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 . . . . 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 »