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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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”

Wendell Berry’s Prophetic Imagination

The Prophetic Imagination
Walter Brueggemann
Fortress Press, 2001. 151 pp.

Imagination in Place
Wendell Berry
Counterpoint Press, 2010. 196 pp.

Recently, I was disappointed by a book I had high expectations of. Now, as someone who willingly plunges into book after book with the aims of (often) writing critical reviews, one might say that I have set myself up for this very sort of disappointment. Sure. And that has truly been the case of books that are even well-liked by certain influential critics.

But I was surprised by my disappointment of this particular book because I actually loved it. It revealed a whole mode of thought regarding a major theme of the Scriptures that, for me, was insightful, provocative, and, as a freshly-minted pastor, theologically resourceful and useful. Continue reading “Wendell Berry’s Prophetic Imagination”

Book Review: Strangers in a Strange Land

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Strangers in a Strange Land
Charles J. Chaput
Henry Holt, 2017. 288 pp.

Captain America is a story of anachronism. After being frozen in ice during World War II, he awakes in modern-day New York and quickly realizes how foreign he is. His values aren’t shared, his cause is considered outdated, and his epistemology is challenged (“The world is different now,” he is constantly told). Christians in America are encountering a life not unlike the Captain’s—waking up to a culture that no longer shares our presuppositions about God, reality, and humanity. We are foreigners, or pilgrims, in a world that is not our home.

Charles Chaput adds his Catholic voice to the argument that we now live in post-Christian America, a world in which Christianity is seen as irrelevant, regressive, or even hateful. Some are quick to dismiss such a thesis as an overreaction to cultural changes, or the response of privileged whites to the loss of political power. Chaput—himself a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation and the first Native American archbishop—counters these dismissals by spending two-thirds of his book outlining the multifaceted problem facing American Christians.

Tracing the emergence of the problem, Chaput embarks on a journey through American history, culture, and political theory from our nation’s founding through the present. This isn’t a book about politics (see Render Unto Caesar), yet Chaput spills quite a bit of ink outlining early American political thought. He connects the American founders’ reliance on natural law with observations by Alexis de Tocqueville about American democracy’s emphasis on individual freedom. Chaput concludes that democracy without moral guardrails elevates the autonomy of the

individual above all other concerns. Christianity, along with “any other institution that creates bonds and duties among citizens,” hinders self-expression and, therefore, self-fulfillment.

Much of America’s post-Christian worldview is connected, according to Chaput, in one way or another with our views on marriage, sex, and the family. I initially discovered Chaput’s book through an excellent excerpt on marriage. Chaput argues that sex is “intimately connected with how we understand ourselves as human” and the human family connects individuals in bonds of commitment and service.

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Chaput rejects the way that American individualism has relegated sexual ethics to a private matter outside the purview of any authority. He characterizes the sexual revolution as a technological battle against human limitations. Even if Protestants disagree with Chaput on the licitness of contraception, there are many points to find agreement on the ways marriage and family have been twisted by American culture and need to be recovered.

Along the way, Chaput pens a manifesto on the stewardship of truth, as well as an analysis of American culture through the lens of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. We are strangers in a strange land because we are made for the City of God, yet live in the City of Man. How are we to live in the ensuing clash of values?

In the final third of the book, Chaput proposes a way forward for Christian countercultural living. As he says, “We can’t simply blame the culture. We are the culture.” The only way to have an impact is to begin living differently. It’s well worth sticking with the book for these exhortations to live like Christ. Chaput unpacks the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-11) and contrasts each statement with American cultural values. After being inundated by the media’s vision of the good life, I need this reminder that it is blessed to be poor, meek, and persecuted. In addition, he illumines a proper Christian perspective on persecution through an ancient Christian document (Letter to Diognetus) and stories of modern martyrs. I appreciate that Chaput isn’t out to demonize American culture; instead, he is pointing out real problems and calling Christians to love the culture by living uniquely.

It’s easy to sense that Chaput is a man with a deep appreciation for beauty. He regularly references art and literature, and calls readers to recognize the beauty in creation. In a culture where humans are often seen as “interchangeable reasoning and consuming units,” the elevation of human dignity and the imago dei is a stream in the desert.

Jesus promised that following him would appear strange to others. We live in a time where Christian belief and practice makes less and less sense to the rest of our country. And yet, we live as people of hope on a pilgrimage home. I welcome more voices like Chaput who will call “small-o” orthodox Christians in America to live the only kind of life that will present Christ to the world.

Book Review: Hearing the Call

Church of the Servant
Nicholas Wolterstorff’s home church in Grand Rapids

Hearing the Call: Liturgy, Justice, Church, and World
Nicholas Wolterstorff
Eerdmans, 2011. 440 pp.

Liturgy and Justice seem like odd bedfellows. When we typically think of “Liturgy,” we think of Sunday morning worship and the organization of the church service. On the other hand, when we typically think of “Justice,” we tend to think, more often than not, of something that occurs “outside,” in some fashion, the bounds of the Sunday morning worship. If we participate in the work of Justice — however one may define that term — then we participate “outside” of the realms of “worship,” “music,” “architecture,” or any of the other matters that come into consideration under the broad heading of Liturgy.

And this ought not be so, contends Nicholas Wolterstorff. In a collection of essays that includes biographical shorts, letters to young academics, essays on social work, poverty, and architecture, and reflections on matters of theology and practice, Wolterstorff reminds the reader, time and time again, that the call of the Old Testament Hearing the Callis unified in its commitments to the “orphans, widows, and foreigners,” and how the prophets remind the people of God, time and time again, that their worship is null and void apart from this ethical-moral precommitment.

For a book that is inadequately named (“Hearing the Call” is the most unhelpfully vague title I could imagine for such a work), I am surprised at how often I find myself reflecting on Wolterstorff’s admonitions. There’s a joie de vivre throughout — probably a “good infection” that Wolterstorff received from Allan Boesak — that is irresistible; there’s a sense of that eternal Kingdom that Wolterstorff always points to as being palpable and livable hear and now. And yet Wolterstorff does not hold back his hammer: he takes apart Max Weber’s obnoxious thesis of Calvinist anxiety (it is about time someday did this with academic virtuosity!), brings to task American evangelical predilections with capitalism, undoes the secularist’s love of wealth, and demolishes the nondenominational / charismatic structure of a worship service. But even in his direct rebukes, all of Wolterstorff’s words are spoken with intricate care and with loving attention. What is most profound about such a compassionate call-to-action is the vast temporal space between the earliest essay (1969) and the latest (2010): If this were biography, the confession of Wolterstorff’s lifework would be one of compassionate, loving, yet firm, theological and prophetic engagement.

With such a variety of essays and ideas to highlight, it is impossible for me to do Wolterstorff’s work here its due credit. Here are some (sparse, diverse) thoughts that I came away with:

An Attention to Liturgy, Architecture, and Music: Spread throughout the various sections of the book, Wolterstorff spends incredible attention on the individual pieces of corporate worship, dealing with, in turn, the topics of liturgical structure, architecture of the church building, and selection of church music appropriate for this or that mood or season. The thoughts included here are the little pieces upon which Wolterstorff’s later (and more specific) monograph on worship and liturgy, The God We Worship (2015), was built, but they are more than enough to serve as suitable entrance into his thoughts on the matter. The overarching theme is one deemed practically unimportant by most of American evangelicalism: the choices we make in organizing our liturgy, building our churches, and planning our music are important; they reveal our implicit theologies.

Nicholas Wolterstorff
Nicholas Wolterstorff is a Christian philosopher, Reformed epistemologist, and professor emeritus at Yale

In particular, Wolterstorff spends significant attention to the importance of doors and open spaces in church buildings (as one can see in his home church, Church of the Servant, depicted above), highlights the values of expressing Christian egalitarianism through architecture, and, more than anything else, the centrality of churches as spaces filled with light, an idea he draws from Calvin’s Genevan churches.

— The Admiration of John Calvin: Speaking of Calvin, I found Wolterstorff’s consistent return, time and again, to the Institutes of the Christian Religion to be refreshing, an incredible feat in and of itself. While most readers of Calvin (including both Calvinists and Arminians) find him staunch and pietistic, Wolterstorff brings out the Calvin who is deeply concerned with matters of justice, matters of right worship, and matters of Christian communal living.

If there is something to be lamented in American Calvinist / Reformed thought in the present-day, it is the absorption of Calvin’s thought into specific sectarian (and politically-charged) camps to serve particular (often politically-intentioned) purposes. Wolterstorff, alongside other Reformed interlocutors (I would include Peter Leithart, for instance), does an incredible job of bringing out the wholeness of Calvin’s theology to address topics that are rarely addressed in typical Calvinist circles.

— Poverty as a Moral Ill: One last set of thoughts from Hearing the Call that stood out to me were the ways in which Wolterstorff addressed the topic of poverty. Wielding a solid group of ancient witnesses (mainly 4th-Century Church Fathers) alongside Thomas Aquinas, Wolterstorff makes a thorough case near the end of the book for describing poverty as a moral ill, and, with that, takes an axe to the politico-theological camp of ascribing moral goodness to American capitalism. He articulates his arguments firmly and with conviction, with solid biblical and theological grounds, making the American reader double-guess his or her own received values of money as a moral good.

What shocked me in reading Wolterstorff’s addresses on this topic was how little I considered my own economic / financial decisions to be ones of moral importance. But Wolterstorff leaves no room for moral neutrality (as he ought) and holds the Church to the biblical standard of caring for the poor as one of her fundamental duties. Wolterstorff provides an antidote for the poison that is American capitalism, without relying on its typical antithesis, Marxism, at all. Instead, he calls the Church to a higher calling and a higher duty.

 

Wolterstorff’s collection can feel at times slightly repetitive, as it perhaps should be for an anthology of fifty years’ worth of essays, yet it is a delightful “salve for the eyes,” so to speak, helping the American Christian re-frame their theological commitments toward Justice in biblical terms as opposed to our received cultural ones. Some essays leave one with bigger questions than solved answers, but Wolterstorff doesn’t ever leave an essay without some sense of eschatological hope. The works are convicting and compelling, but never damning or heavy-handed; instead, one senses a stronger call to follow the Lord’s ways and purposes, and to, as the prophet Micah says, “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before your God.”