Book Review: Hearing the Call

Church of the Servant
Nicholas Wolterstorff’s home church in Grand Rapids

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 Hearing the Callis 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.

Nicholas Wolterstorff
Nicholas Wolterstorff is a Christian philosopher, Reformed epistemologist, and professor emeritus at Yale

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.”

 

Book Review: The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, Volume Two

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah
John Martin, The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852)

The Crucifixion of the Warrior God
Gregory A. Boyd
Fortress Press, 2017. 1492 pp.

Rhetorically, Volume Two of Greg Boyd’s The Crucifixion of the Warrior God is far more eloquent than Volume One. What, in the previous volume, was touch-and-go and overburdened by footnotes and block quotes becomes in this volume a far more thoughtful and well-articulated argument. The improved rhetoric helps Boyd flesh out a more convincing description of his Cruciform Hermeneutic, even though his uncritical presuppositions, discussed at the end of my previous post, continue unchecked.

Volume Two’s structure is also far more soundly organized. I did not find myself asking, as I did in Volume One, why whole sections of text existed for the sake of Boyd’s thesis. Most of Volume Two feels appropriate and necessary for the claims he proposes. I am still convinced that the work as a whole could have been comprised of one volume, with most of Volume One being pared away as unnecessary elaboration, but the amount of paring needed in Volume Two is very small.

With these less significant rhetorical considerations out of the way, my aim in this second review will be to see how far Boyd’s version of the Cruciform Hermeneutic works, what its limits are, and how his applications of that hermeneutic succeed or fail. Volume Two is organized around four principles that Boyd sees aCrucifixionCover_FINALvol1s central to his understanding of that hermeneutic — Cruciform Accommodation, Redemptive Withdrawal, Cosmic Conflict, Semiautonomous Power — most of which (exempting the last one) are robust enough ideas in their own right to substantiate their own individual book reviews. It is here that we see Boyd’s academic / scholarly verve show up in a powerful way, as he stakes claims on what the Cruciform Hermeneutic ought and ought not look like. He is passionate and articulate, and he brings up some questions that seem to me as particularly intriguing.

In the previous review, I mentioned that Boyd’s idea of a Cruciform Hermeneutic could be a helpful tool for reading the Old Testament, and that its chief problem is not its methodological / theoretical conception (i.e. look at the Cross, use it to read the OT), but in the precise manner that Boyd imbues it with presupposed definitions of terms like Love, Violence, and War. In Volume Two, he charts out a hermeneutical method that is admirable, but still lacks the honesty of confessing its epistemological pre-commitments.

Rather than chart out my review based on his structure, I am going to pick at few individual moments in his arguments for these principles and observe some of what seemed to me his strongest claims as well as some of what seemed the most problematic. At the end, I’ll offer some concluding thoughts on the unified work altogether.

Strengths — A Robust Description of Cosmic Warfare

One of my favorite sections in CWG was the Principle of Cosmic Conflict section. Here Boyd’s previous work on spiritual warfare (God at WarSatan and the Problem of Evil) manifests in a brilliant manner, demonstrating both an avid reading of the OT full of its supernatural density as well as a scholarly identification of ancient near East gods “hidden,” as it were, in the text. Boyd goes beyond the typical scholastic OT reading that discusses the presence of “Rahab” or “Leviathan” as cosmic metaphors and actually asserts, as me and my Pentecostal brethren would assert, that these are not simply metaphorical entities for the sake of a pre-modern people’s worldview, but that, instead, they are actually spiritual entities who operate both in the spiritual realms and in the natural realm.

In fact, I would say that Boyd’s greatest success in CWG as a whole is the manner in which he presents a thorough academic case for the presence of ongoing spiritual conflict between God and the forces of evil, something that many other theologians either write off as entirely soteriological (as those in the Reformed camp tend to do) or as entirely societal (as those in the Liberation camp tend to do).

In light of this cosmic conflict, Boyd re-engages two OT accounts in ways that I find very convincing. The first is his reading of Job, in which he brings to attention the wide variety of satanic references throughout the book in order to drive home the understanding of Job as the subject of cosmic warfare. The second is his reading of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, where Boyd presses on the ANE worldview where both Pharaoh and the Sea itself are cosmic powers that, in the end, devour one another.

All this being said, the Principle of Cosmic Conflict does meander into its own waters of convolution, as most of CWG does. A significant problem could be raised that Boyd’s understanding of cosmic conflict allows for a semi-Manichean view of reality, giving the devil and his forces far too much agency. One result of this semi-Manicheanism could be, for instance, a reading of events like 9/11 as attacks of the devil allowed by Yahweh’s “redemptive withdrawal,” which, honestly, is no different than Pat Robertson’s infamous declaration of such events as divine judgment. Boyd addresses this problem directly but unconvincingly, waving the concern off without much critical engagement as he does with most of the biggest (and most interesting) problems raised against his theses.

Problems — A Surprisingly Critical View of Moses and the Torah

Maybe I’m a “traditionalist,” and maybe I’m overprotective. But one of the most shocking sets of claims throughout CWG is the way that Boyd continually treats Moses (as a person) and the Torah (as a collection) with supreme amounts of suspicion and, at times, derision. When addressing “problems in the OT,” I typically expect that the Book of Judges will be presented, that the morality of various decisions throughout the Histories will be presented, and that, broadly, our discussion will center on the “Canaanite genocide” (a term I’m wary of, because definitional presuppositions), the holy wars, and other clearly man-based judgments. I never expect a discussion on Moses and the Torah.

The reason for this is because the confession of both the OT and the NT is consistently one of praise and respect with regards to Moses and the Torah. Psalm 119 is the most famous of these, of course, but the verses from Psalm 19 ought to be observed as a testament to this:

another-image-of-greg-boyd.jpeg
Gregory A. Boyd is a speaker in the Neo-Anabaptist movement and is an advocate of open theism and Christian pacifism

“The Law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the Testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple; the Precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the Commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes” (Psalm 19:7-8). Jesus, famously, is formally coronated Messiah (at least, in the eyes of His disciples) on the Mount of Transfiguration with Moses and Elijah present. Paul, Peter, and John all base their theologies in the context of Moses’ writings.

So, it is utterly surprising to me how critical Boyd is of Moses and of the Torah. I do not wish to come across “starry eyed” regarding the first five books of the Bible — there are certainly moments and scenes that we might find bizarre at the least and obscene at the most in those texts. It is true that we certainly have a lot of room for growth in our exegetical understandings of the Torah. But Boyd says, at one juncture, that Moses and Aaron’s “fallen and culturally conditioned hearts caused them to view their heavenly Father in ‘twisted’ ways,” thinking of how they view God as the sort of God who brings plagues and goes to war. This strikes me as strange.

Of course, Moses and Aaron are not perfect. The Scriptures themselves make this clear when, for instance, Aaron makes the Golden Calf, or when, for instance, Moses strikes the rock he is commanded to speak to. But Boyd is perpetually suspicious of Moses, and he often attributes various clauses of Levitical law to him (in his “fallen and culturally conditioned” weakness) rather than to Yahweh whenever doing so suits Boyd’s narrative. I find it, simply put, too rhetorically convenient to believe that whenever Yahweh orders someone to be stoned or put to death that this is a consequence of Moses’ interpretative weaknesses, as opposed to Yahweh’s revelatory wisdom. And it is hard, in my opinion, to claim to be advancing a hermeneutic with the belief that all Scripture is “God-breathed,” and come to the conclusion that the Torah, culturally-distant as it is, is anything other than “the perfect Law” that both OT and NT describe it as (cf. Psalm 19, 199; James 1:22-25).

In Summation

There are many other things that could be discussed with regards to CWG, but I feel that I have written far too much as it is. A few conclusory words could be said as to why I find CWG so unconvincing, and, with that, maybe some suggestions for future theologians for how to write a better work engaging the problem of OT violence.

  1. One of CWG‘s greatest weaknesses is that Boyd writes very clearly in the service of his pre-committed ideological and theological beliefs, rather than using inductive exegetical work to support those beliefs. He comes into the conversation with the firm notion that Augustine and Aquinas are wrong about God’s eternity (and other matters), that Love ought to be defined using a modified version of the modern notion of Nonviolence, and that the presence of violence in the OT ought to be considered a major epistemic problem. A conversation on each of these topics would make for an interesting book, and, in fact, those books are necessary before one could even begin to trace out the sort of hermeneutic that Boyd attempts in CWG. Rather than sitting down and hashing out his differences with Augustine and Aquinas the typical manner (i.e. through thorough academic discourse), Boyd presupposes their fallaciousness and dismisses them with a quick word in edgewise. He uses this rhetorical form throughout CWG: just as the conversation gets interesting, he concludes his argument with simple logic, rather than complex, nuanced discourse. The whole work could be rewritten, in a far more convincing way, by starting with its major deterrents, grounding its claims and definitions in solid exegetical work first, and then bringing external discourses (re: open theism, etc.) into play as the thesis gains strength.
  2. The idea of a single “hermeneutic key” to unlock the problems of the OT is also misguided. This book could have been an intriguing discourse on simply the Canaanite genocide (and it would have held more weight that way, I believe). But by attempting to over-incorporate the whole of the OT, Boyd makes the common mistake of using one hermeneutic tool for a variety of diverse and unrelated texts. Universal theological attempts like this one are almost always doomed to failure because they are more easily tempted by ideological presuppositions. A more particular account would make for a much more interesting read.
  3. Boyd’s greatest ideas in the book occur when he writes his own ideas, rather than relying so heavily upon his academic sources. CWG makes for a great bibliography of OT violence; but it would have made a more effective argument if much of that bibliography was left in the footnotes and in the back of the book, rather than taking up vital space needed for substantive rhetoric.
  4. Finally, setting up the problem as a real problem, rather than making the stark — and rhetorically simplistic — statement “this is obviously problematic,” is crucial in making an argument worthwhile. Not once in CWG did I ever feel that Boyd was presenting an answer to a problem that I felt was significantly worthwhile. It is a problem that the New Atheists find troubling, but that is fine by me; I don’t find the New Atheists worth being troubled about.

There are many fruitful discussions that could be had around the problems of violence and the OT, but CWG does little more than retread ground that has already been discussed and propose an extremely narrow (sectarian) view of OT exegesis as the ultimate, worldwide solution to an already-“dead horse” conversation. At its best, CWG provides suitable bibliographic materials to aid the student of theology in wrestling through a specific problem, or it suggests a view of supernatural powers that is worth considering, at the least. But at its worst, CWG is cloaked open theistic propaganda, struggling to suggest its theological framework as orthodoxy without actually putting in the rhetorical work necessary to accomplish so audacious a task.

I would like to thank Fortress 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: Crucifixion of the Warrior God, Volume One

The Death of Agag
Gustave Doré, La mort d’Agag (1866)

The Crucifixion of the Warrior God
Gregory A. Boyd
Fortress Press, 2017. 1492 pp.

Before I can properly review and engage with the ideas presented by Greg Boyd’s newest work, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, I suppose I must first “out” myself as someone who is about as theologically opposite to Greg Boyd as is possible. His advocacy of open theism, his views on Augustine and Aquinas, and his soteriology are thoroughly distant from my own views. I think it’s important to put that out first, so that I might write this review with integrity.  And while I certainly find certain claims (especially open theism) that Boyd holds as truth to be problematic because of where my theology lands in comparison to his, it is my goal in this review to engage just with the central claims that Boyd presents for this work. As we shall see, I find The Crucifixion of the Warrior God to be an ambitious work of heremeneutics that despite its brilliant methodological approach has major flaws when applying that approach to the problem it proposes to solve.

The Crucifixion of the Warrior God (CWG) is a two-volume monograph that attempts to address OT violence in light of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. For Boyd, OT violence isn’t simply an ethic problem but an epistemic one, contradictiCrucifixionCover_FINALvol1ng, in his view, the very foundations of the Christian faith. In order to provide a basis for re-engaging the OT this way, Boyd proposes a Cruciform Hermeneutic, using it to re-read the OT through the lens of Christ upon the Cross. Through this, Boyd maintains, we will come to see that the narratives of God behaving violently in the OT are simply depictions masking God’s true revelation of Himself. In Volume One, Boyd presents the problem at hand, writes at length on the importance of the centrality of the Cross and then develops the Cruciform Hermeneutic. In Volume Two, he clarifies how that hermeneutic functions and then applies that hermeneutic to various OT texts and proposes new readings for them.

In order to review a work so large as CWG, I will write my review in multiple parts. This first part aims to address the whole of Volume One. The second part will address Volume Two and maybe give some overview and final thoughts. However, since as of this part of the review I have not yet finished Volume Two ,it could happen that I write a third review article or a follow-up to consider other possible solutions to the problems that Boyd reveals. My goal in this first review will be threefold: to give a sense of the quality of Boyd’s writing, point to some of the strengths of his claims and arguments, and lastly engage with some of the problems that arise from Boyd’s claims.

Quality — Meandering, Repetitive, and Quote-Reliant

Before jumping into the matters of Boyd’s claims themselves, I do have a few things to say with regards to the quality of his writing. In stark contradiction to Rob Grayson’s review (the only other review I could find during the writing of this one), I think that one of the great weaknesses of the book is its rhetorical composition. There is a goodness, as Grayson observes, in how Boyd takes great lengths to ensure that his readership understands every twist and turn of the argument, making his work accessible. But in order to accomplish this clarity, Boyd’s work manifests as long, meandering parades of paragraph-after-paragraph of mostly regurgitated information, quotes, and repetitions. Sometimes the structure of Boyd’s argument felt like reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book, with him repeating, numerous times, statements like “As I said in Vol. 1, Chp. 4,” “This will be made clear in Ch. 8,” etc. The book feels like it could have been written in a different order, and, thus, made considerably less cumbersome.

Usually poor rhetorical quality is not anything more than simply poor writing, an excusable error. However, Boyd’s work in Volume One suffers from a far more serious problem. There are times, especially in the first six chapters, in which Boyd lets his interlocutors do the majority of the rhetorical heavy-lifting. Not only is this a nuisance to the reader (at the very least, Boyd broke every rhetorical rule I was taught in graduate school), it also creates the sense that Boyd is attempting to advocate his positions through the voices of other writers. If this is intentional, then Boyd is being disingenuous in a very serious and disconcerting way. However, my sense is that he is not intentionally misrepresenting his interlocutors. Instead, one begins to feel that Boyd is not totally comfortable coming out and making his explicit claims. In the first half of Volume One, there is a hidden fear in the text as he sets his ideas behind the claims of other, more established, theologians. In fact, it isn’t really until Chapter 9 that Boyd’s own voice begins to appear in earnest in the narrative of claims he makes (and, as I will mention in the next post, Volume Two is thankfully freed from this particular impediment).

The fortunate thing, rhetorically speaking, is that his writing cleans up significantly in the last few chapters of Volume One, letting his most engaging and most interesting claims shine. All of the earlier cluttered rhetoric, piling on quotes repeating roughly the same material, gives me the sense that CWG unnecessarily complicates itself, cancelling out Boyd’s own direct ambition to make his work more accessible. The first six chapters could have easily been cut out and written more concisely as a simple introduction to his assumption that Christ on the Cross is the central biblical revelation. It is when Boyd gets into his more interesting claims — how the crucicentral revelation affects other parts of Scripture, etc. — that he begins to write in a more compelling way and ceases to retreat behind the words of other theologians. As it stands, I had the growing sense that this whole book could have been accomplished in one volume of ~400-500 pages. The writing is raw and unfinished, more like a doctoral dissertation in style than like a monograph.

Strengths — The Cruciform Hermeneutic is a Marvelous Exegetical Tool

What accounts for Boyd’s hesitance to put his cards on the table? I wonder if he’s hesitant because he wants his thesis to be received well. Maybe he’s aware that some of the claims he makes later in the book are radical. And maybe, to be sure, the fact that he must frame his rhetoric in this defensive manner is symptomatic of how the broader evangelical community treats new ideas (i.e. poorly).

Yet the first part of Boyd’s thesis is not actually so radical as all his defensive stances makes it seem. (Maybe that’s another reason I don’t think he needs the first six chapters?)

Greg Boyd
Gregory A. Boyd is Senior Pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, MN and President of Reknew.org

At its core, the Cruciform Hermeneutic is a pretty normal understanding of how one ought to read the Scriptures, although we don’t often think so clearly about it as Boyd does. In summation, he claims that we ought to read the Scriptures as God-breathed manifestations of revelation pertaining first and foremost to Jesus Christ who was crucified and raised from the dead. Except for a few outliers, most major streams of theology view the Scriptures with this precise central theme in mind, and, thus, it is no surprise that Boyd is able to leverage such a diversity of theologians for the sake of this claim.

In fact, I think the chief of Boyd’s successes in Volume One is the manner in which he convinces the reader in Part Three (the last three chapters) that all good Christian hermeneutics treat certain parts of the text as literal (i.e. Jesus really did die on a Cross) and certain parts as figurative (i.e. Jesus does not actually expect us to pluck out our eyes). In one of his strongest moments in Volume One, Boyd wagers that most of us are already doing something like what he calls the “Reinterpretation Solution” with the OT, we just don’t know it.

If we follow the logic of that claim then we can begin to see how Boyd aims to use it for the purposes of establishing his Cruciform Hermeneutic. He provides us with a useful tool and metric for reading the Scriptures, helpful guidelines with which to judge what ought to be read literally and what ought to be read figuratively, all focusing on the exaltation of Christ on the Cross. All this is incredibly insightful, helpful, and orthodox.

So, what is it about his thesis that is radical enough for him to spend the majority of the first half of Volume One defending himself from all possible angles and all possible critics? Surely, if the Cruciform Hermeneutic is simply a matter of reading the OT (and the rest of Scripture as well) with the revelation of Jesus on the Cross as our guiding interpretative framework, then what Boyd suggests ought not be so problematic!

Problems — Uncritical Manifestations of Boyd’s Presuppositions

Of course, Boyd’s goal is not just to establish a Cruciform Hermeneutic, but to use that hermeneutic to solve what he sees as one of Christianity’s greatest age-old problems: Why does God behave so violently in the OT? Boyd’s specific engagements with the OT occurs in the bulk of Volume Two, which I will engage in my next post.

For Volume One, it is simply enough to question the question itself. In Chapter 7, Boyd addresses OT violence head-on, describing every violent event he can find. He even adds a hypothetical story from the perspective of the Canaanites as the Israelite army comes in to kill. The straightforwardness of presenting biblical texts with forthright honesty is, of course, valuable. But what Boyd never presents us with at any juncture is either A) a framework for determining which texts are and are not problematic, in light of the Cross; or B) a definition for how Boyd proposes to understand “violence” (and, thus, as he describes Jesus, “nonviolence”). The lack of these terms is a serious blow to Boyd’s entire argument.

The problem here is simply that for all his hard work in defending against a wide variety of criticisms, Boyd has not taken the time to critically assess his own a priori assumptions. In the Introduction, he takes for granted that Jesus’ revelation of God is “agape-centered, other-oriented, self-sacrificial” without putting flesh on what those terms really mean. These terms are fascinating, intriguing, and radical claims on their own, but Boyd assumes that his readership is already on-board with the content of those words. Likewise, he doesn’t seem able to abide the arguments that, as an example, Augustine has proposed with regards to God being both “agape-centered” and the “God of war” that the OT describes him as. There could be an interesting discussion engaging with Augustine here, but when Boyd brings it up, he dismisses Augustine out-of-hand with far too much ease. This is yet another example of the weakness of Boyd’s rhetoric: he spends very little time refuting the more substantial arguments against his case, and a lot more time defending and shoring up the more self-evident points for his case.

This is one of the things that I personally found aggravating throughout CWG. Boyd holds long-form arguments in order to support certain claims that he could just hand to us as simple propositions (i.e. Christ’s Cross as a centralizing biblical revelation), but then neglects to engage with the propositions that he does hand to us that are not actually that simple to surpass (i.e. Boyd’s presupposed definitions of love). Rather than linger on the Augustinian question of whether or not Love could or could not engage in Violence of any kind, or even rather than admit that the discussion therein is more complicated that it appears, Boyd makes an interpretative leap and then assumes what is implied by his Cruciform Hermeneutic. If one of the strongest points of Volume One is how useful the Cruciform Hermeneutic is as an exegetical tool, then easily the weakest matter is how Boyd attempts to apply that Cruciform Hermeneutic, premising his reading of the OT upon his own presuppositions of how that hermeneutic views Love, Violence, and the like.

In so doing, I am afraid that Boyd begins his engagements with the OT from a thoroughly modern standpoint, in which “Violence” and “Nonviolence” are terms decided upon by Western secular society, not Christ, even though Boyd would surely assert that he prefers the latter. As a result, from very early on in the text I am continually concerned that what we are receiving is not an actual re-reading of the OT through the proposed Cruciform Hermeneutic, but, instead, a re-reading through the modernist presuppositions of Greg Boyd. It is Boyd’s definitions of “Violence” and “Nonviolence” that articulate his concerns in Chapter 7, and it is his definitions, not necessarily Christ’s, that constitute the hermeneutic he intends to deploy in Volume Two.  As I shall discuss in the next part of my review, Boyd’s failure to address these presuppositions results in a touch-and-go exegesis of the OT, with some readings revealing brilliant insights and others leading to nonsensical conclusions.

I would like to thank Fortress 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.

Rural Theologies

“Social class in America isn’t just about money.” So says J.D. Vance in the midst of his memoir Hillbilly Elegy. Raised in southwestern Ohio, but grown with close ties to nearby Kentucky, Vance tells a story that is more than just his own “rags-to-riches” type of narrative. His tale encompasses a breadth of white rural experience that conditions not just the hillbillies of Appalachia but actually many poor rural whites throughout the country. Around the time of the election of Pres. Donald J. Trump, Vance’s memoir was often pointed at as a description of the ailment that manifested in political symptoms.

If social class, neatly construed, is not, as Vance suggests, about money, then what is it about? Vance struggles with this throughout his book. He goes to the Marines, a big state university, an Ivy League law school, upper-crust elite work, and all the time he still feels like a “hillbilly.” For him there’s a sense of pride in that identification; but there is also a sense of humiliation. For some reason, he stresses near the end of the book, he just cannot escape the pressures of rural poverty and the power it wields over his life, even in the midst of relative success.

I have wondered about this problem of social class too. In my working life thusfar, I have been a campus missionary, a graduate student, and a low-level lab manager in an expensive neighborhood (e.g. my pay was better than as a missionary; my costs were higher still). At every juncture I would have described myself, financially, as poor. And, based on the poverty level standards, this would have been objectively true. Yet I was raised in a middle-class household, in a stable family, in a culture with certain values. It has only been fairly recently that my eyes have become adjusted to seeing what “poverty” looks like.

The numbers describe me and my family as poor. But we don’t look it. Instead, we look pretty successful. (We save a lot of money by not caring about having “satellite TV” or “high speed internet.”) In a strange way, in spite my financial “lacks” (i.e. I don’t make enough to save any money, and we spend more on food every month than we can afford), I feel successful while Vance, in spite of his financial gains (making upwards, we are told in the book, of $100K a year; good house; good neighborhood), feels unsuccessful. What constitutes this? What is “social class” really, if it isn’t, as so many sociologists or economists (or policy-makers) claim, an economic demographic?

Benld IL
A dilapidated building in downtown Benld, IL, where I grew up. Photo by Bruce Wicks via Flickr.

A problem confronts me whenever I set down to think about theology: I have been to too many different places. At present, I live in a demographically-mixed (all the demographics!) part of Chicago’s South Side; in the past, I lived in a poorer part of the river town Alton, IL; I grew up in a middle-class household in an impoverished rural county; I once lived in a burgeoning up-and-coming town for the upper-middle-class. And this is just the state of Illinois!

An observation that I have seen in my life throughout Illinois (and also in my sojourns to other states as well) is that denominational / theological groups thrive in certain socioeconomic circumstances. The more poor, the more rural, the more Pentecostals, the more Baptists, and the more non-denominationals (who are really Baptists). Drive through eastern Tennessee into the mountains, for instance, and you will see, one after another, X Baptist Church, Y Baptist Church, Z Church of Christ, Q Church of Christ, R “Fancy Name Big Church” (which might be non-denominational evangelical or charismatic, you can’t quite tell by the sign).

This observation is just an observation, of course, and I haven’t yet gotten the chance to dig up the data for it. My hunch is that there are surely a few of churches that don’t fit these socioeconomic trends, and yet my hunch is also that this is the minority. There is a history to this phenomenon: most American denominations were founded by ethnic minorities as they migrated to the country. Poor Irish settlers (like my great-great-great-grandfather Caveny) brought with them their Roman Catholicism, not-quite-as-poor-but-still-poor German farmers brought with them their Lutheranism or their Congregationalism, while more financially-astute English immigrants brought Methodism and Anglicanism.

Different ethnic groups brought with them different levels of financial stability and different home-cultures and values when it came to work, money, and the like (although discerning those cultures and values becomes a very difficult ethnographic task, one that cannot be navigated lightly). The different ethnic groups in America for a long time created different social classes, and these social classes became tied to theological identities.

How American society transformed from ethnically-determined churches into socioeconomically-determined churches, especially amidst white people, is a mystery that I do not want to broach here, and it should go without saying that there is another parallel story that occurs in American society with regards to African-American, Hispanic, and other minority churches. But the result of these historical processes is clear: somehow when you land in a geographic location determined by certain economic situations, you can already get a sense of the theology of that people.

This leads me to propose a surprising and bizarre claim: theology in America is the result of socioeconomic class more often than it is the result of Bible-training, study, and preaching.

Middletown OH
A movie theater scheduled for demolition in Middletown, OH, where Vance grew up. Photo by Robby Virus via Flickr.

Vance finds this to be true in his memoir. His observations of the culture of Appalachian hillbillies includes claims like “[they have] a lack of agency,” they believe in “avoidance and wishful-thinking,” and “[they] had an almost religious faith in hard work and the American Dream.” He provides some statistical differences between how hillbillies perceive their own church attendance (“Why, of course I go to church!”) and how the actual church attendance in their towns; he notes the suspicion held by his communities towards ecclesiastical structures; he observes their personal, private commitments to Christian faith that are divorced from communal, public manifestations of it.

What manifests in utter suspicion of ecclesiastical structures in Appalachian appears as devout congregationalist / Baptist communities in my own southern Illinois. Non-denominational churches pop up like wildfire in the rural Midwest, communities with little to no oversight except centralized pastoral authority. American civil worship practices appear too, like the displaying of patriotic symbols (the flag, “God bless America!”) or the singing of the National Anthem at a church. I remember visiting a church on the Fourth of July in which the whole congregation recited the Pledge of Allegiance, something that to me was utterly off-putting but absolutely normal for the community. For many in rural churches this is a natural manifestation of their Christian belief.

I am “waving” at something here. One of the pinnacles of Protestant — especially Reformed, but also Wesleyan — belief is the emphasis that beliefs, values, doctrines, and practices find their home in the Scriptures first. And, yet, if we take Vance’s personal stories of Appalachian faith to heart, and if my admittedly-broad observations ring true, then it would seem that theologies and doctrines are not as based off of “serious Scriptural study” as they are based off of socio-economic class, with a priority to the “social” part over the “economic.”

The pastor-theologian should find this strange and maybe even a little troubling. If a pastor’s goal is to see my people grow in the knowledge of the Lord and in a knowledge of His Word, how is it that the people under pastoral authority seem to grow most effectively in a knowledge of the socio-cultural beliefs they already bring with them? And, given these socio-cultural beliefs are difficult to leave behind, as we see Vance wrestle near the end of the memoir, how is a pastor to provoke pervasive underlying beliefs that have a lot more to do with American or social-class identity than our ancient Christian identity or the Scriptures?

Theologically speaking, this is the problem that feels most at stake in Vance’s work. There are surely problems of socio-economics, justice, cultural-community dynamics and the like that one could discuss from Hillbilly Elegy, but the issue of a socially-determined (as opposed to biblically-determined) theology is one that seems to manifest underneath a lot of the societal ills Vance describes. He comments, for instance, on how churches that ought to be a safety-net for low-income families instead have become so individualistic that their social benefit is altogether negated, to the detriment of his community.

 

How the American Christian should respond to this level of theological crisis, a thing tied to the socioeconomic crisis of the white poor, is complicated, and my goal here is simply to point out what Vance has already pointed out in his book. It is provocative enough to notice that most of our received theologies in evangelicalism are not the result of Bible study or theological inquiry, but instead the result of the strange interconnections between church-life and our social-cultural matrix. My hunch is that this is just another type of syncretism that American Christians do not see as such because we would rather describe syncretism as something “people in the third world” do. (As I overheard a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology say the other day: “Anthropology is the word white academics use to describe non-white cultures, while sociology is the word for white cultures.”)

If rural theologies flourish and propagate as a culturally- and socially-derived set of beliefs, even tied to economics and class, how ought pastors — in all types of communities and contexts — communicate the Gospel and discuss the Scriptures? Once the problem is clearly seen, it becomes difficult to know how to go forward. Vance wrote that “social class in America isn’t just about money”; but, as we have seen, so too “theology in America isn’t just about Bible studies and teaching.” Somehow both of these things rely on a rural culture that is much more powerful than we could have expected.