Thursday, January 28, 2016

Evangelical Postcolonial Conversations ~ The Praxis Question

The authors of this volume engage contemporary postcolonial theory primarily to articulate a critique of Western Christianity, as it has been practiced for centuries, and to suggest lines for reconstructing evangelical identity and constructive theology in a more inclusive and liberating key. Still, postcolonial theory is not taken for granted without critical pushback. In one particularly intriguing piece, "The Problem and Promise of Praxis in Postcolonial Criticism" (which earns high marks not only for its content but also for the alliteration in the title), Gilberto Lozano and Federico A. Roth interrogate academic postcolonial thought, especially in its impact upon biblical criticism: Is this mode of theoretical inquiry practical for human flourishing? Does it liberate? The authors sharpen such questions by bringing postcolonial theory into dialogue with Paulo Friere's Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Evangelical Postcolonial Conversations: Global Awakenings in Theology and Praxis, Edited by Kay Higuera Smith, Jayachitra Lalitha and L. Daniel Hawk (IVP Academic, 2014)

Lozano and Roth offer a friendly critique of postcolonial thought with the intent of retrieving it for theology. I'm not qualified to evaluate postcolonialism as a body of thought nor to propose possible rejoinders to this essay from the critical theory guild, so I will stick to summarizing the main arguments.
Postcolonial theory is, first and foremost, just that: theory. It subsists within an interdisciplinary academic context, with all the socio-economic and cultural ambiguities and compromises that beset that milieu. The foundational text for the discipline is the classic Orientalism, by the Palestinian literary critic Edward Said, who lays out a damning genealogy of how nonwestern peoples have been stereotyped and silenced in Western literature and literary criticism. This analysis evokes a justified suspicion of any totalizing discourse that obscures the cultural diversity and agency of among the members of colonized groups. (This concern with false totalities brings postcolonial theory into line with a general worry of postmodernist theory. On this point, see Brian McClaren's introductory remarks to this volume, pp. 13-15.) Postcolonial criticism along Said's model is a species of ideology critique, unmasking oppressive power dynamics between the colonizers and the colonized.

This critical project, which originates with secular theorists, is taken up within contemporary biblical and theological studies as well. Lozano and Roth write:

More an approach than a method, postcolonial biblical criticism seeks to accomplish a pair of indispensable goals. As a style of inquiry it attempts to catalog the presence of imperialistic impulses in the biblical text as well as in the academic and ecclesial appropriation of the biblical text (p. 185).

(Not surprisingly, the prospect of applying such a hermeneutic of suspicion to the biblical texts themselves is controversial in conservative evangelical circles. This issue comes to the fore, for example, when Gene L. Green recounts some of the bewilderment he elicited from both students and colleagues while teaching a course on "World Christian Perspectives" at Wheaton College, Illinois. See pp. 19-21. Like the authors of the "Praxis" essay, Green discerns the natural affinity between postcolonial conversations and theologies of liberation.)

Still, despite the critical perspectives informing postcolonial biblical interpretation, the Lozano and Roth fault the discipline for failing to engage concrete, transformative political practice. They attribute this lacuna to several factors -- for example the open-ended and pluralistic (non-totalizing) character of the discipline, its use of abstract jargon (terms such as "subalternity" and "hybridity" feature prominently throughout the essays in this volume) and an academic tendency toward hyper-specialization. The authors quote theorist Gayatri Spivak, who levels the charge that postcolonial discourse alienates its practitioners from the very populations for whom they presume to speak. Finally, and perhaps most crucially, postcolonialism exhibits a certain "tendency to romanticize oppression" (p. 186). The authors write:

A roll call of its scholarly voices would reveal many who number among the self-exiled, wealthy and socially advantaged. Some use the postcolonial marker to incite Western guilt and sentimentalize subalterneity [meaning low or marginalized social status] (pp. 187-188).

Such tendencies, the authors argue, tend to reify victimhood and minimize the agency and power of those who suffer the effects of colonial oppression. Are these charges completely fair and to the point? Again, I'm not sure, but they seem plausible enough to me, on the face of it. Perhaps the constructive part of essay is the main point, anyway.

To remedy these problems, the authors seek a corrective in Friere's pedagogy of liberation. A unified proposal, along these lines, would integrate critical reflection -- which postcolonial analysis is well heeled to supplement -- with concrete action to alleviate actual human misery. This would be a liberating, non-patronizing praxis from below, in which members of oppressed group learn to articulate their own aspirations for freedom and justice, thereby empowering themselves to work toward a new society. This entails consciousness raising among the oppressed themselves, the expression of solidarity by the erstwhile oppressors with the erstwhile poor and oppressed and radical reconfiguration of socio-political relations from bottom to top.

Essentially, the postcolonial angle is, quite appropriately, ingrafted into liberation theology. In Friere's ethical vision, the goal of pedagogy is not simply regime change wherein the last are now first, but rather a transformation that dissolves oppression as such. Rather than seek retribution, the oppressed seek the reclamation and liberation of the oppressors as well -- within a more just and egalitarian society. The proposal that Lozano and Roth suggest is both evangelistic (that is, about spreading good news) and humanistic:

Affirming the diversity of human experience and human knowledge, we have proposed that truth is found in the joint and collaborative efforts of people across multiple boundaries of wealth, geography, class, gender and so forth. Believing that postcolonial biblical interpretation should itself overcome the logic of colonialism, we suggest that interpretation should be done collectively by allies in solidarity with the oppressed and with them as full partners (p. 196).

My main criticism of this essay, which is overall cogent and compelling, is a bit ironic: With all the emphasis on making it real, the authors do not provide concrete examples, either of academic theorists being obtuse or of liberated critics being enlightened. I suspect that, along with other pieces in this collection, strict space limitations may be partly to blame. Positively, though, Lozano and Roth have laid some promising groundwork for further exploration.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Amos, Micah, and Isaiah – A word much needed again today

My undergraduate degree is in both Bible and Theology, which suits me just fine as a Reformed theologian. Consequently, I like to dip my toes into biblical studies from time to time and—again, as a Reformed theologian—I find myself fascinated by the Tanakh / Hebrew Scriptures / Old(er) Testament. (Regular DET readers will recognize some of these impulses coming to expression in my work with Calvin’s commentary on Malachi.) Lately I’ve been reading about the history of Israelite religion, and I have been not only learning a lot but also finding a great deal of theological stimulation.

The passage that I want to share with you below, gentle reader, has to do with the criticisms leveled by the prophets Amos, Micah, and Isaiah against the cultic institutions of Yahweh worship. This passage jumped out at me because it resonates so clearly with the shape of “Christianity” in contemporary North American society. And it is a word that cuts through North American “Christianity” in all its facets: none of our churches—whether mainline Protestant, evangelical Protestant, Catholic, or anything else in between—are wholly untouched. (I don’t consider myself competent to comment on the situation among North American Jews and Muslims, who also claim interpretive rights to these prophetic texts.) As usual, bold is mine and italics are original (I have dropped citations to biblical texts – if you want to see them, get your hands on the book).

Rainer Albertz, A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period, Volume 1, From the Beginnings to the End of the Monarchy (WJK, 1994), 171–72.

Amos, Micah and Isaiah fundamentally reject the cultic practice of their time because it covers up the social injustice and misery in society. Worship in which the upper class put their plundered riches on show and seek to gain religion security, worship which is no longer matched by justice and solidarity in everyday life, is for Amos sheer pesa, rebellion against God. Amos and Isaiah are not afraid to hurl these provocative accusations in the faces of those who take part in worship: they slip into the role of the priest who had to confirm that the performance of the sacrifice was well-pleasing to God, only to proclaim publically in worship that Yahweh refuses to accept this whole cultic practice. Instead of sacrifices and songs they call for justice and righteousness in the name of Yahweh and solidarity with the poor. . . .

Amos and Micah go so far in their criticism as to announce the destruction of the main centres of what for them is a godless cultIn particular the cult of Jerusalem gave the upper classes a certainty of salvation which made them totally insensitive to the injustice that was emanating from them. When Micah claimed, to the contrary, that the city of God would be devastated along with its temple…he was fundamentally putting in question the way in which the official temple theology had commandeered Yahweh for the cult. In the view of the prophets, Yahweh’s bond with justice, his partisan support for those without rights, went so far that he could dissociate himself from his own cult.

I hope the parallel that I’m getting at is clear, but I’ll elaborate a little. Too often, “Christianity” in North America—i.e., those who claim to worship this same God, Yahweh, as vectored by way of Jesus Christ—serves as just this sort of justification for those who have wealth, isolating them from God’s demand for solidarity with the poor. Solidarity, not charity. Solidarity is only possible through breaking down the social structures that get in the way of true mutuality, and it is just these structures that those with wealth are impervious to and that the religion criticized by these prophets supported. Notice how he speaks of “injustice emanating from them,” i.e., from the upper classes. You don’t get this kind of social stratification, where one class is struggling to eke out a living and another class wallows in luxury, from morally neutral social structures. If you have this sort of stratification, then you don’t have morally neutral social structures, much less morally good ones. Those on the receiving end of benefits accruing from unjust social structures are culpable for the injustice perpetuated by those structures. And peddling easy assurances of salvation that don’t question these fundamental social justice issues is not something that God will tolerate, according to Amos, Micah, and Isaiah. Instead, God will “dissociate himself from his own cult” and—unspoken in the paragraphs quoted above but nonetheless true—will become this cult’s enemy.

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Friday, January 22, 2016

"The definitive work on Barth's doctrine of baptism" - David Congdon reviews my "The Sign of the Gospel"

It has been far too long, gentle readers, since I proclaimed to you the majestic scholarly achievement that is my monograph on Barth's doctrine of baptism. But since I tire of talking about myself very quickly, I thought that I would let my good friend and theological partner in crime carry the torch for a bit. David posted the below on Amazon as a review of my book back in early October of 2014, and I thought that I would share it with those of you who may not have stumbled upon it yet. Everything below the link (points down) is from David (you can compare it to the original if you like).

W. Travis McMaken, The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth (Fortress, 2013).

There is no shortage of new books on Barth, but this is one of the very best. Travis McMaken's monograph is very well-researched, comprehensive in its grasp of Barth's corpus, illuminating in its explication of Barth's theology, and highly practical in its implications for contemporary Christian life. Let me point out the following, in particular:

1. Much more than an exercise in mere Barth exposition, McMaken's work is a work of historical theology, offering penetrating analysis of a wide range of materials, from the NT to Aquinas to Calvin to Turretin. Readers will come away with a solid grasp of how key themes in soteriology and sacramentology have played out over the centuries.

2. McMaken's key contribution is the way he examines the connection between soteriology and sacramental practice. Basic decisions regarding election, covenant, and justification are the basis for ecclesiological differences.

3. Refreshingly, compared to most academic theological works these days, McMaken connects theology to the exegesis of scripture, as Barth himself insisted that we must. One of the best sections of the book is the excursus looking at nonsacramental baptism in the NT.

4. McMaken defends Barth's rejection of infant baptism against those who would argue that this constitutes a deviation from the rest of Barth's theology. He shows that Barth's position rests on dogmatic decisions made decades earlier. This is not a position commonly held in the field of Barth studies, and the rigor with which it is argued leads me to think it should be the final word on the topic. No one can seriously maintain any longer that CD 4/4 is inconsistent with his core theological positions.

5. McMaken argues in the final chapter for a new approach to infant baptism that would remain consistent with Barth's later theology. This final section is more exploratory in nature and does not purport to be a definitive ecumenical proposal, but it is very intriguing nonetheless. Most helpful is the way he connects baptism to the task of the gospel's missionary proclamation. Reframing church practices in that light opens up some new ecumenical opportunities.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

What Am I Reading? “Sanctified By Grace”

Kent Eilers and Kyle C. Strobel (eds.), Sanctified By Grace: A Theology of the Christian Life (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).

I am pleased to take part in a “blog tour” in support of this volume. Those interested in reading reviews from other bloggers are encouraged to check the index that will be provided at the T & T Clark blog.

It seems as though a not insignificant portion of the Protestant theological community in English speaking countries has become increasingly concerned with recent decades in “sanctification” broadly conceived. Consider, for instance, the immense popularity of Stanley Hauerwas’s ethical work, or – to speak of trends in my own primary subfield – all the interest in Barth’s ethics / moral ontology. In addition to works on Barth’s ethics, one regularly sees monographs on related topics, such as “virtue” in Barth or “prayer” in Barth. There is also the ecclesiological and “theo-political” aspect of all this, to which my own work contributes – both what I have done on Barth and baptism, and what I am doing on Helmut Gollwitzer. It was therefore only a matter of time before we were given a book of this nature, which seeks to consider the loci of systematic theology through the lens of sanctification.

Given my own theological proclivities, I turned to the table of contents in an attempt to discern whether this approach would do justice to the church’s missionary character and the political consequences of that character. Sadly, these topics did not make the cut to receive chapter-length treatments. I was further worried by the volume’s introduction in this regard. So often it is easy to think of sanctification or the Christian life in terms that are oriented toward one’s own inner life, or toward what we might call the inner life of the Christian community. Attention to the church’s missionary character and the political consequences of that character counteract this tendency and so bring what we might call a fitting dogmatic balance. This balance is not obviously found in the introduction. There we find language about how thinking through sanctification must keep “the ethical shape and form of the church always in mind,” and we hear that the Christian life is “oriented towards the witness of the church” (6). But I miss here any clear affirmation that church and Christian life must take a missionary shape and bear political fruit if it is going to be counted as such. The approach taken by the volume in the introduction and the thematizing evidenced in the table of contents suggest that it is possible to think of church and Christian life as first one thing and only then missionary / political, and this sequential approach dissatisfies me.

However, Tom Greggs’s chapter on “Church and sacraments” and Phil Ziegler’s chapter on “Discipleship” allay my concerns admirably.

Greggs sketches an actualist ecclesiology that emphasizes that because “the primary condition of the church is the event of the coming of the Holy Spirit” (160), it is necessary for the church to exhibit plurality and diversity which includes the fundamentally missionary point that the church is neither a culture unto itself nor inextricably wedded to any particular culture:
Identifying the event of the Spirit as the basis for the existence of the church should prevent us from confusing ecclesial form or cultures of any kind, which can all have the semblance of a church, with the reality of the event of God the Holy Spirit which is the primary condition for the presence of the church as the Spirt makes Christ known to communities of peoples in all their variety in the present. (p. 161–62)
Greggs concludes his chapter by addressing the church’s missionary character even more explicitly, arguing that the whole reason for the Holy Spirit making the church to exist is “the outwards movement of the church to all the world” (168).

For his part, Ziegler makes an important connection between discipleship and eschatology to develop an account of the former that is characterized by divine disruption: God’s “call [to discipleship] disrupts and dislocates the disciple” (179). Furthermore, Zielger develops the military metaphors at play in discipleship to characterize the Christian life as a battle into which Christians follow their “captain” Jesus (p. 181). In following Christ, discipleship must take the form of “active service and openness to the world for whose sake Christ came low to save” (184). The result of this approach is that discipleship cannot be described only in terms of “an inward mortification of the old Adam” without also involving “an outward insurgency against the powers of the age” (185). Thus it is that we reach the theo-political realm.

Slightly off-topic but also important, Ellen Charry contributed a chapter on “Theology” as seen from the perspective of sanctification. There is not a great deal of new material here for those already familiar with her work (although she does discuss Pannenberg and B. B. Warfield, which I haven’t seen before), but the chapter is a masterful statement of major themes on which she has worked throughout her career and it is certainly not to be missed.

These chapters are excellent and are well worth the price of the volume alone – which in this case was the fulfilment of a promise to write a review, but I would say the same had I paid the $39.99 USD cover price. (FYI, you can get a 30% discount through January 29, 2016 - more information here.) Furthermore, for those who (like me) have teaching responsibilities, the volume is divided into 15 chapters (about the number of weeks in the average semester) and could easily serve as the backbone to an introductory systematic theology course. Thank you to Kent, Kyle, and Bloomsbury for bringing us this stimulating resource.

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Monday, January 18, 2016

DET’s Top 10 Posts of 2015

That’s right, gentle reader, it’s that time again—time to count down the top 10 posts of 2015! I know you’re as excited as that exclamation point proves I am. Our senior contributing author, Scott Jackson, did the honors with last year’s top 10 post. Doing these kinds of posts is fun for me not only to see what posts resonated most with folks, but to give folks a chance to catch things that they may have missed along the way.

Before we begin, I need to point out that these are the top 10 posts to the best of my knowledge. It’s hard to discern how many of all the hits that come to the main page should be credited to a particular post then currently on the main page, so I only count hits directly to post pages.

So, let’s get to it!

Post #10What Am I Reading? Kevin Diller on “Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma”

I’m a little surprised by this one since it is only a few months old. That means it didn’t have as much time to “soak,” so to speak. But it seems to have resonated with folks.

Post #9Karl Barth’s Three "Words" to Atheism – More from Kimlyn Bender

This is another one that isn’t very old, but I find that putting “Karl Barth” and “atheism” into a title tends to result in gaining a solid readership.

Post #8T. F. Torrance on Karl Barth and “the temptation of orthodoxy”

Wow – posts from September and October are doing very well in this list. Torrance is another perennial favorite post topic among DET readers and, as I said in the post, “temptation of orthodoxy” is - quite simply - an excellent turn of phrase.

Post #7So, You Want to Read T. F. Torrance?

This is one of those older posts that keeps on giving year after year. It didn’t make the list last year, though, so I’m happy to see that it is picking up some steam. If you haven’t read Torrance yet, go read this post and then go read some Torrance!

Post #6So You Want to Read….Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

Another solid performer from a few years ago. Brandy Daniels wrote this one for us and I really appreciate it. Apparently you do too, gentle reader, because this is the second year in a row that it has made the list. It came in at #3 last year.

Post #5Eschatological Business: Introduction - A Guest Series by Nathan Hitchcock

This was, I believe, the first installment of a series of guest posts that Nathan Hitchcock offered DET early in 2015. It was a fascinating series and I really enjoyed engaging with Nathan. Apparently it resonated beyond me. This wasn’t the first time that Nathan has written for DET and hopefully it won’t be the last.

Post #4Gorringe on Barth: The Freedom of Theology vs. the Bondage of Worldviews

Scott Jackson, our intrepid senior contributing author, gave us this post. I wonder if some of the traffic got lured in with the multivalent language of “bondage.” It’s a good post, though, and made me want to dig in to Gorringe’s book. I’m particularly pleased that this post did so well because poor Scott didn’t have any posts in the top 10 last year, and a #4 placement is nothing to shake a stick at. Well done Scott!

Post #3Karl Barth on Eberhard Jüngel’s “God’s Being Is In Becoming” - from a new book by Eberhard Busch

I’m curious as to why this post drew so much attention this year. It is fairly old and hasn’t performed well enough to make past lists (as far as I can tell without digging through the whole DET archive). But, you liked it this year, gentle reader, and that’s good enough for me. It is certainly a worthy post.

Post #2Demythologizing the Divide between Barth and Bultmann

This is no surprise. Longtime readers of DET know that this post always performs well. In fact, it landed in the #2 slot last year as well. It is from the 2008 Karl Barth Blog Conference and was written by David Congdon. David has, of course, now published two books on Bultmann. Someone needs to dig into this post and trace how David’s mind has changed… Perhaps I’ll send one of the DET contributing authors out on this assignment.

Post #1So, You Want To Read Karl Barth?

No surprise here. This post has been at the top of the traffic numbers since it was written in 2007, and this is the second year in the row that it has taken 1st place. If you haven’t read it yet, you are the theo-blog equivalent of Rip van Winkle (or something), and you should go read it immediately.

Honorable Mentions

There were, of course, a number of great posts that didn’t make the top 10 list. Here are the three closest runners up:


Stay tuned for what we have in store for 2016, and I look forward to seeing what next year’s top 10 will look like!

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Friday, January 15, 2016

What Am I Reading? John Drury on “The Resurrected God”

John Drury is a friend of mine from Princeton Seminary who now teaches in the Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University. You can surf over to check out his biography, CV, and even a clip of him lecturing. If my memory serves me, his was the last dissertation defense that I attended while at Princeton (besides my own, that is). John is also a friend of the blog. He participated in the 2009 KBBC, and he has an essay on Barth and Wesley in Karl Barth in Conversation

In any case, his dissertation has now transformed itself into a book and been published in Fortress Press’s Emerging Scholars series. Here is the full citation:

John L. Drury, The Resurrected God: Karl Barth’s Trinitarian Theology of Easter (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2014).

I’ve been slowly working my way through Drury’s book in my spare time for the past few months, and when I finished it recently I wanted to make sure that I took a moment to share some of it with you all, gentle readers. This book is a careful close-reading of Barth’s account(s) of the resurrection in Church Dogmatics as organized around a twofold thesis: “my twofold thesis is that Barth (1) explicates the doctrine of Christ’s resurrection in terms of a unique Trinitarian grammar, and (2) grounds the event of Christ’s resurrection in the eternal triune being of God” (p. 10). The heart of the book, chapters three through five, explicate the resurrection’s trinitarian grammar and ground respectively in each of the part volumes of Church Dogmatics 4.1, 4.2, and 4.3.

Drury hews closely to his task of supplying a close reading, and so he does not use the body of his text to engage in debates with other secondary sources. Those are saved for relatively brief footnotes, but those footnotes where he does engage other readers are often valuable. One of the unique strengths of this volume, in my humble opinion, is the attention that Drury pays to the practical payoff of Barth’s doctrine of the resurrection. So to give you a taste of the book, I leave you with the following from pp. 117–19.
Barth’s Trinitarian theology of Christ’s arising accounts for the confidence with which Christians follow the risen Jesus in the power of his Spirit. Barth identifies this practical significance throughout §64.4. Three of these references are of special interest, because they appear at key turning points in Barth’s argument.

First, at the conclusion of his development of the Trinitarian grammar of Christ’s arising, Barth explains why it is necessary for him to press on to the ground of this event in God himself. It is necessary because otherwise we will likely treat this event as a myth rather than as the very pragmatics of God. . . . Barth indicates that the seriousness of our practice as disciples of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit depends on understanding that the triune God is at work in this transitional event. Therefore, Barth’s Trinitarian theology of Christ’s arising is intended not solely as a theoretical explanation of the ontological basis of our practice, but as a witness to God’s practice. . . . This precedence of the divine praxis means that we may practically participate in it with confidence.

Second, at the conclusion of his discussion of the eternal mediation of the Spirit, Barth draws the practical conclusion that, since the triune God is in himself history-in-partnership, our history-in-partnership with the risen Christ in the power of the Spirit is our participation in Godself. . . . Because our partnership with him is our participation in him, we can walk with confidence. . . .

Third, at the conclusion of his discussion of the eternal majesty of the Son, Barth highlights the assurance that follows from the deity of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s work among us is trustworthy and true because he bears witness to the truth of God himself. . . . We may follow the Spirit’s direction confidently because the Spirit of the man Jesus is the very Spirit of God. Barth’s Trinitarian theology of Christ’s arising supports this confidence.
At the conclusion of his exposition of Barth’s doctrine of the resurrection, Drury returns to this issue of practical payoff and—in so doing—provides this nice sound bite: “The practical significance of Barth’s Trinitarian theology of Christ’s parousia, and in fact of his entire Trinitarian theology of Christ’s resurrection, is that the living Jesus Christ is with us. He is present and active, calling free human subjects to fellowship with him in the service of witness” (p. 172).

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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

What Am I Not Reading? Or...My Annual Post-Yuletide Litany of Self Pity

Aside from the cat dying, we had a very fulsome and joyful Advent and Christmastide.
Austen Farrer (1904-1968). Hans Frei complained
that Farrer didn't get Barth right, but we love him anyway.
And in even in that major exception, he was old and suffering and it was something of a relief when he finally passed. It was, as pietists of all stripes like to say, "his time."

Still, the season brought another frustration: What with celebrating virtually all the major and minor festivals embedded in the season, from St. Nicholas Day to the Epiphany; and the horse-and-wagon ride; and all the parties; and the obligatory visits to four or five Santa Clauses (I'm not sure the kid even cares that much about Santa, to be honest; perhaps he's just going along with it to give a witness to our heathen culture); the pageant on Christmas Eve followed by Thai food (What? Doesn't everybody eat Thai food on Christmas Eve?); the Christmas Revels at Harvard University; the Christmas trains at the park; the tour through one of the largest light shows in North America; the two services of Lessons and Carols for Advent and Christmas (Take note, Baptist friends: They are not the same); working through two Advent calendars and one Jesse tree; First Night frivolities (including fireworks and a potty-mouthed Elvis impersonator); the twiddling of thumbs while NOT shoveling any snow this season in western New England -- because global warming is for real, my friends, notwithstanding the dissenting assessments of such climate experts as Sen. Ted Cruz -- with all that stuff going on, I had virtually no time for reading. Or blogging, for that matter. Or even reading blogs -- except, of course, all the fine posts on this website.

At any rate, I was unable to really finish anything since about Thanksgiving, though I started several things and watched lots of 30-year-old conversational French instructional videos on youtube. The best I could manage was to read, mainly on my bus commutes, a few excellent sermons by the 20th century Anglican divine Austen Farrer. Friend of C.S. Lewis at Oxford, Farrer was, as far as I can tell, a competent neo-Thomist philosopher and a somewhat idiosyncratic New Testament exegete; but he was a superb preacher -- more in that mid 20th-century Christianity-as-true tradition rather than the Christianity-as-not-quite-true-but-nonetheless-existentially-meaningful trajectory. Tillich can shake the foundations all he wants, but when Advent comes around, some of us long for a theology that's more realish.

I did manage also to read some of the more apocalyptic bits of the New Testament corpus: 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Revelation, Jude and 2 Peter (Try reading through 2 Peter on a Christmas Eve sometimes; there's nothing better to remind you that Advent is not quite over). But most of those texts are considered epistles, and labeling them "books" is a bit of a misnomer. At any rate, Christians get no extra credit for reading bits of the Bible, which we're supposed to be doing all the time anyway, any more than they get gold stars for brushing their teeth.

Though, to my frustration, I didn't finish any books during the past few weeks, I did receive a few. And with the receiving of books comes the illusion one might actually have time to read some of them. So I can at least blog about that. Never let it be said I'm unwilling to talk about a book I haven't yet read; it's a useful skill I picked up at grad school student mixers. Hey, if Ross Douthat can write a review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens before actually viewing the movie, I too feel authorized to hold forth in a similar vein about my beloved Christmas books.

There were a few, but I would highlight particular treasures from under the tree this year:

The Bondage of the Will, by Martin Luther. This is the version that fills vol. 33 of the Fortress Press American Edition of Luther's works. Years ago I owned the paperback edition translated by J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnson. But I lost that one (I think) on an airplane ride out of Atlanta. I can only pray that God, in her providence, deposited it into the hands of a hapless Arminian, perhaps an earnest United Methodist minister, in hopes that she might finally see the light. Of course, this is the German Reformer's great screed against flying-Dutchman-and-humanist-rock-star Erasmus. Some of Luther's greatest work emerged while he was being a jerk, which (apparently) was pretty often. Lately I'm getting sucked back into theological anthropology and atonement theology and, assuming I'm not fired from this blog by the end of the week, you likely will be hearing more about these interests in weeks to come.

Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, by Charles Marsh. This volume has gotten some stellar press and I look forward to diving into it in due course. Part of the buzz on this book is about Bonhoeffer's relationship with his biographer and BFF Eberhard Bethge. I have tremendous respect for Charles Marsh, a fellow native southerner and PK, and await reading this one with eager anticipation.

The Self and the Dramas of History, by Reinhold Niebuhr. "Um, yeah," some of you are saying. "That's, um, a good one." C'mon, fess up: Many of you have never even heard of this book, let alone read it. No worries: This is a Barth-leaning blog and neglecting Niebuhr is almost a point of pride for some Barthians (but none of y'all, of course: You're way to smart for that). Nonetheless, according to Richard W. Fox, Niebuhr's esteemed biographer, this late treatise from the mid-50s, after Niebuhr suffered a debilitating stroke, was one of the theological ethicist's best books. And I have to read some Niebuhr to keep the Barthian inside me honest. Here, again, the central topic is anthropology and Niebuhr bears witness to the impact of Martin Buber's work on his thought. Probably also Brunner is lurking in the background. But I'll report back on that later.

Stay tuned, gentle readers, 2016 is still young and there's plenty of time for me to finish these and a few other fine books in time for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade next November, after which all the craziness begins all over again.

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Monday, January 11, 2016

Freedom, Promise, and a Truly Free Society – Some reflections on Jürgen Moltmann

Leave it to a German who survived World War 2 to have helpful things to say in the present political climate in the United States.

Jürgen Moltmann, The Living God and the Fullness of Life (WJK, 2015).

Moltmann discusses freedom from a theological perspective, and rejects the notion that freedom is domination. Rather, “freedom exists in relationships” (112), and not in relationships of domination. “I am free and feel free when I am respected and recognized by other people, and when I, for my part, respect and accept others. Then the other person is not a restriction of my freedom,” as something like a classically liberal political theory might put it, “but an extension of it. In mutual participation in the life of other people, individuals become free beyond the boundaries of their individuality.” Of course, in Western culture today we find it very difficult to understand individuality as something to be transcended rather than reinforced, reified, and idolized. Still this transcendence of individuality through participation in the life of others “is the social side of freedom. We call it solidarity” (113, bold mine). And, if you ask me, solidarity is precisely what we lack today. Here’s a bigger chunk:

What is a person? The free human being is the being that can promise, as Friedrich Nietzsche said, and who also keeps his or her promises, as every child knows. By promising, I pin myself down in my ambiguities. Through the promises I keep I become trustworthy for other people. Through one’s promises a person acquires continuity in the flux of the times. One who forges one’s promises forges oneself; the person who keeps one’s promises remains faithful to oneself…

Free human beings live in…networks of promises made and kept, agreements, and trust. The political paradigm of a free society is the covenant that is laid down in a state’s constitution, and the social contract that orders the community or polity. The paradigm of rule is auctoritas facit legem (“authority makes the law”) while the paradigm of the free society is pacta sun servanda (“agreements must be kept”). A free society is not an accumulation of independent individuals; it is a community of persons in solidarity…

The life of the united community consists of the bringing together of what would otherwise be divided. In shared freedom, the alienation between people is ended and the separation of human civilization from nature is surmounted. . . . So we shall replace the old rules of domination through new forms of community in society and with nature. (114)

At least three lines of reflection suggest themselves to me on the basis of this passage from Moltmann:

  • True freedom is not found in unlimited options. True freedom is found in self-determination to be the particular person that you are. Consequently, Western society’s domination by late capitalism stands in the way of freedom even while using the propaganda of freedom and providing a simulacrum of freedom (think Facebook). But all of this is ephemeral and aimed at generating income by giving people the illusion of choice, or an overwhelming breadth of superficial choice, while at the same time denying them true self-determination.
  • We are currently living through something like the United States’s midlife identity crisis. We tell ourselves that we have made all kinds of promises to one another in our society. For instance, we have these words engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty:
    Give me your tired, your poor,
    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
    I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
    Compare that sentiment to how the prospect of accepting Syrian refugees has been handled. (Then compare that to the response of Canada, with whom – while it was still part of the British Empire – we fought a war that was supposedly about “liberty” and “freedom.”) Or take the line from the Declaration of Independence that speaks about all people being created equal and possessing inalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Of course, we’ve been hedging our bets on that one from the beginning: “all” means all white male landowners. Will the United States follow its best lights and keep these promises, or will it stay mired in the bigotry, nativism, racism, xenophobia, and misogyny (did I miss any?) of its past?
  • Moltmann talks a lot about unity and togetherness and participation in shared life. We hear a lot of similar sentiments these days. When questions of institutional racism come up, folks – especially self-described Christians – line up to remind us that we should treat each other with respect (i.e., don’t mouth off to the police and you won’t get shot?), build interpersonal friendships across racial lines, etc. And these sort of folks might think that Moltmann agrees with them. In a certain sense he does. He wants people to treat each other with respect and build friendships across dividing lines, etc. But he also speaks of “solidarity,” and solidarity is not just a warm-fuzzy word. Solidarity means attacking those aspects of society that predispose us against treating one another with respect, and it means destroying those aspects of society that allow some people to dominate others (whether culturally, socially, economically, violently, etc.). Saying “we should all just get along” won’t cut it if you’re measuring by the standard of solidarity. Domination-systems must be challenged and destroyed because we all can’t get along until they are removed.

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Friday, January 08, 2016

What Am I Reading? "Evangelical Postcolonial Conversations"

Reading this volume was an awkward experience. No, I'll go further: Reading this book -- as a white, male, North American Protestant theologian -- was sometimes almost devastating.

Evangelical Postcolonial Conversations: Global Awakenings in Theology and Praxis, Edited by Kay Higuera Smith, Jayachitra Lalitha and L. Daniel Hawk (IVP Academic, 2014)

For example, it was disturbing to learn from L. Daniel Hawk and Richard L. Twiss the extent to which Protestant leaders and institutions in the 19th century had been co-opted by, indeed worked actively to legitimate efforts to strip indigenous peoples of their distinctive cultural practices in order to "civilize" and "save" them (chapter 1).
Moreover, whereas I have often thought of apocalyptic theology as a kind of protest against the hegemonic ideology of an existing socio-political order, it was unsettling to follow Christian T. Collins Winn and Amos Yong as they sketched a dark trajectory from the medieval visionary Benedictine Joachim of Fiore to an apocalyptic supersessionist missionary theology that funded the Spanish conquest of the Americas (chapter 7). Christopher Columbus, as they show, saw his journey to the West Indies as a fulfillment of the prophecies of Isaiah. He also intended that the spoils of this endeavor would help fund efforts of the Spanish monarchy to retake Jerusalem, in fulfillment of end-times speculations. In a similar vein, As Kurt Anders Richardson demonstrates, Messianic and apocalytpic readings of scripture informed the enterprise of English colonialism in the 17th and 18th centuries, helping give birth to the myth of American exceptionalism that informs our social and political discourse to this day (chapter 6).

In graduate school, I was introduced to a trajectory of modern Christian thought decisively shaped by the European Enlightenment and its aftermath in the 19th and 20th centuries (and I remain grateful for this education). It was thus jarring to read Teri R. Merrick summarize the colonialist metanarrative funding and informing some of the major thinkers of the modern Western canon (chapter 5). Thus, Kant, known as a critical thinker, reiterates gender essentialist stereotypes of women as the "sentimental," less intellectually endowed sex and, furthermore, extends this feminine-masculine binary into a racist theory of cultural development. Similarly, Merrick quotes this bit of proverbial wisdom from Hegel:

Negroes are to be regarded as a race of children who remain immersed in their state of uninterested naivete. They are sold, and let themselves be sold, without any reflection on the rights or wrongs of the matter (p. 118).

Confronting our colonialist past and present, as the contributors to this volume understand, may spark a crisis in our understanding of Christianity and its prospects for the future, but this confrontation with the effects of colonialism can be, or at least should be a clarifying and empowering experience. That is why it is crucial for professors, students, pastors and church leaders -- not only in the evangelical orbit, but throughout North American Christianity -- to grapple with this book. For these authors are not mainly, or even primarily, critical theorists and cultural critics; they are first and foremost Christian believers and constructive theologians. Consequently, not only do the authors provide critical genealogical analysis of the religious and theological heritage, but they also offer many stimulating, if all to brief, suggestions for theological reconstruction, particularly in the areas of Christology and eschatology. I will have more to write about these constructive projects later; for now, I focus on the cognitive dissonance.

A central incongruity suffusing this volume is the vexed question of what constitutes evangelical identity, a problem that has spawned a burgeoning literature of its own. Not being an expert in the field of postcolonial theory, I'm going to hazard the guess that this may be the only work in the field with essays that quote Dallas Willard and Carl Henry. In one of the brief essays that introduces the volume, Robert S. Heaney shows how the participants in the roundtable discussions that gave birth to this volume struggled, in diverse ways, to affirm key marks of evangelical identity -- for example, Christocentrism and a commitment to biblical authority and to the need for personal conversion -- while distancing themselves from reactionary elements that have permeated much of North American evangelicalism.

I find it somehow comforting that awkward and destabilizing effect this book this has had on me as a reviewer was also experienced by the authors themselves as the project came together; this was reportedly due, in part, to the diverse social locations, commitments and ideological perspectives of the participants. In introducing the last part of the book, Joseph F. Duggan outlines the conversations and commitments that gave birth to this book. The dialogue was seeded by the Postcolonial Theology Network Facebook group and was especially galvanized by the publication of Evangelicals and Empire: Christian Alternatives to the Political Status Quo (2008) and the panel discussion of that group at the American Academy of Religion meeting. Duggan was struck particularly by the dearth of distinctive evangelical voices from this conversation and concluded -- rightly, I suspect -- that scapegoating conservative Christians and Republicans for all the world's problems probably does not constitute an adequate response to the complex issues posed by colonialism and the postcolonial situation. Duggan worked with Judith Oleson and Dan Russ of Gordon College, along with leadership coach Steve Hu to bring together the Postcolonial Roundtable at Gordon in the fall of 2010. Those conversations seeded the essays in this volume, which David Congdon, who first introduced me to this project, helped to shepherd through the publication process at IVP Academic. A copy was sent to me with no expectation of a positive review, but I'm happy to commend it for widespread distribution and study, even if reading us makes all of us a little uncomfortable. As well it should.


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Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Catch-up on What We’ve Been Reading in 2015

One of the things that has pleased me about how 2015 went here at DET is the revival of our Book Reviews section, and especially the “What Am I Reading?” feature. This is made even more gratifying to me since both Scott Jackson (senior contributing author) and Henry Coates (contributing author) got in on the act as well. So I thought that I would index what we’ve done with this feature over the past year so that you, gentle reader, would have the chance to catch up on anything you might have missed along to way.


Stay tuned in 2016 for more reading reports!

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Monday, January 04, 2016

Reading Scripture with John Calvin: Malachi 3:15–17

Malachi 3.15–17

[15] “Now we count the arrogant happy; evil-doers not only prosper, but when they put God to the test they escape.” [16] Then those who revered the LORD spoke with one another. The LORD took note and listened, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who revered the LORD and thought on his name. [17] They shall be mine, says the LORD of hosts, my special possession on the day when I act, and I will spare them as parents spare their children who serve them.

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COMMENTARY: To begin this section of his exposition, Calvin takes a backwards look to the hypocrisy that he has been expounding – by way of Malachi – for some time. I mention it again, however, because he has a great line in his description here. While hypocrites may appear to be upstanding, moral, good, etc., it is all an act: “they have only the guise or mask of religion” (italics mine; 598)! And this is not the last memorable line that Calvin provides in this section of his commentary. Calvin’s point here, of course, is that the sort of behavior and worship that is pleasing to God is motivated by love rather than fear or self-serving calculation.

The second great line comes in his discussion of verse 16. Calvin takes the mention of those who “revered the LORD and thought on his name” here as evidence that Malachi’s “doctrine had not been without fruit” (602). This is an interesting line in itself because most folks these days (I suspect) do not think of doctrine in these terms. That is, we don’t think of doctrine as the sort of thing that bears fruit. But for Calvin, proper teaching about God has consequences in life. (On this point, see the discussion of Calvin in Ellen Charry’s By the Renewing of Your Mind.) But this fruit is not the result of creaturely activity or power; it is the result of God’s action. Then comes the line: “we are by nature slothful and tardy, until God as it were plucks our ears” (italics mine)! What a great image – there we are, lazy, perhaps napping, and God walks by and flicks us on the ear to wake us up and get moving. And how does God do it? Through doctrine, perhaps? One thinks of Romans 12.2.

The theme of hope also plays an important role for Calvin here, especially in connection with verse 17. God makes a promise in this verse to the remnant mentioned in verse 16, but this promise goes against their experience of the world. That is, their position has not changed concretely even if God has made this promise. Calvin writes, “When therefore se seem to serve God in vain, let us know that the obedience we render to him will come to an account, . . . though he may not immediately stretch forth his hand to us” (605). The promise is there to engender hope and trust, and that is necessary because there is a delay between the faithfulness of the remnant and God’s intervention on their behalf. This gap requires that hope be joined with patience—“the Prophet in these words exhorts us to patience” (606)—so that faith can be given primacy over sight, as it were: “let us then arm ourselves for this contest, and be satisfied with the inward testimony of the Spirit, though outward things do not prosper” (607–08).

Finally, the “practical syllogism” (the idea that it is possible to be confident of your election based on evidence of grace in your life) kept tugging at the back of my mind while reading this section. For instance, Calvin say “it is an evidence of true repentance” when one works to bring one’s friends to repentance (603). Then, when discussing the last half of verse 17, where God promises to spare the remnant identified in verse 16, Calvin identifies two aspects of this promise. First, those “who remained alive would render obedience to God, by which they would prove themselves to be children indeed, and not in name only” (608). Here again, as with the earlier line quoted, we seem to have actions of obedience identified as ways to secure confidence of one’s salvation. However, Calvin’s second aspect undermines this: “God would forgive them, that is, . . . he would exercise pardon in receiving their services, which could not otherwise please him” (italics Calvin’s) His point here is that even if obedience indicates one’s soteriological status, that obedience never secures that status. And furthermore—and this is the key bit—that obedience is never unambiguous. Calvin goes on to disparage those “sophists” who “daringly prattle about merits” because “even when we devote ourselves with all possible effort and zeal to God’s service there is yet something always wanting” (609). An honest self-examination of the sort that Calvin recommended in his previous section of commentary, where he exhorted his readers to remember that God always has plenty of reasons to “chastise” believers, even if those reasons aren’t obvious to them.

PRAYER:

(Calvin concludes each of his lectures on Malachi with a prayer.)
Grant, Almighty God, that as Satan strives to draw us away from every attention to true religion, when things in the world are in a state of disorder and confusion,—O grant, that we may know that thou carest for us; and if we perceive not this by what we find in the world, may we rely on thy word, and doubt not but that thou ever watchest over our safety; and being supported by this confidence, may we ever go on in the course of our calling: and as thou hast deigned to make us partakers of that evidence of thy favour, by which we know that we are reconciled to thee in thine only-begotten Son; and being thus made his members, may we never hesitate cheerfully to offer to thee our services, however defective they may be, since thou hast once promised to be a propitious Father to us, so as not rigidly to try what we offer to thee, but so graciously to accept it, that we may know that not only our sins, which justly deserve condemnation, are forgiven and remitted to us, but that thou also bearest with our infirmities and our defects in our imperfect works, that we shall at length receive the reward which thou has promised, and which we cannot attain through our merits, but through the sanctification of thy Spirit, and through the sprinkling of the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.—Amen.

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Saturday, January 02, 2016

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

…or, Something to keep you busy over the weekend…

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

We haven’t had one of these posts since the middle of November and, by my reckoning, that’s more like three fortnights… So it’s time to share some links! We took a little bit of a break for the holidays, but we’ll be back going strong on Monday. This is your chance to make sure you’re all caught up before diving in to a new year at DET!

Here’s what we’ve posted since the last link collection:


Here’s some thought-provoking stuff from elsewhere that you may want to read:


Stay tuned for more!


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