Thursday, 9 November 2006

Robert W. Jenson and Solveig Lucia Gold: Conversations with Poppi about God

Robert W. Jenson and Solveig Lucia Gold, Conversations with Poppi about God: An Eight-Year-Old and Her Theologian Grandfather Trade Questions (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006), 158 pp.

Robert W. Jenson is one of the world’s most profound, energetic and creative theological thinkers – and in my house, there is always great rejoicing when he publishes a new book. So it was a delight to read this remarkable little volume, released just last week (with thanks to Brazos Press for the review copy).

The book consists of a series of transcribed conversations between Jenson (“Poppi”) and his eight-year-old granddaughter, Solveig. The conversations were spontaneous and unscripted; each weekend while visiting her grandparents in Princeton, Solveig talked with “Poppi” about theology, and they recorded the conversations on a cassette recorder.

Their wide-ranging discussions cover everything from liturgy and Lucifer to hamsters and time machines; from church history and ancient Israel to evolution and capitalism. They explore denominational differences: she is a (rather liberal) Episcopalian, and he is “sort of half Anglican and half Lutheran” (p. 70). They talk about the Eucharist: she admits that communion is her “favourite part of going to church” since “I get to stretch and walk around a little” (p. 31). They talk about confirmation and a certain bishop who is “really stupid” (p. 34). They talk about whether masculine pronouns should be used for God (Solveig thinks they shouldn’t, and on one occasion she refers to God as “it” or “The God” [p. 102] – poor Poppi tries to change her mind, but without much success).

Naturally, Jenson’s side of the dialogue is full of sharp and memorable insights: “if heaven just goes on and on and on, and hell goes on and on and on, there’s not a whole lot of difference between them” (p. 15); “the Spirit is God’s own future that he is looking forward to” (p. 42); “if there are kings, that is because God is king, and there are Solveigs because there is something sweet and charming in God” (p. 29).

But, from the first page to the last, it is really Solveig who steals the show. She is perfectly spirited and cheeky and precocious – and even more intellectually adventurous than her famous grandfather. On one occasion she reminds him that “[Jesus] did not write your systematic theology” (p. 141). In another conversation, she wonders whether angels might in fact be “the hidden most important characters in the Bible” (p. 76). She has independent opinions about almost everything, and some of the most delightful conversations are those in which she remains firmly unconvinced by her grandfather’s arguments. In a discussion about heaven and hell, for instance (p. 132):

  Poppi: So you hold to the doctrine of purgatory?
  Solveig: Yes.
  Poppi: You know that is very controversial.
  Solveig: Why? It’s in Dante, isn’t it?

Or in a conversation about Santa Claus (p. 28):

  Solveig: When people thought of Santa Claus – the idea of Santa Claus is very much like God…
  Poppi: No. It’s not.
  Solveig: Sort of. He’s just very jolly and very…
  Poppi: […] He is a little bit like God…
  Solveig: Very much like God.

Many of the conversations focus in different ways on the doctrine of the Trinity, and, theologically speaking, these are the richest and most rewarding parts of the book. In a discussion of pneumatology, there is even a cameo appeareance by the late Colin Gunton. When Solveig argues that the Spirit should come second, rather than third, in the trinitarian formula (“Father, Spirit, Son”), Poppi agrees with her, and the discussion continues (p. 146):

  Poppi: Actually, I agree with you too. I think Father, Spirit, Son is probably a better arrangement.
  Solveig: Have you thought that since you were born, or have you…
  Poppi: No, just the last couple of years.
  Solveig: You did?
  Poppi: Yeah.
  Solveig: When you started reading all these theologians?
  Poppi: I am a theologian; I don’t just read them. It’s an idea that’s floating around with a lot of us these days. Colin Gunton – our friend who just died – was very big on having the Holy Spirit in there right from the start.
  Solveig: He’s probably listening to us right now.
  Poppi: Could be.

Throughout these conversations, the generous, affectionate and spirited to-and-fro between grandfather and granddaughter offers a model of good theological dialogue. Neither party has all the answers; each is learning from the other; both are discovering new questions and new answers together. As Jenson remarks in his introductory note, the book is like a Platonic dialogue, “though in this one, the role of Socrates goes back and forth” (p. 10).

Whether you’re a theologian or a child (or a bit of both), you’ll be sure to learn a great deal from these charming and insightful conversations. And if you’re looking for gift ideas this Christmas, what more could anyone want than an attractive hardcover book filled with cheerful conversations about God, Jesus, angels, and Santa Claus?

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