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.

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A Pilgrimage to New Cana

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Richard Lischer’s “New Cana Lutheran Church” as of December 2016

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.

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Open Secrets‘ 2001 cover; the “small town” pictured here is far too populated to be “New Cana”

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.

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Richard Lischer is a Professor Emeritus of Preaching at Duke Divinity School

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.

To Be or Not to Be? It Is the Question

To be or not to be? We ask ourselves this question everyday, whether we realize it or not, through probably not in the existential context in which Hamlet gave us this most famous of lines. But we do decide in every action whether or not what we do will give us being or deprive us of what it means to be fully human. So, what does it mean to live a full and complete human life? I’m so glad you asked! Let me tell you what my friend James Schall has to say on the matter. Let me begin with a story. Schall-Life of the Mind

In graduate school, I asked the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) if I could be their campus representative, which I realize now, is somewhat akin to asking the fire department if I could bring my watering can to help fight their fires. They probably rolled their eyes but they obliged and so I became the pioneering member of ISI at the University of Dallas. ISI is a conservative educational organization whose purpose is to teach “the core ideas behind the free market, the American Founding, and Western civilization, ideas that are rarely taught in [the] classroom” and so being the ISI rep at a school like the University of Dallas— which exists to teach the great books and keep Western civilization alive— did not make me their most valuable asset. A majority of the students were already bought in to ISI’s core ideas and so I now realize why I could never get anyone to contact me with questions I had. (Book reviews can be so cathartic!) ISI has a lot of rich people who give them a good deal of money and so I became the recipient of boxes of free ISI books. One of the thinkers they introduced me to was Father James Schall, S.J., through his book The Life of the Mind. I remain forever indebted.

C.S. Lewis famously said that one has not read a great book until they have read it more than once (though you have to read it once to read it again). I would place Schall’s oeuvre in that category, and Life of the Mind is no exception. It is a book that could be profitably read over and over in order to discover anew or for the thousandth time what truly matters and what one should spend their precious time pursuing. Schall’s book is like a fortune cookie from Ancient Athens in that you can turn to almost any page, select any sentence, and meditate on its profundity throughout the day. Let me concretely apply this bold statement by opening the book at random to three places and recording what I find, which I can do, because I am my own editor.

  1. “We do sense, however, that we need speculative reasons to explain of justify our practical decisions and actions, especially if we suspect that what we do is wrong by some transcendent standard—that is, if we presume we do have such a thing as a conscience” (124, The Whole Risk for a Human Being).
  2. “Modern economics has shown ways for the drudgery of labor to be performed with dignity and profit by free citizens. If one thinks, for instance, of modern sewage and waste management systems, we see how the work formerly forced on slaves can be carried out in another, more human, way” (29, Artes Liberales—The Liberal Arts).
  3. “Not only am I, I, but that which is not myself is just as real as I am” (107, The Metaphysics of Walking).
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Father Schall, walking metaphysically, metaphorically, with a magnificently misaligned name tag.

Look at the chapter that last citation is taking from: The Metaphysics of Walking! What does that even mean!? I know that you are intrigued. Other chapter titles include such gems as: On the Things That Depend on Philosophy; On the Consolations of Illiteracy, Revisited; Books and the Intellectual Life; On the Joys and Travails of Thinking.

If you are looking for a good graduation present for either high school or college seniors, look no further my friends. One of the most shocking moments of Schall’s book to our modern sensibilities is when he reminds us that some pleasures are worth pursuing and others are not. In other words, some things are better than others! Any author willing to sacrifice his career at a prestigious East coast university (Schall teaches at Georgetown) with such a brazenly old-fashioned statement deserve a standing ovation.

I had the privilege of meeting Schall in grad school—I hope that I gave him a standing ovation, alas, I cannot remember—and I consider it one of the highlights of that period of my life. Wearing an eye patch and continually dabbing the excess saliva from the corners of his mouth as he spoke, Schall’s body was deteriorated but his face beamed like a child, mind sprightly, eyes radiating with the joie de vivre that comes from a life of disciplined intellectual delights and the continual back and forth of students and teacher. The Life of the Mind is a book that every person should have on their bookshelf, and hopefully, more often than not, in their hands. There are few books that come to my mind so full of life and wisdom and few thinkers that have done so much with the joys and challenges of the intellectual and spiritual life as Father James Schall. It will be a sad day, indeed, when his astute mind and childlike countenance go to find their final rest.

Read Paul in Your Bible, Then Read This

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Years ago, I was talking with a friend on the phone when he began telling me about finishing E.P. Sanders Paul and Palestinian Judaism and another work by Jimmy Dunn. The issues that he brought up from those books seemed so foreign and out of reach that he might have well been reading to me the Nag Hammadi manuscripts in the original Coptic (which I’m sure he would have liked to do also). At the time of that conversation, I had studied a couple of the classic studies on the historical Jesus, but long scholarly tomes on the apostle Paul were another matter. Anderson-Paul's New PerspectiveTalking about the impact that the 4QMMT Dead Sea Scroll had on the way we read Paul seemed an exercise for an old librarian in Cairo somewhere, not for a 20-something campus pastor. And yet, while I knew that those ideas mattered, and mattered a great deal, I wondered where to begin. I wish that Garwood Anderson’s book had been on my shelf back then, because it is the place to start. One Amazon reviewer said all you need to know: “If you like John Piper and N.T. Wright, buy this book!”

For those of us who care deeply about the New Testament, especially Paul, Professor Anderson’s book on Paul published last year is like pulling away the curtains to let the light in. “Friendly to all but friends to none” was the phrase that kept coming to mind as Anderson finds something to like in both the new, old, and post-new perspectives on Paul but yet is not content to take any approach wholesale. He cites a particular kinship with Michael Bird’s approach, “especially in his care to make rapprochement between divided factions, showing that the differences are less severe than frequently supposed” (108).

Anderson’s study is incredibly learned and yet is lively reading. (To read or not read all of the footnotes the first time through was my continual dilemma.) As the well-respected Pauline scholar Michael Gorman blurbs on the back, “Anderson has mastered the literature produced by the traditional, new and post-new perspectives on Paul.” And yet the reader takes comfort in Anderson’s honest confession on the first page of the book that “If I were granted but one desideratum of Pauline scholarship it would be that they all take a decade of Jubilee, cease publication, and let me catch up.”

All of the big names are here and introduced: Sanders, Hays, Wright, Dunn, Gorman, Barclay, Campbell, Martyn, Bird, and Watson; and all of the debates are summarily dissected: pistis christou, justification, impartation and imputation, solution and plight, a “center” of Pauline scholarship, works and law, Paul’s “conversion” as well as fair-length treatments of contentious passages like Romans 3:21-4:28 and Philippians 3:1-11 that contain material seized by both perspectives. Admittedly, those who have done no to little reading in Pauline studies (maybe you are scratching your head at the above list) will have to work hard to find their way around Anderson’s book, but for my money, there is no better work out that is both a generous and accessible introduction to serious Pauline scholarship— as well as a contribution to the scholarship itself—than Paul’s New Perspective.

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Anderson is professor of Greek and New Testament at Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Wisconsin.

In large part, Anderson is in lock step with the new perspective (and he admits there really is no such monolith as “the” new perspective) but believes that some of their positions become “reductive overcorrections.” The provocative thesis that drives Anderson’s book past the first 150 pages of fantastic summary of the Pauline debates is that contradictory schools of Pauline interpretation are “both right just not at the same time” (379). That is because neither perspective pays adequate attention to the fact that Paul was only human and that, inevitably, his theology would have changed and shifted over time. And so Anderson proposes rapproachment between the either/or debates in Pauline scholarship by looking at how Paul’s thought developed over time. He says, “The shortcomings of both the TPP (traditional perspective on Paul) and the NPP (new perspective on Paul) are accounted for in the same way: both schools of interpretation are insufficiently attentive to the manner in which Paul’s soteriology has developed from his earliest to later writings” (ibid). In other words, the new perspective is right to stress that phrases like “works of the law” in Galatians is written as shorthand for Jewish ethnic descent (which includes “boundary markers” like circumcision table fellowship) and should not be read as generic good deeds done in order to merit favor with God. And yet, those who transfer that reading to “works” as mere shorthand for “works of the law” fail to adequately see how Paul’s thought has undergone development from specific Jewish and Gentile concerns to more basic anthropological considerations.

Though Anderson’s developmental thesis does not depend on enlargement of the accepted seven-letter Pauline corpus, a chunk of the book is devoted to making a case for the disputed letters. Anderson makes a case for the inclusion of Colossians, Ephesians, and the Pastoral Epistles, along with the undisputed Galatians, Romans, 1 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Philippians and Philemon. The extension of the Pauline corpus from the undisputed seven letters to a contested 13 letter corpus is important, Anderson believes, because it allows us to fill out Paul’s theology and development: “I’m persuaded that excessive trepidation on this matter has precluded New Testament scholars from seeing a possibly larger picture” (166). In arguing for their authenticity, Anderson summarizes his case by saying that “far from a misunderstanding of or derivation from Paul’s soteriology, these letters corroborate a trajectory already evident in the undisputed letters, so much so that one would be justified in thinking that Paul himself wrote them” (381).

Let me end by quoting a juicy bit at the conclusion of Anderson’s book that will give you a feel for where Anderson is going and hopefully will entice you to pick this one up:

The rapprochement offered here succeeds only under two conditions, to be sketched now briefly: 1) that justification cease to be the center and preoccupation of Pauline theology such that it is made to bear weight for which it was not intended and 2) that union with Christ once and for all take [sic] its place as the central and integrative fulcrum of Pauline soteriology in all of its juridical, relational, transformational, and ecclesial dimensions (384).

For those looking for a way to better understand New Testament and Pauline scholarship and the points in the key debates, there is no better place to begin than Paul’s New Perspective. But I must warn you, once you begin reading in Pauline studies, it’s hard to stop. But it will make you read your New Testament like you never have before. As Wesley Hill says, in Anderson’s book “one is reminded yet again why wrestling with Paul is so invigorating.”

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?

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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.

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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.

Fleming Rutledge and the Crucifixion

*Rutledge’s book came out a couple years ago but it has won some major awards and recently been re-released in paperback so I wanted to post a review that I wrote which I never posted, which I thought especially apropos given that it’s Holy Week.

Fleming Rutledge- The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ Eerdmans, 2015 (669 pp.)

Christianity is the only major religion to have as its central focus the suffering and degradation of its God.

–PBS special “The Christians” 1981.

51iB04IqXvL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Why the cross? It seems an easily answered question for those familiar with the plot line of Christianity but on reflection the crucifixion does not easily explain itself and requires interpretation, Rutledge says. Ask even mature Christians what it was that Jesus accomplished on the cross and how it was accomplished and the answers will likely be short and fairly inarticulate — thus the need for this book. The Crucifixion is a gift to preachers and teachers alike in large part because there are surprisingly few books of this kind in publication. Her book fills a hole in the need for book-length overviews of the atonement.

There are two things that are particularly helpful about the way Rutledge has written her book:

First, she writers as a preacher for preachers. Rutledge is not interested in a theology book for theology sake but to give preachers and teachers a resource for better understanding and speaking about the death of Jesus Christ. “These pages attempt to be a bridge between academic scholarship, on the one hand, and local congregations, on the other,” she writes in the preface (xvii). Her book is littered with anecdotes, literature quotations and excerpts from the liturgy of the Church (particularly Episcopalian of which she is a part). It is clear that she has continually asked herself, ‘will it preach?’ in the composition of this lengthy book. Her section on Jesus wrestling with the forces of evil and death in the garden of Gesthemene (pp. 371-375) should be read by every preacher before they begin preparing their annual Easter sermon. It will undoubtedly bring the earth-shattering consequences of Jesus life, death and resurrection back into the heart of the gospel with the reminder that Jesus death is much more than the forgiveness of individual sin but also the victory of God over everything that opposes His reign.

Second, Rutledge is intentionally inclusionary of the Church’s wide-ranging and diverse interpretations of the atonement. The Crucifixion is not written to privilege the Christus Victor view over the substitutionary model or to defend the “legacy” of the Reformers interpretation of penal substitution, to note just two of the more prevalent current reasons for those writing on the atonement. Though Rutledge admits that it is a “challenge” to address such a profound topic in an understandable way while still engaging with the wide spectrum of the church’s teaching about the crucifixion of Christ, her decades of pastoral experience in the Church have made this “work of a lifetime” a comprehensive overview of the theories of the atonement. Though this inclusionary treatment has made the book a lengthy read, for the faithful and persistent reader, however, this inclusionary approach is invaluable. This reviewer, for instance, has come away with a deeper understanding of Anselm, apocalyptic and hell to name but just a few of the more prominent sub-themes that run throughout The Crucifixion.

From the outset, Rutledge notes that there are actually two questions connoted in the question of why the cross? The first and most obvious is, why was it necessary for Jesus to give his life away? But there is another that is seldom asked: why was the cross —crucifixion— the means by which that death was accomplished? Anslem in his treatise on the atonement, Cur Deus Homo, asks, why should God have to “stoop to such lowly things,” as the crucifixion or “do anything with such great labor” when he could simply flick the demons away? Though the first question guides the book as a whole, the second, Rutledge says, stands at its heart. Anselm’s answer to his interlocutor, and one that Rutledge returns to continually is a sobering one: “Nondum considerasti quanti ponderis peccatum sit—You have not yet considered the gravity of sin.”

In the first part of the book, “The Crucifixion.” Rutledge builds on Anselm’s answer for why the crucifixion specifically was the form of death chosen for Jesus. Her answer is that the cross and the crucifixion, “marks out the essential distinction between Christianity and ‘religion.’” That is, the crucifixion is such a horrendous death that it must dethrone any type of natural preconceptions that we may have of who God should be or what He should be like. The sheer “irreligiousness” of the cross subverts any anthropomorphic reductions of Christianity in the guise of a Feuerbach or a Freud. This really isn’t something that could be made up, is the essence of Rutledge’s claim. Paul said the same thing: “for we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles.” This notion of the “irreligiousness” of the cross is a powerful reminder and one that pastors need to reclaim time and time again in order to remind the Church that in the words of Moltmann, we worship a “crucified God.”

The sheer scandal of such a proclamation was brought home recently when a Muslim friend said to my wife, “that cannot be true. God cannot die.”

Having reminded the reader in part one of just how subversive and strange the central belief of Christianity really is, Rutledge turns to the more traditional question of what Jesus accomplished in the much longer part two, “The Biblical Motifs.” She gives a helpful two-fold categorical grouping of the various theories of the cross offered in Scripture ­— atonement and deliverance. The first, atonement, is God’s action in making vicarious reparation for sin that understands the cross as a sacrifice, sin offering, guilt offering, expiation, and substitution where related motifs are the scapegoat, the Lamb of God and the Suffering Servant. The second, deliverance, is God’s victory over the powers of sin and death that sees the cross as rescue from bondage, slavery, and oppression and interprets it as the new exodus, the harrowing of hell, and Christ the Victor. From there, she devotes eight chapters to expanding on each of the major theories that come out of these two main categories. I will not take up any more space diving into those chapters, but they deserve your time.

Reading Rutledge’s book is a commitment — it is long and extensive because it is concerned with eliminating the shrug and the “heard it before” understanding of what Jesus did on the cross. Jesus’ death is the crux from which all of history turns and it demands our time and study. Rutledge has given believers and seekers alike a gift The Crucifixion. It invites us all to understand in order to love the greatest gift that has ever been given.

 

 

Salvation By Faith Alone?

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Salvation By Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King
Matthew Bates
Baker Academic, 2017. 234pp.

Matthew Bates has written an important new book titled Salvation By Allegiance Alone that came out this month from Baker, a publishing house that seems to consistently come out with solid theological works, especially in their academic branch of which this book is a part. Scot McKnight wrote a lengthy forward to the work and has been blogging about it and so it is sure to receive a good deal of attention given how popular his site is. (An odd side note that I must warn you about: every time he posts about the book he includes a family-portrait type photo of Bates that is just awkward, so be prepared for that….)

I was thankful for the time to read the book last week and it was one of those rare books that I had wished were longer. It seems like Bates is just starting to sink his teeth into the material by the time you turn the last page. He tries to cover a ridiculous amount of ground ranging from linguistic studies to soteriology to Pauline studies to eschatology in a little over 200 pages. They all come together under the theme of truly understanding and responding to the good news of Jesus and so I don’t want to make too much of all of the different aspects he tries to cover but two of the middle chapters on eschatology and a Christian anthropology (six and seven, respectively) do feel a bit forced. Someone told me this is just the start of a longer project but it would have been enormously helpful, given Bates somewhat controversial thesis which I will get to here in a second, if he would have provided an additional substantial part that engaged with the history of the doctrine of faith and salvation in the history of Christian thought. For example, I think of the third chapter in John Barclay’s game-changing book Paul and the Gift that gave the reader a substantial, yet obviously limited, overview of the history of Pauline interpretation of grace. That chapter, which looking at it again here now, was right at 100 pages, was an enormous aid for the reader in situating Barclay’s thesis into the larger context of Pauline interpretation. Bates’ book would have been far better had he been able to provide a similar 100 pages or so on the history of interpretation of faith. But, with that said, it’s still an important book to pick up.

Bates’ controversial thesis is that the language of faith and belief are so contaminated for describing the appropriate response of a person to the good news of Jesus that they must be abandoned in favor of the term allegiance. In an admirable in its boldness but sure-to-be divisive two sentences at the beginning of the book Bates states emphatically: “The best corrective is that ‘faith’ and ‘belief,’ insofar as they serve as overarching terms to describe what brings about eternal salvation, should be excised from Christian discourse” (3). As if that wasn’t clear enough, he attempts to clarify: “That is, English-speaking Christian leaders should entirely cease to speak of ‘salvation by faith’ or of ‘faith in Jesus’ or ‘believing in Christ’ when summarizing Christian salvation. For the sake of the gospel we need to revise our vocabulary” (ibid, emphasis mine). See why this book is already a bit controversial?

If the language of belief is to be abandoned for allegiance, what does allegiance entail? Without getting into too much detail, Bates highlights three aspects: 1) mental affirmation that the gospel is true 2) professed fealty to Jesus alone as the cosmic Lord 3) enacted loyalty through obedience to Jesus the King. The use of the word allegiance to replace faith and belief is centered around the understanding of Jesus kingship. In the clearest statement of his thesis in the book Bates says: “We need to recover Jesus’s kingship as a central, nonnegotiable constituent of the gospel. Jesus’s reign as Lord of heaven and earth fundamentally determines the meaning of ‘faith’ (pistis) as ‘allegiance’ in relation to salvation. Jesus as King is the primary object toward which our saving ‘faith’ —that is, our saving allegiance—is directed (67).

For Bates, the most “important” part of the Apostles Creed in the life of the believer today is the oft neglected clause that “He is seated at the right hand of the Father.” This means that even with all of the mess in the world today, Jesus is actively reigning and is the current King. Therefore there is no excuse to wait for an other worldly application to the life and death and resurrection and per Bates, enthronement, of Jesus.

Bates helpfully points us to Paul’s terse and dense summary of the gospel in Romans 1:3-4 by saying that, “In reading Paul’s summary of the gospel, we quickly recognize that the gospel is not at its most basic level a tale about me and my quest for salvation (or even about ‘us’ and ‘our’ quest), but rather it is a grand, cosmic story about God’s Son and what he has done” (30). The book is full of high points like this that will preach on Sundays and that reorients the Western pastor soaked in the hedonism of individual indulgence to the paradigm-shattering news of the gospel about God and not us.

For me, the most helpful part of the book was Bates’ frequent interaction with the scholarly literature in the footnotes. Bates introduces many of the controversies of New Testament scholarship like pistis Christou, dikaiosune theou, and justification/participation and helpfully situates them both in the larger context of the good news and the scholarly literature. For instance, n.27 of chapter eight on justification took me to the work of Charles L. Irons on the use of “righteousness” in Paul which was a fascinating trail to go down. In fact, chapter eight alone on justification would be worth the price of this book. So even though I do wish that Bates would have given more contextual grounding for his thesis in the history of Christian doctrine, it’s clear that he has done his homework in the notes and they are helpful for taking the discussion further.