Thursday 30 August 2007

John Shelby Spong: Jesus for the Non-Religious

John Shelby Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 316 pp.

John Shelby Spong has been touring Australia to promote his new book, Jesus for the Non-Religious. The Uniting Church (an Australian denomination) asked me to write something about this book for the September issue of their newspaper, Journey. Here’s a copy of my article:

Spong’s Jesus: Not Radical Enough

John Shelby Spong, the controversial Episcopal bishop, has always regarded himself as an iconoclast. Throughout his long career, he has vigorously attacked Christian doctrine, and has called for “a new reformation.” The main themes of his prolific writings have now been brought together in this new manifesto, Jesus for the Non-Religious – a book which Spong himself describes as the culmination of his life’s work. So what should we make of this book?

In the first place, we can appreciate Spong’s desire to communicate the findings of biblical criticism to a wider audience. A vast gulf still separates scholarly biblical research from everyday devotional Bible reading – and this is one of the great pastoral crises of our time. So Spong is on the right track when he tells his readers that there is a difference between the historically authentic elements in the New Testament portrayal of Jesus, and the later layers of liturgical and theological interpretation which have embellished the Gospel stories. And he’s right to point out that the Gospels give us not a straightforward historical account, but “a magnificent interpretive portrait” of Jesus (p. 115).

Admittedly, Spong’s interpretation of the Gospel texts often rests on outdated research and flawed interpretations of the scholarship. And he misses the mark when he insists on a rigid dichotomy between faith and history. He tells us, for instance, that the Gospel stories are sheer “make-believe” (p. 20), and that the texts “are not the chronicles of a remembered history, but the proclamations of a community of faith” (p. 84). But presumably the stories about Jesus were also attempts to make sense of something that actually happened. In any case, regardless of such shortcomings, Spong’s desire to promote a historically informed understanding of the Gospels is commendable.

Further, one can only admire the bishop’s sheer enthusiasm for his work. He regards his own interpretation of Jesus as a uniquely radical gesture, and he is remarkably optimistic about the impact of his book. He assures us that the book will free us from “the prison of religion” and will usher in “a renaissance and a reformation” (p. 290), unleashing “a new burst of energy and power that has not been seen for hundreds of years” (p. xiii).

Unfortunately, however, such rhetoric sets readers up for disappointment, since the book’s entire argument amounts to this: Jesus overcomes our prejudices and stereotypes, so that we can be inclusive and tolerant towards others. This, in a nutshell, is “the new reformation”; this is Bishop Spong’s Jesus.

And for all Spong’s iconoclastic claims, there is something strangely familiar about this Jesus. A Jesus who champions inclusiveness and tolerance is a Jesus who looks suspiciously like – well, like ourselves. Presumably Spong’s readers will already identify with the Western liberal values of tolerance and inclusiveness. We did not learn those values from Jesus, but, thanks to Spong, we discover subsequently that Jesus himself is also committed to the same values.

The function of Spong’s Jesus is thus simply to maintain the social and political status quo. He takes our own most cherished and self-evident Western values, and he provides them with a theological justification. Thus our own values are made absolute and unimpeachable – they are elevated to the status of ideology. Simply put, Spong tells us that political correctness is correct, since even Jesus was politically correct.

This should give pause to any reader of the Gospels. After all, the Gospels consistently depict a Jesus who is radical and confronting and unsettling – a Jesus who challenges the status quo, who hangs out with the wrong people and antagonises the establishment, who resists every attempt to domesticate his message, refusing to allow his actions to be calmly assimilated into any existing religious framework. And for just this reason, the Jesus of the Gospels is finally executed. In contrast, however, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would be offended by Bishop Spong’s politically correct Jesus. A Jesus whose sole commitment is to tolerant inclusiveness is simply not the kind of Jesus whom anyone would want to crucify.

So in spite of Spong’s characterisation of his own book as radical, “shocking” and “audacious” (pp. 10, 290), the real problem is that this book is not radical enough. The Jesus who emerges from these pages is ultimately indistinguishable from any other respectably innocuous, politically correct member of the Western middle classes.

Instead of provoking a challenging political or theological response, therefore, this Jesus serves to justify our own values and assumptions. To adopt such a Jesus is like the new tendency of consumers to purchase “carbon offsets” as compensation for their own greenhouse emissions: one makes a seemingly radical gesture precisely in order to ensure that nothing changes! Like purchasing a carbon offset, Spong’s Jesus – far from challenging us or provoking us to action – simply reassures us that all is well.

Bishop Spong’s Jesus may be useful and consoling, then, but he is not especially interesting, much less unique. He poses no threat, no challenge. He makes no demands. He tells us nothing that we didn’t know already. And for just that reason, it’s hard to see why “the non-religious” – or anyone else, for that matter – should have any special regard for this Jesus.

Tuesday 28 August 2007

A new arrival

Early this morning, there was a new arrival in my family: a good-humoured, handsome, inquisitive and (needless to say) quite brilliant little chap named James Daniel Myers. So if posts here at F&T are a little less regular than usual, you’ll know why!

Saturday 25 August 2007

Ten stations on my way to Christian pacifism

by Kim Fabricius (this is also part of Halden’s series on pacifism)

1. I graduated from Huntington High School (New York) in 1966 and Wesleyan University in 1970. The Cold War and the nuclear arms race; the brutal reactions to the Civil Rights Movement and racial integration; the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers, and of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King; the executions of Caryl Chessman and Adolf Eichmann; the riots in Watts, Detroit, Newark, and other major American cities; the war in Vietnam; the shootings at Kent State: these images of death were an inescapable and invasive reality of the years of my youth, even though my rather privileged upbringing provided a shelter, if not a bolthole, from the storm.

2. At Wesleyan I majored in English. My teachers included Ihab Hassan and Richard Slotkin. Hassan, through Freud and Norman O. Brown, introduced me to the psychic god Thanatos; Slotkin, through his work on the myth of the American frontier, to our national god Mars: violence – its appropriation and legitimation so central to American self-identity. The Power of Blackness, the title of Harry Levin’s seminal study of the leitmotif running through the fiction of Melville, Hawthorne, and Poe, sums up the Augustinian take on the human condition that was shaping my spiritual formation, for, pagan that I was, the Confessions too had made a powerful intellectual impact.

3. And then there was Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: I discovered that Kurtz’s heart was my heart. Although all through adolescence I never got into fistfights, I was aware of an aggressive streak running like a coal seam through my character, safely, indeed rewardingly, sublimated into a fierce competitiveness in study and sport. “The horror! The horror!” of it only became deeply personal during several ugly experiences at the tail end of the sixties and the spring of 1970. The grim months between the murders of King and Bobby Kennedy and the invasion of Cambodia were a national nadir that aptly coincided with my sense of self-defeat and depression.

4. Eventually Jesus Christ, armed only with his word, launched his attack on me, and, exposing my situation as infinitely more hopeless than I had ever suspected, rescued me from behind enemy lines – though to this day I continue to skirmish and resist. As, of course, does the world. It never occurred to me that, with the peace of God, the personal isn’t the political – and vice-versa. II Corinthians 5:16-19 was a key text and force as I headed off to Oxford for my ministerial training. While Martin Luther King was a role model (his collection of sermons Strength to Love were inspirational), it was above all Karl Barth to whom I turned during my three years at Mansfield College, as I tried to think through and work out a personal and political theology that I could live – and preach.

5. Barth seriously engaged the ethics of war, considered the “inflexible No of pacifist ethics”, and judged that it “has practically everything in its favour and its position is almost overwhelmingly strong.” However Barth rejected “absolute” pacifism, allowing for what he called the Grenzfall, the exceptional case, where war-making is not only permitted but commanded. While Barth himself did not directly cite classical just war theory (not surprisingly given his rejection of casuistry, not to mention the theory’s origins in the philosophy of natural law), nevertheless I had enough respect for Augustine, Aquinas, and modern revisionists, and sufficient scruple about the staple example of the Second World War, to factor it into my thinking. Result: about the time of my ordination in 1982, I was an “almost pacifist”.

6. Nuclear pacifism was a whistle stop. In the face of WMD, just war theory buckled and collapsed. I am proud to say that my own United Reformed Church (UK) passed a resolution on unilateral nuclear disarmament by a two-thirds majority at its 1983 General Assembly – a position, alas, not reflected in local congregations where the realpolitik idol of deterrence was – and is – widely worshipped. Such grass roots Reformed recalcitrance, and the dithering of the Church of England, as well as Margaret Thatcher’s rout of the Labour Party in the 1983 General Election (Labour’s election manifesto was unilateralist – and was dubbed “the longest suicide note in history”), only hardened my resolve and drove me further to radicalise my thinking.

7. I should say that at no time did I have any truck with two kingdoms doctrine, in spite of clarifications and fine-tuning by theologians like Pannenberg. My thoroughly Reformed understanding of the universal Lordship of Christ over church and world (or state) precluded any such Lutheran “compromises”. As for Niebuhr’s Christian “realism”, theological “stoicism” is more like it: paper-thin doctrines of the Spirit and the church, issuing in a cynical attitude towards sanctification and regeneration, and behind it all a mythological take on the resurrection of Christ. On the other hand, Reformed theology (pace Barth) gave little guidance to my developing pacifism. Ironically, here it took a Lutheran to keep me on the straight and narrow – and a Mennonite to take me the rest of the way.

8. The Lutheran was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I had already discovered and dismissed the four traditional interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount: as a “counsel of perfection”, reserved for the monastery; as a “mirror of sin” (Luther’s usus pedagogicus legis), driving us to despair and the sola fide; as an “impossible ideal”, inspiring us to high moral endeavour; and as an apocalyptic “interim ethic” (the thesis of Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer). However it took Bonhoeffer, in The Cost of Discipleship, to resurrect the perfectionist conception – what he called the “extraordinary” – only now understood as gospel, not law, and for all disciples, not just the few. It was also Bonhoeffer who taught me to take “activist non-violence” (Ronald Sider), which he admired in Ghandi and would be deployed to such effect by Martin Luther King, not just as a tactical ethic, the answer to the “realist” utopian critique, but as a divine command to be obeyed irrespective of results.

9. The Mennonite, of course, was John Howard Yoder (with a nod to the then Methodist Stanley Hauerwas as a sandal-bearer). The Christology of The Politics of Jesus deepened my imitatio Christi pacifism and added an eschatological context with resurrection power to its cruciform shape. Yoder’s kingdom-centred ecclesiology combined with his ecumenical vision re-energised my commitment to a Just Peace Church. Then Karl Barth and the Problem of War pinpointed several major inconsistencies in Barth’s ethics of war, suggested a failure in Barth’s theological nerve as well as his political imagination, and resolved any lingering suspicions that Christian pacifism might be a hubristic occlusion, rather than an obedient expression, of the freedom of God.

10. Finally, if Christian pacifism has – and it has – its basis in Jesus, the non-violent one whose power is perfected in weakness, and if Jesus is – and he is – the human hermeneutic of God, and, further, if theological construction begins with the economic Trinity and works back to the immanent Trinity as its eternal source and substantiation – in short, if God is non-violent, and in him there is no violence at all – then, clearly, not only urgent ethical, but also major doctrinal reconfigurations are in order, not least in soteriology, which should be very high, as a pacifist’s Christology should be very high. And pneumatology too. And that takes me back to – me, the violent me, the reluctantly peaceful me – the me thus so suitably equipped for pacifism. Because (purloining Barth), pacifism is an impossible possibility, and because (purloining Jüngel) pacifism is not necessary but more than necessary, at the heart of Christian pacifism lies prayer, the prayer: “Veni, Creator Spiritus!”

There is, of course, no single variety of Christian pacifism, and several typologies have been suggested delineating various historical and normative positions. You will find a recent, helpful classification in David L. Clough and Brian Stiltner, Faith and Force: A Christian Debate about War (2007). In their “scales”, my own brand of Christian pacifism is principled rather than (merely) strategic (calculative and consequentialist); classical rather than absolute (the former allowing for legitimate domestic and, in theory, international policing functions, the latter entailing anarchism); politically engaged rather than separatist; and universal in intent rather than (merely) communal (because Christ is Lord not just of the church but of the world).

Friday 24 August 2007

T. F. Torrance and heavenly mediation

The recent post on Badiou led to some interesting discussion about the theological idea of mediation – and I admitted that I’m extremely unenthusiastic about T. F. Torrance’s notion of Jesus’ “high-priestly mediation in heaven.” In case anyone wants to continue this discussion, here’s a re-post of one of my comments:

The Letter to the Hebrews interprets Jesus’ saving work typologically via a range of cultic categories. I think we can accept and appreciate all this – but it’s another thing to reify these very categories, so that (as in Torrance’s theology) they are turned into pure mythology.

My own impression is that we can do full justice to the soteriological message of Hebrews, without getting involved in this kind of reification. The writer to the Hebrews uses various cultic and Jewish-Alexandrian categories to articulate the significance of what took place in Jesus. But if we reify these categories, we end up with an inversion of the whole message – i.e., the death and resurrection of Jesus are eclipsed, and the action of God is removed from real history and located instead in some distant Platonic “heaven.”

To my mind, that’s exactly what happens in Torrance’s theology: his mythological portrayal of a “high-priestly mediation in heaven” actually results in the opposite of what the Letter to the Hebrews intends – i.e., it leads away from the sheer eventfulness of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Thus, while Torrance believes he is improving on Barth at this point, he is in fact radically undermining the whole impulse of Barth’s doctrine of reconciliation!

I have a lot of admiration for Torrance’s work – but I reckon his conception of a mediation that takes place “in heaven” is a theological dead end.

Wednesday 22 August 2007

Gerhard Sauter: Protestant Theology at the Crossroads

Gerhard Sauter, Protestant Theology at the Crossroads: How to Face the Crucial Tasks for Theology in the Twenty-First Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), xxiv + 188 pp. (review copy courtesy of Eerdmans)

Back in the 1960s, Gerhard Sauter emerged as one of Germany’s leading proponents of the “theology of hope,” and he has been a major figure in German dogmatics throughout the ensuing decades. In this book – an expanded version of the author’s Warfield Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary – Sauter reflects on the challenges facing contemporary Protestant theology. Although the arrangement of the book is anecdotal and impressionistic, the diverse chapters are held together by a central theme: if theology is to remain authentically Christian, it must be informed by robust dogmatic thinking.

Eschatological concerns have always been at the core of Sauter’s work, and in some of these chapters he clarifies his basic eschatological convictions. He observes that God’s promises cannot be interpreted as straightforward predictions of the future – rather, “fulfilment often shatters expectation based on God’s promises”; the sheer newness of the fulfilment reshapes the promise itself (p. 12). Indeed, the entire New Testament could be read “as a document of dramatic endeavours to articulate the newness of God’s acting” (p. 14). Further, God’s promises are never simply “fulfilled” in such a way that they can then recede into the past; on the contrary, these promises continue to open the future and to create expectation that the crucified Christ is also the Coming One. For Sauter, there is thus a dialectical unity between promise and fulfilment. The two moments are related theologically, not historically (p. 53).

The purpose of dogmatics itself, then, is to serve God’s promises. Dogmatics helps us to remain watchful and expectant, “open to surprises, amazed” – its purpose is to “protect us against spiritual stiffness and a pious know-all manner,” and it does this by helping us to discover the right questions (p. 64). In this way, dogmatics does not close off Christian discourse, but rather opens it to God’s surprising newness.

Such dogmatic thinking, Sauter argues, is crucial for Bible reading, and thus for the church itself. There is no one-way relationship between dogmatics and scripture – biblical texts cannot prove the statements of dogmatics, nor can dogmatic statements anticipate in advance what is to be perceived by reading the Bible. Instead, there is a “dialectical interrelation” between dogmatics and Bible reading, “a merry-go-round of questions and answers” (p. 62). In all this, our aim is simply to remain open to God’s own speaking. And if we read the Bible in this way, we discover that we ourselves are being read in the story: “The text reads the reader” (p. 39).

Sauter’s understanding of the dogmatic task also informs his critique of contemporary contextual theologies. He argues that such theologies fail to attend to the individual’s theological context as someone who has been baptised into the divine economy. For Sauter, it is participation in this context which remains decisive for theological reflection – self-reflection on the circumstances of one’s life and culture can never yield genuinely theological insights. Indeed, in a provocative passage (pp. 98-99), Sauter compares our contemporary contextual theologies with the cultural theology of the German Christians in the 1930s – and he argues that the Barmen Declaration embodies a properly “contextual” theology, i.e., a theology whose fundamental “context” is God’s living self-address in Jesus Christ. Sauter’s argument, then, is that not that theology should be unaffected by its political and cultural circumstances, but rather that, “lacking dogmatics, theology runs the risk of becoming a mere reflection of its context” (p. 114).

So although Sauter believes that theology must “interfere in public discourse” (p. 149), he insists that we can do this only to the extent that we listen to the external voice of God’s promise. Indeed, a democratic society needs the voice of church – the clear voice of a church which is committed to being the church, not just “one interest group among others” (p. 152). Thus Sauter also criticises contemporary work in “public theology” (e.g. Thiemann), and he suggests that John Howard Yoder’s work represents a much more theological form of public theology. Instead of being preoccupied with the publicity of religious values or with the particular role of Mennonites in American society, Yoder advances the public character of the church precisely by indicating the way in which the church can simply be the people of God (p. 160). Here, again, Sauter’s central point is clear: the church’s engagement with society requires dogmatic thinking – otherwise, the church will find itself with nothing distinctive to say.

Although this is not Sauter’s best book – certainly not as important as Gateways to Dogmatics – it is nevertheless interesting to follow Sauter here as he reflects on some of his own defining “experiences in thinking.” Whether or not one agrees with each of his specific interventions in contemporary theology, I think his articulation of the critical function of dogmatics is of great importance.

Sauter’s best and most memorable statement is that “theology is always a preparation for emergency” (p. 59). And it precisely the task of dogmatics to help equip the church for such emergency – or, perhaps, to tell the church that it is already in a state of emergency, that the crucified Christ is already coming “like a thief in the night.”

Theology with Alain Badiou

At the moment, I’m using every spare moment to read the philosophers Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou – and they’re blowing my mind.

I really wish I had read Badiou sooner. His little book on Saint Paul is an astonishing tour de force – an atheist reading of Paul which is far more profound (and far more theological) than most recent theology!

In particular, I’m wondering whether Badiou’s conceptions of “the event” and of “universal singularity” might provide a useful way of understanding Jesus’ resurrection. Is anyone else out there interested in Badiou at the moment? And does anyone know of any contemporary theological work which engages with his thought (apart from Milbank)?

Anyway, here’s a quote from Saint Paul – a critique (spot on, in my view) of the concept of “mediation”:

“With Paul, we notice a complete absence of the theme of mediation. Christ is not a mediation; he is not that through which we know God. Jesus Christ is the pure event, and as such is not a function, even were it to be a function of knowledge, or revelation…. Christ is a coming; he is what interrupts the previous regime of discourses. Christ is, in himself and for himself, what happens to us. And what is it that happens to us thus? We are relieved of the law. But the idea of mediation remains legal…. [This idea is] a muted negation of evental radicality” (pp. 48-49).

Tuesday 21 August 2007

Slavoj Žižek and the loss of faith

Sorry, I couldn’t resist the temptation to quote Žižek once more:

“[W]ho, in fact, are fundamentalists? To put it simply, a fundamentalist does not believe in something, but rather knows it directly. In other words, both liberal-sceptical cynicism and fundamentalism share a basic underlying feature: the loss of the ability to believe in the proper sense of the term. For both of them, religious statements are quasi-empirical statements of direct knowledge: fundamentalists accept these statements as such, while sceptics mock them. What is unthinkable for both is the ‘absurd’ act of a decision which installs every authentic belief, a decision that cannot be grounded in the chain of ‘reason’, in positive knowledge.”

—Slavoj Žižek, The Universal Exception, ed. Rex Butler and Scott Stephens (2nd ed.; London: Continuum, 2007), pp. 308-309.

Monday 20 August 2007

David Bentley Hart: the importance of being earnest

In his insightful New Blackfriars article on David Bentley Hart, Gerard Loughlin criticises the “violence” of Hart’s own polemical rhetoric, and he suggests that such rhetorical practice is in tension with Hart’s proposal of a rhetoric of peace. (Similarly, our friend Patrik has described Hart’s rhetoric as “the exact equivalent of US foreign policy”!)

In his response to Loughlin, Hart clarifies his understanding of rhetoric, and he defends the importance of straight-talking:

“I never anywhere argue in The Beauty of the Infinite for a ‘peaceful rhetoric’. Quite the contrary…. I argue rather that rhetoric as such is not somehow always implicated in violence, as certain denizens of the world of ‘theory’ have been heard to opine; and that we are not bound to accept the ontological presuppositions that underlie the belief that it is…. Honestly, I never meant to suggest that we should be more peaceable or inoffensive in the rhetoric we employ. Indeed, the only sort of rhetoric that I grant to be essentially violent is the sort that conceals its own intentions behind a façade of ingratiating insincerity….

“I do, of course, regret those moments when my tone becomes ‘wearing’. But, if I may be frank, what I often find wearing is the faltering, apologetic, restrained, and hesitant tone of much modern theology. It is what I quite shamefully and unfairly tend to think of as ‘the modern Anglican inflection’: the sorrowful diminuendo towards embarrassed silence, by way of prolonged clearings of the throat and the occasional softly whistled tune, as one contemplates changing the subject before anyone is so indiscreet as to venture a firm opinion.”

Sunday 19 August 2007

David Bentley Hart and the analogia entis

I mentioned in an earlier post that the analogia entis (formerly banished by Barth) has made a comeback in the brilliant work of David Bentley Hart.

And it looks as though the comeback is set to continue. A conference next April will explore this question: “The Analogy of Being: Invention of the Anti-Christ or the Wisdom of God?” The conference will coincide with the publication of an English edition of Erich Przywara’s famous book, Analogia Entis (translated by John Betz and David Bentley Hart, and published by Eerdmans). Speakers will include Hart himself, as well as Reinhard Hütter, Bruce McCormack, Bruce Marshall, John Webster, and several others. It looks like it will be an exciting event – and it’s good to see Hart’s own work receiving the attention it deserves.

In bleaker moments, I sometimes wonder whether theology is even possible anymore (if you’ve never had that feeling, you probably haven’t read enough contemporary theology) – but Hart’s work encourages me to believe that theology still exists, and is perhaps still possible.

Speaking of which, the latest issue of New Blackfriars 88:1017 (September 2007) features a symposium of articles on Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite. There are articles by David S. Cunningham, James K. A. Smith, Lois Malcolm and Gerard Loughlin, together with a response by Hart.

Friday 17 August 2007

Reading faithfully

Fidelity is “not dogmatic allegiance and blind repetitive résumé. Philosophical fidelity is not fidelity to all that an author has written, but fidelity to what is in the author more than the author himself (more than the empirical multitude of his writings), to the impulse that activates the author’s endless work.”

—Slavoj Žižek, “Hallward’s Fidelity to the Badiou Event,” foreword to Peter Hallward, Badiou: A Subject to Truth (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), p. xii.

Thursday 16 August 2007

Kim's recommended reading

Kim Fabricius has just gotten back from his holiday in Greece – and here’s his contribution to Aaron’s meme:

  • Douglas Harink, Paul among the Postliberals (Brazos, 2003). Get two books for the price of one, as this study relates the New Perspective Paul to the theology (in particular) of Yoder and Hauerwas.

  • David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (Eerdmans, 2005). At just over 100 pages, this little book, which began its life as an article in The Wall Street Journal, is as moving and profound a theological approach to (anti-)theodicy as you are likely to find.

  • Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (T&T Clark, 1996). Glowing endorsements from (among others) Dunn, Hauerwas, Lindbeck, Ellen Charry, and Luke Timothy Johnson – enough said for this tour de force, which combines close and imaginative readings of the NT with cogent applications to contemporary ethical issues.

  • Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851). The American novel, both our Paradise Lost and our national Confessions.

  • Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (SPCK, 1990). This book, the fruit of a lifetime’s experience and reflection, examines the interface of mission, evangelism, and dialogue with a post-Christian and multi-cultural world.

  • Gerd Theissen, The Shadow of the Galilean (SCM, 1987). You can’t beat this creative, compelling, and yet scholarly book as an introduction to the “historical Jesus.”

  • R. S. Thomas, Collected Poems, 1945-1990. With Auden and Eliot, this complex Welsh priest makes up the trinity of the finest Christian poets of the twentieth century, and uniquely Thomas is the “poet of the hidden God” (D. Z. Phillips).

  • Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Abingdon, 1996). This seminal work does just what it says on the tin – and thereby takes us to the heart of Christian faith, both personal and social.

  • Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to St. John of the Cross (Darton, Longman and Todd, 1979, 1990). The Archbishop of Canterbury unites what divided during the Middle Ages – theology and spirituality – in this penetrating and wise exploration of some of the great Christian saints and gurus.

  • John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster (Eerdmans, 1972). The author’s own fork in the road – and a book responsible for a generation taking the path to Christian pacifism.

Tuesday 14 August 2007

Books for Joey Dela Paz

Okay, here’s the list of all the new books that Joey Dela Paz will be receiving in response to our friendly appeal. The generous responses have been quite overwhelming – and Joey is extremely happy about his new library (over 50 books in total!). A few books were donated anonymously, so I haven’t listed them here; and, in addition, the Theological Book Network (together with Eerdmans) is planning to send a shipment of books to Joey’s Missions Training Center.

Anyway, here’s the list of books donated both by readers of F&T and by various publishers – thanks to everyone who contributed so generously!

F&T donations

  • Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction
  • Jürgen Moltmann, In the End – The Beginning
  • Jürgen Moltmann, Jesus Christ for Today’s World
  • David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission
  • Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society
  • Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission
  • Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace
  • Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass (eds.), Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life
  • Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1
  • Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, Vol. 2
  • Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, Vol. 3
  • James D. G. Dunn and Scot McKnight (eds.), The Historical Jesus in Recent Research
  • Ben C. Ollenburger (ed.), Old Testament Theology: Flowering and Future
T&T Clark
  • Iain Taylor, Pannenberg on the Triune God
  • Colin Gunton, The Theologian as Preacher
  • John Webster, Barth (2nd edition)
  • C. F. D. Moule, The Holy Spirit
  • William J. La Due, The Trinity Guide to the Christian Church
  • W. Owen Cole, Six World Faiths

Baker Academic
  • Craig Ott and Harold A. Netland (eds.), Globalizing Theology: Belief and Practice in an Era of World Christianity
  • Kevin Vanhoozer, Charles Anderson and Michael Sleasman (eds.), Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends
  • John McRay, Paul: His Life and Teaching
  • D. A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil
  • Tremper Longman III, Proverbs (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament)

Cascade Books
  • Jürgen Moltmann, The Politics of Discipleship and the Discipleship of Politics
  • Stanley Hauerwas, Disrupting Time
  • John Howard Yoder, Karl Barth and the Problem of War
  • Thomas Langford, Reflections on Grace
  • Joe R. Jones, Being the Church in Tumultuous Times
  • Christian Kettler, The God Who Believes
  • Caryn Riswold, Two Reformers: Martin Luther and Mary Daly as Political Theologians
  • Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms (2nd edition)

IVP Academic
  • Christopher Wright, The Mission of God
  • John Corrie (ed.), Dictionary of Mission Theology (to be sent when it’s released in November)
  • Donald Bloesch, A Theology of Word and Spirit (Christian Foundations 1)
  • Donald Bloesch, Holy Scripture (Christian Foundations 2)
  • Donald Bloesch, God the Almighty (Christian Foundations 3)
  • Donald Bloesch, Jesus Christ (Christian Foundations 4)
  • Donald Bloesch, The Holy Spirit (Christian Foundations 5)
  • Donald Bloesch, The Church (Christian Foundations 6)
  • Donald Bloesch, The Last Things (Christian Foundations 7)

  • Sabine Dramm, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: An Introduction to His Thought
  • Gordon D. Fee, Pauline Christology: An Exegetical-Theological Study
  • Brad H. Young, Meet the Rabbis: Rabbinic Thought and the Teachings of Jesus
  • Clayton N. Jefford, The Apostolic Fathers and the New Testament
  • Oskar Skarsaune and Reidar Hvalvik, Jewish Believers in Jesus: The Early Centuries
  • Lee M. McDonald, The Biblical Canon
  • T. A. Perry, The Honeymoon Is Over: Jonah’s Argument with God
  • Marty E. Stevens, Temples, Tithes and Taxes
  • Ritva H. Williams, Stewards, Prophets, and Keepers: Leadership in the Early Church
  • Rekha M. Chennattu, Johannine Discipleship as a Covenant Relationship


The book distributor Koorong also donated a selection of books by various publishers:
  • Kenneth Barker and John Kohlenberger III, Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Old Testament (Zondervan)
  • Kenneth Barker and John Kohlenberger III, Expositor’s Bible Commentary: New Testament (Zondervan)
  • John Owen, Overcoming Sin and Temptation, ed. Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor (Crossway)
  • Peter Barnes, A Study Commentary on Galatians (Evangelical Press)
  • John Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today (Eerdmans)

Monday 13 August 2007

Bob Dylan in Brisbane 2007

Bob Dylan’s concert here in Brisbane last night was a revelation, a miracle. With his eyes glistening beneath a white Spanish hat, Dylan conjured up images of a younger self, of that wildly anarchic Bob Dylan of the 1970s’ Rolling Thunder Revue. And he performed here with comparable energy and intensity (albeit with greater control), reshaping and transfiguring some of his greatest songs.

The song and dance man was in fine form, and he was clearly enjoying himself. He was playful and exuberant in “Tangled Up in Blue.” He erupted into a raw and piercing harmonica solo in “Ballad of a Thin Man.” His interpretations of “Lay, Lady, Lay,” “When the Deal Goes Down,” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” were marked by subtle tenderness and exquisite longing. And his haunting delivery of “Nettie Moore” was almost overwhelming in its spare intensity – I couldn’t look, I had to close my eyes, as Dylan evoked his darkly luminous vision of a “world … gone black before my eyes.” In all this, I was above all impressed with a sense of how much Dylan cares about these songs – he is not their master but their servant, and night after night he lovingly places himself at their disposal.

But the greatest moments of the evening were the electrifying performance of “Highway 61 Revisited” and the explosive re-creation of the 2001 song “High Water.” The power of this latter performance was best summed up in Dylan’s own fierce growl, “I can write you poems, make a strong man lose his mind.”

If you didn’t feel this threat – the risk that you might “lose your mind” in the furnace of Bob Dylan’s creative intensity – then you simply weren’t paying attention.

Sunday 12 August 2007

Recommended reading meme

Aaron tagged me in his recommended reading meme (and you can see other responses here). The meme asks: “What books do you find yourself continually recommending?” Here are some of mine:

  • George Herbert, The Temple – I recommend this whenever possible, since it’s the best devotional work ever written
  • John Milton, Paradise Lost – to go through life without having read this book would be a fate worse than celibacy
  • Friedrich Schleiermacher, Brief Outline on the Study of Theology – I reckon this is still the greatest attempt to define the field of theological study
  • Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom – I always recommend this to people who are interested in Christian ethics
  • John Webster, Barth – I regularly recommend this to people who are looking for an introduction to Barth’s theology
  • Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus – God and Man – I always use energetic hyperbole to recommend this book (“the best work on christology ever written,” etc.)
  • John Updike, Roger’s Version – I always recommend this to theologians, since it’s a uniquely brilliant theological novel
  • David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite – one of my missions in life is to recommend this book to everyone; unfortunately, several people who have followed my recommendation have later told me that they had to give up on the book, since it’s impossibly difficult (sorry!)

On political parties in Australia

Elwood: What kind of music do you usually have here?
Claire: Oh, we got both kinds. We got Country and Western.

—from The Blues Brothers (1980)

Saturday 11 August 2007

More on Lüdemann and the Pope

Presterjosh has posted a very interesting critique of my recent review of Lüdemann’s book on Benedict XVI. And Gerd Lüdemann tells me that he’ll also be responding to my review in the forthcoming English edition of the book.

Friday 10 August 2007

Exegesis with a five-year-old

A recent conversation with my five-year-old daughter, after I’d been telling the story of Jonah and the whale:

—“But there wasn’t really a whale, was there, Dad?”
—“What do you think?”
—“Umm. I think some of God’s stories are really hard to believe.”
—“Well, even if there was never really a whale, it’s still a true story. True like a song or a poem.”
—“Oh, you mean like a rhyme.”
—“Yeah, the story is true like a rhyme – it’s true because it tells us something important about God.”
—“Oh, I see what you mean. It’s a story about what God is really like.”
—“That’s right.”
—“You know, Dad, I’ve got a big picture Bible with famous paintings of all these stories. We should look at those – the pictures make it much easier to believe the story.”

Top ten books on ethics

Andy lists his 10 indispensable books on Christian ethics. It’s good to see that Bonhoeffer wasn’t forgotten.

Slavoj Žižek and the meaning of freedom

The new paperback edition of Slavoj Žižek’s The Universal Exception has just been released. It includes a new essay with the catchy title, “Some Politically Incorrect Reflections on the Violence in France and Related Matters.” And it also includes a delightful new preface by Žižek, entitled “The Big Other between Violence and Civility.” Drawing on the notion of civility as a free act which is feigned as an obligation, Žižek characterises human freedom as a “feigned necessity” (p. xii). Belonging to a society “involves a paradoxical point at which each of us is ordered to embrace freely, as the result of our choice, what is imposed on us anyway” – this is the “paradox of choosing freely what is already necessary” (p. xv).

Wednesday 8 August 2007

Books for Joey: an update

In response to our friendly appeal, Joey Dela Paz will be receiving a range of excellent new theology books. I’ll be posting the full details soon.

In the meantime, here’s another update: Joey will be receiving book-donations from Eerdmans, Eisenbrauns, T&T Clark, Baker Academic, IVP Academic, Cascade Books, and Hendrickson, and also from the book distributor Koorong.

And it looks as though the good people at the Theological Book Network will also be supplying some books to Joey’s Missions Training Center.

Tuesday 7 August 2007

The Pope's Jesus: Gerd Lüdemann and Benedict XVI

Gerd Lüdemann, Das Jesusbild des Papstes: Über Joseph Ratzingers kühnen Umgang mit den Quellen (Springe: zu Klampen Verlag, 2007), 157 pp. (review copy courtesy of zu Klampen)

Just months after Benedict XVI released Jesus of Nazareth, the New Testament scholar Gerd Lüdemann has produced this spirited book-length critique of “the Pope’s Jesus.” Lüdemann writes both as a post-Christian who is deeply sceptical about the claims of church doctrine, and as a rigorous advocate of the historical-critical method. A central contrast between Benedict and Lüdemann thus lies in their respective attitudes towards the biblical texts: while Benedict approaches the texts with basic trust and theological commitment, Lüdemann insists that it is “a blind alley” to privilege these texts and to assume that they are historically or theologically trustworthy (p. 23).

Indeed, for Lüdemann it is precisely the integrity of the texts that is at stake in all this. For instance, against Benedict’s overtly christological interpretation of Jesus’ parables, Lüdemann protests that, in this reading, the texts themselves are “bypassed” in the interests of church doctrine (p. 94).

Lüdemann is right to observe that Benedict’s work suffers from many historical flaws. Methodologically, Benedict tends to treat the gospel records like independent and reliable historical witnesses, so that his approach amounts to an implicit repudiation of the two document hypothesis (i.e. that Matthew and Luke used Mark and Q as sources) on which historical analysis rests. Lüdemann also observes that Benedict frequently cites Old Testament texts “as predictions of Christ,” even though this is historically illegitimate and “scientifically impossible” (p. 151).

Lüdemann’s longest chapter (pp. 95-120) is devoted to Benedict’s use of the Fourth Gospel, and it is here that some of the central problems in Benedict’s methodology are brought into view. Benedict privileges the Fourth Gospel and freely uses it as a source of historical information about Jesus, but he offers “no convincing arguments against the scholarly consensus that the Johannine discourses have nothing to do with what Jesus himself actually said” (p. 120). Of course, some scholars are more optimistic about identifying historically authentic layers in the Fourth Gospel; but it is nevertheless rather baffling to hear Benedict assert that “[t]he Jesus of the Fourth Gospel and the Jesus of the Synoptics is one and the same: the true ‘historical’ Jesus” (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 111).

Such methodological shortcomings should be taken seriously in any evaluation of Benedict’s book. Indeed, the fact that Benedict presupposes the divine “inspiration” of the biblical texts is already a significant obstacle to historical understanding. Lüdemann is surely right to insist that the texts cannot be properly understood on the basis of any “supposed divine inspiration”: “Whoever has given a little finger to the historical-critical method must give the whole hand” (p. 151). Of course, I myself think it is still possible to confess the “inspiration” of the canon – but this confession should arise subsequently from an encounter with the witness of the texts, and should not be introduced as a methodological presupposition which guarantees the texts’ reliability in advance.

Lüdemann’s critique of Benedict’s historiography is thus of considerable value, since it helps to make explicit some of the basic methodological criteria of a properly “historical” study of Jesus.

But the acuteness of Lüdemann’s understanding of history is matched only by the heavy-handedness of his treatment of theology. He offers the bald assertion, for instance, that “whenever there is a contradiction between faith and knowledge, the latter has priority” (p. 151) – even though such a rigid dichotomy between “faith” and “knowledge” rests on assumptions that are simply foreign to much Christian scholarship. So too, the recurring complaint that Benedict’s real subject is not the Jesus of history but the Christ of faith imports assumptions about faith and history that are foreign to Benedict’s entire approach – foreign, indeed, to a good deal of contemporary biblical scholarship. To presuppose an irreconcilable gulf between Christian faith and secular historiography is simply to decide in advance that a distinctively Christian interpretation of the historical Jesus can never be legitimate.

In my view, this highlights the central shortcoming of Lüdemann’s critique: he is insufficiently sensitive to the possibility of genuine consonance and coherence between theology and history, faith and knowledge. The fact that (historical flaws notwithstanding) Benedict wants to identify Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ of faith is simply inconceivable to Lüdemann, since his own assumptions drive an absolute wedge between the spheres of faith and history. But the fact that the gospel texts are also the canonical texts of a believing community – canonical precisely as historically conditioned texts! – demands something more than just the construction of narratives about the past.

This “something more” was Benedict’s aim in Jesus of Nazareth. Even if Benedict fails to give historical criticism its due, he is right to observe that the historical method itself has only a limited capacity to grasp the identity of Jesus. Of necessity, the historical method must interpret Jesus “in terms of the past, in terms of the predictable and the possible,” with the result that Jesus’ sheer uniqueness and singularity can easily be effaced (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 292).

Further, Benedict notes that historical criticism cannot perceive the canonical unity of the diverse biblical texts. He thus argues that the historical method must be supplemented by other methods of canonical or theological exegesis. The purpose of “canonical exegesis,” he argues, is not to contradict the findings of historical-critical interpretation, but to carry such interpretation forwards so that historiography is transposed into theology (pp. xviii-xix).

It seems to me that historical Jesus research invites precisely such theological transposition. As scholars like Martin Hengel and Marinus de Jonge have demonstrated, we can ultimately make sense of Jesus’ mission only when we raise the question of Jesus’ unique relationship to the God whom he calls “Father.” Historiography reaches a limit here (since “God” can hardly be a historical datum), so that a theological interpretation of Jesus’ life and acts becomes indispensable.

In spite of the historical flaws in Benedict’s presentation, therefore, his central claim is of great importance – namely, the claim that Jesus must be understood in light of his unique relationship to God. The mystery of Jesus’ relation to the Father, Benedict writes, “is ever present and determines everything” in the Synoptic portraits of Jesus (p. 218); in the life and acts of this man, “God’s will is wholly done” (p. 150), so that the entire existence of Jesus must be understood as a “filial existence” vis-à-vis God (p. 7).

Since his own interpretation of Jesus can find no place for the question of God, Gerd Lüdemann must finally throw up his hands and protest that the Pope’s book “is steeped in a mystery that only faith can understand” (p. 149). In my view, however, this sense of “mystery” is the best – not the worst – aspect of Benedict’s book. After all, the gospel sources are themselves also “steeped in mystery.” They are steeped in the mystery of Jesus’ transparency to the will of God – the mystery that this same Jewish man who was put to death has now become the risen one whom the community proclaims as Lord and Christ.

Monday 6 August 2007

More theology of kissing

Last year, we discussed the theology of kissing. The discussion has recently been revived – Cynthia offers some classical and jazz variations on the theme, and Sci Fi Catholic offers some kisses from science fiction.

So it looks like we should also do a little more kissing around here. I haven’t written any new ones myself, but here are some of the highlights from readers’ comments on the original post:

Kierkegaard: In a land where everyone kisses, nothing is a kiss.

Marcus Borg: I’d like to kiss you again, for the first time.

The Anselmian Kiss: The kiss than which none greater can be conceived.

Jonathan Edwards: ’Tis nothing but the mere pleasure of God, yea, his mere arbitrary will alone, that alloweth a miserable creature like thee the pleasure of kissing for one moment.

Walter Brueggemann: There is the kiss and the counterkiss, and if one wins, we both lose.

Gerhard Forde: Before kissing, we must first make a couple of moves.

Meister Eckhart: I kiss God and God kisses me. We kiss with the same lips.

Alasdair MacIntyre: Surely, after virtue comes “Which Kiss? Whose Lips?”

Stanley Hauerwas: In the community established upon the principle of nonviolence, the question “whom should I kiss” never arises – since to refuse to kiss is itself an act of violence. We kiss not because Jesus recommended it, but because in Jesus we discover that God is a kisser. So you’d all better damn well pucker up.

Saturday 4 August 2007

Remembering Jesus: Benedict XVI and James D. G. Dunn

In his masterful work, Jesus Remembered (Eerdmans, 2003), James D. G. Dunn observes that the Gospels give us access not directly to Jesus himself, but to memories of Jesus. And he suggests that “it is precisely the process of ‘remembering’ which fuses the horizons of past and present, by making the past present again” (p. 130).

Similarly, Benedict XVI’s new book, Jesus of Nazareth (Doubleday, 2007), emphasises the disciples’ remembrance of Jesus. And Benedict rightly notes that this memory is shaped and structured – or, to be more precise, “inspired” – by faith in the resurrection: “the Evangelist tells us that after the Resurrection the disciples’ eyes were opened and they were able to understand what had happened. Now [for the first time!] they ‘remember’…. The Resurrection teaches us a new way of seeing; it uncovers the connection between the words of the Prophets and the destiny of Jesus. It evokes ‘remembrance’, that is, it makes it possible to enter into the interiority of the events” (p. 232).

Benedict continues: “By means of these texts the [Fourth] Evangelist himself gives us the decisive indications as to how his Gospel is composed and what sort of vision lies behind it. It rests upon the remembering of the disciple, which, however, is a co-remembering in the ‘we’ of the Church. This remembering is an understanding under the guidance of the Holy Spirit; by remembering, the believer enters into the depth of the event” (p. 233).

Friday 3 August 2007

The impact of a sentence

Following our discussion of the influence of essays, Aaron reflects on the influence of a sentence. He’s right, too: at times, a single sentence can have a tremendous and lasting impact.

For me, the most influential theological sentence is probably this one, by Karl Barth: “one can not speak of God simply by speaking of man in a loud voice.”

Thursday 2 August 2007

Theology with J. K. Rowling

The new Harry Potter novel is not only a damn good story (the best of the series), it’s also a book of extraordinary theological insight. At some points, it almost passes over into theological allegory – and it’s pretty robust theology, too. (Perhaps the book is itself a divine judgment on all those lunatic Christians who have complained about the “occultism” of Harry Potter!)

Anyway, I’d be interested to know what others think about the book’s theological dimension.

Spoiler warning: don’t read these comments if you haven’t finished the book yet!

Wednesday 1 August 2007

The influence of essays

Sometimes a single essay can change your life. You sit down in a lazy moment to read it – you’re not expecting much. But half an hour later, your entire world has been altered. You’ve got new eyes, and you’re never able to look at things in quite the same way again.

At times, the entire landscape of theological studies can be altered in this way by a single essay. Some examples that spring to mind are:

  • Karl Barth, “The Word of God and the Task of the Ministry” (1922)
  • Gerhard von Rad, “The Theological Problem of the Old Testament Doctrine of Creation” (1936)
  • Rudolf Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology” (1941)
  • Gerhard Ebeling, “The Significance of the Critical Historical Method for Church and Theology in Protestantism” (1950)
  • Ernst Käsemann, “The Problem of the Historical Jesus” (1954)
  • Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Redemptive Event and History” (1959)
  • Karl Rahner, “Remarks on the Dogmatic Treatise De Trinitate” (1960)
And if you were to look for recent examples, you might think of Rowan Williams, “The Body’s Grace” (1990), or perhaps Bruce McCormack, “Grace and Being” (2000).

So what about you? Have you ever read a life-changing essay?


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