Who knew there was another Littleton somewhere in the United States concerned about the current condition of the Southern Baptist Convention and its future? I didn’t. To say that we see things differently would not be distinctive enough. Read More
We like to tame our theologians. We fit them into our own matrix of orthodoxy and then lay claim to be an heir. Scot McKnight recently offered a review of Molly Worthen’s, Apostle’s of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. He posted a second installment yesterday. I look forward to reading Worthen’s book having read Richard Quebedeaux’s, The Young Evangelicals and Robert Webber’s, The Younger Evangelicals. Molly appears to cover similar ground with a different exploration in mind. Al Mohler writes that Evangelicals need to reckon with this book.
What is the big deal? Evangelicals, and frankly most human beings share this trait, have a penchant for tribalism. Protecting turf is no small polemical sport. Just today David Fitch calls attention to this feature as he quoted Hauerwas,
When protestantism became an end itself, not a protest movement but a denominational choice, we became unintelligible to ourselves. Hauerwas
— David Fitch (@fitchest) December 5, 2013
Bolstering our tribes’ historical and intellectual capital often trades in locating the thread of a preferred Who’s Who’s theology that fits neatly into its trendy theological currents. There is little comment, or more likely a rationalization, when it is discovered that same Who’s Who also wrote something that would scandalize the tribes’ neat system.
The recent Evangelical Theological Society meeting that included a panel on Inerrancy, as reported by Michael Bird and Pete Enns, provided anecdotal evidence that the decision to oust Robert Gundry by the ETS may not have come so quickly had everyone acknowledged what is now known, there is no universally accepted definition for inerrancy despite the CSBI of 1978. These five guys, smart ones at that, did not all agree. Oh no, pluralism over inerrancy. Will the Evangelical House crumble?
We do face plurality in the way theologians are read and appropriated. Consider the 50th anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis. One could not escape reading C.S. Lewis quotes on that day. Many Evangelicals quote C.S. Lewis. That is until he is used by a theological opponent. Think about the debate over Lewis in the aftermath of Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins. The debate turned to center on Lewis’ context by some as a means to distinguish how one group read Lewis over another group. Some Evangelicals love Mere Christianity but do not talk much about A Grief Observed. Unless of course it is used to distance oneself from some of Lewis’ other ideas. This brings me to Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Chad Lakies’ recent piece at The Church and Postmodern Culture by Baker Academic titled, Paradox of Loneliness in the Midst of Community, caught my attention when he noted there is more to Bonhoeffer than The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together.
From the confines of Tegel prison in Berlin, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned these moving words to his family:
It’s remarkable how we think at such times about the people that we should not like to live without, and almost or entirely forget about ourselves. It is only then that we feel how closely our own lives are bound up with other people’s, and in fact how the center of our own lives is outside of ourselves, and how little we are separate entities. The ‘as though it were a part of me’ is perfectly true, as I have often felt after hearing that one of my colleagues or pupils had been killed. I think it is a literal fact of nature that human life extends far beyond our physical existence. (Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison) (Image – “Three Alone But Together” – Carmen Guedez)
I often think that only a mother could understand these words fully, but then I must remember than Bonhoeffer was never even married, much less experienced the blessing of his own children. Bonhoeffer, who has been described as an ad hoc phenomenologist, had a unique and penetrating way of speaking about the experiences of the Christian life. While many readers of Bonhoeffer pay attention only to The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together or perhaps a devotional work that cobbles together some of his writings, most never delve deeper into any of his other material. Theological students may read his very short book on the Psalmsor his treatment of Genesis 1-3, or even try to get through his Ethics. Perhaps they will read some of his sermons which are becoming more widely available. But most will never read his earliest works which set the stage for everything that is to come: his doctoral dissertation, published as Sanctorum Communio and his habilitation, published as Act and Being. In those texts Bonhoeffer laid a theological and philosophical foundation for his work that he would never stray from. Thus when we read his later and more well known works that are the favorites in the church, and for our purposes, the words above, we must recognize Bonhoeffer’s deep sensitivity to the social constitution of human life.
I shared Lakies’ article on my Facebook Wall and my friend Guy replied,
Guy Rittger Thought provoking reading, to be sure. Reminded me that it’s time to revisit Bonhoeffer, whose words and actions are no less relevant today than they were in his lifetime. In this respect, I think the article needed a bit of historical contextualization, both of the circumstances under which Bonhoeffer’s ideas developed, as well as of our own circumstances – i.e., the materialist dimension is missing for me, or perhaps not as explicitly articulated as I believe is needed. We can’t overlook how loneliness can emerge when one finds oneself isolated intellectually / spiritually within a dominant ideology fundamentally in conflict with one’s own deepest beliefs and desires. This certainly isn’t new, of course. And perhaps it’s precisely in those / these times that one needs to engage with greater frequency and intensity with those of like mind / spirit.
Guy considers Lakies’ article good but in need of contextualization. He added, “the materialist dimension is missing for me.” Most of us never pause to question any issue of materiality when reading Bonhoeffer. But, Guy picks up on a very important reading of Bonhoeffer that seems to be quite apropos for today.
I thought of Tripp Fuller describing the way Bonhoeffer is read by various theological streams, including Radical Theology. Maybe we should read all of our theologians through other lenses to capture the robust ways they may both influence us and call our givens into question. It could be quite disruptive. But, it could be beautifully zesty too.
Could it be decades, or more, of talking only about that for which we look for after this life cheapens the gift of life itself? I think so.
Yesterday I noted how Phyllis Tickle viewed the Christian handling of slavery, and segregation, to be its own assault on Inerrancy. I have been cogitating on her analysis.
Reading the Gospel passage for the Third Sunday after Epiphany left me wondering if the assaults on Inerrancy are more a matter of practice that betrays belief. Even more I considered the possibility that we impose our practice back onto the text in something of a violent move against its Sacredness. When we champion our belief that is betrayed by our action, we simply become ideologues.
Luke 4 gives us the episode of Jesus in the Temple reading from the Isaiah scroll. Reading Jesus’ assertion that the portion read was fulfilled in their hearing invites us to ask just what was itself fulfilled. Is the reference to Jesus’ declaration of Good News or to the reality that would come to the poor, captive, blind, and oppressed through Jesus the promised anointed One?
Framed another way, is Jesus pointing to a future immaterial reality where the categories in the text will no longer define people in the salvation to come as a result of his announcement? Or, is Jesus asserting a change in the order of material reality, life now, that promotes the hope that the categories may be transcended by a new way of being in the world – and abundant life – forged by his very own life?
Socially conscious Christians point to this text as the inspiration for work among people who are described by the text explicitly and implicitly. This would represent an insistence on the material reality, the lived experience, of the life Jesus claims to bring. The one that wells up within us, that quenches thirst, which overflows the limited experiences often fraught with life’s perils. Certainly there have been those who pushed so hard in this direction it seemed the aim was to eradicate the social ills without addressing the need for human discipleship to do in the world the things that Jesus does. Is this a reference to disciples making disciples who would do greater things than these?
Another vision dependent on an eschatology of demise considers any material efforts a waste of time since the life Jesus describes could never overtake the darkness of a world whose vision is so marred it could not possibly bring about the sort that would bring and end to the way humans treat each other producing the poor, captive, blind, and oppressed. Or, Jesus offers a great message but it will only be realized in the life to come so we ought only point people there. Those who inhabit this side, of my admittedly risky binary, point to Luke 19 as the end to which we ought pursue.
Many would rightly assert we should overtake the binary with a both/and. Except the current vocabulary appears so narrowly defined that it sets up the two resultant camps. For instance, Gospel is now an adjective assigning orthodoxy to everything from preaching to parenting. The question begged is orthodox what? If somehow the human action does not explicitly speak of or promote a particular view of the work of Jesus then it is not Gospel? Are we to make what we preach or say about parenting, church planting, spousal relationships, etc., more important than the fruit produced by the disciples’ life that unquestionably points to the Way of Jesus? The way the matter is written and spoken of insists you cannot get the cart before the horse. We must say the right things before we do the right things. Or so it seems.
One attempt to clarify has been to talk about the Gospel and the implications of the Gospel. So, Jesus’ acceptance as the vision of the anointed One to come is the Gospel and the implications of the Gospel come to the poor, captive, blind, and oppressed? Except that had Jesus not tied the two inexorably, he could have easily only quoted the portion that identified himself as the anointed One, only. He often practices quoting bits and not long texts. The sorts of implications described cannot somehow, by our straining, be removed from what is indeed described as Good News out of fear of human agency. We cannot separate the person and the work, correct?
Jesus did not seem to fear human means. In fact, unless we do something interesting with our Christology, we have to recognize the very way Jesus shows us how human agency comes under the influence and power of the Spirit so that what we do may be construed to be the very will of God. I realize that is fine for many when we look to Jesus. But, what is insisted today is that a proper verbiage is needed to verify the same in our own lives. Forget that our lives do not produce the material vision cast by Luke 4 so long as we speak what we should.
The culprit seems to be an eschatology of demise. It is very simple. This material reality holds no hope. Our aim is to get as many people looking to the next life so we should not spend our time creating the atmosphere for improved lives here and now. Jesus seems to undermine that very thing when the focus of his teaching, the majority of words uttered, pertain to this life and not the next.
I like what Shane Hipps does to make this point. He writes,
Not only that [Jesus did not talk much about what happens when we die.], Jesus got to peak behind the curtain. He actually died. We’re talking three days dead. He spent a long weekend in the afterlife and lived to tell the story. People in our culture die for a few minutes on an operating table and go on to write entire bestselling books about the experience. But Jesus? He spent three whole days in that place and when he returned here’s what he had to say about it.
Nothing. Nada. Zip.
What did he talk about when he came back after death? Here is just a sampling: He tells his disciples to make students of him (see Matthew 28:16); . . .. (Selling Water,p.186-7)
Our calls to value life appear hollow when we look on the gift of this life as little more than that to be endured until the next. It really seems to actually rob God of his glory that we would prefer the next while not appreciating this one – the very one Jesus said he came to fill up. And, more, when we witness the poor, captive, blind, and oppressed to not do much at all but tell them about a future life seems vacuous of the compassion of Jesus, an affront to his work, and a resistance to his teaching – a denial of the Gospel.
All of which is duly noted in the Sacred Text.