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!

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).

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.

Theology for Liberating (2)

The second purpose of theology (not in order of priority; and not necessarily conceptually) is theology for liberating – theology as prophetic witness:martin-luther-king

The world is not as it should be – we all know this, and theologians help the church remember how to say why this is so and what should be done. They name the dark, broken places within our own communities and outside them within our cultures, then they call the Church to follow the Spirit there. Theology for liberation is unflinching – it names the darkness in our midst and calls us into the wake of new creation that flows into those dark, incomplete, groaning places. “Liberation theology” may be a term from the twentieth century, but theology practiced for the purpose of liberation is not a twentieth century invention. Certainly when Martin Luther King preached he was practicing theology for liberation, no less Gutierrez or Cone. But they followed the lead of Moses, Isaiah, and Jesus. Moses, perhaps the first liberation theologian: “leave the corners of your field for the poor and the alien.” Isaiah: “Oh Israel, God will judge you for your injustice! You have forgotten the needy among you for the sake of your empty rituals!” And Jesus, who welcomed women, ate with the least, and called his followers to do likewise. When theology serves liberation it calls attention to the injustice and brokenness of our current situation, communities, and lifestyles. It doesn’t relent, it says the difficult words.

Theology for Worship & Preaching (1)

Two caveats. First, I am not making any effort to place the purposes of theology in order of importance. Yet, thinking about where to start, if theology is a practice of the Christian life – first and foremost – then its relation to the church’s worship and preaching would be pretty near the center. AlleluiaSecond, theologians are often not very good at being brief, so I am aiming for brevity. The guide should be something small that easily “slips into your pocket” (remember Augustine’s Enchiridion?).

Enough prelude. Purpose 1: Theology serves the Church’s preaching and worship.

Theology serves worship and preaching when it deepens and expands our comprehension of God’s majesty and the Gospel. Theology serves the cultivation of our amazement in the face of the triune God as he is approached in the Church’s singing, praying, celebration of the sacraments, and hearing of the Word of God in Scripture. Theology for this purpose is what Rowan Williams calls theology in the “celebratory” mode because its goal is “fullness of vision” (On Christian Theology). The temptation is present (especially among Protestants) to narrow “comprehension” to the intellect, but this must be rigorously avoided. “Explanation” or “definition” is not the main goal of theology related to the Church’s worship. We humans are multidimensional creatures, and thus comprehension entails the intellect as well as our affective, tactile, volitional, and relational dimensions. Related to worship and preaching, the comprehension that theology serves is intensely personal and embodied for its object is the God of grace who embodied himself in Jesus the Messiah.

Some dialogue would be great. Any thoughts?

Reading Theology: A Student’s Guide (Intro)

As I said in my last post, this guide is meant for undergraduate students just beginning their exposure to diverse theological readings. In addition to those majoring in theological and religious studies, I often teach students who are not, which is wonderful because they come with a host of questions I sometimes forget about. I have both in mind with this Guide. A brief introduction:Transfiguration-icon

Theology is possession and process, content and craft. Theology as “content” is found in Ecumenical statements like the Nicene Creed, or in confessions and catechisms like the Westminster Confession and the Catechism of the Eastern Orthodox Church. If you listen well you can also discern it underneath your view of things and your decisions (your “implicit” or “embedded” theology).

As “craft” theology is the process of critical reflection on God and everything else in relation to God. Theology is what Christians do when they apply themselves – heart and mind – to seeking God. The medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury called it “faith seeking understanding”. More recently Michael Jinkins beautifully put it this way:

“Theology is the church’s work of critical reflection performed in the afterglow of a new and unique encounter with God, an encounter that forces us to redefine what we mean by knowledge and reality… Theology is an attempt to account for this relationship with Jesus Christ that turns life and death upside down and never stops turning us upside down until we draw our last breath. Theology is what we try and do to make sense of who Jesus, this other person (this wholly Other person) is who has met us and who continues to meet us, and who has established with us a new matrix of particular relationships that call into question all our relationships with others” (Invitation to Theology, 39, 44).

Between the expansiveness of Jinkins and the brevity of Anselm we might say this: theology is the Spirit-enabled study of the living God undertaken in communion with Jesus Christ and the Church. But what is theology for? What purposes does it serve? Spend any time reading theology – contemporary, recent past, or ancient―or pay attention to the way your pastor preaches, and you immediately realize something: theology is put to work for various reasons. It serves various ends. It has different goals.

The object of theology may remain constant, but its purpose and function varies from one text to another. This guide outlines nine such purposes. It would be an easy mistake to isolate them, but they are in fact tightly interrelated. That said, the focus of a theological text is often one or several. Ask yourself as you engage a reading: What is theology being used for? What is it meant to accomplish? What are its purposes?

Reading Theology: A Student’s Guide (preview)

I am kicking off a series of posts on reading theology. Call it a “student’s guide” because I have my college students in mind. It’s a work in progress, and I happily invite your interaction!

One of the greatest joys of studying theology with college students is their surprise when encountering the diversity of Reading4voices and texts in the Christian tradition. A sermon by John Calvin. Arius’s letters. The Council of Trent. Pannenberg’s dogmatics. The liturgical poetry of Ephrem. Commentary by Cyril of Alexandria. James Cone’s liberation theology. African Christology. I could go on and on. I have commonly had students say, “I never knew the conversation was this diverse, much less this interesting!

Yet, there are challenges to face when the young theologian encounters diverse voices and different kinds of text. I have one specific challenge in mind with this “student’s guide”: the diversity among theological texts requires the reader to discern the purpose(s) of the particular text on hand. In other words, What work is theology being asked to do here? What goals does the author have in mind? To what ends is theology being put to use?

This might seem obvious enough, but I have found that it often eludes my students. It eludes them for at least two reasons. Continue reading