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.

Advertisements

Book Review: God’s Mediators

God’s Mediators
Andrew S. Malone
IVP Academic, 2017. 230pp.

It should go without saying that one of the more complex and difficult strands to pull out and discuss throughout the course of the biblical canon is that of the intersections between the cultic liturgies of the Mosaic Law and the unique challenges to the assumptions of those under the Mosaic Law when it comes to the New Covenant and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is not for nothing that denominational and doctrinal divisions exist solely on the basis of how one parses these relationships: dispensationalism for those who seek to make a clean break and separation, supersessionism for those who seek the advance the New at the expense of the Old, Covenant Theology for a more holistic approach, and N.T. Wright’s New Perspective of Paul for another, but more nuanced, holistic engagement.

Gods MediatorsI say that to point out that I think Andrew S. Malone is jumping into far deeper waters than the tools he allots himself allows. In this latest edition to the New Studies in Biblical Theology (edited by D.A. Carson of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), Malone seeks to peruse the canon of the Scriptures with the aim of developing, as he says, a biblical theology of priesthood. While his attempt is admirable, what he has actually succeeded in doing is revealing the precise limits of “biblical theology” (as deployed by Carson, et al.) and some of its more hidden biases, leading God’s Mediators to be less an insightful tool than a more elaborate bibliography.

The Limitations of the Biblical Theology Approach

I will be free to admit that I find even the term “biblical” theology to be more than a little jarring. Looking at the history of modern theology, one sees “biblical” theology emerging as an opposition and response to various trends in historical-critical and postmodern theological methods (like how Greg Boyd’s “theological interpretation of Scripture” attempts much the same thing; just with Open Theism). In short, for as much as historical-critical (et al.) methods are “modern” in that they represent a fairly-recent foray into particular concerns (origins, historiography, etc.) that the vast majority of Church history found uninteresting, so to are reactionary methods, like “biblical” theology, “modern” in that they begin with an opposition, rather than an affirmation.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t some value to biblical theology as it is. There are merits to its methods. In the previous entry of the NSBTPreaching in the New Testament by Jonathan I. Griffiths (which I reviewed on this site), I found plenty of useful biblical-exegetical nuggets, engagement with Greek texts, and the like to find the volume useful. Focusing in on a (surprisingly) rare topic in the Scriptures such as “preaching” serves as a word-study on the complexities and nuances of that topic. Biblical theology ought never be the main course, since it tends to lead us to overviews and exegetical insight rather than Christian discipleship; but it serves as a useful tool to highlight some of the more complicated miscellany of the Scriptures.

Malone makes two main errors that plague the entirety of his work here. The first is, like those who wish to substitute “biblical” counseling in place of “Christian” counseling, Malone mistakes biblical theology as being the same thing as “theology that is biblical,” and, so doing, places his kind of work on a pedestal of objectivity and scholarship that it simply cannot sustain. The second is that his subject matter is just not amenable to this kind of method: the various lines of priesthood, Old Testament sacrificial systems, Christ’s high priestly role, the priesthood of Israel and the Church, are just far too intricate and far too intertwined for biblical theology to even be successful in un-weaving them.

Sacraments? Anyone?

One of the glaring oversights of this biblical theology project is, unsurprisingly, its lack of any nuanced engagement with sacramental views of the priesthood. Malone attempts to  bypass denominational / doctrinal disputes on this matter by setting up the method of his survey as a biblical theology, but, like any attempted neutrality, all this serves to accomplish is to allow his own doctrinal presumptions show up in his selective reading of the text. For a survey attempting some broad biblical consensus on the nature of priests and the priesthood in the Scriptures, views on priesthood as diverse as that of the Catholics, Anglicans, Orthodox, Presbyterians, and Lutherans are surprisingly absent. As such, passages classically considered within the purview of Christ’s high priesthood, like His Baptism or the Last Supper, and discussed typologically with relation to the sacraments are wholly disregarded.

An especially clear example of this is when Malone addresses the topic of Adam’s priesthood. In the background of his discussion, Malone has already brought certain presumptions on how the high priesthood functions — it defines the holy, allows the people to approach the presence of God, teaches the definitions of holiness (= ethics) — and then re-reads those terms into Adam’s role before God as the imago Dei. Whatever his reasons for beginning the discussion of priests in Exodus, we must observe that there are plenty of creational theologians who think that this discussion must begin instead with Genesis; that is, thinking of Adam as a pre-type of Aaron is wrongheaded, instead we must think of Aaron as some kind of Adam. This is the precise case that Alexander Schmemann makes in For the Life of the World, representing the Eastern Orthodox view on Eucharist, Creation, and the priesthood. That Malone thinks the high priesthood rightly begins with Aaron reveals already his assumptions.

Andrew S Malone

Here we see again the shortfalls of biblical theology on a subject such as priest(hood): for one, how one defines and reads priest(hood) is often already pre-determined by their doctrinal presuppositions. Whether or not one is reading the Bible to source such a survey is almost a moot point: a Catholic or Orthodox reader would see priesthood as a foreground interpreting Eucharistic moments in the text and one who rejects their view on sacraments out-of-hand can all-too-easily ignore such a reading altogether. It is not a neutral or objective view that discounts entire Christian traditions just because it takes for granted the superiority of its own hermeneutic; this is the definition of a biased method.

Abstracted Conclusions, Abstracted Discipleship

Of course, one could argue that a “biblical theology” hopes to deal with just the text, rather than historic receptions of said text or traditional typologies of the text, and that, as a result, ignoring the sacramental conversation or the high church concerns implicit in the understanding of “priest / priesthood” is part of the point. But even if we dismiss sacramental theology’s unique perspective on these terms (which is a modern tendency in theology), even if we dismiss potential verses and situations where we might be able to see the priest(hood) in action that we would have otherwise missed on these grounds, there are still glaring omissions present in Malone’s survey.

These omissions are obvious enough in the read-through, but nowhere do they present themselves with more clarity than in his closing chapter, for “applications.” Here, Malone presents a smattering of unconvincingly-serious discussions on the ends of such a study: a few thoughts on why the priesthood of all believers is important, some offhand suggestions for future exegesis (and his suggestion here to avoid “minimizing” the term priest(hood) is valid; I wish he too had followed through!), and, in an excruciatingly anticlimactic manner, an admonition against the present usage of the term “priest” for certain denominations’ ministers.

These “applications” are all-too-abstract. They are like when the pastor concludes his sermon saying “Now, all you need to do is believe this thing.” That is not an application; it is a doctrinal exhortation. An application would be “Now, here is how you do this thing.” Just as faithful preaching must call its congregation to the practical, concrete acts of the Kingdom, so too faithful theology ought to call its reader to practical, concrete acts. What is particularly surprising about this is that the ministry of the priest(hood) is one of the most action-ed ministry roles in the Bible.

In other words, Malone skips over the vast bulk of Leviticus, the formal washings and cleansings, the offerings, the sacrifices, etc.; in short, he skips over all of the explicit action-ed activities of the priest(hood)’s ministry, the very actions that constitute its proper functioning! Instead, Malone focuses on the preaching-teaching, judging-discerning roles of the priest(hood), roles present in Exodus, for sure, but not emphasized until Ezra’s post-exilic priesthood and the later Second Temple Judaism. This abstracting of the priest(hood)s’ role from their embodied actions results in abstracted conclusions and abstracted discipleship. These conclusions are frustrating, especially given how necessary a renewed vision of the Church qua priesthood of all believers is needed for counteracting a secularized (=demythologized, =disenchanted) world.

Final Thoughts

Ignoring the hermeneutical contributions of a large portion of the Church is lamentable, problematic, and paradigmatic of the problems inherent to biblical theology. But ignoring the cultic acts of the priests and Levites themselves in order to focus on their roles as teachers, like setting up Aaron as the paradigmatic priest without allowing for a creational precedent, is disingenuous to the task of biblical theology itself. One of my disappointments with this work as I began reading it was that it was more of a survey than a monograph; one of my disappointments upon finishing it was that it was not even an effective one.

All being said, I found Malone’s work to be more fraught with inconsistencies than the sort of nuanced and advanced scholarship one hopes from a more-established series like NSBT. In conversations with others who found this addition to be more than lacking, the consensus was that the series has been stalling for some time (those who have attended TEDS suggested that D.A. Carson is spending too much time on his commentaries of the Johannine letters), and this volume certainly speaks to the NSBT‘s need for a renewed vision.

At best, God’s Mediators provides a worthwhile bibliography for writers interested in pursuing the subject further, along with some conservative evangelical approaches to priest(hood); at worst, it presents itself as a solid biblical theology without spending time with some of these texts’ hardest denominational fights and without investing energy into these texts’ most complex (yet rewarding) sequences (namely, the priestly-Levitical cultic actions). If anything, Malone’s work here shows that there is still yet much ground to cover even in proposing basic readings for Exodus and Leviticus’ priestly texts, let alone dealing with the major themes of priest(hood) throughout the entirety of the Scriptures.

I would like to thank InterVarsity Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.

 

Re-Forming the World: A Book Review of James K.A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies (Part Two)

Awaiting the King
James K.A. Smith
Baker Academic, 2017. 233 pp.

If volumes 1 and 2 of James K.A. Smith’s landmark Cultural Liturgies sequence displayed an overtly pessimistic view on a Christian engagement with culture, maybe too much Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault, then volume 3 provides the appropriately-Augustinian optimistic response. And that, in itself, is part of what makes Awaiting the King both utterly surprising and absolutely requisite reading for any student of theology and culture.

Following on the heels of his formational account of human beings, Smith reifies the central problem of a Christian account of politics: that is, that we are all-too-often co-opted by anti-formative liturgies that make us into non-Christian participants in a secular polity. Side-stepping the ridiculous rhetoric of partisanship, the lackadaisical and passive approaches of political agnosticism, and the un-bold-ness of anemic moderatism, Smith articulates a thoroughly Christian (echoing Hauerwas) account of the political (which he wisely frames as “the public”) for the sake of both re-forming the typical [Dutch] Reformed (= Kuyperian) approaches as well as challenging the nascent American political ideologies of late modernity.

Such a challenge requires great resources, and Smith draws on the best that ancient Christianity had to offer: Augustine’s City of God. Redeeming the Civitas Dei from its pigeonholed interpretations requires much close reading, but Smith manages Augustine masterfully in order to realize a far more complicated (and more helpful) vision of Christian political theology. At the end of the day, if Awaiting the King does nothing else (and it does quite a bit else), Smith has saved Augustine’s City of God from its modern reductions.

Life in the Saeculum: Contested Time versus Contested Space

One of the crucial observations that Smith brings to the fore is the tension between our typical metaphors of the political as spatial; instead, Smith presents an Augustinian view of politics as temporal, as the meeting point not of many different kinds of spaces but of many different kinds of time. For the Christian, there are not “two kingdoms” (in the Lutheran sense) but, instead, “two times”: the Now and the Not-Yet. The Now is not a “secular” space but a saeculum, a time in which the work of today is done. This allows for an eschatological re-engagement with all the preconceptions of the political.

Awaiting the King

There’s a powerful, biblical beauty to eschatological readings of politics: after all, the most rightly “political” books in the Bible are Daniel and Revelation, with a healthy reminder that Isaiah and Jeremiah are not just prophetic towards the people of Israel qua ekklesia, but also as prophetic towards the people of Israel qua polis. Of course, fundamentalists and modernists both will quail at the consequences of Smith’s eschatological re-reading: he asserts an Augustinian, even Constantinian (run for your lives!), view of the polis as ideally submitted to the eschatological Kingdom of God.

It’s a shocking thesis in late modern theology, especially for an author who asserts to be “speaking Hauerwas to the Reformed church.” Hauerwas, of course, critiques liberal democracy by reading John H. Yoder, and Yoder, of course, critiques theocratic political approaches by reading the Constantinian turn in the 4th century. It would appear that Smith is undercutting, as opposed to supporting, Hauerwas. But that would be a mis-reading of this project.

Instead, by turning back to Augustine and Constantine (the latter via the works of Peter Leithart), Smith actually provides an articulated political theology with both a Hauerwasian ecclesiology and a Constantinian politics without theocratic or theonomist or dominionist implications. This is what Smith is to be most applauded for! To articulate this in-betweenness betwixt (on the one side) Hauerwas and Yoder and (on the other side) Leithart and Augustine, Smith navigates a critique of various theories of liberal democracy (including John Rawls’ Theory of Justice) and advances Oliver O’Donovan’s theses on political theology. The result is a renewed vision of the Church qua polis, of ecclesially-centered Christian politics, and (surprisingly enough) an ardent critique of the American experiment of a churchless state and its inherent “separation” between church and state.

The Practice of Public Theology

Beyond the nuanced ecclesiology, eschatology, and political theory (all of which is quite effective), Smith also provides the outlines of a praxis of Christian public theology, with the Church, rightly, in the center. Following O’Donovan (as he does throughout; see a critique of his use of O’Donovan, below), Smith notes that the antidote for civil political engagement is not “teaching civil discourse” but actually Christian conversion. The formation of Christian disciples, the impact of “craters of the Gospel” in a civilization, literally changes the civic discourse of that civilization. With this in mind, Smith continues what I find to be the practical theological answer to the problem posed by Brueggemann’s Prophetic Imaginationhow are we, the Church, supposed to enact the imaginative powers of the Kingdom in our polity?

As I have explored elsewhere, Smith’s liturgical anthropological project allows for a vision of the Church as context for human formation, allowing for a diversity of political articulations in the midst of an orthodox center. By returning the Church to its discipleship-formative roots, by reminding us of our counter-liturgical, counter-cultural stance, Smith actually provides a practicable way for the Church to engage its political and public environment.

In fact, I am concerned that the [American] Church will continue to produce bombasts and American citizens unless it begins to recognize its spaces of contested formation as Smith has outlined here. With the tools Smith provides, we can finally begin to discern what in our liturgies and our discourses forms us as “American citizens,” and what, to the contrary, allows the Church to form citizens of the Civitas Dei. This distinctions isn’t merely important: it is central to the political witness of the Gospel.

But… … Couldn’t I Have Just Read Oliver O’Donovan?

All these laudations aside, however, I do have one major complaint with this volume, making it weaker, at the end of the day, than its predecessors. Large chunks of Awaiting the King are dedicated to block quotes or semi-paraphrased paragraphs of cited material, primarily from Oliver O’Donovan’s work (The Desire of the NationsThe Ways of Judgment) and a light sprinkling of Peter Leithart. Early on, this is tolerable as the kind of typical foundational work necessary to sustain a large and complicated argument; but about halfway into the book, I did find myself wondering whether I was reading the long-awaiting conclusion of James K.A. Smith’s trilogy or a footnote to Oliver O’Donovan’s oeuvre. There are some sections in this book that could have literally been transcribed as “Commentary and Analysis on a Few Passages from O’Donovan.”

This is disappointing because Smith has proved himself, time and again, in a wide variety of works, to be not only a winsome theologian but also a masterful rhetorician, bringing heady theology to an accessible level without overcomplicating unnecessary minutia or adding the “colloquialisms” of the academic in without explanation for an unlearned audience (although I did catch him using “always already” in its Althusserian accent once). The effect is that Awaiting the King feels like a book that was rushed to its publication without those final edits and final goings-over necessary to smooth out this overbearing quotation-heavy middle section.

Maybe our political-theological-historical situation in American Christianity merited quick response. A dying “evangelicalism” tied to political commitments finds itself faced against a resurgent progressive church building on millennial fervor; Smith’s (and O’Donovan’s) eschatologically-wise public theology is a much-needed antidote the false dichotomies and lost spiritual ground of our day and age. I can sense Smith’s editors thinking “this is the time for this book.” So, the rhetorical failure of Smith’s over-dependence on O’Donovan can be easily explained: this book needed to be published.

Still, the plethora of O’Donovan quotes really muck up the reading of the work and slow down its smoothness. (At the end of the day, O’Donovan’s tone and style are not nearly so winsome as Smith’s; and Smith’s rhetoric does not benefit from O’Donovan’s particular voice.) I would wish that the work had been given one or two more thorough readings, and that Smith had tried to better integrate O’Donovan’s speech with his own rhetoric and terms.

Final Thoughts

Smith’s overindulgence on O’Donovan and a few overwrought passages engaging theories of liberal democracy aside, Awaiting the King is a must-read for the late modern pastor, theologian, and disciple. Smith synthesizes our best political and ethical theologians — including antitheses like Hauerwas and Leithart — into his (a/e)ffective thesis of human liturgical formation for the sake of re-forming the world. In some sense, this is the politics of Schmemann’s For the Life of the World: how do Christians take our Eucharistic / priestly calling and engage the world around us with the Kingdom of God? As Smith notes at one point in a footnote, what Richard Rohr and Dallas Willard have done with private/personal spiritual disciplines, here he has accomplished a similar renewal in terms of the Church.

Here, we have a realized picture of what the Civitas Dei looks like in late modernity; and, as a pastor-theologian myself, I am excited and empowered with a vision and practical tools to actually begin to pursue the cultural-social-economic renewal of my community. This book ought be seen as a watershed for political theology, and I cannot emphasize enough that it is required reading in this day and age.

Re-Imagining the World (and Re-Enchanting It): A Book Review of James K.A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies

Desiring the Kingdom
James K.A. Smith
Baker Academic, 2009. 238 pp. 

Imagining the Kingdom
James K.A. Smith
Baker Academic, 2013. 198 pp.

This book review begins long before I stumbled upon James K.A. Smith’s landmark Cultural Liturgies project. For me, the questions of worldview-versus-epistemology, intellect-versus-romance, propositional-versus-sentimental (in pedagogy) have hounded me for my entire academic career. Early on in my bachelor degree days, I stumbled upon a little-known short story from the fantasy master George MacDonald called “The Golden Key.” In it, a young man named Mossy discovers an eponymous key that allows him an ease of traversing a spiritual-emotional-Bildungsroman-like journey across time and space and different dimensions of reality, through our world and Fairyland. Even when I first read that story, now nearly eight years ago (coincidentally, since the first volume of Smith’s Cultural Liturgies was published), I had a sense that MacDonald was rejecting our rationalist presuppositions regarding matters such as faith, knowledge, or even truth. The “golden key” doesn’t translate nicely as “propositional knowledge”; it doesn’t make sense as the kind of thing one can learn by being told about it. Instead, Mossy has to wander out in the woods, near Fairyland, to find it.

The story stuck with me. In 2015, I began a master’s degree in the humanities, and I proposed a thesis on “The Golden Key” (MacDonald as far-too neglected a voice in Victorian literature, given his great influence). Throughout my readings and my research, I stumbled upon, time and again, MacDonald’s insistence on the centrality of the imagination. In a particularly sublime passage in an essay called “The Imagination,” MacDonald claims: “the imagination of man is made in the image of the imagination of God.” Slowly, I began to realize that the “golden key” was never to be understood as some psychoanalytical signifier (as one Freudian-Lacanian interlocutor insisted), but as an emblem representing MacDonald’s imaginative pedagogy. He did not think of education as primarily the “downloading of information” into a child’s brain; he saw that the best education ought to be the training and encouraging of the flourishing of that child’s imagination. In a sense, this is the maxim that MacDonald lived his life by; in his time he was far more well-known for his works of fantasy and fairy tale than for his sermons and essays.

For the Sake of the Christian University…

At its onset, James K.A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies project purports to be “simply” about the question of Christian education. Smith, after all, is not just a continental philosopher, nor a Dutch Reformed theologian, nor an affable cultural critic; first and foremost (as he self-discloses), he is a teacher, and he is a teacher at not just any Christian institution but, specifically, one inspired by the cultural manifestos of Abraham Kuyper.

There’s something bugging Smith. (Hint: it’s probably in the Derrida he drank with his coffee.) In Christian education circles, the conversation keeps coming around and around to the problem of “worldview.” “How,” asks the Christian pedagogical leaders of today, “can we provide our students with a more thoroughly-Christian worldview?” And, so, the curriculum-masters continue to hedge and hedge their teachings with more and more worldview-materials, with the hopes that the Christian students they will have formed through their courses will end up, on the flip side, as better, more thoroughly-developed Christians.

The question of method, of course, is never brought up. For these courses, certain presuppositions on how one ought to “learn a worldview” are generally accepted, presuppositions which suggest, for instance, that one walks as a better, more sanctified Christian person primarily by “gaining knowledge,” by “taking in information,” by “studying.” The fight for “worldviews” begins in the mind and, in some senses, ends in the mind. This assumption, I should add, constitutes the basic intellectualist culture that we North American Christians take for granted. Read the news, follow the headlines: all of the discourses (including political!) aim at “revealing” the “truth” to those who are “ignorant.”

Print

But, as Smith rightly observes early on in Desiring the Kingdom, despite this commonly-held assumption, there are others forces at play. While our intellectualist assumptions tell us that we live based on what we believe and that what we believe constitutes the arena of our spiritual-emotional combat, the powers-that-be are actually marshaling a different set of principles to form us into a different kind of people. In American capitalism, these forces use our bodily-drive desires, our deeply-embedded longing for stories — in short, our humanity — to sell us products and teach us who we “ought” to be (according to, of course, their selfish versions of anthropology).

So, Smith reasons, if our world is telling us that “we are what we believe,” but then that same world is (successfully!) selling us products by using our embedded sense of being-in-the-world and drawing upon our human nature — that is, by using a pedagogy dependent upon the maxim “we are what we desire” — then maybe the problem of Christian worldview-formation is that we are focused on worldview, when we ought to be focused on desire-formation.

Late-Modern Paganism, Secular Liturgies

This forms the overarching intuitions of Smith’s Cultural Liturgies project, and, man, is it a provocative thesis. For one, Smith does what I have longed to put in writing since I read Althusser’s famous “Ideology” essay: a thoroughly-Christian cultural engagement that rightly assesses all human actions as basically worship, thus basically idolatry outside of incorporation into the Body of Christ. This part is not a fun read, in the sense

James-K.A.-Smith
James K.A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College

that Smith accomplishes what effective critical humanistic work is supposed to do: he draws back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz. But the terrifying thing about Smith’s curtain-pulling work is that the Wizard is not some benign (but hapless) old man from Kansas. Rather, if we take Smith’s assertions about powers and principalities seriously, the Wizard is the very forces of darkness themselves.

In short, Smith provides a liturgical method for reading culture, for reifying it as the pagan worship that it is, for recognizing it (through defamiliarization) for the teleological pedagogies that it contains. All kinds of ethical quandaries emerge if we take Smith seriously (I have often seriously considered what place the shopping mall ought to take in the life of the common believer after reading Desiring the Kingdom; but I write this… on the eve of Black Friday… while my wife is away preparing for tomorrow…!).

Much of Desiring the Kingdom serves to introduce the language of secular liturgy and re-affirm the counter-formative powers of Christian liturgy. The book serves as a successful and powerful testament to the necessity of solid Christian humanistic work in the late-modern age, and it is written in such a way that is more easily-grasped by the common practitioner (say, pastors) than other heavy theo-philosophical works.

The Liturgical Imagination

Whereas Desiring the Kingdom provides an outline for something of a “romantic theology” or epistemology of liturgical reasoning, it is Imagining the Kingdom that does the heavy lifting in actually accomplishing these high tasks. And it is such a theological-philosophical masterwork, in every way. For one, Smith does what Walter Brueggemann’s classic The Prophetic Imagination just couldn’t do: he actually provides a theory for the imaginative practice as practice. I had been frustrated when I read Brueggemann and arrived at the end of a book that had just assured me of a practical, imaginative power to prophetic writings… only to find a void where I had hope to read of actual imaginative theology at work. Smith fills in that void oh-so-masterfully.

He does this by relying on the French phenomenological tradition, in particular Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Pierre Bourdieu, and Paul Ricoeur (with some Martin Heidegger hiding in the backImagining the Kingdomground). By taking Merleau-Ponty’s “erotic comprehension” as grounds for anepistemology founded on the body alongside Bourdieu’s “theory of practice as practice,” Smith is able to weave a narrative of precisely how worship and liturgy do what they do. And this practical understanding of their function lends itself to a pedagogical understanding of how to shape and form a human person in a particular way. It is not surprising, by the end of Imagining the Kingdom, that one has not only a sense of how unconscious secular liturgies function, but also how propaganda functions, how political entities actually establish hegemonic influence over their subjects.

But most powerfully, Smith dignifies, as MacDonald did (albeit, unheard), the imagination as the crucial, critical, pivotal sense underneath pedagogical understandings of the human being. There is a serious, sober, reality that Smith puts before us: if we, as Christian leaders, do not learn how to form the imagination of our people, then someone else will. In other words, Christian leaders must ask the question (that Smith asks): “Why should the devil get all the best stories?” What has long been dismissed by Christian leaders (in ungodly utilitarian fashion) as decorative, must now be re-admitted as not just important but central in Christian formation: the kin/aesthetic nature of worship.

Final Thoughts

If my approving tone throughout doesn’t give enough of a recommendation for these works from James K.A. Smith, then I ought to make it explicit: these are foundational reads for the late-modern theologian, pastor, or worship leader. I would almost make the case that without Smith’s incisive cultural re-readings of secular liturgies we risk making Christian atheists in our discipleship practices, rather than a holy people, set aside for God alone. Smith represents an intellectual and spiritual bastion against our post-Solomonic high-places Christian paganism; his arguments are like-unto Isaiah or Jeremiah’s anti-idolatry prophecies from the Old Testament. Without this vital re-describing project, the American church could easily continue on its path toward a relativized, secularized “theology.” (Our political situation shows the early fruits of this precise thing.)

Even if the philosophical nuances of Imagining the Kingdom scare you off, I would say that Desiring the Kingdom is required reading for us. It helps that Smith incorporates some of the best of modern theology (Hauerwas and Wells’ Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics is oft-quoted, as is Schmemann’s For the Life of the World, as is Taylor’s A Secular Age, etc.) in a format that is easily ingested. Apparently he has even written a popular version for even more general audiences (entitled You Are What You Love). It is an absolute must-read.

I will soon begin reading his final installment for the Cultural Liturgies project, Awaiting the King, which aims (boldly!) at “reforming political theology.” I am excited for what awaits, and I will write a companion review once I finish it. Until then, I, again, commend these two works with the highest level of commendation that I can put in ink: Smith unveils our idolatries, and we must know how to again become Christians in our secular age.

Book Review: The Lost World of the Canaanite Conquest

The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest
John H. Walton and J. Harvey Walton
IVP Academic, 2017. 269pp.

In the world of oft-retreaded and wearying debates, the discussion of Old Testament violence done in God’s name is high on my list of over-discussed and over-obsessed topics. Maybe I am a little tired of the topic because I found Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God to be a huge let-down. I have heard that another recent release, Brian Zahnd’s Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, has made an attempt to advance a thesis that would tag-on to Boyd’s nicely. There are even rumblings in the anti-atonement camp (those who reject the concept of God’s wrath being poured out upon His Son) of a sea-change in evangelical theology as a result of these two works (see, for instance, William Paul Young’s Foreward to Zahnd’s book), which only serves to tell me that I will inevitably run across more attempts to solve “the problem of OT violence” in the near future. Exciting.

john-walton
John H. Walton, professor Old Testament at Wheaton College; his son, J. Harvey Walton is also a co-author

It was in the spirit of “Goodness, There’s Gotta Be A Better Way To Deal With This Problem” that I requested John H. Walton (and son)’s latest entry of the acclaimed Lost World series for review. Having heard of the strengths of Walton’s engagements on the Book of Genesis, in particular his astute knowledge of the ancient Near-East (ANE) world, Hebraic syntax, and religio-cultural matters, and having tasted of those strengths first-hand through The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, of which Walton is an editor, I figured that this new release could provide the sound engagement with Old Testament conquest narratives that I hungered for. Or, at the very least, I hoped that Walton could put the unsettled ghosts of Boyd’s poorly-argued thesis to rest, so I could get some sleep at night. After all, it does no one any good for a bad thesis to go to the grave disquieted.

Hermeneutics: Pre-Modern Assessment for a Pre-Modern Text

As I just mentioned, one of Walton (and son)’s (and hereafter I’ll just called Walton & Walton as “Walton” with the pronoun “his” instead of “their”; it’s nigh-impossible to separate their voices in the text anyways) strengths is his incredible background in ANE texts. From beginning to end, the whole matter is dripping with far more linguistic-cultural analysis of ANE practices and literary tropes than I could have ever recognized. From little matters, like the DINGIRS which set various individuals or places as “holy places” dedicated to this or that god, to big matters, like the trope of the invincible barbarians and the commonalities between this trope and the OT portrayal of the Canaanites, Walton stuffs this book with a wealth of ANE perspective that is so rarely addressed in other sources. It is one kind of thesis to suggest that maybe the Canaanite conquest fits a literary motif (and it is a weak thesis, one easily dismissed by Boyd in his CWG); but it is another kind of thesis — a far stronger kind — to put a particular ANE literary motif side-by-side with the accounts in Joshua and see a strong parallel. It was this kind of persuasive argument that sold me on Walton’s reading of Genesis in the first place, and I find him well-grounded again here.

What is most helpful about Walton’s reading of the OT accounts is that he is particularly mindful and careful of the wide array of modern assumptions that present-day readers of the OT bring with them to the text. As he wisely observes, even when we set down a word like “genocide” we are already making a moral judgment on the text based in our modern assessment, rather than letting the text judge for itself its own terms. (This is something that Boyd radically fails to accomplish.) By systematically setting aside a wide array of modern concerns, Walton slowly begins peeling away a huge eisegetical framework that most readers of the OT (myself included) have attached to these stories.

One great example of this is how we almost universally think of the Israelite conquest as some kind of punishment on the Canaanites for their sins. But Walton reads the Torah and Joshua very slowly, and he discovers that this “punishment-narrative” is, simply put, unfounded. One piece at a time, he reveals that the Canaanites are not being punished for their sinfulness, that they are not sinful because they cannot transgress the Law, and, as a result, the Israelite conquest is not an example of God’s wrath. This is particularly shocking given that most counter-arguments involving the conquest stories (especially those from atheist authors, but also from Christians of the Boyd-Zahnd ilk) begin by refuting this view of God’s wrath. Walton undercuts all such interpretations which rely on God’s wrath (and he rightly emphasizes how God’s wrath operates with Israel during the exile, etc.).

Instead, as we read onward, the conquest of Canaan is like-unto God’s conquest over the waters of Creation and His conquest over the waters of the Red Sea and His conquest over the waters of the Jordan. Walton savvily weaves his previous ANE work into this project to proclaim the great unifying theme of the OT: Yahweh, King of All Creation, is the God of Gods who rules over even Tiamat, the serpent of chaos. Unlike the other gods, Yahweh does not contend with Tiamat; He rules her absolutely.

At the end of the work, Walton ties this theme together with the New Testament, identifying the hermeneutically-correct application of the OT conquest narratives: not the destruction of enemies (which would be opposite to Christ’s own commands), but the clearing out of the chaotic force of sin in our lives. For Walton, the conquest theme is all about the Lordship of Yahweh, His absolute dominion, and His sovereign right as ruler of the universe to claim the land as His own and to make of it what He wills. This sovereignty-centered reading, at the end of the day, attributes more power and more glory to Yahweh, while Boyd’s reading relies so heavily on Open Theism that it allots for, at the end of the day, a very weak vision of Yahweh the King.

Ethics: (Is There A) Problem of Violence?

Of course, where Boyd’s thesis was an utter mess in its hermeneutics, he still nevertheless raised a serious question in the form of ethics: How can the Yahweh whose embodiment is in the Person of Jesus Christ be the same Yahweh who commands Israel to kill Canaanite people? In particular, Boyd finds of chief offense the problem of herem, the word typically translated as “totally destroy” in most English Bibles.

What I find applaudable about Walton’s thesis, however, is that while he is clearly aware of the ethical problem within and without the

Lost World of Israelite ConquestCanaanite conquest, he keeps to the narrow goal of his claims and objectives. He does not wander into the depths of ethics, he keeps to a centered, organized thesis. This alone makes Walton a far greater academic than Boyd, whose CWG was a miry, over-complex, all-over-the-place mess of far-too-many academic disciplines. Walton gladly sticks to his task at-hand: How do we read the OT conquest narratives? Boyd jumps from topic to topic without as much as a second glance in order to answer a question that Walton isn’t even sure is a reasonable (that is, a biblical) question: How can the God who is Jesus command wanton death and destruction?

Walton advances a worthy re-reading of herem, tying it into, again, other ANE cultures and their usage of similar concepts. In so-doing, Walton brings us into the difficult complexities of cross-language discourse. As any student of language will tell you, to know the denotations of a word is a simple as having your cross-language dictionary on-hand; but to enter into the thought-life of a word (not just its connotations, but all its associations and founding cultural practices) is a huge task. This is probably why Christian scholars are still arguing about the meaning of agape. But somehow Walton succeeds in bringing the reader into the ANE linguo-cultural world in order to navigate the conversations on order and place and meaning that constitute the foundations for herem.

The result? It doesn’t have anything to do with “destruction”; instead it has more to do with “de-use-ifying” a thing. Maybe “retire” is an appropriate synonym. It turns out that herem is more like taking a lamp down from a table and putting it in a closet, than lighting that lamp on fire and tossing it in the trash can.

Of course, at the end of the day Walton’s work only changes the OT conquest stories from a full-scale genocide (as Boyd would say) to a conquest, where armies fight armies and the occasional city is raided and destroyed. This is enough for some just-war types, but it leaves an ethical problem for me.

Still, again, I applaud Walton for sticking to the problem at hand. Rather than answering our ethical questions (and, let’s be honest, answering ethical quandaries is such a modern thing to do), he leaves us with a more faith-filled account of the OT conquest narratives than any other scholar I’ve seen working on the topic and leaves those “problems” unanswered. Maybe they don’t have an answer. That is an answer that our (very-) modern writers like Boyd find quite incomprehensible. It would be far more satisfying to have an answer to such ethical quandaries.

Rhetorics: But, Oh!, the Proposition Format…

Lest the reader of this review think that I am all sunshine-and-flowers for Walton, let me share that I found his proposition-by-proposition (almost in the vein of the 95 Theses-like proposition) structure to be thoroughly aggravating. Sure, it may well account for his particularly convincing thesis and, sure, it may have been a necessary measure to accomplish his delightful prepondering slowness that allows for his thesis to be narrow, tight, and rigorous. But, gosh darn it, it was aggravating to read!

As a student of rhetoric and the humanities, I am so often tempted to request a mastery of both content and rhetoric in monographs (see: Freud, Foucault, et al.). But I can’t win every time.

Final Thoughts

Walton’s work is not without some minor hitches. He has a weird section where he eisegetically assigns a very particular view of Scripture to the Torah and rejects its moral vision. This seems unwise, given that his audience (through IVP) is predominantly evangelical and would find such an assertion liable to disqualify the rest of his argument. Fortunately, this claim doesn’t cause as much a problem to his broader argument as it possibly could thanks to the very narrow view of his thesis. Within the confines of this work, such a claim is just a strange parasite to a bigger, more healthy set of claims, and it can be safely left alone and ignored.

But the strengths of Walton’s work, rightly reading an ANE text from an ANE perspective, are massive. By re-orienting the whole way we think about the OT conquest narratives, Walton successfully makes the case for a new way to read the text without excising the unique power of its stories (something that Boyd’s proposed Cruciform Hermeneutic unintentionally does to the entire OT). Altogether, Walton has satisfied my curiosity and interest in the OT conquest narratives, answered some problems that I find many stumble over, and opened up new ground for wrestling with the ethical problems of OT violence without demanding their precise answers. If I were to recommend a text on this topic, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest would be my go-to choice.

I would like to thank InterVarsity Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.

Book Review: Mark Through Old Testament Eyes

Mark Through Old Testament Eyes
Andrew T. LePeau
Kregel Publications, 2017. 352 pp.

If you have spent any time with InterVarsity people, students or staff, you will begin to notice a strange commonality between them all. No matter how different, how theologically diverse, or how socio-geographically dispersed, you will eventually discover that InterVarsity people love the Gospel of Mark. They return to it with unerring frequency, their staff workers assign it for Bible studies, their area directors quote it with knowing reflection. There is some sense that the Gospel of Mark is the foundational text of the whole student-ministry movement.

There is due reason for this, of course. Ever since InterVarsity pioneered the structure of Inductive Bible Study in the 50’s, the preeminent text for both Bible study training and student spiritual development has been Mark: we InterVarsity folks preach Mark in our chapter meetings, we study Mark in our dorm rooms, and, for those blessed many who have gone to chapter camp (and for the smaller number who have been blessed to go to Cedar Campus!), we even spend an entire week digesting just the first half of the book.

andy_le_peau
Andy LePeau, former publisher with IVP and IV-famous champion of hospitality

So when Andrew [Andy] LePeau, of late a publisher for InterVarsity Press, approached me a few months back about reviewing his forthcoming commentary on the Gospel of Mark, I already knew that the text I was about to receive was a “word-made-flesh” version of something like the spirit of InterVarsity Bible studies. After all, in the front cover Andy has written: “Tables [X]… are adapted from Fred Bailey, rev. Andrew T. LePeau, Mark I and Mark II Manuscript Study: Teacher’s / Program Director’s Manual…” It should be noted that this mentioned Fred Bailey owns the original copy of InterVarsity’s “unofficial Mark chiasm guide,” a IVCF-wide famous handwritten piece of paper wherein Fred has listed the whole book by all its chiastic structures.

 

With this background in-hand, I feel a little like the disciples in Jesus’ parable of the soils: “the mysteries of the kingdom have been given to you…”

Immersed into Mark’s Old Testament Images

My first major takeaway from this commentary was the way it immersed me into the Old Testament world contextualizing Mark’s Gospel. Some commentaries let you get away with observing OT references and say “Oh, that’s cool,” but Andy LePeau forces you to reckon with the presence of the OT in the Gospel account. This commentary does not let the reader get away with ignoring the OT presence. In some sense, it thoroughly unmans the notion that one could even read the Gospel of Mark without any OT engagement, and it reveals the artistic elegance of Mark’s narrative weaving of the OT throughout the story of Jesus’ ministry, as well as bringing to the fore Jesus’ own role as an interlocutor of the OT.

One comes away with the overwhelming sense that there would be little left of the Gospel of Mark should the OT interplay be removed! All that Jesus says and does has immediate and significant relevance to some OT forebear. John opens his Gospel by calling Jesus “the Word”; Mark’s Gospel demonstrates Jesus as the Word, as the embodied fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, without even needing to state it so explicitly. And LePeau’s hard work of cross-referencing and theological review makes all of the more difficult comparisons and intertextual references readily available to even beginners in biblical study.

Some great observations LePeau highlights include Jesus as the New Moses leading the New Exodus, Jesus as the Divine Warrior bringing God’s Judgment, Jesus as the New Temple, amid many others. What is perhaps the most compelling part of this commentary’s work on this end is that LePeau does not rely too much on his bibliographic sources; the commentary succeeds in its role as a study tool by effectively pointing out these themes from the text of the Gospel itself and simply tying threads together.

Accessible Entrance into Biblical Interpretation

Mark TOTE cover.jpg

One of the most difficult parts of leading readers into the Gospel of Mark (and into a wide variety of New Testament works reliant on Greco-Roman rhetorical structures) lies in explaining the relationship between structure and message. Modern readers often impute a “literal” reading onto the texts they engage with, without any sense that their “literal” lens is not the way the original recipients of the text would have read. Explaining structural pieces like chiasms, euphemisms, riddles, and the like can be roadblocks for understanding at best and sometimes lead to crises of faith at the worst (as in: “Why does Jesus say something that clearly is not true?”).

LePeau demonstrates himself as a teacher first and foremost, providing for the reader easy on-ramps into the more difficult rhetorical and intertextual parts of Mark. He frequently breaks down the various chiastic structures in order to angle how one ought to read more difficult texts. In so-doing, he also rights many poor interpretations taken out-of-context (for example: he dismantles the common evangelical reading of “moving mountains” as having to do with “overcoming obstacles” and replaces it with a more text-centered engagement with Jesus as the New Temple).

This makes Mark: Through Old Testament Eyes a resource for a wide variety of Bible students, whether they are students in seminary, pastors or Bible teachers, or just folks who want to grow in their understanding of the Bible. The tools that LePeau hands to Bible readers in this commentary will inevitably unlock new ways to engage in the entire Bible. In short, this book provides onramps for increased biblical literacy for all, something that ought to be celebrated.

Making the InterVarsity Mark Experience Available to All

But I have to show my true colors: What I love the most about Mark: Through Old Testament Eyes is not its thorough engagement with Old Testament imagery, nor its ease and accessibility for the common Bible enthusiast; instead, it’s the way LePeau has made a beloved InterVarsity Chapter Camp experience available to everyone.

This is no small feat. At InterVarsity’s Cedar Campus (for instance) every year, students spend an entire week reading the first half (or, more rarely, the second half) of the Gospel of Mark, going through extraordinarily slowly, line by line, on sheets of manuscript paper, armed with colored pens and pencils and New Bible Dictionaries (courtesy of IVP) led by Mark-masters like Andy LePeau and Fred Bailey. (I once got to be in the course when Fred led it; it was unimaginably cool.)

For so many IVCF alums, this manuscript study in Mark is one of “those” moments. Sometimes it’s the moment when they “got” the Gospel for the first time, sometimes it’s the moment when they realized that studying the Bible could be joyful and fun, sometimes it’s even the moment when they commit themselves to full-time ministry or the academic study of God’s Word. The Mark track at Chapter Camp is a formative experience for anyone who has ever gone through it.

And somehow LePeau has bottled that experience, sprinkled it with a solid theological bibliography, mixed it up with his own life and ministry experiences, and composed it into a book that others can read. That is something of the magic of this commentary: LePeau brings the reader into a secret that every IVCF student and staff knows.

And, even better, that secret is the selfsame secret that Jesus hides and then reveals in the Parable of Soils. There’s an invitation implicit behind it: the secret is to ask the Teacher what the secret is! It’s the spirit of that secret that permeates this commentary and makes it a joy and not just another suitable addition to one’s theological reference library.

I would like to thank Andy LePeau and Kregel Publications 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.

The Pastoral Problem with Theological Statements

With the recent (ill-timed, it would seem) release of a theological declaration regarding human sexuality, signed by the likes of J.I. Packer and D.A. Carson and folks from their respective camps (British evangelicals and Gospel Coalition American Calvinists), the Christian news sources have been all a-flutter along the same lines that they tend to be with all these such statements and all these such discussions. The (broadly speaking) traditionalist Right* has made the typical claim that they feel adequately communicates their historic orthodoxy, while the (broadly speaking) progressive Left* has responded in typical outrage and frustration, even crafting a reflective statement of their own (courtesy of Nadia Bolz-Weber). *Left/Right, notably, are horrible terms to use when speaking of theology. Continue reading “The Pastoral Problem with Theological Statements”