Book Review: Desiring the Kingdom

For those of you who have been following, I have offered some interaction with Jamie Smith’s new volume Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation in previous posts (here, here and here). After these superficial looks, I do something closer to a robust book review here. I think Smith makes some important points, and deals with some strands of scholarship often ignored in evangelicalism, and for that reason alone I think his volume is a worthwhile engagement. Furthermore, in my own ideological moorings of spiritual formation, Smith raises language, concepts and issues that either need to be dealt with, accepted or engaged.

Importantly, as we look at Smith’s work, it should be kept in mind that this is only the first volume in a trilogy, therefore some of our interaction will simply be highlighting issues he has yet to address. In this volume, Smith seeks to primarily address the issues of Christian education, casting a new vision of what that entails, but hopes to secondarily (what he calls “collateral impact”) address church practices and orientation towards formation. In his words,

In short, the goal is to push down through worldview to worship as the matrix from which a Christian worldview is born – and to consider what that means for the task of Christian education and the shape of Christian worship. This doesn’t require rejecting worldview-talk, only situating it in relation to Christian practices, particularly the practices of Christian worship” (11).

The critique of worldview discussion is navigated by his employment of a counter-anthropology. Continue reading

A Question of Personhood

I have been thinking about the issues of personhood a lot these days – mostly through Jonathan Edwards – and how one’s understanding of what a person is, and what “human” entails, often does a lot of work in one’s theology. In an attempt to feed my inquiry, Oxford was kind enough to send me Lucian Turcescu’s Gregory of Nyssa and the Concept of Divine Persons. I would like to use some of Turcescu’s reflections on Gregory to talk a bit more broadly about the concept of personhood and how it functions theologically. Taking a look at Gregory of Nyssa will hopefully prove instructive as more and more theologians scan the horizon of Cappadocian theology for answers concerning trinitarian personhood and theology.

To begin, Turcescu offers a broad definition of a person: “A person is ‘an indivisible, unique and therefore non-replicable unity in human existence.’” He, furthermore, suggests that prior to the Cappadocian work on the Trinity there was not a notion of “person” in circulation. Therefore, it is a mistake to assume modern beliefs about willing personal agents and apply that wholesale as a starting assumption. Starting with God for instance, Turcescu suggests that it would be tautological to speak of free will in God for the Cappadocians. Continue reading

Reading Visual Art as Theological Text

What would it mean to read visual art as theological text?

I have been increasingly interested in the intersection between aesthetic and conceptual The Beauty of the Crosstheology, and given that interest I was supremely delighted with Richard Viladesau’s two volumes The Beauty of the Cross and The Triumph of the Cross (many thanks to Oxford University Press for review copies).

The books are, on Viladesau’s own confession, a project in systematic theology that explore the ‘historical themes, ideas and images that are the necessary background to a contemporary theology of the cross’ (viii). Beginning with earliest Christian visual representations of the cross in the catacombs up through the hymns and art of the Counter Reformation, Viladesau correlates different theological paradigms of interpretation of the cross with artistic styles that illustrate or parallel theological attitudes.triumph_of_cross

Throughout the two volumes Viladesau’s analysis moves smoothly both ways: looking for how the theological attitudes and convictions of a given period influenced the artistic representations of the cross and how the affective and communicative images of a time impacted explicit systematic thought.

An example with several images might be helpful (one I use to introduce students to the importance of considering visual representations of the cross).

Where is the Victorious Christ?

In one of the earliest depictions of the crucified Christ, a 5th century ivory casket panel now in the British museum (at right), Jesus is depicted both carrying and cross and crucified. Continue reading

What Makes an Evangelical? Reconsidering Bebbington’s Rule

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David Bebbington’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (Routledge, 1989) was a compelling account of the history of the evangelical movement in the modern era. In it he traces the development of evangelical Christianity and marks out what has been for some time a widely accepted version of its distinguishing marks: conversionism, activism, biblicism, crucicentrism.

Yet, Bebbington’s quadrilateral rule has not been without its detractors, and his contention that evangelical Christianity arose in the eighteenth century era of Whitefield and Wesley has been questioned by a growing number of historians – that it was not so novel as Bebbington asserts.  In this book, The Advent of Evangelicalism, Bebbington’s definition receives close analysis and critical engagement from various church historians and theologians such as Timothy George, Paul Helm, and Timothy Larson (to name only a few, this is a thick collection. Many thanks to B&H for the review Copy).

Underlying all the essays here – including Bebbington’s own response to them – is a fundamental (and I think relevant) question: “to what extent does evangelicalism of modern/postmodern times represent continuity and discontinuity with the preceding Christian story” (p. 14). Continue reading

Divine Teaching: Part 3

McIntosh moves into the second part of his volume by grounding his theological endeavor in salvation. He maps the options by posing either the order of knowing or the order of being. He then offers his rationale for beginning with salvation:

Christians believe that the place where our way of knowing and God’s way of being most intimately encounter one another, so that our knowing is transformed, is in Jesus by the Holy Spirit. This is so, first, in the sense that our human way of knowing is, in Christ, taken up into a particular divine way of being, and second, in the sense that as people encounter Jesus in various ways, their forms of knowing are transformed” (59).

Moving in this fashion allows McIntosh to dive into Christology through some low-flying biblical exegesis and discussion, noting that, “the act of salvation becomes the lens by which everything else is perceived and understood” (65). Something I’ve meant to say earlier, which just occurs to me as I’m reading through this section, is how excellent a volume this really is. McIntosh is truly gifted with conceptual clarity, the ability to use graphs, charts and diagrams, not to mention analogies and metaphors, to actually clarify, instead of using them as I do, where I merely muddy the water of even the clearest of issues! Continue reading

Jonathan Edwards and the Philosophy of History: Part 2

Picking up where we left off, I start the major section of the work, entitled simply “Time.” Zakai places Edwards in a day divided by biblical-centric evangelicals focusing their intellectual capacities on religious experience, while the world increased in scientific and philosophical imagination. Zakai offers some explanation:

One of the main reasons for the growing privatization of religious life and experience was that during the eighteenth century the Christian theological and teleological explanation of the nature of reality had steadily declined in persuasiveness because of the attraction of scientific thought in interpreting the nature of the material world and the influence of the British school of moral sense, which developed the rationalistic idea of disinterested benevolence as the criterion for moral judgment” (135).

This age saw a major conflict between reason and revelation, the former taking precedent and the latter being dethroned from its former glory. As a helpful summary, Zakai states, “The disenchantment of the world led therefore to the reenchantment of the soul, or the heart, as the main locus of religious life and experience” (136). It is here where Zakai slowly turns his attention to the Holy Grail of Edwards studies – Continue reading

Divine Teaching: Part Two

McIntosh continues on by addressing Christian belief. He states, “By now it should be abundantly clear, Mark_McIntosh_PhDas I tried to warn you at the beginning of this book, how weak and hapless a thing theology really is in and of itself – apart, that is, from its divine source. And here will come the first critical test for a would-be theologian. For the pressure of wanting to have something under our control, something that we can really say for ourselves – and feel as though we know what we’re talking about – this pressure is going to entice would-be theologians into taking matters into their own hands” (33).

This is something we’ve mused on a lot here at Theology Forum, and I personally find it really refreshing in an intro textbook. McIntosh warns that this impulse or temptation can become a way of holding God at bay, of controlling this wholly free being by our use of language and concepts. Wisdom seems to be McIntosh’s preferred register to navigate these theological temptations. McIntosh notes, “In saying that theology is a kind of wisdom, I am saying that it is possible for God to befriend the human mind well enough for human thinking, so to speak, to lean on the divine mind” (35).

McIntosh, continuing to impress, pushes ahead by putting Origin, Aquinas and Barth in parallel (with large brush strokes), helping the reader to grasp the dogmatic flow (and content) of their respective approaches to theology. Continue reading