Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World

Kyle Bennet wants you to stop taking spiritual heroin-or, at least, that’s what he says. This spiritual drug is a bit ambiguous but has something to do with using Sunday worship as a kick to get you emotionally pumped and stable for the rest of the week or, alternatively, using spiritual disciplines as a spiritual fix to get you closer to God or to get God to speak to you about your future path. The solution, in his mind, is partially found in seeing spiritual disciplines like fasting, solitude, feasting, meditation, etc. as actions for others, disciplines that bring horizontal and vertical benefits.

He accurately pinpoints our Christian tendency to see loving our neighbor as bound up in big–usually political–issues. So, we love our neighbor by getting involved in politics or donating to massive humanitarian organizations or doing food drives and supporting homeless shelters. But Bennet expresses this well and is worth quoting at length.

“The way of Jesus does not involve endless private, mystical experiences that tickle our fancy. Rather, it is the transformation of mundane activities that have vast public implications for our neighbor. Many of us are blind to the ways that we oppress, neglect, and ignore our neighbor in the little things that we do every day. We have ‘blind spots’ in our practice of love. We have coherent, solid, and persuasive views on sexuality, abortion, immigration, and taxation, for example, but we’re not entirely aware of or intentional about what we do during the week. At the end of the day (or more precisely, during the day), when we are done with our deliberations and debates and we put away abstract concepts and universal principles, what happens? What are we like? What do we do in our daily deeds? Are we loving our neighbor in our everyday procedures and cultural practices? In theory, we claim to love our neighbor, but do we love her ‘on the ground’? What does this entail for us as stay-at-home parents, patrons, consumers, or voters?” (pg. xv)

It’s a persuasive argument, and Bennett’s agenda is to show how each of the spiritual disciplines have horizontal benefits, and should be practiced with our neighbor in mind.

For example, the practice of simplicity is not just about reliance on God or spiritual focus but about buying only what we need and giving the rest away to benefit our neighbor. Meditation is not just about directing our thoughts to God but about directing our thoughts towards our neighbor.

This last one, especially, got to me. As a more introspective type I spend a lot of time lost in my thoughts and the vast majority of the time I’m thinking about myself in one way or another. None of the thoughts themselves are bad–thinking about future career paths, planning for the week, thinking about books, considering conversations, healthy self-criticism–all these are helpful and useful. But when they’re what I focus on more than anything else, we’ve got a problem.

The best part of each chapter is the postscript where he outlines specific ways to practice various disciplines for one’s neighbor. Many of the chapters themselves are a bit long and repetitive. The book promises far more than it gives (“What I offer here includes some phenomenological analysis, theological commentary, historical appropriations, and pastoral admonition” (pg. xvi), but still has enough insights that it’s worth reading.

Bennet is at his strongest, though, when he articulates the problem with conservative Christian obedience to the second greatest commandment. What he gets at is precisely what Dostoevsky says in the sermons of Father Zossima. Active love, as Dostoevsky calls it, is the hardest love of all. We all want to think about loving others. In today’s Christian world, and for me, that can sometimes look like trying to articulate Grand Ideas of Christian Visions of Public Life, or Big Ideas for How to Engage Culture, or Large Strategies for Christian Countercultures.  None of those are bad, of course, but that’s the easy kind of love. Like Dostoevsky says, we all want to love our neighbor when it’s done quickly and publicly and with much applause and support. But in the day-to-day realities of our lives, where we go to work with others and (for me) walk down university sidewalks past hundreds (thousands?) of students, we’re much less eager to love. To take it to the bible, when Jesus told us what a neighbor is he didn’t tell us about the Good Samaritan who articulated the precise problem with Roman-ruled Israeli welfare systems. He told us about a traveler walking along a road who decided to love a wounded man in front of him with the money and resources he had.


The Fear of the Lord is Wisdom: A Theological Introduction to Wisdom in Israel

“Fear of the Lord,” Ellen Davis writes in her introduction to the Old Testament, “is the deeply sane recognition that we are not God.” If she’s right, she raises an interesting possibility for one of the most well-known references to the fear of God in the OT. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” (Prov. 9:10) Tremper Longman’s new book takes this as a title and proffers to offer a “theological introduction” to wisdom literature. While the book definitely qualifies as an introduction, “theological introduction” evokes something more complete than what Longman provides.

For the first half, the book focuses on different sources in wisdom literature, with a chapter for each book traditionally identified as wisdom literature. The second half moves to a theological synthesis of wisdom under headings such as “Sources of Wisdom,” “Wisdom, Creation, and (Dis)order),” and “Wisdom, Covenant, and Law.” The book concludes by touching on wisdom in the intertestamental period and the New Testament.

The strongest part of the book is the introductory material in the first half. Longman presents an interesting interpretation of Job and helped me think through what, exactly, Ecclesiastes is all about. His interpretation of Proverbs didn’t reveal all that much, but had some good moments. Unfortunately, the fatal flaw of the book rears its head during the later sections of the introduction. Longman deals with “Wisdom Elsewhere in the Old Testament,” a promising subject that highlights how different sections in Deutoronomy, and even different characters in the Biblical story have been read as wisdom literature. Longman’s approach to all of this is frustrating. He does little more in this (and following) sections than list relevant texts, restate them in his own words, and move on.

The problem intensifies in the theological portion of the book. As he goes through different topics, he continues to provide more or less the services of a concordance, organizing texts relevant to the subject. He doesn’t deeply analyze the text, map the trajectories of different themes, or synthesize the broader ideas being conveyed.

There are other issues as well: Longman constantly restates points established earlier, some three or four times throughout the book. When he deals with the story of Joseph, he spends four pages explaining the entire story. While it’s helpful that he doesn’t assume his readers are scholars, it’s also unlikely that they’re biblically illiterate. A “theological introduction to wisdom in Israel” is not the kind of book someone with no background in the Bible is likely to pick up.

All of these concerns are well illustrated in his examination of the story of Joseph. After explaining the story, Longman examines how wisdom plays into the story. He notes that Joseph’s wisdom is connected both to his ability to interpret dreams and to his skill in managing the palace. He also notes that Joseph resists the advances of Potiphar’s wife in line with the admonitions from Potiphar, that he interprets dreams through revelation rather than through “dream commentaries,” and that he endures suffering well.

Several concerns arise. First, even if all this is true it’s not clear where it gets us. Joseph indeed seems like someone who, over time, becomes more wise and serves God better. But how does this impact our theology of wisdom? Does it at all? If it doesn’t, then bringing it up seems odd–there are dozens of people in the Bible who embody various wisdom principles. Why mention Joseph?

Longman connects Joseph to the vision of wisdom in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. But before doing that he explains (again) the interpretation he put forward of each book. He does this throughout the entire book. It seems like every time he mentions one of these three books he re-explains his interpretation.

Further, he starts his retelling of the Joseph story by insisting–as he does repeatedly throughout the book–that he is not assuming a distinct class of Biblical literature known as “wisdom” literature. All that is well and good, but one wonders why we need to be reminded over, and over, and over–in quite emphatic terms–that he is not saying that.

This isn’t to say that the book is useless. The book introductions at the beginning are helpful, and Longman has many throw-away comments throughout that really are brilliant. His explanation of the Ancient Near Eastern context of wisdom literature is helpful and his chapter on gender issues in wisdom literature is challenging and thoughtful. Maybe the book just needed to be shorter and more focused in its intent, rather than the wide-ranging “theological introduction” it attempts to be.

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review.

Knowledge Will Not Save the World: A Reading of A Canticle for Leibowitz

Knowledge Will Not Save the World: A Reading of A Canticle for Leibowitz

Back in November, some friends and I started a book club. We plan to focus on the classics (we first read Oedipus Rex, right after Thanksgiving, to cheer us all up), but we took a detour into “modern” classics this past month with Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. I slacked off and didn’t finish the book before the meeting. Consider this my attempt to think through the book on my own.

Since the Enlightenment it seems the Western world has labored under the myth that knowledge will solve our problems. As Stephen Toulmin makes clear, Descartes embarked upon his quest for an objective Method in no intellectual vacuum. Rather, the violence of the religious wars and the perceived failure of theological inquiry to produce agreed upon, workable, universal knowledge drove him to find truth through some purely rational Method. If only we all follow the right logical sequence, he thought, we’ll end up in the right place. 

Of course, he was wrong and few today would support such a radically Cartesian agenda. But many of his other, more subtle assumptions, have endured. Among them is the rather dangerous idea that sneaks its way into policy discussions and even Christian circles to this day–the idea that perhaps knowledge can solve our problems.

Given the failure of theology, we’ve handed knowledge-producing off to Science and Reason and, of late, computers and technology. This only makes sense because, if knowledge is our savior, Science and Reason seem to produce the most consistent, reliable results. Curiously, this hand-off hasn’t eradicated religion. We now have a rather different, religiously-charged pursuit of knowledge. As Neil Postman put it:

All experts are invested with the charisma of priestliness. Some of our priest-experts are called psychiatrists, some psychologists, some sociologists, some statisticians. The god they serve does not speak of righteousness or goodness or mercy or grace. Their goes speaks of efficiency, precision, objectivity. And that is why such concepts as sin and evil disappear…they come from a moral universe that is irrelevant to the theology of expertise. And so the priests…call sin ‘social deviance,’ which is a statistical concept, and they call evil ‘psychopathology,’ which is a medical concept. Sin and evil disappear because they cannot be measured and objectified, and therefore cannot be dealt with by experts. (Technopoly, pg. 90)

Sin and salvation are not concepts we can escape because they refer to the (empirically provable) fact that something is wrong, and the (somewhat less empirically provable) hope that something can be done about it. But when we replace a broken heart with a deficiency of knowledge, our vision of sin and salvation warps and we end up in a different “moral universe” that requires new priests to mediate god and new rites to approach him. For a long time, our priests were our scientists and our sacrifices were (at minimum) the first 18 years of our lives followed by (if we wanted a good job) four more years.

I’m not sure, but it may be that this redefinition of sin is changing in the 21st century. It seems as though arguments over social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion are premised less and less, on both sides, on “they are wrong because the science says so,” and more, “they are wrong because they are bad people.”

Regardless, this vision of knowledge can still be detected in the sheer horror with which both conservatives and liberals discuss each other’s positions. There’s a strong sense that it is simply inconceivable that someone–in the 21st century!–could think this way. It is simply inconceivable that someone–given all of history!–could disregard the past so simply. And hiding in those exclamations is the assumption that knowledge should have been enough. Hiding there is astonishment that everyone could have all the same facts and come to radically different conclusions.

Christian apologetics seems peculiarly stuck in this Enlightenment rut. The idea that there could be such a thing as “evidence that demands a verdict,” evidence that speaks for itself outside any frame of reference, seems more Cartesian than Christian. After all, if we take Romans 1 seriously the problem with humanity is definitely not a lack of knowledge but a lack of properly directed love. It isn’t that people need to be educated, they need to be changed.

All of this is important background to understand A Canticle for Leibowitz. The author, Walter Miller, flew planes during WWII and participated in the destruction of the Benedictine monastery in Monte Casino. The Canticle seems like his attempt to exorcise the demons he encountered in WWII. Perhaps, however, it is actually an attempt to exorcise humanity, to understand how the human race, with so much science and knowledge, could slaughter hundreds of millions of people in the course of one short century.

The book is told as a triptych and progresses mostly as a set of foils. Every smaller story presents an abbot that plays an important role, a younger monk or character that plays a role, an outsider to the monastery, and Benjamin (who seems to be Lazarus still wondering the earth after several millennia). These successive characters play off each other and illuminate different aspects of the story.

The story tracks a small monastery founded after the order of Leibowitz (a fictional saint) as it: 1) attempts to preserve knowledge shortly after humanity nearly wipes itself out through nuclear holocaust, 2) guides humanity through a new Renaissance, and, 3) survives as humanity wipes itself out, yet again, through another nuclear holocaust. Saint Leibowitz, the founder of the Order, died preserving the “Memorabilia,” a miscellaneous set of documents that preserved some of the scientific and literary accomplishments of human civilization. The Order takes it upon itself to continue the preservation.

During the first story the monks preserve the knowledge contra mundum, with the outside world hostile to their cloistered lives. The first story, to me, seems primarily set-up for the thematic developments that follow. By the time we reach the new Renaissance, the story slows down and follows a young secular scholar, Thon Thaddeo, who comes to visit the monastery to examine the Memorabilia. The abbot at the time, Dom Paulo, is resolved to welcome outsiders to the knowledge the Order preserved, but to keep this knowledge squarely within a Christian frame. “And this time, thought Dom Paulo, we’ll keep them reminded of who kept the spark burning while the world slept.” (pg. 146)

Thaddeo, however, is hostile to this desire. For him, the Memorabilia represents huge advances in learning that could move civilization forward in leaps and bounds. Paulo’s hesitancy is nonsensical to him: “If you try to save wisdom until the world is wise, Father, the world will never have it.” (pg. 225) Thaddeo styles himself as a savior, which explains some of his hostility. Thaddeo sees the majority of the world still disease-ridden and poor, laboring in medieval economies and agrarian communities. He wants to move the world forward, and sees knowledge–”wisdom”–as the key to doing this.

Thaddeo’s vision is clarified early on when, looking out a window at a passing peasant, he says:

‘Look at him!’ the scholar persisted. ‘No, but it’s too dark now. You can’t see the syphilis outbreak on his neck, the way the bridge of his nose is being eaten away. Paresis. Be he was undoubtedly a moron to begin with. Illiterate, superstitious, murderous. He diseases his children. For a few coins he would kill them. He will sell them anyway, when they are old enough to be useful. Look at him and tell me if you see the progeny of a once-mighty civilization? What do you see?’

‘The image of Christ,’ grated the monsignor, surprised at his own sudden anger. ‘What did you expect me to see?’ (pg. 129)

But crucially, Thaddeo’s vision is not just pessimistic and degrading. It also prioritizes knowledge:

The scholar huffed impatiently. ‘The incongruity. Men as you can observe them through any window, and men as historians would have us believe men once were. I can’t accept it. How can a great and wise civilization have destroyed itself so completely?’

‘Perhaps,’ said Apollo, ‘by being materially great and materially wise, and nothing else.’ (pg. 129)

Thaddeo cannot imagine that a civilization with incredible knowledge could have gone wrong. But the Church places knowledge in its proper place, at least some of the time in the story. If one is only great and wise, the Churchman says, one can still be lost. In fact, greatness and wisdom may be dangerous themselves.

In the middle of all this is the rather curious figure of Benjamin. Mistaken for Saint Leibowitz at the beginning of the story, Benjamin is the last Jew on planet earth. He also happens to be Lazarus raised from the dead, but a Lazarus who took Jesus command to rise again not as identifying Jesus as the Messiah, but as commanding Benjamin to wait for the Messiah. And so, Benjamin wandered the earth for millennia and continues to do so throughout the centuries that the book charts.

None of the characters in the book are quite sure what to do with him, and neither am I. He’s enigmatic, but it seems like his primary function is as a foil to the monks of Leibowitz. While the monks wrap themselves up in the politics of the world, attempting to guide the world’s appropriation and development of knowledge, Benjamin sits in the hills and waits for the Messiah, uninterested in the developments of mankind.

In an especially poignant moment he mistakes Thaddeo for the Messiah, only to realize his mistake and slink away. Benjamin floats in and out of the story, reminding the characters that he, at least, is still waiting for a Messiah–reminding them that he, at least, sees no salvation in knowledge.

The third story contains one last set of foils important for this reading. In the last few weeks before the human race annihilates itself again, Miller presents us with one more abbot, Zerchi, and another enigmatic figure, Rachel. Miller doesn’t make entirely clear who (what?) Rachel is, but he does hint that she may be Mary reincarnate. In any case, the specifics are irrelevant to this interpretation.

Zerchi and Rachel both play the same role. Zerchi gives advice to a mother and daughter affected by radiation poisoning after the first nuclear missile launches. The doctor advises the mother to euthanize the child, and Zerchi strongly opposes it (being a member of the Church). The mother still decides to euthanize her daughter and Zerchi drives with them on their way, in a desperate final attempt to dissuade her.

He delivers a sermon, pontificating on the evils of murder. The mother responds: “The baby doesn’t understand your sermon. She can hurt, though. She can hurt, but she can’t understand.” (pg. 316) Zerchi keeps talking, frantically offering every argument he can. Finally, he says:

‘I’m not asking you. As a priest of Christ I am commanding you by the authority of Almighty God not to lay hands on your child, not to offer her life in sacrifice to the false god of expedient mercy. I do not advise you, I adjure and command you in the name of Christ the King. Is that clear?’ (pg. 318)

Zerchi fails. But shortly after, another bomb drops and the monastery caves in on Zerchi. As he is dying, Rachel comes to him. She doesn’t say much, but somehow she gives him the Eucharist, one last time. Zerchi cannot say anything, but Rachel can. She only gives a single command: “Live.” (pg. 336) Both Zerchi and Rachel came to someone at the door of death, but Zerchi provided knowledge, commands, wisdom, and power in the face of death. Rachel showed love. The mother didn’t respond, but Zerchi did:

The image of those cool green eyes lingered with him as long as life. He did not ask why God would choose to raise up a creature of primal innocence from the shoulder of Mrs. Grales, or why God gave to it the preternatural gifts of Eden–those gifts which Man had been trying to seize by brute force again from Heaven since he first lost them. He had seen primal innocence in those eyes, and a promise of resurrection. One glimpse had been a bounty, and he wept in gratitude. Afterwards he lay with his face in the wet dirt and waited. (pg. 336)

The Canticle is an attempt to explain Miller’s experiences. A civilization endowed with unheard of knowledge and power had managed, in the 20th century, to annihilate large segments of itself and step right up to the brink of total self-destruction. The Enlightenment and Renaissance proceeded on the notion that religion created division but knowledge engendered unity. Descartes and his successors believed that with the right knowledge and proper method mankind could save itself, but Miller saw knowledge and method become the instruments of destruction.

Miller’s ultimate critique is simple: he is Benjamin, sitting outside the struggle, positive that knowledge is not the Messiah but certain that someone is. A Canticle for Leibowitz rails against the dangers of knowledge and deconstructs any savior complex knowledge-producers have. Miller will have none of the idea–whether baptized into Christian lingo or not–that education and knowledge will save the world. Christian education does not change lives. Data will not reorient hearts. Books are not enough. Materially great and materially wise people and civilizations have not put up guardrails against self-destruction, they may have actually paved the way for it.

As Miller himself says:

“The answer was near at hand; there was still the serpent whispering: For God doth know that in what day soever you shall eat thereof, your eyes shall be opened; and you shall be as Gods. The old father of lies was clever at telling half-truths: how shall you ‘know’ good and evil, until you shall have sampled a little? Taste and be as Gods. But neither infinite power nor infinite wisdom could bestow godhood upon men. For that there would have to be infinite love as well.” (pg. 238)

When the serpent came to Eve he lured her with the promise of knowledge; and the temptation to know, to deify knowledge, remains with us still. To believe that knowledge will fix the world is to believe that our original sin can save us, that we can get back into the garden by being thrown out again.

But knowledge is not our problem. Sin did not primarily deform our heads, it deformed our hearts. Eve thought that the tree of knowledge was desirable, good, beautiful, delicious. Thus, the Christian call cannot be to turn to a different, sanitized tree of knowledge. Ignorance is not our problem. As Miller puts it, we don’t need wisdom and power to return to Eden, we need love.

Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology

Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology

I’ve had a rather odd relationship with James K.A. Smith since 11th grade. Until this book, I had never read him or actually listened to him, beyond the odd lecture on Youtube here and there. However, I felt like I’d read him as my High School more or less mediated his Cultural Liturgies project to me as its official position–something I’m quite grateful for.

Since my parents quasi-homeschooled me, I only went to this school once a week. Yet I came to anticipate it. The staff carefully baked Christian liturgies into every aspect of the school day, and strove to create the sort of thick community I wanted. I loved it.

I approached Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology, then, with a somewhat odd lens. I’m certainly nowhere near well-read enough to evaluate Smith’s engagement with Jeffrey Stout, Jonathan Chaplin, or Oliver O’Donovan. I came to Awaiting the King as a young Christian citizen, interested in politics, and soon to vote in his first election. Happily, it turns out I’ve been asking many of the questions Smith addresses in the book. Is Liberalism (classically conceived) incompatible with Christian faith? What habits of the heart does democracy or capitalism cultivate? What–if any–is the place of the church in politics? Is there a single political order the Bible mandates?

Smith begins his answers to these questions by redefining how we think of politics:

“Across different theological streams that counsel quite different modes of Christian engagement with (or distance from) politics, we can nonetheless discern a common assumption that ‘the political’ is a kind of realm, a turf, a territory. In this sense we spatialize political theology and reduce it to boundary management and border patrols. Second, we tend to assume that citizens (i.e. political agents) are ‘rational actors’ of the sort economists like to dream of–decision making machines whose actions are the outcome of conscious deliberation rooted in beliefs and ideas.” (pg. 8)

Contrary to these assumptions, “the political is less a space and more a way of life; the political is less a realm and more of a project.” (pg. 9) With this, he sets up the point of his first two chapters. Politics is not something Christians can escape entirely, nor is it a realm Christians can separate from their spiritual life and merely step in and out of for some door-knocking and voting. Politics is baked into the fabric of our lives.

Perhaps this is easily visible in our time. One can hardly open social media or turn on a TV show or a movie without being inundated with politics. Even further: do you shop at Target or boycott it due to their bathroom policy? Do you get your news from Fox or CNN? Do you give money to the homeless man on the side of the street? Do you buy oil from BP? Do you use an electric car? Do you send your children to public school?

Politics is everywhere. “Laws, then, are not just boundary markers; they are social nudges that make us a certain kind of people.” (pg. 10)

Thus, we must examine how our political order deforms or re-forms us. We have no choice–even the most mundane law does something to us. As an (important) aside, Smith points out that politics in our day includes economics:

“In the current configuration of globalized capitalism, the state has in many ways been trumped by the forces of the market and society. Wannenwetsch points out that in Western societies–and globalized societies more and more–the economy functions as a ‘structure-building force’ that shapes everything. The market no constitutes ‘the inner logic’ of society itself: the dynamics of society are ‘moulded by the laws of the market: as a contest between participants competing for an increase of their shares.'” (pg. 12)

How do we engage with the political order, then? Smith emphatically, throughout his work, reminds us that a proper political theology starts by recognizing that politics is not neutral. In one of his more provocative lines he drives this home: “It shouldn’t be surprising when an institution that wants you to ‘pledge allegiance’ is not happy with anything less than your heart.” (pg. 14)

In the rest of the book, Smith argues that Christians must–for their own peace and for love of their neighbors–try to bend the loves of the earthly city towards the Kingdom of God. We might say that we are required to nudge the kingdom of man towards the Kingdom of God. This is an aspect of our calling to serve as lights to the world (Matthew 5:13-16). We must pursue the peace of the earthly city: “for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7)

The sticky point is how Christians are to do this without resorting to an authoritarian “convert-or-die” methodology. We must have something constructive to add:

“Any truly prophetic critique and identification of purpose, then, needs what we’ve called a canon and criterion: some outline of the substance of how things ought to be, some delineation of what ‘kingdom come’ looks like. ‘The prophet needs a point of view from which it is possible to criticize without criticism becoming a mere form, empty of substance. The prophet is not allowed the luxury of perpetual subversion. After Ahab, Elijah must anoint some Hazael, some Jehu. (Desire of the Nations, 12)” (pg. 65)

In the face of these required paradoxes–thorough Christianity without sheer theocracy, tolerance and love for others without concessions to neutrality, etc.–it may be tempting to simply opt for some neutral stance. Smith points out how many have appealed to St. Augustine’s “two cities” theology, arguing for a notion of dual citizenship. I’m in no place to judge the legitimacy of Smith’s critique of this position, but he argues that Augustine had no such intent. For Augustine, the earthly city and the heavenly city are fundamentally opposed because they are organized not around beliefs (“Abortion is wrong,” “Gay marriage is right,” “Capitalism is just,” etc.) but around loves. The earthly city has no object of love beyond itself. Its own peace, prosperity, justice, and equality is everything. Because there is no Lord to claim vengeance, we must claim vengeance. Because there are is no Second Coming to overcome injustice, we must inaugurate whatever kingdom of peace and justice we desire. This is why conservatives and liberals are unable to have discussions of policy. They aren’t talking about policies, they’re talking about gods.

In this sense, Christianity has something quite political to say:
“Embedded in Israel’s narrative is a transcending of tribalism–the conviction that because Yahweh is ‘a great king over all the earth’ (Ps. 47:2 ESV), his ‘law can be extended in principle to other nations than Israel’ (DN, 65). ‘The political structures of other nations had the same vocation to exercise just jdugement as Israel’s did’ (DN, 68). Israel was called to model this, to show them how, not through colonial rule, but through witness. Whether or not Israel succeeded in this (spoiler alert: Israel failed), this entails a responsibility of the nations. The nations are expected to obey God’s rule, which is precisely why the prophets call the nations to account. It’s also why, as we’ll see, nations are still called to obey God’s rule and, after the resurrection of Jesus, some will answer that call, albeit fallibly and imperfectly.” (pg. 75)
This political witness Smith proposes is encapsulated best in his critique of Kuyperian Sphere Sovereignty:
“To give Caesar what is his is a bit like granting someone the right to occupy a building that has been condemned to demolition, or giving someone currency that is going to be decommissioned in the near future…The question at issue…is not jurisdictional (who rules what?) but temporal (who rules now?).” (pg. 76)
This is all quite clear, up to this point. At the name of Jesus, every knee must bow, and the call of the church is to bring more people into the Kingdom of God. How, then, can we possibly exclude political authorities from such obedience, or order them to privatize their spiritual lives? How can we assent to political habits that deform us from from the image of Jesus? The resurrection of Jesus inaugurated a new kingdom where Evil and Death and Injustice no longer reigns, and in which all nations are called to surrender their authority to the King of Kings.

The question is how. Smith spends the rest of the book exploring some possibilities, but this is where it is least clear. What political order follows the standard of Jesus?

For example, how ought Christians handle pluralism? Smith nuances this question out quite a bit, but the kind of pluralism possibly objectionable to Christians he labels as “directional” pluralism. This pluralism “names ‘the plurality of religions, worldview, or other fundamental spiritual orientations’ that animate people and communities in diverse societies.” (pg. 136)


As one of my teachers often emphasizes, pluralism is first a fact rather than a policy. There are diverse “spiritual orientations,” we simply have to decide what to do with them.


From a Christian perspective, we can’t just shrug our shoulders and surrender to a procedural relativism when we start engaging in the public sphere. What, then, do we do? This is where the books becomes unclear. Smith gives us no final direction, he does not resolve the dispute one way or another. The closest he comes is a sort of, “well, we have to deal with pluralism and allow some form of religious freedom.” The question, of course, is whether that itself is not a deeply formative habit. In other words, when dealing with penultimate political issues, if we must treat all religions equally, will that not deform us, making the sheer exclusivity of Jesus’ claims politically unacceptable, at best, and morally repugnant, at worst? Unfortunately, Smith doesn’t seem to give a clear answer.

Another frustrating part of Smith’s book is his response to the challenge oft-leveled at the Cultural Liturgies project, namely that there are (many) individuals who grew up fully immersed in liturgical Christian worship and are still deformed and passionless about Christianity.

While Smith clearly takes the critique seriously, he fails to give a satisfying answer. In all honesty, it seemed like Smith himself hadn’t decided what to say in response, or how to nuance his project to accommodate. The best of the answer is simply that there are many liturgies in the world, not just Christian ones, and Christian formation requires whole-hearted devotion to Christian liturgies.

Unfortunately, this answer sounds like the apparent failure of liturgy to deform individuals is solved by more liturgy. I do want to emphasize that I highly doubt this is actually Smith’s answer, but it is the way it came across to me in the book, a point that frustrated me a bit.

With all this in mind, then, I finished the book with many questions unanswered, but with a solid theological foundation. In many ways, I believe this is all Smith tried to do. He sketches a political theology that refuses the liberalism and faux-neutrality of post-Lockean democracy, and recognizes the total rule that Christ has over all nations. He does not tell us how to work out this paradox, but perhaps

Perhaps Smith simply wants us to live with our feet firmly planted in the New Creation Jesus inaugurated in his resurrection while surrounded by the Old Creation. Somehow, Christians are called to serve the Lord of Life while immersed in the Kingdom of Death. We cannot pretend to serve only Reason or some Neutral Common Good on election day and worship Jesus on Sunday.

Christians are called to live as citizens of the City of God all the time, where final justice and real peace are postponed till the last days. Yet we are called to be agents of this Kingdom of Light, bringing others into it. We cannot surrender our Christianity when we engage in politics. Instead, while we fight and pray for the peace of the earthly city, we must remember that we are praying to the One who sits on the throne and says, “Behold, I am making all things new.” We pray not for some carnal peace, but for the Kingdom of Life to conquer Death forever. And we pray for our Father, not our President, to make all things new. May we always remember that.


Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review.

2018 Reading Goals

2018 Reading Goals

I suppose this is a bit late, but, as they say, better late than never.

I’m offering my reading goals for 2018 mostly as a form of accountability, to provide the added motivation to follow-through for the few people who read this blog. All in all this comes up to somewhere between 44-48 books, depending on how many books are in the “series” (see below). I’ll probably update this a time or two throughout the year to keep the accountability.

1 series of history books (0/1)

5 classic works of fiction (0/5)

7 modern novels (0/5)

1 collection of poetry (0/1)

1 book on Ancient Rome (0/1)

4 commentaries on biblical books (0/4)

2 books by Augustine (0/3)

3 books by the church fathers (0/3)

1 book by Aquinas (not the Summa) (0/1)

2 books on the history/philosophy of science (0/2)

1 book by Charles Taylor (0/1)

3 book of cultural criticism (not Taylor) (0/1)

1 biography (0/1)

2 classics of devotional literature (0/2)

7 books of biblical studies (1/7)

2 books on Islamic culture, religion, or history (0/2)

1 introductory book on an eastern religion (0/1)

Total: 44-48 books

A Subversive Gospel: Flannery O’Connor and the Reimagining of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth

A Subversive Gospel: Flannery O’Connor and the Reimagining of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth

A few years ago I started blogging through Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. I didn’t get too far and ended up with posts on most of her early stories. These are, of course, the stories that don’t get much airtime. My post on “A Good Man is Hard to Find” being the exception to the rule.

And, funny enough, though I haven’t blogged about her in years, those posts are the only ones that consistently get a decently high number of views. Other than that regular reminder, I hadn’t thought or read much about O’Connor since those posts. Reading Michael Mears Bruner’s new book, A Subversive Gospel: Flannery O’Connor and the Reimagining of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth, reminded me why I loved her so much. The book itself is not, in my opinion, all that great. It makes some interesting points and highlights some theological influences on O’Connor, but ends up repeating established interpretations of O’Connor’s work. Bruner starts right off with his thesis:


“This book makes the argument that, through her fiction, Flannery O’Connor subverted the conventional notions of truth, goodness, and beauty, not merely from a position of Christian dogma but out of an aesthetic impulse.” (pg. 1)

This sounds like a new thesis, but a confusing one at that. The hinge upon which the book stands (it is in the title, after all) is the word “subversive.” Almost halfway through the book Bruner finally defines what he means by subversion:

“contravenes cultural assumptions; uses distortion as a way to create new patterns and modes of reception; always initially resisted; often establishes or codifies new genres; is an implicit critique of the status quo.” (pg. 128)

On this definition, Bruner’s argument boils down to: Flannery O’Connor contravenes common assumptions of truth, goodness, and beauty through displaying the gritty, violent, and ugly way grace breaks into the world. It’s not that this thesis is wrong, it’s simply obvious.

Writing introductions to an author is by no means problematic, but Bruner doesn’t couch his book as an introduction. He acts as if he’s presenting a new thesis when what he’s actually done is rephrase an old one.

Bruner’s original contribution is his examination of Barron von Hügel’s influence on O’Connor. This section frustrated me, though, because it doesn’t shed much light on O’Connor’s fiction. Bruner convinced me that von Hügel did in fact influence O’Connor, but didn’t clarify why this changed things. I’m not against scholarship for scholarship’s sake, but if that was Bruner’s goal it might have helped to clarify that up front.

That’s not to say the book is useless. Some of Bruner’s peripheral insights are brilliant. For example, in one section he highlights O’Connors sympathies and criticisms of Protestant theology:

“With few exceptions, there are also no properly liturgical elements in O’Connor’s stories because there is rarely a church in any of them; and the paradox of ‘overly cognitive’ yet ‘anti-intellectualist’ faith, as Cole puts it, exemplifies Old Mason’s as well as young Francis’ approaches, as representatives of a position that stands over and against the hyperintellectualism of their more urbane relation, George Rayber. An overly cognitive and anti-intellectualist paradoxical approach to faith even describes Haze Motes’s religious impulses, with his desire to establish the Church of Christ Without Christ that stems from a position that is all head and no heart, which is as much a repudiation of Christian praxis as it is of Christian orthodoxy. I am reminded of Chesterton’s paradoxical quip that ‘a madman is not someone who has lost his reason. A madman is someone who has lost everything but his reason.'” (pg. 103)

This is spot on. The characters in O’Connor’s stories almost never encounter Jesus through a doctrinal formulation. In fact, quite often, doctrinal formulations are the enemy. “Good Country People” exemplifies this best, perhaps, with Hulga’s rabid intellectualism blinding her to the seductive and conniving Bible salesman who knocks on the door.

The Grandmother’s theological convictions in her conversation with the Misfit–to reference O’Connor’s most famous work–are not wrong. The Grandmother’s problem is that she managed her whole life to learn quite a lot about Jesus without ever meeting him. When Jesus finally does show up it’s at the end of a shotgun and in a pool of blood.

On this front, O’Connor’s critique could be summarized this way: it’s not that doctrine is wrong, it’s that Protestant theology over-emphasizes the intellectual component of Christianity to the exclusion of the very-much-not intellectual and quite gritty and bodily ways that God communicates grace to his children.

Perhaps this is most apparent in Protestant approaches to the Eucharist, in which the emphasis usually falls on remembering the sacrifice of Jesus, thinking on what he has done for us, rather than on the communication of grace to the individual through the sacrament.

I’m not taking sides in the fight, I’m simply highlighting one of Bruner’s best insights into O’Connor.

Later in the book, Bruner mentions O’Connor’s critique of modernity:

“Whatever violent form her subversive impulses took, such a subversion was, by its very nature, incongruous with modernity’s most cherished and ubiquitous expression of religion, which is some form of providential deism, which states–or more often simply implies–that God’s main purpose is to work for the glory, happiness, and satisfaction of humanity.” (pg. 155)

While this is simple elaboration on O’Connor, it shows the best of Bruner’s book. Unfortunately, he does spend most of the book rehearsing standard interpretations, but he still makes a few brilliant points. It’s not the introduction I would point someone to, but it isn’t bad. If you read it, the best is probably Bruner’s emphasis, near the end, epitomized in the quote above, that O’Connor saw through the thin disguises of modernity and its naturalism to the the Christ-hauntedness of nature. She worked from a conviction that all of reality is sacramental and that Jesus really just might be hiding behind every tree. The modern mind’s radical privatization of faith and ambivalence (or hostility) to the supernatural is real, but it doesn’t stop Jesus from sneaking ever-nearer to human hearts until he finally steps right in, and grace breaks through the cracks of the world.

Rich Mullins said the prairies called out the name of Jesus, and O’Connor would say every human heart is calling out for him too. And she might also say that if we look through the nice, tidy, good veneer everyone puts up, and listen ever so carefully, we just might hear a heart calling out for grace. And we just might hear Jesus sneaking a little bit closer.

On Cosmic Ethics and Proverbial Fish

On Cosmic Ethics and Proverbial Fish

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about ethics and Christianity for several different reasons, but especially because of Reinhold Niebuhr’s An Interpretation of Christian Ethics. In the book, Niebuhr critiques modern moral theory on the grounds of its temporality and inability to incorporate the eternal and infinite into ethics. His approach emphasizes the deep significance of time, temporality and eternity for ethics. Unfortunately, Niebuhr doesn’t develop the reasoning behind this significance as much as I would have liked, but he got me thinking.

The relationship between the eternal and the temporary is a complicated and esoteric one. Perhaps the struggle comes in that we don’t really know what time is, but find ourselves completely bound by it. It is not possible, as far as I know, to really conceive of eternality or even of temporality. We find ourselves as the proverbial fish unable to understand what water is.

Thus, how time and timelessness can impact ethics is an even more difficult matter. Niebuhr, however, cues us onto an answer. He argues that modern moral theory is concerned with this action right here, in other words, it sees the ethical quality of an action as essentially temporal. “All modern moral theory may be briefly described as complacent finiteness.” (pg. 67)

Niebuhr goes on to explain Christianity’s combination of eternality and ethics:

“The distinctive contribution of religion to morality lies in its comprehension of the dimension of depth in life. A secular moral act resolves the conflict of interest and passion, revealed in any immediate situation, by whatever counsels a decent prudence may suggest, the most usual counsel being that of moderation–’in nothing too much.’ A religious morality is constrained by its sense of a dimension of depth to trace every force with which it deals to some ultimate origin and to relate every purpose to some ultimate end. It is concerned not only with immediate values and disvalues, but with the problem of good and evil, not only with immediate objectives, but with ultimate hopes. It is troubled by the question of the primal ‘whence’ and the final ‘wherefore.'” (pg. 5-6)

Enlightenment ethics fits this analysis perfectly. For the two big Enlightenment theories, every action is evaluated purely temporally. Kant tells us to universalize the particular action we are considering, and Mill tells us to predict the consequences of this particular action. They are both unable to transcend this action to locate ethics in some eternal end or purpose. Ethics is a matter of this moment right here.

Kant gives us not a moral rule but a moral method. Mill offers us no ultimate rules but a simple criterion to judge morality by. Mill’s criterion comes close to achieving a telos, but still fails. Maximizing happiness may be a good goal, but still sees happiness as a matter of the temporal and the finite.

What, then, is Niebuhr’s solution to this? How does eternality and temporality affect ethics? Here is where it becomes unclear, at least on my reading. Thus, at this point, I don’t pretend to be offering Niebuhr’s answer, just mine. It seems to me there are two  answers to this.

First, if we assume that virtue ethics is the biblical ethical system (a point Jonathan Pennington defends exegetically) we must recast ethics slightly. Any ethical question is not just a question about this action here but about the habit that this action tends towards. Does this habit cultivate virtue? This approach wisely recognizes that actions are never isolated but connected to each other (a point we’ll come back to), such that one action opens up the way for a broader habit. As all of us who have violated boundaries know, once you’ve broken a rule once it becomes far easier to break it again.

To steal a phrase from Alasdair MacIntyre, an ethical action is a virtue-producing habit extended through time. We are now questioning habits of a lifetime not decisions of a moment. But this still ultimately binds us to temporality. Aristotle, for example, ultimately has no other end goal but happiness. Granted, the way he envisions happiness is certainly not the most un-Christian vision in history, but neither is it quite Christian. Aristotle is not envisioning a lifetime in heaven or the deep, time-transcending happiness that comes from experiencing the love of Jesus.

Christian virtue ethics combines eternity and the temporal in a simple way. Since Jesus, eternity made flesh, is the ultimate moral exemplar that we imitate (imitation being the staple of virtue ethics), we are not just imitating dispositions and habits that are temporally wise. Rather, the ethical Christian life dictates that we imitate the eternal dispositions of God, incarnating them in history as Jesus incarnated them.

This is all over the Biblical text. John is constantly emphasizing that Jesus and God are one, and the way Jesus loved us (dying for us) is the way we should love one another (i.e. imitation of God). In fact, we are to be virtuous, just like God is virtuous (Matt. 5:48).

By imitating God we incarnate his eternal dispositions in the everyday. Thankfully, Jesus has already given us the habits that will inculcate these eternal dispositions in us (serve others, pursue reconciliation, don’t divorce, walk an extra mile, pray in secret, etc.).

The other way one could incorporate time into ethics is likely not what Neibuhr had in mind but my personal favorite. Taking a cue from MacIntyre, we know that any action is only intelligible in the context of a narrative. MacIntyre gives his famous example of a man who, standing next to him at the bus stop, suddenly looks at him and says, “The name of the common wild duck is histrionicus histrionicus histrionicus.” Without a story this action is unintelligible but:

“We would render his action of utterance intelligible if one of the following turned out to be true. He has mistaken me for someone who yesterday had approached him in the library and asked: ‘Do you know the Latin name of the common wild duck?’ Or he has just come from a session with his psychotherapist who has urged him to break down his shyness by talking to strangers. ‘But what shall I say?’ ‘Oh, anything at all.’ Or he is a Soviet spy waiting at a prearranged rendez-vous and uttering the ill-chosen code sentence which will identify him to his contact. In each case the act of utterance becomes intelligible by finding its place in a narrative.” (After Virtue, pg. 210)

Ethics presupposes meaning. The mutterings of a man in a coma have no ethical status. They may be tragic or heartbreaking but one can hardly pretend to assess their moral value. If an action has no purpose or intent it has no moral value.

But as MacIntyre makes clear, only within a narrative can an action have meaning. Modern ethics locates that meaning within some temporal story, but such temporal stories are inadequate. As Niebuhr makes clear, we require a grander story, at some level, to make sense of the world. We need to be dealing with “the primal ‘whence’ and the final ‘wherefore.'” We might say that honesty will bring moral satisfaction (a narrative) but we have to ask why moral satisfaction is really worth anything at all. We ask this not in some annoying philosophical sense–”well why would we even want to be happy at all?”–but simply a question about how we can render the action of moral satisfaction intelligible.

Let me explain: if I ask you for a hammer, that request is only intelligible in light of a narrative. For example, I might be building a house. But why am I building a house? Once again, this only makes sense within a narrative. I would like a place to live. Why would I like a place to live? Eventually we end up, as ancient thinkers have often noted, at the simple desire for happiness. They are right, of course, that it makes no sense to ask personally why you wish to be happy, but it is worth asking why this thing or that thing produces happiness. And, we must ask if there is not some better way to achieve happiness, some greater good that satisfies at a deeper level. Temporal narratives leave us guessing and hoping–”I feel pretty happy right now,” we are forced to say, with no idea whether what we are experiencing is really happiness, if it will really last, or if it is even ethical. We just know it makes me happy.

To solve these problems we need an eternal narrative. We need to know something about the goodness of desire and the possibility of satisfaction. We need to know that we are created to desire all sorts of things–contra many Eastern religions–and that these desires are good and can be satisfied. We also need to know why they can be satisfied–because the Good has created them, and their goodness flows from his nature.

Now are are telling stories, cosmic ones, that give deep meaning to even the simplest of actions. This impacts ethics in all sorts of ways. From a Christian perspective, creation itself is involved in a narrative of recreation, and the evil within reality is not just temporal evil but eternal, cosmic evil. Theft doesn’t just fail a test of universalizability but it actually disorders reality further, fighting against the inevitable New Creation.

Thus every single ethical action, on the Christian stance, either moves us and reality towards the New Creation or away from it. It either reorders reality–perhaps simply by reordering our own hearts–or destabilizes and disorders reality. It either draws us back to our final Good or pulls us away from him forever. For the Christian, ethics is cosmic.

Importantly, this is not just esoteric theologizing. This changes our vision of daily choices. In deciding to yell at my brothers I side with the old world and move myself away from my real good and happiness. I disorder reality just a little bit more for myself and for my brothers.

When tempted to lust I am pulled in two directions: do I destabilize the proper relationships between human beings and turn an eternal soul into a pure object for sexual pleasure, or do I rebel against disordered reality and attempt to incarnate the love of Jesus towards this woman in front of me?

Paul channeled this in Philippians when, confronted with a life in prison and a deep desire to die, brings together eternity and the present: “To live is Christ, and to die is gain.” He describes his inner struggle between being with Jesus and reaming “in the flesh” to help the Philippians. He concludes:

“But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for you progress and joy in the path, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.” (1:24-26)

Paul brilliantly brings together the eternal and the temporal. Remaining the temporal, he says, is necessary for the Philippians “progress and joy in the path” of eternal salvation. All of this will cause the Philippians to glory in the eternal Son of God because Paul is coming to them again soon. Every decision and ethical dilemma Paul presents here locates the meaning, intelligibility, and moral status of the decision in an eternal and temporal narrative.

And so, Niebuhr seems to have put his finger on something important. I’m not happy with any of the thoughts I’ve given here, but they at least have clarified in my mind some of the relationship between time and ethics.