Friday, September 24, 2010

This Week at This Side

~ This week begins the 4th annual Karl Barth Blog Conference over at Der Evangelische Theologe (see intro here), and I'll probably spend most of my blog-time interacting with the essays appearing there. In its third week my essay (imagining Barth in conversation with the Coen brothers) will appear, but things get going this week with the more dogmatic theological conversations and I'm very much looking forward to those. I think Barth is the best thing to happen to Protestant theology, and where he hasn't "happened" yet, I think he should! I encourage you to read along.

~ My blog has been nominated for "best Christian blog" by an organization called the Jubilee Centre. To pick the best of any kind of blog would require a lot of research, but it looks like this group took nominations, and I really appreciate that a friend thought to nominate me. Feel free to check out some of the blogs they've short-listed here and cast a vote if you are so inclined. A pretty eccentric group. If you are visiting from the Jubilee page, welcome. This might be the best place to get to know my blog.

~ Long time readers may recall that every year about this time I add to my running lists of albums, fiction, and films that have made a lasting impression on me, and I try to add a new list to the series as well. At some point this is going to get out of hand, even for a listophile such as myself, but sometime in the near future I do hope to add the 35 most impactful non-fiction books to that series. I added to fiction and film earlier, and have decided that the album I wish to add is The National's Boxer.

It came out a few years ago now, but with quirky yet meaningful lyrics, creative musicianship from each instrumentalist, and the simultaneously rocking and mellow baritone of Matt Berninger it has become a mainstay in my earphones and has wedged its way into my psyche. I love the slow build of Start a War and the horn-explosion of Fake Empire, and I have commented on the latter song before. Here's a couple songs for the uninitiated.

"lets not try to figure out everything at once"

"we’ll be alright, we have our looks and perfume on"

~ Finally, I'm off to Oxford on Wednesday for a theology conference where I will hear papers on "The Present Moment" and give my own on forgiveness as a present (rather than merely a past) event. On the way home a friend and I are going to catch an evensong at Westminster Abbey. Should be a great week!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Worship in Spirit and Truth

Public worship does not have immunity from the concerns of “misunderstanding and abuse,” but “has its treasure in earthen vessels.” It cannot “console itself with the reflection that everything human is imperfect, or the recollection that its sins are forgiven.

The grace of sanctification, and therefore of Jesus Christ generally, is surely alien to it if it does not try to counteract the continual menace and process of a profanation of that which is holy by its own human and therefore unholy hands; if its does not resist to the best of its ability and conscience. . . .

It is well aware that only He who is present and active within it as its Lord has the authority and competence to order this and therefore to protect it against perversion. . . .

It cannot, therefore, regard its liturgy as inviolable because inerrant. It cannot shelter it (least of all for reasons of piety) from the critical question whether it is rightly done, or whether it might not be done differently or better. . . .

'Let us leave it all to the Holy Ghost' cry some impetuously. They are right enough, but the fact that we leave it to the Holy Ghost does not mean that we leave it to the rash and wilful but that we ask ourselves unitedly and conscientiously, and in the light of Holy Scripture, what obedience means in this matter.”
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/2, 709-710.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

My Project, or, Yoder on Forgiveness and the Church

I'm still trying to figure out how to answer people when they ask me what I'm studying. The difficulty is that this is usually asked in the context of informal conversation, and therefore the paradoxical request is for a one or two sentence description minus the technical shorthand that such a concise answer tends to require.

Lately I have begun by saying I am studying forgiveness, ethics and ecclesiology in Karl Barth's doctrine of reconciliation, and seeing where it goes from there. Usually that means a short discussion of what "reconciliation" means to Barth, and maybe if the person really meant it when they asked we get into a short discussion of what are the issues in ecclesiology and ethics. But even once you get that far how do you begin to describe the intended ins and outs of exploring such a conceptually slippery and practically difficult thing as forgiveness? Usually you have to grab on to an illustrative aspect of it and try to focus on that. I'm not saying the listener can't handle it, I'm saying I have trouble getting my tongue around it.

All that to say that I found recently in John Howard Yoder a great quote that really gets to the heart of what I think my research project is, in the end, after. This because Barth left his ethics of reconciliation unfinished, and Yoder may have exhibited the best sense of its trajectory. After 3 years and 100,000 years the following paragraph may well end up being the closest thing to my conclusion. (Why write it if it is already written you ask? Let's not talk about that right now). Here it is, from Yoder's essay called "Binding and Loosing":

"The free church is not simply an assembly of individuals with a common spiritual experience of personal forgiveness received directly from God; nor is it merely a kind of working committee, a tool to get certain kinds of work carried out. The church is also, as a social reality right in the midst of the world, that people through whose relationships God makes forgiveness visible."

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Lars and the Real Girl: 10/10

I haven't given a film 10/10 in a while. Thought it merited mention.

You can try to convince me otherwise or inquire further if you want. I have tried to reserve 10s for special occasions. This is one of those rare films that is endearing and really well done. It is simple yet smart. Every time it seems like it will get sappy it retreats to subtle, and stays smart without feeling at all intellectual. Still, it is probably a love it or hate it kind of movie. I was moved nearly to tears throughout the whole thing, and yet was laughing too. You should see it.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Conference Reflections on Theology and Art

A couple weeks ago I attended a conference on Theology, the Imagination and the Arts in St. Andrews, Scotland, where I presented a paper on theological fiction in light of Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday. Upon return home I was asked to write a short review for Transpositions, the host institute's website. If you are so inclined you will be able to read it there (along with comments that anyone from the conference may or may not have), or you can just read it below.

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The ITIA conference in St. Andrews was for me an introduction to the work of David Brown. Thus I was very appreciative of the handout summarizing the five volumes under scrutiny and was inspired by the plenary sessions to delve deeper into a couple of them on my own. As someone who did graduate work in theological fiction and is doing postgraduate work in the theology of Karl Barth, I must confess that during the plenary sessions and short papers I was both riveted and fidgety. I love a fine marriage of theology and art, and yet am sensitive to theology’s potential to be little more than anthropology with a loud voice.

Leaving anxieties aside for a moment let me begin with conference highlights. I enjoyed each of the plenary presentations and especially appreciated the respectful candour in which David Brown’s work was both lauded and challenged. Particularly memorable for me were the papers by Margaret Miles and Tina Beattie, in which the former reflected on revelation as something which carries on into the re-readings and re-imaginings it incites, and the latter illustrated the point with an artful display of sainthood’s increasingly redemptive feminization up to the late Middle-Ages. The trajectory of New Testament mutuality and nurturing biblical community seemed to dance right before our eyes.

But there was something in the air at the conference which I found unsettling; something I also felt at the SST conference earlier this year. Discussions of art and theology tend to lose me when they implicitly or explicitly assume that reflections on creation, imaginations of the divine, evocations of wonder, or even expressive responses to revelation can be said to speak of God. In these situations I find myself asking: When is art merely anthropology? When is anthropology theology?

Often when theology and art is questioned like this, it sounds like a call for Christian criteria—at which point the dogmatics get muddled and the arts feel muffled. What criteria can humans set up to determine what counts as divine revelation? What good is imagination if all the lines are already drawn? Is it the job of dogmaticians to design stencils for artists? Is it the job of artists merely to think outside-the-box? Certainly these tensions are not unique to theology. Imagination and truth are always wrestling with each other, it would seem. I guess what I'm most interested in is whether in Christianity these ought to enjoy a certain measure of the ministry of reconciliation? Can they dance where others wrestle?

Chesterton said that painters are at their best when they put canvas in frame and draw a line somewhere, just as athletes excel when there are rules and a field of play. In a similar vein, at the conference Jeremy Begbie suggested that the specificity of the Word of God is not to be seen as constricting for the arts, but liberating. As Barth would have it, human freedom is not found in autonomous decision but precisely in obedience to God.

Though Barth has not often been viewed as a proponent of theological art, the final volume of his Church Dogmatics proposed that since the Word of God is living and active in His creation we should expect to hear Him speaking freely through other words. We should expect to see the Light of Christ lit up in little lights all over the world—not because they hold a latent indication of who or what is God, but because they are a good canvas on which the Spirit can draw. Seen in this way I would suggest that discussion of criteria may aid discernment, but guarantees nothing. It is incumbent upon artist and appreciator alike to submit themselves to the living Word of God in both expression and interpretation. Where this is not done we may have art, but we likely do not have theology.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

At the Neighbourhood Mosque

"Dear Neighbour, Peace at the Spital Neighbourhood. We are writing you in regard to the recent activities at our Mosque. The fasting month of Ramadan has started."

Thus began the letter that was slipped through our mail slot a few weeks ago. It went on to assure us that great effort would be taken to keep parking on our street from being intrusive, and made one point particularly clear: "The neighbour holds a special status in Islam." I was fairly impressed. But what sent me for a tailspin was the fact that the letter closed with an open invitation to join them for the nightly dinners that followed the Maghrib prayers (after sunset)--their only meal during Ramadan.

I've never lived near a mosque, and I've never known a Muslim. I have always tried to think past the stereotypes and caricatures (worsened by terrorism), but must admit those are mostly all I've ever really known of Islam apart from the occasional positive movie portrayal. Now my sons have some good friends at school who are Muslim and I walk past a mosque at least twice a day on my way to school (where I study the Christian doctrine of reconciliation). So I knew I pretty much had to take them up on this invitation.

Ramadan came and went pretty fast, and before I knew it I had one day left to follow through. An elder and friend from my church was up for it, and so together we went.

During the day the thing I worried about most was how we would enter. I was nervous. Much of that was the usual nerves, of course. A month or so I went alone to a church I'd never been to before for their evening service, and I kind of dreaded walking up to and into the place. I don't know, maybe I'm weird that way. I don't like feeling out of place and having people notice. Much of my anxiety on this occasion was of that variety, except with the addition of a whole lot of mystery, that's all. I can pretty much guess what I'm going to come across in a church. Despite the open invitation, I had no idea what the people in this Mosque would think of me, let alone what would be expected.

Add to that the shenanigans going on in North America right now. I personally felt that the uproar over Christians burning Korans and the controversy over the Mosque near ground zero had no bearing on my visit to the Mosque on this occasion. I was going because I was invited and I was curious and because I wanted to show respect and neighbourliness. But I wouldn't have blamed people for raising their eyebrows at me when I walked in, or for wanting to inquire of my feelings on such matters over dinner.

Upon arrival, my friend and I stood outside the door, wondering how to proceed. We decided we'd wait for someone to walk up and we'd ask them if it was okay if we came in as observers for the prayer and then took part in the meal. Just then a van pulled up and a half dozen guys jumped out. They began bringing in food and asked us to help. I tried to introduce myself and make my queries about our presence inside, but the guy I was talking to was handing me something to carry and was all smiles--as if my questions were unnecessary. Moments later we our shoes were off and we were inside.

Cross-legged on the carpet, I watched for awhile as men shuffled in and found a place. There was the setting up of little plates of food on the floor, and at sunset they gathered in small groups and, beginning with dates and moving on to fruit and some battered vegetables, they broke their fast. We were signalled by the nearest group to join them, and though I had not been fasting, I had the first date I'd ever tasted in my life, and enjoyed a few slices of food with them. I felt like it was gracious of them to share this food with us. They seemed hungry. I had just eaten supper.

During all this time we had been greeted by smiles and handshakes by a few, and the rest went about their business seemingly undisturbed. I caught a few wondering glances in my direction, but no more than when I walked into that new church the other night. I felt pretty at ease. Mostly I was just concerned with how they would perceive my non-participation in the actual prayers.

The room was full. In English the Imam instructed them to stand without any spaces between them, and then in what I assume was Arabic he proceeded to lead the prayers. It all lasted about 15 minutes. A couple guys came in during the prayers and joined the back row. At that point I kind of felt in the way, sitting on the floor, but it all worked out. Near us a young child sat playing with what appeared to be her (his?) grandfather, eyes twinkling. There were a few older boys around at the beginning but I can't recall if they took part in the prayers. I never saw any women.

When the prayers were over we stood up and wondered about leaving. I wasn't sure if the food we had already eaten was the meal or not. As the men mingled about, however, we were invited with friendly persistence to come downstairs to eat dinner.

Downstairs we sat in four long rows on the floor and had plates passed to us that were stacked with food. If I hadn't regretted eating before, I sure did now. I had read that they try not to leave leftovers, so I was determined to finish my plate. Another man walked in at this point who was obviously a visitor. He sat in the corner where we were, and as it turned out he had lived right next door for forty years and had never been inside since it had been changed from a bank to a mosque. He couldn't finish his plate of spicy curry, and they prodded him to do so much the way my Grandmother prods me to take seconds and thirds of her roast beef. I couldn't tell whether they were offended or not. Didn't seem like it.

There was pleasant conversation. I always hate these conversations, no matter where I am. I just find introductions and pleasantries inherently awkward. Nonetheless, we found out that we were sitting with a man from Malaysia who operated underwater equipment for an off-shore oil rig, a man from India who had lived in Aberdeen for decades, and a Palestinian nurse who had come to Aberdeen from Jordan to get his PhD and had stayed to work in the hospital.

When I was asked what brought me to Aberdeen I of course explained that I am studying forgiveness in the theology department of the school of divinity. The one man who asked sort of smirked at that, as if he had now figured out why were there, but I have no idea what he thought, and he had a kind of smirk on his face the whole time anyway. He wasn't unfriendly though, heck, our presence was a bit unusual. He was sure to invite us to the celebrations going on the next day at the park, explaining that it was like "their Christmas".

I had decided I wasn't going to do anything that could be taken as debate, so I didn't ask any of the thousands of questions that were running through my head. At one point, however, the Indian man was telling us about when some Jehovah's Witnesses came to his door, and he said he asked them if they knew that Jesus is a prophet in Islam too, and when they said no he told them to go study it for awhile before they came back to talk to him. He was laughing and smiling much the way I could imagine him laughing and smiling to them. I laughed too. I guess Christians and Muslims have this in common: They like to tell stories about the JWs coming to their door.

During the meal we were singled out and greeted warmly by the Imam. He seemed intelligent and friendly, and invited us to return any time. I would like to talk to him again. When everyone had eaten, the room cleared pretty quickly. Our corner was the last to get up to leave. I offered to help clean up, but they would have none of it. So, we said a few thank-yous and were on our way.

I have to confess that I was a bit taken aback at how natural everything felt. I did not feel any more out of place than if I were the only Christian having coffee with a group of atheists. I actually didn't feel as uncomfortable as I have felt during Christian sermons and altar calls in the past. Granted, if I were to return and try to continue fellowship with these Muslim men I know we would have much to discuss, but I now feel this a possibility, and so I am very glad I went. I definitely think that Christian responses to Islam in the West which are governed by fear are not helping one bit, besides not being particularly Christian to begin with. We are thinking of inviting their Imam to visit our church sometime.

These are merely my impressions. I have not been consciously doing any comparative religion here. Certainly, there were some things I found unsettling, such as the absence of women or children. There were also things I found attractive about their religious practices--especially meeting for prescribed prayer that involved physical activity with a group of other people more than once a day. But I was not there to evaluate; mostly just to be a neighbour and to listen.

I will mention one thing in closing, however. I had been thinking during the Maghrib about whether or how it is that a Muslim imagines prayers are mediated to God. So when I was back in my own church on Sunday morning I must say that I was struck by the opening song in which we sang together: "In Christ alone, who took on flesh, fulness of God in helpless babe!" I know there would be plenty of discussion to be had between a Muslim and I about the believability or the necessity for this, but it remains for me the most compelling and central thing about Christianity. It is also a profound motive for neighbourliness.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010


A friend made this.

These are my colleagues and friends in
Systematic Theology at the University of Aberdeen.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Back to The Shack

A lot of water and ink has gone under the bridge since the publication and ensuing phenomenon of William P. Young's The Shack. But I did finally read the whole thing last month and figured I might follow up on some past forays into the matter by giving a few of my impressions of this contemporary theological novel. It has been panned by critics, sometimes for sketchy reasons and without a lot of kindness. It has also been defended by diehard fans, also sometimes for sketchy reasons and without a lot of openness. The best review I've read of the book is here (and in fact I'm about to repeat a lot of it in my own words). I know I'm kind of late to this party and am still not sure I want to add one more voice to the chorus, but here we go.

Now, first of all: I know it did a lot of good for people. I think it says some good things about forgiveness, it opposes foundationalism quite strongly, and it gives readers a general sense of the big picture of the eternal love within Godself and its overflow to humanity--even to each person. So, the book can do some good things, especially depending on where readers are coming from. I don't want to make it sound like I don't appreciate that. Nor do I want to detract from that. But that doesn't mean readers shouldn't build on that and come to a deeper understanding of what is the good. I mean, I love love loved Mere Christianity 10 years ago, and am still deeply thankful for its influence on my life, but that shouldn't stop me from getting past its "mereness" or even recognizing some potentially faulty thinking that might have arisen from it.

Secondly, let's dispense with the idea that this is just a story. The fact is that this is first and foremost a book of theology. Every page is soaked with it. Unfortunately, the story cloaks itself in a kind of anti-theological guise, offering itself simply as one man's story of how God touched his life, but it is theology through and through. And if it denies that then it does so insidiously and dangerously. The only thing worse than bad theology is bad theology that hides the fact it is theology and then when it is theologically critiqued takes a "spiritual" posture as if the wisdom of God has just confounded the wise. If we set a sharp division between "spiritual" and "thoughtful" we are stacking the deck in one direction and setting up an ungodly false dilemma in the process. God is Spirit, and the Spirit is the Spirit of Truth.

This book makes claims about God and the world and Christianity which, whether they accomplish some good or not, have to be held up to theological scrutiny like anything else. Unless of course we don't care what God we're worshiping or what the Christian life is about, or how we are to relate to the world, that is.

In that respect, I already mentioned a few things I thought were worthy of appreciation in the book. I should add that I thought it did a good job depicting God's relationship to time, the tension between imitation of and participation with Christ, and the relation of mutual submission to the sticky topic of gender relations. Consider the following quotes in that regard:
Regarding God's presence in time, Jesus tells Mack: "When I dwell with you, I do so in the present--I live in the present. . . . If you want to do your thing, have at it. Time is on our side" (141-142, 149).

On the imitation/participation tension, Jesus says: "Seriously, my life was not meant to be an example to copy. Being my follower is not trying to 'be like Jesus,' it means for your independence to be killed. I came to give you life, real life, my life" (149, cf. 197-198).

On mutual submission and gender relations, Jesus says: "When I am in your life, submission is the most natural expression of my character and nature, and it will be the most natural expression of your new nature within relationships" (146).
Like I said, it isn't all bad. However, let me share four things I found very concerning about this book, especially given the bad habits in evangelical thinking that it has likely perpetuated by virtue of its immense popularity.

1. Rampant Individualism:

On the cover of my copy Eugene Peterson proclaims that this is our generation's Pilgrim's Progress. That is well said, but it shouldn't be a compliment! Don't get me wrong, I loved Pilgrim's Progress, but on the other end of modernity's turn to individualism we did not need another depiction of the Christian pilgrimage as one man weaving his way alone through options, struggles, foes and friends on his way to an ultimately privatized encounter with God. Mack has no reason to go to Church at the end of this book, other than if it helps his personal walk with God. This is a Christian life characterized more by consumerism than by Ephesians 5 self-giving love and mutual submission. Rule of thumb: If it sounds like Glenn Beck it is probably more capitalist than Christian.

The book is ripe with examples on this point, but suffice it to provide the following highly telling quote. Near the end Mack is marveling at his incredible good fortune to have had this personalized experience of God's redemption. He reflects: "'God, the servant,' he chuckled but then felt a welling up again as the thought made him pause. 'It is more truly God, my servant'" (236-237, emphasis mine).

That says it all right there. Earlier when Jesus is prompting Mack to express his emotions more, especially around his loved ones, he seems to be pushing him to a life of relationship, but instead of Jesus teaching him the centrality of community to God's plans of redemption he reverts back to talk of Mack's private relationship with God--and then a fish catches Jesus' attention and they are distracted by trying to catch it. Ironically, the priority of being Mack's personally most likable Jesus possible keeps Jesus from pointing Mack to community at perhaps the most teachable moment in the book. Imagine the disciples bowing at Jesus' feet and him taking them out one by one on some good old fishing expeditions instead of saying to be "fishers of men." That's the jist of this scene. This leads to the next problem.

2. A Misguiding View of Revelation:

Although I have this one second, it is probably the most glaring concern of the book. The fact is that God has revealed Himself to humanity in Jesus Christ: A Jewish man from Nazareth living in the Roman Empire some 20 centuries ago. Like it or not, that's how God has revealed Himself to humanity. He has not remained inaccessible to us, but neither has He given individually tailored epiphanies of his glory. Even if He does from time to time (and He is free to do so), it is to guide us into fellowship and further consideration of those visions as a community for the community and ultimately for the world. Regardless, I don't think we get the point that privatized epiphanies are not to be expected. Knowledge of this Jesus comes to us through the witness that has passed on in the Scriptures of the Church, and we believe this is superintended by the Holy Spirit but we also recognize that by and large the Spirit prefers to have it be a revelation we receive and act on together.

Now, I recognize that The Shack is a fantasy, so we get some creative representations of God meant to make a point. But at the end of the day, without proper qualification, the overwhelming force of it is that Mack gets through his Great Sadness by way of an encounter with God that none of the rest of us get. And we're not just talking about the fact that Mack has an epiphany, either. It is catered particularly to him and his wishes. For instance, while the rest of us get a non-descript and unattractive carpenter in the middle east, Mack gets an "instantly likable" Jesus who just so happens to be a riot to be around (84-85, 113). But Mack doesn't just get Jesus. The Spirit is there too: An alluring woman named Sarayu more than willing to distract attention from the Son of God--right when Mack is about to fall to his knees in worship no less (87)!

But the most telling thing of all is that the Father is a woman wearing Mack's mother's perfume and singing Mack's favourite songs (82). That would be one thing, harmless enough on its own perhaps, except that the explicit reason given is self-contradictory and misleading. When asked about it "Papa" explains that Mack's own bad experience with his own father meant he wouldn't be able to handle God appearing as a Father right then. However, when asked why God is normally revealed as Father it is because there would be more of an absence of good fatherhood in the world, thus we would need this particular emphasis on "fathering" (93-94).

Nevermind that the one reason contradicts the other, or that it is implied that women are somehow more spiritual or better than men (a theme repeated in the novel, cf. 192, 197), or even that it is assumed we will get our definition of God from our definition of fatherhood rather than vice versa: The really weird thing is that basically God is whoever you need God to be! God might as well be a nice dream Mack had one time. Next time we face a crisis, we might all dream up our favourite God so we can feel better. Though the novel poses as a theodicy (facing the problem of evil and suffering), this is basically what I am left with when I put down The Shack.

3. False Dilemma Between Relationship and "Religion"

I don't doubt that in many cases there seems to be an off-putting tension between vibrant spontaneity and lively emotional spirituality on one hand and dry traditionalism or elitist and overly-technical intellectualism on the other. I imagine that my theological critique might add to that (spoil sport!). But in my opinion it is a false dilemma. The spontaneous and emotional is no more "spiritual" or even "relational" than the ordered and thoughtful. They are meant to be different aspects of the spiritual and communal life of Christians that are not in Christ mutually exclusive. We can love him heart, mind, soul and strength, and therein by whole persons not divided ones. Elitist academics and seemingly stuffy ritualists need to hear that, and so do sentimentally expressive worshipers and surprise-favouring mystics. Which of these is Young's audience?

Answer that either way, and you still don't have a warrant for driving a wedge between emotion and intellect, relationship and religion, expression and theology like this book does. Repeatedly we have Mack saying that "none of his old seminary training was helping in the least" (91), we have Jesus saying that it is our order destroys relationship (123), and we have the Christian life caricatured as the "freedom to overcome any system of power in which you find yourself, be it religious, economic, social, or political" (181). The book does better when it says that Mack "will grow in the freedom to be inside or outside all kinds of systems," (181) but this kind of wisdom is the exception not the norm.

Like I said at the outset, there is something good about this. We rest on our idolatrous principles and self-help models and liturgies and disciplines all too often. But the false dilemma is not helpful. I mean, I went to seminary wanting a shack experience. Instead God gave me theological training, taught me the value of community, and introduced to me the wonder of ordered and thoughtful liturgy. I don't mind if someone has a different experience, but don't set it up like it is prescriptive of Christian spirituality.

4. Some Really Sloppy Writing

If you are going to write a fantasy story about meeting God, you can and should be more careful. And that doesn't mean less creative, it means more creative! For example, I counted three times where God apologized to Mack: When Mack expresses The Great Sadness and anger at God, Papa tearfully says "Mack, I'm so sorry. . . . I know what a great gulf this has put between us. I know you don't understand this yet" (92). Later, Jesus says "I am with you and I'm not lost. I'm sorry it feels that way, but hear me clearly. You are not lost" (114). Still later, the Spirit, Sarayu, interjects when Papa and Jesus are exposing Mack's short-sightedness, and says: "Mack, . . . you must forgive these two" (201).

Really? Wow. That's a whole Trinity of apologies from God to humanity! Where do we get the idea that God has something to be sorry for? I guess it is just an idiom expressing empathy, but c'mon. That's just sloppy writing. This book sets itself up as a theodicy, and then flies in the face of the book of Job.

I mean, I know this book spoke to many hearts, and that's great. But whatever love it stirred up for God in our hearts needs to also involve our minds. I do not wish to anathematize William Young, or sound like I don't find resonance with what he went through and what he shared with us from personal experience about God's love for us in this novel. But now that the dust has settled and the millions have been sold and the media has had its heyday with this phenomenon, let me express my concern over some of the evangelical trajectories depicted and perpetuated by this book, and call us to grasp together more deeply this Christian faith that we have been given to share.

Next week I will be at a conference for Theology and the Arts in St. Andrews and I will be sharing some of these thoughts, particularly as they concern the things we should be shooting for when we write or read theology in fiction. I'll welcome push-back in the Q&A there, and I welcome it here. Peace.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Reflection on "The Holy Spirit" by Donald Bloesch

Another good theologian passed away at the end of August. Donald Bloesch, author of (among other things) the excellent seven volume Christian Foundation series, died on August 24, 2010 at the age of 82. You can read tributes to him here and here. I found Bloesch's simultaneous attention to theology and history very clarifying and helpful, and think that he served Christ well within his guild, leaving a legacy in print and among his students that I think he could look back on with satisfaction.

Below is an abridgment of a paper I wrote in seminary a few years ago (for the same class as that Pinnock one from a few days back actually) which interacted with Bloesch's brilliant book on the Holy Spirit.

"Donald Bloesch’s The Holy Spirit: Works & Gifts focuses on the diverse historical views of the Holy Spirit’s role in redemption and elucidates an eclectic position. His emphasis is that the Word (the living Christ as testified to in Scripture) and the Spirit work together to enact redemption...

Bloesch is committed to the double-edged sword of Philippians 2:13, that we are to “continue to work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling,” while “it is God who works” in us. Trusting God to do his part, Bloesch mainly focuses on how we can learn from tradition to do our part responsibly. . . . And yet, he points out that as soon as a person’s redemption is maintained on human terms it falls short of what it was meant to be. Fundamentalists and liberals both err in taking things into their own hands and manipulating redemption to their own desires. Bloesch sees this in the unfortunate polarity between Logos and Spirit in theology and spirituality:

'Theologians who espouse the former tilt toward rationalism, whereas those who defend the latter lean toward mysticism or spiritualism. The challenge today seems to be to rediscover the complimentarity of Logos [Word] and Spirit.' Furthermore, Bloesch says, 'the Holy Spirit is not uniform but multiform. His workings cannot be systematized, nor are his gifts ever in the control of the clerics of the church. He moves in a variety of ways and bestows a diversity of gifts. His work is always surprising and unexpected.'

Even Bloesch’s use of the word “always” is suspect here, since God is as free to do things normally as he is to do things unusually. The important point in Bloesch’s mind is that the Spirit and the Word are united, so that one will not do something to contradict the other. This is too often forgotten by those who are either too trenchantly rationalistic or mystical; free-flowing or sacramental. Instead of hearing from one another and having a richer experience of redemption, many settle for a one-sided experience that eventually makes their walk with God look like a limp. The corrective is for Bloesch a theology of Word and Spirit: namely where we participate through the Spirit in the Son’s communion with the Father.

Related to this discussion of the Trinity in redemption is the issue of the filioque clause of the Westernized Nicene Creed, which states that the Spirit proceeds from the Father as well as from the Son. This contrasts the Eastern tradition, which has it that the Spirit proceeds only from the Father, alongside but not dependent upon the Son. The ramifications on each side can be dangerous when taken to extremes. If the Spirit proceeds from the Son then can the Spirit not be active in the world where Christ is not known? If the Spirit proceeds only from the Father then could people not come to the Father without Christ? Both Bloesch and Torrance indicate a desire to see East and West meet in the middle. Bloesch says 'we should strive to achieve some measure of agreement on this perplexing issue, recognizing that the filioque preserves a truth ... that the Spirit unites his own mission with that of Christ and thereby chooses to serve the mission of Christ.'"