Tuesday, November 07, 2017

A Soundtrack for Hope: A Spotify Playlist for AWAITING THE KING

I'm not sure when it started, but in most of my books I like to note the "soundtrack" that accompanied their production--what I was listening to while writing in coffee shops and airports and my home office. Each one is a snapshot of a phase of my listening life, as well as a kind of interpretive horizon for each book.  No doubt my listening seeps into my writing.

So with the launch of Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology, the third volume of my Cultural Liturgies trilogy, I thought it would be fun to create a Spotify playlist to accompany the book.

This playlist isn't just a soundtrack of the writing process--it's a curated list that embodies key themes of the book.  It moves from lament to hope. It begins with songs that name the disorder and injustice of the earthly city and culminates in songs that reach toward the eschatological hope of the city of God. It includes songs that testify to the redeemed sociality we're hoping for, and the inbreakings of that in the here and now.  And John Coltrane's "Love Supreme" is the motif that threads it altogether.


Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Thank God for Committees: Contribution to a Reformation Day Panel

The Meeter Center for Calvin Studies asked me to be part of a panel reflecting on the legacy of the Reformation. We were each given five minutes. Here are the notes for my brief contribution:

There are lots of features of the Protestant Reformation for which I’m grateful. I see it as an Augustinian renewal movement within the church catholic that led to the sanctification of ordinary life. The Reformers returned us to Scripture, renewed worship, and released the self for encounter with the risen Christ.

But today I want to focus on an underappreciated legacy: the Reformation’s theological investment in polity, particularly their emphasis on a plurality of leaders and the priesthood of all believers. In other words—and I can hardly believe I’m saying this—I’m grateful to the Reformers for giving us committees! The hard, frustrating work of committees is how we learn to the work of forging the commonweal.

  • This isn’t just about doing things “decently and in order.” It’s not about a dazzling org chart, and it’s not just some curmudgeonly concern with “following the rules.” The plurality of leadership is rooted in an anthropological and institutional realism: eschewing any perfectionism, we see the ongoing failings of even regenerate hearts and minds, especially when they are inflated by the concentration of power. So leadership is diffused without being diluted; governance is shared; authority is borne by many shoulders. “The prophets are subject to the prophets,” as Paul put it. 
  • Gifts beyond professionalism: offices of authority are entrusted to those with gifts, desire, and calling not just those credentialed with divinity degrees or theological credentials. And it is surely one of the virtues of the Reformed & Presbyterian traditions to have discerned that these leadership traits—gifts, desire, calling—are not limited to those with testicles. (Image of the Lord’s Supper being served by all women elders as a kind of signal that the curse is being rolled back.)
  • Though this all hinges on formative, substantive catechesis: as go elders, so go the church. 
  • Why I’m particularly grateful for this Reformation legacy today: because of it’s spillover to political life. It was these Calvinistic intuitions that bequeathed to us the institutions of checks & balances that are now features of liberal democracy. 
  • On one level, they reasserted the dignity of the individual: when Jesus knows the number of hairs on your head, you can’t be reduced to a cog in some collectivist machine. 
  • On the other hand, Reformed intuitions about polity and healthy institutional life bequeathed to us governmental structures enshrining shared government, internal corrections, and the sort of life-saving bureaucracy that gums of the gears of impatient, willful kings and dictators. (Hi there, Robert Mueller!!) The multi-pronged, self-correcting government envisioned by the US Constitution was, in many ways, dreamed up by Calvinists who didn’t trust themselves. Dr. King would later remind them they should have trusted themselves even less—and yet he appealed to their founding intuitions to make the point. In that sense you could say King was asking for an even more Calvinist Republic. 
  • But this too depends on a kind of catechesis: civics and the formation of civic virtue, as well as a healthy dose of self-suspicion—all in short supply today. The hard good work of Reformed & Presbyterian polity is how we learn to be good citizens, too. 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Translation and the Afterlife of Words: A few thoughts on Ruden's new translation of the Confessions

Translations are a bit like music: you attach yourself to what you encountered in your youth. You reify what emerged when you were coming of age. You canonize what formed you.

So if you first encountered Proust through battered paperback versions of Scott Moncrieff, you'll be disposed to resist Lydia Davis' masterful new translations. "Accuracy" hardly matters: for you, Proust just speaks Scott Moncrieff.  A different translation sounds like someone else's voice. These commitments and loyalties are not necessarily rational; they're more like an existential allegiance--even a kind of friendship.

So, too, with translations of Augustine's Confessions.  For some generations, it was Pine-Coffin. Others were passionately committed to Frank Sheed's rendition.  For me, it was and always has been Chadwick's translation for Oxford University Press--which is why, as you might expect, I found Boulding's translation a tad overwrought, like she was trying too hard.

No surprise, then, that I greeted the arrival of Sarah Ruden's new translation with skepticism.  And within the first page--in the first line!--my skepticism was confirmed and I recoiled in my Chadwick allegiance.  The occasion was her decision to translate dominus as "Master" rather than "Lord."  So the cherished opening line of the Confessions greeted me as: "You are mighty, Master, and to be praised with a powerful voice" (Ruden). Contrast this with Chadwick's opener: "You are are great, Lord, and highly to be praised."

I quite literally closed up the Ruden translation in a kind of literary disgust.

Imagine my sense of chastisement, then, when no less than Peter Brown--the unsurpassed biographer of Augustine--praised Ruden's translation. Even worse, Brown particularly lauded Ruden's decision to render dominus as "Master."  Here's Brown making the point:

The measure of the success of Ruden’s translation is that she has managed to give as rich and as diverse a profile to the God on the far side as she does to the irrepressible and magnetically articulate Latin author who cries across the abyss to Him. Most translations of the Confessions fail to do this. We are usually left with the feeling that one character in the story has not fully come alive. We meet an ever-so-human Augustine, with whom it is easy to identify even when we most deplore him. But we meet him perched in front of an immense Baroque canvas called “God”—suitably grand, of course, suitably florid, but flat as the wall. 
How does Ruden remedy this lack of life in God? She takes God in hand. She renames Him. He is not a “Lord.” That is too grand a word. Its sharpness has been blunted by pious usage. Augustine’s God was a dominus—a master. And a Roman dominus was a master of slaves. Unlike “Lord,” the Latin word dominus implied, in Augustine’s time, no distant majesty, muffled in fur and velvet. It conjured up life in the raw—life lived face to face in a Roman household, lived to the sound of the crack of the whip and punctuated by bursts of rage.

He continues: "To make God more of a person, by making Him a master, does not, at first sight, make Him very nice. But at least it frees Him up. It also brings Augustine to life."  

When someone like Peter Brown is making this point, you step back from your allegiances and start to question yourself. 

But having done that, I'm digging in and sticking with my Chadwick, and disagreeing with Brown (and Ruden).  It comes down to the life of words and who "owns" Augustine.

First, the life of words: Every translation is an adventure in sailing from one language to another, and often from one time to another. (I have some of my own experience with such mis/adventures.)  And words in either language are not static: they have a life of their own. Indeed, they have an ongoing life that survives their speakers and authors such that words come to us encrusted with all kind of barnacles and freeriding associations by the time they disembark on the shore of our imagination.  This is certainly true of the three words at stake here: dominus, Lord, and Master. 

Brown thinks "Lord" carries a whiff of medieval feudalism and prefers "Master" because it reflects the antique world of Augustine's use.  But this is to evaluate a translation of the Confessions as a classicist, and to imagine that readers of Augustine are coming to it as classicists.  For those who encounter the Confessions as a devotional classic--which is still the vast majority of its readers, I expect--their interest and investment is not merely historical or antiquarian.  More to the point, I doubt many of them appreciate the late-ancient connotations of dominus, nor do they think of feudal fiefdoms when they hear the word "Lord." 

Conversely, to praise the rendition "Master" for its classical accuracy and literary verve seems to quite willfully ignore all the connotations that have attached themselves to the word "Master." Indeed, perhaps I found it particularly jarring and offensive to read that opening line of Ruden's translation because I had just finished Colson Whitehead's disturbing but essential novel, The Underground Railroad, which paints a world full of "Masters" that were one more reason to believe God couldn't possibly exist.

This brings me to my second point. In some ways, this is a question of who "owns" Augustine--not in the sense of who can claim him, or invoke him, and claim to speak for him.  I mean something different: which afterlife of words is most germane to the project that Augustine himself is engaged in?  Which history of connotation overlaps with Augustine's endeavor?

When we consider these questions, I think "Lord" is the right choice precisely because of the afterlife of this word in Christian piety.  When the vast majority of Christians hear or say the word "Lord," they are not academic historians for whom medieval feudal orders are rumbling around in their heads.  They are people who are part of a larger people that has been praying to a Father for millenia.  "Lord," for them, is not "grand;" it is familiar.

Indeed, this is what's so surprising about Ruden's decision in that opening line. By rendering it "You are mighty, Master, and to be praised with a powerful voice," she virtually cuts off the echo of allusion to Psalm 47:2 that Chawick recognizes. Ruden's rendition is a decision that hides this as the language of prayer--which is surely an odd thing to do for a work that is, in its entirety, framed as a prayer. The language of Chadwick (and others), invoking "Lord," pays homage to language prayed for centuries before him and, more importantly, prayed for centuries after him.  It is a translation decision that recognizes the ongoing effect of the King James Bible in transforming the connotation of "Lord" for English-speakers ever since (a reality that is still true even in our so-called "secular" age).  And its find its home among readers who are co-pilgrims with Augustine, who approach their dominus as co-heirs with the Son.

Friday, August 04, 2017

On "orthodox Christianity": some observations, and a couple of questions

What do people mean when they wring their hands about the fate of "orthodox Christianity" (small-o) today, or when they vent about the treatment of "orthodox Christians" in an increasingly secularized society?

A few observations and a couple of questions:

Historically, the measure of "orthodox" Christianity has been conciliar; that is, orthodoxy was rooted in, and measured by, the ecumenical councils and creeds of the church (Nicea, Chalcedon) which were understood to have distilled the grammar of "right belief" (ortho, doxa) in the Scriptures.  As such, orthodoxy centers around the nature of God (Triune), the Incarnation, the means of our salvation, the church, and the life to come.  The markers of orthodoxy are tied to the affirmations of, say, the Nicene Creed: the creatorhood of God; the divine/human nature of the Incarnate Son; the virgin birth; the historicity of Jesus' life and death; the affirmation of his bodily resurrection and ascension; the hope of the second coming; the triune affirmation of Father, Son, and Spirit; the affirmation of "one holy catholic and apostolic church"; one baptism; and the hope of our own bodily resurrection.

Interestingly, and perhaps a little ironically, even low church, anti-creedal Protestants end up measuring orthodoxy by these same measures.  Even more interestingly, early 20th century "fundamentalism" and the conservative renewal in historic streams like Presbyterianism, also revolved around these orthodox markers. The famous Fundamentals of 1910-1915 focused on these historic markers (with added Protestant polemics about Scripture and Roman Catholicism). And Machen's Christianity and Liberalism was pegged to these same markers: Doctrine, God and Man, the Bible, Christ, Salvation, and the Church. (You won't find the words "sex" or "marriage" in Christianity and Liberalism.)

Contrast this with most invocations of "orthodox Christianity" today. In some contexts, the use of the word "orthodox" seems to have nothing to do with these historic markers of Christian faith.  Indeed, in many cases "orthodox Christianity" means only one thing: a particular view of sexuality and marriage. Indeed, in some books of late, the adjective "orthodox" is only invoked when talking about morality, and sexual morality in particular.  In fact, in some of those books the historic markers of orthodox Christianity as summarized in the creeds make no appearance and almost seem irrelevant to the analysis.  So when people are said to suffer for their "orthodox" beliefs, or when we are told that "orthodox" Christians will be hounded from public life and persecuted in their professions, a closer reading shows that it is not their beliefs in the Trinity, Incarnation, Virgin Birth, or Resurrection that occasion these problems, but rather their beliefs about morality, and sexual morality in particular.  There don't seem to be any bakers refusing to bake cakes for atheists, and I've yet to hear of Silicon Valley CEOs being fired because they affirm the Incarnation of the Son or the resurrection of the dead.

I note this only to observe that this deployment of the term "orthodox" is recent, innovative, and narrow.  Ironically, it reflects a trait of modernity that those who use it would abhor: a tendency to reduce Christianity to a morality (see: Kant).  One could forgive Martian anthropologists who, parachuting into contemporary debates, concluded that "orthodox Christianity" just is a sexual ethic.

Now, no one for a second can deny that such views of sexual morality and marriage have been the historic teaching of the church. The weight of Scripture, tradition, and perhaps even "natural law" have sustained these views and beliefs for millennia. And one could argue that the silence on such matters in, say, Machen or The Fundamentals only reflects what was taken for granted, not what was unimportant.  Certainly.  And just because they are not matters of creedal definition doesn't mean they are matters of indifference. The creeds don't say anything about Christian nonviolence, for example, but that hardly means Christians are therefore free to adopt any posture or position they want if they follow the Prince of Peace.

But it is surely also worth pointing out that conciliar standards of orthodoxy do not articulate such standards. If the adjective "orthodox" is untethered from such ecumenical standards, it quickly becomes a cheap epithet we idiosyncratically attach to views and positions in order to write off those we disagree with as "heretics" and unbelievers.  If "orthodox" becomes an adjective that is unhooked from these conciliar canons, then it becomes a word we use to make sacrosanct the things that matter to "us" in order to exclude "them."  And then you can start folding all kinds of things into "orthodoxy" like mode of baptism or pre-tribulation rapture or opposition to the ordination of women--which then entails writing off swaths of Christians who affirm conciliar orthodoxy.

So perhaps we should be more careful with how we use the adjective orthodox.  It can't be a word we flippantly use to describe what is important to us.  The word is reserved to define and delineate those affirmations that are at the very heart of Christian faith--and God knows they are scandalous enough in a secular age.

Perhaps we need to introduce another adjective--"traditional"--to describe these historic views and positions on matters of morality.  Why?  Because otherwise these other markers will end up trumping the conciliar marks of the Gospel.  That is, the things we append as "orthodox" start to overwhelm and supersede what the church has defined as orthodox.

Here's where my questions arise:

1. Do you really want to claim that Christians who affirm all of the historic markers of orthodoxy but disagree with you on matters of sexual morality or nonviolence or women in office are heretics?  So that someone can affirm the core, scandalous, supernatural tenets of the Gospel, and affirm the radicality of grace, and yet fall outside the parameters of your small-o "orthodox Christianity?"

2. Those who stretch the markers of orthodoxy seem oddly selective. (Were condemnations of usury "orthodox?" They were certainly historic and traditional.)  Let's look at a concrete example: the historic creeds affirm "one baptism."  Consider, then, this scenario: You are a conservative Anglican who has raised your children in the faith since they were baptized as babies. Your daughter falls in love with a nice Southern Baptist boy. They are engaged to be married, and want to make their home at the local Baptist church and be married there. For your daughter to become a member, she will have to re-baptized. Aren't these Baptists--who share your sexual morality--rejecting the (creedal) orthodox marker of "one baptism?"  Who's "orthodox" now?

Making this distinction doesn't settle anything. But it does change how we have the conversations. And it's worth remembering that people are watching and listening in. While we debate matters of importance, let's hope that those who overhear us still hear the scandalous, marvelous, miraculous affirmations of creedal orthodoxy ringing loud and clear: that "He descended to hell. The third day he rose again from the dead." And he forgives us.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Mortality and My Library

It is the first day of summer, at least according to my own personal academic calendar. The college’s commencement was this past Saturday. My official duties have been discharged for the year. Too many writing obligations loom for the summer; so, of course, I’m procrastinating. The piles and piles of books on the floor beside our bed somehow became stacks in our youngest son’s bedroom. But he has now returned from college. So those piles were dumped in my office while I was out of town, barring the way to my desk. This is a welcome distraction.  I “have” to look for shelf space for all these books in order to get down to work. 

The piles have a kind of archaeological quality: they are like the strata of my attention and fancies over the past year, the fits and starts of my curiosity. All the dust on a volume of Shelby Foote’s Civil War history indicate that it has been the bedrock of the stack. Tiny volumes like Patti Smith’s Auguries of Innocence got lost in the layers of larger tomes. It now sits on the stairs to be returned to my bedside, along with A. Scott Berg’s Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. After all, these are the sorts of books that summers are for. 

Some of these volumes look at me with stern judgment, signals of failure: my bookmark indicates I only made it halfway through Niall Ferguson’s biography of Kissinger, though the dog-ears and pencil notations indicate some vested interest. Issue of Paris Review and n+1 are half-read, displaced by the next issue. 

i recall fondly my second readings of George Saunders’ Tenth of December and Adam Haslett’s collection, You Are Not a Stranger Here, as I prepped for their novels, which were both excellent.  

The nonfiction layers are curious to me now: Catching Fire, an evolutionary history of cooking sits not far from Peter Gay’s Modernism: The Lure of Heresy—which brings to mind a delightful visit to Powell’s in Portland. Indeed, handling each book comes with a whiff of its provenance—in Pasadena and Asheville, a gift from a friend, a book review assignment. 

And as I try to find room for all of these on shelves already burgeoning and lined two rows deep, I’m returning books alongside others unread. Despite all the Julian Barnes I read this year, there are still books on the shelf I’ve not made it to yet. There’s volume 3 of Foote’s civil war Narrative glaring at me unread. I put Colson Whitehead on the shelf and am reminded that Richard Wright is still waiting for me. As are volumes of Updike and Edith Wharton. I find a place for Hitchens’ Arguably only to be reminded that I have all these treasures from Alfred Kazin waiting to be read. 

A young man builds his library in hope. Each paperback treasure is acquired as an act of aspiration. A library is an image of the man he hopes to be: the canon he constructs is a standard of what he thinks he ought to know. It grows quickly, in unexpected ways, exceeding his attention. But there will always be more time to read, right? 

A middle-aged man tends his library with a more sombre aspect. Reshelving a book unfinished is one more failure, a door one closes perhaps never to return. When I put The Noise of Time back on the shelf, I recall all the places Barnes has accompanied me on this adventure. But I see some of his novels still unread and wonder if I’ll ever get back to this corner of the library. In fact, it was Barnes who gave me a word for this: le réveil mortel—the wake-up call of mortality. Who knew tidying your library could be such an existential risk?

At some point you realize: I will die with books unread on my shelf. So be it. The grass withers, the flowers fade, the pages become mildewed and musty. So too will I.   Even those unread books are a sign of aspiration, ambition, hope. I’ll die reading. I trust there are libraries in the kingdom.