The Bible’s Ideal Reader

The literary theorist Umberto Eco has a theory about readers. Every text calls for an ideal reader. The ideal reader of any given text is the person receptive of its content and formed to follow its patterns (see, The Role of the Reader, 1979). In other words, the person who is willing to “see” as the text sees (this is how the world is) and then live accordingly is the ideal reader.

Consider the following picture:

Nazi.Nosalute2

That guy is NOT the ideal reader of Nazi propaganda. He refuses to buy into the Nazi’s picture of the world – choosing not to “see” as they see. And he won’t live accordingly by offering his salute to Hitler and all that his regime stands for, despite the very obvious social pressure. “Nope,” you can hear him saying to himself.

Today, in a class that surveys the entire Bible in one semester (crazy, I know), I challenged my students: “Be that guy.” Refuse to become the ideal reader of Nazi propaganda, and if you find that easy enough then go ahead and refuse to become ideal readers of all the other counterfeit stories on offer today: consumerism’s story (you are what you buy), nationalism’s story (our nation is the best nation), humanism’s story (you have all that you need to become your true self), naturalism’s story (all that matters is matter). Instead, become the Bible’s ideal reader. Read this book and accept its invitation to see as it sees, and then live accordingly. Sure, its a strange world we find in the Bible (to borrow Barth’s phrase). Who can deny that? But in light of Jesus we Christians believe it tells the true story about God, us, and the world.

“Be that guy,” I challenged. With your arms resolutely crossed, say “Nope” to all the counterfeit stories, and read the Bible as an invitation to see the world truthfully and to live accordingly.

 

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We are always beginners: Barth on discipleship

For Barth, the Christian life is all grace from beginning to end, so the Christian is always a “beginner,” leaning upon God’s grace in all things.

[T]hose who through grace (because Jesus Christ became and is their Brother) karlbarthpipehave the freedom to call upon God as their Father will never once, when they make use of this freedom, encounter God except as those who are inept, inexperienced, unskilled, and immature, as children in this sense too – little children who are totally unprepared for it. The invocation “Our Father,” and all the Christian life and ethos implicit in this invocation, can never at any stage or in any form be anything but the work of beginners. Even at the most advanced stage and in the ripest form it can never be anything better, for in this field what is supposedly better can only be worse, indeed, it can only be evil. What Christians do becomes a self-contradiction when it takes the form of a trained and mastered routine, of a learned and practiced art. They may and can be masters and even virtuosos in many things, but never in what makes them Christians, God’s children. As masters and virtuosos they would not live by God’s grace. … In invocation of God the Father everything depends on whether or not it is done in sheer need (not self-won competence), in sheer readiness to learn (not schooled erudition), and in sheer helplessness (not the application of a technique of self-help). This can be the work only of very weak and very little and very poor children, of those who in the littleness, weakness, and poverty can only get up and run with empty hands to their Father (Church Dogmatics, IV.4, 79-80).

“We are here to love” (Von Balthasar)

I stumbled onto these remarks by Von Balthasar while reading Edward Oakes this evening. Ponder this:

The calling to love is an absolute one, admitting of no exception, and so ineluctable that failure to observe it is tantamount to total corruption. Let there

be no doubt. We are here to love—to love God and love our neighbor. Whoever will unravel the meaning of existence must accept this fundamental principle from whose center light is shed on all the dark recesses of our loves. For this love to which we are called is no a circumscribed or limited love, not a love defined, as it were, by the measure of our human weaknesses. It does not allow us to submit just one part of our lives to its demands and leave the rest free for other pursuits; it does not allow us to dedicate just one period of our lives to it and the rest, if we will, to our own interests. The command to love is universal and unequivocal. It makes no allowances. It encompasses and makes demands upon everything in our nature: “with thy whole heart, with all they soul, and with all thy mind.” (Christian State of Mind, p. 27. Quoted in E. Oakes, A Theology of Grace in Six Controversies [Eerdmans, 2016], p. 45).

Oakes brings Balthasar into his treatment of grace to emphasis that grace is about love, but not in the romantic sense. And I must say, this just seems incredibly important to me at the moment. Continue reading

Dear Publishers

Dear publishers,

Please print more pocket-sized theology.

20170522_065301Sure, I see the argument: why print pock-sized books when I could carry thousands on my smart phone (Kindles seem so passé now, don’t they?). But I hate reading on my phone! The experience couldn’t be more sterile. Yes I’m probably the exception, I know this dear publishers, but I have no interest in digital reading unless I’m sitting next to a pool and my kids’ raucous splashing may dampen the pages. My hands want a finely bound little book of theology to slip in and out of my pocket, or from the corner of my briefcase. Little cracks of time populate my days and a few lines from Augustine could inspire, or a finely tuned quip from Jenson may set my mind reflecting.

Before this letter goes into the bin, consider how Penguin bound Augustine’s classic in a stylish, beautiful cover, or the many Fathers of the Church made accessible by St. Vladimir’s press, like St. Gregory’s theological poetry, On God and Man, or Gregory the Great’s Book of Pastoral Rule. My little copy of Pastoral Rule never crowded the coffee mugs at the small Starbucks table where I discussed Gregory’s sage advice with a young pastor, burned out on church-marketing and sexy church-growth strategies. And I can’t help mentioning Wiley’s gift of Pallasmaa’s classic essay The Eyes of the Skin in small format (even though its not theology). Thank you.

Please, print more theology that fits in my pocket, where an app or text or email alert won’t compete on the same screen for my attention in those little cracks in my day where I find myself in some in-between moment. Give me some little book that will lead me to pray, to remind me of God’s goodness through the voice of my brothers and sisters in faith, and to point my eyes back to Scripture’s witness of the victorious Christ.

Happy Ascension Day,

Kent

On Shame (part 2)

I continue thinking about shame since my last post. A few more posts on the topic will trickle out, I think, over the next few weeks. Don’t expect anything comprehensive, or even closely knitted together. I’m just going to ruminate on it and bring to bear some different angles that seem relevant.

My last post ended with a comment about mortification and vivification. I said that a shame-based portrait of discipleship is “like talking about the Christian life in terms of ‘mortification’ and ‘vivification’ but without the ‘vivification.’ All death, no resurrection.” I realize the terms aren’t in much use. It’s a shame really, because they name basic realities of the Christian that bear quite importantly on the experience of shame (which I am trying to think towards here).

Here’s John Webster from my book, Sanctified by Grace: A Theology of the Christian Life.

By mortification is meant the discipline practice in which renewed creatures, reconciled to God by Christ’s meritorious death and moved by the Holy Spirit, repudiate, resist, and do away with the remnants of the old ‘earthly’ nature which has been disqualified but which nevertheless persists ‘in’ us (Col. 3:5). By vivification I mean those habits of life in which renewed creatures make alive and empowered by the Spirit amplify their new nature, actively disclosing, confirming, and exercising it. Mortification and vivification are simultaneous, not sequential. Mortification is not an initial stage which at some point in this life is left behind, for our mixed state will persist until paradise. Vivification, however, has material priority, because mortification is a practice of negation, opposing old habits of life, traces of which remain in the present but have no future, having been condemned and terminated by God. Mortification is not a permanent, essential practice of the regenerate nature but an interim necessity, and once its goal of clearing away the diseased remainders of the old nature is reached, it will no longer be required. Vivification, by contrast, is the implementation of the new nature and stretches out to perfection. In vivification we begin to perform the new nature which will endure and so complete and resolve itself that there will be no necessity for mortification (133).

Webster immediately clarifies. Mortification is not directed at on our “created nature” – as if simply being human is under fire by the Spirit. Rather, it’s

an assault on the sin which opposes created nature’s regeneration. … And so mortification is not hatred of embodied life but opposition to death-dealing vice, its purpose being not nature’s destruction but the ordering and forming of regenerate conduct. It is not [and here Webster quotes Augustine] ‘hostile persecution’ but ‘healthy chastening’ which intends the recovery and flourishing of nature (133).

Mortification is not an assault on embodied human life.

It makes me wonder: could a dimension of Christian-shame be a weak theology of creation? I mean, if we struggle down deep with being creaturely rather than being spiritual (the old Gnostic heresy), then could it be that we unwittingly but disastrously confuse our sinfulness with our creatureliness, and thereby confuse the object of mortification with our humanity? We end up imagining that the Spirit’s holy-making work in our lives is really after the destruction of our embodied humanity—our having-been-made bodily creatures—rather than the destruction of the sin “that so easily entangles” (Heb. 12:1).

Shame masquerading as sanctification which actually targets our embodiment. That’s not easy to shake off.

On Shame

I met with a student of mine a few days ago who talked to me about shame. She lamented that much of her faith history was in communities that (as she experienced it) emphasized shame. The effect was a lingering sense of her utter inadequacy and condemnation.

Now, a sense of one’s inadequacy regarding salvation is not a bad thing at all, and she knows that (see Ephesians 2). We are not saved on account of the adequacy of what we do, but wholly on account of the adequacy of what God does for us in Jesus the Messiah, as it is brought to life in us through the Holy Spirit. God comes to us with life from the inexpressible sufficiency of his divine life. The super-abundant adequacy of the divine life overmatches our inadequacy. Our sin is no match for his life.

She knows it. Her struggle is more a matter of this: as she sees it, once saved she still doesn’t amount to much.

So I was delighted to hear that she’s been finding a fresh vision for discipleship, one less centered on shame, from one of my favorite theologians: Rowan Williams. After reading his new book, Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life, my student (who is fast becoming a friend) said a new way forward opened up in front of her. She specifically mentioned an image Williams uses in the first chapter. Birdwatcher

Disciples are expectant in the sense that they take it for granted that there is always something about to break through from the Master, the Teacher, something about to burst through the ordinary and uncover a new light on the landscape. The master is going to speak or show something; reality is about to open up when you are in the Master’s company, and so your awareness…is a little bit like that of a birdwatcher. The experienced birdwatcher, sitting still, poised, alert, not tense or fussy, knows that this is the kind of place where something extraordinary suddenly bursts into view (4-5).

Beautiful. It makes me wonder: could it be that a shame-based sense of our relation to God gives us the sense that we shouldn’t expect God to show up, surprise us, overwhelm us with delight?  When the Christian life centers on shame, why should we expect God to show up for anything other than condemnation? It’s like talking about the Christian life in terms of “mortification” and “vivification” but without the “vivification.” All death, no resurrection. It’s a shame. No, it’s tragedy, and maybe even heresy.

Father, lead us to know our own worth as we discover our lives in you and only in you.

What is theology on about? A response from J.I. Packer

I am not a systematic blogger. I  blog about whatever is going on at the time. I’ve tried series, but they don’t suit me. So during the semester, I blog about classes and teaching. On breaks from teaching, I tend to write about whatever research sits before me. And since I’m collecting and editing selections for my anthology this summer…well, expect to see much on that over the next couple months.

This morning had me working on J.I. Packer. There are few more thoughtful and articulate examples of Protestant Evangelicalism in the twentieth century (nor many more fluent in the Christian tradition). Though it won’t appear in the anthology, his brief summary of theology’s subject matter is beautiful. For Packer, the subject of theology sets the terms for how the theologian carries out her work. But when wrongly conceived, a host of dangers lurk at the ready.

The proper subject-matter of systematic theology is God actively relating in and through all created things to human beings; God, about whom those biblically revealed truths teach us, and to whom they point us; God, who lives, loves, rules, speaks, and saves sinners; God, who calls us who study him to relate to him through penitence and faith and worship as we study, so that our thinking about him becomes an exercise of homage to him.

From this basis (if one accepts it) it follows that the proper state of mind for us as we come to synthesize the exegeted teaching of Scripture will be one not of detachment but of commitment, whereby we bring to our theologizing the attitude not of a critic but of a disciple; not of one who merely observes God, but of one who actively worships him.

Then we shall be in less danger of speculative extrapolations that go beyond Scripture, which it is almost impossible to keep out of theologies that the detached intellect…puts together. We shall be in less danger of forgetting the transcendent mystery of God’s being and action, and of putting him in a box constructed out of our own concepts which the detached intellect, longing to master that which it studies, is very prone to do. We shall be in less danger of the irreverence of treating God as if he were an impersonal object below us, frozen fast by us for the purposes of our study, and of failing to remember that he is the great personal Subject, far above us, apart from whose ongoing life we should not exist at all. And we shall be shielded from the further irreverence of allowing ourselves to grade God’s work in connection with the sovereign mysteries of predestination and evil, and to conclude that if we ourselves were God we could do a better job. ‘Your thoughts of God are too human,’ said Luther to Erasmus. He might have said, your theology has too little worship in it; whichever he had said, the point would have been the same.

In short, we are called to make our study of theology a devotional discipline, a verifying in experience of Aquinas’ beautiful remark that theology is taught by God, teaches God, and takes us to God. So may it be, for all of us (“An Introduction to Systematic Spirituality,” in Serving the People of God, p. 315. Breaks inserted).

Not long ago, Steve posted a nice review of a recently published biography of Packer. Read it here.