This week’s Lenten post is served up by Margot Starbuck. Good stuff. Her latest book (which her post builds on) seems to provide gritty details for the kind of mission-ethic I am writing about in the “We Need Boring Christians” material.
I cannot get enough of it. Theology. I am willingly drowning in it. I lose sleep over it. I am sacrificing a great deal of money to learn more of it. The “tolle lege” that rang in Augustine’s ear echoes in mine. And the more I take up and read, the more intrigued, mystified, entranced I become.
This is not, as best as I can tell, pious boasting. I am not intrigued with fanciful, populist platitudes easily emblazoned on mugs displayed among Christian bookshop trinkets (or easily chanted to signify piety amidst the pews). The theology that has caught my eye and held it, that has seized me and to which I am now captive, is far from user-friendly. The pleasure is more like the thrill from standing dangerously close to a precipice than the delight from a warm cup of tea on a cold day. The fascination is inspired not so much by some touching, sentimental scene but by the sight of of some swirling maelstrom tearing at the sea.
My captor is a theology of tender beauty but not without grim brutality. Gospel Theology. Theology that comprises the nailing of a naked Jew to a timber beam. Theology that refuses to silence a raucous death-howl that—for St. Mark, at least—sounded like a demon in flight (Mk 15:37). This theology also sings about holes exploded in sky and in stone, one a gash in the cosmic veil and the other a tomb now vacant. Theologia Gloriae… et Crucis.
I am more textual than aural, but I listened to two audio clips this weekend: an excerpt from a lecture by Karl Barth on “Evangelical [read Gospel] Theology” and an interview of Lauren Winner about her new book Still. The former a 20th c. theologian known for his incomparable sophistication in writing about the Cross and Empty Tomb, the latter a young 21st c. theologian writing about clutching onto something divine and holy in the midst of divorce and spiritual disillusionment. Dogmatics and the daily grind of faith are inseparable. Theology that cannot deal with the dull blankness of depression or the very real horrors of the night is a theology alien to Christian Scripture. I write about this in my book:
[If the Gospel we preach] “cannot speak to Auschwitz, if it cannot speak to marauded villages in the eastern Congo, if it cannot speak in the ears of abducted children, if it cannot make sense to mothers digging for children in earthquake rubble, then it ought not send forth from polished pulpits in carpeted suburban sanctuaries” .
I am not trying to link Barth and Winner (and myself) together, necessarily. I am just thinking about those sound clips along with my theological reading, thinking, praying, writing… and struggling. Gospel Theology is theology that clings to the gasping breath of Christ Crucified (Mk 15:39) as well as to the recreating breath of Christ Resurrected (Jn 20:22).
This is the theology in which I am drowning. Its mystery and strength intimidate and haunt me. But only a theology so mysterious and strong encompasses ex-Eden reality and pre-Parousia hope. The “Theos” of Gospel Theology is the only God who suffices for maelstroms at sea as well as those warm cups of tea. Gospel Theology is about the “Theos” who hurled himself toward Death’s throat and then climbed out of the hole he exploded in Death’s bloated gut.
Tolle Lege. Take up and read….
 Faith Without Illusions (Downs Grove, IL: IVP, 2011), 39.
Six months ago RELEVANTMagazine.com published my article “We Need Boring Christians.” They re-published it on the site in December—seems as though was one of the most shared articles on their site for 2011. I had no idea the reception would be that strong. I suppose a nerve was struck.
In this series of posts I am responding to the responders who added their comments in the discussion thread (I know, I am a little late!). Relevant‘s forthcoming print edition for Mar/Apr will have a revision of the original article, so I am blogging about the whole concept to make sure I do not exclude myself from the conversations being generated.
A Complementary Voice vs. an Alternative Voice
First, it is important for us to distinguish between alternative and complementary voices. An alternative voice is one you listen to instead of another. A complementary voice is one you listen to alongside another. My intention in these articles is to offer more of the latter than the former. There are many solid voices out there calling for radical discipleship and global engagement. Wonderful! My message is not designed to replace those exhortations to set sail for distant shores. My message is intended to harmonize more than create dissonance. What I think I am adding to the mix is a call to sobriety about the grim realities of “the nations” we so easily generalize and romanticize. I am also calling for some serious self-evaluation. Plane tickets are easy to come by these days—so easy, in fact, that we often check our luggage before we check our motives. Listen to the call to board, yes…
…as long as you are also listening out for the call to go back home.
More is coming….
InterVarsity Press is sponsoring a blog tour throughout Lent. A handful of us IVP authors are contributing to the weekly posts. You can check out “Behind the Books” (one of IVP’s blogs) to get the schedule. Rachel Stone has launched us off with a reflection on Lenten fasting. Hopeful Realism is slotted for March 19.
I am excited about this little tour. A series of linked blog posts permits collective meditation among a wider range of voices on one central theme (in this case the Death of Jesus). I hope you will join in and chime in!
Duke Divinity School has a new Dean. Richard Hays, the George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament, has accepted the job. He certainly has an idea as to what the post entails. For almost two years he has served in that post as an interim.
In many ways, the acceptance of an administrative post can distract from one’s research, writing and teaching interests. My guess is that the weighty managerial duties demanding a dean’s careful attention will at times prove difficult to balance alongside the tasks of theology and biblical studies.
But here is what excites me: at the helm of one of the world’s foremost divinity school’s is someone willing to un-think and rethink traditional and contemporary models of theological education. I do not envision Dean Hays as an academic iconoclast eager to tear up charters and wipe all slates clean—I just believe him to be ever at work assessing, critiquing, and envisioning the way pastor-theologians are being formed and shaped in academic halls for service within and beyond the ecclesial walls. His scholarship has caused many of us to stop and reconsider. In spite of the bold challenges he has offered to certain axioms in hermeneutics and New Testament theology, he has instructed us carefully, thoughtfully, and humbly. His leadership in theological education is sure to have similar effects in similar fashion.
I think often about what it means to “do” theology. Specifically, I am wondering how context shapes the theologian and her work. Is a fine office with a view of the well-kept university quad the only place a theologian can ply his trade? Is a classroom in view of a magisterial stone chapel the only place the biblical scholar can work her craft? “Doing theology” most certainly means more than reading, writing, and teaching in a formal setting. We now have the chance to watch a world-class exegete “do” theology from a vocational appointment that may permit writing and research but demands budgeting, staffing, fundraising, and the signing of document after document. With a monumental project on Gospel-shaped hermeneutics in the works, Dean Hays will continue to add to his legacy as a New Testament scholar. That legacy will now be extended to include the influence of pastor-scholars formed by his visionary leadership and sent out to serve and nurture the church.
I graciously received a review copy in the summer of Prepare, Succeed, Advance: A Guidebook for Getting a PhD in Biblical Studies and Beyond. When Pickwick Publications (Wipf & Stock) sent the book, I read the first 1/3 of the book and immediately wrote a post. But then I actually started doing a PhD in Biblical Studies and got delayed in my reading!
That delaying plunge into doctoral candidacy actually helps me appreciate even more what Nijay Gupta has done in this guidebook.
Doctoral work in New Testament studies has loomed like some mythic dream before me for 11 years now. I remember printing off webpages from UK theology departments and later reading them to my wife during a road trip (a long journey being a fitting context for introducing that idea to my sacrificial wife). Sorting out my motivations, slogging through the intimidating practicalities, and wrestling with my sense of vocation has marked this past decade of my life. Was the call to proceed issued from misleading Sirens or from God himself?
Nijay does not offer oracular insight for conflicted souls, but he does offer solid, sensible wisdom for those who intend to place the hand on the academic plowshare.
The section I just finished is called “Succeed.” Here, Nijay walks his readers through the actual doctoral program, from choosing the research topic to defending the dissertation/thesis. Having just finished a doctoral program himself a few years back (from Durham), Nijay is able to retrospectively see the experience from an aerial view of sorts, letting readers know what they should know at orientation as well as what they should know and be able to do by the time of the defense or viva. If you are anxious about your language capabilities (modern and ancient) or about your competency in the field, Nijay offers gracious but challenging wisdom. He has a good sense as to what is reasonable and unreasonable in terms of expectations.
There is also a lot of counsel not only on researching the project but on writing the blasted thing. And he offers advice that extends beyond the technical know-how and into the relational matrices of academia. Nijay understands that the doctorate is not just a solitary, cranial enterprise, but one that requires extensive and sometimes difficult interaction with other scholars. Unwritten policies as to how one should interact with seasoned scholars in the field are now not so unwritten—Nijay offers brotherly advice on what to say (or not to say) in an email and on how you interact with a senior scholar over coffee at SBL.
The section closes with a look at the defense of the dissertation/thesis. That 1-3 hour session is the ultimate gauntlet for the doctoral candidate. The vocational path is blocked unavoidably by that moment of sitting before expert academics who have your textual rendering of blood, sweat and tears placed on the table between them and you. Again, Nijay’s guidance encompasses not just what to do to get to this point and what to do when you are actually sitting there, but also how to interact and relate in this most fateful of encounters.
The next section, called “Advance,” addresses the other stage of the process: getting a job/entering the field as a bona fide scholar. The prospects right now are so grim for men and women with freshly minted doctorates. I will be reading and posting on that section with keen interest soon….
I have mentioned before that I have a new book project underway, this time with Cascade Books. The topic is media, so I am thinking a lot about how stories give shape to our lives. When it comes to entertainment media, there are a lot of stories available. Yet the story called to shape the life of the church is the sprawling, complex saga told by our Scriptures. It is a story still unfolding—the denouement is on the horizon.
I get worried sometimes over which stories hold the greatest sway in the lives of my children.
We let them watch TV. We let them watch movies. We have a DVD case jammed full of flicks from Pixar and Dreamworks Animation. They tell some really good stories. We just finished “Family Movie Night”—the feature this evening in the Byers home was Disney’s Tangled.
My wife and I observed a momentous coming of age in our oldest son last year. It was occasioned with the exchange of one epic story for another. The sweet, nonviolent realm of the Island of Sodor faded before the glitter of stars in a galaxy far, far away.
The worst fate for the train characters in the Thomas the Tank Engine franchise was that someone got a little too cheeky or maybe a Diesel Engine was rude or maybe those Troublesome Trucks forced another derailing. No matter the mayhem, though, the narrator could always say, “Luckily, no one was hurt.”
The same could not be said for Qui-Gon Jinn who my son would soon watch Darth Maul murder on Naboo.
Once a little boy has seen the glare of a light saber and heard the engines of the Millenium Falcon burst into hyperdrive, there is no going back to quaint land of Sodor.
I know what a powerful epic tale like Star Wars can do. Such an expansive, well-crafted story ensnares our imaginations. We are joyfully entrapped in its galactic setting. We enfold ourselves as a character the author would surely have included had she the time and ink left before the publisher’s deadline. Such tales grip us and become hermeneutical resources from which we draw as we interpret the world around us.
I teach my kids the Bible. The context of the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9) looms large in my life. After
“Hear O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD is one. And you shall love the LORD your God with all of your heart and with all of your soul and with all of your might”
“And these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your hearts. And you shall teach them diligently to your children….
I wonder about how much time my children spend exposed to the storyworlds created by George Lucas or Hollywood’s best animators. I can tell you they spend more time in front of a screen than they do reading their Bibles.
(So do most of the rest of us.)
But it is the story of Scripture that is to wield final sway, and the story by which we understand and appropriate all other stories.
So you can imagine my joy when I found what the photos show below.
My son, who just turned 7 (with a big Star Wars party where we made our own lightsabers and conducted an intensive Jedi-training course for his friends) had been reading the Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones. We alternate which Bible resources we use, but this morning my wife found that book opened to the page illustrating Roman soldiers gathering at Golgotha. Positioned on the drawings were medieval and Roman era action figures, all pointing in the same direction from their platform on the book’s pages. In front of them, facing the same direction, were Jedi action figures, all dressed in the characteristic plain garb (which sort of looks like the clothing popular in 1st century Palestine). They were crying, our son explained. And when you followed their somber gazes, you realized they were all affixed on Obi-wan Kenobi who was himself affixed to a makeshift cross-thing held up by the speeder he and Luke road in on Tatooine. His Jedi cloak was on the ground, discarded by the Romans. Something intended to replicate the crown-thorn was wrapped around the old Jedi’s head.
A beautiful instance of one story usurping another.
The standard comment from Sodor, “Luckily, no one was hurt,” cannot be said about the story of the Gospel either.