Review

A Compromised Evangelical Witness: A review of Vote Your Conscience

If you are an evangelical thinking of voting for Trump for President and if you are a progressive Christian scratching your head about evangelical support for Trump you need to read Brain Kaylor’s current book Vote Your Conscience: Party must not Trump Principles. The book is part an evangelical Baptist wrestling with evangelical support for Donald Trump, part critique of the Religious Right as it has largely fallen in line behind the Republican candidate for President, and part argument for the author’s view of a politics that is reflective of the politics of Jesus and not of a party, Republican or Democrat.  The book is a direct response to this election and to the candidacy of Trump (Clinton as a candidate is addressed but not a focus of the book). Kaylor argues that support for Trump by evangelicals deeply undermines evangelical witness of the Gospel.  Kaylor deeply believes in the relevance of Christian faith to being politically active, but is discomforted by how party politics seems to drag faith along and Christians allow this to happen

Kaylor first addresses the candidacy of Trump and Clinton and seeks to address his remarks to Christian supporters of both presidential candidates.  He makes a case that Trump and Clinton are both unacceptable candidates from a Christian perspective. Kaylor is his most convincing as he argues that Christians should hold to a holistic pro-life ethic and not simply anti-abortion.  In his view, both candidates fail as “pro-life” candidates, in this holistic sense.  While I appreciate Kaylor’s arguing for a holistic pro-life ethic it was clear that the author’s audience for this book isn’t Christians or the church catholic but conservative Baptists and evangelicals. His treatment of Clinton assumes you already are suspicious of her and might be thinking of her as the greater evil and Trump as the lesser evil.  That one may not see Hillary Clinton as the lesser “evil” or not an “evil“ at all doesn’t come into view. Similarly, his holistic pro-life ethic begins with the question of abortion and expand out from that standpoint, and the book isn’t aware that one may have a different beginning point in having a holistic “pro-life” ethic.  But in truth, this book isn’t addressed to all Christians in the U.S. rather the audience is Kaylor’s fellow Baptists and Evangelicals who are supporting Trump for President or considering doing so.

If you’re not evangelical, you will have to forgive some of the conflation of “Christian” with “Evangelical”. If you are an evangelical Kaylor has a well-argued position for why support for Trump is an abandonment of your Gospel witness. The strength of this book is a clear Biblical Gospel argument for not supporting Trump for President and a sustained prophetic Gospel critique of evangelical and Religious Right leaders who have thrown in with Donald Trump. For progressive Christians who tend to lump all Evangelicals in the same basket Kaylor’s book shows that Evangelicalism isn’t as univocal as our treatment of Evangelicals tends to assume.

 

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255

Review of the Atonement of God by J. D. Meyers

J. D. Meyer’s Atonement of God attempts several things: demonstrate the inadequacy of the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement, explore alternatives to penal substitution theory, and argue for Non-violent atonement theory, and demonstrate the benefits of this theory. The Atonement of God, for this reader who doesn’t hold to penal substitution atonement theory, fails to make the case, except in showing the benefits of non-violent atonement theory.

The Atonement of God is divided into two parts. Part 1 is the author’s presentation of four theories of atonement.  Chapter 1 deals with three atonement theories. Though any one theory is only dealt with briefly and never on their own terms. The presentations of the theories of atonement function two fold, first o establish a need for the non-violent theory of atonement that Meyer’s wishes to argue for and to begin his argument in favor of non-violent theory of atonement. In the midst of these presentations of a few theories of atonement in order to argue for non-violent theory of atonement Meyers introduces a strange interpretation of God’s rejection of Cain’s fruit and vegetable offering, that is unsupported by the admittedly succinct Scriptural text.  More or less both part two and part one of the First section of The Atonement of God is an extended argument for non-violent theory of atonement, and his most extensive Biblical argument for non-violent atonement is an idiosyncratic interpretation of the sacrifice of Cain.

The strongest section of the book is the second and final section of the book of the book on the benefits of non-violent theories of atonement.  Yet even his presentation of non-violent theory of atonement is week.  His scriptural interpretation is often idiosyncratic, more than once stretches the meaning of texts and doesn’t deal with Scripture or tradition that points to other theories.  One striking omission of the book is his repeated reference to that Penal substitution theory of atonement was not preferred in the early church, and that what has been the preferred theory is closer to his presentation of non-violent theory of atonement. Yet, he never once references let alone quotes any writer or theologian from the first thousand years of the Church.  He makes claims but doesn’t back them up. His presentation of non-violent atonement is dependent upon an idiosyncratic interpretation of Scripture, use of only 20th and 21st century theologians, while claiming his pet theory (rightly so) is older than exclusive focus upon penal substitution, yet he never quotes a theologian from the early church or any Eastern Orthodox theologians.

If you are looking for an alternative to western Protestant views of the atonement one grounded in both Scripture and Tradition this isn’t the book.  The author and the reader would do well to simply read the Rev. Dr. Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World.  While not technically a book on or a theory of the Atonement it does speak to the reality of the atonement and its effects, what the atonement intends to do, and the motivation of God to bring life to the world out of love for the world.  If the reader want’s to study theories of atonement along the lines of J.D. Meyer’s book, reading the authors Meyer’s bibliography and for the life of the would be a better place to study than this book.

J. D. Meyer’s book is disorganized uses strawman arguments and shows only real knowledge of a few contemporary Biblical Scholars. The conclusion of his work presents positive reasons for someone uncertain about abandoning Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory for non-violent theory of the atonement. Perhaps, that should have been the book had Meyer had an editor the editor may have been able to direct the author to a more focused work with the modest goal of a positive presentation of non-violent atonement theories and why someone who has lived only with the belief that penal substitutionary theory was the only “orthodox” theory should, based on the Gospel and revealed character of God, consider other possible theories. But this book was not that book

Book site: RedeemingGod.com
Reviews and Excerpts from The Atonement of God
The Atonement of God on Facebook
Jeremy Myers on Twitter
The Atonement of God on Amazon: http://amzn.to/1ThcG43

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

The Intellectual Life of Bonhoeffer: A review of Strange Glory

A Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Charles Marsh brings to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s biography some previously unknown tidbits, and a well-documented and academic account of Dietrich Bonhoeffer the theologian.  The work is thoroughly documented and has extensive footnotes and bibliography.  If one is looking for a place to begin some research into the life and or ideas of Bonhoeffer, this biography is a great resource.  If , however, one is looking for a biography of Bonhoeffer that is engaging and a good read, as with many academic oriented writings, Strange Glory isn’t such a biography.

Strange Glory in keeping with its academic tone and thoroughness focuses upon Bonhoeffer’s intellectual and theological development.  Frequently, Marsh writes extensive summaries of theologians and other intellectuals with whom Bonhoeffer had contact of whom Marsh believes had influence upon Bonhoeffer.  This almost leaves portions of the biography feeling like an intellectual history of early twentieth century Western theologians, intellectuals, and activists. Thanks to this Life I have Marsh’s sense of Bonhoeffer’s place in 20th century Western theology.  Yet I feel this intellectual and academic focus misses a great deal of who Bonhoeffer was.

As Marsh admits Bonhoeffer was not only a person of ideas and intellectual pursuits but a social and extroverted person with many talents, music, sports etc.  Marsh takes little time to show us Bonhoeffer in his social environment, or to give us a sense of what it might have been like, for instance,  for Bonhoeffer to participate in ecumenical conferences just before and during the Kirchenkampf.  There are of course other Life’s of Bonhoeffer that give us these things, it’s just that without them Marsh’s life of Bonhoeffer is dull reading at frequent points.  Informative but dull.

After Reading Strange Glory: a Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I feel ready to delve into the scholarship of Bonhoeffer.  This Life provides a way to ground research into Bonhoeffer’s theology in his development as a theologian and the climate at the time of those writings.  However, I don’t feel I know Bonhoeffer better as a person, nor did I find this life of Bonhoeffer inspiring or moving.  Strange Glory doesn’t even offer new insight nor further reflection on the person of Bonhoeffer.  This is a great resource for those outside of the academy (and Bonhoeffer scholarship) who may want some means to begin their own research into Bonhoeffer and have that research grounded in the sitzen im leben of any particular work of Bonhoeffer’s.  However, if one is looking for inspiration or deeper insight into the person of Dietrich Bonhoeffer there are far better biographies, and if you are willing to slog through a tome Bethge’s biography remains best read in this regard.

Interview with Charles Marsh

Charles Marsh is professor or religious studies at the University of Virginia and the director of The Project on Lived Theology

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

 

Weaving One’s life with Christ’s: review of Sight in a Sandstorm

Sight in Sandstorm is a book difficult to categorize: part devotional, part creative retelling of the four Gospels, part historical Jesus scholarship and part devotional.  Ann Temkin creatively weaves her own story into the Gospel and Gospels.  Her story telling  both engages the reader and is informed by Historical Jesus scholarship and intimate knowledge of the Scriptures and Gospels.

Each chapter is the weaving of the authors story with stories Jesus, retelling (Mid-rash on) of the Gospel stories.  In her retelling she seeks to give the reader some insight into the possible internal life and experience of those Jesus encountered, both those he healed and his disciples.  Mary Magdalene and Peter get the most treatment.  This allows us the reader to see how there’s a conversation between the author’s life and the Gospels and stories of Jesus.

My only critique is that the metaphor of sight in a Sandstorm never seemed to fit with the account (not that I understood what this metaphor is supposed to convey either, though it is connected with her experience of hiking in the desert).  However, I highly recommend this book to anyone who is seeking to know how the Gospels and the life of Jesus can inform one’s life of faith.  It is the book is an excellent example of what it means to have faith in Jesus Christ that is intertwined with one’s daily life.  In a time when for many faith is mere assent to certain propositions or theories about God, Temkin shows how the life of Jesus and the four Gospels can be intertwined into our lives such that Jesus Christ truly lives in our midst.

Ann Temkin‘s website

Sight in the Sandstorm on Amazon

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Theoldicy and Atonement theories out flanked: A More Christ Like God

Bradley Jersak’s A More Chirstlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel, is an excellent reflection of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ and its meaning for our salvation.  Jersak  sees that we have come to some misunderstandings of God.  The source of this misunderstanding for Jersak is that we’ve been distracted, by a belief that God controls everything even evil, and by theodicy that attempt to rescue God from being the monster God becomes when God’s being all-powerful means God causes evil, and by our theories of the Atonement.

For the most part I found myself cheering as I read, as Jersak deftly identifies some of the prominent problems in current Evangelicalism and with Calvinism and Fundamentalism, by showing how they don’t line up with the tried and faithful interpretation of Scripture that begins with Christ and reads all Scripture in light of Christ being the full revelation of God, “If you have seen me(Jesus of Nazareth) you have seen the Father.”  At moment’s I’d use slightly different language and I’d have preferred a more robust articulation of the nature of metaphorical language and how it functions, but in the end Jersak offers a needed corrective to much that seeks to pass itself off as the guardian of the ‘truth” or for “orthodoxy” or “Christianity”  Jersak is no guardian of truth, but seeks to present a truth about God that needs no hedges or fences around it to keep it safe.

For some (unfortunately perhaps many) Jersaks presentation of God as revealed fully in Jesus Nazareth the Christ, will seem strange and new.  In a time and culture where recoveries of the Faith Once delivered to the saints soled to us as new, Jersak readily admits this is no new discovery.  I appreciate  that he is also able to speak of things that have a long history in the Mind of Church in fresh ways, that show that the “orthodoxy” he is presenting is deeply life-giving and grounded in traditional affirmations of God as Trinity and of the Son’s incarnation as Jesus of Nazareth, and Jesus Christ;s life death and Resurrection.

In a couple of places I feel Jersak stumbles in his presentation.  At times he seems to use metaphor as secondary way of knowing about God and God in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.  Thus, things he has difficulty squaring with his presentation of the more Christlike god, have to do with that we’ve taken literally what was to be taken metaphorically.  However, he seems to think that there can be literal speech about God.  While I appreciate his language of consent and participation, he doesn’t seem to acknowledge that even those terms are problematic “literally” when speaking of God.  Jersak advises a humility in our speech about God, yet stops short of saying that even his presentation is itself subject to the same negation and affirmation as the presentations of God with which he struggles. Jersak rightly calls to our attention that we must pay careful attention to who Jesus Christ is presented to be in the Gospels for Jesus was God’s full revelation of God’s self, what Jersak never says is that that revelation also keeps us from speaking about God, it also hides God.  Understanding the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is key, it however does not allow us to speak “literally” or directly about God.  In a sense all speech about God even Jersaks wonderful and deeply helpful book are metaphorical.

In the end, the book fizzled out for me as Jersak concludes his book with he presentation of The Gospel in Chairs: the Beautiful Gospel, which was first developed by the Orthodox priest Father Anthony Carbo. While I understand why Jersak concludes the book in this way : He wants to offer a way for people to communicate and pass on what he ha presented in the book that he has found helpful and that touches people. However, I had the same feeling I have always had with the Four Spiritual Laws:  Its problem is why its so useful, it is oversimplified.

Overall though A More Christlike God should be read by any who have ever been troubled by certain Evangelical and Calvinist presentations of a God who is in control and whose wrath and anger would come down on you except for Jesus stepping in.  I hope any who have been so troubled will then be able to see that they were correct to be troubled because who God has revealed God self to be in Jesus Christ contradicts those troubling idols.

Interview of Jersak by Peter Enns

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Sacramental Politics: A Review

In Sacramental Politics: Religious worship as political action, Brian Kaylor explores the various ways religion and politics commingle, focusing on acts of worship and political activism.   The book presents a problem: Two things that don’t go together and we think of as separate and radically different things do in fact often come together, religion and politics. Religious worship can influence and affect politics and politics can effect religious worship.  Given the dominant view of religion and politics that they are two irreconcilable and separate realms, Kaylor offers a theory of how to account for the times that religious worship and political action and activism do come together and commingle.  His theory for how this occurs uses the doctrine of transubstantiation as a  controlling metaphor as he explores this commingling of religion and politics varying from prayers said at Democrat and Republican party conventions to Shane Claiborne’s 2008 Jesus for President tour.

At first Kaylor’s uncritical acceptance of our current beliefs and assumptions about religion and politics was disorienting.  At first it seems that Kaylor merely accepts the assumption that politics and religion are entirely separate spheres that have (or should have) nothing to do with each other while seeking to give an account of the many and varied ways religion and politics do in fact have a great deal to do with each other.  This apparent acceptance of this view, affirmed that religion and politics really were these two absolutely distinct substances that couldn’t naturally commingle, yet the author also seemed to want to give a positive or at last neutral account of the transubstantiation of politics in worship and worship in politics.  It was difficult to tell in the early chapters whether Kaylor was arguing that this “transubstantiation” was something to avoid that violated the clear and true realms of political and religious activity, or if the author was meaning that religious worship had a relevance to the world and politics and thus “transubstantiation” was the way this was allowed to occure.

The first four chapters given the acceptance of our general assumption that religion and politics should be and are separate and irreconcilable things, seems to critique the ways both the religious left and religious right make use of  transubstantiation.  Though, Kaylor’s stance is one of academic and scientific description of what occurs without judgement.  Also, I had the unease of if one accepts the absolute separation, then religion and worship are meaningless activities that can have no relation to any real action in the world political or otherwise. By the fifth Chapter “Religious Worship as Political Space” the transubstantiation theory begins to be an indirect critique of the assumptions about religion and politics the author seemed to accept as a given.

Chapters 6 and 7 get to the heart of Kaylor’s position: “Religious worship as inherent Political Action” and “Relgious worship as Politics.”  For Kaylor there is no way to actually separate out religion and politics, politics will at moments simply be transubstantiated in religion or worship and religion and/or worship will be transubstantiated in politics.  However, Kaylor believes we should be aware of how and when this occurs and shouldn’t accept all instances of this transubstantiation

Sacramental Politics offers a good and extended reflection on the various ways that religion and politics interact, mix together and influence and participate in each other.  His theory of “transubstantiation” is useful only in the rhetorical structure of the book that seeks to undermine our assumptions about the absolute and impenetrable “wall of Separation” between religion and politics that if it were true would render religion and worship to be a merely meaningless private individual subjectivity that would have no effect or consequence for how one would live their daily life.  And would render politics as a realm that any true person of faith couldn’t enter into as a person of faith.  What Kaylor in the end offers is a way to move beyond our current assumptions and dogmas about the separation of religion and politics offering a way to evaluate and critique any particular instance of the commingling of religious worship and political action. However, I’d argue since the “theory” presented in the book functions more as a rhetorical device to avoid a direct critique of our cultural and societal assumptions and dogmas, for Kaylor or anyone to move forward one would need to leave the author’s theory behind.

On the Web:

Brian Kaylor

Brian Kaylor on Twitter

Biran Kaylor on Facebook

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

A Nice Indian Boy: A Rich and Savory Play

Rasaka Theatre’s current production is the Midwest premier of Madhuri Shekar’s A Nice Indian Boy, Running through March 8 at Victory Gardens..  Full disclosure my wife Kate Setzer Kamphausen is the Costume Designer for the production

A Nice Indian Boy is a poignant family comedy that explore the meaning of love marriage, gender, ethnicity and the adaptation and transmission of tradition.  We the theater goer are simply dropped into an episode in the life of an Indian immigrant family.  The mother and father (Megha Gavaskar and Artchit Gavaskar) were born and married in India and then immigrated to the U.S where they had and have raised their two children (Arundhathi and Naveen) in the San Francisco Bay area.  We meet this family as the son  Naveen (the youngest of the two children) has met and is in a serious relationship with his boyfriend, Keshav.

On the day Naveen has planned to introduce Keshav to his parents his sister, who lives in New York, shows up unannounced and without her husband.  In this scene tensions mount in both hilarity and painful to watch misunderstanding and retrenchment.  Arundhathi, reveals that she has felt pressured into the marriage her parents arranged (as their marriage was arranged) and is resentful of how they now seem so accepting of her brothers not only choosing whom he will be with but that he is bringing home a boy.  the boyfriend is both more Indian than Indian and not what Archit and Megha expected.

As a comedy the rest of the play works out these tensions as characters wrestle with love, family acceptance and how to maintain ethnic identity and traditions.  Resolution comes as it becomes apparent that tradition and identity are more fluid, richer and more complex than we may at first perceive, especially when we feel that identity threatened by the unexpected.

A controlling trope through which the play works out these tensions is cooking.  Rasaka’s production of the play draws out how even the structure of the play progresses like a meal being cooked.  At the beginning of the play the members of this family are all very distinct and separate.  It was almost hard to see what their family life was like.  The distinct and sharp character traits of each individual character is up front, like the separate ingredients of a dish as one gather’s up all the ingredients for a meal or dish.  Over the course of the play the characters slowly blend and aspects of their characters that stood out against others blends with and heightens traits of other characters, like a well cooked dish where each ingredient is recognized but not as itself but in its interaction with other flavors and textures.

Cooking also is central to the story as both Achit and Keshav, love to cook.  Both are men, and slowly it is revealed that Megha doesn’t cook and hasn’t cooked for the entirety of their marriage except for the first week when she ruined every dish she cooked, and one night woke to her new husband cooking in the kitchen. She and her husband had a feast of food he cooked, and Megha hasn’t cooked since.  Archit though is very particular of following his mother and grandmothers recipes, yet when it came to the recipe of marriage and gender roles in marriage, Archit and Megha have already changed up the ingredients.

The play ends happily and with the family having become comfortable with the tensions and more aware of how one can play with the recipe and yet still have the same dish.  However, all isn’t resolved.  We leave them to live out their lives.  A Nice Indian Boy  leaves the audience savoring and ruminating upon the complexity and richness of ethnic identity and traditions.

Theology From Exile – Volume II – The Year of Matthew : A Review

Theology From Exile is a commentary series on the Revised Common Lectionary by Sea Raven.  Each Volume takes one year in the three year lectionary cycle.  Volume I goes through year C in the three year cycle or as the commentary calls it the “Year of Luke.  We are Currently in Year A, the year of Matthew so as I’ve read through this commentary I’ve been pay particular close attention to the entries for the end of Easter and this Sunday Trinity Sunday, as I’ve been preparing my sermons.

I begin with a caveat: I no longer make use of commentaries in my sermon preparation.  I haven’t for a number of years.  My disillusionment and eventual disregard for the commentary started in my seminary preaching courses.  At first I dutifully read the text, consulted the Biblical Scholarship and got ahold of as many commentaries as I could get my hands on.  This process my preaching professor assured me hindered my preaching, and I had to admit that for the purpose of preaching commentaries could always only provide the backdrop for my personal understanding of the text but not really enter into the sermon itself.  The problem with commentaries is that they are either too specific and detailed or too general, or they attempt to be both.  Now I only consult a commentary when I feel I need a refresher in the basic scholarship around the text, or have a particular problem or conundrum in the text relating to the topic of my sermon that I need help from a scholars in resolving.

Over all I like the idea of a commentary on the Lectionary.  Sea Raven in Volume II The Year of Matthew sets the texts, the scholarship and the choices of the Lectionary into the context of the Sunday and Season in which the Biblical texts are assigned.  Many I think will find such an arrangement and reflection helpful in preparation of sermons.  Also, for those who are seeking  a way that contemporary scholarship like that of the Jesus Seminary, and Dominic Crossan might preach, this commentary provides a possibility, (I’ve preached in conversation with Crossan and I’d have written a very different commentary).

In the end like all commentaries this one has it’s limits.  The limits of the Year of Matthew are it’s dismissal of most of historic Christian interpretation of the texts and the Dogma of the Church.  Not surprisingly as the author is a Unitarian/Universalists, trinitarian theology is dismissed.  Also exactly why I should be paying attention to Jesus of Nazareth and the texts of the Bible at all is never really made clear.  At moments one could read some entries as seeing some claims of incarnation, and “kenosis” is key to the interpretations provided in the commentary, but there seems to be shrinking back from any sort of actuality to the kenosis, which all remains a bit in the realm of ideas.  Like many commentaries one gets the views of the scholar but not always much insight into the meaning of the Scriptures themselves.

For a variety of reasons I’ve found the commentary disappointing. Though that is also not surprising since I long ago found commentaries a necessary but disappointing genre.  The Theology From Exile series and Volume II The Year of Matthew are particularly disappointing though because I feel that the idea of a commentary on the RCL engaging contemporary scholarship and Tradition could have produced something quite amazing.  As it is Sea Ravens narrow sense of contemporary scholarship that excludes a the opinions of a number of contemporary scholars who apparently are simply too close to traditional interpretations to be of interest or to be taken seriously.

If your looking for a commentary with the attitude of John Shelby Spong and that will show you how to preach from the scholarship of Dominic Crossan and the Jesus Seminar this is the commentary for you.  However, if your looking for a wider perspective or actual engagement with the history of interpretation of these texts, this is not the commentary for you.

Theology from Exile — Amazon

Theology from Exile — GoodReads

Sea Raven — Blog

Sea Raven — Twitter

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

 

 

The Great Emergence and the problem of periodization

Ed. note: I’ve edited this from a blog post on my personal blog back in 2009.  I’m in the process of reposting here some posts that fit with the themes and projects related to what I’m doing here at Priestly Goth.  I recently re-read The Great Emergence.  My opinion of the work hasn’t changed.

When I first picked up Phyllis Tickle’s book The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why, I already had a bias against the work due to my historiographical training which had instilled a respect and healthy skepticism of periodization in the discipline of history: I see periodization as both necessary but problematic. Dividing up history into periods hides as least as much as it reveals. (We’ll get back to this in a moment.) But also I am sceptical about all this talk about “emergence” specifically that this particular period is particularly significant in terms of emergence. Now to be clear this scepticism is from perhaps the opposite side of what one would expect. I am not denying that things have changed, nor do I think that some static immovable notion of Christianity and church needs preservation.  Rather my skepticism stems from being a product of what was being called post-modern and what seems to be especially with Tickle being called the Great Emergence.

As one who is a product of whatever we want to and will call this shift, I am uncertain that focusing almost exclusively on change or “emergence” is the best way for Christians to keep their bearings. On some level my scepticism is that apart from rapid technological change, what we are talking about doesn’t simply happen at discrete moments or even discrete extended moments and then stop, something Tickle admits throughout her work, though all while insisting on the new . But if we leave aside problematic periodization and the desire to compartmentalize time one simply has flux of a continual emergence. Things morph slowly or quickly from one thing to another, one can choose to attempt to stabilize this flux long enough to make generalizations over extend periods of time but then one is also simultaneously needing to admit that at the beginning of period x one still has the traits of the preceding period y to a large degree and only modified slightly and by the time one can talk about period x having a full blown and distinguishable traits from period y, one is already finding traits that are to come in the period Z. And so forth and so on ad infinitum. (again something Tickle does admit, but to admit this deconstructs her framework).

My difficulty with The Great Emergence,  is that Tickle doesn’t offer this periodization as a useful construct for understanding developments in (Western) Christianity but in some sense posits that this periodization as a real happening within the flow of time and human culture, or at least what we now Call “Western” culture,  that is an empirical description of the nature of time and pan-cultural process.  I can accept it as a useful construct, that gives us a mythology with which to understand our situation,though I may prefer other mythologies, but it doesn’t pass muster as an actual description of the way things are, nor could such a brief overview of vast historical periods do so.

One of the things that is enjoyable in reading Tickle as well as listening to hear speak is the poetry of her thought. She uses the image (that she borrowed) of that emergence every 500 years is when the Church has a “rummage sale”: things get shaken up, excess is redistributed and one feels lighter. While the image of rummage sale seems apt for our time especially for those who are attaching themselves to Emergent or the emergent church. Some things thought long gone are dug up and polished off and used again and things once thought essential are tossed out, and its pretty much up to the individual or particular group exactly what is tossed and what is polished up and used again.

The Reformation (Or “Great Reformation” according to Tickle) is perhaps aptly described, though it seems to be a very Protestant characterization of what happened. I have difficulty seeing Roman Catholics or the Orthodox using such characterization to understand themselves in this period. However, I think it is an apt description what the reformers  themselves(Luther, Zwingli, Calvin etc.) were doing: digging around in the attic with a good bit of jettisoning of what was thought to be of little importance by the reformers.

Yet if we look at her two preceding periods this metaphor and the notion of emergence is more problematic. The Great Schism is a bit more complex and difficult to truly make a clear before and after. The differences between East and West in Christianity preceded even Constantine, the roots for the final split ran deep. And many would claim that language and not any real change or even actual difference between “East” and “West” contributed to the schism. Greeks stopped knowing Latin, Latins stopped knowing Greek.  There were certainly differences but those differences weren’t new, what was new was a breakdown in communication. This is at least one theory of what happened. We know the anathema’s were thrown about, but exactly why they happened at that time beyond noting the personalities involved is uncertain. It did create a new situation one we still live with, and which Tickles analysis of emergence is based on being on the Western side of the schism (we should not forget that if we sought to do this examination from the Christian “Greek” Eastern perspective the the Reformation would be a local European phenomenon, not a pan-ecclesial or even pan-Christian phenomenon).

The Schism with what are now called the Oriental Orthodox Churches, is also difficult to account in the terms of emergence that Tickle is using. Again one possible interpretation of this schism is that it was mostly a misunderstanding stemming in part from culture but again also from language. Those who rejected Chalcedon weren’t keen towards Greek philosophical language and thus did not appreciate the use of the technical use of philosophy for defining dogma.  Also, in terms of religious rite, ecclesial organization, and the use of a type of iconography etc. the Oriental Orthodox are more a variation on a theme than clearly distinct from either Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholicism.  So, it is unclear how much was actually being rethought and whether or not a “rummage sale” is an apt metaphor.

Then we come to the Christ event, but can we as Christians merely list that event as a simple point in a emergent pattern of history? Sure it was the right time so there was something about the time that allowed for God to act or precipitated God acting or however one wants to say this, but surely the Christ event and its tumult has less to do with patterns in history and more to do with that something beyond the merely historical took place, and that the renewal of the entire cosmos and the meaning and end of history entered the cosmos and history. Surely the Christ event cannot either be the beginning point of a particular historical pattern nor simply part of the pattern but inaugurates something beyond our historiographic propensity to periodization.

As can be seen my bias towards a certain understanding of periodization leads me to a certain deconstructive read of Tickles mythology of Great Emergence.  It’s a good story, and in that sense it is also good history, but it isn’t the only story that could be told.