. Since then I have been trying to recoup what I lost, and gain what I never had.

Furthermore, I am an extraordinarily slow reader. My wife, if "hooked," can finish a 400-page novel in a day, two or three at most if other commitments override. That sort of loss of self, that forgetfulness of the painstakingly slack page-turning rate which swells up in my brain in perfect proportion to the amount of pages staring me down -- it's near impossible to imagine.

However, I do enjoy reading, and have always enjoyed it; moreover, I love my subject of study, so I enjoy reading theology in particular -- and that is fortunate, given that my vocation consists overwhelmingly of reading theology before doing anything else.

Setting aside theology, then, my stamina, and speed, and (at times) motivation have for some time been sorely lacking, alongside a paucity of diversity in both my literary interests and reading skills. I have, therefore, for the last few years made annual goals with attendant strategies in order to slowly address these areas of weakness (or, in PC parlance, "potential growth").

To begin, in 2008 and 2009, which included the end of college and my first three semesters of graduate school, I remained stuck at around 50 books per year, which averages out to a mere book per week. In 2010 I was able to increase that to two books per week, and this past year up to three. Part of that was simply the greater demands of Master's work; another part was intentionally reading more; and still another was introducing variety into my theology-only reading diet. Two genres in particular proved especially appetizing: poetry and essays. I discovered both that I could read these fairly quickly and that I derived great pleasure in doing so.

My newest genre of interest is memoirs (or biographies, though less so), closer to the DNA of a novel while for various reasons containing more appeal as well as an easier dynamic of entry, sticking with it, and finishing.

This year I have three goals: to increase from three to four books per week (or at least somewhere in between); to read at least one novel per month; and to begin the practice of re-reading especially beloved or formationally foundational books.

This last goal is a new one to put into practice, but one I have been working toward for some time. I've heard it said that being an academic means never having to read the same book twice. That may be true in some ways -- for example, as a description of the intellectual capacities of the truly great scholar, or as a prescription of the limited time available to lifetime readers of ever-increasing publications -- but I see it as a mistaken impulse. The life of the mind, the life of reading, ought to be precisely that of refusing to "finish" books once for all before moving on to the next thing. Books, or at least those most worth reading, are there to be chewed on, digested, meditated on, memorized, internalized. For the very few who can recite lines from once-read books, perhaps this is unnecessary. But for the great majority of us who are consistently forgetful of what we have read, in a lifetime of six or seven or eight decades, how can a once-read book actually do the work it is capable of if placed on a shelf forever thereafter?

For that reason I see the practice of re-reading as the height and fulfillment of the academic life, even as it is an active resistance of the institutional habits encouraged by the academy today.

So I chose 12 books to re-read this year, from various genres and of disparate lengths and ages, books which were either important to my development as a thinker or person, or worth re-reading and so knowing well just because.

In poetry: A Timbered Choir by Wendell Berry; Sinners Welcome by Mary Karr; and Walking to Martha's Vineyard by Franz Wright. These are collections of poems which I would be delighted to read annually for the rest of my life.

In fiction: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (already read twice, each time broken open anew); The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (in preparation for the film this December, as I haven't read it since middle school); and The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis (no explanation required here).

In academic theology: The Priestly Kingdom (because I want to re-read a different book by Yoder every year); Death and Life by Arthur McGill (because it's that good); and Confessions by Augustine (again, because it's worth it -- and because I've never read Books 11-13).

In pleasurable or formational works: Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton (because it's been a while); The Way of the Heart by Henri Nouwen (because this book fundamentally reshaped my practice of spiritual disciplines); and Sex, Economy, Freedom, & Community by Wendell Berry (because reading this book four years ago radically transformed my way of thinking and living for good).

I'm sure others -- including even the most scholarly of scholars -- have similar stories with regard to reading or other related challenges. The felt expectations (to read everything, to remember everything, never to be out of date) combined with their patent insurmountability (no one has or will ever have read everything, much less remember it all or live a meaningful life besides) can prove isolating, suffocating, even brutal. Consider this my small contribution, in via, to the possibility of a common sanity in this odd way of life called academic.