Book Review: Religion and Human Enhancement

Religion and Human Enhancement: Death, Values and Morality
Ed. Tracy J. Trothen and Calvin Mercer
Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. 377pp.

While society mostly considers transhumanism a fringe movement based on science-fiction concepts, technology continues to shape humanity. Technologies that enable lifespan extension, cognitive enhancement, and precise gene editing in humans are not far off. The Church must be prepared to offer a response to transhumanism and the technologies of human enhancement, lest individuals and communities uncritically embrace technologies simply due to societal trends. A groundswell of Christian thinkers engaging these issues from a variety of perspectives appears to be building. Earlier this year the Christian Transhumanist Association held its first conference and hosted radical lifespan extension advocate Aubrey de Grey. In Religion and Human Enhancement, scholars from a variety of religious traditions engage issues around human enhancement technologies.

Because this volume includes contributions from several different religious perspectives, many of the essays argue from beliefs and presuppositions that conflict with orthodox Christianity. Several chapters, however, should be given serious attention by Christian theologians.9783319624877.jpg

For Christians unfamiliar with transhumanism, this book introduces many of the concepts and technologies that are commonly discussed. Ron Cole-Turner helpfully outlines the ways that secular transhumanism is opposed to Christian theology and proposes a way forward for “Christian transhumanism.” In this model, God’s gracious transformation of individuals and the cosmos occurs through technology. Cole-Turner takes seriously the embodied nature of the Christian faith and challenges Christians to see God at work through technology, not for the sake of “self-improvement or self-enhancement [but]…self-surrender that opens up the possibility of gracious transformation.” While I find much of value in Cole-Turner’s work here, I remain unconvinced that Christians can embrace a form of transhumanism.

Brent Waters offers perhaps the most contrarian essay, “Is Transhumanism a Distraction? On the Good of Being Boring.” Waters builds on the work of Albert Borgmann to consider the mundane activities of life as focal things that are formational and not superfluous. Waters notes that transhumanists have little to say about housekeeping, yet routine (and tedious) tasks shape individuals and families as they engage bodily in the daily and weekly rhythms of household upkeep. Children are not given chores simply to lighten the load of parents, but also to teach responsibility. Even preparing and eating a meal is avoided by some transhumanists who instead adopt a bland diet filled with supplements to enhance longevity. Waters defends the mundane practices as essential to a human life well-lived. Through the engagement of heart, soul, mind, and strength, we are formed into people ready to serve a world in need, rather than those who expect desires to be filled on demand.

Other notable contributions include critiques of moral bioenhancement from Celia Deane-Drummond and Todd T. W. Daly, as well as a consideration of the fear of death latent in transhumanism by Noreen Herzfeld. 

As editor Tracy Trothen notes in the book’s conclusion, “Now is the time for sustained grappling with the implications of human enhancement.” Technologies of human enhancement are coming quickly and our modern world has already embraced a transhumanist mindset in many ways (a subject I hope to write more on soon). Christian theology and ethics must be brought to bear on these issues so that the church is equipped to respond well when the time comes. What does it mean to be human, and what is God’s vision for humanity? I look forward to reading and reviewing the next volume in this series from Palgrave—Christian Perspectives on Transhumanism and the Church—in which solely Christian scholars reflect on technology and the future of humanity.

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Book Review: Early Christian Readings of Genesis One

Early Christian Readings of Genesis One
Craig D. Allert
IVP Academic, 2018. 330pp.

In recent years, there has been quite a resurgence in evangelical circles of “returning to the Church Fathers.” Reformed Christians champion St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom, while those allured toward Eastern Orthodoxy quote at length the prodigious contemplations of the Cappadocian Fathers, and everyone, Christian or not, loves to share the meme of the real St. Nicholas, “bringing gifts and punching heretics.”

It is not surprising, in the midst of such a resurgence, to encounter a wide variety of adaptations of the Church Fathers for a wide variety of ends. Augustine is particularly famous for this: one could take his Confessions as a mark of approval for all existentialist philosophy, or for Platonism, or for Calvinism, or for credobaptism, or for just war theory, or what-have-you. Even those mired in the “Creation-vs.-Evolution” debate have leaned into the Church Fathers for inspiration, resulting in a rigid six-day, thoroughly historical interpretation of Genesis 1, as per, these debaters assert, St. Basil’s or Efrem the Syrian’s literalism.

To the Fathers’ rescue comes Craig D. Allert, with this useful entry on the Ancient Church’s hermeneutics. Those from Ken Hamm’s sector who would adapt the Fathers for the sake of rigid Creationism, Allert asserts, succeed only in misrepresenting the views of the Church Fathers and only further muddy the waters. Concerned for the Fathers’ late-modern reception, Allert proposes a close look at various cross-sections of the Genesis 1 debate and divulges their true usefulness in a book that I am sure will allow the patristic novice new access to the works of the Fathers.

Background: Hermeneutical Considerations

From the beginning, Allert finds he needs to clarify some hermeneutical terms and conditions first and foremost. For the reader familiar with philosophical hermeneutics (see: James K.A. Smith, The Fall of Interpretation, for instance), this section can be skipped over; but for the student unfamiliar with some of the complexities regarding hermeneutics and interpretation, this section serves as an invaluable introduction to some of the issues at stake in the “literalist” debate.Early Christian Readings of Genesis One

Here Allert has really put his thumb on what is undoubtedly one of the most significant issues in modern hermeneutics today, rightly discerning that when someone like Ken Hamm says “literal” or “as it is read” that they are, in reality, imputing foreign information into their text, as though it were truly as obvious as they say it is. Without needing to rely on too many heady philosophical terms, Allert deftly upturns some of the claims of the “Grammatical-Historical” school of interpretation, interrogates the doctrine of the “perspicuity” of the Scriptures, and reminds the reader, constantly, that the world of the Ancient Church is, simply put, worlds away from our experience.

Creating distance between the hermeneutical frames of the Church Fathers and that of Grammatical-Historical interpreters, Allert establishes a solid foundation for re-engaging with the words of the Fathers themselves, allowing them to speak in their own defense regarding the conversation on Genesis 1.

Literally Literal?

The premiere father to be cast into claims of literalism is St. Basil the Great, one particularly noted for his homilies on the Creation, The Hexaemeron. In this famous collection of sermons, Basil says explicitly: “let [the text] be understood as it is written.” (Hex. 9.1) He refutes those who would read “grass” as anything other than “grass,” or who would read “waters” as anything besides “waters.” Surely, suggest some, Basil understands Genesis to be a literally literal description of all the details of God’s creative activity, right?

And, yet, aside from this proof text, as Allert shows his readers, it would appear that Basil himself, as opposed to the claims made on his behalf, participates in what some might call an “allegorical,” rather than “literal,” method for interpreting the days of Genesis. In Homily 6, Basil discusses God’s creation of the sun, moon, and stars, and he begins contemplating the difference between the sun and the moon to discuss the difference between God and mankind. One is unchanging and constant, the other changeable and dynamic.

In short, as Allert demonstrates adequately, it would seem that Basil is not the “literalist” he’s cracked up to be. Rather, when he speaks of the “plain text” of the word, he’s in particular opposing a group of allegorizers who have a particular (and heretical) aim in mind. Basil, for one, demonstrates that the option of reading Genesis 1 allegorically or symbolically ought to still be a live option.

This kind of approach continues as Allert engages with the more tricky question of how the ancient Fathers, and Basil in particular, deal with the topic of the seven days of Creation, the topic of time, the origins of light, and other sub-topics in the broader scheme of the Creation story.

The Beginning of the Beginning

One of the highlights of this book is the chapter dedicated to St. Augustine’s views on Creation. In all honesty, one of the few critiques I have of Allert’s book is that it feels like he’s set too grand a task for himself: a survey of the claims of all the Church Fathers? In reality, it feels like he barely has room to cover the two he highlights, Basil and Augustine! It would be worthwhile, I think, for Allert to take the groundwork he’s laid here with this general overview book and write two focused monographs on just Basil and Augustine’s views.craig-allert

That being said, the chapter on Augustine gives a really interesting angle into the whole debate. For one, as most readers familiar with Augustine know, his On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis is perhaps the biggest opponent of any modern-day “literal” interpretation. Allert does a fantastic job of summarizing two of Augustine’s more sublime and philosophically nuanced bits of writing, his discussion on the nature of time from The Confessions and his discussion on the creation of light from City of God.

Augustine is a very different kind of writer than Basil, so the compare-contrast between the two and how they both engage in a variety of hermeneutical interventions is fascinating to see. One of Allert’s stronger accomplishments in this book is to allow these Church Fathers to speak in dialogue with one another, simply by giving their words space to breathe.

Final Thoughts

Altogether, Early Christian Readings of Genesis One is a worthwhile read, especially for those unfamiliar with either patristic exegesis or with ancient cosmological assumptions. Allert could have done with less jabs at AiG (and other young earth creationists); as is often true, an argument framed against an interlocutor can sometimes be less persuasive than one that is more positive (it is better to promote an idea than to fight its opposite). Fortunately, after his introductory sections, Allert dispenses with referring back to his originating battle and focuses on the texts at-hand, which are far more interesting.

The sheer bibliographic value of this book for the sake of those new to reading Basil and Augustine, in particular, is immense. Those who read the Fathers are often overwhelmed by how dense their writings can be, and how hard it is to find one’s place. Allert has here collected a solid chunk of primary source materials that can be returned to by the reader time and again.

In the end, Allert’s thesis is rock-solid. We simply cannot assume that the Fathers mean “literal” the same way we do, and Allert has done a good job of demonstrating the cracks in such “literalist” claims by letting the Fathers talk. This is a suitable introductory book for beginners interested in either the Church Fathers or the historic interpretation of the Book of Genesis.

Book Review: Disruptive Witness

Disruptive Witness
Alan Noble
InterVarsity Press, 2018. 189pp.

It is quite apparent to anyone paying much attention that the world of late-modern Western capitalism is ever-the-more distracted, confusing, and messy. And, in the midst of all that messiness, the Western Christian Church finds itself languishing. It is all-too-easy to point the fingers of “poor doctrine” or “weak discipleship” when this languishing is occurring across the spectrums of “good,” “bad,” and “ugly.” For ages evangelicals have pointed at the mainline’s decline in membership and blamed it on their politics; recent polls show that the Southern Baptist Convention  – America’s largest evangelical denomination – is on just-as-serious a decline.

Disruptive Witness

Perhaps, then, the decline of the Church in the modernized, secularized West has far less to do with that of weakening or stagnant or calcifying dogmas, perhaps it has far less to do with where one lands on the mainline-to-evangelical plotline, and more to do with our context. Maybe the ground has shifted under our feet, and we do not yet recognize it.

A Secular (and Liturgical) Age

Alan Noble, in his debut work, sees this trajectory, and, translating the work of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and James K.A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies for a more general audience, takes careful aim in how to dismantle and address the impacts and effects of the secular culture. Especially for readers unfamiliar with Taylor’s landmark work, Noble’s summations will be invaluable general theological-philosophical introductions (A Secular Age is, after all, *that* daunting 800+ page book on your shelf that you spent $40-$50 on, but are unsure you’ll be reading anytime soon), as will Noble’s adjustments to the commonly-received “worldview” terminology used by evangelical missiologists (ad nauseum).

By articulating a missiology in the midst of Taylor, Smith, and in contradistinction to “worldview” approaches, Noble very carefully – and successfully – attempts to carve out an evangelism-within-the-secular that does not reproduce the secular’s own methods. This is tricky business, as he himself admits, since so much of the Church’s evangelistic language is coded with modern, secular values. Noble uses a bit of self-deprecation to good effect, and his illustrations function quite well to paint the picture of the problem of Christian evangelism under-modernity.

Double Movements

O Alan Noble.jpg

The second half of Noble’s work is devoted to praxis, and here we find a little bit of stumbling. I think the first instance is simply a clunky term. Maybe he’s channeling a bit of Charles Taylor here – neither “the immanent frame” nor “nova effect” are great turns-of-phrase in technical philosophy (this is the discipline with deep neologisms like being-in-itselfDasein, and noumenon, after all) – but “double movement,” although I feel like I understood it implicitly, doesn’t quite ring with the experience it attempts to circumscribe.

That being said, ignoring the terminological clunkiness, the double movement is indeed a crucial insight for how to apply a missiological response to Taylor. If we live within a frame-of-reference in which all existence is referred back to the immanent materiality, then developing practices that allow us to adopt a stance of recognizing and responding to the transcendent in everyday life is crucial. (Okay, I guess the previous sentence makes “immanent frame” useful; I recant. “Nova effect” is still dumb, though.) Noble provides some sketches of how to accomplish this both within individual, personal lives and, crucially, in ecclesial contexts. In the latter he borrows heavily from J.K.A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies, so those familiar with Smith’s claims in Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom won’t find much groundbreaking here.

Aesthetics as Disruption

But what I personally found most compelling about Noble’s praxis were his overtures to the power of the aesthetic world – art, music, film, literature – and its ability to cause disruption in our lives. This is the point at which Noble’s own speciality, English literature, shines through. His brief vignettes on Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and The Road, a reflection via Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, some engagements with film and music, are among the highlights of how Noble understands the aesthetic to serve as disruption. One autobiographical example from his professorship and the ability of 20th-century literature to disrupt our assurances was particularly telling, and I, for one, deeply appreciate his willingness to confront unhealthy evangelical attitudes towards art head-on.

Final Thoughts

All-in-all, I found Disruptive Witness to be an excellent introduction for both students and evangelists on some of the basic frameworks of what witness in a modern world must look like. It does leave me hungry for more – but I chalk a lot of that up to my own familiarity with the work of James K.A. Smith, which is no fault of Noble’s! – but on its own, given to campus ministers, evangelists, and pastors young and old, this book serves as an excellent starting-point for learning and discerning how to bear witness in a secular world without compromising to its values.

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.

Book Review: Come, Let Us Eat Together

Come, Let Us Eat Together
Ed. George Kalantzis and Marc Cortez
InterVarsity Press, 2018. 252pp.

Essay collections can be a tricky matter to balance well. At times, even the b

est of collections (see, for instance, my review of The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, ed. Hauerwas and Wells) can drag if one reads them cover to cover, simply because one covers the same materials in different formats from different voices. The same can easily be said of essay collections that are, in essence, the collected works of symposia, as the Wheaton Theology Conference and its correlated IVP book series are.

But Come, Let Us Eat Together drew me in. Maybe it was the incredible diversity of the writers (= speakers), or the panoramic insight of the varied angles, or, even, (and this surprised me the most) the sense that even at a conference with pre-prepared talks and papers, the interlocutors were engaging with the speaker or writer before them.

come let us eat together

And that is how it should be! When one covers the topic of “Sacraments and Christian Unity,” navigating the tricky lines between sacramental theology / ecclesiology on the one end and eschatology / ecumenism on the other, one would hope that each essay and each author would be “speaking” with one another. That, after all, is a crucial essence to the modern ecumenical movement.

Talking Together, Eating Together?

Of course, talking together, an essay collection from a conference with Catholic and Orthodox, Reformed and Anglican, Lutheran and (Ana-)baptist, is, as the essays assert, not enough. The chief question is: Can we share the table with one another?

Here the essays portray a vast array of views. Cherith Fee Nordling’s essay on the ascension of Christ, on the one end, gives a positive, eschatological assertion on the essential nature of the Church as unified; so too Paul L. Gavrilyuk’s (surprisingly) optimistic essay on the same theme from an Eastern Orthodox perspective. But Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy’s address of the topic from the Roman Catholic end of the conversation is less optimistic, observing some of the crucial fault-lines between the “orthodox episcopal” churches (i.e. the RCC and EO) and the Protestant churches; and Marc Cortez’s incredibly helpful discussion on the history of Baptist views on sacrament concludes with similar difficulties.

It might be easy, especially for someone like myself who has emerged from Pentecostal free-church traditions, to say that doctrine ought not separate us at the table. What is perhaps most surprising throughout Come, Let Us Eat Together is how relatively small the problem of doctrine is in comparison to other, largely ecclesiological, problems. With only a few exceptions, the conversation on transubstantiation versus Sacramental Union (the Lutheran view) versus real presence is glossed over very lightly. Far deeper is the historical realities and ecclesial distances between the various wings of the Church.

 

Wheaton Theology Conference (Bradley Nassif)And, as a result, the argument against open communion is, to my surprise! (being a lifelong open communionist), robust and reasonable and, at the end of the day, uninterested in doctrinaire authoritarianism. The historic relationship between baptism and Eucharist, for instance, cuts to the core of most sacramental debates (Cortez touches on this from the Baptist end, and so does Kalantzis from an early Christian historical lens). The question of the episcopacy and whether it descends from the apostolate also emerges as a central theme (one that Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen tackles valiantly in his essay). It turns out, and this has been an interesting surprise to me, that open communion is not as gracious or mindful or, even!, ecumenical as its proponents might say. The whole topic is far more complex; extending the right hand of grace and mercy to the disparate parts of the Christian Church might actually look more like learning the various wings’ views and traditions and honoring them. (InterVarsity actually does this actively at their Urbana conference, where Catholics and Lutherans are invited to join in the time of prayer at communion, knowing that many would bow out from full participation.)

 

Overall, Come, Let Us Eat Together is a fantastic volume on a particularly tricky subject. The wisdom of this particular set of authors, their diversity both externally (i.e. from different traditions) and internally (i.e. within a given tradition) provides the unique ecumenical balance necessary for accomplishing a book like this. And Kalantzis and Cortez, as editors, have done an excellent job of preserving the “conference” feel in the essays, even in the transition to print; the essay-writers “speak” with one another. Even the less intriguing essays contribute to the overall polyphony of the Church, and one can sense underneath this polyphony there is a powerful, supernatural work of God’s Spirit that will, before the end, bring all His people together again as one flock under one shepherd.

May it be so.

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.

Book Review: Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition

Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition: A Systematic Introduction
Craig G. Bartholomew
InterVarsity Press, 2017. 363pp.

Early in my time with Theologian’s Library, about a year ago, I wrote a review on a collection of essays by Nicholas Wolterstorff. Little did I know at the time that Hearing the Call would actually be an introduction to a whole constellation of theological ideas revolving around topics of politics, public theology, and the institutional life of the Church catholic that I would continue to ponder for the next year and onward. In fact, if there is some undergirding thread to my book choices, it is that this constellation of thoughts continues to recur, especially as I read James K.A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies (see my review for Vols. 1 and 2, and my review for Vol. 3). Since reading Wolterstorff (and entering the foray of the contemporary theological scene), I have learned to identify that constellation of ideas as “the Kuyperian tradition.”

Craig G Bartholomew

As my personal fascination with Abraham Kuyper’s legacy and thought grew, I realized it was about time I went backward to Kuyper himself and the origins of Kuyperian thought (and other thinkers associated with him). To that end, I searched out Craig G. Bartholomew’s recent introductory survey from IVP Academic, Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition. It accomplished precisely what an introductory survey out to accomplish: it orients the reader with substantive surrounding material in order to begin to suggest new directions for research, discovery, and learning. For those unfamiliar with the origins and history of the Dutch Reformed church, its unique history and structure, and the thought of Abraham Kuyper, this survey is indispensably helpful.

Critiquing the (Post-?)Modern

Unsurprisingly, the national church in the Netherlands wrestled with and against the tides of modernism throughout the nineteenth century. The influence of such luminaries as Friedrich Schleiermacher and David Friedrich Strauss in the early higher-criticism / modernist schools bled over past Germany into all parts of European Christianity, leading to what has now become known as the modernist crisis. In this milieu, Abraham Kuyper (and those associated with him) took an ardent counterstance.Abraham Kuyper

Bartholomew paints a picture of Kuyper as a nuanced anti-revolutionary: Kuyper isn’t a fundamentalist by any stretch of the imagination, nor is he the kind of biblicist evangelical that is popular in present-day American circles. Rather, he is an intellectual  raised in the modern context, educated with modern values, who, nevertheless, finds the modern system lacking when faced with biblical Christianity. And, yet, (this is perhaps the most surprising bit of Kuyper) he is able to integrate the language and the politics of modernism into his critique of it.

Following Kuyper, Bavinck, et al.’s lead, Bartholomew takes the tack of the Doleantie to engage present-day postmodern movements, integrating the worldview(“ish”) discourse of James W. Sire. In so-doing, Bartholomew observes a crucial lesson from Kuyper — that is, engaging constructively with the culture rather than (as the Anabaptists and fundamentalists did) retreating from it. And, yet, Bartholomew’s critique of postmodernism (and Sire’s, for the record; nevertheless, The Universe Next Door is a crucial text for contemporary practical missiology) falls flat precisely in the way that it is dissimilar from Kuyper’s; in short, he doesn’t fully appreciate (or reflect) the problems that postmodernism observes. (For a more integrative, and thus truly Kuyperian, approach to postmodernism, see James K.A. Smith’s The Fall of Interpretation.)

The misstep with engaging postmodernism aside (and especially forgivable given postmodernism’s difficulty in expressing itself clearly, something Smith also notes in The Fall of Interpretation), Bartholomew hones in on Kuyper, Bavinck, et al.’s anti-modernism in almost every single chapter, observing their vast disengagements with modernism’s views of theology, philosophy, Scripture, church, and science. And, most importantly for both Kuyper’s time and our own, Bartholomew hones in on the fact that (post)modernism must be discussed; it cannot be ignored.

Pastor, Public Theologian, Politician… “Reformer”

Most central to Kuyper’s work and legacy, even beyond his engagements with modernism as a pastor and theologian, are his roles as public theologian, politician and leader of the Anti-Revolutionary Party, and founder of the Free University of the Amsterdam. Kuyper is a “Reformer” in more senses than just his theological tradition!

Through excerpts intertwining Kuyper’s theological, political, and private lives, Bartholomew is able to accomplish what a cursory reading of Kuyper’s writings won’t: present a balanced, nuanced vision of “sphere sovereignty” (Kuyper’s greatest, or worst [depending on your inclinations], contribution to public theology) in the context of his day and age and reasons for so-doing. Late modern interlocutors are cautioned regarding taking Kuyper’s systems too linearly and reminded periodically of the unique position of the Doleantie, living in-between the end of Christendom and the rise of modernity. Both those who take “sphere sovereignty” to literalist extremes (like our contemporary Charismatic “seven mountains” version of dominionism) and those who oppose it at every chance (like Northern Seminary’s David Fitch) would do well to engage with Bartholomew’s excavation of Kuyper and Bavinck’s thoughts here.

The Voice of the Historian

One of the unwritten rules of writing history or biography (and Contours includes its fair share of both alongside its survey of theological and philosophical ideas) is that the historian or biographer in question ought to remove or edit out his or her voice from the writing. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the postmodern insistence on the storied nature of existence, this is impossible. Not only is it impossible, in my view, it can often lead to a deceptive sense of security in the objectivity and/or neutrality of the author with regards to the work-in-question.

Contours of the Kuyperian TraditionBartholomew, thankfully, breaks this unwritten (and, honestly, foolish) rule, and freely inserts himself and his perspective and his stories into the retelling of Kuyper (and company)’s journeys and developments in public theology. And his voice is necessary. Sometimes he can be a little-too-insistent on clarifying certain terms (see his take on postmodernism, above, for example), and sometimes his judgments on Kuyper are a little too quick. But most of the time Bartholomew’s voice serves as the mediating factor, bringing Kuyper’s late-nineteenth century words into conflict with the world of the early-twenty-first century. And it is always a productive engagement.

Final Thoughts

Altogether, Bartholomew has presented a winsome overview of the work and life of Abraham Kuyper and his immediate successors, to the extent that this introductory text ought to be a requisite companion to any starting off researching the Dutch Reformed Church and neo-Calvinism in general. The public theology of Kuyperianism is a far more balanced view of “the politics of the church” than pretty much any of the major streams in American Christian thought today – which range from radical separatism (i.e. Anabaptist, pietisms, Holinesses) to radical theocracy (i.e. dominionism in all its shades) – and brings the healthy perspective of (gasp!) an actual politician to the conversation. In our present context, voices like those of Gov. Bill Haslam and Gov. John Kasich currently represent some of the more nuanced perspectives of Christian political thought from politicians; but Americans need the voices of those outside our own circles too.

Maybe this Dutch “Reformer” holds the medicine we need to keep our warring eschatologies and politics at check and pursue a more verdant and fruitful common life? Bartholomew certainly seems to think so, and he has done an excellent job of introducing us to the topic!

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.

Book Review: The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics

The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics
Ed. Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells
Wiley-Blackwell, 2006 (1st edition). 528pp.

There is no such thing as “Christian ethics.” Such is a quick summation of the opening essays of a theological collection that espouses, audaciously, to then pursue that precise field of research. Yet Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells, themselves Christian ethicists, are unconvinced. Having gathered over thirty of the Christian academic world’s most profound voices for orthodox, biblical, liturgical ethics, they are unconvinced.

It makes for a masterful work of theology.

Ethics and Worship

The centering conviction of The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics is that the “ethics” of the Christian faith is far less about pat answers to “ethical quandaries” (that is, far less about answers to “the trolley problem”) and more about Christian formation: what kind of people are formed, discipled, and trained by the faith. From this perspective, “ethics” is kind of an unnecessary afterthought, an all-too-modern reflection upon that which earlier, better formed, Christians understood naturally. Truly “Christian” ethics is unreflective, unpremeditated, organically developed, and found in the lived actions of Christian people, something that Hauerwas and Wells make explicit in their introductory essay, “Why Christian Ethics Was Invented”:

Christian identity is not primarily to be found in statements or debates or arguments, but in particular practices, commitments, and habits. (Hauerwas and Wells, BCCE, 37)

From this perspective, then, it is the Christian practice of ecclesiological, sacramental, liturgically-organized communal worship that best provides a suitable on-ramp for conversations about ethics, rather than, as Kantian Rationalists would prefer, a more “natural” morality or “relevant,” consensus-driven liberal democratic mode. A good summation of Hauerwas and Wells’ framework is found in their essay of biblical philadelphia “The Gift of the Church”:

Ethics names the ways in which disciples discern and embody Christ’s life in the world, and the chief way they learn how to do this is through worship. (Ibid., 26)

If this theme sounds familiar to my readers, it is because this is not a new topic for my blog-writing: Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World, which I mentioned in my yearly books-in-review, prefigures some of the foundational liturgical-sacramental claims that Hauerwas and Wells use to organize this collection of essays. Likewise, since its publication, BCCE has been influential for a myriad of theologians writing today, especially James K.A. Smith, whose Cultural Liturgies I reviewed for Theologian’s Library. This continuity of theologians asserting that Christian ethics is emergent from Christian worship forms both the bibliographic backdrop for the BCCE and the scholastic reasoning for its continued reception. However radical a departure Hauerwas and Wells have made from Kant-inspired ethics, it is my sense that it is a necessary and foundationally Christian departure.

A Quick Sampling of What To Expect

Rather than give some exhaustive run-down of all that one might find in the BCCE, my review will now, instead, give some smattered highlights. While the collection is overall masterful, it is noteworthy to observe that some essays over-repeat previous themes, or gloss the same introductions overmuch. If read sequentially (as I did) one does begin to skim the front matter knowing that it will be a banal regurgitation of Hauerwas and Wells’ stuff. Some essays are worse about this than others. Nevertheless, the vast majority of essays are so superb that I find it well beyond my reasonable limits as a reviewer to treat each with their due diligence.

Here are some quick highlights:

+ Emmanuel Katongole, a Ugandan Catholic priest, discusses the problem with the concept of “racial reconciliation” and asserts, instead, the time of greeting as the formation of the People of God

+ Charles Pinches discusses the reading of Scripture as a form of naming and describing, creating the fundamental vocabularies of faith

+ David Matzko McCarthy, following the vein of his Sex and Love in the Home (which I also recommend), discusses a radical (and traditional?!) vision of hospitality in the home that reorients sexual relationships

+ R.R. Reno presents a positive vision (even provocative) towards a Christian work-ethic untainted by either global capitalism or socialist authoritarianism

+ Joseph Mangina corrects our scientific reductionisms regarding bearing children and brings the family into its proper context as a community of hope

And so on! For being a volume that “doesn’t do ethics,” Hauerwas and Wells’ collection pretty much addresses all the questions. Other notable highlights include Joel James Shuman’s address on homosexuality, Stephen Fowl’s thorough exegesis of Ephesians 4:25-5:2 in order to discuss theft, and the essays from William T. Cavanaugh and Kevin J. Vanhoozer. The whole work is worthy and replete with wisdom, liturgical practices, and theo-ethical challenges to the Church catholic.

My recommendation is simply to buy the book. With an updated edition out, the first edition’s cost is quite reasonable, so reasonable that I can’t see why any and every pastor and theologian shouldn’t have it on their shelf. It is perhaps the most comprehensive and helpful work of modern (postliberal / New Traditionalist) theology available today. It is a must-have.

Book Review: Becoming a Pastor Theologian

Becoming a Pastor Theologian
Ed. Todd Wilson and Gerald Hiestand
IVP Academic, 2016. 217pp.

“Pastor-theologian,” especially as a hyphenate, is perhaps as unhelpful a term as “public intellectual.” So often, it gets bogged down into the mire of (on the one hand) bad academic work and (on the other hand) poor pastoral vision. Even more often, and this is the true misfortune, it can easily degrade into an excuse for theologically-minded pastors to neglect their pastoral duties on the behalf of a misconstrued picture of their theological duties, which, at the end of the day, harms the local church.

And yet, for those more theologically-inclined pastors (like me), the term holds allure that goes beyond a mythical (and, at times, perverse) desire for scholastic isolation. There are pastors who hope to be both successful in their local ministry and in their academic- / theological- work. There are pastors whose theological prowess has something to contribute to the academic discourse. And then there are pastors who find informed theological discourse a vital source for their pastorate. It is for the sake of advancing this latter vision that Todd Wilson and Gerald Hiestand put together the Center for Pastor Theologians (CPT) and have compiled the essay collection Becoming a Pastor Theologian.

A Useful, Balanced, and Articulate Vision

The vision of the CPT is (from their website):

a broadly evangelical organization dedicated to recruiting, networking, and resourcing pastor theologians to provide faithful written, intellectual and theological leadership on behalf of the church, in light of the cultural challenges and opportunities of the late modern world.

Such a vision, “intellectual and theological leadership on behalf of the church,” is refreshing in an individualistic epoch. In Wilson and Hiestand’s own essays, they cast this vision with articulate precision. For those seeking to become pastor theologians or to navigate the nuances between the pastor theologian and, say, the academic theologian, these two essays (and the overarching architecture of this book) are incredibly helpful. They steer the issue away from the “pastor who writes theology” kind of vision and the “pastor who’s really just a theologian” one, and firmly assert, instead, a kind of theological ethnography picture of the pastor theologian. Instead of the pastor theologian being holed up in his or her study, working to write some dense and complex treatise, Wilson and Hiestand envision the pastor theologian as a theologically-empowered thought leader, tasked with engaging their particularized locality with the Gospel in the unique ways demanded of their context.

In short, Wilson and Hiestand rebuke the abstract, ideational picture of a pastor theologian, one that is sometimes portrayed by the prominent pastor theologians of our day (John Piper, A.W. Tozer, and R.C. Sproul all come to mind). Instead, they commend a practiced, local, contextualized, ethnographic, sociological vision of the pastor theologian, where theology is no longer a matter of simple discourse but, as it ought to be, “how now ought we live?”, that is, an ethics, a wisdom, a prophetic challenge to the powers-that-be, a local voice. This vision is articulated consistently throughout, and Wilson and Hiestand have clearly given a lot of time and thought to it.

 

Center for Pastor Theologians

Editorial Issues: Weak Essays with Narrow Diversity

That being said, two major issues harm Becoming a Pastor Theologian‘s effectiveness, and both serve as existential challenges for Wilson and Hiestand’s bigger project. The first is that a handful of the essays in this book are weak. Perhaps this is magnified by the organization of the text, which puts three academic theologians (Peter Leithart, James K.A. Smith, Kevin Vanhoozer) front-and-center, followed by Wilson and Hiestand’s essays, followed by the rest. But magnified or not, some of the essays written by pastor theologians show the rhetorical and stylistic sloppiness that plagues the field.

I’ve already written about how much I disliked Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God (not to rehash an unpleasant experience). One of the major problems with that work is how poorly organized it was, how clunky its rhetorical structures, how disheveled its writing. When I discovered, later on, that Boyd was a pastor theologian, I simply shrugged and thought “Ah, well that makes sense. How would he have time to edit a dissertation like this?”

Given that Wilson and Hiestand’s explicit goal is to reject this assumption, to assert that pastor theologians can indeed write good theological work, the presence of anemic essays in this collection serves as a threat to the vision of this project. To be clear, none of the weak essays in particular are useless; they just show the signs of weak writing, signs that are evident enough to those who read a lot of this kind of work, like pointless footnotes or citations that divert from the thesis or citations for citations’ sake or disorganized thought. Whatever the weaker essays contribute in terms of content, their form is a problem that Wilson and Hiestand must address.

But, returning now to content, there is another considerable hurdle that hampers Becoming a Pastor Theologian, and it is editorial bias. Whether this bias was explicit or implicit, intended or accidental or even incidental, there is a clear, sub-denominational trend amidst the writers of these essays. There is a tendency (and a lean) towards Neo-Reformed thought, and, with that, a tendency towards complementarianism.

Becoming a Pastor TheologianWhereas such leans and tendencies, even biases, are not in themselves a problem — I tend to commend a writer or writers for sticking to their viewpoints instead of obscuring them — they do constitute a challenge to Wilson and Hiestand’s vision in the way they manifest in this book. The CPT, in word and in practice (judging from their fellowship lists), aims to work ecumenically, to advance a more inter-denominational vision of the pastor theologian. How can they do such without enlisting more diverse voices for their writing work? One essay referring to the Catholic John Henry Newman and one essay written by a woman discussing women’s theological role (but not, notably, their pastoral theological role) are simply not enough to constitute theological diversity; a that lack of reasoned theological diversity is problematic if the CPT purports to be “broadly” evangelical. Even the image of CPT fellows (shown above) is entirely white and entirely male.

What makes this lack of diversity problematic is, at the end of the day, that it harms Wilson and Hiestand’s stated vision. If the pastor theologian is, indeed, to be a social-, ethnographic-, and local- theologian, informed by the spaces he or she inhabits, then the future of good pastor theological work requires a diversity of inhabited spaces. Without that diversity, the work becomes narrowed and limited in its effectiveness. These two troubles, the poor writing in the weaker essays and the lack of diversity, are both serious threats to Wilson and Hiestand’s project as a whole, and they injure the effectiveness of Becoming a Pastor Theologian as a book.

Standout Essays on Local and Social Theology

That being said, there are more than a few standout essays to be underscored that make Becoming a Pastor Theologian more than worth its weight. Aside from Wilson and Hiestand’s articulate vision-casting essays and the opening salvos (written by three academic theologians whose works are already universally admired), there are three particularly engaging essays that bring a well-roundedness to the CPT’s work that I wish to highlight.

The first is Scott M. Manetsch’s essay on John Calvin’s Geneva. This historical reflection discusses the unique ways Calvin’s theological community impacted both the social and the political in Geneva through regular theological reflection. Whether we like Calvin or not (and whether we agree with his magisterial political theology or not), the essay provides a powerful “social imaginary” for considering the role of the pastor theologian in his or her city, as well within the network of ecumenically-committed churches in that city. What Manetsch’s essay does most successfully is cast a vision for new constructive orderings of theological-, social-, and political- community, and reveals the role of the pastor theologian(s) in ordering and endowing life to that vision.

The second great essay is Chris Castaldo’s reflecting on the life of John Henry Newman. Mentorship is an all-too-often neglected gift of the church and, given that the stereotypical vision of a pastor theologian is “the scholar in the study,” re-considering mentorship from a theological and pastoral perspective is incredibly valuable. Castaldo’s intermingling of biography and mentoring wisdom provides a jumping-point for reinvigorating this long-lost gift of the Church.

Finally, the conclusory essay by Douglas Estes on the letter of II John and the pastor theologian’s call to write was fantastic. Beyond deftly navigating the postmodern understanding of écriture, Estes reflects on the phenomenology of writing in a way that is absolutely crucial for the task of the pastor theologian, reminding us that writing is the mediation between the theological work and its effect, manifest in an audience. Even further, Estes raises the same challenge I raised earlier in this review, that pastor theological work ought to be well-written. As a closing note, Estes’ essay gives me hope of better and brighter things for the CPT in the future.

Final Thoughts

Altogether, Becoming a Pastor Theologian is a suitable starting-point for those considering what pastor theological work looks like. It provokes certain assumptions and challenges certain selfish desires, and it prioritizes, rightly, the role of the local, the ethnographic, the social, and the ecclesial in the work of the pastor theologian. Despite their well-articulated vision, Wilson and Hiestand’s editorial decisions constitute a challenge to their work, with essays that need further refining before publishing and a lack of diversity in the author-base. Still, their essays, the essays of the three well-established theologians, and the three essays I highlighted above all make the work more than worthwhile, and I look forward to seeing more fruits of their labor with the CPT. The problems are not so big as to be insurmountable, and I am hopeful that their vision will bring about more and more change to the understanding of the pastor theologian’s role in the Church for years to come

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.