Friday, January 20, 2012

"Radical Orthodoxy and Political Theology": Grad Course @ Trinity College

It is an absolute honor and delight for me to have been recently appointed as Visiting Professor in the Faculty of Divinity at Trinity College, University of Toronto (and not just because Trinity is the fabled inspiration for The College of St. John & the Holy Ghost in Robertson Davies' novel, Rebel Angels!).

My first experience teaching there last summer was delightful: engaging faculty, a wonderful dean (David Neelands), and students from across the Toronto School of Theology--all while nestled in a historic college at the heart of the University of Toronto. The whole experience was a refreshing change from the environs of west Michigan and an opportunity to teach material I cant' tackle with undergraduates. So I'm very grateful to now have an ongoing relationship.

This will likely mean that I'll teach a graduate seminar each summer. For 2012, I'll be offering a course sort of "by request": "Radical Orthodoxy and Political Theology" (a description and initial syllabus are available via that link). Jeffrey Stout meets Graham Ward meets Saint Augustine. Should be great fun.

This will also be an opportunity to turn to the work I'll be doing for the third and final volume of my "Cultural Liturgies" trilogy, which will focus on political theology. Spring 2013 is a sabbatical term for me, and I'm just now finalizing plans for where we'll spend that. Given that it's currently 4 degrees in Grand Rapids, MI, someplace warm gets a certain priority in planning. Stay tuned.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Constrained to be Free: On "Freedom" Software

Is this what it's come to? Smart, creative adults needs to pay for software to save themselves from distraction by the internet? Apparently.

Pico Iyer's essay, "The Joy of Quiet," in last Sunday's Times mentioned software called "Freedom." The website bills the software thus:
Freedom is a simple productivity application that locks you away from the internet on Mac or Windows computers for up to eight hours at a time. Freedom frees you from distractions, allowing you time to write, analyze, code, or create. At the end of your offline period, Freedom allows you back on the internet. You can download Freedom immediately for 10 dollars, and a free trial is available.
It then goes on to list the writers who have positively praised Freedom software in various interviews, including Nora Ephron, Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers, Nick Hornby, Miranda July, and many others.

I'm sure others have already commented on the almost Pascalian irony here. Let me just note the obvious: The development of such software is, technically speaking (I'm not here to judge), the confirmation of the absence of virtue--that is, the absence of adequate internal dispositions to pursue the good and resist temptations away from that. In short, again technically speaking, such software is a corrective for the vice of sloth--but a wholly external corrective. Aquinas notes that law and virtue are sort of in inverse proportional relation to each other: the more virtuous I am (having good habits), the less the external constraint of law is necessary. Conversely, the more vicious I am, the more the force of law is necessary.

In this particular case, what has happened is that we have unwittingly imbibed habits of distraction: the material rhythms of an "online" life have inculcated in us patterns of behavior--and hence internal dispositions--to seek distraction. It's not that we lack habits; it's that we have acquired habits of distraction.

And so software that constricts me is called "Freedom."

Don't get me wrong: something about this thrills my Augustinian heart. As I've argued elsewhere, Augustine is one of the first to articulate the Christian understanding of freedom that is almost incomprehensible in our libertarian age: to be "free" is actually to be rightly constrained, to be empowered to choose the good. I am free just to the extent that I am a slave of Christ, and I am free just to the extent that the Spirit of God has so habituated me that I become "disposed" toward the good. "Sanctification" is sort of the extension of regeneration over time such that my habits are renewed. So it's ultimately not just submitting to an external law (though that's a start) but ultimately absorbing an internal reorientation.

So in some ways, to call this software "Freedom" is a kind of functional, unwitting Augustinianism. But I doubt its creators--or many of its users--are interested in signing up to be consistent Augustinians (cue young enthusiasm for Ron Paul here). But their willingness to submit to constraint in order to be free might be a backhanded clue to what it takes to be human.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Adele as Allegory

Because of her commercial success, some indie music snobs might miss the fact that Adele is one of the great female crooners of a generation. We bought my daughter a copy of her live performance at Royal Albert Hall for Christmas, but I think it's been in the CD player in my car since December 25. It is a masterful, captivating performance (despite the fact that she was suffering from a throat condition and would undergo surgery shortly after).

Just today it hit me how one of her classics of forlornness, "Someone Like You," can be heard allegorically--not only as a ballad of love lost, but as a wider meditation on loss and rejection. (David Foster Wallace, in his conversations with David Lipsky, said country music takes on a whole new meaning if you listen to it allegorically--even if the "you" in all those sad songs is heard as the "You" of the universe.) In the live performance she invites the audience to sing along, and given the sad, broken world that we live in, it's a song that everyone knows by heart.

This is not the Royal Albert Hall performance (there are a number of amateur recordings of that available), but a slightly different performance. Worth a listen. Or two.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

@C3Nashville Conference, March 1-3, 2012

I'll be joining a great line up folks for the upcoming C3 (Christ, Church, Culture) Conference hosted by the St. George's Institute in Nashville, TN on March 1-3, 2012. This conference has quickly built a strong reputation for bringing together people at the intersection of theology, ministry, the arts, and cultural engagement. I'll be joining other plenary speakers such as Kenda Creasy Dean, Makoto Fujimura, Andy Crouch, and George Carey. There are also a number of breakout workshops (I'll lead one). And it all kicks off with a tapas reception--what's not to love?

Monday, January 09, 2012

Favorite Reads 2011: Novels

Of the novels I read in 2011, here are the five that stand out in terms of their quality as well as their continued, lingering presence in my imagination:

5. Jonathan Franzen, Freedom.

I began 2011 by reading this novel in January. Much-discussed, people seem to either love it or hate it. I'm in the camp of the former, though I continue to think that Franzen holds an aloof, judgmental distance from his characters that makes it hard for readers to sympathize. (In fact, when I read his essay collection, The Discomfort Zone, later in the year, I thought Franzen's critique of Mann's "ironic condescension" could just as easily be leveled against Franzen). Nonetheless, Franzen remains a master of the contemporary family epic and an astute observer of our present.

4. Richard Price, Kate Vaiden.

I'll admit I'm inclined to lump North Carolina authors into my "Thomas Wolfe" basket. That's perhaps not always fair, but I think in this case it is entirely right to see Kate Vaiden as Reynold Price's female analogue to Wolfe's Eugene Gant. Price's novel is a Bildungsroman with young Kate Vaiden at its center, tracking her afflicted sojourns in North Carolina and Virginia. Kate is surely one of the strongest female characters in 20th-century American fiction, despite all she suffers.

3. James Kelman, Kieron Smith, Boy.

In the tradition of hyper-realism, this entire novel is narrated by a young Scottish boy of 11 or 12, growing up in working class Glasgow in what seems to be the late 60s or early 70s. It is written in dialect and only avails itself of the lexicon such a lad might have at his disposal. (Though I don't think Kelman ever plausibly comes up with a trope as to why a young working class boy is putting all of this down on paper, and is able to sustain the exercise over enough time to generate a book of over 400 pages--especially since Kieron is no prodigy. While the distractions of a digital age make something like this unbelievable, by setting it in an age of pre-digital simplicity, Kelman perhaps asks us to suspend a little less disbelief.)

When I first started it, the reproduction of the dialect in print was throwing me for a loop (shades of The Sound and the Fury). So I went online looking for YouTube videos that would help me hear the lilt of the Glaswegian accent. I then went back to the book and read out loud for a few pages to help me then internalize the voice I needed to hear in my head as I read silently.

The story is both poignant and charming, while also facing up to the realities of urban life probably just a hair above poverty. You can't help falling in love with Kieron--who, while not averse to being a trouble-maker, is also sweet enough to use little asterisks to help cover up the "dirty words" he and his friends use. Indeed, Kelman probably opens himself to the charge of romanticism since this young lad is just so loveable with such a rich interior
ity. (Here again: I worry that the great loss of our Facebooked age is that 12-year-olds have less occasion to cultivate such interiority.)

Kieron's honesty and forthrightness are endearing. Consider this wonderful passage where he's beginning to notice his world in new ways (and try to hear this in a Glaswegian brogue):
Oh but Lyndsey Farel, she was Sandra's pal. People wanted to f**l off her too but she did not let them. I was down at the shops and saw her. She was looking at me. I thought she was. Another boy was there and we were smoking a fag. She had black hair coming down both sides of her eyes, and her skirt and her legs just like the way she walked and then how she turned round and just how her skirt stuck out, and just swinging. Some lasses' skirts just done that and it looked good just how it went, I thought it was good.
Kieron, with his Irish sounding name, also struggles with the religious tensions of
Glasgow, between Protestants and Catholics ("Papes"). Kieron feels like that line runs right through him: that despite being a Protestant, he might actually be a Pape, since he feels drawn to the material expressions of faith that the "RC's" seem to follow. This suspicion sneaks up on him when he finds himself alone at Sunday School, which again shows Kelman's masterful ability to get at the interiority of a boy in ways Proust could never do:
A bench was there and I sat on it. It was funny how it was just me and I was at the Sunday School and nobody else was. Out of everybody that was all my age only it was me. How come? It was just a thing and I was thinking about it. Then all other stuff. And a secret wee thing how really if I was a Pape. That was a wee thing I used to think. If I was one and did not know it so I was not going to Chapel but just to Church. I should have been going to Chapel but was not. Because I did not know. Because nobody told me. If I did not know. So I could not do it.
The novel left me with a longing to see Kieron continue to grow, hoping I could bump into him today.

2. Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding.

One of this year's "it" novels, but very deserving of the attention and praise. (And the backstory of its long road to publication is scintillating in itself. In fact, Keith Gessen's Vanity Fair article was so engrossing they turned it into an e-book.)

Like Franzen, Harbach is at once literary and eminently readable--indeed, this was something of a page-turner read for me. Like Franzen, Harbach deftly crafts characters with depth who live and move and have their own being; unlike Franzen, you get the sense that the author might actually have some charity toward them. While it's a campus novel, revolving around baseball, with a college president who is a Melville scholar and who has just embarked on his very first gay relationship (with a student, no less!), none of these themes dominate the story. That, in itself, shows remarkable maturity: in the hands of some recent MFA graduate, any one of those could have become a gimmicky spine for the story. Instead, I read the novel as a long meditation on the vexing self-consciousness that plagues late modern culture. And in that respect, I see Harbach very much in the tradition of David Foster Wallace.

1. Shusako Endo, Silence.

Wittgenstein famously concluded his Tractatus with an injunction: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." My relationship to Endo's Silence is of that order: I'm hesitant to even try to speak about how this story affected me. It was my Lenten reading for 2011, and I'm seriously considering making it an annual discipline.

The story of a Jesuit missionary sent to Japan in the 17th century, some have suggested certain parallels to Graham Green's The Power and the Glory. Endo's theme is something like the depth and extent of Christ's identification with sinful humanity--that the incarnation was not just an assumption of humanity but of suffering. At the center of the story are layered considerations of solidarity. Might Christ even be willing to suffer the rejection of his followers? And what if his followers, out of solidarity with the poor and the oppressed, could undo their oppression by rejecting Christ? Then could imaging Christ actually look like rejecting him? Is this a temptation, or a way for which we lack the courage? Is martyrdom something we can impose on others? These are only a few of the tortured questions the novel evokes.

But please don't mistake this for a "religious" novel. It is human, all too human in its evocation of these themes.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Favorite Reads 2011: Nonfiction

5. Val Ross, Robertson Davies: A Portrait in Mosaic.

[From my GoodReads review] Since reading Fifth Business, Davies has stood, for me, as the quintessential Canadian man of letters (I realize I'm just catching up with the 1970s in this respect). His emergence from a village in southwestern Ontario resonates with me, of course--though his emergence was to the rarefied world of Upper Canada College, Queen's University, Oxford, and ultimately Massey College at the University of Toronto. But there is something about the Protestant Canadian village that one can never leave behind. As I've often said, "You can take the boy out of Embro, but you can't take Embro out of the boy." The entire Deptford trilogy might be about exactly that point.

Val Ross' quasi-biography employs the same method as Nelson Aldrich's potrait of George Plimpton in George, Being George: George Plimpton's Life as Told, Admired, Deplored, and Envied by More Than 300 Friends, Relatives, Lovers, Acquaintances, Rivals--and a Few Unappreciative ...--which I reviewed a few years ago (see ). The strategy is to compile snippets of conversations and testimonies from a wide array of family, friends, and acquaintances, organized into a chronological survey of a life. It is perhaps the ideal way for a journalist to write a sort of biography, and Ross undertook herculean labor in tracking down sources. (Sadly, Ross died of cancer before this book was published.)

The result is a deceptively easy read that breezes through Davies life, yet with a rich cumulative effect. I'm now picking up The Manticore.

4. Selected Letters of Thomas Wolfe.

Edited by his former agent, Elizabeth Nowell, these letters are charged with the same frenetic energy as his fiction. And given the range from his youth until just a couple of days before his untimely death, they also function as an ersatz autobiography.

Wolfe's candor and sincerity go a long ways toward making up for his narcissism and insecurity. His account of critics and reviewers will surely resonate with anyone who has taken the risk of putting their thoughts in print (noting "that one of the pleasantest occupations of a great many people in this world is to shoot down a whole regiment of wooden soldiers, and then return triumphant from the wars, saying, 'we have met the enemy and they are ours'").

But most interesting are the glimpses into the creative process, the sheer labor of writing, the manic highs and deep lows that attend the process. Wolfe's work ethic was impeccable--none of this "waiting for the muse" mythology, sitting around waiting for inspiration. Wolfe was a workhouse of a writer, a lunchbox creator who punched the clock of discipline.

For more, see my earlier blogs on this book here and here.

3. Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

Everything I had expected and hoped it would be. See my comments from July for a more detailed reaction.

I have long been fascinated by the poles, particularly the South Pole because of its proximity to Cape Horn, which also holds a strange enchantment for me. Hitting upon this book in a bargain bin was a wonderful surprise for me. The book is really two-in-one, inverted to one another, with different covers front and back--so each cover is actually the "front" of the other book. More importantly, Kolbert and Spufford have done a marvelous job selecting and editing pieces from the history of exploration in both poles. To be able to read the waves of attempts to reach the pole in quick succession is a peculiar but affecting experience. I also think this book is a treasure trove for those thinking about leadership (as Nancy Koehn showed in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago).

My bias is towards the Antarctic: here you'll find selections from Cook, Wilson, Shackleton, Amundsen, and Scott, along with the classic tale of Scott's catastrophic return to Antarctica as told by Cherry-Garrard. In recounting the "Winter Journey," a sort of scientific side-exploration before "the Polar Journey" to the pole itself, Cherry-Garrard is poignant in his understatement as he recalls his companions, Birdie and Bill:
In civilization men are taken at their own valuation because there are so many ways of concealment, and there is so little time, perhaps even so little understanding. Not so down South. These two men went through the Winter Journey and lived: later they went through the Polar Journey and died. They were gold, pure, shining, unalloyed. Words cannot express how good their companionship was.

Through all these days, and those which were to follow, the worst I suppose in their dark severity that men have ever come through alive, no single hasty or angry word passed their lips. When, later, we were sure, so far as we can be sure of anything, that we must die, they were cheerful, and so far as I can judge their songs and cheery words were quite unforced. Nor were they ever flurried, though always as quick as the conditions would allow in moments of emergency. It is hard that often such men must go first when others far less worthy remain. [...]

I am not going to pretend that this was anything but a ghastly journey, made bearable and even pleasant to look back upon by the qualities of my two companions who have gone.
Spufford's own introduction is a gem in its own right. He is an excellent writer and doesn't shrink from the solemn, almost sermonic tone that we find in the journals themselves. For example, he confronts the reader and asks:
Which are you? Are you a Captain Scott, tense, anxious, man-hauling your way through the snow by main force yet describing it brilliantly afterwards, relying for your authority on military rank and charm? Are you a Shackleton, with exactly the same prejudice against dog-sledging as Scott, having learned it with him on the same disastrous journey in 1902, but allied to a wonderfully supple gift for managing people, maternally kind when you could be, unhesitatingly ruthless when you had to be? Are you Amundsen, driven, impeccably self-educated in polar technique, yet far more of a polar performance artist than a word man, and so best appreciated ever after by skiers, mountaineers, ice athletes who can dance through the same moves he made, on his way to the Pole in 1912? Are you, far more obscurely, a Shirase, scarcely noticed by the main contenders for the Pole when he turned up in the Ross Sea in 1912, yet determined to be there, to make a start?

1. Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson.

Those close to me are sick of hearing about this book. And indeed, what hasn't already been said about it, surely the most-reviewed book of 2011? I can only say that I was--and continue to be--deeply affected by this book. It was discomforting and inspiring. While Isaacson's prose is pedestrian, the story--and Jobs as the protagonist--moves on its own. Here is a conflicted character no novelist could have dreamed up. I also think some of my fascination stemmed from the fact that the history of Apple, and the history of personal computing, is pretty much parallel with my own history. I also deeply resonated with Jobs' aesthetic sensibilities--his vision for holistic production, concurrent engineering, and a beautiful simplicity.

Perhaps above all I came away astounded by an energy for innovation and creativity that makes the academy look dowdy and conservative. We scholars like to fancy ourselves radicals, on the front lines, on the cutting edge--but the truth be told we are inherently conservative animals who don't want anyone to mess with the status quo of tenure and staid rhythms of the university as we know it. At points I was almost sheepish as I looked at my own boring, plodding preference for comfort in contrast to the bold innovation that sustained this generation of college dropouts. The book has stayed with me, not always in ways that I like.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Epiphanies: Favorite Poems and Poets, 2011

Today, Ephiphany, is a fitting day to briefly highlight the poets I spent some time with in 2011, since I'll begin with a poem on just that.

5. My subscription to Poetry is a primary source for new poetry in the house (along with their fantastic mobile app while I'm on the road). A favorite from this past year was Joanne Mackowski, including this one:


A momentary rupture to the vision:
the wavering limbs of a birch fashion

the fluttering hem of the deity’s garment,
the cooling cup of coffee the ocean the deity

waltzes across. This is enough—but sometimes
the deity’s heady ta-da coaxes the cherries

in our mental slot machine to line up, and
our brains summon flickering silver like

salmon spawning a river; the jury decides
in our favor, and we’re free to see, for now.

A flaw swells from the facets of a day, increasing
the day’s value; a freakish postage stamp mails

our envelope outside time; hairy, claw-like
magnolia buds bloom from bare branches;

and the deity pops up again like a girl from
a giant cake. O deity: you transfixing transgressor,

translating back and forth on the border
without a passport. Fleeing revolutions

of same-old simultaneous boredom and
boredom, we hoard epiphanies under the bed,

stuff them in jars and bury them in the backyard;
we cram our closet with sunrise; prop up our feet

and drink gallons of wow!; we visit the doctor
because all this is raising the blood’s levels of

c6H3(OH)2CHOHCH2NHCH3, the heart caught
in the deity’s hem and haw, the oh unfurling

from our chest like a bee from our cup of coffee,
an autochthonous greeting: there. Who saw it?

4. Simon Armitage is a longtime favorite, so of course I gobbled up Seeing Stars, which did not disappoint--though I do need to spend some more time with it.

3. One of those "where-have-you-been?" discoveries that are really a self-indictment (where-have-I-been?): the Canadian poet P.K. Page, particularly her collection Cosmologies: Poems Selected and New. The book is published by David R. Godine, a wonderful publisher of poetry whose devotion to the craft is reflected in the attention to material detail in all of their books. Page seems influenced by Neruda, perhaps. But in another sense, she feels like Wordsworth crossed with a hint of Baudelaire--a nature poetry of modernity. Consider just this sample:

2. If Page is Wordsworth meets Baudelaire, then Sarah Lindsay might be Keats crossed with Charles Darwin. A poet of nature who is more specifically a poet of the animal--the poet as zoologist. Both of her collections, Primate Behavior and Twigs & Knucklebones, are delightful and pensive, attentive to the world in all of its beauty and brokenness.

1. The poetry collection that has stuck with me the most from 2011 is Ted Hughes reframing of Shakespeare in Essential Shakespeare--I roundly praised just recently on this blog.

Next up (as soon as I can get to it): Nonfiction, then Novels.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

The Kids Are Not All Right (cross-posting)

[I'm here cross-posting from The Twelve about a unique research opportunity on youth spirituality and worship. "Favorite Reads: 2011 Edition" will resume soon.]

Do me a favor: Promise me you'll read this post with The National's "Conversation 16" video playing in the background. Don't try to exegete the lyrics, just let it rattle and hum a couple of times through. If you're looking for a more adventuresome video version, try this (advanced warning: zombie ahead!).

The kids are not all right. That is the evidence-based, data-driven picture that is emerging from sociologist Christian Smith's National Study of Youth and Religion. His account of the paucity of moral reasoning among twentysomethings can't be chalked up as mere grumpy-old-man harumphing about "those damn kids" or a reactionary conservative harangue about godless "secular" America. Smith's longitudinal study provides a deeply worrisome snapshot of the state of spiritual maturity and moral reflection among millenials. Indded, I found the first chapter of his latest book, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, to be positively harrowing in its account of how these young people are "morally adrift." But as Smith is at pains to emphasize: the point isn't to demonize twentysomethings; the point is for the rest of us to look in the mirror and ask ourselves how we produced this generation.

Earlier volumes (Soul Searching and Souls in Transition) did the same with respect to religious understanding and spiritual maturity. While the study considers young people from various religions and those without any, the implications for Christian ministry were especially challenging (explored with verve and wisdom by Kenda Creasy Dean in Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teens is Telling the Church). The "faith" that young Christians were learning (often from age-segmented youth ministries) was not trinitarian Christian faith but rather "moralistic therapuetic deism": a strange deity who embraces antimonies and paradox, who is both a legalist and a great big bubble gum machine in the sky--the perfect god for American civil religion, who judges premarital sex but is enough of a big teddy bear to also let it slide, because really, he just wants you to be happy. The god of moralistic therapeutic deism is a lot like Oprah, it turns out.

And if that's the god that our young people worship, we need to ask ourselves: What have we done? As Dean puts it, this is an indictment of the church, not teenagers.

This is why I think Bert Polman's upcoming seminar (June 18-22, 2012), "Singing What We Believe: Theology & Hymn Texts," is such an excellent, timely opportunity for a blend of scholars and practitioners to spend some time together thinking about these issues. For maybe it's at least partly the case that young people have been sung into the moralistic therapeutic deistic faith. Here's a description of the seminar:

Congregational songs have often been called the lay persons’ “handbook of theology” as “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” have a unique mix of doxa (worship) and logia (teaching) which shape and express the life of Christians. This seminar will explore initially the theology of hymn texts, based on an analysis of some 250 classic hymn lyrics and a similar number of contemporary Praise-Worship texts. Then the seminar participants will discuss the relationship between the theological themes of such texts and the prevalence of what sociologists of religion (Christian Smith, et al) have termed “moralistic therapeutic deism.” In other words, this interdisciplinary seminar will focus not only on doxa and logia but also onpraxis, and is expected to raise issues about current religious convictions and practices of Christians.

Do consider applying (by February 1)!

Monday, January 02, 2012

Favorite Reads 2011: Short Stories

Twas the year of New Yorker stories for me, I guess. While I dabbled in some other collections (Hemmingway, Alice Munro), here are the five stories that made a dent on my imagination this past year (all published in the New Yorker):

5. Lauren Groff, "Above and Below." A rather minimalist tale of a Florida runaway. Excellent writing. I'm hoping this is a first taste of what will be a novel.

4. Ron Rash, "The Trusty." A Thomas Wolfe-ish tale of a break from a chain gang in North Carolina. A constant sense of foreboding takes a surprising turn at the very end.

3. George Saunders, "Home." I've blogged about this one already.

2. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, "Gilgul." It's funny: when I first started reading this, I hadn't paid attention to the author and sort of assumed it was a story by Amos Oz. It is an Israeli story in which a man encounters a gypsy fortune teller after the death of his father. Early in the story he powerfully recounts the sensation upon his father's death:
The shock of it. He, Ravitch, who had always thought his mind inviolable, had naively conceived of depression as merely a state of being very sad. The trembling of his hands and the motor roaring in the back of his skull had enlightened him. Clinical depression, a succession of doctors had explained gravely, patiently, defining his suffering. Not uncommon under the circumstances. Not severe enough for hospitalization. A cocktail of various pills, taken over three months, had rid him of the worst symptoms. Time and new habits would undoubtedly assuage his nocturnal agitation. What was left was simply the feeling of being scooped out, hollow. No other words for it. But what did it portend?
1. George Saunders, "Tenth of December." This is an incredible story. Deeply affecting. An excellent example of free indirect speech across two different protagonists whose stories eventually intertwine: a pudgy, dorky, but imaginative young boy, marginalized by his difference, and an older man suffering from an illness that drives him to the brink. Saunders, who is a gifted comic writer, here masters a deep sense of hope without bathos.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Favorite Reads 2011: Theology for Christian Scholars

I don't usually highlight my "professional" reading in these annual retrospectives, but this year I read three theology books that stood out in a unique way. These are books that I would be enthused to give to friends and colleagues. In particular, it struck me that these three books could be very profitably read by Christian scholars from across the disciplines, and each of them would be an excellent candidate for a kind of "One Book, One Campus" program at Christian colleges & universities. Each of them would be sources of renewal for Christian colleges and universities. They would help us recognize wrong turns we've made and unveil problematic assumptions we've unwittingly taken on board. Each of the books also provides a constructive way forward through tensions and challenges that affect the very foundations of contemporary Christian higher education.

So without further ado, I commend to you three important books:

For a couple of months after reading this, I was like the Ancient Mariner, button-holing anybody who would listen and pressing upon them the virtues of this outstanding book. Billings points out the paucity of both "conservative" and "progressive" approaches to reading Scripture insofar as they fail to be rooted in the historical Christian practice of theological interpretation. Billings' prose is clear and accessible for wide audiences, and his argument is irenic without pulling any punches. This book deserves to be read, not just by scholars in biblical studies and theology, but by thoughtful Christians in general--and especially by Christian scholars across the disciplines.

This could be read as a kind of popular, abridged version of Boersma's magisterial book, Nouvelle Theologie and Sacramental Ontology (Oxford). But it is much more than that: Boersma offers a trenchant diagnosis of all the ways that evangelicalism has bought into the flattened, univocal ontology of modernity--and how that finds expression is a new-found affirmation of creation that borders on a forgetfulness of "heaven." His real quarry is the articulation of a sacramental ontology as the only appropriate metaphysic for a Christian understanding of the world. He then explores the implications of this for different spheres of Christian practice (the interpretation of Scripture, worship, and the practice of theology). In effect he articulates a rich, robust Christian "worldview" that could transform how we think about the mission and task of the Christian university (though the latter implication is not his direct concern, but an implication to be worked out).

Certainly the most accessible of these three books, Wright's volume is nonetheless paradigm-shifting for how many people might approach the authority of Scripture. With one eye on debates in the Anglican communion, but also familiar with North American evangelicalism, Wright deftly reorients the conversation around the authority of God and then situates Scripture in the economy of God's relationship to his covenant people. Case studies help picture how this works itself out.