The Prophetic Imagination Walter Brueggemann Fortress Press, 2001. 151 pp.
Imagination in Place Wendell Berry Counterpoint Press, 2010. 196 pp.
Recently, I was disappointed by a book I had high expectations of. Now, as someone who willingly plunges into book after book with the aims of (often) writing critical reviews, one might say that I have set myself up for this very sort of disappointment. Sure. And that has truly been the case of books that are even well-liked by certain influential critics.
But I was surprised by my disappointment of this particular book because I actually loved it. It revealed a whole mode of thought regarding a major theme of the Scriptures that, for me, was insightful, provocative, and, as a freshly-minted pastor, theologically resourceful and useful. Continue reading “Wendell Berry’s Prophetic Imagination”
Strangers in a Strange Land Charles J. Chaput Henry Holt, 2017. 288 pp.
Captain America is a story of anachronism. After being frozen in ice during World War II, he awakes in modern-day New York and quickly realizes how foreign he is. His values aren’t shared, his cause is considered outdated, and his epistemology is challenged (“The world is different now,” he is constantly told). Christians in America are encountering a life not unlike the Captain’s—waking up to a culture that no longer shares our presuppositions about God, reality, and humanity. We are foreigners, or pilgrims, in a world that is not our home.
Charles Chaput adds his Catholic voice to the argument that we now live in post-Christian America, a world in which Christianity is seen as irrelevant, regressive, or even hateful. Some are quick to dismiss such a thesis as an overreaction to cultural changes, or the response of privileged whites to the loss of political power. Chaput—himself a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation and the first Native American archbishop—counters these dismissals by spending two-thirds of his book outlining the multifaceted problem facing American Christians.
Tracing the emergence of the problem, Chaput embarks on a journey through American history, culture, and political theory from our nation’s founding through the present. This isn’t a book about politics (see Render Unto Caesar), yet Chaput spills quite a bit of ink outlining early American political thought. He connects the American founders’ reliance on natural law with observations by Alexis de Tocqueville about American democracy’s emphasis on individual freedom. Chaput concludes that democracy without moral guardrails elevates the autonomy of the
individual above all other concerns. Christianity, along with “any other institution that creates bonds and duties among citizens,” hinders self-expression and, therefore, self-fulfillment.
Much of America’s post-Christian worldview is connected, according to Chaput, in one way or another with our views on marriage, sex, and the family. I initially discovered Chaput’s book through an excellent excerpt on marriage. Chaput argues that sex is “intimately connected with how we understand ourselves as human” and the human family connects individuals in bonds of commitment and service.
Chaput rejects the way that American individualism has relegated sexual ethics to a private matter outside the purview of any authority. He characterizes the sexual revolution as a technological battle against human limitations. Even if Protestants disagree with Chaput on the licitness of contraception, there are many points to find agreement on the ways marriage and family have been twisted by American culture and need to be recovered.
Along the way, Chaput pens a manifesto on the stewardship of truth, as well as an analysis of American culture through the lens of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. We are strangers in a strange land because we are made for the City of God, yet live in the City of Man. How are we to live in the ensuing clash of values?
In the final third of the book, Chaput proposes a way forward for Christian countercultural living. As he says, “We can’t simply blame the culture. We are the culture.” The only way to have an impact is to begin living differently. It’s well worth sticking with the book for these exhortations to live like Christ. Chaput unpacks the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-11) and contrasts each statement with American cultural values. After being inundated by the media’s vision of the good life, I need this reminder that it is blessed to be poor, meek, and persecuted. In addition, he illumines a proper Christian perspective on persecution through an ancient Christian document (Letter to Diognetus) and stories of modern martyrs. I appreciate that Chaput isn’t out to demonize American culture; instead, he is pointing out real problems and calling Christians to love the culture by living uniquely.
It’s easy to sense that Chaput is a man with a deep appreciation for beauty. He regularly references art and literature, and calls readers to recognize the beauty in creation. In a culture where humans are often seen as “interchangeable reasoning and consuming units,” the elevation of human dignity and the imago dei is a stream in the desert.
Jesus promised that following him would appear strange to others. We live in a time where Christian belief and practice makes less and less sense to the rest of our country. And yet, we live as people of hope on a pilgrimage home. I welcome more voices like Chaput who will call “small-o” orthodox Christians in America to live the only kind of life that will present Christ to the world.
Open Secrets Richard Lischer Broadway Books, 2001. 239 pp.
In December of 2016, my wife and I drove “[out] of Upper Alton… up a state road…”in our 2009 Chevy Malibu. We had been visiting families for our first Christmas with our son (Theodore) — hers in Godfrey and Collinsville, mine in Gillespie — and on that day we had one small pilgrimage, of a kind, to make before we left for our home in Chicago. We were on-the-hunt for “New Cana.”
About a month earlier, one of our pastors gave a message in which she quoted from a moment in the memoir of a Lutheran minister named Richard Lischer. She told how he had entered into his first pastoral appointment, at a small rural church in southern Illinois, with the high aims of using all his theological training to its utmost ability. He sets up, at his first event, a small group discussion for talking about how the church is engaging with their new pastoral appointment; the first (and second) responses are muted, stiff “Well, I didn’t vote for you, but I know we will have a very good church with you as our pastor.” Our pastor weaved this narrative as an example of how we (as American evangelicals especially) often think of ministry strategies before thinking of the people we aim to serve.
But, if I’m an honest parishioner, I was a little distracted by her description of Lischer himself. A memoir about a pastor in small-town Illinois? As a son of small-town Illinois who had married a daughter of small-town Illinois, and as a person who had recently received a call to pastoral ministry, I knew that this was one of those books I would need to borrow. While walking to lunch after church, I grew curious: I wonder where in small-town Illinois Lischer preached? Then I read the opening chapter via an Amazon preview and saw the above quote of him driving north out of Alton (where my wife and I had lived our first year of marriage) into the country. Immediately, I began comparing Lischer’s words with my mental map of Madison and Macoupin Counties (which is, if I say so myself, pretty accurate), and soon I had narrowed down the location of his “New Cana” parish to a small sub-region of the north-of-Alton, east-of-Jerseyville region.
It was in this context, that my wife and I ended up outside of “New Cana” Lutheran Church, the world of Lischer’s memoir Open Secrets.
Our pilgrimage itself was not precisely “exciting.” After all, we are long-time Madison-Macoupin County residents who have only recently made residence as urbanites in Chicago.
We have been lost in the middle of a cornfield many-a-time before. And “New Cana” Lutheran Church is literally “lost in the middle of a cornfield,” in a way that was utterly familiar to us. Hannah ended up taking one of her better photographs of the church (as my photograph, above, is, characteristically, angled and unprofessional) and using her graphic design wizardry to produce a better book cover, since the edition we had clearly represented a “small town” on the Atlantic seaboard, not southern Illinois. Our small “Lischer-circle” at church (which was us, our pastor Tiffany, and our local Hauerwasian theologian Kevin) were ecstatic about such an update. But the church itself, however mythic as told by Lischer, was no surprise to us. It was, in many ways, a part of us already. The stories that Lischer tells in his memoir could have just as easily been some of the stories my grandmother tells me about growing up on a farm in Shipman. Actually, I’m not entirely sure that somewhere in her family there wasn’t some offshoot that married into or joined the “New Cana” Dullmanns and Bufords and Semanns at some juncture. I’ll have to investigate the Caveny family line at some juncture.
But we didn’t pilgrimage to the “New Cana” church for the sake of excitement. Rather, I think we pilgrimaged there for a sense of “home.” In December, it was becoming ever-clear to me and Hannah that we longed to return “home,” to “our world.” Our inability to see the sunset or sunrise in Chicago was wearing on us; our distance from family was difficult for us; and our new “city-like” busyness was, honestly, “not our thing.” So, however blessed and joyful our time in Chicago had been, we visited “New Cana” with the strong sense that someday soon we would live again in this world. Our world. And in the same sense, we didn’t read Lischer’s memoir to view, as though visitors at a zoo, a “different culture and society,” but, in part, to learn again and learn anew our own home.
Lischer’s pastoral observations are some of the most profound on the topic that I have ever read.
Instead of confronting, as most theological-praxis books tend to do, us with theological controversies in the church or practical concerns about preaching or leading Bible studies, Lischer addresses the real “meat” of pastoral work: arguing with the cemetery committee about an unnecessary expense that would overburden a poor widow, learning how to receive a beer offered by a parishioner when the subtexts of the convention are concealed, attempting (unsuccessfully) to “be tough” while half the church watches a pig be butchered prior to dinner. Or, more difficult, wrestling with how to effectively marry a passionate couple with no sense of responsibility or commitment, baptizing an infant that will surely die, consoling a mother whose only son fell in the pond and drowned, or taking a young man to the Cardinals game in the wake of him both losing his father (to a heart attack) and his pastor (to a job-move).The book is a holy excursion into the work of pastoral ministry, and one that expounds on a far more interesting (and far more important) layer to how one thinks of “pastoring.” Too often in American Christianity, the “pastor” is really seen as a “preacher-teacher,” whose “ministry” is all words, words, words; theology without any weighty living behind it. In some sense, Lischer also had this preconception upon arriving at “New Cana.” But Open Secrets divulges a different kind of pastoral ministry, a different aim of a philosophy-of-pastoring, that is desperately needed in our day. Ministry, in Lischer’s memoir, does not occur primarily in the pulpit but at fences, post offices, hospitals, and garages. And, yet, (and this is crucial) it is not the flimsy thing that happens when a person smacks the word “ministry” on top of something else (“Brother, I feel called to do a cassette tape-to-CD transfer ministry,” etc.). Lischer’s ministry is something holy, that manifests the divine in the day-to-day. It is Sacramental, perhaps in its purest form.
Lischer’s insights on rural thought are also extraordinarily valuable. He uncovers the concept of “Gossip” as a form of knowledge (even, I think, an epistemology), and considers how he, as a pastor, can use that “Gossip” for the sake of God’s Kingdom. He reveals the power-structures of committees and sub-committees, of the elders versus the cemetery committee. He observes the tensions of interfering with abusive families, wrestles with his own methods of accomplishing what he feels is right, and, more often than not, discovers that he does not understand how this German farming community actually communicates. If anything, Lischer’s “outsider” view of downstate Illinois rural life helps one to consider any number of “outsider”-“insider” dynamics within churches; and, furthermore, underscores the need to observe traditions and values before moving too quickly in changing them.
If Hillbilly Elegy reminded me of the rural world “falling apart” (as I’ve written about before), then Open Secrets encourages me about all the good of rural communities, all the possibility that exist in them, and all the tensions that come with doing effective Christian ministry in that context. In the time since Hannah and I made our pilgrimage to “New Cana,” we have been considering a pastoral opportunity at a church in small-town Illinois. It isn’t a job offer yet — there are, as always, various hurdles to jump over — but we have still, nevertheless, been considering the possibility in a way we hadn’t when we first picked up Open Secrets. As we finished reading Lischer’s memoir last night, I think we both felt a strange sense of preparedness for wherever the Lord is taking us. Lischer’s misadventures in “New Cana” have changed us, equipped us, even prophesied to us, of some new adventure of our own.
I am going out to see Stanley Hauerwas tomorrow at a conference in Chicago. He is speaking on whether or not the church matters. He is a man and that is a topic that I consider worth driving seven hours to hear. I confess that I am not all that hip on Hauerwas’ work; I’ve read bits of the Hauerwas reader and about the first half of Resident Aliens and so I figured before I find myself sitting next to him at breakfast I better read his memoir so I’ll have something to say. I have heard good things about Hannah’s Child and have been intrigued by the man ever since I heard that he personally responds to every single letter that he receives but this trip finally gave me the occasion to sit down and read. I’m glad I did. It’s a fascinating Bildungsroman replete with love, madness, ideas, sex, and God. “This book is very different kind of work in which you expose and make vulnerable your own life in a way that cannot help but make you feel a bit uncomfortable. It’s a very special book for me. I care deeply about it” Hauerwas says in a 2010 Duke interview, the year Hannah’s Child was published. “I suppose if I’m remembered for any book that I’ve written, it’d be this one.”
In a way I felt bad for Hauerwas throughout the book because of just how exposed and vulnerable he is in the work. By that I mean that I am by nature someone that is extremely cautious of other people’s privacy, especially if they are a public figure and yet even I began thinking that I was reading a letter from a friend that I’ve known for many years. I figured that if I was feeling this way, every single person that has ever read this book must consider Hauerwas a friend and that must be exhausting for him, though he does say that his desire for friendship may be somewhat pathological. Perhaps what is most remarkable is that though the memoir was written by a theologian who has exerted more influence on the Church than all but a handful of his peers he makes you feel like you are reading the memoirs of your best friend from high school who teaches down at the local tech school.
At times this offhanded approach felt like too much such as when he says that “I don’t even know what it means to be a teacher” and yet has spent four decades teaching and continually refers to the joy that it brings him and the importance of that work. Or when he says that “He is a Christian because it helps him live more truthfully” when the fact is that his entire schema of ideas is built on the Barthian claim that it is only by the light of the cross and resurrection of Jesus that we have any idea what truth means. I can’t let him get away with vacuous statements like that and neither should you. But aside from those more annoying misplaced confessions of ignorance, Hauerwas leaves a lot of his cards on the table. He doesn’t even mention meeting Pope Benedict, for example and yet manages to refer to dozens of his students by name.
Another remarkable aspect of the book is that even though it is a memoir it often feels more like a sequence of sketches about his friends and family than Hauerwas himself. Hauerwas rarely reveals his inner thoughts in a way that one would expect from a memoir and he even admits in the end that this book is more about his friends than it is about him. There is a striking moment, more than halfway through the book, when his first wife has left him and he returns home to an empty house. He said it felt “lonely” and the reader feels like he is able to exhale for the first time because though Hauerwas has felt like an old friend for the whole book, this is the first time we are able to truly feel with our friend, because it is the first time that he has let us see that his work ethic won’t be able to solve the loneliness he feels at the moment.
Somehow, Hauerwas manages to render university politics with the flare of a novelist and, as other readers have said, it was a hard book to put down. I think the reason for that is that Hauerwas finds every single person and every single thing that he gives his attention to to be of infinite complexity and interest and that is an infectious position to witness. It is also a truly Christian position. St. Thomas said that we cannot know the essence even of a fly.
If you’re interested in how Hauerwas became a world-renowned theologian and the steps you need to take in order to achieve that status, this isn’t the book for you. If you are interested in how a lower-class Texas guy has navigated his faith and work and family and love a great story, you’ll have a great time with it. Hauerwas manages to accept the fact that he is theologian who possesses a great deal of clout, and there is no false humility here, but he never writes in a way that feels like “damn, it’s good to be me” as he so easily could have. When he says that “I am a full professor with an endowed chair in a top research university” it doesn’t cause the wannabe academic in me to bristle with jealously because we’ve seen how much work and pain has been put in to be able to write that sentence. Hauerwas says that what it means to have children “is to learn to live without control.” The fact that Hauerwas has given us this book means that he has taken that message to heart.
Preaching in the New Testament Jonathan I. Griffiths InterVarsity Press, 2017. 152 pp.
Preaching, of all the various pieces of Christian liturgical practice, is maybe the one that we think the least about theologically. The works out there devoted to discussing preaching from a matter of practice, of course, are dime-a-dozen, and there are many writings discussing the preaching style of some of Christianity’s most famous preachers (re: Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Spurgeon, M-L Jones, etc.). But to hear the act and purpose of preaching qua preaching discussed is a novel and worthy exercise.
Griffiths’ study is a solid foundational work for dealing with a wide variety of questions that arise when thinking about the concept of “preaching” and “the preacher”: What makes preaching distinct from teaching? Who can / cannot preach*? What are the appropriate / inappropriate occasions for preaching? Griffiths admirably resists the urge to follow a wide variety of loose ends and rabbit holes in order to set certain base standards of the concept of preaching.
The monograph is short and to-the-point, with a quick overview of key Greek terms and some discussion of the differences between “semi-technical” terms for preaching proper and less formal terms for general communication. Here Griffiths avoids over-indulging in Greek word-study while setting a solid context for the rest of the work’s observation of specific instances of those terms. I did find myself hungering for a little more Greco-Roman hermeneutics to ground those word-ideas, but given the New Studies in Biblical Theology‘s value for accessibility I know that I am asking for something beyond the bounds of the work.
Griffiths work shines the best as he jumps into the exegesis of various New Testament texts, especially when he gets to the Epistle to the Hebrews and its sermonic structure. With thoughtful attention, he pulls out of each text various key implications regarding preachers and preaching-acts. Some of these claims are fairly self-evident to the task of modern preaching (i.e. they serve to instruct God’s people, to exhort, to teach from the Scriptures, etc.); but, of course, Griffiths goal was never to tear down the common evangelical assumptions but, instead, to question whether they hold Scriptural weight or not.
There are two particularly interesting claims Griffiths puts before the reader in his conclusion that are worth ruminating on:
The first point that Griffiths drives home time and again is the importance of the anointing of preachers for the work of preaching. By carefully drawing out the distinctions between formal preaching and other, as he calls them, “word ministries,” Griffiths is able to observe the Scriptural importance given to the anointing of preachers for ministry. He does not linger too long upon the topic, since he would quickly run aground on the reefs of ecclesiological distinctions (i.e. presbyteries ordaining preachers versus bishops ordaining preachers versus congregations ordaining preachers), but he does so with enough biblical grounds and theological argument to sustain the idea that “lone wolf” preaching is unbiblical. The claim is a hard one, especially for the North American church (Griffiths is Canadian) and its propensity for pastor-founded independent churches. The idea that preachers must be called is not new, of course, but it is a bold statement in the theological milieu of today, where preachers are more and more likely to “call” themselves rather than allow a local church body call them.
The second point worth further notice is Griffith’s emphasis on the spiritual nature of the preached word. Time and again he reminds the reader using the Scriptures (especially Hebrews) that it is God who speaks in the preached Word, not simply the man who has been anointed preacher. Griffiths says this explicitly near the end of the work:
When authentic, faithful Christian preaching of the biblical word takes place, that preaching constitutes a true proclamation of the word of God that enables God’s own voice to be heard.
One would almost say that this is a nigh-sacramental view of preaching, although I doubt Griffiths’ tradition (or most traditions, for that matter) would be comfortable with that usage of the term. Still, it bears much resemblance to how most Christians view baptism and the eucharist: they are, rightly, works of God, works of Grace, that He works in the believer actively through His agents (i.e. the officiant). In the magisterial traditions of the Reformation (Lutheran and Calvinist) as well as in the high-church traditions (Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican), the regular confession is that God is present (in some fashion) in the performance of these acts. For Griffiths, God is actually present and speaking in the act of preaching.
Of course, a question could be proffered as to what would account for preaching that does not fit the given standard, just as the question is proffered regarding the sacraments. For baptism and communion, most Christians would agree that they are legitimate even if the sacramental agent is deficient in some manner (hence why the early Reformers refused to baptize converts from Catholicism). Clearly, Griffiths does think that there are situations in which the preaching of God’s Word is not “authentic,” but he does not precisely provide us with such a rubric. An attempt to sort out what does and does not constitute the “authentic” act of Christian preaching would be a very interesting study.
Altogether, Griffiths provides useful exegetical engagements with the New Testament to remind the evangelical what he or she already believes regarding preaching (i.e. that it is a ministry of God’s Word, that it serves to exhort and encourage the body of Christ in the Truths of God, etc.) while also pointing to several less-recognized truths of preaching (mainly, that it is a ministry of authorized / anointed leaders, and that in it God actually speaks to His people). I find myself wondering if there are more critical questions that could be asked regarding the act of preaching, and wondering the limits of various terms (such as what constitutes the “authentic” preaching-act, see above), but the work stands on its own as a solid, reasoned example of exegetical theology. It is a useful “step back” from our typical assumptions of preaching in order to re-examine the Scriptural bases for the preaching-act itself.
I would like to thank InterVarsity Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.
*Griffiths graciously brackets the topic of women in ministry for the purposes of his discussion. He marks it once, near the beginning, as a topic that could be discussed from this work, but he does not muddy the waters by stepping into another discussion. As it stands, I think his work could be useful for both complementarian and egalitarian theologians.
To my mind, there are few intellectual delights sweeter than reading the well-tuned prose of David Bentley Hart. I’m aware that this statement may occasion a few chortles and raised eyebrows—I think of the pastor friend who said Hart’s Beauty of the Infinite was the most difficult thing he’s ever tried to read and consequently gave it away— but over time, Hart’s writings have become to me like the sipping of a fine port after so many cans of Dr. Pepper or Mahler’s Resurrection symphony after so many Beyoncé songs, if you prefer. Hart’s new book of previously published essays is more digestible than Beauty of the Infinite, —more hours d’oeuvre style than full dress, if only because if you’re not enjoying the taste of one essay you can grab another—but it’s certainly contains the caloric content and the substance of a rich and full meal.
Hart’s book is a theological and philosophical treasure and is a rich testament to his unerring learnedness, eloquence and profound intellectual range, as John Milbank attests on the back blurb. Perhaps I may serve you better, dear reader —oh you, likely tortured soul, this far deep into philosophy and theology!— if instead of trying to tidily summarize these essays, (you really must just spend time with them), I am able to position you to better understand Hart when you do decide to finally try and read him.
There is no doubt that it is much easier to digest a three minute Beyoncé song than a 45 minute Mahler symphony and so you must know that reading Hart takes work and time. He is an acquired taste and if you’re anything like me, you will have several different stages in your journey with David Bentley Hart, resembling, somewhat strangely, the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief.
The first was the bewilderment stage– In this stage I was determined to understand what the man was saying even if it meant coming at the cost of spending more time looking up the words he was using than actually reading him. My first encounter was reading Atheist Delusions as a college undergrad and at many times I really had very little idea of what, exactly, Hart was saying but I knew that it looked very impressive and that I very well would like to swordfight with atheists this way some day and look as smart and accomplished doing it. But what exactly did it mean to be rather petulant or have a note of asperity? Dictionary… This stage often continues into the present.
The Cheerleading or the Righteous Anger phase– This phase found me running up to the New Atheist bullies, or anyone that would disagree with him, behind his coattails—Hart, the brave older brother— casting stones and then running away. “Take that you bad guys that don’t believe in Jesus! I’ve got a very smart and clever brother that will take you to task.” In this phase, I enjoyed the ammunition that Hart gave me and felt that if he could be so disparaging to any and all that disagreed that it was not only appropriate to belittle opponents so and take great pleasure in laughing at their intellectual inferiority. As a young apologist wannabe sentences like “Dennet’s book is utterly inconsequential—in fact, it is something of an embarrassment…“ and “Dawkins [the] tireless tractarian [with an] embarrassing incapacity for philosophical reasoning” were like bullets in the chamber of my rhetorical gun. This stage lasted for about three years or until around the second year of graduate school when I realized that this roughshod apologetic approach might be winning some battles but losing the war.
The Turn (Kehre)– In this stage I found myself distancing myself from Hart and his spewing prose and wondered why Hart seemed so angry all the time. Why all the vitriol? Doesn’t Paul say that if he speaks without love he is but a clanging cymbal? Was it really necessary to disparage those who thought differently than he did so hostilely? Doesn’t he like anybody? I found myself being frustrated with his disparagement of anyone and everyone that didn’t agree with him.
Engagement– This stage began in earnest again with the release of Hart’s book The Experience of God in 2014. I was at the tail end of an M.A. in philosophy and I found that Hart’s book nicely captured many of the philosophical arguments I had been studying, tidying them up in their relationship to my faith and why, exactly, these ideas mattered—something that is easily lost in the midst of studies. I relied heavily on his exposition of the anologia entis why the prennial philosophical question of “Why is there something rather than nothing” was misunderstood, ignored, and unanswerable by modern atheists— in my case, Feuerbach.
Acceptance– In the end (which I consider to just have arrived at with the reading of these essays), I got over Hart’s cantankerousness because he is just too helpful and brilliant to write off as simply a demagogue. It seems that even Hart’s heart has begun to softent: he writes in the preface to this new volume that “I have also decided not to attempt to soften some of the more immoderate or provocative remarks in these essays, despite my resolve to strike a more emollient tone whenever I can…” Whether this change of tone is strictly for personal advancement or arises from the injunctions of the gospel that Hart proclaims, I could not say, but I was assuaged (not that I really needed a reason to be) and am curious how Hart’s invective will change in his future work.
Maybe your relationship hasn’t been nearly as tumultuous as mine has. Who knows? Maybe you have not the slightest idea what I am talking about and yet have read this far! Regardless, this collection of essays is a treasure and it will be a volume continually close to hand, both for its example of the power of rhetoric and for its rich expositions of the most basic and fundamental tenants of Christianity read in the light of the best of the tradition. Who can resist sentences like: It imbues the works of Augustine’s senescence with an inexpungible tincture of tragic moral idiocy, one that he bequeathed to broad streams of Catholic and Protestant tradition” (139) and “Ultimately, Heidegger succeeds only at returning to an oblivion of being as profound as his own… (24)?
Did I mention that Hart makes for a rather polarizing figure?
If there is one interweaving thread throughout Hart’s work (and these essays) it is the continual reference to the “conceptual revolution” of Christianity’s understanding of Being. That is, because of its doctrine of creation, Christianity forced a reconceptualization of the entire history of metaphysics. As Hart says,
Herein lies the great ‘discovery’ of the Christian metaphysical tradition: the true nature of transcendence, transcendence understood not as mere dialectical supremacy, and not as ontic absence, but as the truly transcendent and therefore utterly immediate act of God, in his own infinity, giving being to beings (109).
In other words, God is not some type of super creature among creatures (or man writ large as Feuerbach would have it) but existence itself. “Without him nothing was made that was made.” Hart uses this Thomistic doctrine between ens and esse to ground his critique of Heidegger in the first essay “The Offering of Names” and to summarize the uniqueness of Christian thought in “The Destiny of Christian Metaphysics” and it also features prominently in the title essay “The Hidden and the Manifest.” There are two important treatments of the much-maligned doctrine of God’s impassibility as well as two essays on Gregory of Nyssa an extended treatment of Milton and discussions about infinity.
If you’re just beginning with Hart or a fairly recent comer to metaphysics then I would suggest you start with Experience of God and then pick up this book of essays. (If you’re really just a pugilistic looking to excoriate your opponents, The Atheist Delusions is the book for you, though chapter 15 in that book I consider maybe the high point of any book I’ve read in the last five years. And it’s probably thanks to Hart that I even know what a pugilist is….) You’ll be glad you did.
Hearing the Call: Liturgy, Justice, Church, and World Nicholas Wolterstorff Eerdmans, 2011. 440 pp.
Liturgy and Justice seem like odd bedfellows. When we typically think of “Liturgy,” we think of Sunday morning worship and the organization of the church service. On the other hand, when we typically think of “Justice,” we tend to think, more often than not, of something that occurs “outside,” in some fashion, the bounds of the Sunday morning worship. If we participate in the work of Justice — however one may define that term — then we participate “outside” of the realms of “worship,” “music,” “architecture,” or any of the other matters that come into consideration under the broad heading of Liturgy.
And this ought not be so, contends Nicholas Wolterstorff. In a collection of essays that includes biographical shorts, letters to young academics, essays on social work, poverty, and architecture, and reflections on matters of theology and practice, Wolterstorff reminds the reader, time and time again, that the call of the Old Testament is unified in its commitments to the “orphans, widows, and foreigners,” and how the prophets remind the people of God, time and time again, that their worship is null and void apart from this ethical-moral precommitment.
For a book that is inadequately named (“Hearing the Call” is the most unhelpfully vague title I could imagine for such a work), I am surprised at how often I find myself reflecting on Wolterstorff’s admonitions. There’s a joie de vivre throughout — probably a “good infection” that Wolterstorff received from Allan Boesak — that is irresistible; there’s a sense of that eternal Kingdom that Wolterstorff always points to as being palpable and livable hear and now. And yet Wolterstorff does not hold back his hammer: he takes apart Max Weber’s obnoxious thesis of Calvinist anxiety (it is about time someday did this with academic virtuosity!), brings to task American evangelical predilections with capitalism, undoes the secularist’s love of wealth, and demolishes the nondenominational / charismatic structure of a worship service. But even in his direct rebukes, all of Wolterstorff’s words are spoken with intricate care and with loving attention. What is most profound about such a compassionate call-to-action is the vast temporal space between the earliest essay (1969) and the latest (2010): If this were biography, the confession of Wolterstorff’s lifework would be one of compassionate, loving, yet firm, theological and prophetic engagement.
With such a variety of essays and ideas to highlight, it is impossible for me to do Wolterstorff’s work here its due credit. Here are some (sparse, diverse) thoughts that I came away with:
— An Attention to Liturgy, Architecture, and Music: Spread throughout the various sections of the book, Wolterstorff spends incredible attention on the individual pieces of corporate worship, dealing with, in turn, the topics of liturgical structure, architecture of the church building, and selection of church music appropriate for this or that mood or season. The thoughts included here are the little pieces upon which Wolterstorff’s later (and more specific) monograph on worship and liturgy, The God We Worship (2015), was built, but they are more than enough to serve as suitable entrance into his thoughts on the matter. The overarching theme is one deemed practically unimportant by most of American evangelicalism: the choices we make in organizing our liturgy, building our churches, and planning our music are important; they reveal our implicit theologies.
In particular, Wolterstorff spends significant attention to the importance of doors and open spaces in church buildings (as one can see in his home church, Church of the Servant, depicted above), highlights the values of expressing Christian egalitarianism through architecture, and, more than anything else, the centrality of churches as spaces filled with light, an idea he draws from Calvin’s Genevan churches.
— The Admiration of John Calvin: Speaking of Calvin, I found Wolterstorff’s consistent return, time and again, to the Institutes of the Christian Religion to be refreshing, an incredible feat in and of itself. While most readers of Calvin (including both Calvinists and Arminians) find him staunch and pietistic, Wolterstorff brings out the Calvin who is deeply concerned with matters of justice, matters of right worship, and matters of Christian communal living.
If there is something to be lamented in American Calvinist / Reformed thought in the present-day, it is the absorption of Calvin’s thought into specific sectarian (and politically-charged) camps to serve particular (often politically-intentioned) purposes. Wolterstorff, alongside other Reformed interlocutors (I would include Peter Leithart, for instance), does an incredible job of bringing out the wholeness of Calvin’s theology to address topics that are rarely addressed in typical Calvinist circles.
— Poverty as a Moral Ill: One last set of thoughts from Hearing the Call that stood out to me were the ways in which Wolterstorff addressed the topic of poverty. Wielding a solid group of ancient witnesses (mainly 4th-Century Church Fathers) alongside Thomas Aquinas, Wolterstorff makes a thorough case near the end of the book for describing poverty as a moral ill, and, with that, takes an axe to the politico-theological camp of ascribing moral goodness to American capitalism. He articulates his arguments firmly and with conviction, with solid biblical and theological grounds, making the American reader double-guess his or her own received values of money as a moral good.
What shocked me in reading Wolterstorff’s addresses on this topic was how little I considered my own economic / financial decisions to be ones of moral importance. But Wolterstorff leaves no room for moral neutrality (as he ought) and holds the Church to the biblical standard of caring for the poor as one of her fundamental duties. Wolterstorff provides an antidote for the poison that is American capitalism, without relying on its typical antithesis, Marxism, at all. Instead, he calls the Church to a higher calling and a higher duty.
Wolterstorff’s collection can feel at times slightly repetitive, as it perhaps should be for an anthology of fifty years’ worth of essays, yet it is a delightful “salve for the eyes,” so to speak, helping the American Christian re-frame their theological commitments toward Justice in biblical terms as opposed to our received cultural ones. Some essays leave one with bigger questions than solved answers, but Wolterstorff doesn’t ever leave an essay without some sense of eschatological hope. The works are convicting and compelling, but never damning or heavy-handed; instead, one senses a stronger call to follow the Lord’s ways and purposes, and to, as the prophet Micah says, “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before your God.”