Sunday, August 29, 2010

In Memoriam: Donald Bloesch

How strange. Just last week, while remembering the influence of Clark Pinnock on my theological pilgrimage, I off-handedly remarked that "Donald Bloesch is another figure who actually plays a towering role in my early formation, though I don't think anybody could know that from the written record." And now, upon returning from vacation, I just got the sad news that Dr. Bloesch has also passed into his eternal rest in Christ, on August 24, 2010.

My memory of Dr. Bloesch is simply one of grace--warm, wise, hospitable grace. While attending Bible college in Dubuque, IA on the edge of the Mississippi river, I sometimes noted a guest at our "chapel" (a Plymouth Brethren assembly) on Sundays. Several of my professors would often be engaged in earnest conversation with this guest, and then one day my professors introduced me to him as Donald Bloesch ("Dr. Bloesch"). Though I was only an eager, anxious freshman, within a week, he had graciously invited me to attend one of his classes at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. And so I first dipped my toes into what would later be my vocation: philosophy of religion. I remember being spellbound as he lectured on William James' Varieties of Religious Experience, but it was our reading of Kierkegaard's Philosophical Fragments that made an indelible impression on me. Indeed, I could honestly say I've been drinking from wells dug in that course for my entire career. The next semester I recall sitting in on his Christology class, encountering figures that were anathema at my Bible college (Barth, Forsyth, Tillich), but read through Bloesch's sympathetic, critical lens--and always with a view to "faith and practice," to what he so rightly called "piety," rescuing the word from its cultured despisers.

Unlike most instances in which we feel like we know someone from their books, in the case of Dr. Bloesch I knew the man before I knew his books. And so when I came to his books later on, they were suffused with his grace and warmth and pastoral concern. Here I was reading a theologian who had also welcomed me into his home, to meet his wife, to enjoy a meal with them.

So I knew it was this same care and concern that later motivated him to write me a rather stern, alarmed letter when Dr. Bloesch felt I was becoming captive to "postmodern" extremes (Bloesch was always the champion of the moderate middle way!). But we maintained a cordial correspondence, and I was both moved and blessed when he would graciously send me a copy of each new volume of his "Christian Foundations" systematics, which still have a prominent place on the shelves in my office. (Like Pinnock, I felt that Bloesch's evangelical pietism really hit its stride in the volume on pneumatology, signaled in that very first volume, A Theology of Word & Spirit.)

And so it is with sadness, but profound gratitude, that I remember the witness, testimony, and gracious piety of one of my teachers, Dr. Donald Bloesch. May he rest in peace.

Science and the Spirit now available

I recently received my copies of Science and the Spirit: A Pentecostal Engagement with the Sciences, the book I co-edited with Amos Yong (published by Indiana University Press). Gathering an interdisciplinary range of scholars from the sciences and humanities, I hope the volume signals a new stage of maturity for Pentecostal scholarship, without that meaning that Pentecostals have simply learned to tack to the winds of dominant orthodoxies. There is both give and take in this engagement.

A peek at the Table of Contents provides a look inside:

Table of Contents


Introduction: Science and the Spirit—Questions and Possibilities in the Pentecostal Engagement with Science / James K. A. Smith and Amos Yong

Part 1. What Hath Azusa Street to Do with MIT? The Big Questions

1. What Have the Galapagos to Do with Jerusalem? Scientific Knowledge in Theological Context / Telford Work

2. Is There Room for Surprise in the Natural World? Naturalism, the Supernatural, and Pentecostal Spirituality / James K. A. Smith

3. How Does God Do What God Does? Pentecostal-Charismatic Perspectives on Divine Action in Dialogue with Modern Science / Amos Yong

Part 2. The Spirit of Matter: Questions and Possibilities in the Natural Sciences

4. Does God Have a Place in the Physical Universe? Physics and the Quest for the Holy Spirit / Wolfgang Vondey

5. Does the Spirit Create through Evolutionary Processes? Pentecostals and Biological Evolution / Steve Badger and Mike Tenneson

6. Can Religious Experience Be Reduced to Brain Activity? The Place and Significance of Pentecostal Narrative / Frederick L. Ware

7. Serotonin and Spirit: Can There Be a Holistic Pentecostal Approach to Mental Illness? / Donald F. Calbreath

Part 3. The Human Spirit: Questions and Possibilities in the Social and Technological Sciences

8. Can Social Scientists Dance? Participating in Science, Spirit, and Social Reconstruction as an Anthropologist and Afropentecostal / Craig Scandrett-Leatherman

9. Is Integrating Spirit and Sociology Possible? A Postmodern Research Odyssey / Margaret M. Poloma

10. Is There Room for the Spirit in a World Dominated by Technology? Pentecostals and the Technological World / Dennis W. Cheek

Friday, August 20, 2010

Desiring the Kingdom App?

OK, this is probably the fruit of a humid Friday afternoon and too much coffee at The Sparrows. It's also probably completely obnoxious and delusional. But I just found myself sketching out the architecture and content for what could be an iPhone app related to Desiring the Kingdom. (I think I was inspired by Gary Shteyngart's app for Super Sad True Love Story.)

So I've got the idea, content, and structure in mind, but absolutely no ability or expertise to actually execute the idea. Any interested designer/programmer/developer out there? This would certainly not be a money-making venture, but if any collaborator happens to be interested, email me.

[By Monday I will probably have thought better of this and deleted this post, so you might want to respond soon. ;-) ]

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Memoir, Testimony, and Writing Theology

As I noted earlier, I'm in a period of thinking through issues of genre and style in theological and philosophical writing, and thus I'm labeling my blog reflections on these matters "Notes toward a new genre." My first post generated more email responses than usual, so I'm encouraged that others are also thinking through these issues. It makes me hopeful that we can expect a next generation of theological writing to be more experimental in this respect.

While it's been writing How Worship Works (volume 2 of Cultural Liturgies) that has been the most recent catalyst for this, I might suggest that, on these matters, Thinking in Tongues is sort of a halfway point between Desiring the Kingdom and How Worship Works. In Thinking in Tongues, this arises when I try to take seriously the role of testimony in pentecostal worship and spirituality. It has been suggested that testimony is "the poetry of Pentecostal experience," and I wanted to try to have a philosophical and theological methodology that honored the importance and distinctiveness of testimony in pentecostal/charismatic spirituality. So in the "Introduction" to Thinking in Tongues (which you can read in an excerpt at the Eerdmans site), I argue that we need a genre along the lines of memoir in order to do justice to the irreducibility of testimony:

Thus one might suggest that memoir is the consummate pentecostal theological genre. Or at the very least, something like testimony is integral to even pentecostal theorizing, even if this is not properly “academic.” In fact, this is just one performative way that pentecostal theoretical practice evinces an aspect implicit in pentecostal spirituality: against the Enlightenment ideal of the impersonal, impartial, abstract “knower,” pentecostalism affirms an affective, involved, confessing knower who “knows that she knows that she knows” because of her story, because of a narrative, she can tell about a relationship with God (p. xxiii).

As some attempt to actually undertake this, the book includes both personal testimonies as well as "novel-ish" accounts of Pentecostal worship and spirituality. Here's a little sample from the opening of chapter 3 ("Storied Experience: A Pentecostal Epistemology"):

As she made her way to the altar, Denise carried herself in a way that indicated she already knew her story was “irrational.” Her steps were halting and timid, her eyes cast downward in a shaded look of mild embarrassment— as if the criteria for rational discourse were perched on her shoulder like little devils, mocking her and trying to dissuade her from testifying to such nonsense. Indeed, it wasn’t just the ethereal taunts of demonic dissuaders she was contending with; she could easily recall the flesh-and-blood skepticism of her father and sister as she had relayed the story to them earlier that week. Through a million little channels Denise had absorbed enough of the wider culture’s plausibility structures to “know” that this was crazy. And yet here she was, making her way forward in response to the pastor’s invitation for the congregation to share their “God sightings” for the past week — their stories and testimonies about where they saw the Spirit living and active in their day-to-day lives. Granted, this Sunday evening ritual could easily devolve into a parade of tales about divinely secured parking spaces or supernatural deliverance from failing to do one’s homework. But the “testimony service” was woven into the very warp and woof of discipleship at Cornerstone Vineyard Fellowship — these stories of faith were as important as any Sunday morning sermon.

Grasping the microphone handed to her by the pastor, Denise has to catch her breath and clear her throat.While a week ago she couldn’t imagine standing in front of 300 people and speaking in public, tonight she can’t imagine not doing it.

“Um, hi. I’m Denise,” she says just a little bit too loudly, the mic squealing mildly in response. Jolted, she holds the microphone away from her face and pauses again before continuing — the pastor nodding and smiling in encouragement, a hand on her shoulder.

“Uh, I’ve never done this before. But when Pastor invited us to share our ‘God sightings,’ the Spirit wouldn’t let me sit on my hands any longer. I just have to tell you — I have to tell someone, everyone.” Her words are met with various echoes of “Yes, Lord!” and “Amen!”

“As some of you know, Gary and I have been married for almost eight years. And maybe you noticed that we don’t have any children.” There is a crackle in her voice but she continues: “I’ve shared with some of the ladies at Bible study how much trouble we’ve had getting pregnant. It’s been so hard, and so long.” The cacophony of prayers and shouts settles down to a rapt silence as Denise continues her story.

“And I’ve gotta be honest with you: I’ve been pretty mad at God. There are all these women in the Bible who couldn’t have babies. But it seems like their stories always ended with a miracle. ‘Where’s my miracle?’ I kept asking God.” Her voice has fallen off, her face has dropped, and her shoulders are beginning to tremble. The pastor inches closer and wraps her arm around Denise in comfort and encouragement. The congregation’s attention is suspended in a bit of a netherworld, not sure where this story is going. Only rarely have “God sightings” been honest laments. But Denise takes a deep breath, wipes the mascara from her cheeks, and resumes her
story. Gary has joined her at her side.

“A few weeks ago at Bible study I had . . . well . . . a complete meltdown!” she announces in a tearful laugh. Others join in her mirth and some of the older ladies smile at one another knowingly. “I was just so frustrated and hopeless — and angry, to be honest. I was just so sad and so tired. But then sister Rose stopped everything and said, ‘We’ve gotta pray.’ And so all the ladies gathered round me, and laid their hands on me, and they prayed and prayed and prayed. It was as if they were lifting me on a blanket in their prayers and I fell back into them in the strangest feeling I’ve ever had. I heard sisters praying the names of Sarah and Hannah and Elizabeth and I so wanted their story to be my story. But I was too tired to believe it anymore — but I was also kinda too tired to not believe it. So I just let myself fall back into their prayers. I think I might have even fallen asleep!” Denise testifies with a sheepish grin. Gary smiles with her, his eyes fixed on the carpet, his hand trembling around her waist.

“When I woke up, I didn’t feel any different. A little embarrassed maybe. In fact, that’s why I didn’t come to church last Sunday. I was too embarrassed to see all those ladies again.” The ladies’ respond with puckered chins and frowns meant to be encouraging. “Anyway, I pretty much forgot about the whole thing. Or at least I tried to forget about the whole thing. It’s just so tiring to keep thinking about it.”

“But . . . ,” Denise begins, but her breath seems taken away. She resumes her story in a rapid, breathy falsetto, trying her best to get the words out: “Something was sorta wrong this past week—in a way that could be good, or really, really bad. Gary encouraged me to go to the doctor, so I had an appointment on Friday.” She’s now doubled over, shaking her head in disbelief, but then explodes up like a Jack-in-a-box and loudly proclaims, “I’m pregnant!” The words roll out of her in an ecstasy that tilts between joy and sorrow; she is overwhelmed and exhausted by the tale. Pastor and Gary have now enfolded her in an embrace, supporting her as the congregation erupts in shouts of praise and thanksgiving. But Denise has more to say.

“Some people didn’t believe me. When the doctor told me, I just had to tell him about the prayer meeting. He talked to me about hormone levels and stress. Even when I told my father and sister, they looked at me like I was a freak — like I didn’t know what I was talking about. But like
Brother Jack always says: ‘I know that I know that I know!’ I know that I know that I know that God was working my belly! And I don’t care what others think,” she adds, now falling back into the King James English of her upbringing. “I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able!”

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Clark Pinnock, 1937-2010

[Update: My apologies that the original feed listed the dates as 1950-2005; I inadvertently plugged in Grenz's dates.]

Many of us have intellectual debts that never surface, as it were. They are not the sorts of debts that one could track in the footnotes of our work. They are more submerged and subterranean than that. Such debts are often accumulated early on in one's formation; indeed, they are often catalytic influences that impacted us in a malleable, impressionable period when we were just beginning to think that theology or philosophy was our calling. And because we so often look on our younger selves with such "enlightened" disdain, we are--if we're honest with ourselves--often just a little embarrassed by these influences since we think we've "outgrown" them. And yet, without them, we wouldn't be who we are.

We are often awakened to such debts in tragic situations. When Stanley Grenz died so young (already five years ago?), I was reminded how much I owed to him, recalling the really pivotal experience of reading his little book, Revisioning Evangelical Theology, during my first year of graduate school. One would never guess from the footnotes of my books how much this little book set an agenda for my career. (This is partly why I was happy to endorse Steven Knowles' recent study, Beyond Evangelicalism: The Theological Methodology of Stanley J. Grenz, which begins to give Grenz his due.) Donald Bloesch is another figure who actually plays a towering role in my early formation, though I don't think anybody could know that from the written record.

The sad news of Clark Pinnock's death is a similar reminder and wake-up call to what I owe.

I first encountered Pinnock's work while at Bible college, specifically his early apologetic work in The Scripture Principle. I then recall a symposium on contemporary theology in Christianity Today, right around the same time, that featured him as a "progressive voice," and I found myself listening to him carefully. (I think the fact that he was Canadian also gave me a sense of implicit camaraderie.) While my professors were railing against him as a "liberal" (a charge that looks laughable from where I now sit!), I found in him a theologian willing to go where the truth led, rather than someone who felt compelled to think the same thing for 40 years. This spirit of faithful curiosity and disciplined exploration was captured marvelously in another book that impacted me more than I might want to admit: Barry Callen's intellectual biography, Clark Pinnock: Journey Toward Renewal. Callen painted a picture of a Christian thinker characterized by both humility and courage--a model that became iconic for me. Clark Pinnock was one of the saints.

I was especially encouraged that he was willing to follow the Spirit into foreign territory, and as I was making my pilgrimage to the pentecostal tradition, I remember hearing reports of Pinnock's visits to the renewal happening at Toronto's Airport Vineyard--a sure sign to other theologians that Pinnock had gone over the edge. But the fruit of his pilgrimage was Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit--a book that quite simply gave me hope.

While Pinnock and I would disagree on all sorts of matters, I'm grateful for his model of courageous, faithful curiosity in the service of Christ.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Physiognomy of Poetry

In Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty emphasizes the bodily nature of our language, ultimately claiming, "Words have a physiognomy." I was reminded of this when I read Ian McGilchrist's recent reflection, "Four Walls," in the July/August 2010 issue of Poetry:

Poetry engraves itself in the brain: it doesn’t just slip smoothly over the cortex as language normally does. It has all the graininess of life, as it rips into being from deep within the limbic system, the ancient seat of awareness and affective meaning.

Friday, August 13, 2010

On Writing Ethics (and Theology)

As I'm working on volume 2 of "Cultural Liturgies," I am spending a lot of time and energy on considerations of genre and style, particularly given the argument in Desiring the Kingdom: that we are affective, liturgical animals who are moved and shaped more fundamentally by the imagination than the intellect. (Proust's Contre Saint-Beuve is helping me out with this.) Indeed, as I've noted before, I am more and more inclined to think it is a travesty that so much theology is so horribly written. Thus I'm trying to craft How Worship Works as a genre pitched somewhere between a treatise and a novel, though I can't quite imagine (yet) what that might be.

So I was interested in Mark D. Jordan's recent essay, "Missing Scenes," in the latest issue of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin. Arguing that "forgotten forms of teaching need to be restored to the writing of Christian ethics," Jordan rightly notes:

Whatever the causes, the loss of represented scenes of instruction in Christian ethics is the loss of significant power to describe or shape our lives. Since the Reformation especially, academic writers of Christian ethics seem to peel off one after another of their most powerful genres. We'll give this set of forms to the novel. We'll delegate the slow discipline of formation to spiritual writing, to religious education, to homiletics, to sacramental theology. This knowledge will go to a new science called psychology, and that set of practices to psychotherapy or counseling. And in case anyone should still be tempted to write ethics beautifully, we'll create a condescending category for the "merely literary" essay as catch-all. What forms are left then to ethics proper? Some syllogistic skeletons, a few maxims or intuitions, the drone of the monologue, and a little flotilla of lifeboat cases. This does indeed assure boredom--and uselessness.

Monday, August 09, 2010

"The Good News" According to Mad Men

It's surely not an accident that in the episode entitled, "The Good News," Anna utters this beautiful announcement to Don Draper:
"I know everything about you. And I still love you."
Who among us doesn't long to hear that from someone? And isn't that exactly what God whispers, quietly, persistently, in the depths of our dark nights of the soul?

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Contra Critchley @ The Stone

Over at The Stone, Simon Critchley obliquely argues for the faith of the faithless under the rigors of love. In a rather Derridean fashion, he seems to suggest that somehow "traditional" believers have it easy, and that those who have faith but lack a transcendent object are somehow more faith-full, more radically trusting, because they lack "security" and "guarantee" for their (faithless, "nondenominational") faith.

But tell me again: how is it, exactly, that, say, the Christian's faith is "guaranteed" and "secured?" How does doctrinal specification take the heat off the undecidability of faith? Do you simply mean that they have hope? That seems quite a bit different than a secure guarantee. Even the hope for a "reward" (which, let's note for the record, is not generally the way Christians talk, despite what you might guess from journalistic sketches)--such a hope would be constantly subject to undecidability, even if it holds out hope for a kind of eschatological verification. But in the here-and-now, such verification is not forthcoming.

And it's not at all clear that doctrinal specification somehow lets faith off the hook of undecidability. It can, in fact, raise the stakes. Given the daily deluge of both horrendous, global evils and local, close-to-home heartbreak, faith that God is in Christ reconciling the world to himself is a belief that requires a certain madness, Kierkegaard would say. I don't see how some generic faith in "love" is any more difficult.

Critchley's argument, while rightly noting that those without "denominational" faith are nonetheless believers, bites off more than it warrants when he attempts to then valorize "faithless" faith as somehow more faith-full. He continues to work with a tired dichotomy and straw man: the faithless are portrayed as more faithful because they're less secure, they take more risks. But nowhere is this claim warranted; and I think one could straightforwardly argue that the opposite is true.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

James K.A. Smith @ GoodReads

I've been horribly delinquent about posting over at "What I'm Reading." I have a long shelf of books above my desk here that I've been meaning to blog about, but just haven't found the time--probably because I've lapsed into thinking each post needs to be a "review" rather than just an off-the-cuff take on what I've been reading.

As a way to get away from that, I've just signed up for a GoodReads account and will hope to post more regularly at (This is as close as I'm going to get to anything like Facebook!)

Monday, August 02, 2010

I Love in order to Understand: Newman on Imagination and Intellect

While I was working on Desiring the Kingdom, I led our college's Semester in Britain program, teaching a course entitled "Victorian Britain and Postmodern Culture." The course included units on Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites, William Morris, even Oscar Wilde. But the hinge of the course was a unit devoted to the Oxford Movement, with special focus on Cardinal Newman. The footnotes to Desiring the Kingdom don't do justice to the impact of this immersion on my thinking. But in Terry Eagleton's recent article on Newman in the London Review of Books, Eagleton highlights the overlap between my concerns and Newman's:

Militant atheists today regard religious faith as a question of subscribing to certain propositions about the world. Newman countered this theological ignorance, pervasive in his own time too, with the Romantic claim (and this from one of the towering intellects of the Victorian age) that ‘man is not a reasoning animal; he is a seeing, feeling, contemplating, acting animal … It is the concrete being that reasons.’ It is the imagination, he holds, which is primary in matters of faith. Yet this passionate subjectivity was never whimsical subjectivism. How could it be, in a Catholic thinker for whom faith and truth were communal and institutional rather than a matter of private intuition? Newman, like Kierkegaard, recognised that religious faith is a kind of love, and like love engages intellect, emotion, experience and imagination together. There is a ‘notional’ kind of knowledge, Newman argues in An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, by which he means a knowledge of abstract ideas, and there is ‘real’ assent, which involves one’s whole personality.