Sacred Loneliness and Sacred Comfort: A Review of Marilynne Robinson’s ‘Lila’

Jonathan McGregor is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis, where he’s writing about twentieth-century American literary intellectuals and Christian social thought. You can follow him on Twitter.

 

There’s a moment in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (2005) when the old preacher John Ames nearly loses control of his storytelling voice to a torrential repetition of the word “just”:

I almost wish I could have written that the sun just shone and the tree just glistened, and the water just poured out of it and the girl just laughed…. People talk that way when they want to call attention to a thing existing in excess of itself, so to speak, a sort of purity or lavishness…. (emphasis in original)

This passage epitomizes Robinson’s aesthetic. She shows us how all things exist in excess of themselves, if we pay them the proper attention. You can feel her exerting that same restraint to keep from using “just” in every sentence, even when she’s not writing in Ames’ voice.lila_0

But “just” does find its way into the first sentence of her new novel, Lila (2014), which gives us the backstory of Ames’ mysterious second wife. It opens: “The child was just there on the stoop in the dark, hugging herself against the cold, all cried out and nearly sleeping.” Unlike Ames’ anecdote of purity and lavishness, the scene here is of dirt and privation. Robinson sets Lila’s sheer “mystery of existence,” to use a phrase that she acquires from John Ames later in the book, against the meanness of her circumstances. The girl is just there, a commonplace miracle amid squalor.

Lila sitting on the steps of a house, or a house of God—perched uneasily on the edge of community, family, or faith—is an image we meet throughout the book. It’s an image that captures Lila’s dogged but radiant individuality. Robinson must be one of the only living writers who can exalt philosophical individualism and make it sound beautiful and compelling. In this book, every person is an orphan before they are a daughter or a son—or a wife, or a worker, or a preacher. And we carry our indelible orphanhood with us into whatever family, community, or vocation eventually takes us in. Late in the book, Lila thinks of her infant son:

She was glad she had seen the boy brand new, red as fire, without a tear to give to the world, no ties to the world at all, just that knot on his belly. […] That orphan he was first he always would be, no matter how they loved him. He’d be no child of hers, otherwise.

I can’t remember reading a book so dominated by the word “loneliness.” Nor can I recall a novel where loneliness is so sweet and yet so terrible. Sometimes Lila fears to be left alone; sometimes solitude is her only solace. At the low point of the book, stranded in a St. Louis brothel, Lila descends into the coal cellar “to be quiet with herself.” After giving all she has—even her one inheritance, a well-honed knife—to her madame, Lila discovers in the solitary darkness that her only durable possession is her self.

For Robinson, to be alone is a religious experience, a simultaneously harrowing and comforting encounter with the divine in the self. The constant, unmediated presence of God in human inwardness, which Robinson traces back to the doctrine of the imago dei, is the theological sine qua non of her art. (Sometimes, she presses this emphasis so hard as to almost conflate God and the self.) In Lila, the feeling of human loneliness comes paradoxically to signify divine presence, even when it is not explicitly glossed as such.

Loneliness may be a constant theme of Lila, but it’s hardly the end of the story. That child on the stoop is soon swept up into the arms of Doll, a wild and resourceful old woman with a marked face and a wicked blade, who shepherds Lila into young adulthood the best she can. “Doll may have been the loneliest woman in the world, and she was the loneliest child, and there they were, the two of them together, keeping each other warm in the rain.” Robinson renders their hard life together as migrant farm workers, new territory from her previous domestic fictions, convincingly. Their sense of time is defined by sun and seasons, their sense of space “a whole world of weedy, sunny, raggedy fields with no names to them. Only that one name, the United States of America.” Lila and Doll’s intense bond blurs the distinction between self and other. In the solitude of the brothel coal cellar, Lila converses with her memory of the dead Doll. To be with Doll is to be with her self.

Lila loses Doll, but she gains the “beautiful old man,” John Ames. That gain assuages, but cannot replace, her loss. The consolation of their marriage is a difficult grace for either John or Lila to accept. Nevertheless, the outcome of their courtship is never in doubt; even for those who haven’t read Gilead, we learn early in Lila that the pair are married in the book’s present. The drama of their love story, then, is one of personal transformation: How did that abandoned child on the stoop become Lila Ames, wife of an elderly preacher and mother of a little boy?

As Lila’s acquaintance with John grows, so too does her acquaintance with Christianity. Her dramatic encounter with the Bible is one of the most remarkable parts of the book. Lila steals a Bible from John’s church and buys a notebook and pencils with her small income. She copies biblical passages into her notebook wholesale. She has a knack for finding the difficult parts; she’s especially enamored of Ezekiel. But it’s just those hard sayings, which cause John to stumble, that draw Lila in. “It could be that the wildest, strangest things in the Bible were the places where it touched earth,” she muses, as a tornado touches earth.

Lila never shies from the difficult parts of Scripture, and she never hesitates to ask John hard theological questions, either. Her attraction to the wild things of the Bible does not lead her to embrace of the doctrine of hell, for example, and she can’t imagine wanting a Heaven without Doll in it. When Lila puts the question of eternal fate to John, the preacher dodges and qualifies and finally falls back on the mystery of God’s grace. Despite John’s often faltering answers, Lila insists that the language she learns from John has allowed her to name parts of her life that before were nameless, and even to think new thoughts:

Could she have these thoughts if she had never learned the word [existence]? “The mystery of existence.” From hearing him preach. He must have mentioned it at least once a week. She wished she’d known about it sooner, or at least known there was a name for it. She used to be afraid she was the only one in the world who couldn’t make sense of things.

Like most married couples, Lila and John spend a lot of time talking past each other, misunderstanding each other, wounding and forgiving each other (though they have wider gaps in age and life experience to overcome than most). A fantastic and frangible, if hard-won, skein of trust holds them together. Lila’s tie to Christianity is like that, too—a baptism she once tried to wash off, an unrelenting attraction to the Bible, an acknowledgment that the vocabulary of mystery meets a human need that it also discovers.

Lila marries the style and themes of Robinson’s earlier novels. The third-person narration of Home (2008) was a departure for Robinson, and it sometimes fell flat. Lila, however, is light on its feet. The novel’s free indirect discourse moves with great suppleness into and out of passages more thickly textured with Lila’s dialect. This style gives us intimacy with Lila’s perspective without presuming on her interior voice. Lila’s life, first with Doll and then with John, brings the concerns of Housekeeping (1980)—wilderness and feminine community, abandonment and consolation—together with those of Gilead—theological language and its limitations, perception and grace. For readers looking for a way in to Robinson’s corpus, this makes Lila the new best place to start.

Like the Ames’ marriage, though, these stylistic and conceptual bonds are uneasy and tentative, even when they’re graceful. If marrying John forces Lila to make her peace with community and its consolations, it also forces him to do justice to her freedom. If John’s theology gives Lila words for old impressions and new thoughts, her questions force him out of his complacency to reckon with her razor-edged experience. Robinson would remind us that tradition needs untamed experience to keep it sharp, and community needs wild individuals to keep it alive. Likewise, she would remind us that tradition expands the mind; it does not restrict it. And if loneliness is sacred, then so is comfort, which we can only give each other when we’re together.

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Which Generous Spaciousness for Gay Christians?

It’s been five years since Andrew Marin published his widely read Love is an Orientation, and the need which Marin’s book attempted to fill has grown at a rapid pace.  While there has been no shortage of discussion among evangelicals about the moral and political status of homosexuality, few rigorously theological and pastorally sensitive resources have been developed for churches and pastors to learn best how to welcome gay into their communal and individual lives.  Instead, vague exhortations about how Christians need to be more loving and improve their image abound.

generous spaciousnessWendy VanderWal-Gritter’s Generous Spaciousness:  Responding to Gay Christians in the Church is not, alas, the book we have been waiting for.  As the director of New Directions Ministry, a Canadian organization that was a part of Exodus International until it pivoted in 2007 toward building bridges between Christians and the LGBT communities, VanderWal-Gritter has a wealth of practical and personal experience to draw from.  She aims in Generous Spaciousness to “model a posture” for individuals, churches, and organizations that is not “just a wishy-washy, weak compromise” on the questions surrounding homosexuality, but that orients us toward hospitality and faithful discipleship for LGBT people within the church. That is a commendable goal, no doubt, and her book has occasional moments of insight and the occasional bit of wise council for pastors and parishioners. But by repeatedly presenting the progressive position at its best and responding to ‘conservative’ theology at its worst, VanderWal-Gritter creates a caricature of the demands of “unity” that claims the moral high ground for those who wish to push doctrine to the side. Her concept of ‘generous spaciousness’ is no “wishy-wash, weak compromise”: it is an outright abdication on the possibility of moral knowledge and its role within the church.

Her book is pervaded by trendy jargon that obscures as much as it clarifies, and that sometimes borders on the sort of de-Scripturalized, therapeutic discourse that has marked the “ex-gay” community at its worst.  (As she notes, VanderWal-Gritter notes that “many ex-gay ministries espouse a variety of psychoanalytic theories in the development of ministry interventions.”  While she doesn’t endorse such an approach, it’s clear from her own work that she hasn’t quite escaped it.) Terms like honesty, authenticity, openness, vulnerable, acceptance, and the inescapable journey get their power from their vagueness, even if they seem to be for her the central virtues of the spiritual and moral life.

Such terms sometimes also function asymmetrically, so that those who are doubting and questioning their convictions and the traditional teaching of the church on the morality of same-sex sexual practices end up with a privileged insights into key portions of Scripture.  In her defense that Christians should interact with each other on questions of same-sex sexuality as though it were a “disputable matter,” and hence akin to how Paul exhorts the Romans to behave with respect to food ethics in Romans 14, VanderWal-Gritter offers the following jaw-dropping analysis:

“One has to wonder if the process of wrestling with a particular question personally is the foundation from which one can internalize Paul’s teaching in Romans 14 of not getting in the way of someone else’s choices and making life more difficult for them. For when you get on your knees at the side of your bed night after night pleading with God to take away your same-sex attractions, you experience solidarity with others who have had the same experience….And out of this very real and personal place arises the kind of mutuality and preference for the other that Paul speaks of.  The truth is straight people will never be able to fully enter that space—because straight people have never wrestled in those particular personal and deep places.”

Even if we thought that Scripture put same-sex sexual activity on the same moral plane as food sacrificed to idols such that it is a “disputed matter”—and there is lots of reason to doubt that is the case—this sort of argument actually would work against the case.  If Romans 14 did require people to internally wrestle with the particular question, then only those with same-sex attraction could have the “generous spaciousness” that VanderWal-Gritter ostensibly wants.  That would be a bizarre basis for a Biblical exhortation, however.  What’s more, VanderWal-Gritter’s claim that “straight people have never wrestled in those particular personal and deep places” strikes me as false to the point of incoherent.  Many straight people who have taken Jesus’s exhortations about lust in Matthew 5 seriously have spent wakeful nights pleading with God to remove temptations from them, even temptations that if known or acted upon would bring them great shame from their community. To think otherwise would be to single out same-sex desire as uniquely troubling to the individuals who experience it—a claim I suspect many in her audience will be fast to reject.

While VanderWal-Gritter wants to avoid arguing directly about the moral questions surrounding this debate, she ends up simply presupposing a moral outlook that many conservative evangelicals object to.  In her exhortation to help same-sex attracted individuals cultivate a “positive vision for the future,” she suggests that some will begin to dream of a same-sex marriage.  “Where this dream is grounded in the confidence of the unconditional love and embrace of God,” she writes, “such a dream can be a vibrant part of a person’s ongoing spiritual journey, particularly when it is based on careful study, reflection, prayer, waiting, and listening to Scripture, the Holy Spirit, and trusted mentors.”  In perhaps the worst sentences in the book, she encourages us to welcome those who might dream of a same-sex relationship by pointing out that “It is important to remember that love is love. And love is of God.”  Nevermind that the content or shape of “love” within the sphere of human sexuality is precisely what is in question. “Love,” whatever else it might be, is not the amorphous, empty concept that her tautology indicates. While she protests that her view is not a “call for a watered-down discipleship,” her unwillingness to specify the terms under which sexual “love” no longer is from God suggests that is precisely what is on offer.

This kind of slant structures the entire book, so that it is questionable whether VanderWal-Gritter’s understanding of “generous spaciousness” is separable from it.  For instance, in discussing the role that spiritual fruit among Christians has played in her own life, she writes, “A closed system necessarily finds ways to discount such fruit as appearing to be authentic but actually being counterfeit.  But I could not justify such an ultimately subjective, selfish, and spiritually violent evaluation. As far as I knew, the fruit that I was seeing and experiencing was the real deal—and if it wasn’t, that could only be God’s call.”  I leave aside the question of “fruit” within the Christian life only to point out that being “closed” is not necessarily the negative feature of a “system” that VanderWal-Gritter presupposes.  If a system has no way of discerning when someone is self-deceived or when the fruits they are demonstrating have been disconnected from other crucial moral aspects of their lives which may erode them over a long period of time, then so much the worse for the system.

There are all sorts of people in this world who demonstrate qualities that seem to be similar to the fruits of the Spirit.  VanderWal-Gritter privileges our ability to discern when someone’s life demonstrates “fruit.”  As she goes on to say, “It seems incredibly audacious to me that anyone would consider sitting in the seat of judgment regarding the authenticity of faith of those who demonstrate good fruit in their lives.” But rather than accept the “tension” and the “mystery” that some people might have “fruit” while engaging in practices that Scripture is opposed to, she instead wishes us to embrace the tension and mystery at the heart of Scripture’s teachings about human sexuality, where she sees only complexity and disagreement.  It’s not at all clear, though, why we should be more confident in the meaning of our own lives and the quality of our own spiritual fruit and hesitating and uncertain about the meaning of Scripture, especially when the parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-9) opens the possibility that we are all self-deceived.

My point is not necessarily to drag VanderWal-Gritter into the very moral questions that she thinks have been so harmful for the church’s witness.  Rather, it is simply to point out that it may be the case that how we go about inculcating a view of “generous spaciousness” in the church may itself depend upon the answers we come to with those moral questions.  If the “space” of the church is going to be anything more than an empty void, a black hole where anything (literally) goes in the realm of human sexuality, save those actions which do not result in “fruit,” then we must identify and understand its boundaries, and that invariably means drawing lines.  While it may be the case, as VanderWal-Gritter repeatedly points out, that conservative evangelicals have been overly focused on such boundary-maintainence and have sometimes operated based on fear, without boundaries there can be no “inclusion.”

To make the point sharper, if we can substitute the language of polyamory and polygamy for homosexuality and gay marriage, without a significant alteration to the argument, then something is clearly awry. If there are “polyamorous Christians” who demonstrate the kind of “fruit” that gives us pause and who can similarly problematize Scripture’s teaching (where there is even some positive evidence for polygamy in the Old Testament), then ought we treat the question as a “disputed matter”?  My only point is that the language of morality is more useful for understanding what sort of spaciousness we should have in the church, and what kind of generosity we are called to.

It similarly helps no one if the presupposition is that those who are theologically conservative have not worked through the “hard questions”, and so only hold their view because of tradition or for other reasons.  VanderWal-Gritter repeatedly objects to an emphasis on truth, orthodoxy, and certainty as being driven “more by fear and anxiety than by love.”  The book is written for those for whom “simplistic, black and white answers on these questions will not suffice.”  Doubtlessly such people exist.  But there is nothing simplistic about the answers Christians have traditionally given on these questions, and there is nothing easy about accepting them. Working from such caricatures—VanderWal-Gritter at one point uses an anonymous comment on YouTube!—is simply not helpful, though. It may be that a conservative theological approach to inclusion has not been found wanting, so much as left untried altogether.  Trying to circumvent doctrinal claims and genuine moral knowledge for the sake of unity simply presupposes that the two can be disconnected—which is simply not a proposition that conservative evangelicals can or will get behind.

All this is a missed opportunity, as evangelicals need to articulate how the message of the Gospel can be embedded in our local church communities in a way that is more hospitable to those whose form of lives we disagree with.  We need generous spaciousness.  Of that I have no doubt.  But not this one.

Disclosure:  I received a free copy of this book for review. 

“Glitter Grenade: a review of Aaron Belz’s Glitter Bomb”

(Reviewer’s note: I don’t know much about Aaron or about poetry. You can click here for samples and a quick check on Aaron’s background. Or you could go to Costco, then hire a licensed private investigator. Just depends on what kind of samples and background check you want.)

 

One book of poetry, two days of pleasure (mixed with confusion) for the reader.

The author rarely swings and misses at that third strike. Never metaphor at a five-‘n’-dime

he couldn’t flip to readers and leave ‘em at sixes and sevens.

 

Does

blank verse shoot lead or

blanks? Does this poetry earn

blank stares?

Does Glitter Bomb? Answer left

blank. (For an atom-split second, just wait.)

Was the bomb dropped? Diffused? Answer right

now: all the Belz, most of the whistles. Almost all flowers, just a few thistles.

Do not ask for whom the Belz beguiles. His toll fare is fair, for his free verse brings smiles.

 

In some, low overhead, genius-saturated. In 1/2 of 1/2, my crazy culture much-exegeted.

In sum: 1/2 genius, 1/2 cultural saturation craziness that’s over my lowly head. (Epexegetical much?)

 

The first poem feels like a second chance, rising on the third day, sallying forth, a ship’s captain—my captain—and a fifth of gin.

Can intoxicated poems deep-six the seven seas of reader’s regret for my overly prosaic sins? Spoiler alert: yes.

Do the lines lumber, like a rusty Olds eighty-eight?

Spoiler alert: nein

Behold, young poems that glitter. Light and shiny as tin,

ever-new, wise like an elf,

riffing—even rhyming—until the clock Belz strikes twelve.

 

I’m Cinderella, these poems are glass slippers. They once were Lost, these 4 8 15 16 23 42 61 poems and now I am found. Amazingly gracious, and glittery ever after.

 

At least until I return to the Inhumanities to read, idk, Collected Essays or Assays into Collectivism.

 

But while you watch me careening back down my academic cliff,

Spent like a beer at Cheers falling from the cleft chin of Cliff

Note:

some will want CliffsNotes, a treble clef on which to transpose

Belz’s ringing, confusing,

pleasing notes.

But they’re not so much

de-noted as detonated. Not so much

composed as decomposed like fertilizer that fuels the

bomb, man. Just try transposing that.

 

I did, and I’m all blown up, not at all composed.

It’s totes my faults the Glitter earthquake exposed.

 

Jason volleys great riffs from the Great Rift Valley in East Africa. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook if you dig lepidoptera. His latest book is Imitating God in Christ.

A Ministry of Answers: A Review of Craig and Gorra’s “A Reasonable Response”

Chances are that, if you’re reading this blog, you’ve heard of William Lane Craig. But Joe Gorra is the hardest working genius you’ve never heard of in evangelicalism. Among other things, Gorra has worked with Craig as a research assistant for a long time now, and together they have produced a really excellent book, A Reasonable Response: Answers to Tough Questions on God, Christianity, and the Bible (Moody Publishers, 2013), that goes beyond the traditional handbook of Christian apologetics in important and interesting ways.

A Reasonable Response has three interdependent parts that work together to create a book that is more than their sum. There is, first, the selection of questions that people have submitted to Craig’s website for a number of years. Together with Craig’s answers to them–that’s the second interdependent part–these questions have been reprinted in the book. The third essential part is Gorra’s editorial work in organizing the book, drawing attention to important features of Craig’s answers, and writing a substantial introduction and appendices. Gorra’s introduction is worth the price of the book alone and worth discussing in some detail.

More than anything, I believe Gorra’s introduction provides a blueprint for taking twentieth-century Christian apologetics into the future at the levels of both the pastor/scholar and the layman. A paradigm work of Christian apologetics in the twentieth century is Josh McDowell’s More Than a Carpenter, and it is tempting to think that twenty-first century evangelicalism has outgrown the need for such things, especially in its more cultured circles. Gorra’s introduction not only suggests otherwise but also shows how the work of the traditional apologist will always be central to serving the kingdom of God.29409155542b76db78cdf05d20475d3a

The title of the introduction is “A Meditation on the Practice and Ministry of Answering Questions,” which summarizes how Gorra thinks about the central task of the Christian apologist. The apologist ministers to others primarily by answering questions well. There are, of course, other types of Christian ministers needed today; one thinks in particular of the ministry of Christian counselors, therapists, and spiritual directors. But the need to provide clear answers to pressing questions about the nature of God and his kingdom remains. Is God real? Can I trust the Bible? Any serious investigation of the Christian faith has to address those central questions, and the answers have to be fairly deep and clear if they’re going to sustain a lifetime of Christian commitment.

We are, of course, thankful to Matt Anderson for his book on the questioning life, to which Gorra refers. In particular, Anderson’s final chapter is a contemplative and poetic reflection on how to live now with the questions we have about all that is important in life. One way to think of Gorra’s introduction is as the practical correlate of Anderson’s more contemplative conclusion. In particular, Gorra argues that it is possible–even necessary!–for an apologist to be a genuine, authentic Christian who can clearly and directly respond to important and specific questions about the Christian faith. If Anderson has shown us what the questioning life looks like, Gorra has outlined what the answering life looks like.

If the latter seems difficult to conceive, it’s important to be clear about what an answer is: it is an informative reply to a question. It is not, as both Anderson and Gorra point out, a conversation stopper. A good answer provides opportunity for more questions. A vague or otherwise bad answer often stops conversations more than a clear and direct one. Indeed, as readers of A Reasonable Response can see, Craig’s clear and direct answers are often invitations for further questions.

Gorra also points out that becoming a genuine, authentic minister of answers is only possible if one’s entire life is devoted to Christ. Gorra points out that Craig, whatever one thinks of his theological and philosophical views, “believes that by virtue of the witness of his work . . . can bring the name of God either praise or blame by how he conducts himself.” The answers Craig provides in the book demonstrate his attention to and care for the questioner. To have a ministry of answers is not to be a minister of glib responses.

After the introduction, the book is organized into six main parts, not counting the three appendices. The six parts are “Questions on Knowing and Believing What Is Real,” “Questions about God,” “Questions about the Origins and the Meaning of Life,” “Questions about the Afterlife and Evil,” “Questions about Jesus Christ and Being His Disciple,” and “Questions about Issues of Christian Practice.” If you have followed Craig’s work over the years, most of the material in these six parts will be familiar. There are, for example, questions and answers concerning the reliability of the New Testament gospels, the orthodoxy of Trinity monotheism, the kalam cosmological argument, and the problem of evil.

To take one example of a question-answer exchange from the book, consider the question about the justification of one of the premises in the moral argument for the existence of God. The question, from someone named Corey, runs to about a page, and this is both typical and helpful: The questions that Craig answers are from real people who couch their questions in all sorts of assumptions and idiosyncrasies. Craig demonstrates real patience in understanding what the questioner is asking, answering the question, and then, usually, reformulating the question more precisely and answering it more thoroughly. The question and answer about the moral argument concerns the second premise:

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
3. Therefore, God exists.

The questioner wants to know what the justification for the second premise is. Craig’s answer, developed at length, is, in brief, that our moral experience provides the justification for the second premise. What follows in the chapter is a clear account of this.

Throughout the book, Gorra has included notes that draw attention to important aspects of Craig’s answers. In this chapter, Gorra highlights Craig’s point that “moral skepticism fails to attend to our direct acquaintance with reality even though this is how our moral experience encounters objective moral values and duties.” A thoughtful reader would, I think, find a lot to ruminate on in that insight. The remainder of the book is similarly helpful, and this is due to the combination of Craig’s experience in answering questions and Gorra’s editorial skill.

If you’d like to read a sample of the book, Moody is graciously offering samples right now.

Creaturehood and Contingency Explored: Reflections on James Smith’s “Who’s Afraid of Relativism?”

North American Christianity has a problem. Actually, it has the problem — the sin of Adam that led to his dismal fall. He has heard the temptation “ye shall be like gods” and ate of its fruit in modern form. According to James Smith in his latest work Who’s Afraid of Relativism? the pursuit of objective and absolute truth amounts to a denial of the creaturehood and contingency acknowledged by any who submit to a biblical account of philosophy.

Professor Smith thinks this distinctly modern error characterizes most of contemporary christian apologetics and philosophy. We are so preoccupied with finding objective reasons independent from our communities and social practices that we forget that God created us to function as contingent and finite creatures. As a result, anyone who gives countenance to relativism will be subject to “philosophical McCarthyism” of old school “Is ‘there are no objective truths’ an objective truth?”-style apologetics. How has Christian philosophy come such a long way from its biblical origins? More specifically, why does the desire for absolute truth signify a hubristic denial of creaturehood (the most serious offence one can be accused of in the Judeo-Christian tradition, by the way)? Smith is more concerned with the second question, leaving the first relatively unexplored. His argument uses three major philosophers to support his main ideas. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Richard Rorty, and Robert Brandom each deny absolutist views and offer their own formulations of a way of life without objectivity."Who's Afraid of Relativism" by James Smith

The book is the final installment in Baker Academic’s series titled “The Church and Postmodern Culture.” As a piece of writing, it can be difficult to understand at times. The tantalizing “use” of “unnecessary” quotations and italics often confuse the “meaning” (i.e. clarity) of his argument, and the semi-continental abundance of countered name dropping critically resurrects a quasi-Žižekian penumbra matched only by David Bentley Hart. I tease. It’s not that bad. Even still, many readers will find this frustrating. In what follows, I will try to briefly summarize Smith’s main points.

Underlying absolutist views is an epistemology called “referentialism” (the unforgivable philosophy, according to Smith), which says that language and truth are claims about real things in the world and meaning is the correlation between a word and its corresponding thing. Wittgenstein explains the referentialist account with a metaphor.

I send someone shopping. I give him a slip marked “five red apples.” He takes the slip to the shopkeeper, who opens the drawer marked “apples”; then he looks up the word “red” in a table and finds a colour sample opposite it; then he says the series of cardinal numbers — I assume that he knows them by heart — up to the word “five” and for each number he takes an apple of the same colour as the sample out of the drawer. (Philosophical Investigations, 1)

But this theory does not adequately represent how humans use language. Smith explains

There’s a little chink in the armor of the representationalist account here: it is the challenge of number. Is “five” a thing? Just what “thing” is referred to by the word “five?”… So Wittgenstein now has us wondering: Does language always work by referring?” (42)

It turns out on Wittgenstein’s account that language does not operate by reference, but by use. Continue reading

Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women

Of all the things that have come as a result of the Church’s gender debates, nothing must excite Christian publishers more than the boom in writing devoted to women finding their place in God’s kingdom. And it’s only beginning. The first generation reared entirely within those debates is coming of age, putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), and telling their stories. This phenomenon became undeniable last October when the controversy surrounding Rachel Held Evan’s A Year of Biblical Womanhood propelled it to the New York Times’ Best Sellers list.  And now, almost exactly a year later, Sarah Bessey offers the latest in this growing genre with her first book, Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women.

Bessey is a blogger, conference speaker, mother of three, and self-described “happy-clappy Jesus lover.” She carries her passion and intimate style into Jesus Feminist, often writing directly to her reader (at times even calling her “luv” and “friend”). In this, Bessey aligns herself not only with the ideology of past social activists like Harriet Beecher Stowe but with their literary style as well—one that evokes empathy and demands ownership of the cause at hand.  Jesus Feminist

Sometimes this personal approach borders on the sentimental, but it is consistent with the purpose of Jesus Feminist. While Evans entered an alternative universe, assuming the roles and characteristics of the fabled “biblical woman,” Bessey stays solidly within her own, making Jesus Feminist less an apologetic for feminist theology than a personal account of how feminism might fit with the faith.

A Bonfire on the Shore

Bessey opens Jesus Feminist with an invitation to “lay down our ideas, our neatly organized Bible verses, our carefully crafted arguments” and join her at a “bonfire on the shore.” She expresses her exhaustion with the gender wars and calls us to stop lobbying for a seat at the “Table”—the word she uses to describe the religious establishment—and instead to identify with the outsiders and seek “unity beyond conformity.”

At one point in the publication process, Jesus Feminist had been subtitled An Invitation to the Kingdom of God Waiting on the Other Side of our Church’s Gender Debates.” While this eventually changed, the emphasis is central to the book. Bessey calls women to participate in the redemptive pulse of the gospel—whether that means fighting human trafficking, supporting educational opportunities for women, or baking a casserole for a shut-in neighbor. In this sense, Bessey’s theology is clearly kingdom-oriented, brimming with themes of progress, justice, and equality. Her rhetoric would be as at home in the abolitionism of the mid-1800s or early 20th-century progressivism as it is in the current post-evangelical landscape.

And yet, Bessey’s passion for “bringing in the kingdom” does not devolve into naïve optimism.  She acknowledges the challenges, roots her vision solidly in Christ’s resurrection, and paints a vivid portrait of God’s “dreams” for the world. In fact, she does such a good job that even the most curmudgeonly among us will find it hard not to ask “Where do I sign up?” Continue reading

Evangelical Theology: A Review (of a section)

Michael Bird has written a new single-volume systematic theology titled Evangelical Theology. His publisher, Zondervan, offered complementary volumes in exchange for reviewing one of the book’s sections. That’s the kind of offer that I find difficult to turn down, and, thus, here we are today.

Evangelical Theology Michael Bird

Given the choice of which section to review, I selected Part 3: The Gospel of the Kingdom, thinking that it would contain some address so-called “Christ and Culture” issues. However, this section is actually Bird’s section on eschatology. In fact, Bird never does address the competing political theologies like two kingdoms or transformationalism in this systematic.

After getting past this misunderstanding, I settled in to explore what Bird says about last things. Bird is a respectable mainstream Evangelical on these matters. He makes cracks at the expense of folks who think Ross Perot or Hillary Clinton are the Antichrist and includes the following general disclaimer:

“[T]he unhealthy theological division created by eschatology combined with fantastical books like Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth and Jerry Jenkins and Tom LaHaye’s Left Behind series might make it prudent for us to retreat from the business of eschatology and distance ourselves from the controversy and lunacy that seems to go with the field”

Despite this, Bird believes that it is inappropriate to merely leave it there, say Jesus wins in the end, and call it good. To make this point, Bird borrows a list of seven reasons from Richard Hays:

  1. The Church needs apocalyptic eschatology to carry Israel’s story forward.
  2. The Church needs apocalyptic eschatology for interpreting the cross as a saving event for the world.
  3. The Church needs apocalyptic eschatology for the gospel’s political critique of pagan culture.
  4. The Church needs apocalyptic eschatology to resist ecclesial complacency and triumphalism.
  5. The Church needs apocalyptic eschatology in order to affirm the body.
  6. The Church needs apocalyptic eschatology to ground its mission.
  7. The Church needs apocalyptic eschatology to speak with integrity about death.

Despite making this case for holding a detailed theology of last things, Bird still maintains that these are second order matters of doctrine and disagreements over the details should not be grounds for ending fellowship. In my experience, this position on last things will resonate with most Evangelicals today. In my skimming of the remainder of the book it appears that most of Bird’s positions are similarly broadly held.

Stylistically, Bird’s approach is exhaustive but without becoming boring. He moves quickly past positions he does not embrace, which is an editorial necessity for him to keep the volume under 900 pages.

To illustrate the depth Bird is able to achieve, here is his treatment of the Millennium. He finds the postmillennial view to be “easiest set aside,” as society is manifestly not gradually getting better. He quotes one paragraph from A.A. Hodge and finds it unconvincing. Three pages and six footnotes total. He then moves to amillennialism, which he finds very attractive but unable to sufficiently account for Revelation 20. This also takes him just three pages and six footnotes. Finally, he explains premillennialism and his reasons for holding that position in ten pages and twenty footnotes. Each section is also accompanied with a handy graphic that summarizes the order of events in each millennial view.

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I believe Bird has written a very helpful systematic theology. Perhaps the best description of its eschatology section is that it is unobjectionable. In other words, I believe it achieves precisely what it set out to do. While I am not enough of a connoisseur of systematic theologies to compare Bird’s work to its competitors, Bird’s work strikes me as very competent and accessible. I will keep it on my shelf next to Wayne Grudem’s.

Book Review—Abuse of Discretion: The Inside Story of Roe v. Wade

Disclaimer: The author of this book is my father-in-law.

Clarke Forsythe’s Abuse of Discretion is an interesting and compelling examination of the Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton Supreme Court decisions of 1973. Although its provocative title betrays an understandably distinct ideological bent given Forsythe’s role as Senior Counsel at Americans United for Life, the book is an exhaustively researched analysis of the decisions’ legal reasoning and social repercussions.Abuse of Discretion

Mr. Forsythe’s 350-page work is divided into two major sections: “Mistakes” and “Unintended Consequences.” In the first half, he recounts the road that led to Roe, examining state and federal court decisions that affected the Justices’ discussions in 1973. He explores several factors that played a role in public perception of abortion leading up to the decision: popular fears of population control, the proliferation of birth control, the persistence of poor data on maternal deaths, the American Law Institute’s ‘Model Abortion Law,’ and the American Medical Association’s endorsement abortion’s legalization.

Of course, the unelected Supreme Court is not supposed to be concerned with opinion polling (even if more recent decisions suggests otherwise). What troubles Mr. Forsythe are the grave errors in legal reasoning and procedure that led to the Roe and Doe decisions. He raises significant questions about the factual record in both cases: in the lower courts, Roe and Doe introduced no evidence and neither involved any witnesses subjected to cross-examination.  Furthermore, due to a 1970 federal statute, no intermediate appellate court conducted the usual screening for these evidentiary shortcomings.

The centerpiece of Mr. Forsythe’s legal argument is the Supreme Court’s “abrupt expansion to viability,” referring to the arbitrary line that the Court created in expanding abortion rights. Viability, the point at which an unborn child can survive outside of the womb, was thought in 1973 to occur around 28 weeks of gestation (children have actually survived after being born at less than 22 weeks).  As it turns out, the Justices were particularly influenced by Judge Jon Newman, a brand new District Court Judge in Connecticut who, months after being sworn into office, struck down a state abortion statute and asserted without citing any law that “the state interest in protecting the life of a fetus capable of living outside the uterus could be shown to be more generally accepted.” Before long, the Justices were parroting this same line to each other and their clerks in internal memos. It is surprising that the Justices would take their cues from a District Court Judge, especially when the Supreme Courts of Texas, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Louisiana, Georgia, and Alabama had all implicitly questioned or explicitly rejected the doctrine of viability before the Supreme Court settled on it in 1973.

Of additional note is the Justices’ medical “data” to support their legal reasoning. Forsythe counts only seven medical articles used in the controlling Roe opinion. These seven sources include a leading abortionist’s personal report from a medical conference in Communist East Germany, two more of the same author’s non-peer reviewed articles (of 2 and 3 pages each), a report of the International Planned Parenthood Federation of London lacking any references to peer-reviewed data, a six-paragraph “letter to the editor” written by a Czech doctor, an article examining abortion in Soviet bloc countries, and a New York City report on the effects of a year-old abortion statute. The inclusion of these questionable sources is all the more troubling to Forsythe given what seems to be the Court’s willingness to overlook clear deficiencies. When a Supreme Court clerk, for example, authored a memo that drew Justice Blackmun’s attention to devastating problems with the New York City report, the Justice scrawled a stylistic correction over the memo’s topic sentence, but elaborated no further on its content.

In an analysis of the social consequences of Roe and Doe, the second part of Mr. Forsythe’s book walks away from legal reasoning and delves into issues of public health, women’s rights, and public perception. Starting with Roe and recounting a daisy-chain of court cases that have combined to eliminate most clinic regulations, Forsythe accuses the Justices of creating a public health vacuum through their ill-informed decision. A better tactic, he asserts, would have been for the Justices to strike down the Texas statute (in Roe) and leave intact the Georgia regulations (in Doe) making sure that abortions could be done with as little risk as possible to the woman.

Forsythe closes his work with an examination of Roe’s consequences in the area of women’s rights: “Has Roe solved the problems it was supposed to solve for women?” The author asserts that this is most emphatically not the case. Ironically, abortion amplifies the coercive power of uncommitted men in romantic relationships:  Forsythe cites research by George Akerlof and Janet Yellen (yes, that Janet Yellen) that concludes “the legalization of abortion reduced women’s ability to withhold premarital sexual favors from men.” In another instance, a series of articles by the Washington Post suggested a link between abortion’s availability and domestic violence. In all, Forsythe suggests that abortion has had a negative impact on gender equality.

Mr. Forsythe makes a persuasive case. His book contains (by my count) 1,061 footnotes that occupy eighty-nine pages, followed by a twenty-one page bibliography. His analysis is thorough and he is unafraid of taking on opposing legal arguments, exploring the details of early English common law on abortion and explaining why arguments for legal distinctions between “quickening” and “viability” make no sense in the 21st century.

But the book is not just about legal arguments. It also explores the non-judicial aspects of the decision—the “unintended consequences”—and traces the social and medical impact of the Judicial edict. It is here, however, that I would lodge my first complaint about the book. Although unafraid of presenting both sides of a legal argument, Mr. Forsythe hardly makes room for opposing social science data. It is not difficult to imagine why: the potential for political taint in such data and the number of ways methodologies can be manipulated mean that social science debates can often devolve into accusations about the deficiencies of small-n studies, selections on the dependent variable, or inadequate control variables. These limitations notwithstanding, I think Forsythe’s argument could have benefited by a brief methodological analysis of some of the data that points to an overall societal benefit from abortion.

Forsythe’s legal background is quite apparent, as the book reads more like an amicus curiae brief than a George R.R. Martin novel: It will convince you, but it will not enthrall you. In most instances, though, Forsythe is conscious of his non-lawyer audience and is careful to explain the nuances of the English common law and the layers of the Federal court system in lay language. But on occasion (and perhaps inescapably), passages become a bit laden with jargon.

This was most apparent in his all-too-brief overview of the basic facts regarding both cases. A brief 3-5 page primer on such facts and the crucial points of the Justices’ decisions would have helped immensely. Who were the plaintiffs? What was the exact nature of the complaint? What were the basic statutes at issue? Although all of these details emerge within the first several chapters of the book, the clarity of the argument throughout could have been enhanced with a very basic opening foreword or even an illustrative chart.

My final complaint is very specific. On two separate occasions, Forsythe claims that “99 percent of abortions are for social reasons alone.” If this is true, the statistic cuts directly against the common refrain that abortion is all about “women’s health.” Unfortunately, this claim has no corresponding footnote pointing to a source—the only time in the book when a reference I wanted was not there.

In all, this book is a good addition to the existing historical literature on the abortion decisions. As a newcomer to this genre and written in time for the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, it has the distinct advantage of drawing on forty years of social science data, legal cases, and other scholarship to draw important conclusions about the broad impact that abortion’s near-unlimited legalization has had on American society. Hailed by some as a landmark achievement for equality, the Roe and Doe decisions of 1973 now need to be reexamined on the merits of both their presuppositions and their consequences.

Zac Crippen (@ZacCrippen) is currently pursuing an MPhil in International Relations at the University of Oxford, where he is a Rhodes Scholar. He lives in Oxford with his wife, Sally.

The Sports Gene: Review

What role does genetics play in the success of athletes competing at the highest levels? Well, it’s complicated.

David Epstein’s book The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance just came out in hardcover from Current and is available on Kindle soon.[1]Sports Gene

My own research interests include the non-deliberative dynamics of human interaction (currently in the context of affect theory as it relates to non-critical modes of interpretation in theatrical contexts—nerd alert). The excerpt from The Sports Gene published at SI.com fascinated me for its familiar human dynamics in a less-familiar context. Epstein’s questions arise from documented—and sometimes delightfully obscure—cases in sports past and present: Why can’t MLB superstars hit Jennie Finch? (They’re not even close.) How much do reaction times have to do with athletic talent? (Almost zero.) Are Jamaican sprinters (see Bolt, Usain), Kenyan distance runners, and NBA 7-footers genetic freaks with innate advantages? Well, it’s complicated.

The better we understand human genetics, the more difficult it gets to pinpoint genes for speed, height, eyesight, and the trademark attributes typically advantageous to athletes. Furthermore, thenurture component of athletic talent is as much a part of Epstein’s research if not the book’s marketing. How much part does training play? How much part does environment play? Epstein is persuasive that genes can make a defining difference, but we can’t just breed superheroes. The book is absolutely worth reading for this balanced consideration alone, and not just as it applies to sports. Here are a further few reflective take-aways: Continue reading

A Reading Guide for 2013

In the Andersonian fashion of asking questions, I submit that one of our urgent questions is this: What are the possibilities of the vita contemplativa in the late modern world? In Human, All Too Human, Friedrich Nietzsche lamented, “Because there is no time for thinking, and no rest in thinking, we no longer weigh divergent views; we are content to hate them. With the tremendous acceleration of life, we grow accustomed to using our mind and eye for seeing and judging incompletely or incorrectly, and all men are like travelers who get to a land and its people from the train.” What a sharp observation! We moderns view life from a train window – blurred. Nietzsche continues:

The farther West one goes, the greater modern agitation becomes; so that to Americans the inhabitants of Europe appear on the whole to be peace-loving, contented beings, while in fact they too fly about pell-mell, like bees and wasps. This agitation is becoming so great that the higher culture can no longer allow its fruits to ripen; it is as if the seasons were following too quickly on one another. From lack of rest, our civilization is ending in a new barbarism. Never have the active, which is to say the restless, people been prized more. Therefore, one of the necessary correctives that must be applied to the character of humanity is a massive strengthening of the contemplative element. And every individual who is calm and steady in his heart and head, already has the right to believe that he possesses not only a good temperament, but also a generally useful virtue, and that in preserving this virtue, he is even fulfilling a higher duty.

How, then, can we moderns, in our train-zooming and bee-buzzing world, undergo that “massive strengthening of the contemplative element”? In my own life, I try to slow the acceleration through five practices: lectio divina, liturgy, cooking, walking, and reading.

For this post I will focus on reading. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then after years of rapturous listening to Ken Myers, host of Mars Hill Audio, I’ve developed his gift of bibliography. Other than John Wilson, editor of Books & Culture, I’m not aware of any contemporary Christian who has a more refined taste in books than Myers, who consistently brings forth treasures from his deep-sea diving in the sea of published works. Permit me to be a bibliographic fascist of sorts, dictating what new and forthcoming titles sound promising from various publishers.

My favorite American academic publishers are the trinity of Ivy League schools: Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.

From Harvard: Literary critic David Mikics demonstrated his virtues as a slow reader in The Art of the Sonnet, so I am excited to read Slow Reading in a Hurried Age (October 2013). As an instructor of literature, I goad my students to control their “ecosystem of interruption technologies” in order to develop the habits of deep attention, otherwise the reading of Great Expectations or Crime and Punishment is nearly impossible. Mikics shows “exactly how the tried-and-true methods of slow reading can provide a more immersive, fulfilling experience. He begins with fourteen preliminary rules for slow reading and shows us how to apply them. The rules are followed by excursions into key genres, including short stories, novels, poems, plays, and essays.”

If we follow Nietzsche’s exhortation to “weigh divergent views,” then every Christian should engage the secular humanism of philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum. In Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (October 2013), she asks this big question: “How can we achieve and sustain a ‘decent’ liberal society, one that aspires to justice and equal opportunity for all and inspires individuals to sacrifice for the common good? In this book, a continuation of her explorations of emotions and the nature of social justice, Martha Nussbaum makes the case for love. Amid the fears, resentments, and competitive concerns that are endemic even to good societies, public emotions rooted in love—in intense attachments to things outside our control—can foster commitment to shared goals and keep at bay the forces of disgust and envy.”

Another divergent view that should be weighed is Albert Camus, the most honest atheist that I’ve encountered. Continue reading