Terror at the Town Fair: A Theologian's Odyssey

The day seemed innocent and wholesome enough. We had just left church -- and what mischief ever went down in church? (Am I right, St. Augustine?) We headed up into the hills of Western Massachusetts for the annual fair in Heath, a quaint farming village that borders Vermont. The 700 or so residents of Heath are proud of their fair, which features a parade, horse-pull contests, local bluegrass and folk bands and the obligatory fried dough.

Photo of a horse pull, by Jassen (of Belchertown, Mass.)
Via Wikimedia.

A month later I would volunteer to stamp hands at the Tri-County Fair in Northampton, which boasted a demolition derby of decorated school buses and which drew, by my estimate, a thousand million people. At that fair I finally began to understand why Donald Trump had swept the Republican Primary in Massachusetts and who in fact had most likely been voting for him. I sensed that they had, perhaps, some legitimate gripes against the new global economic world order, but I didn't have the heart to tell them that their candidate wouldn't do jack for them, other than to lower his own family's estate taxes.

The Heath Fair, by contrast, is a crunchier and homier affair. What's more, the town itself has something of a distinguished pedigree in the history of liberal Protestantism in North America. The Niebuhrs summered there, joined by many of the leading lights in post-war Protestant theology and ethics. The remains of the great Robert McAfee Brown are interred just a few hundred yards from the fairgrounds. (I once recall Brown's stunning blurb on the back cover of The Gospel of Christian Atheism by Thomas J.J. Altizer, which read something like this: "This is neither the Gospel, nor Christian, nor atheism." If only Professor Brown had been alive and present to help protect me on this fateful day.)

This innocuous, bucolic setting renders the tale of terror I'm about to tell all the more chilling. The trouble began, as it often does, at the book sale at the town library tent. By mutual agreement, my wife scopes out the book sales first, grabbing a few chapter books for our 7-year-old and, more crucially, scouring the religion sections. Come to think of it, I never consciously agreed to this arrangement, but it's just as well: As a philosophy major at a small liberal arts college, she was thoroughly inoculated against the sophistries of modern theology. I, on the other hand, was not so fortunate. I am the weak link in the household.

Oblivious, I retired to the main tent, where a regional band was wrapping up the best (and the only) bluegrass rendition of the Beatles' "Something" I've ever heard, and then I awaited the show featuring the local guy who rescues wounded birds of prey. My wife appeared, clearly pleased with her haul, which included a 50-cent copy of Hegel's early theological writings! A seminal work of modern thought, or a pathway to perdition? I'll let you be the judge, gentle readers. But for my part, I panicked. I blinked, and begin to feel a scratchiness in my throat as a clammy chill began creeping up the back of my neck. Hegel? What was she thinking? I decided it was time to beat a hasty retreat, so I retired to the book tent myself, hoping to distract myself with the two dozen or so copies of the Penguin edition Euripides. Or maybe a cookbook by Erma Bombeck. Or who knows what. (My wife also snatched a copy of Pope John Paul II's original lectures on the theology of the body, but that book is better left to someone else's tale of terror.)

What jumped into my hands, though, was even more threatening than Hegel the Heretic. Passed on to the library sale, most likely, from a retired (or deceased) UCC pastor -- a graduate of Andover Newton, perhaps, or more likely, Harvard Divinity School -- was a copy of The Secular Meaning of the Gospel Based on an Analysis of Its Language by Paul M. van Buren (Macmillan, 1963). If you can handle it, I'd like to go into this book for you in detail.

...some other time.

His eyes seem to follow you across the room.
Portrait of G.F.W. Hegel by Jakob Schlesinger (1831)
(Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons).
Let these facts suffice for now: Van Buren was a pupil of Karl Barth, and an early interpreter of the Swiss theologian in North America. (Check out these fine DET posts on van Buren's Austin Dogmatics.) But he was the the Barth student who went bad. Real bad. Problem was he took Barth's iconoclasm a bit too literally when it comes to God-talk. In later years, van Buren drifted away from his venerable Doktorvater and, in Secular Meaning, wrote the kind of book that might be appreciated, say, by an educated parishioner who has backslidden into a truculent agnosticism yet still finds herself stuck leading vacation Bible School. It's a great read, actually. I took it home that week and devoured it. And the rest is demythology. Though I'm not endorsing van Buren's constructive position here, I took away from the work this irrefutable and horrifying conclusion: Not even a Wittgensteinian learned ignorance nor an analytic agnosticism will exempt the believer from the demands of radical discipleship in the school of the Nazarene.

There was yet another dialectical shoe to drop after that grave and terrible day. You see, I thought I had successfully dodged the bullet with Hegel. I never opened it, knowing the work of the great German idealist to be a vortex of doom from which some of the most promising theologians have never escaped. As soon as we got home, I wrapped it in a brown paper bag, which I sealed with duct tape. Then I got a shovel and buried that volume deep in the dirt floor of the basement.

Still, on very quiet nights, I sometimes find myself awakening with a start, drenched in sweat. Surely it must be dream, but I'd almost swear that I had just heard a voice, in a Berlin accent, calling up through the cracks in the floorboards, saying...

"Read me!"

Or "Don't read me!"

Or "Both!"


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