Psalm Psnippets 13: God & Time

I think this is a repeat – I wrote about time (& God) in Psnippet 9. Luckily, I didn’t exhaust the topic and we are back at it in Psalm 13.

God’s time is incomparable to ours but in Jesus, God experiences the fullness of humanity, including how time feels.

In the first two verses of this Psalm, we have five questions: all asking how long until God intervenes in this situation and rescues David.

Then we move swiftly into everyone’s favorite topic: the fear of finitude. David demands that God rescue quickly – otherwise David will face the ‘sleep of death’ and his enemies will triumph over him.

The Psalm turns to the history of God’s faithfulness to him. In the past, God has “dealt bountifully” with David – surely he will do so again.

We always remain completely within a human idiom. God doesn’t measure time like us, isn’t concerned about death (as the story of Lazarus teaches) and is outside of history.

Amazingly, in Jesus, God ontologically enters our time. David’s fear and faith reach their full expression in Jesus, who is God made human. It is a Sunday School cheat but it’s true: Jesus is the answer.

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Agenda for Theology

Thomas Oden is a big name in the modern resurgence of interest in patristic authors and themes, so I was excited to see Agenda for Theology, a manifesto of his, laying around at a library booksale. As a manifesto, this does have valuable points. Unfortunately, I am completely the wrong audience for him.

First, this book is, as we might expect, incredibly dated. Published in 1979, all of the trends he excited reports and supports were the trends that my professors were excited about. They are still worthwhile – a patristic epistemology, for example, plays better with a postmodern one than a modern – but not quite what we need to breathlessly report to a slumbering academia. For the most part, his side has already won.

Second, Oden explicitly addresses the liberal theological tradition (even citing Schleiermacher as a premodern theologian!). Though I’ve learned a great deal from liberal theology (particularly in its liberationist incarnation), I’ve never taken it too seriously, always considering myself part of what he would call a paleo-orthodox (either Reformed or Neo-Evangelical) tradition. So, as he encourages us to take Tillich less seriously, I wonder who took him seriously in the first place.

While I respect Oden and the massive theological work he has done since publishing Agenda for Theology, this is not a constructive part of that work. By far the best thing about this book, as Oden may well agree, is his closing bibliography of valuable patristic sources.

 

(Also: entirely tangentially, his use of the term “post-modern” in this text is completely different than most current definitions. This is fine, because he defines his terms early on, but it demands a weirdly disproportionate amount of mental energy to think about post-modernity as anything other than hypermodernity.)

Psalms as Torah

In Psalms as Torah, Gordon Wenham explores the ethical imperatives of the psalms and how a canonical interpretation of the psalter ought to lead to a changed life. The book divides nicely into two sections: a review of historical Psalm interpretation and theoretical implications of worship for ethics; and a look at the specific ethical content of the Psalms (mainly looking at its focus on the tongue and language).

Naturally, the theoretical implications fascinated me the most. I remain the worst kind of theory nerd – an ignorant one. Wenham uses speech act theory to claim that the Psalms act both as speech and as act. The best example of this are wedding vows. These are words but they are also acts that change the lives of those who say them. Likewise, when you sing “My soul will praise the Lord” that is both a virtuous sentiment and an actual act of praise. It commits you to a future act and thus recommits the worshiper to the central ethical position of the psalms: reliance on God. Similarly when you ascribe virtues to God, you commit yourself to practicing those same virtues. There is a rich overlap here between some fun linguistic theory and liturgics (which, on reflection, was probably there in Pickstock’s After Writing, if I had the eyes to see it).

Wenham emphasizes that the historical memorization of the Psalms for worship further embeds the worshiper in the ethical world of the Psalter. By keeping these songs before our minds we can transform ourselves more into the image of God – we constantly reconfess our dependence on God and our desire to become more like him.

This further encourages me in the peculiar practice of the RPCNA to spend so much energy in singing the Psalms a cappella. It forces us to continually reflect on God’s word and, in a way, embody the virtues contained in it. Also, it aids memorization amazingly. I’m not entirely sure that exclusive a cappella psalmody is the only acceptable practice (according to the regulative principle of worship) as the traditional RP position holds but I have found it to be a very healthy spiritual practice thus far.

Wenham’s look at the specific ethical content of the Psalms is appealing because he doesn’t attempt to stretch his point further than it can go. While much of the Ten Commandments can be found in the Psalms he doesn’t force them all to be found there, rather showing that the main focus of the psalms is against sins of the tongue. Still, the overall theology of the psalter reinforces the core ethical position of the absolute dependence of humanity on God. Human self-sufficiency is the chief mark of folly in the psalms as in life.

In Psalms as Torah, Wenham manages to provide a decent introduction to the psalter together with a look at it in a specifically ethical context. This gives me a good deal to think about for the service tomorrow. My actions rarely reflect the Psalms’ guarded language or dependence on God. O my soul, trust in the Lord!

After Writing

Catherine Pickstock is one of the standard-bearers for the radical orthodoxy movement that I’ve been mulling over, so when I saw After Writing I had to try. Unfortunately, it may be one of the denser books that I’ve read in the last year or so. Essentially, Pickstock argues (as far as I can tell) that language is essentially liturgical and that this allows us to find a way past some of the deadly implications of modern linguistics: its privileging of the written over the oral, its spatialization of time, and its essential necrophilia or desire for absence and the void. She attempts to show the vitally important nature of liturgy in a premodern context through a careful reading of the Roman Rite. (Incidentally, I would be interested to read her analysis of other ancient liturgies, such as liturgy of St Basil but that might make the book even denser.) I’m unable to comment much on this because I’m not sure I understood it at all. Still, I mark it for rereading in a year or so, and hopefully by then it will be more understandable.

 

What I would really like to talk about is The Warhol, a museum in Pittsburgh devoted to Andy Warhol. While I lack the vocabulary to talk about art intelligently, it still struck me. I visited it for a second time last Friday and was amazed again by Warhol’s artistry and the level to which his vision seems to encompass America.

On the superficial level, Warhol was obsessed with commercializing his work and playing off ideas of commercial art. He came from the world of advertising art and this continued to feed into his silkscreen art, his photography and his videography. He seemed to be obsessed with including themes of price tags, dollar signs, or commercial paraphernalia in his work. He even habitually worked with large corporations, doing “arty” versions of the same advertising that he started out with (cf. the ‘art car’).

Not only was Warhol obsessed with money, he was also obsessed with celebrity. This perhaps goes without saying but we only need to look at his portraits of Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis to see it clearly. Even in his personal life, we see a drive to be famous – to be in the scene and to be seen in the scene.

Warhol was also pretty obviously entranced with the ideas of death, decay, industry, mechanical reproduction and the future. In other words, he was a typical 20th century American intellectual. In the midst of this, however, he preserves an odd sort of joy and piety.

When you’re wandering in the museum, in the middle of a floor devoted to dollar signs, skulls, and weapons, you can happen across his Silver Clouds installation.It comes as such a relief that I couldn’t help but laugh. Here is a joyful and fanciful celebration. You are even allowed to participate in it – shoving the clouds this way and that, or playing with them as you would any other balloon. Its hard to imagine that this and Warhol’s Elvises could come from the same place.

Likewise unexpected is the religious theme in some of Warhol’s works. He did a famous series on the Last Supper in which he shows some really sharp theological chops. The Last Supper (Be a Somebody with a Body) for example, connects the incarnation with the eucharist and with the civil rights struggle in a fantastic way. To say that Christ had a body is to give the flesh value and that necessarily includes the flesh of all people made imago dei. Also, since even the very taking on of flesh by the divine is a mystery, how can we empty out the meaning of the eucharist into a merely symbolic representation. In this and other paintings, Warhol’s catholic roots seem to be clear. I would really love a good book on religion in Warhol’s work:  the only one I was able to find in the Warhol’s book store was going for $132, which is a bit steep for me at the moment.

So, Warhol seems to embody 20th century America. Obsessed with death, money, celebrity, industry and the future and yet displaying a continued exuberence and piety, if only by reflex. If I was sharper and understood Pickstock’s book more, I might call Warhol a pitch-perfect example of the problems of the modern experiment. His work seems to display a driving need and thirst for something deeper with only glimpses of what that deeper thing is. Warhol points to the need for is a properly doxological and liturgical language and anthropology just as much as Pickstock does.

Neither Calendar nor Clock, pt 1

My illustrious father has been very curious about the title of this reading log and I’ve been, thus far, unwilling to enlighten him. One of his good guesses has been that it refers to something that is often called the “Fourth Confession” – the Belhar Confession which is often added to the Three Formulae of Unity. This confession, written by the Colored South African church, is a powerful cry for visible church unity and justice and against an apartheid distortion of the gospel. Neither Calendar nor Clock is a series of reflections by Peit Naude on how the Belhar fits in with Christian orthodoxy, with the contemporary situation and with the modern world. Reading this book, I’m struck by distinctions between our particular traditions, which seem quite close.

Naude comes from a Barthian and continental reformed tradition and his theoretical stance on confession derives closely from that. One of the questions he asks (in chapter 3 “The confessional character of the Belhar Confession”) is whether or not Barth would sign the confession. Through comparison with the Barmen Declaration he determines that he would. But the fact that he thought the question worth asking puts him in sharp contrast with the Presbyterian anti-Barthians that I’ve been learning from (and whom I recently visited at Westminster Theological Seminary).

Similarly drawing a contrast with my recent theological homies was genealogical tracing of apartheid’s theological underpinning to Kuyperian neo-Calvinism and Scottish Presbyterian pietism. These strike a little close to home but we cannot deny the history. In fact, part of a courageous appropriation of Kuyperianism requires confronting these unsavory elements in the tradition and explaining how they went wrong within the social theory of neo-Calvinism.

I’m not sure if these distinctions were more than superficial but they gave a nice bit of dissonance to Naude’s argument. Calling out our mentors for their faults and praising our demons for their virtues is a good exercise in moral vision.

Hm. And I find I’ve not actually talked about the Confession at all. I’ll save that bit for tomorrow.

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.

Whole Counsel of God

After being told by many (that is, two) people that I should start to keep a record of the interesting events that happen on my shift, I thought it might provide a useful break from book reviews. Especially because I am nine or ten books behind and show no particular ability to catching up. Still, I’m counting this as payment for reading Richard Gamble’s Whole Counsel of God – a peculiar Biblical theology. We’ll see if I get around to talking about it.

First, you need to realize that working a night shift at this motel is hours of boredom, marked by minutes of work. I work 11-7, when the vast majority of our guests sleep during the vast majority of my shift. At best, I may see two hours of intermittent activity in the beginning, and two hours of intermittent activity in the end. The other four hours? Usually spent reading, or wiled away on Facebook, or spent productively in prayer (the last far too infrequently). I have been reading recently about a monk’s life of studied leisure, and this job seems to almost provide the same sort of scope for disciplined meditation and prayer. Now I just need to develop the spiritual, mental and emotional habits to support it (which will be harder).

So, bearing in mind the usual slackness of my time at work, I have had two amusing incidents over the last week.

On Thursday night, someone ran into the building. I didn’t hear it at the time, but right as my shift started (while, thankfully, there were two people at the desk) someone came down to report that a white truck had backed into the building, and left a giant crack in the wall. He was a native French speaker, and had just woken up, so details were difficult to understand. I went outside and yes – a fist-sized hole in the wall. He didn’t remember much about the truck, unfortunately, so I apologized that his sleep had been disturbed and thanked him for reporting the crash. The truck driver, naturally, had sped off.

This is where my detective skills come into play. The driver of the truck almost certainly was staying at the hotel, or else why be in our parking lot at 11? So, all that I needed to do was to sneak outside in the middle of the night (I chose 4 AM, because, well, nothing was happening) and find a white truck that wasn’t there before.

Success!

A white truck, with South Carolina plates, was in the lot. But, that wasn’t enough for me – using our advanced registration system (and my brilliant deductive reasoning) I found the only guest staying with us that night from South Carolina. J’accuse!

Sadly, I had to leave too early the next day to see if they caught the culprit or not. I like to think they did, and made him pay for his heinous deeds (or at least pay for the repairs), but they probably didn’t. At best, it was a mere circumstantial case. I need to work on my detecting skills to better pin-point the true criminals. Guilty beyond a reasonable doubt should be my goal.

Or, failing that, staying awake until my shift finishes should be my goal. And that, at least, is slightly more reasonable.

The other amusing incident? Not really worth telling. I caught a bat, in the midst of a screaming family that claimed they don’t have bats in Montana (really? No bats?). I felt sorry for them, but I was happy I had something exciting to do.

And see? I got to 500 words without telling you a thing about The Whole Counsel of God. If you’re curious, Dad, just ask.