Book Review: Religion and Human Enhancement

Religion and Human Enhancement: Death, Values and Morality
Ed. Tracy J. Trothen and Calvin Mercer
Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. 377pp.

While society mostly considers transhumanism a fringe movement based on science-fiction concepts, technology continues to shape humanity. Technologies that enable lifespan extension, cognitive enhancement, and precise gene editing in humans are not far off. The Church must be prepared to offer a response to transhumanism and the technologies of human enhancement, lest individuals and communities uncritically embrace technologies simply due to societal trends. A groundswell of Christian thinkers engaging these issues from a variety of perspectives appears to be building. Earlier this year the Christian Transhumanist Association held its first conference and hosted radical lifespan extension advocate Aubrey de Grey. In Religion and Human Enhancement, scholars from a variety of religious traditions engage issues around human enhancement technologies.

Because this volume includes contributions from several different religious perspectives, many of the essays argue from beliefs and presuppositions that conflict with orthodox Christianity. Several chapters, however, should be given serious attention by Christian theologians.9783319624877.jpg

For Christians unfamiliar with transhumanism, this book introduces many of the concepts and technologies that are commonly discussed. Ron Cole-Turner helpfully outlines the ways that secular transhumanism is opposed to Christian theology and proposes a way forward for “Christian transhumanism.” In this model, God’s gracious transformation of individuals and the cosmos occurs through technology. Cole-Turner takes seriously the embodied nature of the Christian faith and challenges Christians to see God at work through technology, not for the sake of “self-improvement or self-enhancement [but]…self-surrender that opens up the possibility of gracious transformation.” While I find much of value in Cole-Turner’s work here, I remain unconvinced that Christians can embrace a form of transhumanism.

Brent Waters offers perhaps the most contrarian essay, “Is Transhumanism a Distraction? On the Good of Being Boring.” Waters builds on the work of Albert Borgmann to consider the mundane activities of life as focal things that are formational and not superfluous. Waters notes that transhumanists have little to say about housekeeping, yet routine (and tedious) tasks shape individuals and families as they engage bodily in the daily and weekly rhythms of household upkeep. Children are not given chores simply to lighten the load of parents, but also to teach responsibility. Even preparing and eating a meal is avoided by some transhumanists who instead adopt a bland diet filled with supplements to enhance longevity. Waters defends the mundane practices as essential to a human life well-lived. Through the engagement of heart, soul, mind, and strength, we are formed into people ready to serve a world in need, rather than those who expect desires to be filled on demand.

Other notable contributions include critiques of moral bioenhancement from Celia Deane-Drummond and Todd T. W. Daly, as well as a consideration of the fear of death latent in transhumanism by Noreen Herzfeld. 

As editor Tracy Trothen notes in the book’s conclusion, “Now is the time for sustained grappling with the implications of human enhancement.” Technologies of human enhancement are coming quickly and our modern world has already embraced a transhumanist mindset in many ways (a subject I hope to write more on soon). Christian theology and ethics must be brought to bear on these issues so that the church is equipped to respond well when the time comes. What does it mean to be human, and what is God’s vision for humanity? I look forward to reading and reviewing the next volume in this series from Palgrave—Christian Perspectives on Transhumanism and the Church—in which solely Christian scholars reflect on technology and the future of humanity.

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Book Review: Early Christian Readings of Genesis One

Early Christian Readings of Genesis One
Craig D. Allert
IVP Academic, 2018. 330pp.

In recent years, there has been quite a resurgence in evangelical circles of “returning to the Church Fathers.” Reformed Christians champion St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom, while those allured toward Eastern Orthodoxy quote at length the prodigious contemplations of the Cappadocian Fathers, and everyone, Christian or not, loves to share the meme of the real St. Nicholas, “bringing gifts and punching heretics.”

It is not surprising, in the midst of such a resurgence, to encounter a wide variety of adaptations of the Church Fathers for a wide variety of ends. Augustine is particularly famous for this: one could take his Confessions as a mark of approval for all existentialist philosophy, or for Platonism, or for Calvinism, or for credobaptism, or for just war theory, or what-have-you. Even those mired in the “Creation-vs.-Evolution” debate have leaned into the Church Fathers for inspiration, resulting in a rigid six-day, thoroughly historical interpretation of Genesis 1, as per, these debaters assert, St. Basil’s or Efrem the Syrian’s literalism.

To the Fathers’ rescue comes Craig D. Allert, with this useful entry on the Ancient Church’s hermeneutics. Those from Ken Hamm’s sector who would adapt the Fathers for the sake of rigid Creationism, Allert asserts, succeed only in misrepresenting the views of the Church Fathers and only further muddy the waters. Concerned for the Fathers’ late-modern reception, Allert proposes a close look at various cross-sections of the Genesis 1 debate and divulges their true usefulness in a book that I am sure will allow the patristic novice new access to the works of the Fathers.

Background: Hermeneutical Considerations

From the beginning, Allert finds he needs to clarify some hermeneutical terms and conditions first and foremost. For the reader familiar with philosophical hermeneutics (see: James K.A. Smith, The Fall of Interpretation, for instance), this section can be skipped over; but for the student unfamiliar with some of the complexities regarding hermeneutics and interpretation, this section serves as an invaluable introduction to some of the issues at stake in the “literalist” debate.Early Christian Readings of Genesis One

Here Allert has really put his thumb on what is undoubtedly one of the most significant issues in modern hermeneutics today, rightly discerning that when someone like Ken Hamm says “literal” or “as it is read” that they are, in reality, imputing foreign information into their text, as though it were truly as obvious as they say it is. Without needing to rely on too many heady philosophical terms, Allert deftly upturns some of the claims of the “Grammatical-Historical” school of interpretation, interrogates the doctrine of the “perspicuity” of the Scriptures, and reminds the reader, constantly, that the world of the Ancient Church is, simply put, worlds away from our experience.

Creating distance between the hermeneutical frames of the Church Fathers and that of Grammatical-Historical interpreters, Allert establishes a solid foundation for re-engaging with the words of the Fathers themselves, allowing them to speak in their own defense regarding the conversation on Genesis 1.

Literally Literal?

The premiere father to be cast into claims of literalism is St. Basil the Great, one particularly noted for his homilies on the Creation, The Hexaemeron. In this famous collection of sermons, Basil says explicitly: “let [the text] be understood as it is written.” (Hex. 9.1) He refutes those who would read “grass” as anything other than “grass,” or who would read “waters” as anything besides “waters.” Surely, suggest some, Basil understands Genesis to be a literally literal description of all the details of God’s creative activity, right?

And, yet, aside from this proof text, as Allert shows his readers, it would appear that Basil himself, as opposed to the claims made on his behalf, participates in what some might call an “allegorical,” rather than “literal,” method for interpreting the days of Genesis. In Homily 6, Basil discusses God’s creation of the sun, moon, and stars, and he begins contemplating the difference between the sun and the moon to discuss the difference between God and mankind. One is unchanging and constant, the other changeable and dynamic.

In short, as Allert demonstrates adequately, it would seem that Basil is not the “literalist” he’s cracked up to be. Rather, when he speaks of the “plain text” of the word, he’s in particular opposing a group of allegorizers who have a particular (and heretical) aim in mind. Basil, for one, demonstrates that the option of reading Genesis 1 allegorically or symbolically ought to still be a live option.

This kind of approach continues as Allert engages with the more tricky question of how the ancient Fathers, and Basil in particular, deal with the topic of the seven days of Creation, the topic of time, the origins of light, and other sub-topics in the broader scheme of the Creation story.

The Beginning of the Beginning

One of the highlights of this book is the chapter dedicated to St. Augustine’s views on Creation. In all honesty, one of the few critiques I have of Allert’s book is that it feels like he’s set too grand a task for himself: a survey of the claims of all the Church Fathers? In reality, it feels like he barely has room to cover the two he highlights, Basil and Augustine! It would be worthwhile, I think, for Allert to take the groundwork he’s laid here with this general overview book and write two focused monographs on just Basil and Augustine’s views.craig-allert

That being said, the chapter on Augustine gives a really interesting angle into the whole debate. For one, as most readers familiar with Augustine know, his On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis is perhaps the biggest opponent of any modern-day “literal” interpretation. Allert does a fantastic job of summarizing two of Augustine’s more sublime and philosophically nuanced bits of writing, his discussion on the nature of time from The Confessions and his discussion on the creation of light from City of God.

Augustine is a very different kind of writer than Basil, so the compare-contrast between the two and how they both engage in a variety of hermeneutical interventions is fascinating to see. One of Allert’s stronger accomplishments in this book is to allow these Church Fathers to speak in dialogue with one another, simply by giving their words space to breathe.

Final Thoughts

Altogether, Early Christian Readings of Genesis One is a worthwhile read, especially for those unfamiliar with either patristic exegesis or with ancient cosmological assumptions. Allert could have done with less jabs at AiG (and other young earth creationists); as is often true, an argument framed against an interlocutor can sometimes be less persuasive than one that is more positive (it is better to promote an idea than to fight its opposite). Fortunately, after his introductory sections, Allert dispenses with referring back to his originating battle and focuses on the texts at-hand, which are far more interesting.

The sheer bibliographic value of this book for the sake of those new to reading Basil and Augustine, in particular, is immense. Those who read the Fathers are often overwhelmed by how dense their writings can be, and how hard it is to find one’s place. Allert has here collected a solid chunk of primary source materials that can be returned to by the reader time and again.

In the end, Allert’s thesis is rock-solid. We simply cannot assume that the Fathers mean “literal” the same way we do, and Allert has done a good job of demonstrating the cracks in such “literalist” claims by letting the Fathers talk. This is a suitable introductory book for beginners interested in either the Church Fathers or the historic interpretation of the Book of Genesis.

Book Review: Disruptive Witness

Disruptive Witness
Alan Noble
InterVarsity Press, 2018. 189pp.

It is quite apparent to anyone paying much attention that the world of late-modern Western capitalism is ever-the-more distracted, confusing, and messy. And, in the midst of all that messiness, the Western Christian Church finds itself languishing. It is all-too-easy to point the fingers of “poor doctrine” or “weak discipleship” when this languishing is occurring across the spectrums of “good,” “bad,” and “ugly.” For ages evangelicals have pointed at the mainline’s decline in membership and blamed it on their politics; recent polls show that the Southern Baptist Convention  – America’s largest evangelical denomination – is on just-as-serious a decline.

Disruptive Witness

Perhaps, then, the decline of the Church in the modernized, secularized West has far less to do with that of weakening or stagnant or calcifying dogmas, perhaps it has far less to do with where one lands on the mainline-to-evangelical plotline, and more to do with our context. Maybe the ground has shifted under our feet, and we do not yet recognize it.

A Secular (and Liturgical) Age

Alan Noble, in his debut work, sees this trajectory, and, translating the work of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and James K.A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies for a more general audience, takes careful aim in how to dismantle and address the impacts and effects of the secular culture. Especially for readers unfamiliar with Taylor’s landmark work, Noble’s summations will be invaluable general theological-philosophical introductions (A Secular Age is, after all, *that* daunting 800+ page book on your shelf that you spent $40-$50 on, but are unsure you’ll be reading anytime soon), as will Noble’s adjustments to the commonly-received “worldview” terminology used by evangelical missiologists (ad nauseum).

By articulating a missiology in the midst of Taylor, Smith, and in contradistinction to “worldview” approaches, Noble very carefully – and successfully – attempts to carve out an evangelism-within-the-secular that does not reproduce the secular’s own methods. This is tricky business, as he himself admits, since so much of the Church’s evangelistic language is coded with modern, secular values. Noble uses a bit of self-deprecation to good effect, and his illustrations function quite well to paint the picture of the problem of Christian evangelism under-modernity.

Double Movements

O Alan Noble.jpg

The second half of Noble’s work is devoted to praxis, and here we find a little bit of stumbling. I think the first instance is simply a clunky term. Maybe he’s channeling a bit of Charles Taylor here – neither “the immanent frame” nor “nova effect” are great turns-of-phrase in technical philosophy (this is the discipline with deep neologisms like being-in-itselfDasein, and noumenon, after all) – but “double movement,” although I feel like I understood it implicitly, doesn’t quite ring with the experience it attempts to circumscribe.

That being said, ignoring the terminological clunkiness, the double movement is indeed a crucial insight for how to apply a missiological response to Taylor. If we live within a frame-of-reference in which all existence is referred back to the immanent materiality, then developing practices that allow us to adopt a stance of recognizing and responding to the transcendent in everyday life is crucial. (Okay, I guess the previous sentence makes “immanent frame” useful; I recant. “Nova effect” is still dumb, though.) Noble provides some sketches of how to accomplish this both within individual, personal lives and, crucially, in ecclesial contexts. In the latter he borrows heavily from J.K.A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies, so those familiar with Smith’s claims in Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom won’t find much groundbreaking here.

Aesthetics as Disruption

But what I personally found most compelling about Noble’s praxis were his overtures to the power of the aesthetic world – art, music, film, literature – and its ability to cause disruption in our lives. This is the point at which Noble’s own speciality, English literature, shines through. His brief vignettes on Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and The Road, a reflection via Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, some engagements with film and music, are among the highlights of how Noble understands the aesthetic to serve as disruption. One autobiographical example from his professorship and the ability of 20th-century literature to disrupt our assurances was particularly telling, and I, for one, deeply appreciate his willingness to confront unhealthy evangelical attitudes towards art head-on.

Final Thoughts

All-in-all, I found Disruptive Witness to be an excellent introduction for both students and evangelists on some of the basic frameworks of what witness in a modern world must look like. It does leave me hungry for more – but I chalk a lot of that up to my own familiarity with the work of James K.A. Smith, which is no fault of Noble’s! – but on its own, given to campus ministers, evangelists, and pastors young and old, this book serves as an excellent starting-point for learning and discerning how to bear witness in a secular world without compromising to its values.

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: 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.

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.”

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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.