Evangelical Theology – Commitment

So I have a tinge of regret for asking folks to read this book. It was meant to be Barth-lite, but this chapter is tough going. One of the challenging things about the book and Barth in general is that he doesn’t feel a need to illustrate with examples. Which means his theologizing/philosophizing ends up being pretty dense. That said, I do think there are some key ideas that can help us to navigate our way through.

One possible way to characterize Barth’s theology is that it is radically Christocentric in nature. That is to say, Christ lies right at the center of his thinking about what it means for theology to be theology. Now for those who are taking the time to read this, this may not seem like much of a radical statement. Of course, “Christian” theology would have Christ at its center. However, doing Christocentric theology is easier said than done. Historically, it might be possible to identify competitors vying for pride of place in our reflections on God. So for example, if I’ve read Kant right (which I most certainly haven’t), he would look at Christianity and try to extract universal moral principles from it and say that is really the heart of Christian faith. There will be others that the might argue that there is no real ‘center’ to the Christian faith and that it is only an individual’s experience with the Other that we can observe, which is more or less a way of saying that humanity lies at center of religion. Another variant that is in some ways the logical outcome of the two ideas above is the conclusion that we really don’t need God, Christ, the Bible, or religion at all. We can simply observe the world as it is around us and through scientific inquiry we’ll arrive at true understanding. And on and on. So there is a sense in which one can understand Barth as a strong reaction to ‘theology’ done in any of these other modes.

While these ‘odd’ ways of doing theology isn’t the sort of thing that my Christian friends tend to buy into, it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that each of the brief examples above find their bizarro counterparts in conservative/evangelical theologies as well. There is a strong tendency among Christians to lift Scripture up as a moral guidebook that tells us the right way to live and the wrong way. Those who believe that the Scriptures contain a moral blueprint or that they promote ‘family values’ are perhaps ironically kissing-cousins with Kant. Likewise, it would be difficult to overstate the determinative role that one’s private religious experience plays in shaping the average person’s understanding of their faith. “God really met me in that worship service. God spoke to me as I was doing my quiet time. I left that church because I wasn’t being fed.” All these kinds of statements betray that belief that the goodness or rightness of something is determined by my experience of it. And finally, lots of natural theology and historical-critical exegesis rests on the presupposition that our our ability to empirically observe things is enough to determine truth.

So when I say that Barth takes seriously Christ in theology, I am suggesting that his entire theological task is to come to terms with claim that Jesus Christ is God incarnate and work that truth through in every possible direction. What does that mean for our understanding of God as Trinity? What does it mean for our anthropology? What does it mean for our understanding of revelation and Scripture? What does it mean for our understanding of election? And so on.

Which maybe brings us, finally, to the content of this chapter. I’m not entirely sure how the term ‘commitment’ is meant to function here, but one thing he is making clear is that because the theological task is one centered on God, particularly God as revealed in Christ, being committed(?) to this particular God simultaneously constrains and frees our theological inquiry.

In the first of his three points, he is more or less restating what I’ve just taken a couple paragraphs to explain. Sort of. His talk of center and circumference is a way of saying that the theology is meant to be comprehensive in that everything is only properly understood in its relation to the core (i.e. God in Christ), and that the work of theology is to understand and explicate the ways in which the points on the circumference (e.g. election, etc…) is related to the center. All well enough, but he presses further to suggest that since the center isn’t a thing, a philosophical idea, or a scientific principle, but a Being, then all attempts to systematize those relations are provisional at best.

The second point he makes is broadly speaking about how we know anything, and Barth seems to suggest that the source of knowledge comes from God and not from our own ability to reason. He isn’t denying that we reason, nor is he suggesting that reason doesn’t have a role in theology. Rather, the issue is one of priority. God’s revelation takes precedence over our ability to reason. In fact, he will go on to say that all our ability to perceive, observe, and reason is made possible by the prior working of God for it to be so.

“Theology preserves its freedom by making use of every human capacity for perception, judgment, and speech, without being bound to any presupposed epistemology.”

The last point is about the general direction or disposition of theology. He calls it a ‘happy science’ because, in his view, it should be optimistic. Now, he’s well aware that optimism doesn’t always characterize what he calls the ‘little’ theologian, but he feels that it should. By way of example, with respect to judgment and grace, he says…

“There is no mistaking the fact that here man is made to hear a sharp and overwhelming divine No. But there is also no mistaking the fact that this No is enclosed within God’s creative, reconciling, and redeeming Yes to man.”

So on that note of optimism, have a great week!

idol factories

I got Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace and his Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace at the same time. I chose to read Exclusion and Embrace first because it is older and from what I could tell it was his more pioneering work. However, if the decision was made based upon which book had the better cover, there would have been no contest.

Free of Charge not only has the distinction of being the more attractive of the two books, it is also shorter and easier reading in general. So if you are in any way tempted to dive into some Volf, this may be the place to start.

Here’s a little something to whet your appetite…

There is God. And there are images of God. And some people don’t see any difference between the two.

… They simply assume that who they believe God to be and who God truly is are one and the same. God is as large (or as small) as they make the Infinite One to be, and none of the beliefs they entertain about God could possibly be wrong.

But in fact, our images of God are rather different from God’s reality. We are finite beings, and God is infinitely greater than any thoughts we can contain about divine reality in our wondrous but tiny minds … When we forget that we unwittingly reduce God’s ways to our ways and God’s thoughts to our thoughts. Our hearts become factories of idols in which we fashion and refashion God to fit our needs and desires … Slowly and imperceptibly, the one true God begins acquiring the features of the gods of this world. For instance, our God simply gratifies our desires rather than reshaping them in accordance with the beauty of God’s own character. Our God then kills enemies rather than dying on their behalf as God did in Jesus Christ.

Four (best reads of 2011) for Monday

I know this is suppose to be a Friday thing. I wanted to get it done on Friday, but it just wasn’t meant to be. A number of the books I read in 2011 were honestly pretty forgettable. However, there were a few that stirred the heart or mind (sometimes both) enough for me to recommend them to others. They are all of the “religious” variety. I’m not apologizing for that, but I just want to be clear about what you can expect.

Transforming Conversion: Rethinking the Language and Contours of Christian Initiation
by Gordon T. Smith
(sample chapter)

If there is one book that I’ll be re-reading in 2012, it will be this one. Smith’s work on conversion is thought-provoking to say the least. If you are one cares about what the journey of faith (particularly what we call “conversion”) looks like, then I can’t more highly recommend this book. Like a good physician, Smith adeptly diagnoses what ails modern day evangelicalism. His ideas on how we might restore health don’t feel quite as thought through, but his insights are difficult to dismiss lightly. If nothing else, read the sample chapter and see if he doesn’t pique your interest. Plus I would really love to have someone to talk to about what he has to say.

Without doubt, the greatest problem with the assumption that conversion is punctiliar is that it rarely ever is. Many people do not have a language with which to speak meaningfully about their own spiritual experience for the simple reason that they have not experienced conversion as a punctiliar event in their lives. Whether they are second-generation Christians (more on this below) or whether their journey to faith and of faith does not fit the mold, they do not know how to tell their story, how to give expression to their encounter with God’s grace.

Movements of Grace: The Dynamic Christo-Realism of Barth, Bonhoeffer, and the Torrances
by Jeff McSwain
(sample chapter)

Movements of Grace came my way from my father-in-law who got it from my brother-in-law who is friends with the author. So that pretty much makes me and the author best friends. As is often the case, titles can be misleading which is why we need subtitles. In fact, subtitles all the way through the book could be helpful given its dense theology – which can at times sound like a foreign language. In some ways, this book is similar to the previous one in that they are both concerned with how God’s work happens in person’s life. Both suggest that modern-day American evangelicalism places too much emphasis on human volition as the precursor for God’s saving activity. When I finished, I had a greater appreciation for and understanding of trinitarian theology. It also caused me to go back and re-read Barth, and that’s probably a good thing. From what I understand McSwain was embroiled in some controversy with Young Life a few years ago, and reading this book certainly helps one understand why that might have developed.

For my years of Christian ministry before January 2000, I habitually proclaimed the gospel in a way that undervalued the union of Jesus Christ with both God and humanity. On the one hand, while I pad lip service to the fact of Christ being God, my articulated theory of the atonement defied it. I portrayed a God who sent Christ to assume the world’s sin so that God could stay pure in himself.

Love Wins
by Rob Bell
(sample chapter)

Speaking of controversial books, you might find the inclusion of Bell’s Love Wins on the list surprising. Honestly, there were several other books that I found more interesting than this one, but there is no denying that it created quite a splash – even before it was released. There is also no denying that the conversation concerning universalism is still alive and well. Let’s be clear, Rob Bell didn’t invent universalism (he isn’t even a true universalist). He simply moved the discussion from people’s living rooms into the church, and I think the discussion has by and large been a healthy one. Bell is particularly gifted at asking questions, and in a way he is only asking the same question (albeit in a different way) that the previous two books are asking – Who does “salvation” depend on? Me? Or Christ?


Ghandi’s in Hell?

He is?

We have confirmation of this?

Somebody knows this?

Without a doubt?

And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know?

Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me: A Memoir… of Sorts
by Ian Morgan Cron
(sample chapter)

What is there for me to say about this book that I haven’t already said? I would simply like to add that this book in some ways falls in line with the other three. I quoted at length from his recollection of his first communion, and it is noteworthy that the ‘saving’ work was something that came from without, not within. I would love to quote more from this wonderful memoir, but I’m pretty sure that the author/publisher would hunt me down and demand some royalties. Of all the books on the list, this is easily the one that my vast readership would most appreciate.

So as you can see, a recurring theme in my reading this year has been on the way in which God works in people’s lives. In American church culture, we unsurprisingly place a great deal of emphasis on the choice of the individual for the efficaciousness of grace. Sure grace is a good gift of God, but it is something I can either choose to accept or reject. I’m coming to terms with (but far from having resolved) the notion that grace only becomes operative when I make a choice for it to be. Like I said, a very American sentiment. I’m just not sure how biblical it is. If grace only becomes saving grace through some choice of my own was it ever really grace to begin with?

Ok, enough heresy for one day. I really do love hearing what other people enjoy reading. Last time I did a book post, several people chimed in on things they appreciated. I’m especially indebted to the women who helped to broaden my appreciation for female authors. As you can see here, that is something of a deficiency in my reading diet, and I really would love to hear what sort of things you guys have found helpful recently.

Stay tuned for an honorable mention list sometime soon.

Scripture and the Authority of God by N.T. Wright

I’m thinking of renaming the blog “Four for Friday,” because that’s about all I’m able to make time for these days. So I’m sneaking a quick one in just before Friday to try to maintain some blog-cred.

Another alternate name could be “N.T. Wright Fan-Boy,” since that’s about the only other thing I talk about around here. A friend of mine was reading Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God and asked if I had read it. Much to both our surprise, I hadn’t. He said he was finding it challenging and would love hear my thoughts on it. Never needing much of any encouragement to read more Wright, I promptly ordered it and dove right in. As chance would have it, I finished it up this past weekend, a day or so before this same friend tied the knot.

As you might suspect, the book is good. Really good. Wright successfully (IMHO) navigates between the warring conservative and liberal advocates in the “Battle for the Bible.” One group of Christians argues for a kind of inerrancy that the Bible doesn’t really seem to affirm about itself. While the other group writes off the Bible simply a man-produced piece of literature and therefore no more authoritative than “Chicken Soup for the Soul” or “Harry Potter” or Oprah or whatever.

Or as Wright says it himself…

Much of what has been written about the Bible in the last two hundred years has either been following through the Enlightenment’s program, or reacting to it, or negotiating some kind of halfway house in between.

So many good thoughts and not really anytime to unpack them, so I’ll just fire away a few more memorable quotes and let the chips fall where they may.

On how the Word is authoritative…

The apostolic writings, like the ‘word’ which they now wrote down, were not simply about the coming of God’s Kingdom into all the world; they were, and were designed to be, part of the means whereby that happened, and whereby those through whom it happened could themselves be transformed into Christ’s likeness.

On role that “religious experience” should play in constructing truth…

We could put it like this. ‘Experience’ is what grows by itself in the garden. ‘Authority’ is what happens when the gardener wants to affirm the goodness of the genuine flowers and vegetables by uprooting the weeds in order to let beauty and fruitfulness triumph over chaos, thorns, and thistles. An over-authoritarian church, paying no attention to experience, solves the  problem by paving the garden with concrete. An over-experiential church solves the (real or imagined) problem of concrete (rigid and ‘judgmental’ forms of faith) by letting anything and everything grow unchecked, sometimes labeling concrete as ‘law’ and so celebrating any and every weed as ‘grace.’

Ok, there’s more – always more – but that’s enough to try and wrap one’s brain around for one day. Oh, one other thing. Scot McKnight also recently wrote a bit about the book. Lot’s more interaction over there.

See you tomorrow with some insanely great music in hand.

Rob Bell’s Love is #winning

A few days ago, I was having lunch with a couple friends, and eventually the conversation turned to discussing the book.

No, not the Bible, but Rob Bell’s Love Wins. One of them asked if I could remember a book that caused this much controversy in American churches in recent history. And I couldn’t. There are books that I wished had caused this kind of stir, but for a host of reasons they didn’t.

I finished reading it a couple days ago, so I’ve had some time to reflect on what Bell has written and how to respond. And I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m not going to. Respond that is. At least not here.

The book itself if ok. Not terrible. Not great. He really isn’t saying anything that hasn’t been said before. And yet, I think what is making this book the phenomenon that it has become isn’t simply some genius marketing (although, it hasn’t hurt it either). Nor is because it is the greatest book that has ever been written to address weighty issues like these. No, the difference maker is who has written it. As best I can tell, this is the first time a high-profile evangelical Christian leader has broken ranks (so to speak) with the party line in such a public manner. I’m sure plenty of others have done so in a hundred different ways. But not like this.

I do think the issues, questions, and ideas raised in the book deserve some serious discussion, but I’m not convinced that this blog is the place to do it.

So I won’t be writing anything about it, which is strange for me because that’s lots of what I do around here. Write about books. I may come back around to it eventually, but for now, what I would love more than anything is to have Mr. Bell call me up so that we can talk about it.

But since that is probably not happening anytime soon, maybe just you and I can talk. But not here. Only in person.

Really, I’d love to talk to any and all of you about it. I think people need a safe place where they aren’t going to be judged for trying to figure it out. In fact, I’m planning on getting together with a few friends for the express purpose of discussing the issues Pastor Rob raises. So you’re invited too.

I’m not kidding.

How about next Thursday (4/14)? 5pm-7pm. At The Prost.

That way, we can discuss theology like they used to in the olden days… over a pint (or two), a basket of chicken wings, and some jalapeno poppers. Or whatever the equivalent of wings and poppers would have been for Luther/Calvin/Lewis.

Eat a little. Drink a little. Talk a little. All for the glory of God.

And Brother Rob, should you happen to come across this in time, you are more than welcome to join us. Like I said, I have some questions of my own.

reading in 2010

I know most of you are losing sleep wondering what is going to be on the infamous end-o-year mix tape.  So to pass the time, I’m going to share something approximating a “Top 5 Reads in 2010.”  However, as I’m prone to do, I’m going to spread this out over a few days.  Enjoy!

Best of the Best:

I’m sure it comes as no surprise that my favorite book of the year comes from my boy N.T.  In After You Believe, he talks biblically and sensibly (yes, you can do both) about what Christian character looks like and how it is formed in a person.  In his own words, this book is an attempt to answer the question, “What are we here for in the first place?”

The fundamental answer we shall explore in this book is that what we’re “here for” is to become genuine human beings, reflecting the God in whose image we’re made, and doing so in worship on the one hand and in mission, in its full and large sense, on the other.

As I’ve said before, Wright is one of the most influential biblical scholars around today.  Much of what filters down in various other writers and movements bears the stamp of his thinking, teaching, and writing.  You would be well served to spend some of your precious reading money and time becoming familiar with what he is saying.  I’ve read several books this year attempting to answer the “what are we here for” question, and they end up looking provincial in comparison.

One of the things that is particularly refreshing about Wright is that he doesn’t seem to get bogged down in culture wars.  I get the sense that this frustrates his would be critics who would just like to figure out if he is with or against them.  Conservatives tend to think he is too liberal, and liberals harbor suspicions that he is a closet-conservative.  Wright would rightly (no one ever tires of the play on words begging to be had with his name) affirm that both of these labels have outlived their usefulness and would be reluctant to use either to describe himself.

While After You Believe is as fine a place as any to start, I often point people towards The Challenge of Jesus as an intro to Wright.  It is profound, relatively short, and highly readable.  Starting with this book has the added benefit of beginning where I think all theological reflection should start…  Jesus as revealed in the Scriptures.

Up next…  theology meets the UFC.

Three Books from 2009

Ok, I read a few books last year.  I’d like to share three.  They weren’t published last year, but that’s when I read (or re-read) them.  You would be doing yourself a favor to get your hands on any of them.

This is one is sort of a no-brainer.  If you only read one book this year, it should probably be this one.  In many respects, this is Wright at his finest.  He is a book writing machine.  Some of them very academic.  Others far less so.  I’d say this is written for something of a broader audience, but it ain’t no Joel Osteen, if you get my drift.  Here, he presents as robust a vision of resurrection life.  And who doesn’t need that?  Thought so.

I had the pleasure of re-reading this book this year and was reminded how good it is.  It is not difficult to read, and it helps people get a grasp on understanding how to interpret Scripture.  It is the difference between giving a man a fish, and teaching him how to fish.  The latter being obviously infinitely more valuable.  One person who read this with me said that she thought every Christian should read it…  and I couldn’t disagree.

This one may come as something of a surprise, but man, that J. K. can weave a tale.  Sometime in 2009, shortly after number six came out in the theaters, I got started on the series.    They are all enjoyable, but this one seems to be the best of the ones I’ve read so far.

I know that there are those who have sizable misgivings about the Potter series.  I share some concerns, but it isn’t the outright witchcraft that bothers me.  Things like mistrust for the “Ministry” and episodes of cutting loom larger in my mind.  And yet, occasionally you can come across some stuff that is about as solid as it comes…

“I do not think [Voldemort] understands why, Harry, but then, he was in such a hurry to mutilate his own soul, he never paused to understand the incomparable power of a soul that is untarnished and whole.”

Albus Dumbledore from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

I can scarcely think of a more fitting description of the damage we do to ourselves when we choose to live life other than the way it was intended to be lived.

Naturally, in order to appreciate number five, you’ll need to get after the four that lead up to it.  The one thing that is both genius and diabolical (but in a good way) is that you can’t really be in for just one.  As soon as you read the first twenty pages of Sorcerer’s Stone, you are in for the loooonng haul.

Alright, times a wasting.  Get on it.