Bankruptcy

The time has come, I think, to declare bankruptcy on the whole “500 words per book” idea. I’m about fourteen books behind, and at that point, to even contemplate catching up exhausts me. So, I’m going to list the books I’ve read since the last, and give a, hopefully brief, thought about them.

Believing Three Ways in One God by Nicholas Lash – A good, short, reading of the creed in an explicitly Trinitarian way. This reads like a manual for instruction in the faith for intelligent members of the laity, which is certainly a good thing.

We Become What We Worship by G.K. Beale – A Biblical theology in practice. Beale writes a history of idolatry in the Bible, focusing on the results of idolatry – that the worshiper becomes like what he or she worships. Those who worship the true god, then, grow more and more into his likeness.

Selling the Invisible by Harry Beckwith – A typical marketing book, focused on the service economy. Reading this, I’m struck by how deeply silly marketing is, or at least business. If neither of those things are silly, then at least business books are. I’ve rarely read one that had an original thought or required much attention at all.

Let the Nations Be Glad by John Piper – This got put on the list because of the G.K. Beale book above. I got the first line stuck in my head (“Missions exists because worship doesn’t”) and simply to get it out had to read this book. I think it was my first time but the book definitely deserves the classic place it has as a missiological text. It places quite a bit of emphasis on reading the biblical text, which is fine – it also leaves plenty of room for others to do solid sociological and missiological work.

Jesus Girls ed Hannah Notess – A brief book of personal stories about women growing up as Evangelicals. This aren’t merely “how I escaped those terrible people” stories, and they aren’t all focused on gender. Instead, they are about a refreshingly broad range of topics, and they show a broad range of responses to evangelicalism. Really enjoyable, and fun – though it is a little strange to have a book of essays with such a broad theme, and no bigger picture to push.

In Good Company by James Martin – A memoir of how the author grew to reject secular life and become a Jesuit. This was very strange, especially in light of my protestant roots. Martin grew up as a nominal catholic, and decided to join the Jesuits after being too stressed out at his job at GE. There isn’t really a conversion narrative at all. We don’t read merely a gradualist conversion, but no real change of orientation at all – maybe a growth in grace, but that is almost it. Martin seems to be trying to assure us that life with the Jesuits isn’t so bad after all, and even if it was, it is empirically better than life in the secular world. In a word: odd.

The Love of Learning and the Desire for God by Jean Leclercq – This is an argument that in addition to a scholastic theology in the Middle Ages, there was a monastic theology that was focused on seclusion and scriptures. Forming the monk as perfect, rather than entering the problems of everyday life as the scholastics did. This book was odd to read from a protestant perspective because it acknowledged things that we don’t agree with and that we do, and held them in no apparent contradiction. Christ is lord over all, and the scriptures have huge importance. So far, so good. But, because of these two things, the best thing to do is devote yourself to contemplation in hope of the Beatific Vision. We’re quite a bit away from the priesthood of all believers at that point and I’m not entirely sure if I want to land there. Still, the book was good for providing a vision of an education that wasn’t based on a scholastic model. I think of James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom and wonder if this texts lays out some of the ways that he would like to see the university begin to function.

Defending Constantine by Peter Leithart – This historical argument claims that Yoder, Hauerwas and theologians in that tradition misread Constantine and his historical mission. I tend to think that he might misunderstand Yoder at some points, but Leithart still makes many good arguments for a renewed vision of Christendom. What I find entertaining is the extreme insularity of these arguments – Leithart is arguing for a Christendom with the ability to use political violence and the power of the state while members of the other branch argue for a nonviolent Christendom. Both sides, seemingly, don’t care that almost no-one else could even suggest that Christendom is even an option. Leithart and Yoder, it seems to me, have much more in common than they differ on (though they differ on important matters).

The Question of God by Armand Nichols – This is a comparison of the thinking of Freud and Lewis about God, the universe and everything, refereed by an expert in both men. It seems as though Nichols tips his hand as a theist, thus coming close to invalidating the whole experiment, but I could be wrong in my reading of him. Nevertheless, a bit thin. I’m not sure why I would read this rather than simply read Freud and Lewis myself.

The Spirituality of the Psalms by Walter Bruggeman – A classic book on the interpretation of the psalms (or at least I think its a classic, I could be wrong). He uses the typology psalms of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation to provide a picture to access the psalter. This is a lot of fun, and drove me back to the psalms themselves. Can I ask for more in a book such as this?

Irresistable Revolution by Shane Claiborne – A reread. Since I’m writing these more for myself than for an entirely imaginary audience, I’m going to skip a summary of thoughts here. Sorry.

Faith, Reason, and Revolution by Terry Eagleton – A reread. Since I’m writing these more for myself than for an entirely imaginary audience, I’m going to skip a summary of thoughts here. Sorry.

The Catholic Counter-Culture in America 1933-1965 by James Terence Fisher – Fisher writes on Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers, as well as other aspects of the radical ‘left’ of American Catholicism in this time. He writes in a very secular mode, which is a little disorienting – seeing Day’s embrace of poverty as a kind of masochism and other practices of piety as merely expressions of psychological difficulties on the part of the individual. This isn’t bad, necessarily, when writing religious history, but it is strange. I tend to think that Day and the others discussed in the book would benefit from a sympathetic view in addition to this one.

The Virtuous Reader by Richard S. Briggs – This is an examination of the virtues required of the reader of the Old Testament text. While not breaking any new ground, necessarily (at least, in what I would expect – he still trumpets the virtues of humility, trust, love and wisdom), he grounds his discussion of the virtues in specific case studies done in the Old Testament text itself, which proves useful in thinking through some of these applications.

There we go! All finished, sigh. Now, all I can do is promise to do better next time. We’ll see how that works.

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Princeton Theology, 1812-1921

You can’t pick your tradition.  You’re born into it or muddle into it early, and you’re stuck. As Alasdair McIntyre puts it, though, you can then argue about what that tradition then means – that’s what it means to have a tradition. My particular tradition is Presbyterianism, the hard-core reformed version, so I know that at some point I’m going to need to deal in depth with the old 19th century Princeton theology. The Hodges et al aren’t particularly entertaining, but they need to be dealt with. Mark Noll’s anthology Princeton Theology, 1812-1921 looked like a decent introduction to a topic that I’d been avoiding. I do feel kinda strange that I’d been more scared of these folks than I am of Aquinas but that’s simply the truth.

There was a lot here that caused me to be very impressed by these Princeton theologians, but most significant was probably their serious dedication to scripture. I’ve wondered about their emphasis on the infallibility and inerrancy of scripture (not that they aren’t true, but merely that they are deserving of quite so much emphasis). That being said, the laser focus that these folks have on scriptures really is quite refreshing, and might be due, in part, to this high stance that they place on scripture. It is obvious that they think the Bible is the most important book for theologians, which is a break after reading Aquinas, who (rhetorically, at least) places the same weight on the Bible and the Fathers.

On the other hand, the Princetonians are very much a product of their time in their reliance on reason and science. Talk of theology as a divine science makes me nervous. The Bible cannot take the place of nature for raw data to put into a rationalistic machine for coming up with algorithms. That isn’t the way that theology works at least as far as I understand it. Theology is foundational to science, rather than science being paradigmatic for theology. But, I need to acknowledge that my thoughts on this matter are at least as influenced by my surroundings as the Princetonian’s were – I’m from a postmodern age, how could I say anything else?

Again from my po-mo milieu, I have to say that I really appreciate the Princetonian’s emphasis on the necessity for personal piety together with mere theological correctness. The two walk hand-in-hand, especially in training for the ministry. We cannot train excellent exegetes in whom the Holy Spirit has not worked. Even in scholarly work, personal piety is necessary. As Warfield put it: “Nothing could be more fatal, however, than to set these two things over against one another.”  Learning and devotion are necessary parts of each other. This is not to say that those who are not Christians have nothing to teach us, but merely that the more we are conformed to the image of Christ, the purer our thinking ought to be, and the more we will practice intellectual virtue. Likewise, the more that our scholarship advances, the more reasons we have to praise God and long to seek his face.

This isn’t a bad tradition to be in. Though there are elements of it that I have some trouble with, this is the case regardless of which tradition you have. All things considered, it is comforting to place yourself in such a long line of people who tried to respond to their world with such a mix of sensitivity and faithfulness to God. These are people I can be proud of, even if they are bit scholastic.

Conquest of Cool

I am probably the least cool person in the room. And that is pretty generalizable, regardless of what room I’m in: homeschooled, nebbish, graduate of a small little Christian college in a small little town. And, to be honest, I’m perfectly fine with that. Especially after reading Thomas Frank’s Conquest of Cool.

Frank argues that ‘cool’ is merely a reflection of the consuming mentality. He traces advertising and men’s fashion, showing how the revolutions in these industries mirrored and took advantage of the counter-culture that made many of same critiques of mass culture. Advertising sought to be cool (and capture the “youth spirit”) during its creative revolution of the 1960s, while fashion did the same in the Peacock Revolution. Frank stresses the continuing legacy of these corporate movements – showing that they still are important even in the 1990s (and even today: there ain’t anything new under the sun).

Frank makes a distinction from his argument and the more popular co-option theory. Co-option claims that the counter-culture had something great, and then it was taken over by business. The revolution was real, but then it got a sponsor. While he sees some value in this, Frank would argue more that the counterculture was, to some extent, created by the advertising and fashion industry. If it wasn’t created by them, then at least both arose in parallel. The individualism and hedonism of the counterculture merely feeds corporate capitalism, and makes better consumers of us all.

In reading this, I’m reminded of Brett McCracken’s Hipster Christianity* in which he argues that parts of the church have become too cool for their own good. His main point (although I do, admittedly, find some of his examples misplaced) is that we should be happy when the Church and what is ‘cool’ coincide. But we shouldn’t expect it, especially after reading the New Testament. Aren’t we “an aroma that brings death” (2 Cor. 2:16)? Not particularly cool. Rather, often the church simply wants to be popular, so we try to be cool. He dissects some of the reasons why that is terrible. Looking at Frank makes that point even better.

If cool is the creation of consumerism, a disaffected alienation, then we probably shouldn’t be aiming at cool. Of course, the point of the idea is that it is fleeting. You have to keep consuming to keep up with it. There are two possible directions in response: you can try to be cool or try to be uncool. Either way, you end up placing yourself at the mercy of the market. Best, I think, is to place yourself in a tradition and do the best you can at doing that tradition well, and improving it as you can. Incidentally, this is also the point of DeYoung and Kluck’s Why We’re not Emergent – I really don’t come up with any new ideas. Putting yourself under a tradition like that can be difficult, and it isn’t always a good idea, but it seems to be the only way to avoid the conquest of cool and the tyranny of the market. Or maybe I’m just making excuses for my own obvious lack of cool.

 

*I tend to think of myself as Bookish Intellectual type of hipster, but only when I’m feeling particularly morose.

The Company They Keep

C.S. Lewis is a really big deal at Christian colleges, and Geneva is no exception. We have a philosophy class dedicated to his thinking (that is always over-enrolled), and have more books authored by him in McCartney than we do from Dickens. Of course, he is an important author, but, as Ryan Harper at HuffPo points out, he isn’t quite that important. There are other resources, other authors, and other philosophies that also need to be encountered as the Church faces (post)modernity.

That being said, I recently read a book about Lewis. Diana Glyer’s The Company They Keep is, in my defense, less about Lewis in particular than about the whole cadre of Oxford writers “The Inklings” (a fairly large group, including Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams). Glyer makes the argument that the members of the Inklings influenced each other in distinct and positive ways, using a very flexible definition of influence: that the works produced by each author would be different if they were not in contact with each other. The four ways that she says this is done is by influencers acting as resonators (who support the author, either materially or emotionally), critics (giving the spice of intellectual controversy), editors (providing constructive criticism) and collaborators (working on particular works in close conjunction with each other). She argues that the Inklings give examples of all four (though she has to work hard to make collaboration fit).

The reason I didn’t feel too guilty reading this text (I usually leave Lewis to future-roommate Keith Pinson) is because it really isn’t about the Inklings per se. Glyer does seek to combat a common interpretation of their work, first from Humphrey Carpenter, saying that they didn’t really influence each other at all, but were merely a group of friends. Still, she is mainly making an argument about the communal nature of authorship, and saying that the Inklings clearly fit into a post-modernist troubling of the concept of authorship. Karen Burke LeFevre, in Invention as a Social Act, provided the basic structure for her argument (the fourfold roles that comrades can play). Fortuitously, McCartney has a copy of that book as well, so I checked it out, and will see if Glyer did any original theoretical work herself.

The theory side is why I read it: literary theory of this type, particularly when it involves sociological insights or history, fascinates me.  This was a book not involving theology or church history, and I needed a break from those topics for a while: something that was on the first floor rather than the third of McCartney. It also squarely hit one of the qualifications of a good book by directing me to a handful of other books that I ought to read (LeFevre’s book mentioned above, a collection of Charles Williams’ poetry, and a couple of others). Although her thesis seems obvious, it does make an original contribution to Inklings’ scholarship. A large part of why it seems obvious is because she does such a good job making her point.

I wonder about her argument in the context of an intellectual community such as Geneva: students and faculty do influence each other, so how can that influence be made more positive and productive? I wonder if LeFevre’s and Glyer’s work might help us figure out how to do that.

Cult of the Saints

            As a fairly reformed fellow, I have an instinctive disgust for sainthood in the sense that Peter Brown uses it in Cult of the Saints. The idea of specially sanctified individuals making intercession on our behalf rubs me the wrong way – after all, isn’t Christ alone supposed to be the mediator between God and Man?

Still, Brown does a fantastic job delineating exactly how sainthood fit in the context of late antiquity: how it worked within a Roman model of patronage and both responded to Roman concepts of death and the supernatural. It does make me curious, however, how the cult of the saints has changed, particularly in since the Enlightenment and how sainthood is being used by African Christians who face a partial cultural divinization of ancestors. Does venerating saints provide a way for these cultural expressions to happen without leaving the fold of the Christian faith, or are they simply a capitulation to an unchristian culture? I don’t know, but Brown’s discussion of the cultural politics of sainthood show that these questions are very much live within the older Christian tradition itself. Late antiquity has a lot to say to the African church today (I think you lent me a book about that, right Dad?)

One of the things I found fascinating about Brown’s work methodologically here was his use of dialectic to discuss cultural patterns. The graves of the martyrs, he claimed, were places fraught with power in part because they were unclean places. The grace of God, as shown through the martyrs suffering, transformed death into victory and made places that were usually despised into sites of pilgrimage. Thus Brown connects martyrdom with the resurrection – a chief paradox of the Christian faith. That, needless to say, is cool. Dialectic has always seemed deeply helpful to me, but I was never entirely sure how. It is good to read an example of it being used with faithfulness to historical texts and as a way to illustrate rather than being used to force historical facts to fit with pre-conceived theories.

All of these good things being said, however, I still have trouble with the concept of sainthood as practiced in the cult of saints. It smacks more of magic and paganism than a true Christian practice ought. Although Brown is, I am sure, correct in saying that the cult of the saints worked against late Roman practices in helpful ways, it seems to have grown stagnant throughout the middle ages. In biblical language, the saints are the community of believers in a particular city – that is the way that Paul uses the concept to be sure. And how can we make distinctions in grace between members of the church? After all, we are all covered by Christ’s righteousness and can do nothing by our own strength. We do see differences in levels of sanctification – the older members of our churches do deserve respect, for they’ve grown more in the faith than those of us who are younger. Still, because we share the same mediator, these men and women do not have a special access to God that the younger among us lack.

But, with these caveats, Brown does some really fun work here. This book was originally a series of lectures, and his voice still comes through. As part of an increased self-education in early Christianity, Cult of the Saints was very helpful. I’m just not going to pray to St. Peter for help anytime soon.

Christianity and the Transformation of the Book

From my position on the outside of academia, the digital humanities seem to be important, though not so much at Geneva. In a senior state-of-the-field class, we devoted a class session and readings to the topic, and I must admit that I found it a little silly. Are we to assume that because of technical innovation that our whole method of thinking about history and society needs to change? More than anything else, I got ticked because I couldn’t see how it fit in with everything else that we were studying – deep, complicated theory questions. From this we turn to a discussion of Youtube.

In Christianity and the Transformation of the Book, Grafton and Williams make a convincing argument about something very similar that happened in late antiquity. They argue that Origen, Eusebius and other Christian scholars sparked a tremendous advance in the material production of scholarship – in Origen’s Hexapla (a massive OT is parallel columns of Hebrew, LXX, and several other translations), Eusebius’ Chronicle and the massive scale of book production in Caesarea at that time.  They argue that these kinds of technical advances gave them unmatched scholarly resources and helped shape the discourse of historians and exegetes for the “millennial project of Christian scholarship.”

And what is more, as far as I can tell, they outline some of Origen and Eusebius’ advances well and tie them in very interestingly to a history of late antiquity. In fact, they force me to do a little reconsidering of my earlier discounting of the digital humanities concept. The fact is, simply, that someone with the internet available and a modicum of common sense has access to an immense amount of data and ways to index and search it. There are significant limitations to the reliability of these sources, but it gives us a huge advantage over these ancient scholars.

Even discounting the internet, the cheap availability of books would be amazing to these scholars, as would be the ease of use that printing allows. Honestly, the Gutenberg revolution seems to guide my personal reading habits just as much as the digital age does. Still, the searching and indexing functions of computers are invaluable in attempting to find resources (even at your friendly local library). I’m still a little confused about the precise innovation of the digital humanities but after reading the work of Grafton and Williams I can acknowledge that the technical innovation that it provides is definitely worth discussion, even in a theory-focused class.

(a sidenote: Just as interesting as I find the technical aspects of Grafton and Williams’ work, I also am fascinated by their sense of the long tradition of Christian scholars. This might just be my reading into the text my own sense of lineage with the Christian tradition, but I do wonder if Grafton and Williams see themselves as continuing in this line. I am curious if they see their faith tradition as similarly like that of Origen and Eusebius. I know that reading about the faithful scholarly work of these men is inspiring to me as I consider a career spent in very different modern academia.)

The Christian Tradition

As promised, now I get to discuss Pelikan’s Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture (since 1700). Rereading this, I realize how critical I am, and I certainly didn’t intend to be quite this nasty. That being said, it seems to me that this book has serious problems.

When I say this book bored me, please understand that I am very easily entertained. At times, I’ve even been known to read an academic monograph for fun, and Mr. Bean continues to crack me up. There are probably several reasons why I found this book frightfully dull, but I’ll only address a couple here.

First, I have no idea who the audience for this book is supposed to be. It goes into too much detail to be assigned as a textbook for undergraduates, and yet not nearly enough detail for experts in the field or even for a good graduate class. The whole text (all of his The Christian Tradition) weighs in at ~1500 pages, which is a mammoth achievement, but hardly enough to do justice to the entire sweep of church history. Why does this matter? I’m not sure he knew his audience, which shows a dreadful lack of attention to some basic rhetorical rules (thanks Dr. Haas!) If he isn’t awake enough to make that kind of judgment, why should I be awake enough to read him?

Second, Pelikan, as far as I can tell, doesn’t have a thesis for the whole text. Each individual chapter has one (and usually argues well: chapters 2 and 3, in particular, rehash much of Turner’s argument in Without God, Without Creed), but the work as a whole just meanders along, telling history in the form of “X happened, and then Q happened.” I would chalk this up to my general lack of knowledge, and inability to read a complicated academic text, but he doesn’t provide an epilogue and his forward singularly fails to orient the reader. Also, one of the main goals of my college education was to enable me to read and understand complicated texts. To fail this blatantly to recognize a thesis at least shows Pelikan’s inability to signpost well.

The strongest thing I can say about the unity of this text is that it all relates (as he promised in the introduction) to specifically church dogmatics. He doesn’t go off into trails on particular theologians, much, but tries to sum up traditions and how these traditions reacted and reflected the changes of modernity. And that is a tremendously valuable task. The church as a whole is at least as important and as worthy of study as individual theologians such as Barth or Kierkegaard.

Another point in Pelikan’s favor is his willingness to take on a project of this depth and complexity. He wrote a history of the church’s theology from the apostolic age to Vatican II. That is a tremendous achievement, requiring a huge amount of learning and skill. He planned and wrote the text over the course of some forty years, and the work he put into it shows. I just wish that it was presented a little more cohesively, with a tighter focus on making an argument. Then this could have not merely been a chronicle, but an actual history.