Monday, April 29, 2013, 9:06 PM
In his review of Rod Dreher’s The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, William Doino reminds us that even though Dreher’s title references St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s “Little Way,” Ruthie Leming was Methodist, not Catholic.
It seemed an occasion to point out that St. Thérèse was something of a Protestant herself, at least in her practical piety. Indeed, a quotation from Thérèse’s writing is what makes for the most Protestant moment in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
After earth’s exile, I hope to go and enjoy you in the fatherland, but I do not want to lay up merits for heaven. I want to work for your love alone . . . In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works (2011).
Seeing John Wesley likewise insisted that “every believer in Christ is deeply convinced that there is no merit but in Him; that there is no merit in any of his own works,” then what could be more natural than the Methodist pursuit of St. Thérèse’s Little Way?
Thursday, April 4, 2013, 11:38 PM
Patriarch Athenagoras & Pope Paul VI (1965) / Patriarch Bartholomew & Pope Francis (2013)
As if Part 1 wasn’t impressive enough.
Wednesday, March 13, 2013, 11:21 PM
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Pope Francis
Saturday, March 2, 2013, 9:35 PM
One of the surprises of Augustine Thompson’s recent biography of Saint Francis
, as illuminated by this Mars Hill Audio interview
, is that the “radical” Francis was something of a liturgical purist. “Francis returned often to the theme of the Eucharist in his writing,” writes Thompson, “far more consistently than to that of poverty, which has attracted so much medieval and modern attention.” I was reminded of this when reading Matthew Lee Anderson’s excellent cover article in the current Christianity Today
, offering an evaluation of “radical” evangelicalism.
The urgent rhetoric of preaching the gospel to the billion unreached and helping the poor right now leaves little space to create the institutions and practices (art, literature, theology, liturgy, festivals, etc.) that can transmit such an inheritance to the next generation, and to form belief in deeper and more permanent ways…
What’s more, the radical message comes packaged in the Christian-conference-publishing-celebrity-industrial-complex… The really radical path for a megachurch pastor these days would be to refuse to publish, to take a smaller church, to not podcast sermons, and to embrace a more monastic witness. The irony is that if they tried, we’d probably turn them into larger celebrities and laud their humility. The desert fathers had a similar problem.
The final paradox of emphasizing a radical faith is that the language of commitment and really risks allowing the very secularism they decry in through the back door. By emphasizing the interior aspect of faith over the formal and distinctive elements of Christian worship – Communion, baptism, corporate singing – they risk missing just how secularized our communal life as Christians has become.
Any good that has come from the latest wave of radical Christianity should be able to withstand Anderson’s thoughtful critique. “Judging by the tenor of their stories,” he writes, “being ‘radical’ is mainly for those who already have the upper-middle-class status to sacrifice.” Indeed. I remember visiting one of these radical urban communities a decade ago (before it became famous) with my suburban youth group. We left as there was a tussle in the sorting room over which of the well-shod volunteers would get to keep the Che Guevara shirt that turned up in the donation bag.
But Lent is no time to let myself off the hook. Here I am blogging about the risks of publicity, hoping the buttons below will shatter First Thoughts records. Please retweet!
Wednesday, February 27, 2013, 9:18 PM
“I was glad to have hit the first home run in this park. God only knows who will hit the last,” said Babe Ruth of the old Yankee stadium. Technically that was José Molina, but I like to think it was Benedict XVI. While we’re all swapping tales, I saw him in that stadium in 2008 just before it was decommissioned, and I’ll admit to being proud of the above photograph I took there. I can’t remember if that was before or after they released the doves. Seriously
. And, how glad I was to meet up with my fellow Protestants just after the Mass
Permit one more evangelical to register gratitude for this pope. He taught us, among many things, not to fear the Christologically-grounded analogy of being, and there are few better gifts than that.
Thursday, January 24, 2013, 2:26 PM
While we’re making parallels between evangelicals and Catholics, why not do the same for evangelical and Orthodox thought (as represented in First Things)? Here is David Hart on the God helmet (which only subscribers will have had the pleasure of reading).
Now, in fact, there really would have been no great problem for believers in the supernatural had Persinger’s [God helmet] really worked, or had the theory behind it been true. Even if it had turned out that religious states of consciousness have their physiological concomitants in a particular part of the brain that could be stimulated artificially by magnetic fields, that would have had no religious implications at all. After all, practically no one is so thoroughgoing an idealist or dualist as to imagine that the human mind is not an embodied reality that operates through a physical brain. It may well be the case that there are certain brain events necessarily associated with experiences of the spiritual world; but, then again, there are certain brain events associated with hearing the music of a piano, or seeing an open lotus blossom, or tasting wine. So what? . . . Anyone familiar with that [classic spiritual] literature knows that the experiences supposedly induced by the God Helmet were quite unlike real religious experiences (with the possible exception of certain sorts of mantic states at the margins of cultic practices). . . . One thing common to almost all great contemplative literature is an insistence upon the lucidity, clarity, and continuity of spiritual experience.
When I make love with my wife, some parts of my brain are deeply engaged in this extraordinary erotic experience. Then again, I also know that if I look at pornography, those very same centers of the brain are activated. It’s also true that a neuroscientist could artificially stimulate that part of the brain while I lie on a table in a hospital, so that I again would experience sexual passions. But I don’t know by what calculus one could say these three experiences are the same simply because the same parts of the brain were stimulated, or that the experience of making love to my wife is merely something happening in my brain. To be fair: Christians have known for a very long time that one can have experiences that seem spiritual but are just abnormalities of the body. Spiritual directors are alert to diet, sleep, and adrenalin—to name three factors—that can lead to experiences that seem spiritual but are not. We call it the discernment of spirits. So there seems to be no definitive scientific grounds for outright dismissal of near-heaven experiences. But given the church’s experience, there’s no reason to take each one at face value either.
But however dissatisfying neuro-reductionism can be, there is the occasional breakthrough. Galli cites one bestselling neurosurgeon’s description of God (uninspiringly referred to as “Om”) that resulted from a near death experience. “Yes, God is behind the numbers, the perfection of the universe that science measures and struggles to understand. But—again, paradoxically—Om is ‘human’ as well—even more human than you and I are. Om understands and sympathizes with our human situation more profoundly and personally than we can even imagine.”
God is human? I heard there is a religion that teaches that.
Saturday, January 19, 2013, 12:04 PM
First Things readers may remember the late Richard John Neuhaus’s critique of N.T. Wright, entitled The Possibilities and Perils in Being a Really Smart Bishop:
Most of [Wright's Surprised by Hope] is devoted to making the case for a greater accent in Christian piety and liturgy on the final resurrection of the dead and the coming of the Kingdom of God. Or, as Wright likes to put it, we need to recover the biblical focus on “life after life after death.” I believe Wright is right about that. As he is also on target when he insists that the resurrection “is not the story of a happy ending but of a new beginning.” But his argument is grievously marred by his heaping of scorn on centuries of Christian piety revolving around the hope of “going to heaven,” and his repeated and unseemly suggestion that he is the first to have understood the New Testament correctly, or at least the first since a few thinkers in the patristic era got part of the gospel right… Wright debunks traditional ideas of heaven by noting that Jesus could not have been referring to heaven when he said that the good thief would be with him today in paradise because Jesus still had to descend to hell and be resurrected and therefore was not himself in heaven on that day. Gotcha. Now why didn’t Thomas Aquinas and all those other smart theologians think of that? Here and elsewhere, N.T. Wright is as literalistic as the staunchest of fundamentalists.
It was all a bit over the top, as was Wright’s response. But now that the dust from this clashing of theological egos has settled, it’s worth noting that a criticism similar to Neuhaus’s emerged from Christianity Today editor Mark Galli last month in his excellent assessment of Near Death Experiences:
As N. T. Wright has said, he’s not so much interested in the afterlife, but in the life after the afterlife—meaning bodily life in the new earth (Rev. 21). Those enthusiastic about these theological themes have little patience with spiritual and soul talk. They wax eloquent about what might be called a kind of Christian materialism, about the new heaven on earth, when justice will reign globally and we’ll enjoy bodily life in a redeemed state. All this is true as true can be. The resurrection of the body is indeed the best and final way to talk about our ultimate state in the eschaton. And we can be grateful that a generation of evangelical scholars has made this clearer than ever.
But here’s the pastoral rub. In general, when life-after-the-afterlife folks talk about this future state, the language gets global and the vision abstract… There are sweeping statements about “the culmination of history” and “the coming reign of God” and “the renewal of the whole earth.” This is heady stuff, and, as stated above, true as true can be. But it doesn’t always connect with the widow whose husband was struck by a fatal heart attack. …Some of us (usually the highly educated among us) may be most interested in life after the afterlife, but most people in the pews are deeply concerned simply with the afterlife—the one that comes right after this one… The kingdom of God will be a just world order that will bring history to a glorious conclusion. But day to day, that hope is too distant and vague for many Christians to grasp emotionally as good news. For many, it’s just interesting news. What they want to hear more than anything, especially when they or a loved one is on the threshold of death, is this: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Galli’s gentle course correction to an important movement in American evangelicalism causes me to think that maybe Neuhaus had a point.
Thursday, August 9, 2012, 9:12 AM
Many know that when his native France fell to the Nazis, Catholic philosopher and art theorist Jacques Maritain moved to Princeton. What is less known is the impact he had there. Conversations with Maritain seem to have re-invigorated the dormant faith of the unjustly neglected architect Jean Labatut, who became graduate director of Princeton’s School of Architecture. “Maritain was interesting to Labatut,” explains Jorge Otero-Pailos, “because he claimed that there were many non-philosophical ways of knowing being. Here was a philosopher who thought that philosophy did not have a monopoly on Truth!”
That from a chapter entitled “Eucharistic Architecture” in Otero-Pailos’ book Architecture’s Historical Turn, filled with fascinating photographs of Labatut’s massive model of his Church of the Four Evangelists on Princeton’s Campus in the fifties. But these Catholic architectural forays went beyond mere models. Labatut redesigned the Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart in Princeton, inspired by a trip he took with Maritain to France to the Dominican convent of Toulouse (where Thomas Aquinas is buried). Labatut’s quest was a Eucharistic architecture for the twentieth-century that would “turn the visitors’ attention toward their bodies, to discover their incarnated soul.”
This was not modernism. Labatut was critical of the Bauhaus for disregarding history and denying subjectivity, both of which he sought to recover. But nor was Labatut’s architecture neo-traditional. Informed by Maritain (who was anything but a traditionalist!), Labatut moved through modernism and was informed by it. This ethos made Princeton’s Architecture School in the fifties and sixties a seedbed for advanced Catholic reflection on architecture. The result? Labatut and Maritain thereby, according to Otero-Pailos, “contributed to the dissolution of the architectural object and the liberation from the modernist style that set the stage for postmodernism.”
Why not, instead of complaining about godless modern and postmodern architecture (and thereby indirectly reinforcing a fading narrative), pay attention to the subtle ways that story is being retold?
Friday, June 1, 2012, 10:42 PM
The current First Things
unfurls Ephraim Radner’s hard-hitting critique of Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation
, titled The Reformation Wrongly Blamed
(subscription required). A different Protestant response to Gregory’s book comes by way of the evangelical historian Mark Noll. Noll disagrees with Gregory’s distribution of blame for secularism on the Reformation. However, Noll agrees
with Gregory’s point of historical departure: The suggestion that the univocal metaphysics of John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham’s nominalism were profoundly harmful, and did much to put the young Luther in the unenviable state that precipitated (thanks in part to Luther’s disruption of episcopal income streams) the tragedy of the Reformation. The details of Noll’s compelling read can be enjoyed, along with vindicating remarks of the esteemed medievalist Rachel Fulton Brown, thanks to the video generously provided here
by the Lumen Christi
Institute at the University of Chicago.
Noll is well aware that this reading of Luther is not new. In The Harvest of Medieval Theology (1963), Heiko Oberman made a compelling case that Ockham’s disciple Gabriel Biel decisively shaped Luther’s perspective; in The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism (1956), Louis Bouyer similarly claimed that “what the Reformation took over from the Middle Ages was just what it should have criticized;” and in The Age of Reform (1981) Steven Ozment reasserted that it is not farfetched to view the legacy of Scotus and Ockham as driving Protestantism’s particular concerns. Because of this suspect inheritance, Gregory’s book, according to Noll, should be titled The Inconsistent Middle Ages and the Unintended Reformation, for it is only this “one-two punch” that explains the harmful aspects of modernity that Gregory rightfully laments. “When Luther asked for bread,” remarks Noll, “formal Catholic theology gave him a stone.” The Unintended Reformation, therefore, may be as much an (unintended) criticism of Catholicism as of Protestantism, for Duns Scotus and Ockham were (correct me if I’m wrong here) not quite Lutherans.
Readers of Mark Noll’s most recent book, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind will not be surprised by his remarkable concession to Gregory’s narrative. According to Noll, univocal metaphysics, bequeathed to us by the later Middle Ages, remains the rickety stage upon which the fatuous debates between creationists, some ID proponents, and the new atheists take place. Protestant sources, however, such as B.B. Warfield and Jonathan Edwards, can be just as helpful in combating univocity as pre-modern Catholic and Orthodox theology can be. One need not be Catholic to fathom (non-univocally) that God is outside of but still present to creation. Perhaps this helps explain why, in his review of Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible, Noll describes himself as “someone whose respect for the strengths of Catholicism has grown steadily over the last four decades, and yet whose intention to live out his days as a Protestant also has grown stronger over those same decades.” Interestingly enough, Noll’s conversation with Gregory, ensconced in an evident friendship, is just the kind of charitable disputation that Radner (whose next book is highly anticipated) rightfully demands.
Tuesday, April 17, 2012, 10:43 AM
The Pulitzer granted to Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve caused me to revisit R.R. Reno’s prescient First Things review, which suggests the book offers “a justifying mythology for America’s ruling elite.”
The Swerve [blusters] again and again about the beauty-loathing, eros-denying evils of Christianity… sighing in the usual postmodern way about pleasure and desire. But on one point Greenblatt is true to On the Nature of Things, and this is the therapy of disenchantment. “Human insignificance—the fact that it is not all about us and our fate—is, Lucretius insisted, good news.” Indeed it is good news for Harvard professors, and for anyone else in positions of power. As materialism disenchants, the principles and norms and standards by which we can hold the powerful accountable melt away.
On my way to Harvard square with my djembe and didgeridoo. Who’s with me?
Saturday, December 31, 2011, 2:49 PM
I shall now snootily subvert “the year in culture” blog post genre by linking to one from 2004. A wonderful essay by Una Cadegan in the Confessing History volume (which I reviewed over here), brought my attention to Judith Shulevitz’s 2004 wrap up in Slate, where she wrote the following about Marilynne Robinson.
For inspiration Robinson has reached so far into the prehistory of American writing that she bypasses the Enlightenment conviction that art is distinct from religion. She takes us back to the time of the Puritans, to the era of great and garrulous and promiscuously confessional diaries and testimonials and yes, sermons, all written by men and women who brought a sense of high drama to their struggle to be good that we can hardly imagine anymore. In Gilead‘s universe, as in theirs, the mundane is sacred and the sacred ubiquitous. God is entirely good but frighteningly unknowable. The past of one’s forefathers—whether biblical or abolitionist—has at least as much reality as the fleeting present. And in that conflation of past and present Robinson seems almost to be issuing a prophecy about American literature, to be pointing us toward a spiritual renewal after decades of ever giddier modernism, postmodernism, and moral indifference. The direction she heads us in strikes me as hopeful and fresh, as fresh as the Bible itself, and also slightly terrifying.
A rising tide of books and centers makes it almost a commonplace to suggest that evangelicals are experiencing ressourcement, a rediscovery of the early church that – in Jason Byassee’s words – “is akin to that enjoyed by Catholics in the last century.” Nothing could be better for modern evangelicals. But Robinson is a reminder that such resourcing should include not only the Christian Platonism of the Patristic era, but that of the Puritans as well.
Those Puritans didn’t love the liturgical year, but they were wrong about that. Merry Seventh Day of Christmas First Things readers, which is puzzlingly referred to elsewhere as “New Year.”
Monday, December 12, 2011, 5:35 PM
This year was the sixtieth anniversary of William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale
. Here’s a taste of the bracing new proposals for higher education reform from another Yale graduate, entitled Do It Yourself University
Most people no longer feel the need to visit a large, stone building for hours every week, submit to the authority of a cleric, and listen to some garbled Latin or Hebrew in order to connect to a higher power. I have to wonder if organized higher education could someday go the way of organized religion – not to disappear, by any means, not even to diminish in absolute size, but to cede its place at the very height of human thought and center of daily action.
True, university reform is necessary, the institution having become, in Christopher Olaf Blum’s words, “a chance collection of individuals building their careers.” But when would be reformers are unaware of the academic challenges to secularization theory, that the Catholic Mass is no longer exclusively in Latin, or that Hebrew might actually be worth learning, then there is cause for hesitation. Books such as these inadvertently reveal that universities have failed to pass on much of substance. (That “garbled Latin” verb, tradere, comes to mind.) I can’t speak to the details of DIY U’s Edpunk strategy because paragraphs like the ones above, or the book’s beginning by dismissing colonial colleges in toto, caused me to lose interest. I can say that reform does not come from pressing forward into digital oblivion, but from returning to (ehem) the original ideal, an ideal that can now be digitally enhanced.
Any student worth their salt will supplement formal instruction with some of the resources mentioned in books like DIY U. But they are just that – supplements (and the best of such supplements, sorry to say, require University affiliation to access). Saying, as some do, that wikipedia, iTunes U or the superb Great Courses series have outmoded the collegiate, residential ideal is like saying the internet’s proliferation of recipes has outmoded eating. Colleges still can be, in Blum’s words, “a kind of fellowship, even a friendship, whose characteristic activity [is] to ‘rejoice in the truth’ (gaudium de veritate).” I know because I teach at one. But the thing about friendship is you can’t do it yourself.
Matthew Milliner is Assistant Professor of art history at Wheaton College. You can follow him on twitter.
Tuesday, November 22, 2011, 12:08 PM
Christian complaints of being willfully misunderstood by secularists will win far more sympathy when those same Christians stop willfully misunderstanding contemporary art. P.D. Young has some advice in that regard
: “If you cannot name five contemporary artists, you need put all your plans [to "redeem art"] on hold and get educated. If you intend to help artists think through how their faith relates to their work, you will need to have more examples in mind than Fujimura, O’Connor, Tolkien, Rouault, Bach, and Rembrandt.”
Pushing beyond the “Christian imagination” genre, Mr. Young recommends Dan Siedell’s God in the Gallery, a book richly informed by Catholic and Orthodox theology. As I reread Siedell’s book, I’m dismayed that its lessons – which I attempted to elucidate here – continue to be ignored. It’s not, of course, that understanding the world of contemporary art means endorsing it. But even the most basic effort at understanding will quickly discern that complaints about contemporary art being absurd have long been sounded, quite convincingly, from within the world of contemporary art itself – making Christian “pronouncements” on that score redundant. Did I mention this makes Christian pronouncements redundant? At the very least we should follow the rule that every paragraph of complaint about contemporary art should be backed up with an hour of walking the galleries. But you knew that.
Consider this example of intelligent engagement from the students in my Contemporary Art class at Wheaton College. After a lecture on Conceptual Art, the next day half of my class had disappeared. Replacing them on their desks were written descriptions of each individual student (e.g. “brown hair, 5’5”, inquisitive eyes”). As I read these descriptions and tried to fathom what was happening, the students waited outside, and then dutifully filed back into class. Their point? Words and concepts are insufficient. Physical presence matters – both in class and art. After making the effort to grasp Conceptual Art on its own terms, these students playfully responded with a performance piece of Conceptual Art themselves, one that upended James Franco and reasserted George Steiner’s post-postmodern observation that in the realm of culture, real presence counts.
Tuesday, October 4, 2011, 7:30 AM
In his much-discussed column
last month highlighting Christian Smith’s much-discussed sociology of young adults
, David Brooks laments that young adherents of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism
aren’t even that moral. “Morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart.”
Was ancient Israel, the place where that “morality was once revealed,” any different? Archaeology may be the closest we can get to Christian Smith-style sociological analysis of the Ancient Near East, offering evidence for actual religious practices as oppose to official theological belief. What do recent excavations tell us about ancient Israelite religion on the ground? Archaeologist William Dever (an authority on such matters) drives home the lessons of the dirt:
In ancient Israel, until the Exile, Asherah and Ba’al were not shadowy numina, dead and discredited gods of old Canaan. Rather the pair were potent rivals of [God] himself, and for the masses their cult, with its promise of integration with the very life-giving forces of Nature, remained an attractive alternative to the more austere religion and ethical demands of [official Israelite religion] (164).
Dever is frustrated by attempts to verify the Bible with the spade. “Nothing could be clearer evidence of the modern lack of faith than our… demands for archaeological ‘proof.’” Nevertheless, he suggests that pagan statuary discovered in Israelite sites “merely confirms what the Bible suggests – but downplays… In short, it demonstrates that the prophets knew what they were talking about” (166).
Like those prophets, we should lament that young adults today are marked not by catechized commitment, but by Moralistic (and Snycretistic) Therapeutic Deism. But there’s no reason to be surprised. Less demanding cultural defaults like MTD are ancient religion, not newfangled faith.
Monday, September 12, 2011, 4:59 PM
Those frustrated with the art world’s prohibition of non-ironic religious art might enjoy this lecture from art historian John Walford. Walford begins by quoting a contemporary art critic who asserts the non-existence of serious art by Protestant Christians. Walford then goes on to describe a lifetime of involvement with the very artists who presumably don’t exist: Greg Schreck, Bruce Herman, Joel Sheesley, and Makoto Fujimura among them.
Needless to say, this would not be art history’s first example of creativity flourishing despite being refused. In the nineteenth century, work unacceptable to the formal Parisian Salon grew so voluminous that in 1863 Napoleon III established a Salon des Refusés (“exhibition of the rejected”), which ultimately resulted in a little something called Impressionism.
Are religious artists therefore the new Impressionists? Not necessarily, but the point is this: There are few things more catalyzing to creativity than not being allowed to exist. We might therefore take a moment to pity the non-ironic religious artists of the future who will (inevitably) regain acceptance. The mockery and/or refusal of religious art by the art world may be fleeting. All the more reason to enjoy it.
Thursday, August 4, 2011, 9:07 AM
Everyone is loving to hate Pastor Joe Nelms’ oft-viewed prayer to open a recent NASCAR event. I couldn’t even find an articulate condemnation—something with conviction like, “High priest of consumerism breathes oil-addicted Empire’s last pious gasp.” On offer was only the inevitable autotune remix and haughty snickers. The twitter hashtag might as well have been #howdarehenotbelikeus?
We cultured despisers seem to leave Pastor Nelms four recourses: He should 1) not invite God into the recreational aspect of his life at all, 2) bring to it an artificial solemnity that is clearly out of step with his mode of enjoyment 3) prophetically overturn the NASCAR tables with new urbanist fury (a practice which Christ reserved for religious occasions), or 4) he should take to enjoying lacrosse or polo (and watch his ministry disappear).
Why not apply our ample training in appreciating other cultures to this especially robust portrait of vernacular American faith? The prayer begins, “Heavenly Father, You said ‘in all things give thanks,’ so we want to thank you tonight for these mighty machines.” Pastor Nelms naturally assumes that the “all” in “all things” includes car racing. He then goes on to give thanks for multiple car brands – which both lends the prayer poetic specificity and avoids the impression that it was sponsored by one brand in particular. “May they put on a performance worthy of your strength tonight,” pleads Pastor Nelms, who—when he hears the roar of an engine—knows that God’s power far exceeds it. More lamentable, it seems to me, would be to think God couldn’t measure up.
Sunday, July 31, 2011, 6:54 PM
Amidst commentary on the passing of evangelical leader John Stott has been the occasional suggestion that Stott represented the propositionalist, logic-driven, “modern” evangelicalism of the past. For better or for worse, younger evangelicals today, on the other hand, tend to prefer aesthetic modes of reasoning, the mysterious and personal dimensions of truth, multiple atonement theories (rather than exclusive focus on penal substitution), traditional forms of piety, and an emphasis on social justice, not just saving souls.
To test the old man Stott theory, I picked up his The Cross of Christ, once given to me by a youth pastor to bolster my newfound evangelical faith. It had been a while. I opened it up, bracing myself for an icy blast of old time evangelical religion. Instead, I found a book deeply informed by all the sources so (fittingly) fashionable among evangelicals today: The early Christian fathers and Karl Barth. It turns out, in fact, that The Cross of Christ anticipates each of the younger evangelical characteristics listed above:
1. Aesthetic Modes of Reasoning: Because “God is a rational God, who has made us in his own image,” Stott rightly emphasized discursive reason. And yet, The Cross of Christ begins with an extended meditation on a Holman Hunt painting, only to then move into architectural exploration of St. Paul’s Cathedral, followed by a discussion of early Christian symbolism. To be sure, William Dyrness has recently taken Protestant aesthetics a great deal further (more on that here), but nor should Stott’s choice to begin his most famous book with art history be ignored.
2. Truth’s mysterious and personal dimensions: Stott, needless to say, was no Pseudo-Dionysios, but nor did he make an idol of Cartesian clarity: “What actually happened when ‘God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ’ is a mystery whose depths we shall spend eternity plumbing… it would most unseemly to feign a cool detachment as we contemplate Christ’s cross. For willy-nilly we are involved. Our sins put him there.” Hans Boersma expands these dimensions of evangelical thought, but with Stott – it seems to me – not against him.
3. Multiple atonement theories: As explained by Anthony below, Stott prioritized substitutionary atonement. But the nuance with which he maintains that focus is anything but reductive: “‘Salvation’ is the comprehensive word, but it has many facets which are illustrated by different pictures, of which justification is only one. Redemption… is another… Another is recreation.. Yet another is regeneration or new birth… All these belong together.”
4. Traditional forms of piety: “To be disrespectful of tradition and of historical theology,” announces Stott in the book’s opening pages, “is to be disrespectful of the Holy Spirit who has been actively enlightening the church in every century.” Referring to the practice of Christians crossing themselves, Stott sides with Richard Hooker against the Puritans: “There is no need for us to dismiss this habit as superstition… the sign of the cross was intended to identify and indeed sanctify each act as belonging to Christ.” George Hunsinger, among others, take these Protestant liturgical paths much further, but Stott helped show the way.
5. Social Justice: Stott’s commitment in this area is no secret, and is perhaps best encapsulated in this nice line from The Cross of Christ. “Good Samaritans will always be needed to succour those who are assaulted and robbed; yet it would be even better to rid the Jerusalem-Jericho road of brigands.”
So yes, evangelicalism changed a great deal over Stott’s lifetime. But it appears the best of such changes were not about leaving John Stott behind – but catching up.
Monday, July 11, 2011, 12:48 PM
Though not as good as it might have been (see Thomas Hibbs’ percipient review), Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is a refreshing step down from the nihilistic soapbox. The lesson—in case we’d miss it—is pedantically spelled out: Beware “Golden Age syndrome,” the assumption that the past is always superior to the present. Accordingly, Allen’s protagonist chooses to bravely live in the present (fortunately populated by sultry Parisians), just as—the movie clobbers us over the head to emphasize—should we.
Allen, however, is as nostalgic as the character he criticizes. Just look at the traditional architecture he chooses to spotlight. If the modern age is really so wonderful, why not an extended scene just outside the exo-skeletal Centre Georges Pompidiou? Perhaps I missed it, but why didn’t the camera lovingly linger on La Grande Arche de La Défense in the opening architectural montage? Indeed, if the point is the present, why not go so far as to film a major portion of the movie in the troubled Parisian suburbs? Why? Because what we love about Paris, just like what we love about Manhattan, was mostly built before 1930. That’s not nostalgia—it’s just human.
Wednesday, June 8, 2011, 5:42 PM
The Venice Biennale – the World Cup of art – just awarded top prize to Germany, the Leone d’Oro
for Best National Participation, because of a church
. The winning entry, built by the recently deceased artist Christoph Schlingensief, is an impressive pseudo-chapel lined with the artist’s own video installations, evoking the church where Schlingensief once served as an altar boy. The prize means that pseudo-chapels, where artists mourn lost religion or long for its return, have finally arrived; but they’re not new. Robert Gober’s churchy installation
, complete with a headless crucifix, caused a stir back in 2005. The same year Banks Violette, under the banner of irony, built a twelve foot tall replica of a burned church
inspired by Satanic murders (wish I was kidding).
Pseudo-chapels, however, aren’t all bad (especially when one considers the increasingly ridiculous alternatives). In 2007, Rusty Reno wrote of artist David LaChapelle’s photomural of a phantasmagoric chapel interior, where worshippers were “shocked by the reality of grace that illumines a flood-destroyed church.” This year in Chelsea, the Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch presented a relatively tame pseudo-chapel which improved on a previous installation, where Nitsch played high priest by crucifying a lamb and displaying its entrails (really). Contemporary art’s ecclesial chic can even approximate sermons. Currently at Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art, there is an uneven series of video installations by Francis Alÿs; but the “when faith moves mountains” portion – involving a string of shoveling students shifting a massive dune – is a moving exegesis of Biblical text.
Thursday, February 17, 2011, 10:25 AM
Richard John Neuhaus and Avery Cardinal Dulles were fond of referring to the Catholic Church’s irrevocable commitment to ecumenism. Why then haven’t any Catholics yet taken up the Andrew and Sarah Wilson’s proposal to respond to their Lutheran pilgrimage from Erfurt to Rome with a return journey? And why aren’t more Catholics (not to mention Orthodox) Christians discussing Presbyterian George Hunsinger’s serious and compelling ecumenical proposals in Eucharist and Ecumenism: Let Us Keep the Feast?
Wednesday, February 2, 2011, 3:25 PM
Father Thomas Hopko, the former Dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, relates an unusual anecdote. He describes sitting in on the Lesbian Christology session at the American Academy of Religion, where he heard a scholar severely criticize the notion that God the Father would need to deliberately punish and beat God the Son to satisfy the Father’s own appetite for wrath. The presenter shouted: “This is absolute madness!” Hopko remarks how he wanted to shout out, “I agree with you!” The story can be heard at the eleven minute mark in Hopko’s characteristically forceful lecture (available for free though the indispensable AFR), entitled Understanding the Cross of Christ (ht: Siedell).
In the lecture, Hopko is careful to point out that the satisfaction theology he is criticizing is a debasement of St. Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo; but its vulgarized, popular form requires his addressing the caricature. Hopko admits there is an inescapably substitutionary aspect to the Atonement – but the East, he insists, never sees it in terms of punishment. As Hopko would surely admit, the lecture is only a beginning, and leaves many questions unanswered. For most American Christians, this is unfamiliar turf.
If only the Orthodox view of the Atonement could be explored further, say, in a symposium with some heavyweight theologians and Biblical scholars. But wait! Just such a symposium has been arranged, put on by Princeton’s vibrant Florovsky Society entitled On the Tree of the Cross: The Patristic Doctrine of the Atonement. Register soon, as it’s happening in Princeton next Friday and Saturday, Feb. 11 and 12th, 2011.
Needless to say, the Atonement is a mystery best viewed through multiple window panes. Try, for example, the theology window at the Princeton University Chapel which includes not only Aquinas, Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards, but Paul and Athanasius as well. If such local beauty is not enough to draw you to the symposium, remember that in Princeton, First Things readers always drink free. Just tell any bartender you’re a subscriber. I may be lying about that.
Tuesday, January 25, 2011, 1:08 PM
A one-day symposium exploring that questions is being hosted at the Museum of Biblical Art on February 7th. A PDF of the conference schedule is available here. The intriguing lineup of speakers, chosen by the Association of Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art, appears to be leaning toward the following answer: “There have, but they’ve been ignored.” I suppose, therefore, it would be especially unjust to ignore this symposium as well.
Friday, January 7, 2011, 9:00 AM
In his fitting article on Marian devotion, John Haldane wrote:
Her unique elevation has been criticized from two opposing quarters: On the one hand by Biblical Protestants who view it as superstitious, idolatrous and entirely without scriptural foundation; and on the other by radical feminists who regard it is as part of the confinement of women, casting them in maternal and submissive roles.
Haldane is, of course, correct that criticism of Mary from such quarters has been steady. But perhaps it is further proof of the soundness of Haldane’s reasoning that there have been fortunate shifts on both those fronts.
Firstly, it’s no secret that Protestants are recovering Mary. A sampling of recent books on the subject would include Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary, or Tim Perry’s book Mary for Evangelicals. Perry’s substantial article on Karl Barth’s surprisingly high view of Mary also recently appeared in Pro Ecclesia, entitled “What is Little Mary Here For?” Barth, Mary, and Election.”
Among my favorite pieces are the contributions in Mary: Mother of God, edited by two Lutherans, Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson. There’s also Scott McNight’s The Real Mary: Why Evangelicals Can Embrace the Mother of Jesus. These aren’t just academic expressions either, having, if I recall correctly, graced the cover of Christianity Today in a moving article by Sarah Hinlicky Wilson.
Some third-wave feminists have been turning to Mary as well. Back in the seventies, Marina Warner concluded her study of Mary, Alone of All Her Sex, predicting that while the Virgin’s legend may endure, “it will be emptied of moral significance, and thus lose its present real power to heal and to harm.” Feminists, Warner implied, should give up on Mary. Thirty years later we have not silence, but The Feminist Companion to Mariology, which is but a sampling of the extensive recent literature, some of the best of which I’ve referenced before.
In short, I guess there’s something to “all generations shall call me blessed” after all.
Saturday, December 18, 2010, 4:51 PM
“It was inevitable,” writes William Johnsen in the inaugural issue of English Language Notes (Summer 2006), “that the shame associated with admitting religious belief in the secular world of the human sciences in midcentury would prepare the ground for the great succès de scandale of religious (re)turn at the end of the century.” In other words, some of us may need to click refresh on our stereotype of academia. I’ve written about this phenomenon here before, and about the graying of critical theory at my home address. One consequence of the shift is that new phenomena are now subject to the scrutiny to which religion has long been exposed. You could call it the anthropology of secularism, which is being exemplified by Catholics (Charles Taylor), Muslims (Talal Asad), Evangelicals (Hunter Baker), and—perhaps most interestingly—people of no faith commitment at all (Fenella Cannell).
For further evidence of what is widely called the academy’s “religious turn,” consider this call for papers for an upcoming conference entitled Empowerment and the Sacred:
Friday, December 3, 2010, 11:00 AM
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We all knew that when Stanley Hauerwas, a post-Constantinian if there ever was one, was given the opportunity to review Peter Leithart’s book Defending Constantine, things were going to get ugly. For a pacifist, Hauerwas sure can get rhetorically violent. Here is an excerpt from his Christian Century review, which can only be described as cutthroat:
I think Leithart is right. It is not only that Yoder’s account of Augustine… is inadequate. Nor is it simply, as Leithart argues… that Yoder relied on outdated accounts of the patristic period. Rather, Leithart’s fundamental criticism of Yoder is that he betrayed his own best insights when he denied the possibility that by God’s grace emperors (or whoever is the functional equivalent, such as “the people”) might receive a vision sufficient to make them Christian. That is a point that I think Yoder would find worth considering… As a pacifist I could not want a better conversation partner than Peter Leithart. God is good.
Likewise, we all knew that once Walter Brueggemann, a noted Old Testament scholar, got a hold of the first volume in Brazos’ theological interpretation series, R.R. Reno’s commentary on Genesis, then the dust was really going to fly. Brueggemann, jealously defending his scholarly turf, really let Reno the theologian have it. His Theology Today review reads like a barroom brawl: