Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Book of the Year

Perhaps inspired by the Oscars the other night, I would like to present what I feel was the best book I read in 2006. THankfully, I read Finally Feminist this year or else this would have been a tough decision. I am almost certain I will have to go back and reread this book when classes die down in the summer.

It is Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context by Stanley Grenz and John Franke. The more I think about it the more important I think this relatively new book will be for the future of theology, at least in our current world context. The more I read of him the more I realize how much we lost when Grenz (pictured here) passed away a couple years ago. So here is the book review I wrote for class. Note that another book is reviewed alongside it. I would have edited that out except that I think it offers a nice balance and makes sense of the issue. It may take a few minutes to ingest this whole thing (it was a five pager), but if you do hopefully you'll see why I think this was an amazing and important book.


Although there is much that Thomas F. Torrance and the writing team of Stanley J. Grenz and John R. Franke would agree on, their books Reality and Evangelical Theology and Beyond Foundationalism work from different theological orientations. While Grenz and Franke orient the task of theology forward toward God’s eschatological horizon for creation, Torrance orients it back to the horizon of God’s self-articulation in Jesus Christ. If Torrance’s theological approach focuses on the already of God’s self-revelation, then Grenz and Franke’s focuses on the not yet. There is certainly to be no polarization drawn between these authors, but their differences are worth understanding as theologians set out upon the theological task. The evidence and the ramifications of their diverse orientations are seen most clearly in their theological approach to truth, the Word of God, community and culture.

In summarizing Torrance we must be careful not to oversimplify his view as oriented solely in some static past. Looking to Christ for theology may be an activity grounded in past, namely in His incarnation and His articulation of God in the Scriptures, but for Torrance the Word is a vitally present and living reality. Since Christ is alive He is rightly sought in theology, but is properly known in and through vital worship (Torrance, 120). However, for all intents and purposes this is still an orientation back toward something set out for us in the past and results in a theological task that is more concerned with properly articulating and understanding something we already have. As he puts it, "whatever we may believe about it, the Bible certainly claims to speak of a living God who interacts with what he has made, and whose self-revelation to man in history has reached its decisive point in the incarnation of God’s Word in Jesus Christ" (Torrance, 97, emphasis mine).

According to Torrance, a right theology comes from having a right posture, focusing on Jesus Christ. It is seeking "the Mind [sic] of Christ" (Torrance, 107). Therefore we must "beware of corrupting what we apprehend" (Torrance, 73) and seek a humble and faithful theology that is continually refining itself in the face of the language obstacles, unveiled presupposition, and challenges from science. In language that fits quite nicely with the non-foundational approach of Grenz and Franke, Torrance insists that our systematic statements about Christ "cannot be true in the same sense as Jesus Christ is true, for they do not have their truth in themselves but in their reference to him away from themselves, and they are true insofar as that reference is truthful and appropriate" (Torrance, 124). For all the similarity with Grenz/Franke, however, Torrance differs greatly with their eschatological orientation and grounds theology in the already accessible reality of God’s intelligible self-articulation in Christ.

While Grenz and Franke structure theology around the Trinity (with an appropriate emphasis on Christ’s centrality in redemption), they differ from Torrance by seeking to orient theology toward the eschatological future which Christ presents and makes possible rather than toward the life that He has lived or currently lived. It is not that they deny the intelligibility of God’s self-revelation in the Word (written and incarnate), but due to the fragility of human knowing they place the ideal for theology in the future God has for us rather than in the past and present which we see through a glass darkly. To be sure, we do not see the future clearly either, but we will not arrive at let alone understand that future if we insist upon building it upon the foundations of human knowledge, however accurate God’s articulation of Himself to humanity. In other words, while theology spends the bulk of its time studying God through the incarnate Christ and the written Word, it is always with an orientation to the telos, or the goal, toward which God is driving His people. Since in theology we are dealing with ideals, we should properly focus ourselves according to the ideal that God has set before us. For all intents and purposes the task of the theologian is to help God’s people grasp (both intellectually and practically) what we do not yet have but are promised in Christ.

This is not to say that we cannot in some way have the mind of Christ in the present, but is to say that "theology moves from the future to the present", as God’s people "find not only their fulfillment but also their very meaning in the story of God bringing history to its consummation" (Grenz and Franke, 265). This places our understanding of truth in a different light. As Grenz and Franke put it:
Because what God wills is not a present but a future reality (e.g., Isa. 65:17-19; Rev. 21:5), the "objectivity of the world" about which we can truly speak is an objectivity of the future, eschatological world. And because this future reality is God’s determined will for creation, as that which cannot be shaken (Heb. 12:26-28) it is far more real–more objectively real–than the present world, which is even now passing away (1 Cor 7:31) (Grenz and Franke, 53).
Although it would seem that Grenz and Franke have uprooted theology from anything commonly accessible to humanity, they actually are very careful to set forth Scripture, tradition, and culture as indispensable to the task of theology. God constructs the world of his choosing through the Spirit who speaks to the church through the Word.

The diversity between these theological orientations may be most clearly seen in the ramifications in how each approaches culture. For Torrance, since we can expect God’s general revelation to correlate in truth with His special revelation, theology should interact confidently yet humbly with other sciences. However, as Torrance says: "Far from schematizing Christian theology into the patterns of the prevailing culture, this should have the opposite effect of transforming the very foundations of culture" (Torrance, 47). Grenz and Franke insist that Christians acknowledge culture as our "embedding context" (Grenz and Franke, 130) and recognize the appropriate ways that culture shapes our theological questions and ideas. Since "all truth is God’s truth", and since the common longings and questions of the human experience can be informative in their own right, Christians must strive to hear the Spirit’s voice within culture for theology, and not just vice versa (Grenz and Franke, 160). This is not to reduce theology to a mere reiteration of sociological trends, but is to elevate the importance of interaction with God’s world in the theological task.

In the final analysis, I agree with both of these books that theology must continually "seek to engage the church in repentant rethinking of all its interpretation" (Torrance, 47). I also recognize a great need to balance the already with the not yet in our understanding of the theological task. However, I feel that in these times of so much doubt in our own knowledge and in past theological formulations, Grenz and Franke’s approach is a clearer way to do theology in our postmodern context and plots a surer way forward. It keeps central the Trinity and the story of redemption in Christ by His Spirit central, does justice to the formative effects of tradition and culture on our theology, and dialogues effectively with the longings for community and global progress so commonly shared in our world today. If theologians are on the cutting edge of this dialogue they will be properly serving the church and the world and will be giving Jesus Christ the best opportunity to emerge as Lord.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Isaiah Broke My World

About two hours ago I walked out of class feeling a bit brain-fried and quite a bit challenged. Not only was this class the most difficult one I've had so far at seminary, but it may also have been the most intellectually challenged I've ever been. Much of the time I was just trying to keep up. Not a few times I asked a question just to see if I was on the right page, only to discover it was more likely I was on the wrong planet.

Was it a class in metaphysics? No, although I'm sure that would be challenging as well. Was it a counselling class? No, but those are always a struggle for me.

It was Latter Prophets, and more specifically the book of Isaiah.

The professor did an interesting thing. He refused to give us a broad summary of the book of Isaiah and then slowly proof text his way through it. He also refused to find Jesus under every bush and in between every jot and tittle (although He can most certainly be found all over the place). Instead the professor took us through the book on Isaiah's terms, endeavouring to help us grasp how it was put together and what that says and, ultimately, to FEEL the book of Isaiah.

Now let me tell you what I felt.

I am to die.

You heard me. I am to die. We are all to die.

For the first three days of class we writhed in mental agony as doom and destruction was foretold for all people. Not just the Israelites but the nations as well. Certainly there were hints of hope all throughout these chapters, but you got the overwhelming sense that before you could have hope you'd have to die.

We all wanted to rush ahead and quote John 3:16 but the professor made us wait until the last part of the book before he'd give us that comfort. "Don't skip ahead of what Isaiah is saying here," he'd tell us. Tuesday morning in class I confessed to everyone that if I didn't know the gospel I would have had a rightfully sleepless Monday night.

Isaiah does not read like good news. It tells us we have rebelled, we are idolatrous, we are self-absorbed, we have sided with the oppressor rather than the poor, we have worshipped falsely in our hearts, we have sinned ... and for that we must die. Nevermind the environment you grew up in or whose fault you think it is. All have sinned. And that's not really the point so much as the fact that all have fallen short of the glory of God, and so how can we expect to enter that glory without being destroyed?

But as the class wore on and as we got to the later chapters of the book I realized that there is some good news in all this death. God would have us die so that we could be PURGED. The wages of sin is death, not because God arbitrarily holds a hand of punishment over us, but because He wants to purge his creation of all that is bad, all that is not glorious. We have fallen and must be purged. So there is a good reason for all this death.

Except it remains troubling because how can we die and yet have any hope? What good is purging if it leaves us twitching like a corpse on the floor?

When we finally got to Isaiah 53 it was like we were resurrected from the dead. Although there had been hints, finally the way of salvation was exposed to us. And it was offensive and bloody but it was beautiful. It is offensive to those who want to feel alright about themselves, but at least where I stand, fully convinced this is a good world gone bad and that I am no better, it was beautiful to me. It tells us of this mysterious "servant" and says:

"It was Yahweh's will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though Yahweh makes his life a guilt offering,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of Yahweh will prosper in his hand.
After the suffering of his soul,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied."

There is plenty of amazing amazing imagery of restoration and healing in Isaiah. But every time you want to grab onto it you get a vision of purging destruction and you end up longing for what you seemingly can never have. And then the Servant steps in, and you realize that there is One who can take that destruction and yet live, and that this One wants to share that life with those who'll repent.

We skip over repentance way to quickly and easily in Christianity today. We also see Christ as a "get out of death free card" when really we are taught in Scripture that in order to live in Christ we must first die in him. "To live is Christ and to die is gain," Paul says. I guess I saw this before, but Isaiah made it gut wrenchingly clear. We skip to the joyful worship, almost trying to conjur it up from our own personal reserves every SUnday, when if we'd confess and repent each day we'd find the joy of restoration springing from within in a way that is not of this world.

For that reason, I highly recommend a slow and careful reading of this book. I can't wait to preach it one day. It truly is like a fifth gospel.

Like Isaiah we wait and long for the Zion, the new creation, the New Jerusalem. But what Isaiah looked forward to in the "Servant" we have in Christ and in his Spirit. A Paul said later in Romans 8:13,

"If you live according to the sinful nature you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live."

Loving Movies

I'm afraid I must be out of things to say, as all I can do these days is write movie reviews. I've been in class all week and have a pretty fried brain so I guess that's the reason. But continuing the movie review theme I have to say that I just love the movie "Friday Night Lights".

You probably have to love football and at least appreciate sports to enjoy this movie, but in my mind it is the perfect football movie. It is a bit over the top, but if it wasn't why would I watch it? I might as well just watch a game! Besides, it is a true story, and they did it up big.
Of course, not everything happens ideally in the film, I wouldn't appreciate that at all, but it does capture all that is great about sports, and bad about it too. (It depicts life pretty good too). And it was the perfect thing for the post-NFL season let down. It may not be one of the all time great films, but when it was over I said, "Now that scratched my right where I itch." It caught me in just the right mood at just the right time, and you know, that's all part of the experience. It may have affected my objectivity, but I felt like there were some great performances and good side stories too. Regardless, what a great movie this one was.

For those interested, the last good thing I wrote on any of my usual themes was actually a comment on Franklin Pyles blog. You can find the link at right. But whatever, I'm sure I'll have something to say soon enough.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Brokeback Mountain

This was a beautifully shot, brilliantly acted, and subtly expressed film. I had to pause as I stopped to rate this movie, because I had to ask myself if I take disagreement on moral principles into consideration when I'm rating other movies. For instance, did the fact that the guy in Five Easy Pieces disregards and mistreats his girlfriend effect my rating of the film? Does it matter if violence is depicted with the gritty accuracy of a war movie (i.e. Private Ryan) or in a glorified sense (i.e. Rambo)? Does it matter if the film maker is preaching or is simply portraying reality?

Frankly, whether I like or dislike movies often is greatly affected by whether its message or its underlying beliefs resonate with me or not. (I doubt I'm alone in that, as much as some might deny their subjectivity). However, I also take into account the level of honesty, the compelling portrayal of reality, how well it was made, and so on, since those are things I greatly appreciate in a movie. Even if I disagree, if it is beautiful, honest, and compels me to take stock of life--as this movie does--then I'll give it its due.

If it has nothing else going for it, I probablly won't bother with it. For instance: The Devil Wears Prada. Some people liked it, and that's fine, whatever. But all the humour was all about people putting down other people for the way they dressed or looked or for how low-class they were. Not only did I not find this funny, but it offended me (as it attacked me personally, being as low-fashion as I am) and repulsed me (as it represents a societal ill I cannot stand). Maybe the movie redeemed itself. I don't know. I didn't care to stick around to find out. Its underlying assumptions of its audience did not apply to me and so it missed its mark. I doubt I was ever its target audience anyway.

This is taking me a long time to get to Brokeback. So let's cut to the chase:

I don't believe homosexuality to be in God's plan for his created beings. Based on the Bible (which I am convinced is God's Word) I believe homosexual practice to be contrary to his created intentions and to be disobedience to his instructions on sexuality. As a result the underlying message of the movie did not resonate with me. In fact, some of the scenes disturbed me, the same way that a movie depicting adultery disturbs me; the same way my own waywardness from the Creator's plans disturb me. If that offends homosexuals, all I can say from the bottom of my heart is that this does not mean that homosexuals as persons disturb me. In fact, I love them. (I pray that any homosexual reading this would hear me say that with all sincerity and believe me.)

I felt a lot of empathy for the guys in this movie. They were clearly confused and hurting individuals. Both came from different but less than ideal upbringings. One without parents most of his life, and the other (perhaps worse off) with parents who seemed to have crawled out of a hole in the ground in order to raise one son in a prison-cell of an attic room. Long story short, these guys find each other, and find a relationship that each of them for one reason or another seems to feel the need to take beyond friendship. I don't think that the Creator would have them take it that far, but they do, and the movie is all about the ramifications for their lives (as the above picture, with one of the man's two kids looking on, indicates). Long story even shorter, it doesn't go well.

Yes, this movie implied the goodness of something that I don't believe God has for us and so I did not accept that premise. I also don't accept the premise that we are victims of our romantic feelings (but this is the premise of most of today's love sagas and not unique to this film). However, I accept the premise that these were normal guys whom I can empathize with and love. I cringed at times at the depiction of something sexual that I find completely bizarre, and I hesitate to tell everyone to go see this film for the same reason I hesitate to wrecklessly recommend other movies with sexual or violent content.

But let's not be hypocrites about this either. This movie, like most, had plenty of sin in it. For instance: A man is absolutely a jerk to his son in law and it kills you to watch it, especially because you know (or at least I figure) that this is such a huge part of that son in laws upbringing and such a source of his life-pain. Furthermore, a man is at best negligent and at worst abusive to his wife and kids. Divorce is often considered and adultery is fairly commonplace. We hear of a group of men torturing, shaming and killing a man because of his homosexual reputation. No matter whether homosexuality is right or wrong, this is pure and simply the sin of homophobia and it is awful. Jesus would have had none of it. All of the above things were painted in a negative light by the movie. The only difference between them and homosexuality is that we are used to them.

Yes, I probably would have given this movie a 5 out of 5 if I agreed with its message. But even as I disagreed with it I appreciated that it was somewhat reserved in its portrayal of people who might disagree. It stopped short of showing a guy with a Bible on the screen and having him look like an idiot or, worse, associating him with the homophobic killers. Other movies have tended to paint all Bible-believers with the same brush and I appreciate that this one did not. Along with many other Christians, I love homosexual people even if I feel that the sexuality they are discovering stems from the Fall and not from Creation. I love them the way the Creator loves them. They, like me, are like the sheep on the mountainside so often seen in the film, and I would love us all to better hear and obey the Shepherd's voice. This is not the only movie that leaves me with that longing.

I imagine Christians could be offended that I saw this movie and homosexuals could be offended by my comments. Sorry if that's the case. I feel that I watch movies with due discernment, and I hope I've made clear that I love all people as God by grace has loved me. Please feel free to comment if I can clarify something for you.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

An Inconvenient Truth

First off, let me say that whether the global warming people are over-stating it or not, mere common sense will tell you that we have to take better care of the earth. When God gave the creation mandate to "subdue the earth", I don't think he had the raping and pillaging of the 20th century in mind. With this movie we have a wake up call, and we should take it.

Okay, on to my critique. First of all, I like the documentary. Second of all, I loved the passion. Al Gore is a man on a mission. Thirdly, I like the relevance. Somehow it is hard to rate this alongside, say, Talladega Nights. We just have massive differences in importance, even though as a movie we may enjoy Will Ferrell's distractions more. Fourthly: well done.

But let's be real here. I certainly hope I'm not the only one who can see when he is being manipulated. Even if it is for a good cause, it is sort of annoying. When Gore keeps telling us "the scientists" this and "the scientists" that it makes you start to wonder: what scientists? all of them? when do we get to see some of these scientists? are they that dorky looking that they can't be on the film? all of them?At one point Gore is careful to point out the unanimity of the scientific community on something (based on a sampling of journal articles) but the rest of the time we are just told that this is what "the scientists" say, or what "my friends tell me".

It's not that I doubt much of what they are saying (although there were a few "facts" I'd like to look up), nor am I arguing that there isn't something important here, I just have to point out how annoying this is.

The other thing that annoyed me was the use of graphs. Clearly when the lines are going up, we have big big problems. That's all we need to know. No info on what the graphs really stand for or what the earth can handle. Just graphs. Lots of them. And every line is going up. Bad news.

Okay I'm being hard on it. Fact is, this is a documentary and not a pure information session. We can and probably should do our own research. I just cringe at the thought that this is all the research most of us will ever do, and well, at times it felt like Fahrenheit 911. Not that that movie didn't have some good things to expose, but it was very manipulative and I didn't like being treated like an idiot. There was a bit of that feeling here, although not as much. This did have a lot more straightforward preaching. Certainly we should all take notice.

What was incredibly unecessary was the peice of the movie dedicated to Gore's controversial election loss to Bush. This had no place in a movie on this topic, and although it set things in an autobiographical context, it just reeked of party-politics, revenge and vindication. Maybe Gore needed that, but it certainly didn't help the movie or the cause. If anything it made me go, "Okay, I see what this movie is about."

I don't think that's really what the movie is about, mind you, but it distracted and called into question the integrity of the movie.

I'm still pretty much sold on the idea. Let's take care of this earth of ours folks. If not because Gore said so, because God said so. The thing that annoys me most is imagining Christians panning this movie and ignoring global warming just because it is Gore, not Bush; or because he talks a wee bit of evolution; or because, heck, we're gonna get raptured anyway. What a sinful way to treat and think about creation. (I hope it doesn't happen). Throw in some Scripture (i.e. Genesis 1-2) here and Gore could have had himself a good sermon.

And actually, that's my last comment. What amazes me about this is that now, when we don't hear so many of the doomsday Christian preachers anymore (Y2K stung), now we have it in theatre. Weird. Not to mention the title. This could have been the title for Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Walk On

Let me tell you, I'd call myself a pretty solid U2 fan and a considerable admirer of Bono, but this book Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2 was just over the top. I learned a few things, but not much. Quite frankly, with a bit of research and maybe a trip to Dublin for a few interviews around the band's old stomping grounds, and I could have written this book just based on album covers and lyrics.

I'm not really opposing much that the book said. Yeah, I agree that the church has many times dropped the ball on social justice and I think Bono could be considered to have a "prophetic" role in that regard. Yeah, their lyrics and music are spiritually compelling. Yes I have been frequently impressed by their live performances and their more recent expressions of faith. I am incredibly impressed by Bono's clout in global concerns. I anticipate each album. I would even say that I enjoy finding honest and even faith-driven lyrics that I can connect with.

But this book just takes all that and basically makes a cult out of it. Even as a Bono/U2 fan it made me want to puke. It was just so much fluff and flattery. I felt like it was a defense of the guy in court. I guess Christians have been somewhat critical of U2 in the past, but honestly, does it warrant an all out propaganda pamphlet for Bono's sainthood? This thing was dripping with it. At the end I was skimming just to get through it and see if there was anything I didn't already know. It didn't even talk about the Super Bowl halftime show, one of U2's, and America's, finest moments.

To be fair, this book was fairly interesting. But I don't think a critic of U2 would be convinced by it, nor will a fan of U2 really be all that enlightened by it. Probably the only person who might benefit from this book will be the casual observer who doesn't mind the sap. There are some good messages here, mainly from Bono himself. Stockman 's soapbox issues weren't bad, but they got to be a bit much. It is a tribute to Bono that he emerges from this book with some respectability intact despite the rancourous praises being sent his way. I am more impressed that Bono apparently declined to participate in the making of this book than I am with anything that I was supposed to have learned within it.

So let me reiterate: I still like U2 and admire Bono. But this book ironically puts Bono on the very pedestal he has so wisely resisted his whole life. I'm all for bringing down the line between so-called "secular" and "sacred", but does that mean that everything has to be just awesome? Even with the respect I have for Bono, as I read this book I was longing for something bad to be sad about him, just to remind me that the author knew he wasn't God!

I give this book 1 star out of 5, what a lot of bubbles and butterflies. (I must apologize to Relevant Books, who published this book, as they have been kind enough to be the first people to also publish me! To be fair, I think it was a decent idea, and they do publish some quality stuff I think)