A Time to Keep:
Theology, Mortality, and the Shape of a Human Life
by ephraim radner
baylor, 304 pages, $49.95
A Time to Keep is an odyssey—a journey through childhood and adolescence, work and sexuality, aging and dying. The reader encounters Sigmund Freud on dying and death, Jennifer Michael Hecht on the history of suicide, Martin Luther on the nature of work, and the Book of Leviticus on the body and holiness. He will cross the battlefields of same-sex marriage, euthanasia, and transhumanist visions of the person. What ties all these together is the body—understood in terms of the Christian story and the limits of our mortal frame.
Radner summarizes his project:
To have a body and deploy it is bound up with the fact that we are born and we die within a short span of years. And this being born and dying is itself—in all of its biology of connection, memory, and hope—a mirror of and vehicle for the truth of God’s life as our creator.
The unfolding of this argument is complex, drawing deeply upon the Old Testament and the New, and upon a wide range of historical and sociological sources. Radner describes the great transition that has occurred in the modern West, consisting of shrinking family sizes, delayed marriage and childbearing, extended life spans, and a rise in the proportion of single adults. Before this transition, we saw life as genealogically framed. Human creatures were born and died and knew their limits: begat, begat, begat. We are now less certain about what Radner calls our “skinfulness”—the use of the body, our membership in family, the inevitability of death. This change compromises our ability to understand the Christian story.
Radner’s account gains poignance from his reflections on his mother’s and sister’s suicides. With his mother’s death when he was a child, “hopes and trust were wiped away here, including the simple confidence that life’s bonded purposes are more real than its dissolving center.” But the catastrophe showed him “a profound truth, even if one under threat: because such a death is ‘not how it should be,’ what is truer even than this has come to light.” Radner presses forward to what is “truer even than this” by exploring the character of the “image of God” as a gift to humanity. Rather than jumping from Genesis 1 straight to Revelation, he attends to the twists and turns of mortal life in the Bible’s overall narrative.
Radner’s book is densely written. In part, this reflects the seriousness of his intellectual project—wide and expansive, sure to command the attention of scholars for years, even decades, to come. Yet this denseness is also a liability, not least because it will limit the audience of a work with such significance. More than once, it seemed that I was on an odyssey without the Homeric narrator. I felt this most acutely when Radner’s highly Christological framing of the project in the opening pages seemed to disappear for much of the book amid detailed discussions of holiness, suicide, theories of human development, and more.
At points it is hard to see how certain antinomies in his account can fit together. For example, he displays considerable eschatological reserve throughout the book, going so far as to critique “the Christian exhortations regarding heaven and hell, and the carefully wrought images of their reality that the church has fabricated.” In the face of “all simplistic pieties,” the Church “must remain silent” because of mortal limitations in the face of death. Yet Radner is far from a skeptic on eschatology, as a mere thirteen pages later he uses the eschatological vision of the worship of the Lamb in Revelation to find norms for the present. How does he fit these two theological moves together? Readers receive little help. This lack of clarity is exacerbated by Radner’s Hegelian sentences, which make most modern academic prose seem like child’s play.
Yet wrestling with this dense work is deeply rewarding. Most writers treat sex, parenting, celibacy, suicide, and mortality as discrete topics, but Radner discloses a deeper landscape. This is particularly evident in his beautiful chapter on the vocation of singleness. Radner embraces a traditional Christian sexual ethic. However, he does not simply repeat conventional debates about key Scripture passages (such as Romans 1). Instead, he fits marriage, procreation, singleness, and celibacy within a broad biblical picture of what it means to be mortal creatures. He does so in a way that recognizes the depth of the theological and pastoral challenges facing the Church. He gives a textured account of how married Christians need single Christians, and vice versa. Indeed, singles have a profound witness, for
singleness moves through the landscape of mortality as a diaconal complement to marriage’s genealogical service, always pressing it outward, opening it up, to the distinctive realities of the gospel’s expansive movement.
Those who are single restore our delight in friendship—a human reality that can be all too distant for busy parents, yet a central feature of our creaturely character most fully disclosed in God’s friendship with us in Christ.
Embodiment, aging, sexuality, eating, and dying are all deeply intertwined. And they all point to our common calling as mortals: “A central Christian vocation is to grasp an answer to the question of how one learns from life in a way that leads neither to confusion nor to resentment but to fear and to praise.” As Radner reminds us, this act of praise does not occur apart from our mortal frames, but within them.
J. Todd Billings is the Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.