The Prophetic Imagination Walter Brueggemann Fortress Press, 2001. 151 pp.
Imagination in Place Wendell Berry Counterpoint Press, 2010. 196 pp.
Recently, I was disappointed by a book I had high expectations of. Now, as someone who willingly plunges into book after book with the aims of (often) writing critical reviews, one might say that I have set myself up for this very sort of disappointment. Sure. And that has truly been the case of books that are even well-liked by certain influential critics.
But I was surprised by my disappointment of this particular book because I actually loved it. It revealed a whole mode of thought regarding a major theme of the Scriptures that, for me, was insightful, provocative, and, as a freshly-minted pastor, theologically resourceful and useful. Continue reading “Wendell Berry’s Prophetic Imagination”
Strangers in a Strange Land Charles J. Chaput Henry Holt, 2017. 288 pp.
Captain America is a story of anachronism. After being frozen in ice during World War II, he awakes in modern-day New York and quickly realizes how foreign he is. His values aren’t shared, his cause is considered outdated, and his epistemology is challenged (“The world is different now,” he is constantly told). Christians in America are encountering a life not unlike the Captain’s—waking up to a culture that no longer shares our presuppositions about God, reality, and humanity. We are foreigners, or pilgrims, in a world that is not our home.
Charles Chaput adds his Catholic voice to the argument that we now live in post-Christian America, a world in which Christianity is seen as irrelevant, regressive, or even hateful. Some are quick to dismiss such a thesis as an overreaction to cultural changes, or the response of privileged whites to the loss of political power. Chaput—himself a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation and the first Native American archbishop—counters these dismissals by spending two-thirds of his book outlining the multifaceted problem facing American Christians.
Tracing the emergence of the problem, Chaput embarks on a journey through American history, culture, and political theory from our nation’s founding through the present. This isn’t a book about politics (see Render Unto Caesar), yet Chaput spills quite a bit of ink outlining early American political thought. He connects the American founders’ reliance on natural law with observations by Alexis de Tocqueville about American democracy’s emphasis on individual freedom. Chaput concludes that democracy without moral guardrails elevates the autonomy of the
individual above all other concerns. Christianity, along with “any other institution that creates bonds and duties among citizens,” hinders self-expression and, therefore, self-fulfillment.
Much of America’s post-Christian worldview is connected, according to Chaput, in one way or another with our views on marriage, sex, and the family. I initially discovered Chaput’s book through an excellent excerpt on marriage. Chaput argues that sex is “intimately connected with how we understand ourselves as human” and the human family connects individuals in bonds of commitment and service.
Chaput rejects the way that American individualism has relegated sexual ethics to a private matter outside the purview of any authority. He characterizes the sexual revolution as a technological battle against human limitations. Even if Protestants disagree with Chaput on the licitness of contraception, there are many points to find agreement on the ways marriage and family have been twisted by American culture and need to be recovered.
Along the way, Chaput pens a manifesto on the stewardship of truth, as well as an analysis of American culture through the lens of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. We are strangers in a strange land because we are made for the City of God, yet live in the City of Man. How are we to live in the ensuing clash of values?
In the final third of the book, Chaput proposes a way forward for Christian countercultural living. As he says, “We can’t simply blame the culture. We are the culture.” The only way to have an impact is to begin living differently. It’s well worth sticking with the book for these exhortations to live like Christ. Chaput unpacks the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-11) and contrasts each statement with American cultural values. After being inundated by the media’s vision of the good life, I need this reminder that it is blessed to be poor, meek, and persecuted. In addition, he illumines a proper Christian perspective on persecution through an ancient Christian document (Letter to Diognetus) and stories of modern martyrs. I appreciate that Chaput isn’t out to demonize American culture; instead, he is pointing out real problems and calling Christians to love the culture by living uniquely.
It’s easy to sense that Chaput is a man with a deep appreciation for beauty. He regularly references art and literature, and calls readers to recognize the beauty in creation. In a culture where humans are often seen as “interchangeable reasoning and consuming units,” the elevation of human dignity and the imago dei is a stream in the desert.
Jesus promised that following him would appear strange to others. We live in a time where Christian belief and practice makes less and less sense to the rest of our country. And yet, we live as people of hope on a pilgrimage home. I welcome more voices like Chaput who will call “small-o” orthodox Christians in America to live the only kind of life that will present Christ to the world.
Hearing the Call: Liturgy, Justice, Church, and World Nicholas Wolterstorff Eerdmans, 2011. 440 pp.
Liturgy and Justice seem like odd bedfellows. When we typically think of “Liturgy,” we think of Sunday morning worship and the organization of the church service. On the other hand, when we typically think of “Justice,” we tend to think, more often than not, of something that occurs “outside,” in some fashion, the bounds of the Sunday morning worship. If we participate in the work of Justice — however one may define that term — then we participate “outside” of the realms of “worship,” “music,” “architecture,” or any of the other matters that come into consideration under the broad heading of Liturgy.
And this ought not be so, contends Nicholas Wolterstorff. In a collection of essays that includes biographical shorts, letters to young academics, essays on social work, poverty, and architecture, and reflections on matters of theology and practice, Wolterstorff reminds the reader, time and time again, that the call of the Old Testament is unified in its commitments to the “orphans, widows, and foreigners,” and how the prophets remind the people of God, time and time again, that their worship is null and void apart from this ethical-moral precommitment.
For a book that is inadequately named (“Hearing the Call” is the most unhelpfully vague title I could imagine for such a work), I am surprised at how often I find myself reflecting on Wolterstorff’s admonitions. There’s a joie de vivre throughout — probably a “good infection” that Wolterstorff received from Allan Boesak — that is irresistible; there’s a sense of that eternal Kingdom that Wolterstorff always points to as being palpable and livable hear and now. And yet Wolterstorff does not hold back his hammer: he takes apart Max Weber’s obnoxious thesis of Calvinist anxiety (it is about time someday did this with academic virtuosity!), brings to task American evangelical predilections with capitalism, undoes the secularist’s love of wealth, and demolishes the nondenominational / charismatic structure of a worship service. But even in his direct rebukes, all of Wolterstorff’s words are spoken with intricate care and with loving attention. What is most profound about such a compassionate call-to-action is the vast temporal space between the earliest essay (1969) and the latest (2010): If this were biography, the confession of Wolterstorff’s lifework would be one of compassionate, loving, yet firm, theological and prophetic engagement.
With such a variety of essays and ideas to highlight, it is impossible for me to do Wolterstorff’s work here its due credit. Here are some (sparse, diverse) thoughts that I came away with:
— An Attention to Liturgy, Architecture, and Music: Spread throughout the various sections of the book, Wolterstorff spends incredible attention on the individual pieces of corporate worship, dealing with, in turn, the topics of liturgical structure, architecture of the church building, and selection of church music appropriate for this or that mood or season. The thoughts included here are the little pieces upon which Wolterstorff’s later (and more specific) monograph on worship and liturgy, The God We Worship (2015), was built, but they are more than enough to serve as suitable entrance into his thoughts on the matter. The overarching theme is one deemed practically unimportant by most of American evangelicalism: the choices we make in organizing our liturgy, building our churches, and planning our music are important; they reveal our implicit theologies.
In particular, Wolterstorff spends significant attention to the importance of doors and open spaces in church buildings (as one can see in his home church, Church of the Servant, depicted above), highlights the values of expressing Christian egalitarianism through architecture, and, more than anything else, the centrality of churches as spaces filled with light, an idea he draws from Calvin’s Genevan churches.
— The Admiration of John Calvin: Speaking of Calvin, I found Wolterstorff’s consistent return, time and again, to the Institutes of the Christian Religion to be refreshing, an incredible feat in and of itself. While most readers of Calvin (including both Calvinists and Arminians) find him staunch and pietistic, Wolterstorff brings out the Calvin who is deeply concerned with matters of justice, matters of right worship, and matters of Christian communal living.
If there is something to be lamented in American Calvinist / Reformed thought in the present-day, it is the absorption of Calvin’s thought into specific sectarian (and politically-charged) camps to serve particular (often politically-intentioned) purposes. Wolterstorff, alongside other Reformed interlocutors (I would include Peter Leithart, for instance), does an incredible job of bringing out the wholeness of Calvin’s theology to address topics that are rarely addressed in typical Calvinist circles.
— Poverty as a Moral Ill: One last set of thoughts from Hearing the Call that stood out to me were the ways in which Wolterstorff addressed the topic of poverty. Wielding a solid group of ancient witnesses (mainly 4th-Century Church Fathers) alongside Thomas Aquinas, Wolterstorff makes a thorough case near the end of the book for describing poverty as a moral ill, and, with that, takes an axe to the politico-theological camp of ascribing moral goodness to American capitalism. He articulates his arguments firmly and with conviction, with solid biblical and theological grounds, making the American reader double-guess his or her own received values of money as a moral good.
What shocked me in reading Wolterstorff’s addresses on this topic was how little I considered my own economic / financial decisions to be ones of moral importance. But Wolterstorff leaves no room for moral neutrality (as he ought) and holds the Church to the biblical standard of caring for the poor as one of her fundamental duties. Wolterstorff provides an antidote for the poison that is American capitalism, without relying on its typical antithesis, Marxism, at all. Instead, he calls the Church to a higher calling and a higher duty.
Wolterstorff’s collection can feel at times slightly repetitive, as it perhaps should be for an anthology of fifty years’ worth of essays, yet it is a delightful “salve for the eyes,” so to speak, helping the American Christian re-frame their theological commitments toward Justice in biblical terms as opposed to our received cultural ones. Some essays leave one with bigger questions than solved answers, but Wolterstorff doesn’t ever leave an essay without some sense of eschatological hope. The works are convicting and compelling, but never damning or heavy-handed; instead, one senses a stronger call to follow the Lord’s ways and purposes, and to, as the prophet Micah says, “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before your God.”
Chesterton said that there could be no argument with the most fundamental of Christian claims that the world is held captive and that all are born under the grip of sin. Just look at the world, he said. One need not even turn his eyes outside the windows. In scrolling through my Facebook feed yesterday it was more than I could bear to see the bombings of Egyptian Christians and a Syrian father holding his suffocated babies from the chemical attack. It broke me down. I shut my computer screen and begged God to reveal where He was.
In essence, that’s where Holy Week meditations begin, on our sin that put Him there as the hymn says it. Leithart’s book, which I am using to reflect on what exactly happened this week some 2000 years again, begins there—though in all of sin’s cosmic and universal dimensions—by looking at the somewhat mystifying expression of Paul: Τα στοιχεία του κόσμου which translates into “the elements of the world” and gives Leithart his title. It’s a hotly debated phrase in Paul though it occurs only in two letters, Galatians 4 and Colossians 2. Even though its used very little, the phrase lies at the heart of Paul’s thinking, because it describes in its most basic elements the essence of the old order, of creation groaning and humanity bound to its fetters of death in the power of sin.
What happens when we contextualize Paul’s use of the phrase “the elements of the world” in the context of the philosophical thought of the time? Leithart’s treatment makes for fascinating reading for those captivated by how Paul uses the culture of his time to shape his message about this risen Son of David. “Elements” (Τα στοιχεία) most commonly referred to the basic constituents of the world, the basic elements of matter. “In Greek texts, generally, the term does not connote simplicity but the foundational character of what is being described, with a further hint that the particulars form an interlocking system” (30). What’s so striking given this cultural background and then turning to the specific ways in which Paul uses the phrase is how “[i]nstead of being permanent features of the physical world [for Paul], as they are in Greek philosophy and science, the elements are redescribed as features of an old creation that Christ has in some way brought to an end” (25).
The term that Scripture uses to further compress all that has been brought to an end through God’s vindication of Jesus is “flesh”, σάρξ in the Greek (sarx). Sarx is used 149 times in the New Testament and is a loaded and important theological word. Flesh is much more than muscle and bone for the biblical writers—it is the description of humanity following the fall. Like the biblical writers, Leithart’s book uses sarx as a catch all for describing the stoicheic grip on the old order of things. He says things like, “stoicheic structures and the associated practices were fundamentally intertwined with fleshly life” and “flesh denotes the vulnerability and weakness of human beings and especially our vulnerability to death” and “if human groups are going to function peaceably and justly, if the justice of God is to take root in creation and humanity, flesh must be defeated.” Sarx is a placeholder for all creation cursed by sin, culminating in exile from the garden, from perfect union with God. In order to be able to reenter the garden and walk in the coolness of the day with God, our fleshly life, with all of its sin and decay that leads to death, must be removed. But given that the stoicheic elements are what constitutes the basis of reality and that they birth flesh, where can we possibly turn? We know that Good Friday begins the climactic, mystifying, triumphant answer to that claim. But we cannot start there. We must begin from the beginning.
N.T. Wright likes to quote a passage from the Rabbinic literature (Genesis Rabbah 14:6) which says, “I will make Adam and if he goes astray I will send Abraham to sort it out.” That’s where we must first go then in looking for an answer to the question. An especially brilliant “aha” moment that I got from Leithart was his treatment of circumcision. He treats circumcision as both the symbolic representation and literal removal of sarx in the cutting of the foreskin. That makes no sense in itself, but it is brilliant insight when it is placed within the context of the call of Abraham and the people of God., beginning in the Lech-Lecha of Genesis 12.
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
God commissioned Abraham and his “seed” (single line of descent, the family of God in Galatians 3:29) to be the people through whom humanity would be liberated from its slavery to sarx. Through Abraham, all of the people of the world would be drawn back to YHWH, the God whose very Spirit and Word had shaped the formless void into the diverse spots of the cheetah and the cry of the hungry baby and the roar of the Niagara Falls. Through Abraham and the child of the promise, humanity would turn back to its Creator; through Abraham, all the nations of the earth would be blessed. The first sign of that promise was circumcision from Genesis 17:
This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.
The body of flesh and its slavery to sin was and is what stands between restored relationship between our heart, skin and bones and God. Humanity would only be able to live as God intended when flesh was (is) put to death. There is much talk about salvation Circumcision was the advance sign that through God’s gracious election, flesh would be dealt with and salvation would come. But before final salvation, another man of flesh would be crucified. That is our meditation during Holy Week.