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.

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?

Interview with IVP Academic

My editor at IVP Academic recently interviewed me and my coauthor, David Buschart, about our book coming out later this spring, Theology as Retrieval: Receiving the Past, Renewing the Church. For just about any author, “What are you writing about?” is a standard, polite question. But it’s a difficult one to answer. How do you capture the essence of your book without overstaying your welcome? I know the glazed look which signals the end of my polite questioner’s interest!

Cover Image 2Hopefully no eye-glazing here. The interview is brief while still providing a textured glimpse of the book. Enjoy:

Reid: How did the idea for this book arise?

Buschart: We share a mutual interest in and commitment to doing theology with and for the church. Individually and then in collaboration, we were struck by the contemporary flourishing of retrieval in both the academy and the church. We found ourselves powerfully drawn into this combination, this convergence. Having observed the trend, we were surprised a book-length study had not been done and eager to explore it together.

Reid: You have selected six areas look at: theological interpretation of Scripture, Trinitarian theology, worship, spirituality, mission and cosmos. Why these?

Buschart: These are not the only areas currently being informed by retrieval. For example, we also observed retrieval with respect to soteriology, race and anthropology. We decided to focus on the six in the book because they appear to be the ones in which the most substantive and robust retrievals are currently taking place. They are also areas that readily manifest connections between theological retrieval and the church.

Reid: I found the chapter on Radical Orthodoxy (RO) very interesting. How did you decide on including it?

Eilers: Radical Orthodoxy is clearly a retrieval project but not one easily pinned down—it is highly diverse and its literature is voluminous. Nonetheless, including it created two unique opportunities for us. Continue reading