Monday, June 28, 2010
Granted, I'd probably be beset by a bit of a nagging worry, vexed by a bit of a theological thorn in my side which would keep prodding me: "But if it's all about the 'event' of Christ, how would you even know you want a high Christology? Indeed, how would you even know this event of Jesus was the Christ apart from the fruit of the church--the body of Christ--which yielded the Gospels and the Scriptures?" And I suppose it would be a little tricky for me to assert anything like a Nicene or Chalcedonian understanding of Jesus Christ given that such formulations were not part of that original or primitive "event" which was God in the flesh (though, again, I'm not sure how I'd know or be able to affirm that the crucified One was God-in-the-flesh apart from receiving the fruits of His body as authoritative in some way).
But I think I could wriggle out from under these worries with some sort of ontology/epistemology distinction--that the ontological "reality" of the "event" does not depend on our epistemological access to it (I'm pretty sure Barth could help me here). And voila! We'd finally have an "emergent" ecclesiology.
Friday, June 25, 2010
Oscar Wilde "parodied his own love of limited editions by declaring his intention to bring out The Sphinx in an edition of just three copies: 'one for myself, one for the British Museum, and one for Heaven. I have some doubts,' he added, 'about the British Museum.'"
Thursday, June 24, 2010
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
If I were crafting a multiyear reading program for Eccentric Existence, I would recommend the following strategies to help non-theologians wade into its deep waters: On the first reading, I would suggest skipping (or merely skimming) those chapters set in smaller font. They are generally pursuing more technical questions and, at least on a first reading, can be treated as asides—though returning to them on a second reading will yield fruit for nontheologians, too. For an orientation, Introductions 1A, 2A, and 3A are necessary reading. The crucial chapter for understanding the architectonic of the book is chapter 3A. But I would also recommend that, relatively early (perhaps after reading 3A), readers skip to the final Coda (of three) at the end of the book: “Eccentric Existence as Imaging the Image of God” (pp. 1008-1051). This reads almost as an independent treatise (if one is familiar with chapter 3A) and does two important things: first, it explains how the three narratives of God relation’s to humanity are intertwined in Christ (as the image of God), and second, it explains why Kelsey does not use the imago Dei as the orienting image for his project. The latter is especially important given the prominence of appeals to “the image of God” in Christian scholarship.
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
David Kelsey’s magnum opus, Eccentric Existence is a stunning work of profound wisdom, theoretical boldness, and architectonic beauty, hearkening back to the best of magisterial German “systematics” of the 20th century (complete with long, technical sections in a smaller font)—though Kelsey’s approach is also marked by a deep engagement with Scripture rather than arid abstractions. The architectonic is governed by Trinitarian faith and the Scriptural narrative, not abstract philosophical systems. This is a systematics that resonates with recent developments in “the theological interpretation of Scripture” (developments not unrelated to some of Kelsey’s own earlier work). Indeed, once I began to appreciate the scope and craft of the book, I read with nothing short of critical awe. It is required reading for anyone working in theology. (The six chapters of the Introduction [!] constitute a careful treatise on theological method and might be taken as the most mature statement of “the Yale school.”)
But it deserves a much wider readership than that. As I have lived with the book over the past month, I have imagined a generation of Christian scholars, looking to deepen and “thicken” their understanding of Christian faith and human personhood, devoting themselves to absorbing this book. I can imagine a scholar reading then re-reading Eccentric Existence in order to mine its wisdom; but I also dream of interdisciplinary groups of Christian scholars from across the disciplines (especially in the social sciences) spending a few years meeting for lunchtime discussions, working together to absorb the theological insights and wisdom it contains. Such an investment would unquestionably deepen and mature the level of discourse in Christian scholarship. Eccentric Existence is a deep, deep well from which we could drink for a very long time.
Monday, June 21, 2010
I think the reason I miss him so much is because we heard from him so regularly: with a metronomic regularity one could count on hearing from him in the New Yorker (usually a short story, sometimes some verse) and the New York Review of Books (usually a work of art criticism on an exhibit at MOMA, our only evidence that he'd emerged from Beverly Farm). One could count on his authoritative commentary on culture (with its acquired patrician-like gaze) and the steadiness of that voice gave a sense that things we're still holding together.
So Sam Tanenhaus's essay on Updike's archive is a welcome respite and salve for this absence in my life. It's also a wonderful glimpse of a writer at work--at the hard labor behind the image of his effortless prolificity. And how interesting to see in his correspondence that Updike's reception at Harvard was unlike Thomas Wolfe's! Tanenhaus's own writing is up to the task, and I'm grateful for this preview.
Thursday, June 17, 2010
Copies will be available at a book signing following my public lecture at Regent College in Vancouver on June 30. (It's currently available to pre-order at Amazon.)
Those looking for a sample can download an excerpt at the Eerdmans site (which provides the "Introduction" to the book).
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
For Luey, popularizers are "academic philanthropists," echoing the Innumeracy author John Allen Paulos's remark that "mathematicians who don't deign to communicate their subject to a wider audience are a little like multimillionaires who don't contribute anything to charity."
But what is the cost of becoming a popularizer? Some have claimed that Carl Sagan's nomination to the National Academy of Sciences was scuttled by jealousy and derision over his best sellers. Luey says that there is no evidence that "academics are deterred from writing popularizations by anything except lack of interest or unwillingness to tackle a difficult writing task." Successful popularizers are usually successful scholars, she argues. "Because writing for nonspecialists is so challenging, it requires a mastery of the subject matter that is difficult to acquire without substantial scholarly achievement."
So what is Luey's advice for would-be popularizers? Many "focus first on avoiding or simplifying technical language, a necessary but insufficient step," she says. "In fact, language is the least of the writer's problems." Far more crucial is the need to find the right voice, the right structure, and a way of helping the reader relate to the subject.
Read the full article.
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
You score an Amazon gift card for your birthday and can hardly wait to spend it. You log in, start browsing. Amazon remembers everything you've bought and, almost like the friendly bookseller who's no longer in your neighborhood, starts making some personalized suggestions. "I know how much you liked Ian McEwan," Amazon almost says. "I bet you'd like Martin Amis' Pregnant Widow." Or "Since you subscribed to the New Yorker through Amazon," the site's algorithmic 'recommender' continues, "you would love Wells Tower's new collection. And don't miss Bill Clegg's new memoir. (That'll also jive with your little Oscar Wilde fetish.)" You act on all of these suggestions and take the stack with you to the cottage, and every single choice is right on the money. "I'm lovin' this Amis novel," you exclaim to your wife as the kids are splashing in the water. Thank you, omniscient Amazon recommender: thank you for knowing me, for taking an interest in me, for recognizing the singular individual that I am.
And then it hits you: Shit. I'm just another demographic, aren't I? I'm just another member of a market population, one more cookie-cutter citizen of some 35-44 demographic. Illusions of your singularity and autonomy are beginning to crumble around you. All around you are the predictable badges of your demographic: the Volvo wagon in the driveway with NPR set as "1" on the dial; the Sunday Times and New Yorker subscription; the reusable bags you take to the farmer's market; the microbrews in your fridge and the $12 wine in the rack; the Wendell Berry and Barbara Kingsolver on your bookshelves; your algorithmically predictable playlists and Netflix cue...and all of your friends with their Volvos and Volkswagens and Subaru Outbacks who share your NPR listening habits and predilection for artsy films and folk music and being flummoxed by Fox News.
"Yes, yes," Genius says, "we know how different you are;" "Of course, of course," Amazon says, "we know how unique you are," as they add your ID to a tightly defined demographic that will, much to your chagrin, peg you every time.
Monday, June 14, 2010
I would like to focus on just one theme from his book and his talk tonight: the overwhelming and disheartening extent of evangelicalism’s accommodation and assimilation to the athletic-commercial-entertainment complex that has captivated sport all the way down to Little League.
As Hoffman rightly notes, what we’ve got in the name of Christian “transformation” of sport is the transformation of Christianity, not sport—under the banner of transformation we’ve ended up with assimilation and accommodation. In this respect, sport is just one more sphere of culture where evangelicals have merely created a “Jesufied” version of the status quo. See esp. “sports evangelism.”
But why does this happen? Whence our assimilation? Here I might suggest that Hoffman’s toolbox doesn’t perhaps have all the requisite equipment to diagnose the problem. So let me come alongside with a bit of an “assist” and loan him some tools.
The problem, I’m afraid, might be evangelicalism per se. As I see it, the issue is the reductionistic, non-holistic understanding of salvation that is at the core of evangelical piety. If salvation is basically and ultimately about Jesus & me—about “my own personal relationship with Jesus”—then salvation is a kind of private commodity which (a) doesn’t really touch other spheres of life and practice and therefore (b) can also be accommodated to any other practice (Ultimate Fighting for Jesus!). In other words, this “Gospel” can instrumentalize all sorts of cultural practices without question as strategies to press for individual, private salvation. Most significantly, this yields a Christianity that is easily tethered to American civil religion—and, as Hoffman points out, I think, Sportianity is its own instantiation of American civil religion.
Now, why is this a problem? Primarily because it reduces and misconstrues the Gospel. This private, individualist conception of salvation misses the fact that the Gospel is a social vision. By that I don’t simply mean that the Gospel is concerned with social justice. Rather, I mean more strongly that God’s work of redemption in Christ is aimed at renewing creation by (re)constituting a people—a “peculiar” people who constitute a royal priesthood and a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9). Such a “people” is peculiar precisely because their Gospel-ed way of life runs so counter to the ideals of the empire, so to speak. God calls out (ek-klesia) a peculiar people who are called to embody an ideal of human flourishing that resonates with what we’re made for—and is a foretaste of the coming kingdom. So this people (what the New Testament calls “the church” [ekklesia])will be a strange people who are not at home in the kingdoms of this world—not because they’re hoping to escape material reality and get to a disembodied heaven, but because they are a people who are called to embody a way of life for this world that runs counter to “the ways of the world.” So whereas the world is prone to violence and domination, this peculiar Gospel-ed people is called to peace, even if it means martyrdom. The human who modeled this way of life par excellence is the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth, whose example of cultural engagement was cruciform. The church, as his body, is called to “walk” in the same way.
That’s the Gospel. And if that’s the Gospel, then it can’t be neatly and tidily tacked onto cultural practices and institutions that run counter to this way of life. If the Gospel is not just my get-out-of-hell free card, but is actually the “constitution” for a “holy nation” marked by different practices, then the church will be that peculiar people who are marked by a kingdom-shaped way of life. It will find its expression in a different economics and different politics. It will run counter to the nationalism and militarism and consumerism of our day. And it will change the way we play.
In sum, what I think evangelicalism lacks is precisely an ecclesiology, a robust understanding of the church as that community, that “nation,” that is called to embody a way of life and instantiate a vision of flourishing that runs counter to the disordered kingdoms of this world (and surely contemporary sport is one of those kingdoms). If I could supplement Hoffman’s analysis, I’d hook his critique to a more constructive understanding of the church as a unique polis—a “city” with its own games.
Friday, June 11, 2010
For example last night, one of my sons (who's a sophomore) was studying for a "Computer Apps" exam and asked me how to do a "mail merge." "I have no clue," was my reply. "What do you mean?," he asked. "You work on a computer all day long." "Yes," I responded, "but I only know how to do what I need to do--type." We then strolled down memory lane and I shared with him my recollections of a "computer class" where we filled out bubble-cards that we fed into some gargantuan machine in order to get it to say, "Hello" over and over again. I remember the emergence of Commodore PETs in our "computer room" at high school, and I vividly recall getting a Commodore Vic 20 in our basement, with its cassette-tape storage system. We later graduated to a Commodore 64.
But when I was in college, I still wrote my papers on a typewriter.
So I'm a digital immigrant, as are most of my peers and mentors. But the next generation of theologians are digital natives, and that reality is beginning to be felt in the theological guild--particularly in the role that the blogosphere plays in contemporary theological discourse. While there's all sorts of flippant, heart-on-sleeve religious blogging, there are also serious, rigorous theological conversations that are conducted in the blogosphere. Granted, I think digital natives perhaps overestimate the significance of the theological blogosphere: given its selectivity and less-than-representative participation, it's easy to confuse a "hot" topic or book in the theological blogosphere as if it were "hot" in the theological academy more widely. So the blogosphere is prone to a bit of myopia and over-estimation. However, that doesn't mean there aren't significant conversations happening in the theoblogical sphere, and I suspect we'll start to see this affect the shape of wider discourse in the guild. (No tweeting yet, thank heavens!)
For a recent example of what I'm talking about, consider the theological energy generated by the essay, "Kingdom-World-Church: Some Provisional Theses," co-authored by Nathan R. Kerr, Ry O. Siggelkow, and Halden Doerge. In addition to generating over 120 (mostly serious, thoughtful) comments, within just a few days it has also spawned responses at An und für sich, The Fire and the Rose, The Other Journal, and my own response at The Church and Postmodern Culture (along with another by Geoff Holsclaw). For the most part the tone has been constructive but forthright, illuminating and helpful. A good example of what the theological blogosphere could be.
Wednesday, June 09, 2010
Perhaps nothing illustrates this instrumentalization more powerfully than Nike's new World Cup ad in which the world's football great are shown to be motivated by either the quest for glory or the fear of shame. Rooney and Ronaldo are (probably correctly) portrayed as playing for the acquisition of women and wealth and worldwide adulation--goods external to the game itself. The commercial is a case study in everything Hoffman shows is wrong with sport.
Tuesday, June 08, 2010
I can imagine a marvelous course beginning with Aristotle, hinging on Augustine, through Descartes, engaging Jonathan Edwards, then culminating with Wallace's critique of Richard Taylor, perhaps with a string of stories from Oblivion woven throughout the course. Could be great fun.
How strange, then, that such a cultural force has received scant attention from Christian cultural critics--particularly given the way that evangelical Christianity (as with so many other spheres of American civil religion) has eagerly hooked its wagon to this great behemoth (think Tim Tebow).
But finally we have a book that's beginning to change that: Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports by Shirl James Hoffman should be required reading for--well, pretty much everybody. Combining historical narrative (on Christianity and sport from the ancient era to the present), social scientific analysis, and philosophical reflection, Hoffman diagnoses and prophetically criticizes the overwhelming assimilation of American evangelicalism to the distorted culture of "sport" as its come to be (distinguished from the good impulse of "play," which he deeply affirms). By merely instrumentalizing sport in order to "share the Gospel," Christian athletes' evangelistic organizations are the pinnacle of this assimilation. The outcome is another Gospel which Hoffman, following Frank Deford, describes as "Sportianity" and merely serves "as public chaplain to the sports establishment." (With lines like that, one could argue that Hoffman's book is a kind of athletic rendition of the argument critique in Hauerwas and Willimon's Resident Aliens.)
I'm not saying this is the perfect book on the theme. For example, I wish that Hoffman was working with a more robust ecclesiology (its lack is a signal that this is still very much an "evangelical" book). But given the importance of its argument and the insightfulness of its critique, I won't fixate on my worries or criticisms. As it stands, this is the best we have: its very good, very important, and should be read widely.
Monday, June 07, 2010
First, all the clichés are true: "They grow up so fast." "It seems like only yesterday that you were getting on the bus for kindergarten." "I still feel like a kid myself." &tc. I think this affirmation of cliché is one of the great themes in David Foster Wallace's corpus, especially in Infinite Jest, but also in the posthumous stories and essays that have appeared since his untimely death. We have a tendency to identify something as a cliché in order to dismiss it, whereas in fact clichés have the force they do precisely because they are the remnants of proverbs that stand up across generations of experience. In a way analogous to Kurt Cobain's famous quip, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you," so too: Just because it's cliché doesn't mean it's not true. We're still reeling from the experience of what generations of parents have discovered, uttering those phrases which have become our cliches.
Second, I have a new appreciation for our risk-taking God of love. As our oldest prepares to set out from the nest, so to speak, we have a profound sense of our limits and finitude (and a new appreciation for prayer!). And in what is probably a heretical analogy, I can't help thinking of that creational picture as an analogue: When God creates the world, he takes the risk of entrusting its care to humanity. He lets go. He made room for mistakes. He gave way and gave over his creation to imperfect creatures. He didn't abandon them, but neither did he keep them tethered to marionette-like strings of control (their fall was evidence of that). Love takes risks, love makes room, love gives way, love lets go--even when that means commissioning the beloved at the risk of failure. Our acquired penchant for control and safety does not sit well with such risk-taking. But such risk-taking is the flipside of trust, the flipside of faith. Thus even our love-endued risking cannot be unhooked from hope. And so even for fretting parents perched on an unfamiliar precipice, these three remain: faith, hope, love.
[I should say just one word about the cigar in the photo above! One of the traditions at our Christian high school is for the graduating seniors to emerge from the graduation ceremony, gather together, and enjoy a stogie--a little bit of ritualized transgression. In this photo Dad's just trying to show the lad how it's done.]
Sunday, June 06, 2010
However, despite its potential as a heuristic that can break open the narrative arc of Scripture, the familiarity and ubiquity of the C-F-R formula in some circles can also dull its potential. So as a way to revitalize this vision, this past spring Comment magazine commissioned a project meant to re-articulate this vision. The hub of the project was Gideon Strauss' wonderful Manifesto that proclaimed the vision, not just in terms of creation-fall-redemption, but wonder, heartbreak, and hope.
They then commissioned three related essays: Albert Wolters on creation, David Naugle on the Fall, and yours truly on Redemption. All three essays are now available online.
I was particularly grateful to be able to contribute since Desiring the Kingdom might give the impression that I'm rejecting "worldview" approaches en toto. But I'm not, and I hope this contribution makes that clear. Here's a little sample from the conclusion of my essay:
But what does redemption look like? For the most part, you'll know it when you see it, because it looks like flourishing. It looks like a life well lived. It looks like the way things are supposed to be. It looks like a well-cultivated orchard laden with fruit produced by ancient roots. It looks like labour that builds the soul and brings delight. It looks like an aged husband and wife laughing uproariously with their great-grandchildren. It looks like a dancer stretching her body to its limit, embodying a stunning beauty in muscles and sinews rippling with devotion. It looks like the graduate student hunched over a microscope, exploring nooks and crannies of God's micro-creation, looking for ways to undo the curse. It looks like abundance for all.
Redemption sounds like the surprising cadences of a Bach concerto whose rhythm seems to expand the soul. It sounds like an office that hums with a sense of harmony in mission, punctuated by collaborative laughter. It sounds like the grunts and cries of a tennis player whose blistering serve and liquid forehand are enactments of things we couldn't have dreamed possible. It sounds like the questions of a third grader whose teacher loves her enough to elicit and make room for a sanctified curiosity about God's good world. It even sounds like the spirited argument of a young couple who are discerning just what it means for their marriage to be a friendship that pictures the community God desires (and is).
Redemption smells like the oaky tease of a Napa Chardonnay that births anticipation in our taste buds. It smells like soil under our nails after labouring over peonies and gerber daisies. It smells like the steamy winter kitchen of a family together preparing for supper. It smells like the ancient wisdom of a book inherited from a grandfather, or that "outside smell" of the family dog in November. It smells like riding your bike to work on a foggy spring morning. It even smells like the salty pungence of hard work and that singular bouquet of odors that bathes the birth of a child.
Redemption tastes like a fall harvest yielded though loving labour and attentive care for soil and plant. It tastes like a Thanksgiving turkey whose very "turkeyness" comes to life from its own animal delight on a free range. It tastes like the delightful hoppy bitterness of an IPA shared with friends at the neighbourhood pub. It even tastes like eating your broccoli because your mother loves you enough to want you to eat well.
So redemption looks like the bodily poetry of Rafael Nadal and the boyish grin of Brett Favre on a good night; it sounds like the amorous giggles of Julia and Paul Child and smells like her kitchen; it reverberates like the deep anthems of Yo-Yo Ma's cello; it feels like the trembling metre of Auden's poetry or the spry delight of Updike's light verse; it looks like the compassionate care of Paul Farmer and Mother Theresa. Redemption can be spectacular and fabulous and (almost) triumphant.
But for the most part, Spirit-empowered redemption looks like what Raymond Carver calls "a small, good thing." It looks like our everyday work done well, out of love, in resonance with God's desire for his creation—so long as our on-the-ground labour is nested as part of a contribution to systems and structures of flourishing. It looks like doing our homework, making the kids' lunches for school, building with quality and a craftsman's devotion, and crafting a municipal budget that discerns what really matters and contributes to the common good. Of course, redemption is the fall of apartheid, but it's also the once-impossible friendships forged in its aftermath. It's an open seat on the bus for everyone, but it's also getting to know my neighbours who differ from me. It's nothing short of trying to change the world, but it starts in our homes, our churches, our neighbourhoods and our schools.
It should not surprise us that redemption will not always look triumphant. If Jesus comes as the second Adam who models redemptive culture making, then in our broken world such cultural labour will look cruciform. But it will also look like hope that is hungry for joy and delight.
Read all of "Redemption."
Wednesday, June 02, 2010
Dick was a man of few words out loud. But he could write like a dream, and he obviously was one of the great philosophers of our time. I think I only stood next to him two times. My favorite Rorty moment was early on when both of us had younger children--they must have been 13 and 14. We went to a Fourth of July function at Jack Levinson's house, and the kids were playing out in the yard. I can't remember whether I was sitting on the steps and Dick came up and sat down next to me, or whether Dick as on the steps. But I said, Hi, and he said, Hi. And that was it for a half hour. For half an hour. And about halfway through--no, after about five minutes, I guess; you know, it's very uncomfortable not to speak--I suddenly understood that there are those of us who are happiest when we can sit next to somebody and not feel constrained to make small talk. Dick had very little small talk and a lot of large talk.