Freedom From Food

From Web Exclusives

If vegetarianism is the dietary equivalent of pacifism, then Soylent is a form of dietary celibacy. Soylent is a nutritional drink designed by a software engineer for urban professionals too busy to cook and easily tempted by fast food. Not a supplement, it contains everything your body needs in a few daily gulps of doggedly bland sludge. Think of a vanilla milkshake without the taste of vanilla, milk, or ice cream. Theoretically, you can live on this stuff for the rest of your life. Soylent promises freedom from food. Continue Reading »

Who Has the Authority to Write Theology?

From Web Exclusives

We live in an age of unprecedented theological production. At no point in church history have so many people written so many books and articles, not to mention blogs, wikis, and e-newsletters, about the Christian faith. Twenty-seven years ago, when I began my college teaching career, publishing a book was a notable accomplishment even for scholars at prestigious universities. Nowadays, it is incumbent on every professor no matter where they teach (or what they have to say) to write for their supper. Not only has the oft-predicted collapse of the academic book market not materialized, but the web has revolutionized the very nature of authorship. The Protestant Reformers wanted every believer to be a priest, but they couldn’t have anticipated that anyone with an Internet connection could be a theologian. Continue Reading »

The Myth of the Apophatic Areopagite

From Web Exclusives

When most theologians hear the phrase “absolutely ineffable,” they nod approvingly and reach for their Dionysius. I cringe and reach for the Bible. Every theologian can admit that the Bible’s descriptions of God need to be contextualized, qualified, and grounded in a properly Christian metaphysics, but for many theologians today, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite delivers us from the problem of anthropomorphism altogether. Especially for those influenced by postmodernism or postfoundationalism, everything Dionysius says about God—and he says plenty—adds up to one great (and absolutely good) negation. (Dionysius wrote in the early sixth century and used a pseudonym based on the Athenian convert Paul mentions in Acts 17:34.) Continue Reading »

The Sound of Salvation

From the October 2014 Print Edition

Can music save your mortal soul?” Don McLean asked that question in his 1971 classic, “American Pie.” Released when I was ten years old, it was the first rock song that I could sing word for word. I understood none of its historical allusions, but I grooved to its catchy phrases, graphic images, and compelling, if obscure, narrative arc. McLean’s nostalgic lament echoed the same acoustic mixture of grief and joy, tragedy and triumph, that I experienced in the gospel songs of my Evangelical church. We were sad about the cross but happy about the Resurrection. We regretted our sin but knew that on a hill far away someone died to set us free.“A long, long time ago,” McLean gently begins, summoning a mythical past. I didn’t know what whiskey and rye tasted like, but I loved to sing with typical adolescent bluster, “This’ll be the day that I die.” Years later I learned that “the day the music died” was a reference to the 1959 plane crash that took the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper, but to my innocent ears, it just had to be about the cross. Why else would all the children scream in the streets, lovers cry, and while “not a word was spoken, the church bells all were broken”? On Golgotha, the Son cried out but no one answered. Isn’t that what McLean was getting at when he sang about the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost taking “the last train for the coast”?Then there are the questions McLean kept asking. “Did you write the Book of Love, and do you have faith in God above?” I knew the answer to those—God wrote the Bible, and I believed in Jesus—but when he also asked, “Do you believe in rock and roll?” I was more uncertain. In 1971, Evangelical leaders were denouncing Larry Norman and asking young people to burn their albums (which I did, in the backyard, saving a few of my favorites) or at least play them backwards to discover their hidden satanic messages. Could popular songs like “American Pie” really serve as a musical expression of my faith? Continue Reading »

The End of Negative Theology

From Web Exclusives

When I was in graduate school in the eighties, negative theology was all the rage because it seemed like such a blessing. What better form could a theologian give to the confounding perplexities of deconstruction and the metaphysical obfuscations of postmodernism? Not willing to admit that radical theology was merely reactive, I wrote my dissertation on Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans to show that Barth was Derrida avant la lettre. I have since repented of such foolishness. Evangelism is the best retort to questions about our ability to speak about God. As St. Paul said, “I believed, and so I spoke” (2. Cor. 4:13). In the act of witnessing, ambivalence and indecision melt into air. Continue Reading »

Prison, Purgatory, and Heaven

From Web Exclusives

Several years of prison ministry have convinced me that there are substantial parallels between what we think about incarceration and how we understand salvation. After all, Christians believe that we are imprisoned by sin and that, rather than trying to escape our condition, we need to undergo a personal transformation before we can enter into the full presence of God. True, sin is universal in a way that jail is not. Nonetheless, crimes against the civil order and rebellion against God overlap in interesting and complicated ways, which makes prisoners among the most conspicuous, though certainly not the most hopeless, examples of humanity’s fallen state. Continue Reading »

Dante’s Heavenly Idealism

From Web Exclusives

The great French historian Jacques Le Goff credited Dante with doing more than any theologian to make purgatory a meaningful part of Christian tradition, and, more recently, Jon M. Sweeney has argued that Dante practically invented the modern idea of hell. Whatever the merits of these claims, I would like to suggest that Dante exercised a similar influence on the Christian understanding of heaven—and that this influence is not what Dante’s many modern devotees might suspect. Continue Reading »

John Updike the Blogger

From Web Exclusives

Every critic knows that John Updike was a gleeful child of his age, but did he rise above it? The common complaint against him is that the greatness of his style eclipsed the thinness of his substance, and Adam Begley’s new biography, full of insightful and sympathetic detail, does little to dim such prejudices. Begley portrays Updike as a man who could not stop writing and as a writer who could not stop thinking about himself. For Begley, in fact, Updike comes across as America’s first (and finest) blogger. Continue Reading »

Shaken not Smoked

From the August/September 2014 Print Edition

Marijuana is becoming more socially acceptable and legally available. It would seem that a majority of Americans are in favor of decriminalizing the recreational use of pot, and the Department of Justice has advised federal prosecutors that possession of a small amount of it is not an “enforcement priority.” Those of us not opposed to a stiff drink will have to ask ourselves some hard questions. Why condemn joints when we’re okay with single malt scotch? Should the Church step in where parents and politicians are pulling out?Once limited to the black market, cannabis now has the seal of medical approval in many states. It’s come over the pharmaceutical counter and is poised to take a leap onto the supermarket shelves. At that point, consumerism will kick in and drive morality out. After all, in an age of taurine supplements, memory enhancers, wheatgrass juice, personal cappuccino machines, and colonic irrigations, most Americans find it hard to pass judgment on how others use their purchasing power to manage their stress. When peace of mind becomes a pleasure cheaply bought, the moral high ground is hard to find. Continue Reading »