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American Gods: On Mawmaw’s Faith in Hillbilly Elegy

In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s powerful memoir, we meet an amazing character: Mamaw.  Vance’s grandmother, Mamaw is simultaneously the fiercest and most supportive person in his young life. She’s equal parts endearing and terrifying.  Mamaw read her Bible every night, but wasn’t afraid to grab a gun and aim it at the center mass of anyone who threatened her family.  She’s fascinating, to put it mildly.  Vance, in naming her deepest commitments, describes her thus: “Mamaw always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew.”

Throughout history, Christians have had a variety of different relationships with governing authorities. In many times and places (including today), Christians find themselves oppressed by state power. On occasion, the church has been formally tied to governmental authority (think early Medieval Europe, or the late Roman Empire).  Even when not in power directly, at times Christians find that they can and do support the state, while in other contexts Christians must oppose the state.  This diversity of approach is represented in Scripture; government, when it is serving  its God-given purpose, is something like the portrayal in Romans 13.  The emperor “does not bear the sword in vain” but is an agent of justice.

On the other hand, when government is in full rebellion against God, when Caesar is truly evil and the state is failing in its purpose, it is under judgment like the Beast of Revelation 13.  This is why, in some circumstances, Christian fidelity might look like (relative) support of the state or (relative) opposition to the state.  Amid the complexities of actual history, this is clearly a scale, not a binary – and in most situations there are some things the church can support and others she must resist in various ways.

The description of Mawmaw’s priorities reminds me of the important distinction between nationalism and patriotism.  A Christian can be a patriot, and locate themselves anywhere on that scale.  Nationalism is a different animal, though, and one that really is not a Christian option.  Here is the best definition I’ve seen of the difference:

Patriotism is fundamental to liberty because pride in one’s nation-state, and a willingness to defend it if necessary, is the basis of national independence. Patriotism is the courage of national self-determination.

By contrast, nationalism is patriotism transformed into a sentiment of superiority and aggression toward other countries. Nationalism is the poisonous idea that one’s country is superior to somebody else’s. Nationalism is intrinsically a cause of war and imperialism.

The first option is open to, but not required, of Christians.  Augustine describes persuasively in City of God how bonds of affection naturally develop between an individual and the geography and culture in which they live, no matter how secondary such bonds are to a Christian’s identification with the Heavenly CIty.

Nationalism, however, is antithetical to the gospel because it fails to locate pride of place in a proper order of loyalties.  To put it simply, insofar as the nationalist’s love of country rivals or is greater than their love of God, it becomes a form of idolatry.  The patriot, on the other hand, might be able to recognize the kind of failure of vocation described in Revelation 13, having properly sifted their love of country through the sieve of the gospel.  Nationalism can only ever be blind.

I learned the phrase “chastened patriot” from one of my intellectual heroes, the late University of Chicago public intellectual Jean Bethke Elsthain.  It was her way of expressing an Augustinian conviction which holds together both the need for the good order provided by government and the finitude found in even the best organizational scheme that humans can concoct.

I’m not sure if Vance’s Mawmaw was a chastened patriot or not, but she is described like many Christians I’ve known, particularly in the US South: their religiosity and their love of country are almost one in the same.  They might tell you that God is first in their life, but in truth, July 4 might be, for their family, an equally important holiday to Easter.  In terms of identity, they will tear up for Lee Greenwood before they will Isaac Watts.  Of course, Mawmaw’s faith, like that of so many other adherents to civil religion, is classic American Protestantism: it has almost nothing to do with the Christian community.

As a response to the sort of undiluted nationalism of the Mawmaws out there, many Christians (especially since last year’s election) have rediscovered their Anabaptist streak, looking for any chance to oppose the powers that be.  This – while necessary, as examples like Barmen, Romero, Bonhoeffer, and King make clear – can become another form of idolatry, if taken too far.  All governments stand under God’s judgment.  Our job as Christians is not, first, to make history turn out right.  Let us be known, first, for whose we are, not what we stand against.

To wrap up our Christian identity in either supporting or opposing Caesar gives him far too much credit.  Stick to Jesus. Let him, not your love for or hatred of any Caesar, be your guide.

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Where All Our Thinking Begins and Ends: On the Centrality of Jesus

Where does thinking about God, or people, or the world begin?  For Christians, there is a very particular answer to this question: Jesus.

I was in a discussion with someone recently about the use of the traditional Trinitarian description of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This individual had a dislike for naming the First Person ‘Father,’ and saw little utility in using that language.  When pressed, the argument was that this person had their own individual experience of God, and thus what they decided to call God should be as reflective of their encounter as was Jesus’  relationship with God, which led him to call God Father.  The implication was quite clear: Jesus’ experience of God was but one of many, and his understanding and/or description of God is no more or no less determinative than any other.

This is, of course, a perfectly reasonable argument for someone to make who is not committed to the Christian movement.  If one believes, as many faiths and individuals do, that Jesus was only a holy teacher, a wonder-worker, an apocalyptic prophet, or a misunderstood peasant, then of course Jesus’ own narration of the divine-human encounter is just one of many.

Everything changes, though, if we believe Jesus was and is God, and that in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we are given the fullest glimpse possible of who and what God is like.

Karl Barth is famous for placing Jesus, the Word of God, at the center of Christian life and thought.  Among his greatest contributions to theology in his famous (and massive!) Church Dogmatics is his re-narration of the Calvinist doctrine of election.  For Barth, election is first about the election of Jesus, not individual Christians or non-Christians, and the election of the rest humanity is only understood secondarily and derivatively from that election.  Thus, on his reading of predestination the church is committed to

…the unsearchable majesty of the good-pleasure with which God has from all eternity and in all eternity both the right and the power to dispose of the world and us, in which as God He has in fact disposed of us and the world, so that His eternal will is the Alpha and Omega with which all our thinking about the world and ourselves must begin and end.

In this emphasis on Jesus, Barth shows himself to be, in some ways, simply a careful reader of Scripture and proclaimer of the Gospel.  (He was, before he was known as a theologian, a Reformed parish preacher.)  After all, the New Testament operates by a similar logic: everything is different because of Jesus. Everything, from the bottom up, including the Torah, economics, ethnicity, holiness – all of it! – must be rethought in and through Jesus.

Here’s one example.  Notice how 1 John 4:8-11 (NRSV) narrates loving others and describes God’s nature as love.  For John, we know what love is not because there is some abstract, ethereal concept (as in a Platonic form) called love that exists “out there,” but rather we know what love is because God sent the Son to be the atonement for our sins:

Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.

For John, like Barth, we only know what love is because God sent the Son. The truth is known, the deepest reality is apprehensible, not by our individual experience or keen reasoning, but by God’s self-revelation in Jesus, in whom our thinking begins and ends.  Likewise, we know how to live not because of our own ethical imperatives or innate morality, but because we live as a response to the love God has shown us. “Since God loved us so much,” John said, “we also ought to love one another.” (v. 11)

There is popular meme I have on my office door in which Barth says, “The answer is Jesus.”  Like Jeopardy, the answer comes first.  Then, he concludes, “What’s the question?”

I know of no other way to read Scripture or exegete the world around us as Christians except in, by, and through Christ.  If Jesus is who the Church has always said he is – Alpha and Omega, Son of God, Immanuel, Messiah, Christ, Word of God, Second Person of the Trinity – there is no other way to think and live Christianly.

In a Christian grammar, Jesus is not one of many ways to God.  He is not a mere teacher or prophet.  The Word is not one experience of God to be placed side-by-side with others, including my own.  He is not a guide among many other guides.  Jesus is God, while also being fully human.  He is the best window we have, short of the eschaton “when [our] faith shall be sight,” of God.

If our thinking and living bypasses Jesus, or makes him secondary to any other lens, concern, guru, or hermeneutic, we are doing something other than Christian living and thinking.

 

Source: Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics (Study Edition 10): Volume II, 32-33 (London: T&T Clark, 2010)

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We Don’t Get to Hold God Accountable: Theodicy as a Problem

As creatures made in God’s image, we are given many gifts, broad freedom, and power to represent Him with boldness in the world, but we are never given the right to hold God accountable.

William Placher’s The Domestication of Transcendence ends with a thoughtful chapter on what is usually called theodicy, the theological discipline that examines the justice of God.  Placher’s project in this work is to show how 17th century thinkers “domesticated” God, emphasizing via human reason God’s immanence (knowablility) to the detriment of God’s transcendence, particularly in classic Christian categories.  Given that focus, it should be no surprise that he finds theodicy exemplifies the worst of this trend.

Classic theodicies, in dealing with a basic (yet difficult!) question of innocent suffering, might pose a question like this: “If God is all-powerful, all-loving, and all knowing, why do children get cancer and die?”  This limits the answers, naturally, to compromising some part of God’s character: God either must not be omnipotent, benevolent, or omniscient.  The only other alternative is that either the supposedly innocent sufferer is not really that innocent, or that the suffering serves some higher purpose to which we do not have access.

All of these miss the mark, of course, if one is committed to the Trinity of Christian belief and worship.  Placher cites John Hick as an example of the spiritual gymnastics one must do to resolve the tensions inherent in traditional theodicies, by which we [read: theologians] seek to hold God accountable:

…in Evil and the God of Love, John Hick proposes that a world without pain “would lack the stimuli to hunting, agriculture, building, social organization, and the development of the sciences and technologies, which have been essential foci of human civilization and culture.” Like right-wing politicians urging reductions in welfare benefits to force people back to work, such a theodicy seeks to justify God in the face of starving children by pointing out that their hunger constitutes a stimulus to agriculture and hunting. This seems to manifest a kind of moral tone-deafness. My point is not to launch personal attacks on particular writers of theodicy, but to suggest that something about the enterprise of theodicy itself drives even thoughtful, decent folk to morally unacceptable conclusions. (204, emphasis added)

As Hauerwas argues in his magnificent God, Medicine, and Suffering (first published as Naming the Silences), it is the entire practice of theodicy that must be rethought, not simply this or that variety thereof.  Theodicy as normally undertaken inevitably results in compromising some critical facet of our understanding of God or humanity.  The quest to hold God accountable is thus bankrupt from the jump.  What is needed is a way of honestly confronting evil and suffering while holding on to God’s character revealed in the self-giving love of Christ.  This results in its own difficulty, but a difficulty that is altogether better than the kind of alternatives represented by John Hick and others in the tradition of theodicy.  As Placher has written before in regards to the Trinity, Christians must hold on to, rather than attempt to resolve, an inherent tension that we run up against:

Theologians have often been justly criticized for announcing a “mystery” whenever they find themselves lacking a good explanation. But it is not intellectual cheating to refuse to explain something if you can give an account of why just this should not be explicable; and reflection on the nature of sin, I have been arguing, provides just such an account. Christians therefore should say both that there is not a single point where God is absent or inactive or only partly active or restricted in action, and that there are irrational events that are somehow not caused by God. They should be willing to say both without worrying overmuch about how both could be true, for the attempt to resolve such worries leads inevitably to a search for sin’s causes that makes it explicable, and it therefore loses its full irrationality. Even worse, it starts to produce accounts of why those who have suffered somehow deserved it – the one thing biblical texts like Job and the Gospel healing stories so firmly reject. (211, emphasis added)

To sum up, it is not our job to hold God accountable. We are mere creatures, and so our search for God will always carry with it some degree of mystery. And our efforts to do so, however humble, pastoral, and well-intentioned, result only in alternatives that are worse than living with the tension Placher names above.  As Brueggemann and others point out, the Bible nowhere offers a “theodicy” in the traditional sense. The only answer Job gets is, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”

The Bible treats evil as a reality to be confronted rather than an intellectual puzzle to be solved. The laments of the Psalms are the finest example of this, teaching us to call out to God in the raw reality of agony, not wax philosophically over our predicament.  Laments hold together the goodness of God with the incomprehensibility – what Hannah Arendt called the “banality” of evil – that mars so much of life on this side of the eschaton.

We don’t get to hold God accountable. It is not ours to justify the ways of God to us.  But neither can we be deaf to the cries of innocent suffering or blind to the raw evil in our midst. That tension is precarious, but it is better than the alternatives.

Is theodicy by nature a bankrupt discipline? Should we seek better alternatives, rather than abandoning it altogether? Leave a comment below – and don’t forget to enter your email at to the right of the title and subscribe to get these blogs in your inbox weekly!

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Mainline Resurrection Can’t Do Without…the Resurrection

In a much commented-upon article by Ed Stetzer, he warns that, absent some kind of resurrection, statistical trends indicate that Mainline Protestantism’s days are – literally – numbered.  His analysis suggests that the Mainline has about 23 years left.  Stetzer goes on to argue that Mainline survival, at minimum, will need some serious changes in ethos to mount a comeback:

My personal hope is that mainline Protestantism will experience a resurrection of sorts, something Christians tend to have faith in. However, such a move won’t come from following the trajectory it has been following.

The future of mainline Protestantism is connected to Christianity’s essential past, where the resurrection can be proclaimed again unabashedly. Jesus is not just a good person who suffered unjustly. Jesus’s death and resurrection makes our dead souls alive again.

These kinds of reflections often induce histrionics in some (mostly Mainline) pastors and blogging types. They smell a boogeyman here, who is also their scapegoat for all things bad in the church: the evangelical Christian. [Cue ominous tones.] In fact, in some circles, all you have to do is associate phenomenon x with evangelicals and x automatically becomes an evil second only to Hitler, Pol Pot, and Stalin.  It’s a hackish formula, but a ubiquitous one nonetheless.

The argument, rather predictably, usually goes something like a) “Evangelicals who insist on orthodoxy are really just bigots and use doctrine as a cover for their racist/sexist/homophobic policies,” or b) “Insisting on doctrine is a kind of legalism like that of the Pharisees, when what really matters is ethical behavior toward others.”  The first is pure conspiracy, the second is a false dichotomy.

What these apoplectic reactions miss is something that even the most evangel-y of evangelicals will admit: orthodox doctrine (at a minimum, say, the witness of the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds) is a necessary but not sufficient ingredient of church vitality.  Of course there are churches with solid doctrine that are spiritually dead (that’s how the Methodist movement got it’s start, for John’s sake).  But to take this as a reason to downplay or jettison basic doctrine is a total non-sequiter.

Nowhere is this more clear, biblically and historically, than the resurrection of Christ.  Modern and postmodern theologies  too enamored of their own wisdom to believe in ancient dogmas like the physical resurrection of Christ are hopeless from the ground floor.  Are there congregations with vital ministries and kind hearts where the pastor and many, if not most, of the congregants reject the supernatural in the biblical narrative? Certainly.  Are there growing religious congregations that reject Easter in favor of some kind of spiritual or psycho-social “resurrection?” I’m sure.  But the success of these only makes their error that much more tragic, because what they are succeeding in is not what the apostles, saints, and martyrs could recognize as the Bride of Christ.

St. Paul is crystal clear about this with his flock in Corinth:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor. 15:12-19, NRSV)

As the Apostle makes so clear, the point of the resurrection is not to grow churches, but to give real hope that the oldest enemy of humanity, the grave, does not win in the end.  A cold piece of paper with the doctrine of the resurrection scribbled upon it does not create vitality, of course.  However, a church committed to resurrection as God’s victory in Christ not as a dead letter, but as a way of life and ministry, can transform hearts, families, and communities.  Without the basic truth of the resurrection, though – if Christ’s bones are in a Jerusalem hillside – than even the most active, loving, and inclusive of churches are little more than quaint country clubs or social service agencies.

In short, there is no resurrection of the Mainline that is worth a tinker’s damn unless the resurrection of Jesus is front and center in our life and proclamation.  With it, a world of possibilities – nothing less than the New Creation itself – is open to us. Without it, “we are of all people to be pitied.”

I’ll give Ed Stetzer the last word:

If mainline Protestantism has a future, it will need to engage more deeply with the past — not the past of an idealized 1950s, but one that is 2,000 years old. The early Christians saw a savior risen from the dead, heard a message that said he was the only way and read scriptures that teach truths out of step with culture, both then and now.

I imagine that many mainline Protestants would agree, and perhaps the supernatural message of Easter, believed and shared widely, could bring the resurrection that mainline Protestantism needs.

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The Real Jesus is Not on TV

by Drew 4 Comments

During the lead up to Christmas and Easter each year, there is a spat of programming around biblical and theological themes – specifically about the life of Jesus.  (As I write this during Holy Week 2017, CNN and PBS are running especially grotesque examples of this genre.)  This is a pop culture equivalent of the fascination that many scholars and pseudo-scholars have shared throughout the centuries, from the earliest gnostics to the 20th century Jesus Seminar.  Unfortunately, most of these are attempts to reconstruct a “real” Jesus more adaptable and interesting to the popular culture of whatever time and place, rather than diving more deeply into the Biblical and patristic record.

From the first, the church has endorsed a variety of views on Jesus.  We have four gospels in the New Testament, when we might have had one.  Of course, many so-called gospels have been rejected by the church as well (these rejected gospels provide the grist for the mill of the biannual “NEW SECRETS OF JESUS” programming we continually endure).  In this morass of various Jesus’ on offer, how do we determine true from false savior?

The esteemed Emory professor Luke Timothy Johnson, recently retired, provides a helpful sieve in his polemic work The Real Jesus, which took ruthless aim at the specious scholarship of the Jesus Seminar.  According to Johnson, the real Jesus of the gospels and the tradition has a story with very clear lines:

When the witness of the New Testament is taken as a whole, a deep consistency can be detected beneath the surface diversity. The “real Jesus” is first of all the powerful, resurrected Lord whose transforming Spirit is active in the community….the one who through the Spirit replicates in the lives of believers faithful obedience to God and loving service to others. Everywhere in these writings the image of Jesus involves the tension-filled paradox of death and resurrection, suffering and glory.

Within the New Testament, no other pattern joins the story of Jesus and that of his followers. Discipleship does not consist in a countercultural critique of society. Discipleship does not consist in working overwhelming miracles. These elements of the Jesus tradition are not made normative in the way that the pattern of obedient suffering and loving service is.

In other words, the real Jesus cannot be known apart from the clear arc of his story in the New Testament: sacrificial service, radical love, death and resurrection.  Any other Jesus is a reconstruction – and, as Schweitzer noted almost a century ago – most likely a self-aggrandizing fiction.  This takes away the edge, the beauty, and the heart of the Jesus we meet in the New Testament.

I’ll let Johnson have the last word:

For our present age, in which the “wisdom of the world” is expressed in individualism, narcissism, preoccupation with private rights, and competition, the “wisdom of the cross” is the most profoundly countercultural message of all.  Instead of an effort to rectify the distorting effect of the Gospel narratives, the effort to reconstruct Jesus according to some other pattern appears increasingly as an attempt to flee the scandal of the gospel. (p. 166)

Do you agree with Johnson’s portrait of “the real Jesus?” Why are we continually attracted to visions of Jesus that outside of the earliest witnesses? Leave a comment below!

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John Wesley on “Continual Enjoyment” in the New Creation

Is the New Creation something we should welcome, or something we should grieve? For much of my life, my study of the last things or “end times” brought little more than terror. Taught that the rapture was surely coming soon and fed by the overwarmed and more-fictional-than-they-let-on narratives of the Left Behind series, I was led to believe that the second coming of Christ was something fearful.

I was so wrong.

In his sermon “The New Creation,” John Wesley concludes with what is not only my favorite quote in the Wesley corpus, but perhaps the best description I know (outside of the Bible) of God’s Kingdom in its fullness:

As there will be no more death, and no more pain or sickness preparatory thereto; as there will be no more grieving for, or parting with, friends; so there will be no more sorrow or crying. Nay, but there will be a greater deliverance than all this; for there will be no more sin. And, to crown all, there will be a deep, an intimate, an uninterrupted union with God; a constant communion with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ, through the Spirit; a continual enjoyment of the Three-One God, and of all the creatures in him!

I was first exposed to this particular bit of Wesley thanks to my professor from Divinity School, Geoffrey Wainwright, in a lecture on the Kingdom of God and eternal life in Wesley. Some notable features:

  • Priorities. The end of death, sickness, and grief is a secondary joy to the end of sin, which he calls the “greater deliverance.” What would it mean if we lived as if we were more afraid of sin than illness, suffering, or death?
  • Communion. The theme of “constant communion” is used by various ways by Wesley. In a sermon by that name, he writes of the importance of the Eucharist as part of Christian piety.  Might it be that a constant communion via the sacrament is nearly the best we can do, this side of the parousia, to the constant communion of God’s unfettered presence in the Kingdom?
  • Father, Son, & Spirit. Wesley is unapologetically, explicitly Trinitarian.  The union that is the “crown” of all the New Creation is not with an ephemeral deity, some “force” or Ground of Being, but the particular God revealed in Scripture and confessed in the creeds and Councils of the Church.  Wesley is doubly clear that this communion is “with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ, through the Spirit,” whom he also describes via shorthand as the “Three-One God.”  In an age, at least in North America, of increasing Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, it’s important to remember that the vision of the Kingdom that has animated Wesley and the church across time and space is solely dependent upon the Holy Trinity.
  • A joyful union.  Like other Arminians (and his grandchildren in the faith), Wesley is less focused on God’s glory (as Calvinists love to ponder) and far more interested in the joy of unbroken, perfect relationship to the Godhead.  It is not only a knowledge or worship of God, but a “continual enjoyment” of the Trinity, with all creatures in him. Many visions of heaven or of the Kingdom (see N.T. Wright for this critical distinction) are so dreary that one would hardly want to go: the Father has not wrought our salvation through Christ and in the Holy Spirit so we could play golf in perpetuity.  The end is rather, as the Westminster Catechism taught (and Wesley quoted frequently), to “enjoy Him forever.”  That’s why for Wesley, the bottom line of the New Creation is nothing less than the “continual enjoyment” of God without end.

Of course, for Christians, the enjoyment of the Kingdom is not simply a promise that we reach through the door of death, but a way of life here and now.  In his classic The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard defines the Kingdom as “the realm of God’s effective rule.” When Christ rules in our hearts, and with an increasing intensity as God’s ways hold sway over us through sanctification, we experience the joy of God’s reign.  This is why Wesley regularly insisted, contra the images of dour nuns and dull saints the media gives us, that holiness and happiness are joined at the hip.

That’s the unique enjoyment that only God’s rule in our lives and in our world can bring. That is the promise for which we hope. That is the longing – the one true desire – of which all others are only a pale imitation.

Why wait to experience that joy until the next life? We can enjoy God now, and, as Charles Wesley so beautifully put it, “anticipate that heaven below.”

When you think of God’s Kingdom, do you think of joy? Why do so many images of the last things focus on fear rather than the enjoyment of God? Leave a comment below!

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Time to Rethink the War Between the Science vs. Religion

We need to rethink the purported conflict between science and religion.  In his wonderful book Unapologetic Theology, William Placher makes the following observation:

Many of the “conflicts” between science and religion result from theologians trying to be scientists or scientists engaging in speculative philosophy, and it is important to get clear on the appropriate range of each field. The defenders of creation science, and Carl Sagan in his speculations about the meaning of it all, seem to me equally guilty, from opposite sides, of confusion in such matters.  Both are claiming professional authority to speak of matters beyond their professional competence. Still, here too it seems too simple to say that religious faith and science address totally different questions and therefore can never be in conflict and need never be in dialogue.

Placher is writing from a postliberal perspective that wants to take the internal logic of Christian language with utmost seriousness.  Thus, for him and others of this perspective, it is a first-order mistake to try and do science with the language of theology, or to bend Christian habits of speech to purely scientific discourse.  Science has its own methods and language, and to co-opt that language is to do damage to both (as creation science bastardizes both science and theology).  Likewise, when otherwise intelligent scientists like Richard Dawkins or Neil deGrasse Tyson begin to wax about theology and philosophy, using the tools of science to draw conclusions on questions outside their competency, they too misunderstand the limits of their own field.

Note that this isn’t as simple as an elitist argument or a “stay in your own lane” warning, but a recognition of different modes of discourse.  This is especially true in the ongoing, overblown, conflict between science and faith.  Because if Placher is correct, the conflict consists not so much in opposing worldviews or goals, but in simply talking past one another.

And really, isn’t there enough of that already in today’s world?

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The Shack is Not a Christian Movie

The recent film adaptation of William P. Young’s bestselling novel The Shack is an anomaly. The cast, including the Academy Award-winning Octavia Spencer (from such hits as The Help and Hidden Figures), is strong. Tim McGraw even successfully pulls off the role of the down-to-earth neighbor, who actually looks at home driving a truck and going to church. The direction and cinematography are effective; there are some truly beautiful shots in The Shack of mountains, gardens, and waterfront scenery.   The story follows the book quite closely, and delves deep into weighty themes like the Trinity, God’s sovereignty, and the question of innocent suffering. While no film can deal adequately with such topics in two hours, The Shack has a lot of meat on the bones and leaves room for mystery and questions. The cast handles all this with subtlety, avoiding the cheesiness which one often finds in religiously themed movies. In short, this is a well-made film.

That’s why The Shack is not a Christian movie.

Christian movies, by contrast, are generally poorly directed, low production-value affairs. They typically feature, if not a wholly unknown cast, mostly amateur acting. The writing is often heavy-handed, resolving complex questions with too much simplicity (see God’s Not Dead, for instance). The theology of most Christian films is a hybrid of thin evangelicalism with American family values, which maps neatly onto the worldview taught and preached in many large non-denominational churches in the US.  The theology of Christian films is usually “functionally Unitarian,” a term I owe to a seminary professor, Dr. Freeman, who helped me realize that most evangelicals can only talk about Jesus and rarely address the other persons of the Trinity, much less the Trinity as a whole. Christian films reflect this unfortunate habit.

[If you’ve never read the book and not yet seen the movie, consider this your spoiler warning.]

The Shack’s plot is fairly simple: a father and husband, Mack, experiences a horrific tragedy that changes the course of life. Sometime later, in the throes of what he calls The Great Sadness, Mack receives a mysterious letter in the mail from God inviting him to the shack where that tragedy had occurred. When Mack reluctantly goes, he meets the Trinity – except the three Persons are represented in largely unexpected ways. In the ensuing conversations and experiences, the movie deals with the nature of God, sovereignty, religion, the afterlife, and what philosophers and theologians call “the problem of evil.” As noted above, this is a lot for any single movie to tackle, and The Shack packs more actual theology into a film than any other mass-marketed feature I can call to mind.

Any depiction of the Trinity risks heresy, including the famous Rublev icon.

None of this is to suggest that The Shack is without problems. Most of the issues with the novel are present in this adaptation. Any portrayal of the Trinity is bound to be imperfect – for we cannot adequately portray a mystery via a finite medium like film. Even Rublev’s beloved icon could lead one to tritheism, if taken to the hilt. Young makes clear that the decision to portray God as an African-American woman has to do with Mack’s own family baggage.   While it is admirable – and, for many conservative readers, quite controversial – to portray the First Person of the Trinity in this way, it is not without its own problems. The novel, and to a lesser extent, the film adaptation run the risk of mammy stereotypes. The portrayal of the Holy Spirit in some ways also gets into stereotypical territory. These issues need to be taken seriously, but I still believe this is a valuable story. We are in a cultural moment where I find it difficult to imagine a white writer portraying non-white characters in such a way that it would be critique-proof. Young – and the film’s producers – took a risk here. While problems should be acknowledged, so should their boldness in attempting to help readers envision God as other than an old white man with a beard.

The bulk of the people who have major problems with the movie, like the book, are those (chiefly from the Reformed camp) who take issue with social Trinitarianism, patripassianism (the teaching that the Father suffered along with the Son on the cross), and God’s sovereignty. It is the third of these that likely causes the most headaches among its critics. If you believe that “everything happens for a reason,” that God’s hand is somehow behind everything that happens all the time, you will not like how this film addresses the problem of evil. On the other hand, if you are drawn to a kind of middle way about sovereignty – I personally can’t square either the micromanaging God of Reformed doctrine or the removed deity of Process thought – you’ll find The Shack compelling on this score. In not offering easy or trite answers here, the film is more brave and more honest than most popular Christian takes on these deep questions of faith. (Roger Olson’s book is worth a read if you want to dig into these questions more; coming from an evangelical Arminian perspective, his reading strikes the kind of critical but overall appreciative note that I would see as appropriate.)

Popular Christian books and films always draw a reaction from a wide swath of people, Christian and not, theologically trained and not. I’ve been disturbed at how many people I’ve noticed, who are otherwise broad-minded and fair critics, that have judged The Shack to be unworthy of Christian eyes without seeing or reading it. As we saw so prominently with Rob Bell’s Love Wins, the speed and vitriol with which some Christians will dismiss something without having actually read or viewed it is astonishing. On the whole, I would recommend The Shack – the movie and the book – before nearly all of its competition in the Christian publishing and Christian film industries. It is far from perfect: inelegant in some places, a bit on the nose in others. Don’t trust the reviews, though.  This movie fall into an unfortunate category almost all its own: it pushes the envelope far too much to be promoted by the usual folks who support movies like Courageous, but it is too Christian to pass critical muster.  All that said, I believe it succeeds much more than it fails. My own ministry experience has been that few other resources open up in-depth conversations about the Trinity and the problem of evil like Young’s imaginative and powerful parable.

The Shack actually addresses God as Trinity, tackles hard questions without offering easy answers, and does so with the acting skills and production values of an actual quality film. For all of these reasons, The Shack is not a Christian movie – and this is why it succeeds.

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A Wesleyan Searches the Solas: A Review of Biblical Authority After Babel

Much like Leithart’s The End of Protestantism, I leave Kevin Vanhoozer’s new work Biblical Authority After Babel wondering if Methodists make bad Protestants.  Vanhoozer’s tome is well written, meticulously researched, but it will ultimately be most convincing to those already enamored with Luther and Calvin.  Like Leithart’s Reformed Catholicism (I prefer “Roman Calvinism”), Vanhoozer invents a “Mere Protestant” species in which I, as an orthodox United Methodist with Anglican leanings who was never taught to be enamored with the solas, cannot see myself.  That said, I believe Vanhoozer’s new work is still worth a read.

In many ways, this book is a work of Protestant apologetics; that is, it is not defending Christian faith in general, but rather Protestantism (in the form of the 5 classic solas) against Catholic (but, sadly, not Orthodox) broadsides.  Vanhoozer is sensitive to claims (many of which, he rightly notes, are overblown) that Luther and Calvin opened a Pandora’s Box that ultimately made something like small-c catholic consensus impossible.  He names the driving questions thus: “Should the church repent or retrieve this dangerous Protestant idea? Can the Protestant principle sola scriptura ever produce consensus, or is the result always chaos?[…]Did the Reformation set loose interpretive anarchy upon the world, and, if so, should Christians everywhere file a class-action suit?” (9)  To help answer these questions and defend “Mere Protestantism,” he offers “the solas as seeds for a perennial reformation of the church.” (33)

While I remain unconvinced of Vanhoozer’s overall argument, there is a lot of meat on these bones that is worth pondering, even if one has doubts about his thesis.  This description of the Bible, for instance, is just pure gold: “Scripture is essentially a narrative account of God’s gracious self-communicative activity in the histories of Israel and Jesus Christ whereby the Father adopts a people by uniting them to his Son through his Spirit.” (62)  I also appreciate his definition of systematic theology: “simply the requirement to think biblical things through and to make sure that what one thinks about different biblical themes coheres.” (125)

There are times that Vanhoozer lapses into more Romish sentiments than he would wish.  Thus, in the chapter on “faith alone,” he asks how this “compensate[s] for the loss of external authority (the church magisterium) in biblical interpretation?” (72)  But surely the very solas which form the spine of his entire argument function as a kind of (Mere) Protestant magisterium? His defenders might claim that the solas are merely natural extrapolations of Scripture – but then, Catholics would say the same about the papacy or transubstantiation.

Speaking of Catholics, Vanhoozer leaves many of these centuries-old debates underdeveloped.  There is, of course, a rich literature from the Catholic counter-reformation and a long dialogue with Rome down through the years, and yet on the whole the reader does not get the sense that Vanhoozer is not interested in presenting the opposing view in a sympathetic light, but merely restating the oldest of the Reformers’ arguments.  In this vein, he quotes Ramm’s contention that “the Bible treated allegorically becomes putty in the hand of the exegete,” which uncritically presumes a Protestant hermeneutic – sans magisterium or catechism.  This, additionally, is the inverse of the caricature that Vanhoozer is so committed to fighting.    For surely we might just as easily say “the Bible treated literally” or “the Bible treated independent of other sources” becomes putty in the exegete’s hand?

The chapter I find most lacking explores sola scriptura.  Vanhoozer here sounds like theologians who collapse all of soteriology into justification, or all of the atonement into subsitutionary, in that he seeks to make “sola scriptura” a catch-all category for a nuanced, broad “Mere” Protestant hermeneutic.  He comes dangerous close to spouting alternative facts when he sums up his view: “it is not that Scripture is alone in the sense that it is the sole source of theology”; rather, “Scripture ‘alone’ is the primary or supreme authority in theology.” (111)  I was taught sola fide for a decade by Southern Baptists who revered Luther, and I promise that for them, “alone” meant just that – not primary.  Primary, in fact, is the language that United Methodists use when describing our unique take on the Anglican three-legged stool unfortunately named the “Wesleyan” Quadrilateral.  It is simply not possible that Sola Scriptura means Lutheran and Calvinist “Mere” Protestants have the same view of Scripture as Anglicans and Wesleyans, which would have to be true if Vanhoozer’s reading is correct.  Methinks the author has stretched the bounds of this particular definition; I’m not a perfect husband but I know that there is a significant difference in saying I love my wife “alone” and that I love my wife just more than other women.  Sola and prima are simply different concepts, and they get conflated by Vanhoozer (and I am unconvinced by his solo/sola distinction).

This is an important work for a particular tribe of Protestants, but alas, not mine.  As an ecclesial descendant of the Anglican via media, Vanhoozer’s thesis is simply too Protestant for this presbyter.  This would’ve been a stronger argument had it included more attempts to narrate Catholic beliefs from a Catholic position, and if it had referenced the East.  Many of Protestantism’s critiques of Rome are shared by the East, and yet the East comes to vastly different conclusions – and has done so for twice the life span of Protestantism.  Sadly, the East is wholly lacking here, including in places where it would have been quite helpful (for instance, on the nature of catholicity and the role of the Pope).

Vanhoozer even manages to offend my delicate Duke sensibilities, referring  to the Yale School of Frei and Lindbeck rather brusquely to the “postliberal cultural-linguistic bandwagon.”  I’m not sure what mainline seminaries Vanhoozer has been spending time in, but if postliberalism is a bandwagon, we will need to invent new terms for extreme popularity to describe how existentialist, liberation, process, and contextual theologies reign practically unchallenged in most denominational schools of theology.

Nevertheless, Vanhoozer’s new work will make you think and is worth the time to read.  Even when less than convincing, there is more than enough solid content to keep you interested along the way – even if you are a Wesleyan, like me, whose Protestantism is almost wholly lacking in this account of Protestantism’s view of Scripture as found in the solas.

A Final Note: This work is riddled with side comments that are intended to be humorous but which this reviewer found tedious and irksome.  For instance, “And the evening and the morning were the first day of the hermeneutics of suspicion,” (88) and, “For those who swim in Fish’s school…” (22), or, “…in the Father’s household there are many Protestant mansions…” (103). Additionally, an editor should have caught his reference to Trinitarian relations as “eternal intercourse.” (52)  This is, to say the least, a highly unfortunate turn of phrase.

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God’s Kingdom & Our Hands

by Drew 3 Comments

What role, if any, do our hands play in God’s Kingdom? In his collected essays and lectures titled Signs Amid the Rubble (edited by my former professor, Geoffrey Wainwright), bishop and missiologist Lesslie Newbigin describes the Kingdom of God as the realm of God’s rule in human society and all creation – a rule that will not be fully realized until the last things, the eschaton.  He elaborates on why God’s Reign cannot yet be fully realized:

The perfect society cannot lie this side of death. And moreover it cannot be the direct result of our efforts. We all rightly shrink from the phrase “building the Kingdom of God” not because the Kingdom does not call for our labor, but because we know that the best work of our hands and brains is too much marred by egotism and pride and impure ambition to be itself fit for the Kingdom. All our social institutions, even the very best that have been produced under Christian influence, have still the taint of sin about them. By their own horizontal development they cannot, as it were, become the Kingdom of God. There is no straight line of development from here to the Kingdom.

But if we, with all our our wisdom and sweat and blood, cannot help but fail in any effort to bring God’s Kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven,” does our effort still matter? Do we need to work towards the Kingdom in some capacity, or can we simply sit with legs folded and enjoy a latte while all creation languishes?

Newbigin describes how good ministry is reliant upon the resurrection for its meaning and purpose, and how in Christ even death does not completely swallow up our effort.  John Ortberg may be right that it all goes “back in the box” when the game is over, but as Easter people we also know that death does not get the last word. The work of our hands, directed towards God’s purposes, is not work done in vain:

Our faith as Christians is that just as God raised up Jesus from the dead, so will He raise up us from the dead. And that just as all that Jesus had done in the days of his flesh seemed on Easter Saturday to be buried in final failure and oblivion, yet was by God’s power raised to new life and power again, so all the faithful labor of God’s servants which time seems to bury in the dust o failure, will be raised up, will be found to be there, transfigured, in the new Kingdom.  Every faithful act of service, every honest labor to make the world a better place, which seemed to have been forever lost and forgotten in the rubble of history, will be seen on that day to have contributed to the perfect fellowship of God’s Kingdom. (46-47)

No act of faithfulness to God’s Kingdom is ultimately lost, just as no person who has turned to God will be lost, for God will raise us up and make us participants in the fullness of His Kingdom – a Kingdom which we have not built, but a Kingdom to which our work has pointed, longed for, and honored.

Rightly understood, Newbigin’s point undermines the regnant eschatologies (ideas re: the last things) of many conservative and liberal Christians.  This view of the Kingdom as God’s realm coming to earth mitigates against any view that our eternal life is some individualistic experience of pure spiritual being, which is really a sort of gnostic existence; the Reign of God is communal, embodied, glorious, and yet physical.  The Kingdom is not, as many conservative Christians name it, “going to heaven when we die.”

Newbigin’s insights also remind us that the Kingdom is not ours to build, contra the social gospel of the early 20th century and many liberal Protestants since then.  The most perfect society humans can build cannot and will never be God’s Kingdom.  Having the right people in power or the right system in place does not equal God’s perfect society.  And yet, with our hands we can move the needle here and there towards a better reflection of God’s purposes.  We participate in that perfect Reign that is inbreaking when we insist that the way things are is not the way things shall be or should be.

I’ll close with a prayer purportedly from Archbishop Oscar Romero, the Catholic martyr gunned down at the mass for his Kingdom stance on the widespread corruption at that time in El Salvador.  I believe this prayer strikes the balance that Newbigin names in the essay quoted above.  I hope, also, that you might find it meaningful for your life and ministry:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

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