Theology as Retrieval – now available

It is a pleasure to announce that my newest book, Theology as Retrieval: Receiving the Past, Renewing the Church, is now available! You can purchase it through your favorite book-sellers. Here is a link to Amazon.Theology as Retrieval

Writing back cover copy is tricky, and I am glad the good folks at IVPAcademic did such a nice job with ours. Here is a quick glimpse of what my coauthor and I seek to do in the book.

In Theology as Retrieval David Buschart and Kent Eilers show that retrieving the Christian past is a mode of theological discernment, a cultivated habit of thought that looks back in order to move forward. Surveying six areas where the impulse and practice of retrieval has been notably fruitful and suggestive, they explore and offer constructive and programmatic proposals for theological reflection, practice and hope.

The six areas are Holy Scripture, theology, worship, spirituality, mission and cosmos (“cosmos” is shorthand for the bold vision of Radical Orthodoxy). Buy the book, and let’s have a conversation about it here on TF!

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert and Milton: a brief review

Crossway are publishing Devo poetryChristian Guides to the Classics, a series of compendia to classic literature by Leland Ryken, who served as professor of English at Wheaton College and is known in biblical studies and Christian thought for books like Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (co-ed.) and Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were. A number of famous works, like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Homer’s The Odyssey, have been treated in the series, and this volume breaks the mold by focusing on three different authors and some of their various lyric poems. As someone who is now ever immersed in analyzing the details of scholastic theology (which can indeed be edifying if done properly!), I find this sort of work a welcome change of pace, a helpful way to counterbalance some of the other reading that occupies my time.

Ryken begins by sketching some fundamental traits of lyric poems, particularly their subjectivity: ‘Lyric poets speak directly instead of projecting their thoughts and feelings onto characters in a story.’ As to their form, the poems considered here are sonnets in which there is a ‘statement of the controlling theme’, a ‘development of the controlling theme’ and a ‘resolution or rounding off the poem with a note of finality and closure’ (p. 8). What makes the character of these short works to be ‘devotional’ is that they have ‘Christian experience and doctrine as [their] subject matter’. The effect of devotional poetry is thus ‘to increase one’s commitment to God and the godly life’, but with a greater density of content and a higher artistry than our typical devotional reading (p. 13).

As Ryken proceeds through the different sections, he gives a one-page biography of each poet. John Donne was Roman Catholic and converted to Anglicanism, preaching, in Ryken’s words, ‘ostentatious, highly literary sermons to the intellectual elite of London society’ (p. 15). By contrast, George Herbert was an Anglican minister in a small village. He ‘polished his lone collection of poems privately, and on his deathbed he handed the volume over to his friend Nicholas Ferrar’ (p. 47). Different still was John Milton, a Puritan spokesman and political figure who in his poetry ‘cultivated what is called the high style’. While Donne and Herbert ‘wrote in a middle style…Milton wanted the grand effect’ (p. 75).

For each of these authors’ poems, Ryken provides a short introduction, a lightly annotated text, a commentary and finally a few questions for further discussion. Ryken’s stated goal is not to ‘[tear] the poem apart’ but rather to ‘explicate’ it in such a way that readers ‘are putting the poem together in approximately the same way that the poet followed when composing the poem’ (p. 9). In other words, one should still be able to derive aesthetic enjoyment and spiritual benefit from these small works in the midst of the analysis. The examination of each poem is brief and doesn’t take the reader into painstaking detail, which certainly helps to keep the problem of ‘tearing apart the poem’ at bay. Because of this, the book can serve to educate readers on literary dynamics of some classic works and also still function as a spiritual resource. In a perfect world, there might have been a way to give the text of each poem its own distinct page so that a reader could more easily contemplate the poem itself without their eyes being drawn up to the introduction or down to the commentary. However, that’s a relatively small issue in the end. On the whole, this is a sharp little book written in a helpfully straightforward style and attentive to both the literary and spiritual dimensions of devotional poetry.

Since we’ve just celebrated Easter, here is one sample from Donne:

Death, Be Not Proud

Death, be not proud though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,

Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,

And soonest our best men with thee doth go,

Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.

Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,

And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,

And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well,

And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

New creation and ‘Gnosticism': à Brakel once more

a brakelAside from frustrations experienced when someone advocates a pretribulational rapture, I would consider myself someone who doesn’t get riled up about eschatology very easily. Christ will return, and the dead shall rise (1 Thess. 4:13-18). Christ will judge all, and God will bring creation out of its bondage to decay so that all those whose names are written in the book of life will dwell there with God forever (Rev. 20:11-15; 21-22). These are central to our Christian hope. Yet, there are still interesting questions to be discussed in the ambit of the main concerns.

In reading through à Brakel’s The Christian’s Reasonable Service, I came across his discussion of the nature of the new creation and paused for some reflection. Will this heaven and earth be purged of sin and death and restored by God, or will God annihilate the current creation and start over completely? According to à Brakel, respectable folk can disagree on this one, but he provides some compelling reasons to hold that the ‘structural edifice’ or ‘substance’ of the current heavens and the earth will remain and simply be purged and restored to a right condition.

These reasons include: (1) Peter expects restoration (apokatastasis) in Acts 3:21. (2) Paul’s reference to the ‘whole creation’ in Romans 8:18-25 is broader than the company of Christian believers, and the ‘whole creation’ is to be delivered, not annihilated. (3) The ‘folding up’ and ‘changing’ of creation in Psalm 102 and Hebrews 1 assumes that what is changed ‘continues to exist in essence’. (4) Peter (2 Pet. 3) likens the destruction of creation to the perishing of the old world in the flood of Noah, which was not an annihilation of all things (4:353-5). Because of Revelation 21:1, à Brakel is prepared to allow that the sea may be omitted from the new creation, but even here ‘[w]hether this refers to substance or characteristics, we shall leave unanswered’ (4:355). Indeed, there’s quite a lot that à Brakel is prepared to leave ‘unanswered’: Continue reading

Spiritual darkness and ‘keeping a low profile’

a brakelSpiritual darkness is something that affects – or at least can affect – all Christian believers. It may develop as a result of a particular affliction (Lord, why this?), or it may be difficult to link to any one issue in life. It comes in the form of seemingly inexplicable feelings of doubt, loss of joy, loss of clarity about spiritual matters and so on. It is likely running its course in the lives of quite a few in our own churches.

Thankfully, this is something addressed with specificity and pastoral insight by the Dutch Reformed minister Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635-1711) in his excellent work The Christian’s Reasonable Service (4 vols with Reformation Heritage Books). After serving churches for forty years, à Brakel published this gem that not only covers topics commonly found in systematic theologies but also addresses many of the Christian’s immediately practical concerns.

He defines ‘spiritual darkness’ in this way: it is a ‘spiritual disease of a person who has made some progress in the Christian life’ in which that person faces ‘the absence of the normal illuminating influences of the Holy Spirit’ and is ‘without joy, warmth, and direction’. Such a person ‘lives in fear and anxiety, causing him to wander about aimlessly, as in a desert’ (4:260). It’s difficult to provide more precision in defining this phenomenon, but I think, as they say, we’ll know it when we see it. According to à Brakel, spiritual darkness is manifested in sorrow, even in ‘fleeting atheistic thoughts’ and temptations to err in doctrine and practice. In another respect, it is like being cold: ‘During the winters and beneath the pole-caps everything becomes immobile due to the frost’ (4:261-2).

What are the causes for this darkness? Whether because he is dealing more narrowly with strictly spiritual darkness and/or because it simply wasn’t on his radar, à Brakel doesn’t deal here with depression influenced by bodily issues. Suffice it to say, for my part, I believe spiritual darkness, physiology and even what we often call ‘personality’ (or personality type) can be intertwined. In any event, à Brakel names several potential causes for spiritual darkness:

Continue reading

Lament as Compassionate Protest

Christians don’t lament well. I am more convinced of this all the time. We know how to complain Printbut not so much how to lament. We lack the training in it for certain, but even when we try we can’t muster any energy for it without guilt. Guilt because we think we should have a cheerier disposition as evidence of our faith. Everything will be okay because God’s “in control”, right? We suspect that lament shows a lack of faith.

Guilt is not our only hang-up. I once spoke to a group of university students about Christian responses to evil, and I suggested that our first response is silence, followed by lament. I couldn’t read everyone’s response, the evening crowd had swelled beyond the capacity of the recital hall, but follow-up conversations showed another hindrance to lament: the perception of inactivity. Lament seemed too inactive, too passive for my advocacy-minded students. Where is the courage in lament? Where is the resistance? Where is the protest?

Todd Billings’ new book Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ  (Brazos: 2015) is a desperately-needed primer on the language of lament as a feature of Christian life. It arose from Todd’s journey through his diagnosis and treatment of incurable cancer, and it has much to say to any of us painfully aware that things in our world are not as they should be. If its not cancer, then it is surely something else; none of us are immune from pain. How do we lament without guilt and without passivity?

Other reviewers in this blog tour have overviewed the book (read those here). I will focus more narrowly on Todd’s portrayal of lament as “compassionate protest”.

Lament names the world as it stands: broken, yet in the process of renewal as the kingdom of God expands within it. New Testament lament is found on the lips of Jesus, “May your kingdom come.” It is not a throw-away line. Praying “may your kingdom come” identifies – without flinching or hesitation – how things really are. There are dark, incomplete places in our midst in which your kingdom does not seem present; so we cry for the kingdom and in doing so lament its apparent absence. Children are sold into sex-slavery – “may your Kingdom come.” Totalitarian governments slaughter their own people – “may your kingdom come.” The earth groans under the weight of our misuse of it – “may your kingdom come.” Cancer ravages our bodies – “may your kingdom come.”

Passivity and inactivity could not be farther from such kingdom-oriented lament. It names our broken world in the same breath that it cries out for renewal and liberation. Such lament calls for action, and not only for God’s action but for mine. It calls for leaping into the wake of new creation as participants in Christ’s kingdom drama! “As our lips say, “Thy kingdom come,” Todd explains, “we pray―we act―as revolutionaries who protest against the darkness in this “present evil age” (Gal. 1:4). Lament of this sort propels us into the fray even as it calls on God to remain faithful to his promises.

Our restless prayers of lament go hand in hand with compassionate protest until Christ’s kingdom has fully come…Until then, we protest against God’s enemies―death, sin, and the devil―as we bear witness to the present and future King, our God―Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

We need to learn this language of lament. We need to learn it for the sake of our wrestles with pain, and for the sake of our companionship with others in pain. We have to learn the ways of unflinchingly naming our brokenness, our groaning, even as we unflinchingly call God to account. “God, remain faithful to your promise of renewal; may your Kingdom come!”

Todd would be the first to say that his language for lament isn’t his own. He learned it in the same place that we can, even if our journey doesn’t include cancer. In the Psalms we find the pattern for lamenting as our true selves. There we find the deep pattern of Jesus’ own prayers. He writes,

In lament we are confused, angry, and grieving people. But we are not just that. We have been given the script of the Psalms for playing our part in the drama: we are confused, angry, and grieving people who have been given the privilege of crying out to the Lord as his covenant people. Indeed, we are actors who have been clothed with Christ by the Spirit in the theater of God’s drama. Because of this, we can openly admit our confusion, anger, and grief without worrying that it will be the last word about who we are.”

Thank you Todd for reminding us, with the vision of this book and the testimony of your life, that lament isn’t cause for guilt, nor is it passive. Your book is a gift to the church. May we, like you, fall in step with the Psalmist: “Pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us” (Ps. 62:8).

Rejoicing in Lament

I love recommending books. One of the main reasons, I suppose, is that I read a lot. But more than that, I have been incredibly blessed by key books suggested to me at important times in my life. As an author myself, I am amazed to hear when someone around the world reads something I wrote years earlier, and that my words somehow spoke deeply to them. But rarely do I say what I am about to about a book. If I were a pastor, I would want my entire congregation to read J. Todd Billings’ new book, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ (Brazos Press, 2015). It is just that good, and just that pastorally important.Print

There are several things that make this book unique, not the least of which is that Todd really understands the key theological issues behind hard questions. More than that though, this is a book that wrestled through life with God in the toughest times, from someone who has had to walk through those times. Todd was diagnosed with incurable cancer, multiple myeloma to be exact, and has had to walk through the difficult questions that arise when life takes such a hard turn. There is so much to say about why this book is so great, but let me focus on the two key reasons I would want (and do want) everyone in my church to read it.

First, Todd addresses the unfortunate things Christians say to each other when things go wrong. Throughout the book we are given glimpses into the heart of someone who is facing death, and having Christians say the exact opposite of what he needed to hear, and, equally important, what is theologically accurate. You may think the latter is less serious, but it isn’t. Theological accuracy is especially important in times of trial. We need to be attuned to the kind of God we have – the reality of God with us – and the nature of the Christian life with this God. It is in times of trial that our vision of the Christian life is exposed for what it really is. And on a more personal note, I have watched Todd walk through this cancer from afar, and have been so blessed by his posture in the midst of it all. Here is someone who speaks with such incredible depth about life with God in the midst of suffering, that this should be standard reading for all Christians, because all Christians walk alongside, and sometimes are, those who suffer.

The second point of emphasis is Todd’s discussion of Lament. Lament is one of the lost arts of the Christian life. When confronted with evil and suffering, we often turn to a Stoic response, thinking that faithfulness entails suppressing our emotions, or we simply try to “solve” the problem of suffering to get God off the hook. Rarely, I think, do we become interested in solving the problem of suffering when we are in the midst of it. There, in that place, we turn our sights on God, often wondering why he isn’t showing up, or, perhaps, why he is doing this to us. Todd does a wonderful job of unraveling the issues related to suffering and suggesting another way forward (a much better way, in my mind). In lament, what we are offered is a way to cry out to God by following the example of the Psalmists who train us in this way of prayer. Rather than just complaining, lament is grounded in hope. Lament is fueled by hope in God, and a deep trust of his faithfulness and promises. One of the hidden realities of lament is that it gives us the freedom to hate what God hates, to name evil as evil, rather than, as we often do, put up with evil because we think a sovereign God must be enacting it. This is one of the many subtle lies that Todd exorcises in this book, but it is also, in my mind, one of the most important.

At the heart of our response to God in suffering is our view of God, and our view of how God relates to his creation. We often fall victim to superficial views on both of these points, and when we are hit with suffering our faith takes a blow that many don’t recover from. The reason I want our churches to read this book is that we need to be a people who can come alongside the suffering with real pastoral care. Too often people are told false things about God’s action, or are told that they can demand healing, or if only they had enough faith God would heal them. Too often we add spiritual and emotional abuse on top of suffering because we haven’t bothered to think well of these things. What Todd offers us is a theologically rich book that can guide us through these topics with wisdom, sensitivity and depth. This book is such a gift to the church; it is a well-written book on a tough issue, where Todd’s theological acumen comes through, but it comes through using his own suffering as the place to learn about God’s activity among his people. This book is, truly, one of the most important pastoral texts of theology I’ve ever read. We need to be a people who can care for those in pain. We need to understand the God of the psalmists who prods us to lift our suffering to him in lament. Read this book, you will not regret it.

To hear from Todd himself about the book, click here to see some videos.

To read more on the book, click here.

Theology for Interpreting Reality (3)

The purposes of theology I am introducing in this series overlap significantly in many cases. The relation between this one and the previous, theology for liberating, illustrates the point. Often to move the Church toward liberation, theology paints a vision of reality such that injustice stands out for what it is. For instance, in Elizabeth Gerhardt’s new book The Cross and Gendercide she argues that the Church’s response to global, systemic violence against women must be rooted in a theology of the cross: “a theological foundation of the cross offers an orientation centered on an incarnational Christ as the pivotal point in the church’s care for the other…A theology of the cross is our lens for seeing more clearly the call God has for our lives and on our churches” (pp. 27, 32). Theology for interpreting reality paints a particular picture of the ways things are—it orients according to a particular narrative—so that the Church sees herself and the cosmos truly, that is according to what Christians believe is fundamental to the way things are at their most basic.

Such a particular picture directs action. Consider Bonhoeffer:

The kind of thinking that starts out from human problems and then looks for solutions from that vantage point, has to be overcome – it is unbiblical. The way of Jesus Christ, and thus the way of all Christian thought, is not the way from the world to God but from God to the world. This means that the essence of the gospel does not consist in solving worldly problems, and also that this cannot be the essential task of the church. However, it does not follow from this that the church would have no task in this regard. But we will not recognize its legitimate task unless we first find the correct starting point (Ethics, Works, Vol. 6, p. 336)

cosmosHere is my pocket edition:

We are presented with a cosmos full of things, beings, and events. We also know our inner world, our inner life – even if we only know it in part. How do we make sense of ourselves and the world in which we live: jobs, kids, nations, trees, rabbits, joy, self-doubt, violence, etc.? What does it all mean? Theology serves the interpretation of all things in terms of their relation to God. For example, a tree is not only a living organism but a creation of the triune God, part of his good world, tainted by sin, though destined for redemption in the Kingdom of God. That tree is not just a tree! And art is not just art, and culture is not just culture, and our bodies are not just collections  of physical material—we are not merely members of the species homo sapiens. We are the crown of God’s good making, image-bearers called to steward and tend the garden of God’s world and destined for participation in God’s fellowship. Christians have sometimes called this “viewing the world Coram Deo”, the world as it is before the face of God. Theology serves this.