Tag Archives: Review

Credo (A Review)

St Bega's Church
St Bega’s Church

This is the only novel I have read in over twelve months—a very sad state of affairs! I began it last year and finished it a couple of weeks ago. I have managed to listen to a number of novels however, so it hasn’t been a complete withdrawal from the world of fiction.

Melvyn Bragg was labelled by The Times as a “novelist, television presenter, and arts doyen.” He has led a quite public life in the UK and was made a peer, Lord Bragg, in the 1990s. This is the first novel I have read by Bragg, though I have another on the shelf. The story-telling in this novel is quite good and the style, while neither riveting nor overly-memorable, does its duty of maintaining sufficient interest to keep the narrative moving.

Credo is a large work, over 750 pages, telling the story of Bega, a young Irish princess who becomes a nun at Whitby Abbey in the mid-seventh century, and establishes her own convent shortly afterwards. Based faintly on historical events, characters and writings, Bragg has imagined how things might have been, drawing especially on the work of Bede the Venerable, who features in the book as a child. The story follows the life and love, the faith and service, prayer and miracles, struggles and triumphs of Bega in a world dominated by political ambitions, warfare, and ecclesiastical factions (the Roman church and the Celts) striving for their own versions of Christianity.

The portrayal of the faith of these early British Christians was interesting. Bragg presents them as dedicated and devout, and in their pre-scientific culture, credulous, even superstitious. Their asceticism and their focus on prayer is emphasised while the presence and influence of the Scriptures is peripheral. Bega is shown as specially marked out and gifted by God with special grace and powers, though her exceptional humility keeps her from any self-aggrandisement.

The relationship between Bega the Christian leader and Reggiani a local pagan wise woman and healer is explored, with Bega often—from a modern perspective at least—appearing backward and ill-informed. Yet her faith and faithful prayer triumphs in the midst of much adversity, suffering, and self-abasement.

CredoThe historical record of Bega is slight. In an afterword Bragg notes that she “hovers between the historical and the mythic,” although traces of her life still exist in place names, and a tiny lakeside church by Bassenthwaite in the Lakes District named St Bega’s (752, 756f.). She is said to have inspired miracles until about 1300.

I had never heard of her, although I have known of and visited the abbey at Whitby, know the story of Hild, and am aware of the important synod held there in the mid-seventh century. Bragg brings these events and their personalities to vivid life, though to what extent the portrayal is an accurate reflection of the reality, I am not sure.

Reading this book has kindled a desire to read—sometime—Bede’s history of the English church, and perhaps other works of history to learn more of these faithful Celtic Christians, and the extraordinary devotion and service they appear to have shown. Thus I have found the book worth reading, and not simply for a fascinating and enjoyable story.

Strange Glory – Reflections

Strange GloryWhen I am on my bike or on the train or doing some housework, I often listen to audio books. Mostly I have listened to fiction, but I recently began listening to other genres, including this wonderful biography by Charles Marsh: Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Knopf, 2014), 528pp.

I cannot write a review of the book because listening, especially when doing something else, means I do not give the book my undivided attention. Nor can I provide page numbers or citations. Yet I thoroughly enjoyed this biography and intend some time to read the book itself.

So what did I enjoy? Strange Glory was well written and beautifully read by Paul Hecht. It covered the whole life of Bonhoeffer with a great deal of detail, insight and connection. It presented Bonhoeffer as a complicated human being, brilliant and needy, a member of the privileged elite with a great concern for the common man. It was theologically rich and informed, not compromising the depth of Bonhoeffer’s thought in the telling of his story. It relied extensively on primary texts, especially the letters and journals of Bonhoeffer himself. It provided an entrée into Bonhoeffer’s personal thought and relationships, his prejudices and commitments, his loves and affections, his misgivings, self-doubts (at times) and determinations. It charted his development as a person, churchman and theologian across the course of his life. It explored his dedication to the ethical character of the Christian life without reducing Christianity to ethics.

CharlesMarsh

Much discussion surrounding Marsh’s book concerns the author’s portrayal of Bonhoeffer as gay, as in love with his friend, confidante and confessor Eberhard Bethge. He does not assert that the two friends had a sexual relationship, but that Bonhoeffer, at least, was in love. Marsh does provide many details to support his case, though whether his argument is convincing is disputed amongst reviewers. I am not sufficiently acquainted with Bonhoeffer to make a firm determination on the matter—is anyone?—but I am not wholly convinced by Marsh. In the end, the issue is peripheral and should not detract from the major aspects of his story.

Far more important in my estimation, is the portrayal of Bonhoeffer as a man of great passion and compassion in addition to his penetrating intellect. Despite his elitism and eccentricities, he loved those he ministered to, struggled to find his place in the world of German Christendom, and was amongst the first to understand that the Nazi oppression of the Jews was a betrayal of the gospel. His life exemplified both the “cost of discipleship” as well as a fulsome embrace of the delights of the world and culture. One of the most interesting aspects of the story for me, and something I want and need to return to, was the way that Marsh was able to correlate Bonhoeffer’s Finkenwalde “experiment” with the theological development that occurred in the prison years. Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity” constituted new growth in the field of his thought, but not disjunction with that which preceded it.

Anyone interested in Bonhoeffer’s life and theology will gain much benefit from this extensively researched biography. Formal reviews of the book can be found at First Things, the Gospel Coalition, the New York Times, and the usual theological journals.

Baptized in the Spirit (Review)

Baptized in the SpiritMacchia, Frank D., Baptized in the Spirit:
A Global Pentecostal Theology

(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 296pp.
ISBN: 13: 978-0-310-25236-8

Frank Macchia argues that although the Pentecostal emphasis on the Baptism with the Holy Spirit has been marginalised in recent Pentecostal theological reflection, it remains “the crown jewel of Pentecostal distinctives” (20). Nevertheless Pentecostal articulation of the doctrine has remained too narrow, disconnected from the broader contexts of theological and ecumenical reflection. Macchia aims, therefore, to expand the parameters of the doctrine, and to use the biblical metaphor as a lens through which to understand the broader pneumatological vision of Scripture.

Baptized in the Spirit is not a systematic theology in the proper sense of the term, nor an examination of the theology of the Pentecostal movements. Rather, it engages with particular theological loci using Spirit baptism as a starting point and organising motif. The first two chapters provide an orientation and rationale for the study. Macchia identifies four primary reasons for the marginalisation of the doctrine in recent Pentecostal theology. He affirms the Pentecostal desire for the pneumatological renewal of the church, and the understanding of Spirit baptism as an experiential, empowering reality in the lives of individual Christians and churches.

Macchia is clear, however, that Spirit baptism is much more than a singular event in these lives and churches. In its biblical and theological contexts Spirit baptism is a richly textured concept with trinitarian and eschatological dimensions. It refers to the original outpouring of the Spirit by the ascended Spirit-baptizer on the day of Pentecost, by which the triune God redeems a lost world, entering into fellowship and solidarity with it. It refers also to the final eschatological outpouring in which the Spirit is poured out upon all flesh such that the renewed cosmos becomes the dwelling place of God. It is the work of divine grace preceding water baptism that opens and prepares a human life for the reality of God. It speaks, too, of ongoing and subsequent experiences of the Spirit’s presence and power in the lives of individual Christians and churches. Macchia explores these aspects of Spirit baptism in the following chapters, which address Spirit baptism in relation to Christian initiation, Spirit baptism in trinitarian perspective, and Spirit-baptised ecclesiology.

Perhaps the most significant move Macchia makes is to link Spirit baptism with the idea of the kingdom of God, thus providing the doctrine with a powerful eschatological orientation. Just as the metaphor of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit fills out the concept of the kingdom of God, so the idea of the kingdom extends the vision and function of Spirit baptism. Ultimately, the two concepts are co-extensive for Macchia, with the character of the kingdom being understood in christological and pneumatological terms.

Decisively inaugurated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the kingdom of God becomes a dynamic within history through the outpouring of the Spirit that is directed toward the divine indwelling of all of creation so that all things might be conformed to Christ’s image. … This dynamism has its roots in the fact that the kingdom has to do, not with a place, but rather with life, the life of the Spirit of God (Matt. 12:28; Rom. 14:17), opening up the creation to new possibilities of renewal and hope. The life of the kingdom is the life of the Spirit in which God’s reign actively conquers the dark forces and liberates lives to new hope. It is thus not only a divine attribute but the participation of the creature by God’s grace in the divine nature. Accordingly, it is not primarily about religion but about a life in God, filled with the fruit of the Spirit and dedicated to God’s righteousness on earth (97).

Another significant move concerns Macchia’s understanding of the nature of Spirit baptism, which he characterises as God’s self-gift of all-embracing love.

All of the fractures that have plagued the Pentecostal theology of Spirit baptism can be healed ultimately by an understanding of love as the substance of life in the Spirit, love that fills us to overflowing as a purgative, empowering, eschatological gift of communion and new life (260, emended slightly).

Spirit-baptism is fundamentally a relational event which issues in the creation of the church as a new community with renewed human sociality. Indeed, the Spirit is “the ecclesial Spirit” and Spirit baptism is baptism into an ecclesial dynamic (167). The church is to echo and embody the relationality and open hospitality of the holy Trinity.

The Spirit is the Spirit of communion. Spirit baptism implies communion. This is why it leads to a shared love, a shared meal, a shared mission, and the proliferation/enhancement of an interactive charismatic life. Spirit baptism thus implies a relationship of unity between the Lord and the church that is not fundamentally one of identity but rather communion. … Spirit baptism has a relational structure that has communion at its essence, the communion of self-giving love (156-157, 160).

Macchia makes the implications of this quite clear:

The self-giving God of Spirit baptism produces a self-giving people in mission. The God who seeks to save the lost produces a people who do the same. To love God is to be shaped by that love so as to share its affections and passions (264).

The love which shapes the life of the Spirit-baptised includes both love for God and love for others. Perhaps pre-eminently, it is an experience of the love that God has for us: “the love of God is poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5)—a verse cited by Macchia more often than any other, including Matthew 12:28, 1 Corinthians 12:13, Acts 1:8 or Acts 2:4.

This focus on Spirit-baptism in terms of divine love can save the Pentecostal church from forms of triumphalism that neglect the reality of suffering and the necessity of solidarity with and ministry on behalf of those who suffer. The power with which the church is endued is the power of love manifest and made known in the suffering love of Christ. “Spirit baptism as an experience of empowerment is not just renewed energy to do things for God. It is rather the power of self-transcending, self-giving love” (281). The tongues of Pentecost were “a broken speech for a broken body of Christ till perfection comes” (281). Understood in terms of love, Spirit-baptism can become an ongoing and repeated experience in which believers are caught up ever and again into the love of God. If this understanding is correct, then Spirit-baptism may also function as a continual source of renewal for the church.

In my estimation Macchia has successfully expanded the boundaries and understanding of Pentecostalism’s “crown jewel,” and in so doing has made a welcome contribution to Pentecostal and ecumenical theology. While I am not yet convinced that the biblical metaphor of Spirit baptism can function as the organising principle of a comprehensive systematic theology, Macchia has demonstrated that it may shine new light on old doctrines.

Macchia’s Pentecostal roots are clearly displayed in the biblical orientation of his work; hardly a paragraph goes by without a biblical reference. Nevertheless, his most prominent interlocutors are not other Pentecostals (although they are not ignored), but Moltmann, Volf, Küng, and documents of ecumenical consultations. His work represents a considered attempt to draw Pentecostal theology from the margins toward the centre of the ecumenical theological enterprise. In the process some aspects of the classical Pentecostal doctrine are sacrificed. There is no discussion of the gift of tongues as a devotional practice, let alone as “the initial evidence” (though see pp. 212 and 281), although it does symbolise the unity of the church in the midst of its increasing diversification. Whereas classic Pentecostals insist that the Baptism with the Holy Spirit is separate from and subsequent to conversion, Macchia insists that no separation is possible, although he does keep a form of subsequence, whether in terms of the believer’s experience of the Spirit’s presence, or as ongoing experiences of the Spirit’s “coming” throughout the Christian life. It is surely no accident that the final climatic section of the book is titled “Spirit Baptism as Love’s ‘Second Conversion’” (280).

I do not want us to lose our emphasis on the experience of the baptism in the Holy Spirit as something that Christians should expect in the life of faith at some point during or after their acceptance of Christ as Lord and as an ongoing experience of charismatic enrichment. The experience of the baptism in the Holy Spirit can be a renewal of faith, hope, and love as well as an enhancement of power for mission. It is an enhancement of our conversion to Christ but also a “second conversion” that turns us in Christ’s love toward the world in prayer for its renewal and in our participation in God’s mission. … The Pentecostals ask us to experience a foretaste of that glory in the here and now as a force for renewal in the Christian life and the life of the church. I think we should listen (282, original emphasis).

Beth Felker Jones, Practicing Christian Doctrine (Review)

Felker Jones, Beth, Practicing Christian Doctrine: 
An Introduction to Thinking and Living Theologically
 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014), 246pp.
 ISBN: 978-0-8010-4933-0

Practicing Christian Doctrine

In a summary comment to the doctrine of salvation, Beth Felker Jones writes,

My sketch of the doctrine in this chapter points, gently, to legal acquittal in justification by grace, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and God’s defeat of death in resurrection as the vital core of soteriology. But to acknowledge a core is not to deny the importance of the rest of the doctrine… (164).

This self-referential comment captures something of the charm of Jones’s introduction to Christian doctrine: the gentleness that characterises her work, as well as her awareness that the field of Christian truth is indeed vast and expansive. Jones has written a warm and irenic account of Christian doctrine from an Evangelical perspective, but one which engages broadly with other traditions and perspectives. Her account follows the usual path one expects in such an introduction with an initial chapter on the nature of theology, followed by chapters on revelation and Scripture, God as trinity, creation and providence, theological anthropology, Christology and soteriology, pneumatology, ecclesiology and eschatology.

Jones’s evangelicalism has Wesleyan roots and a pietist flavour, and is, as one might anticipate, robustly biblical in orientation. Her approach introduces the primary features of each doctrine, surveying the main lines of an evangelical understanding, while also indicating the richly textured nature of Christian doctrine which defies being captured in rigid formulations. Each chapter includes a key biblical passage as well as occasional shaded text-boxes which might include a hymn, a poem or a prayer, a creed or statement from one of the major historical theologians, perspectives from contemporary global theologians, sidebar notes on, for example, the deuterocanonical books or millennial expectations, or further explanation of a key idea in the main text. These brief asides are not ancillary but serve to introduce the reader to the historical depth and global scope of the theological enterprise, and the evangelical reader, to riches and perspectives outside their own tradition.

The distinctive feature of Jones’s book, as indicated in the title, is the idea of practising Christian doctrine with the result that each chapter concludes with a short reflection concerning the practice of the particular doctrine under review. Nor is this emphasis something simply tacked-on to her theology. Rather, theology and Christian life are bodily realities which press towards visibility in the world. Therefore the careful articulation of doctrine must issue in practice if it is to be faithful to its intent. This is a welcome, indeed timely, emphasis in theology. Thus, with reference to practising the doctrine of Scripture Jones cites Richard Hays:

No reading of Scripture can be legitimate, then, if it fails to shape the readers into a community that embodies the love of God as shown forth in Christ. This criterion slashes away all frivolous or self-serving readings, all readings that aggrandize the interpreter, all merely clever readings. True interpretation of Scripture leads us into unqualified giving of our lives in service within the community whose vocation is to reenact the obedience of the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us (52-53).

Note that Jones’s reflections are indicative rather than prescriptive. So, for example, “the Felker-Jones, Bethmost proper and important fruit” of the doctrine of the trinity is worship, and, since we in some sense become what we worship, “worship of the true God shapes us too, drawing us into God’s own relational life of love and changing us into luminous reflections of God’s true nature” (75). Jones does not detail a worship practice but shows that actual worship is the fruit of the doctrine. How that worship occurs and is expressed is left to the individual and community concerned. Some may wish for more explicit direction here, but Jones has resisted this temptation thereby protecting the freedom of God and that of the believer and the believing community. The responsibility of the believer is also maintained: the reader must still discern and identify—by the Spirit and in community—how they will fittingly embody the faith in their own life and context.

To provide another example, practising the doctrine of creation involves learning to be creatures in all the dailyness of life—dependent on God and interdependent with others and the whole created order in a holistic, hopeful integration of life. In a list of thirteen items Jones provides images or examples of what such practice might look like, again without detailing any specific practices (95-96). Since Jesus Christ defines our true humanity, we practise theological anthropology when we “ask God to transform our lives here and now into a foretaste of what we will become in the end” (115). The practice of the doctrine of the incarnation involves recognition of the particularity of Jesus and so of its revelation of the nature of God’s love for each and for all:

God’s love for us is not some idealized longing for a sanitized, universal idea of humanity. It is real love for real people: male and female, gentile and Jew, Middle Eastern and African and European and American and Asian—people from every nook of the planet. It is not just a love for ideas or for souls. It is a love that encompasses bodies as well as souls, a love concrete enough to become incarnate, to extend to fingers and toes: both Jesus’s and ours. God love is big enough to love specifics. Because God is with and for us, we are freed to be with and for others. Because God’s love reaches into our specificity, our particularity, we have hope that our love can follow suit (137-138).

Jones has written a pastorally-sensitive and reliable account of Christian doctrine, appropriate for use in church contexts, and classroom settings. New Christians and introductory level students will benefit from her clear articulation of the doctrines and her passion to see these truths embedded and embodied Christian life. Pastors, too, will find fresh reflection and approaches to old doctrines, together with the occasional homiletical flourish—“We are all Barabbas” (148). The book deserves widespread use—and practise!—in our churches.

*****

See also my (two-part) review on
Beth Felker Jones, Faithful: A Theology of Sex

Evans, The Roots of the Reformation (Review)

The Roots of the ReformationEvans, G. R., The Roots of the Reformation: Tradition, Emergence and Rupture
(Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012), 528pp.
ISBN: 978-0-8308-3947-6

Gillian Evans, Professor of medieval theology and intellectual history at Cambridge University, has written a lively history, tracing the theological, ecclesial and socio-political roots of the Reformation. The twenty-three chapters are divided broadly into three historical periods, although the treatment of the topic is thematic rather than chronological. In the first part (chapters two through nine, after a brief introductory chapter), Evans introduces the themes which emerged in the early years and centuries of the church and which will occupy the major part of the story: the ideas of church and faith, the Bible, becoming and remaining a member of the church, the recurring problem of sin, especially in the lives of those already baptised, sacraments, church organisation and decision-making, and the relation between church and state.

Part two, entitled “Continuity and Change in the Middle Ages,” explores issues of monasticism and monastic education, the invention of the universities, the beginnings of academic theology, the rise of the preaching orders and the arts of preaching, lay religious experimentation and the emergence of rebels and dissidents. Layered throughout the treatment of these matters, however, are notes on and discussion of the themes introduced in the first part, clearly demonstrating the continuing presence and relevance of these central issues, while also highlighting how they developed, morphed and changed in the medieval period.

Part three, “Continuity and Change From the Reformation” (chapters sixteen through twenty-three), deals with the Reformation period itself, beginning with the Renaissance, and following the story of Luther and his heirs, Henry VIII and English Lutheranism, the Anabaptists, Calvin and the Puritans, and the Catholic Reformation, before two final chapters on new dimensions of the church and state issue, and new questions with respect to the Bible. Again, this part continues the exploration of the the central issues raised in part one in these new social, political and religious landscapes. A brief conclusion is then followed by a thirty page “Handlist of Reformation Concerns and Their History” – a synchronic and thematic treatment of the key issues which students studying church history units will find very helpful indeed.

The central argument of the book is clear: those issues which were so important in the progress of the Reformation were not new. Their roots go back to the earliest days of the church, and indeed, the same issues had come to the fore, sometimes in differing form, time and again in the Patristic and Medieval periods – and would continue to do so in the post-Reformation period, right up to the present. They are perennial. Further, it becomes clear that it was not simply the issues or the personalities themselves which drove the “success” of the Reformation. Where previous attempts at reform had been effectively suppressed, the new social, political and educational realities of the early sixteenth century meant that Luther’s Reformation, and those of his associates, were given the opportunity to take root and become established.

The great strength of the book is not simply Evans’ identification and discussion of the Gillian Evanscentral issues, but her mastery of the primary sources, and her artful telling of the story. Numerous characters are introduced through their memoirs and other writings, and interesting bypaths are explored, the whole picture becoming more and more detailed, coloured, and vibrant in the telling. The style is easy, deeply informed, and at times quite humorous – for example, Abelard’s shift into the profession of theology, “an obvious career move” (162), or the wry comment that “Henry…began to feel that there was much to be said for the Lutherans’ ideas, especially the view that the pope was antichrist, a usurper, and that the proper head of a local church was the Christian magistrate, in fact just such a magistrate as himself” (323).

Ultimately, the crux of the Reformation was salvation: how ordinary people might experience the grace of God in salvation and Christian life based solely on the saving efficacy of Christ’s work at the cross, and communicated through the Scriptures.

The essential complaint rising up from the grass roots…was that the institutional church had overextended itself and was making excessive claims, requiring the faithful to comply with human impositions which were not God’s requirements at all. So this was at root an ecclesiological challenge as well as a personal one. Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith was a bold attempt to cut through layers of complexity and detailed requirements, and to offer believers a simple promise. All they had to do was believe. They did not have to earn their way to heaven by doing penances or good works. Anyone could hope for heaven who had Christ as his or her Savior. But to adopt that view was to reject much of the apparatus of the institutional church, by which it set much store and in which it had a large investment, financial as well as spiritual (466).

The book has not been without criticism, however, especially in its first edition, where a number of errors of historical detail were identified by scholars. The publishers acknowledged these faults and quickly responded by issuing a corrected second edition. This raises an interesting question concerning the value of the book overall. For me, Evans’ book is valuable because of her wide-angle approach to the Reformation and its causes. It tells a large and complex story encompassing many centuries. The errors of factual detail are important, but concern the detail of the story at the micro rather than the macro level. Make no mistake: the errors were errors indeed, and needed to be corrected if the book was to retain its value. Nevertheless, it is at the level of the big picture, tracing the significant themes which weave through the centuries continuing and changing, that the book makes its contribution and by which it should ultimately be appraised. On this basis I consider the book to be valuable, but also counsel prospective buyers to ensure they obtain the revised edition. (This review concerns the first edition.)

This work will reward anyone seeking a more comprehensive understanding of the Reformation, or indeed, the sheer scope and variety of western church history up to the Reformation. Students and ordinary Christians will benefit much from reading this story and thinking not only about the Reformation but about contemporary Christian life and church in the light of the many developments, events, personalities and conflicts that Evans has so masterfully detailed. Teachers will also appreciate Evans’ work for its detailed exposition, her insightful argument concerning the key issues which lay deeply rooted in the history leading to the flowering of the Reformation, the abundant use of diverse primary sources, and the many byways and cameos which make the story so come alive.

For myself, I appreciated all this, and more besides: the careful nuance whereby Evans distinguished new and emerging developments helped me understand and distinguish aspects of the story which previously had been hazy. Further, the many insights into everyday Christian life in these earlier periods of our own story, and pastoral strategies employed for the care and development of God’s people then, help me think about Christian life and pastoral formation now. There is much to appreciate and reflect on in this commendable text.

David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea – Part 2

Doors of the SeaDivine Victory

Hart begins the second chapter with a meditation on nature, which in the West, at least, has been disenchanted. To some extent the church is responsible for this state of affairs since nature no longer can be deified. But the Enlightenment also has played a role, desacrilising nature, making it simply a “thing,” or a fact. For modern theists or deists, creation is that of an absent God; for atheists it is not creation at all, but an entirely natural system of cause and effect. For both camps, the idea of impersonal causation is central. “To put the matter starkly, nature is a cycle of sacrifice, and religion has often been no more than an attempt to reconcile us to this reality.”(52) But Hart rejects this view, seeing instead creation as imbued in every particle of its being with the glory, love and beauty of God.

“God is love,” says 1 John 4:16, “and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in Him.” Christian metaphysical tradition, in both the Orthodox East and the Catholic West, asserts that God is not only good but goodness itself, not only true or beautiful but infinite truth and beauty: that all the transcendental perfections are one in him who is the source and end of all things, the infinite wellspring of all being. Thus everything that comes from God must be good and true and beautiful. As he is the sole source of being—as he is being itself in its transcendent plenitude, beyond all finite being—everything that is, insofar as it is, is entirely worthy of love. And it is this love and goodness of God that the Christian is bidden to find in the entirety of the created order. (54-55)

Yet there is also duality in creation, an alternate kingdom, vision and experience, and both sides of this duality are real. The created sphere has been gifted a genuine though contingent autonomy which humanity has used in opposition to God, and thereby has given itself and the physical order into the hand of another master. Hart is unapologetic in his appeal to the New Testament as the foundation of this somewhat mythological worldview (61-66). Yet before, alongside, within, and beyond this broken history into which we have fallen is a “contrary history” that pervades and will finally overwhelm this world of our fallenness. (68)

The Christian should see two realities at once, one world (as it were) within another: one the world as we all know it, in all its beauty and terror, grandeur and dreariness, delight and anguish; and the other world in its first and ultimate truth, not simply “nature” but “creation,” an endless sea of glory, radiant with the beauty of God in every part, innocent of all violence. To see in this way is to rejoice and mourn at once, to regard the world as a mirror of infinite beauty, but as glimpsed through the veil of death; it is to see creation in chains, but beautiful as in the beginning of days. (60-61)

God’s glory is a kind of parallel world hidden and yet present, accompanying this world but not born from its ructions and sufferings. Rather, God has come into this world of death for the purpose of conquest and victory. This is the gospel: “An ineradicable triumphalism, a conviction that the will of God cannot ultimately be defeated and that the victory over evil and death has already been won.” (66)

Evil itself has no ultimate value or spiritual meaning at all. It is a privatio boni, a privation of the good. Hart asserts it is a child of the will, a

Turning of the hearts and minds of rational creatures away from the light of God back toward the nothingness from which all things are called. … a kind of ontological wasting disease. Born of nothingness, seated in the rational will that unites material and spiritual creation, it breeds a contagion of nothingness throughout the created order. Death works its ruin in all things, all minds are darkened, all desires are invaded by selfishness, weakness, rapacity, and the libido dominandi—the lust to dominate—and thus tend away from the beauty of God indwelling his creatures and toward the deformity of nonbeing. (73)

Evil has not come from God nor is it used by God for the fulfilment of his purposes. “It has no ‘contribution’ to make.” (73) Divine providence, therefore, is not divine causation, the reduction of God to one almighty act of willing that fails to distinguish between what God wills and what God permits. Hart makes much of this distinction, arguing that God permits that which God does not will, that the integrity of the world and its limited sphere of freedom might be maintained. Providence, therefore, is not a universal teleology. Rather, providence maintains the integrity of the world and also saves the world by judging its evil. To reduce providence to an abstract omnicausality is to render God indistinguishable from the world, sin and the devil (90-91).

We are to be guided by the full character of what is revealed of God in Christ. For, after all, if it is from Christ that we are to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil, and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless, and miraculous enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God. … God may permit evil to have a history of its own so as not to despoil creatures of their destiny of free union with him in love, but he is not the sole and irresistible agency shaping that history according to eternal arbitrary decrees. (86-87)

Conclusion

Ultimately, then, the origin of suffering and evil is a mystery grounded in created freedom, and in “another time” inaccessible to us (102). It is a surd within the created order and utterly alien to the being, purposes and will of God. Thus Hart’s theological vision is one of the infinite beauty and infinite goodness of God, a beauty and goodness so all encompassing, it is utterly impossible that God could do evil or even make use of evil in the pursuit of his will. It is on account of this vision of God that Hart rejects all attempts at theodicy which endeavour to make sense of evil or find a place or purpose for it in the overarching purposes of God. Evil remains evil, so we are permitted to hate it with a perfect hatred.

There is, of course, some comfort to be derived from the thought that everything that occurs at the level of secondary causality—in nature or history—is governed not only by a transcendent providence but by a universal teleology that makes every instance of pain and loss an indispensable moment in a grand scheme whose ultimate synthesis will justify all things. But one should consider the price at which that comfort is purchased: it requires us to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of—but entirely by way of—every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known; it requires us to believe in the eternal spiritual necessity of a child dying an agonizing death from diphtheria, of a young mother ravaged by cancer, of tens of thousands of Asians swallowed in an instant by the sea, of millions murdered in death camps and gulags and forced famines (and so on). It is a strange thing indeed to seek peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome. (98-99)

No! God is utterly good and goodness itself. His work in Christ is a work of judgement and victory, and his eschatological revelation will be the same. God will not bring every event in history into “one great synthesis but will judge much of history false and damnable … and will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes.” (104) He will wipe every tear from our eyes and make all things new.

David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea (Review)

Doors of the SeaAlthough just 104 small format pages, there is much to admire in this book. This, my first foray into a David Bentley Hart book, was intended as some brief light reading in the midst of a busy semester programme. It took only a page or two to disabuse me of this assumption. Hart is a literary artist, a man of letters, exhibiting a breadth of knowledge encompassing diverse disciplines and several languages, writing with a beautiful, literary hand, all the while straining and extending not only the limits of my vocabulary but those of my theological vision as well.

The book had its origin days after the devastating Boxing Day Tsunami in the Indian Ocean, when Hart wrote a small piece entitled “Tremors of Doubt” for the Wall Street Journal on Friday December 31, 2004. A longer article appeared in First Things in March 2005, with this book coming to press shortly afterwards, born as it were, on account of the response his initial article generated. Hart wonders whether, in fact, he should have spoken at all; surely the most apt response to such devastation would have been to remain silent? (6, 92) Yet he does not:

I still find myself less perturbed by the sanctimonious condescension of many of those who do not believe than by either the gelid dispassion or the shapeless sentimentality of certain of those who do. (92)

Thus the book is both a reflection on the critical issues of God’s goodness and sovereignty in light of this catastrophe, and a polemic against what Hart considers to be defective views of these very same issues.

Universal Harmony
The Doors of the Sea contains just two chapters—“Universal Harmony” and “Divine Victory”—each comprising five short sections. The first chapter surveys various responses to the tsunami, and varieties of such responses to other tragedies in history. He takes aim first at those vocal atheists who used the devastation and consequent suffering of the tsunami to “prove” there is no God. For Hart,

There is no argument here to refute; the entire case is premised upon an inane anthropomorphism—abstracted from any living system of belief—that reduces God to a finite ethical agent, a limited psychological personality, whose purposes are measurable upon the same scale as ours, and whose ultimate ends for his creatures do not transcend the cosmos as we perceive it. (13)

Although the arguments of Christianity’s critics have emotional and even moral force, they are utterly bereft of logical force. In a wry conclusion Hart states, “For the secret irony pervading these arguments is that they would never have occurred to consciences that had not in some profound way been shaped by the moral universe of a Christian culture.” (15)

For, if we are honest in asking what God this is that all our skeptics so despise, we must ultimately conclude that, while he is not the God announced by the Christian gospel, he is nevertheless a kind of faint and distorted echo of that announcement. It is Christianity that not only proclaimed a God of infinite goodness but equated that goodness with infinite love. The atheist who argues from worldly suffering, even crudely, against belief in a God both benevolent and omnipotent is still someone whose moral expectations of God—and moral disappointments—have been shaped at the deepest level by the language of Christian faith. (24-25)

Though this line of argument might give some superficial comfort to Christians, this is not Hart’s intent. Worse than the rants of shallow atheists and the protests of Voltaire against a deist God, are those Christian “explanations” of evil that seem to justify the evil and suffering by appeal to some kind of eschatological calculus, whereby the ultimate purposes of God will make all this suffering along the way somehow “worth it,” as though divine ends justify the most horrific means (see 25-29). Here, and throughout the book, Hart takes particular aim at certain versions of Reformed theodicy.

It may seem…that I have made Calvinism into my particular bête noire, though that was never my intention. In part, this merely reflects the reality that, after the appearance of my column, those among its critics who exhibited the most exuberant callousness regarding the dead—even all those tens of thousands of dead children—and who reacted with the greatest belligerence and most violent vituperation to any suggestion that God might not be the immediate cause of all evil in the world were all Calvinists of a particularly rigorist persuasion. (92-93)

So Hart rails against every form of explanation that justifies the evil, the suffering, the tragedy, or the darkness which afflicts creation and history by appeal to some final balancing of accounts. There can be no final resolution which ultimately explains evil and suffering such as to remove its offence and thereby make it meaningful. Certainly God can bring about his good ends even in spite of evil (29), but for Hart, God is not in any way implicated in the evil itself, and especially by schemas which predicate the entirety of history on the outworking of the pre-determined divine will.

Such a God, at the end of the day, is nothing but will, and so nothing but an infinite brute event; and the only adoration that such a God can evoke is an almost perfect coincidence of faith and nihilism. Quite apart from what I take to be the scriptural and philosophical incoherence of this concept of God, it provides an excellent moral case for atheism. (30)

The hero in this search for universal harmony turns out to be Dostoyevsky, for whom there is no explanation of or justification for suffering—and so no universal harmony, rationally conceived, either. For Hart, Dostoyevsky makes a Christian prophetic protest: if the cost of eschatological shalom is all the suffering endured in and by creation—or even simply the suffering of one innocent child—the price is too high.

Whatever the case, for the Christian, [Dostoyevsky’s] argument—taken simply in itself—provides a kind of spiritual hygiene: it is a solvent of the liberal Protestantism of the late nineteenth century, which succeeded in confusing eschatological hope with progressive social and scientific optimism, and a solvent as well as of the obdurate fatalism of the theistic determinist, and of the confidence of rational theodicy, and—in general—of the habitual and unthinking retreat of most Christians to a kind of indeterminate deism. And this, again, marks it as a Christian argument, even if Christian sub contrario, because in disabusing believers of facile certitude in the justness of all things, it forces them back toward the more complicated, “subversive,” and magnificent theology of the gospel. [Dostoyevsky’s] rage against explanation arises from a Christian conscience. …

Voltaire sees only the terrible truth that the history of suffering and death is not morally intelligible. Dostoyevsky sees—and this bespeaks both his moral genius and his irreducibly Christian view of reality—that it would be far more terrible if it were. (43-44)

(Continued on Thursday…)

Tales of Infidelity (2): Paul Coelho

Paul Coelho, Adultery (Melbourne: Hamish Hamilton, 2014)
ISBN: 978-1-926428-64-2

adultery CoelhoI did not know anything about Paul Coelho when I bought this book, other than that he was the celebrated author of The Alchemist, which I had also just bought but not yet read. In place of dedication and acknowledgements there is a prayer (“O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for those who turn to you. Amen”) and a verse from the Bible (Luke 5:4: “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch”). Despite the religious overtones of such a beginning, the book doesn’t preach. Indeed, those of a religious persuasion might find both the title and the major drama of the book off-putting. No doubt the seventh commandment lurks in the background unseen and unheard but nevertheless there. Or is it?

The story concerns Linda, a Swiss woman upon whom fortune has smiled. She has it all: looks, a loving husband, well-behaved children, a satisfying job, wealth, possessions and comfort. Yet she is unhappy and deeply discontent. Her inner turmoil leads to a fling with an old high-school flame, which subsequently escalates into an obsession. The main action of the book traces Linda’s mental world as she engages with the affair, wrestles with her conscience, and struggles to understand her own mind, feelings and actions, and those of others around her. In the end she does have an epiphany of sorts, and manages to find equilibrium once more.

The book reads easily, told from Linda’s point of view. Just how effective Coelho is at portraying the mind of a woman I will have to leave to female readers. For me, a male, it was a believable read. I did, however, find Linda’s husband to be less than believable, and under-developed. This weakness allows an ending that for me seemed unreal, unlikely. At several points Coelho dwells on the differences between male and female via his major character, as here, where he reflects on an old double standard:

Men cheat because it’s in their genetic code. A woman does it because she doesn’t have enough dignity; in addition to handing over her body, she always ends up handing over a bit of heart. A true crime. A theft. It’s worse than robbing a bank, because if one day she is discovered (and she always is), she will cause irreparable damage to her family. For men it is just a “stupid mistake.” For women, it feels like a spiritual crime against all those who surround her with affection and support her as a mother and wife (187).

Coelho’s use of Luke 5 is ambiguous. Linda has launched out into the deep and let down her nets for a catch. In the biblical story the unlikely result is a miraculous catch of fish, and the occasion for revelation and repentance. In this story, there is revelation but little sense of repentance, despite the opening prayer. The seventh commandment has been violated but bypassed; Linda emerges if not unscathed, unburnt. Yet it is also clear that the adultery is not without cost:

I feel disgusted. I waited so long to act like a tigress and ended up being used like a mare. But that’s life; reality never comes close to our teenage romantic fantasies (184). 

In the end the reader will have to decide whether or not adultery is worth it. This book suggests that one might just get away with it, and with a better grasp on life for having indulged. The Bible which Coelho cites would warn us to take a different path. “Who can take fire to his breast and not be burned?” (Proverbs 6:27).

Tales of Infidelity (1): Hugh Mackay

Hugh Mackay, Infidelity: A Novel 
(Sydney: Pan MacMillan Australia, 2013) 
ISBN: 978-1-74261-248-5

Infidelity, MackayHugh Mackay is a well-known Australian social commentator and author of both non-fiction and fiction works. Several of Mackay’s non-fiction works—Right and Wrong and The Good Life—demonstrate his interest in moral questions, an interest also finding expression in his opinion pieces in Australian newspapers. His most recent novel Infidelity develops this interest. A brief statement at the close of the book says,

I first encountered the central moral dilemma faced by Sarah and Tom in an article published in The Psychologist, the monthly magazine of The British Psychological Society. It was presented as part of a series of complex moral questions that might be raised by clients receiving psychotherapy. When I read it, I could imagine how that dilemma, somewhat nuanced, could form the ‘hinge’ of a plot for a novel.

The story is told from Tom’s perspective. Tom is a forty-three Australian psychologist ‘exiled’ temporarily in London who falls deeply in love with Sarah. The attachment very quickly turns into an affair and before long he has moved in. But things are complicated: Sarah is still married to someone else in what is portrayed as a loveless but nevertheless mutually convenient relationship.

As the book unfolds and the affair deepens, various kinds and levels of infidelity are noticed as Mackay weaves a range of moral questions, scenarios and dilemmas into the narrative. These are such a subtle  part of the story that it is only upon subsequent reflection that I became conscious of the extent of everyday moral issues that Mackay has canvassed. The core matter though concerns what the object of fidelity truly is. Early on Sarah, a popular university lecturer, notes that “once you’ve stopped being true to yourself, other infidelities come more easily” (44). Later, in a reflection on his own loss of religious faith, Tom ponders:

Unfaithfulness. Was that, I wondered, one of the infidelities that could lead on to others? Was that what Sarah had meant when she said being corrupted by Perry’s wealth made other infidelities easier? Was one kind of faithfulness a bastion against other lapses?

Sitting in that magnificent setting, surrounded by all the panoply of religious practice, I wasn’t sure. Not sure at all. I could be true to myself, I thought, and faithful to a partner, without needing religious faith to shore me up. Yet I saw how the reverse process might work: one kind of infidelity could make others easier. If a man betrayed his wife, or his friends, or his colleagues – or even his country – perhaps that would lower the moral barrier to other betrayals. But I couldn’t see why steadfast religious belief should be the core fidelity. Wasn’t the core fidelity being true to yourself, to your own scruples? And wouldn’t other fidelities be more likely to flow from that one than from any others? That was an idea that had been with us for thousands of years. Shakespeare, as usual, put it best: this above all – to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man. (178-179, original emphasis)

Although Mackay portrays religious faith in quite positive terms, this is as close as he comes to preaching. In an interview/review in the Sydney Morning Herald, he described himself as a Christian agnostic, by which he means to convey the idea that he is broadly in sympathy with the Christian position on many issues, having been steeped in Christian culture and tradition. “But I am not currently the kind of believer I once was,” he says. “More pilgrim than committed. Neither atheist nor theist. Full of doubt, as I suspect many Christian believers also are. Very wary of the fundamentalist, having been one in my youth.”

In his interview Mackay indicates that he is arguing with Shakespeare that “fidelity is about being true to yourself and your own convictions.” Certainly Sarah’s initial observation, together with Tom’s reflection, suggests that the primary fidelity involves being true to oneself.

Yet does the story subvert this observation and undermine Shakespeare’s wisdom? Perhaps Sarah’s initial compromise with respect to her husband was an initial infidelity. Arguably, however, the infidelities of her life are the symptoms of a deeper fidelity to self-above-all. Sarah’s infidelities arise precisely because she is so committed to herself and what she perceives to be in her own best interests. If the theological dictum homo incurvatus in se has credence, this (inherent) self-fidelity will be overcome only by a more fundamental fidelity to that which is not our self, to that which is external to ourselves in such a way that the self becomes decentred—though not lost. That there are secular ways of framing this external reality is undoubted; nonetheless, the very act of establishing such an external reference is inherently religious, whether that external reference is God or an abstract value such as justice, or dare I say it, the “golden rule.” Thus, the question persists, perhaps even in spite of Mackay’s intent. Might religious faith be that core of fidelity which supports and enables other kinds of fidelity?

Mackay is doing here in fiction what he does more straight-forwardly in The Good Life. That is, he argues that true satisfaction is found not in serving one’s own (selfish) interests, but in our capacity for selflessness, for relationship, for hospitality toward others. He has written a credible and thoughtful story in a very readable form. I recommend it.

Beth Felker Jones – Faithful: A Theology of Sex (Review, Pt. 2)

Faithful (Felker Jones)(Continued from yesterday…)

One of the great strengths of this little book is its insistence on the integrity and goodness of the single life, a theme which comes to the fore in the fifth chapter. The Christian sexual ethic has always proclaimed two ways of bearing radical public witness to the faithfulness of God: celibate singleness, and exclusive, permanent marriage. Both ways, argues Felker Jones, function as a sign of the kingdom, a repudiation of commodified relationships, sexual slavery and selfishness, and cultural mores that enslave and demean.

Early Christianity was bold enough to imagine that all of us have—in Christ—the freedom to bear witness to who God is. The Christian understanding of sex was dramatic in the ways that it ran against Roman sexual morality. Roman women were not free to not marry. Christian women could choose—even insist on—celibacy. For Christians, women aren’t property or baby makers. We’re witnesses to the life of Jesus Christ in our bodies. Including in the ways we choose to have and not have sex. For Christians, men aren’t lust machines or power mongers. They’re witnesses to the life of Jesus Christ in their bodies, including in the ways they choose to have and not have sex. … In Rome, you were either a slave or you were free. In the kingdom of God, we’re all free. As a witness to this, we value singleness and marriage as two routes, two ways of life, in which the Christian may be truly sexual and truly free. (71-72)

Chapter six addresses consent, an issue fraught with difficulty in the present, and almost impossible, especially for the vulnerable, in an unrestrained, anything-goes culture. Yet, if sex is to be freely given and received, consent is essential. Felker Jones suggests that consent is at the heart of a biblical-Christian sexual ethic, and is in fact, one of the most Christian things about the ways in which Christians have—and don’t have—sex (78). True consent must be freely given and mutual, and for Christians this happens in the marriage ceremony in a very public way: “See this man? (or, see this woman?)—I’m having sex with him tonight” (79).

Although deeply committed to values traditional evangelical Christians will affirm, Felker Jones takes aim in her seventh chapter at a prominent movement in recent evangelicalism: the so-called “purity” movement. Since sex belongs in a context of grace and freedom, bodies must never be made commodities, and marriage and sex must never be made a reward for effort; thus “purity” must never be reduced to a pelagian work of self-effort toward holiness. The economy of grace and the market economy are antithetical (91).

If sex is in any way a sign of God’s grace, it can never be commodified. It can never be wrenched out of the framework of free, mutual, consensual relationship and placed on the market floor. If sex is thus free, then sexual holiness cannot—cannot, cannot—mean having a “valuable” kind of body or preserving that “value” against loss of value. But we’ve failed to be clear about that. Instead, we’ve bought into a mistaken set of ideas about what purity looks like. (83)

The purity paradigm turns physical virginity into a possession. This tendency heightens the sense that purity matters most for females and heightens the unbiblical idea that virginity and purity don’t apply to men. The purity paradigm makes virginity into a thing that one needs to cling to in order to retain value. It tells the graceless lie that we are more valuable spouses for someone if we have this thing. It tells the demonic lie that our market value is what makes us precious to God. (91)

While she is careful to note that “there is much that is healthy, holy and happy about the situation in which both spouses can come to a marriage without sexual experience” (108), she insists that purity, marriage and singleness are about discipleship in the kingdom of God and never about our value as persons.

And so we return to the central point: married or single, the body is one hundred percent for the Lord. Our bodies bear witness, our flesh is for mission, for witness, for giving glory to God. Both faithful marriage and celibate singleness may be ways in which we harness all of our life and pour that life out for God (69). “The sexual orthodoxy of our fallen world wants to create a body that is something to be consumed. Christian sexuality recognizes that the body is meant to be a witness. Sex is a witness to what God does in our lives, a witness to the God who is faithful and keeps promises” (104). The faithful body tells a story of God’s faithfulness. It witnesses to the goodness of embodied life as created by God. It does kingdom work in relationship and service to others. It testifies to the longing and consummation of God’s eschatological future. It witnesses to the fact that we already are “bought with a price.” In Christ we have been made free to be truly and fully human, and so truly and fully sexual—in the ways we do—and don’t—have sex (97).