Monday, December 13, 2010

God Wants You To Be Happy – or, Announcing the Publication of Ellen Charry’s Latest Book

I served as Ellen Charry’s research assistant working on her latest book for an entire calendar year. When it came time to start thinking about possible titles, my suggestion was the first part of this post title: God Wants You to be Happy. It was felt at the time – the opinion being expressed definitively by the publisher – that this title was too “up market” (whatever that means) for such a serious treatise. Luckily, the final title of the volume is only very slightly less perfect than my original suggestion: God and the Art of Happiness.

First, let’s get the nitty-gritty out of the way: this book is ~300 pages of dense theological text, divided into two parts. It is not for the faint of heart. The first part treats the history of doctrine for the question of happiness in the Western Christian tradition – I know of no other such treatment, so this part alone provides a valuable service. If my recollections serve me, the quality of the chapter on Augustine stands out for its excellence in a text that is excellent as a whole. The second part comprises Dr Charry’s constructive proposal, deeply conversant with the biblical text, for what happiness is Christianly understood – she designates this construction, “asherism.”

Despite being a demanding text, it remains accessible to the educated lay reader. This means that it will make the perfect Christmas gift not only for that theology student you know, but also for that pastor, elder, deacon, or other Christian who wonders what it means for a Christian to be happy and is willing to work a little at finding the answer. Published with Eerdmans, this book is priced to move from the shelf and into your hand, so go and buy a copy for yourself or someone you care about.

But, enough of the sales pitch (coincidently, I don’t promote a book with posts on this site unless I’ve read it and support it) – here is a brief description of the project.

The first sentence in the introduction identifies this book as a sequel to Charry’s By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine. That volume was concerned to show that throughout the Christian theological tradition, theology has been deployed in pursuit of a pastoral end, namely, the promotion of human flourishing. Indeed, the seeds of the present volume were sown in the earlier, as when Charry writes: “all the thinkers examined here held that knowing and loving God is the mechanism of choice for forming excellent character and promoting genuine happiness” (Renewing, 18: I have the high honor of having played a role in helping Dr Charry think through the relation of these two works, as well as digging out this quotation from the former for use in the latter). God and the Art of Happiness seeks to flesh out this claim.

Part of what informs Charry’s discussion is a desire to reclaim the mode in which theology was done prior to the modern period. As she describes things, the modern period saw attention turn “from the formative effects of doctrines on those who professed them to how well or how poorly doctrines performed intellectually” (Happiness, x). But, the pastoral undercurrent to theology did not die completely. In a paragraph that very helpfully locates her project within her current theological / academic environment, Charry writes:
Despite this shift in emphasis, the pastoral agenda of theology has not disappeared. It is quite evident in Schleiermacher and is present in Barth as well. Schleiermacher organized his Glaubenslehre to support piety. Barth’s pastoral agenda is equally thoroughgoing, though a bit more subtle. His Church Dogmatics is a corrective to Calvin’s Institutes - and behind him, Aquinas and Luther – structuring the law in a No-Yes order: first the law, then the gospel. With Calvin, the No resounded powerfully. Like Israel before him, who crossed his hands when he blessed his sons Manasseh and Ephraim to favor the younger Ephraim (Gen. 48:13-14), Barth also crossed his hands to argue for God’s great Yes to humanity before the dreaded No. I am offering this book as a contribution to that important crossing of hands – that is, for the sake of God’s great Yes. (ibid)

What is the vision of happiness that Charry promotes? It is intimately tied up with both Christ and salvation, both of which are anchored soundly in the doctrine of the Trinity. To use the language that Charry deploys in the introduction: “Salvation is the healing of love that one may rest in God. Asherism works out that healing process is a life of reverent obedience to divine commands that shape character and bring moral-psychological flourishing and enhance societal well-being. Salvation is an excellent pattern of living that is personally rewarding because it advances God’s intention for creation. It is realizing eschatology… [F]or Christians, happiness is being healed by Jesus with and for the wisdom of love” (xi-xii).

I’ll post more as I make my way through the final version of the text. For now I’ll conclude with a cryptic comment. Since my time working with Dr Charry on this project, I have been convinced that it would be her masterpiece. It certainly is of sufficient scope and quality to rank as such. However, I have recently learned that an even more ambitious project is in the works. So, we should not imagine – while we sit at Dr Charry’s feet to learn about happiness – that she has now concluded her task of helping us relearn theology’s artegenic quality: there is more to come!

1 comment:

Joshua said...

Hello Travis,

Thanks for your thoughts on Dr. Charry's new book. I hope all is well with you!