I am going out to see Stanley Hauerwas tomorrow at a conference in Chicago. He is speaking on whether or not the church matters. He is a man and that is a topic that I consider worth driving seven hours to hear. I confess that I am not all that hip on Hauerwas’ work; I’ve read bits of the Hauerwas reader and about the first half of Resident Aliens and so I figured before I find myself sitting next to him at breakfast I better read his memoir so I’ll have something to say. I have heard good things about Hannah’s Child and have been intrigued by the man ever since I heard that he personally responds to every single letter that he receives but this trip finally gave me the occasion to sit down and read. I’m glad I did. It’s a fascinating Bildungsroman replete with love, madness, ideas, sex, and God. “This book is very different kind of work in which you expose and make vulnerable your own life in a way that cannot help but make you feel a bit uncomfortable. It’s a very special book for me. I care deeply about it” Hauerwas says in a 2010 Duke interview, the year Hannah’s Child was published. “I suppose if I’m remembered for any book that I’ve written, it’d be this one.”
In a way I felt bad for Hauerwas throughout the book because of just how exposed and vulnerable he is in the work. By that I mean that I am by nature someone that is extremely cautious of other people’s privacy, especially if they are a public figure and yet even I began thinking that I was reading a letter from a friend that I’ve known for many years. I figured that if I was feeling this way, every single person that has ever read this book must consider Hauerwas a friend and that must be exhausting for him, though he does say that his desire for friendship may be somewhat pathological. Perhaps what is most remarkable is that though the memoir was written by a theologian who has exerted more influence on the Church than all but a handful of his peers he makes you feel like you are reading the memoirs of your best friend from high school who teaches down at the local tech school.
At times this offhanded approach felt like too much such as when he says that “I don’t even know what it means to be a teacher” and yet has spent four decades teaching and continually refers to the joy that it brings him and the importance of that work. Or when he says that “He is a Christian because it helps him live more truthfully” when the fact is that his entire schema of ideas is built on the Barthian claim that it is only by the light of the cross and resurrection of Jesus that we have any idea what truth means. I can’t let him get away with vacuous statements like that and neither should you. But aside from those more annoying misplaced confessions of ignorance, Hauerwas leaves a lot of his cards on the table. He doesn’t even mention meeting Pope Benedict, for example and yet manages to refer to dozens of his students by name.
Another remarkable aspect of the book is that even though it is a memoir it often feels more like a sequence of sketches about his friends and family than Hauerwas himself. Hauerwas rarely reveals his inner thoughts in a way that one would expect from a memoir and he even admits in the end that this book is more about his friends than it is about him. There is a striking moment, more than halfway through the book, when his first wife has left him and he returns home to an empty house. He said it felt “lonely” and the reader feels like he is able to exhale for the first time because though Hauerwas has felt like an old friend for the whole book, this is the first time we are able to truly feel with our friend, because it is the first time that he has let us see that his work ethic won’t be able to solve the loneliness he feels at the moment.
Somehow, Hauerwas manages to render university politics with the flare of a novelist and, as other readers have said, it was a hard book to put down. I think the reason for that is that Hauerwas finds every single person and every single thing that he gives his attention to to be of infinite complexity and interest and that is an infectious position to witness. It is also a truly Christian position. St. Thomas said that we cannot know the essence even of a fly.
If you’re interested in how Hauerwas became a world-renowned theologian and the steps you need to take in order to achieve that status, this isn’t the book for you. If you are interested in how a lower-class Texas guy has navigated his faith and work and family and love a great story, you’ll have a great time with it. Hauerwas manages to accept the fact that he is theologian who possesses a great deal of clout, and there is no false humility here, but he never writes in a way that feels like “damn, it’s good to be me” as he so easily could have. When he says that “I am a full professor with an endowed chair in a top research university” it doesn’t cause the wannabe academic in me to bristle with jealously because we’ve seen how much work and pain has been put in to be able to write that sentence. Hauerwas says that what it means to have children “is to learn to live without control.” The fact that Hauerwas has given us this book means that he has taken that message to heart.
To my mind, there are few intellectual delights sweeter than reading the well-tuned prose of David Bentley Hart. I’m aware that this statement may occasion a few chortles and raised eyebrows—I think of the pastor friend who said Hart’s Beauty of the Infinite was the most difficult thing he’s ever tried to read and consequently gave it away— but over time, Hart’s writings have become to me like the sipping of a fine port after so many cans of Dr. Pepper or Mahler’s Resurrection symphony after so many Beyoncé songs, if you prefer. Hart’s new book of previously published essays is more digestible than Beauty of the Infinite, —more hours d’oeuvre style than full dress, if only because if you’re not enjoying the taste of one essay you can grab another—but it’s certainly contains the caloric content and the substance of a rich and full meal.
Hart’s book is a theological and philosophical treasure and is a rich testament to his unerring learnedness, eloquence and profound intellectual range, as John Milbank attests on the back blurb. Perhaps I may serve you better, dear reader —oh you, likely tortured soul, this far deep into philosophy and theology!— if instead of trying to tidily summarize these essays, (you really must just spend time with them), I am able to position you to better understand Hart when you do decide to finally try and read him.
There is no doubt that it is much easier to digest a three minute Beyoncé song than a 45 minute Mahler symphony and so you must know that reading Hart takes work and time. He is an acquired taste and if you’re anything like me, you will have several different stages in your journey with David Bentley Hart, resembling, somewhat strangely, the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief.
The first was the bewilderment stage– In this stage I was determined to understand what the man was saying even if it meant coming at the cost of spending more time looking up the words he was using than actually reading him. My first encounter was reading Atheist Delusions as a college undergrad and at many times I really had very little idea of what, exactly, Hart was saying but I knew that it looked very impressive and that I very well would like to swordfight with atheists this way some day and look as smart and accomplished doing it. But what exactly did it mean to be rather petulant or have a note of asperity? Dictionary… This stage often continues into the present.
The Cheerleading or the Righteous Anger phase– This phase found me running up to the New Atheist bullies, or anyone that would disagree with him, behind his coattails—Hart, the brave older brother— casting stones and then running away. “Take that you bad guys that don’t believe in Jesus! I’ve got a very smart and clever brother that will take you to task.” In this phase, I enjoyed the ammunition that Hart gave me and felt that if he could be so disparaging to any and all that disagreed that it was not only appropriate to belittle opponents so and take great pleasure in laughing at their intellectual inferiority. As a young apologist wannabe sentences like “Dennet’s book is utterly inconsequential—in fact, it is something of an embarrassment…“ and “Dawkins [the] tireless tractarian [with an] embarrassing incapacity for philosophical reasoning” were like bullets in the chamber of my rhetorical gun. This stage lasted for about three years or until around the second year of graduate school when I realized that this roughshod apologetic approach might be winning some battles but losing the war.
The Turn (Kehre)– In this stage I found myself distancing myself from Hart and his spewing prose and wondered why Hart seemed so angry all the time. Why all the vitriol? Doesn’t Paul say that if he speaks without love he is but a clanging cymbal? Was it really necessary to disparage those who thought differently than he did so hostilely? Doesn’t he like anybody? I found myself being frustrated with his disparagement of anyone and everyone that didn’t agree with him.
Engagement– This stage began in earnest again with the release of Hart’s book The Experience of God in 2014. I was at the tail end of an M.A. in philosophy and I found that Hart’s book nicely captured many of the philosophical arguments I had been studying, tidying them up in their relationship to my faith and why, exactly, these ideas mattered—something that is easily lost in the midst of studies. I relied heavily on his exposition of the anologia entis why the prennial philosophical question of “Why is there something rather than nothing” was misunderstood, ignored, and unanswerable by modern atheists— in my case, Feuerbach.
Acceptance– In the end (which I consider to just have arrived at with the reading of these essays), I got over Hart’s cantankerousness because he is just too helpful and brilliant to write off as simply a demagogue. It seems that even Hart’s heart has begun to softent: he writes in the preface to this new volume that “I have also decided not to attempt to soften some of the more immoderate or provocative remarks in these essays, despite my resolve to strike a more emollient tone whenever I can…” Whether this change of tone is strictly for personal advancement or arises from the injunctions of the gospel that Hart proclaims, I could not say, but I was assuaged (not that I really needed a reason to be) and am curious how Hart’s invective will change in his future work.
Maybe your relationship hasn’t been nearly as tumultuous as mine has. Who knows? Maybe you have not the slightest idea what I am talking about and yet have read this far! Regardless, this collection of essays is a treasure and it will be a volume continually close to hand, both for its example of the power of rhetoric and for its rich expositions of the most basic and fundamental tenants of Christianity read in the light of the best of the tradition. Who can resist sentences like: It imbues the works of Augustine’s senescence with an inexpungible tincture of tragic moral idiocy, one that he bequeathed to broad streams of Catholic and Protestant tradition” (139) and “Ultimately, Heidegger succeeds only at returning to an oblivion of being as profound as his own… (24)?
Did I mention that Hart makes for a rather polarizing figure?
If there is one interweaving thread throughout Hart’s work (and these essays) it is the continual reference to the “conceptual revolution” of Christianity’s understanding of Being. That is, because of its doctrine of creation, Christianity forced a reconceptualization of the entire history of metaphysics. As Hart says,
Herein lies the great ‘discovery’ of the Christian metaphysical tradition: the true nature of transcendence, transcendence understood not as mere dialectical supremacy, and not as ontic absence, but as the truly transcendent and therefore utterly immediate act of God, in his own infinity, giving being to beings (109).
In other words, God is not some type of super creature among creatures (or man writ large as Feuerbach would have it) but existence itself. “Without him nothing was made that was made.” Hart uses this Thomistic doctrine between ens and esse to ground his critique of Heidegger in the first essay “The Offering of Names” and to summarize the uniqueness of Christian thought in “The Destiny of Christian Metaphysics” and it also features prominently in the title essay “The Hidden and the Manifest.” There are two important treatments of the much-maligned doctrine of God’s impassibility as well as two essays on Gregory of Nyssa an extended treatment of Milton and discussions about infinity.
If you’re just beginning with Hart or a fairly recent comer to metaphysics then I would suggest you start with Experience of God and then pick up this book of essays. (If you’re really just a pugilistic looking to excoriate your opponents, The Atheist Delusions is the book for you, though chapter 15 in that book I consider maybe the high point of any book I’ve read in the last five years. And it’s probably thanks to Hart that I even know what a pugilist is….) You’ll be glad you did.
Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament: Theology in the Service of Biblical Exegesis by Gary A. Anderson. Baker Academic (April 2017, 220 pp).
The relationship between theology and biblical studies is fraught with misunderstanding. While maybe not always murderous in intent, their relationship often feels like what it must have been like to stand between Cain and Abel—strained and tenuous, at best. There are certainly numerous exceptions, but generally speaking, it often seems that theologians have no personal stake in the claims they are making while biblical scholars are so entrenched in their traditional reading that they miss incorporating fruitful theological insights into their exegesis. So there’s something humbling—perhaps even startling, sadly, because it’s so rare—in a serious theologian rolling up his sleeves and doing meaningful exegetical work informed by theology and the tradition, which so obviously affects not only the scholar’s career, but their personal faith as well. Gary Anderson, professor of Catholic Theology at Notre Dame, is such a scholar and Christian.
With tongue firmly planted in cheek, Anderson claims on the first page of his newly released book of essays, Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament, that he makes the “rather audacious claim” that theological doctrines actually aid the process of biblical exegesis and, when properly used, play a key role in uncovering the meaning of a text. As Robert Louis Wilken blurbs on the back, this claim, and his understanding of the historical-critical method, theology, and the history of biblical interpretation, makes Anderson a “rare creature among biblical scholars.” That sounds like quite the mouthful but, to extend the metaphor, he is a rare bird able to be identified and understood by all those who have the patience and discipline to explore, and not just by fellow expert ornithologists. Anderson writes clearly and intelligibly while also reminding the reader that serious reading of the Bible theologically is a “demanding enterprise” and reminds the nontheological reader of the benefits of “having some theological sophistication.”
In fact, the most startling and welcome aspect of this book for me was how this collection of essays read much more like extended devotionals and meditations than a scholarly précis. Throughout the book I found myself continually rediscovering the Old Testament—particularly through the eyes of the Church Fathers— and wanting to go back to the texts. There are exegetical gems which have the potential to reorient ones reading of Torah, for example: “The construction of the tabernacle is the climax of creation” (64) and “the moment of lighting the sacrificial pyre is the very apogee of the Torah” (ibid).
There are moments that may make the more conservative scholar uncomfortable like Anderson’s contention that “Paul’s turn to the figure of Adam as the prime example of a biblical sinner is not in accord with the basic thrust of the Old Testament itself” (73) and others times when all sides might feel a bit put out like in the third chapter on creation: “Though Gen. 1 does not teach creatio ex nihilo in the way early Christian theologians might have thought of it, it does not rule it out as decisively as many modern readers have assumed” (48). There is also plenty that the Protestant scholar will find exception to such as Anderson’s study of Mariology and his chapter on the biblical warrant for purgatory but he might also make the Catholic theologian uncomfortable with his usage of Barth in places. Above all, I would say that this book brought me further into the heart of God, which for reader, and I would daresay, author alike, there could be no greater hope.
There are three other subthemes at the heart of the essays—apart from the main thesis that doctrine and biblical studies belong together—that Anderson identifies for the reader:
There is no single method of reading Scripture advocated or that holds sway in the book. This is illustrated in his favorable use of Barth in the proper biblical grounding of original sin (which, provocatively, neither thinker believes is found in Genesis 3, proper) alongside chapters arguing the biblical warrant of Mariology and purgatory.
The need for biblical scholarship to make a concerted effort to properly understand what theological doctrines actually wish to affirm. One of the biggest hindrances between the exegetical grounding of Christian doctrine, Anderson writes, is the ignorance of biblical scholars actual grasp of theological doctrines.
The importance of the Old Testament, with particular influence on Jewish interpretation, as a source for Christian doctrine.
Though these themes are on display throughout the essays, it is easy to lose them in the midst of the specific material of the individual chapters. I found myself wanting more internal consistency and coherence among the essays. To that end, Anderson’s book would have been richer if he would have taken the time to write a new section on methodology or discussed in more depth the proper relationship between theology and scriptural exegesis and how they are to inform one another. We see the fruit of Anderson’s methodology but it would have been more satisfying to see behind the ways in which that fruit was picked. Nevertheless, Anderson has given readers a treat in his careful theological exposition of the scriptures.
Most books that are published come and go with only a narrow impact. Some, however, remain in the cultural dialogue much longer and become a platform for constructive conversation. Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is in the latter category, and has received much attention in recent months.
Dreher’s book, subtitled “A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation,” emerges from years of blogging and speaking around the thesis that the cultural milieu of the United States is so shaped by secularism, modernism and consumerism that meaningful discipleship necessitates radically countercultural living. The book’s title comes from the sixth-century St. Benedict, whose famous monastic Rule is interpreted by Dreher as a guide for Christians today.
The book begins with an assessment of “post-Christian America” and a brief intellectual history in which Dreher outlines some of the philosophical and cultural movements that have shifted Western culture over the last seven centuries. Dreher admits that his history only skims the surface. Even so, he chronicles well how these developments in Western thought have challenged the Christian worldview and made historic truths less believable for each generation. This chapter is one of the significant contributions of The Benedict Option. For many in this generation, our neophilia blinds us to the reality that our ideas are shaped by the values and epistemology we inherit. Dreher helpfully connects the dots by looking to these events:
In the fourteenth century, the loss of belief in the integral connection between God and Creation—or in philosophic terms, transcendent reality and material reality
The collapse of religious unity and religious authority in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century
The eighteenth-century Enlightenment, which displaced the Christian religion with the cult of Reason, privatized religious life, and inaugurated the age of democracy
The Industrial Revolution (ca. 1760-1840) and the growth of capitalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries
The Sexual Revolution (1960-present)
Much more discussion can and should be had about the intellectual frameworks shaping American culture. This chapter was my favorite in the book and the one I’ve referenced most in conversation.
The heart of the book is a chapter on Benedict’s Rule. Dreher explains how practices in the Rule of St. Benedict can help modern Christians recover, maintain, and pass on a robust Christian faith. The practices highlighted in the book are Order, Prayer, Work, Asceticism, Stability, Community, Hospitality, and Balance. As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, Dreher implores Christians of all stripes to structure their lives around these ancient practices. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), America’s nefarious “Christianity-lite,” is a primary target of Dreher’s critique. The embrace of MTD stems from a lack of Christian discipleship, thus making the practices of St. Benedict all the more important.
The rest of the book applies Benedict’s Rule to different areas of life including politics, education, sex, and technology. The practical suggestions are helpful, if a little one-size-fits-all. The real meat, however, comes in the stories of people living the Benedict Option. Dreher offers glimpses of communities from Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christian traditions living some form of the Benedict Option.
In another book I’m reading (The Tech-Wise Family), author Andy Crouch offers suggestions on the use of technology with the caveat, “You don’t have to become Amish, but you probably have to become closer to Amish than you think.” I imagine Rod Dreher saying something similar, “You don’t have to become monastic, but you probably have to become closer to monastic than you think.” Dreher’s Benedict Option has been criticized by some as too extreme, but he argues that serious threats to the Christian faith demand radical countercultural living.
But are the threats that serious? Or are Rod Dreher and his conservative cadre just stoking fear? Many have been quick to denounce The Benedict Option as a fundamentalist head-for-the-hills reaction to a changing country and a loss of political power. In a Washington Post piece that evidences little knowledge of the book’s contents, Dreher and his interlocutors are accused of promoting a “new alarmism.”
I’m optimistic about the amount of conversation The Benedict Option has generated, yet the number of critics commenting on a misreading (or perhaps commenting without reading?) continues to grow. Andy Crouch’sdelineation of Dreher’s thesis from the most common misreading is helpful. Archbishop Charles Chaput has written a book like The Benedict Option from a Catholic perspective and argues, “Naming the problems in a culture truthfully, and pointing a way forward for those awake enough to notice, is neither bleak nor negative. It’s called Christian realism, and it’s a virus that’s going around.”
The evangelical fear that Christians will retreat from culture is understandable. Our tradition is deeply rooted bringing the gospel to bear on the issues of the day. And yet, how can a church subsumed by modernity offer meaningful critique of culture? Prophetic critique requires that a better reality be inaugurated and lived among the people of God.
The Benedict Option calls Christians to deepen our discipleship so that we can be the church for the world. Christian mission that disciples nonbelievers into MTD is thoroughly non-Christian. Only by taking hold of the radical self-denying, God-exalting, neighbor-embracing call of Christianity will we continue to “turn the world upside down” (examples of this can be seen in many flourishing churches across the Global South that preach historically orthodox Christianity). The Benedict Option’s proposal of a life oriented around early Christian practices is a welcome correction for today’s evangelicals.
It would be easy for readers to critique Dreher’s Benedict Option prescriptions without engaging the book’s central issue. The most fruitful discussions of this work will be those that take seriously the challenges of modernity and begin to offer contextualized responses. If The Benedict Option awakens Western Christians to the core issues at hand for the future of a robust Christian faith, the book will have served the Church well.
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 as 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 War, Satan 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:
“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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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).
“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).
“Not only am I, I, but that which is not myself is just as real as I am” (107, The Metaphysics of Walking).
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.
I’ve been re-reading my Dante in prep for a class I’m teaching tomorrow and have been struck once again by the power of literature. I realize that is not saying a whole lot, but when you are able to slow down enough and let a work like the Commedia read you, rather than you just plowing through it, it’s a truly remarkable experience. Rod Dreher in his new book, How Dante Can Save Your Life says that “Dante knows you better than you know yourself.” Before you roll your eyes consider the opening lines again, from Dorothy Sayers translation.
Midway this way of life we’re bound upon,
I woke to find myself in a dark wood
where the right road was wholly lost and gone.
Does language get more beautiful? Those three lines alone evoke desolation and a holy longing, unfilled desire and disconsolation in a way that an entire current NYT bestseller may never do in 400 pages.
And so Dante is everyman, on the perilous journey of life, lost in the darkness of sin looking for light, which arrives through Virgil, the embodiment of all the goodness and truth and beauty that God’s divine creation has to offer apart from divine grace. But Virgil’s limitations, his being outside of union with divine grace in the person of Jesus Christ, means that he cannot take Dante where he needs to go. For that, he needs to revelation of divine grace itself: his darling Beatrice. And thus the story begins. As Dreher says, “You will not be the same after reading it. How could you be? All of life is in there.”
Reading La Divina Commedia is not easy. But nothing worthwhile ever is.