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Christ in the Mud Pies: Interacting with Gospel Wakefulness (Pt. 3)

January 11th, 2012 | 5 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Part one is here, and the second is here.  Read them both before soldiering on. 

I’m grateful for Jared’s book, and even more importantly for his witness.  We need the astringent that he offers, and his belligerence (I mean that as the highest compliment) in pointing us back to the unum neccesistum, the one thing necessary:  the reality of Christ’s life which is on offer to us."Gospel Wakefulness"

My point in this final project is to add two tentative amendments to Jared’s project, by way of helping alleviate some of the concerns I raised in the previous post.

First, we ought be incredibly careful about our own claims to having “woken up” to the Gospel as Christians and to apply a judicious skepticism about our own spiritual state.

The lessons of the Christian neo-platonic tradition that I mentioned two whole days ago prove helpful here, as behind the reality we are woken up into is a deeper wakening yet, a wakening that reinterprets and reinforces what we learned previously but yet makes us think that we have never believed before.  To drop in some Lewis, there is no end to our ability to go “further up and further in.”  The danger of claiming that we have “woken up” is that we short circuit this process, and potentially stunt our own endless growth.

One way of avoiding that problem would be to occasionally drop into retroactive language about our waking–I once was found, but now I’m on the hunt again, as it were.  Or perhaps a better way of putting it simply means that the Gospel means being found is being on the hunt, and not having arrived.

Our wakefulness in the Gospel means discovering how deep the deep things of God go, which paradoxically seems to diminish the use of having woken up as a justification for, well, anything.  At the end of the day, claiming to be “woken up” to the Gospel strikes me as the sort of foolishness that Paul reluctantly uses in 2 Corinthians 11:16-33?  Use sparingly and reservedly, if at all.

Second, we should be doubly watchful to ensure that our belief in Gospel wakefulness does not close us off from criticism.  Calvin’s double-knowledge, the knowledge of God and ourselves, entails that our awareness of the possibility for our own self-deception should increase accordingly with our knowledge of God.

I think that means that those of us who want to be gospel centered should be twice as willing to listen to critiques of our positions and language as anyone else because we stand doubly aware that the plank is in their eye. Whatever else it becomes, the idea that someone has experienced “Gospel wakefulness” cannot mean that critiques cannot be heard.  Learning from “the least of these” might mean learning both from children and children in the faith.

I’m not sure that Jared’s book faces this problem directly, and I know Jared’s witness is such that he’s open to criticism.  I’ve pointed that out already.  But our concepts and language establish realities that extend beyond our intentions, and if we do not have a firm grasp on the dangers intrinsic to the concept of “gospel wakefulness,” than the movement that centers on it will stand in danger of exhausting itself by falling prey to the stagnation that comes from only talking amongst ourselves.

Allow me to close all this with a bit of reflection on where I know Jared and I agree, but with an added concern that I don’t know if Jared shares, but is worth mentioning anyway.

Jared has been appropriately adamant that he doesn’t want all this to go in a separatist direction, that grasping the gospel might lead to increased political action and more joy within the world.  I don’t think his way of speaking has to take us there, properly understood and applied (which I clearly grant I may not have done–tolle lege!).

The question for evangelicals, though, is whether we have the grammar of creation and the stability of practices to help us avoid precisely that from occurring anyway.  Without those in place, I’m concerned that the language of “Gospel wakefulness” will only exacerbate the withdrawal.

At the same time, I’m with Jared that the “’of course, the gospel’ [mentality] is killing our churches,” and that “we have lost our astonishment” at the good news of our salvation.  The question is where, and how, such astonishment can be regained.

To work this out a little, the very “mud pies” that Lewis critiques and that Wilson alludes to in critiquing the Evangel bloggers are, in other places of his work, doorways (or perhaps better, wardrobes) into the glory that is at the center of the universe.

Seen from the proper vantage point, the whole thing is shot through with glory–including, even, the muddy realm of politics.   The order is asymmetrical, but we cannot separate the “Christ” from the “all things” we have in him.  We have Christ, and in him all things–including Potter, Palin, and the Patriots (okay, not them).

This opens up possibilities for ways of speaking about Potter and Palin that point to the substance of the Christ in whom is all things.  We are freed to speak evangelically about politics, and evangelically about Palin.  All things we do become a form of bearing witness to the gospel.  Our astonishment, our wonder, starts with existence.

Again, all this Wilson agrees with and points to in his book.  But the answer to “of course, the gospel, but something else please” is not to deepen the divide by emphasizing one to the exclusion of the other.  Instead, it is to take the “something else” and show its deep dependence upon and coherence within the life we have in Christ, to take the world away only to give it back rebuilt and reformed, to deepen our joy within the world by demonstrating that the “something else too” is only something else as it has its being in God.  Inasmuch as the gospel is for humans, it needs–and produces–a culture for its transmission.

It’s here where the concerns come.  In a different day, in a different context, I would be less concerned about the unintended side-effects of a proposal like Jared’s.  But in an evangelical world stripped bare by emotionalism and that either forgets itself amidst the structures of this world or retreats to the churches altogether, we need more, not fewer, evangelicals speaking evangelically about Palin and Potter, showing “the more excellent way” in culture that invariably leads to the King.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.