Distorted, Imperceptible: Justin Vernon and the Hidden God

Justin Vernon, the voice and brains behind Bon Iver, released the third album under that name on September 30, 2016. 22, A Million received immediate critical acclaim, and in it Vernon departed from the sound of Bon Iver’s two previous full-length albums, For Emma, Forever Ago (2007) and Bon Iver, Bon Iver (2011). The sparse instrumentation of songs like “Skinny Love” and “Perth” contrasts sharply with the heavily synthesized components of 22, A Million (see, for example, “715 – CR∑∑KS”), although even as early as Bon Iver Vernon subtly manipulates the sonic landscape on “Holocene.” 22, A Million, moreover, shifts thematically from Bon Iver’s earlier work; whereas For Emma was an album of heartbreak and Bon Iver of finding oneself in the world, 22, A Million wrestles, like Jacob, with god and with self-identity–although, again, these themes are not unique to 22, A Million (note Vernon’s reference to Qumran on “Re: Stacks”).

How does Vernon’s sonic and thematic departure in 22, A Million speak to questions of god and self? What does Vernon’s struggle with god on the album mean for his theology and for his self-understanding? Are there any hints from Vernon’s previous work that can inform an interpretation of 22, A Million?

I want to get to the heart of Vernon’s theology, primarily by means of analyzing lyrical and sonic features of 22, A Million–though not excluding other facets or periods of Vernon’s work. Because 22, A Million deals most directly with questions of god and self, it will be the most useful to this end. Looking through Bon Iver’s corpus, we see a progression from introspective questions of loneliness to fundamental questions of god and existential alienation. Vernon’s view of god appears to be molded by Jewish theology–though not merely in a Rabbinic or Orthodox sense. I’m reminded at times of the narrator in Foucault’s Pendulum, in which the protagonist delves deeply into esoteric spirituality but is shaped fundamentally by Jewish Kabbala. Just as Eco does for Casaubon, Vernon litters his artwork, particularly his lyrical videos, with iconography–religious and otherwise, obscure and obvious.

Vernon’s god is an enigma, hidden and difficult to approach, and Vernon’s own persona is frequently out of reach even to himself. Both god in himself and man in himself are shrouded in mystery and obscured by experience, unknowable except through mediation and association.

(This sort of project requires a few notes before beginning. If we will attach any sort of personal, Vernon-specific meaning to Bon Iver’s albums, we have to assume a significant overlap between Vernon the person and Vernon the songwriter. One gets the sense while listening to Bon Iver that Vernon has poured his soul into the work, but we can’t be certain. We can intuit a certain earnestness to Vernon’s lyrics and composition, and we’ll have to rely on that to proceed further in this endeavor. In the event that Bon Iver is merely a construct, however, we still have an interesting subject–just not Vernon himself.)

The Body of Work

DeYarmond Edison

DeYarmond Edison was an unsigned, indie band for which Vernon sang vocals. The band played together in the early aughts, and it released a couple of albums, though only one still streams on Spotify today. Their 2006 album Silent Signs bears the marks of Vernon’s hand, even keeping in mind the certain influence of Edison’s other members.

I don’t have too much to say about this album except to point out that Vernon has drawn on religious imagery throughout his career. For example, “ragstock” makes quick reference in the second verse not only to demons (a popular referent, and one he makes on Bon Iver, Bon Iver‘s “Calgary” and 22, A Million‘s “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄”) but also to canonization, a more explicitly theological term (and one repeated on 22, A Million‘s “29 #Strafford APTS”): “Canonize our demons / turpentine our hate / turn in your violence / our vague care / there they turn.”

“dash”

Far more explicitly, “dash” is a haunting song about god’s silence. The narrator yearns for a heavenly answer, but, left with a Gabriel who won’t “speak to me” and a Jesus “up in the sky as vague as your thesis,” he turns to Jung–and finds a god within.

Against Silence‘s Fr. Rodrigues, who faces god’s silence headlong and, depending on who you ask, maintains his faith in the face of ostensible apostasy, this narrator struggles with and forsakes the silent god. Vernon draws on the language, imagery, and existential force of Christian religiosity, and he finds it inadequate. This prefigures his view of god in 22, A Million, in which the transcendent god cannot be found and therefore has been discarded in favor of the divine spark within us.

Silence‘s closing scene.

So many torahs, so many for us

Bon Iver exploded onto the scene with its first album, For Emma, Forever Ago, released in 2007. Vernon’s origin story is paradigmatic: a heartbroken and forlorn artist emerges from the wilderness with an unmistakably beautiful work of art. The most well-known song from this debut album is certainly “Skinny Love,” although my personal favorite is “The Wolves (Act I and II)” with its forlorn “someday my pain” concluding the song. Critics raved about the album, and “Skinny Love” was a welcome reprieve from the typical play on the radio.

Vernon followed up this album with the 2011 release Bon Iver, Bon Iver. It had a similar sound to For Emma, Forever Ago, but Vernon continued to experiment with autotune and other tools. “Holocene” is easily the most popular song from this album. In contrast to For Emma, most of the songs on this album are named for cities–real or otherwise.

This my excavation and today is Qumran

For Emma, Forever Ago revolves around personal grief and isolation. Vernon wrote the album in the nearly cliché version of an artist’s origin story: broken by a broken romance, he retreats to a cabin and emerges with the most beautiful music the world’s ever seen. Although much of popular music centers around lost love, since that is often one of the most difficult emotional experiences of our lives, Vernon seeks a deeper level of reflection in his songwriting.

The album is full of existential angst, and Vernon frequently frames the pain of loss in unsettlingly poetic ways. The audience feels as though Vernon will not escape the pain of this moment, that it is not merely a temporary pain but one which will upend his life. In fact, the grief is religiously interpreted at times.

In two songs, Vernon makes explicit reference to theological ideas. In “Creature Fear,” Vernon speaks of being “seminary sold” and having “so many Torahs, so many for us.” The song, centered around the refrain of “creature fear,” can certainly be understood with reference to the traditional understanding of our “creatureliness,” that is, being “created” by something. The fear, expressed in the first chorus, relates to the creature finding itself in “so many foreign worlds, so relatively f*cked / so ready for us, so ready for us.” Such a generalized fear is expressed in the particularities of the verse, in which the narrator is rejected by an unnamed antagonist, despite being “seminary sold” on the idea of being with her. “Creature Fear” closes with an ambiguous (or possibly polyvalent) use of “so many Torahs,” in which either the inscription of god’s work in history is contingently understood or we each live under different manifestations of god’s law (i.e., Torah), which promotes the “creature fear” of an arbitrary lawgiver. The antagonist can act with impunity, then, because she lives under her own Torah.

“Re: Stacks”

In “Re: Stacks,” Vernon opens the song with “This my excavation and to / day is Qumran.” An apocalyptic sect of Second Temple Jews found itself at Qumran, a collection of caves in the wilderness of the West Bank, and there the Essenes (probably) kept their writings. In the mid-1950s, excavation of the area began in earnest, with New Testament and Jewish studies experts both taking a keen interest in the writings found there.

That the song begins with a reference to Qumran, of all things, should gear the audience to frame the rest of it along those lines. Whatever is said throughout the rest of the song, it should be understood as analogically similar to the paradigm-shifting nature of the Qumran discoveries. The narrator is certainly frustrated with his circumstances, but his perspective is hopeful: “… to / day is Qumran / everything that happens is from now on,” which is to say that the rest of his life will be lived from this moment of new discovery. The Qumran caves continue to enhance our view of Second Temple Judaism, including our New Testament, and framing his loss in these terms allows us to see (a) Vernon’s familiarity with somewhat obscure biblical studies and (b) Vernon’s religiously-informed self-understanding. That is not to suggest that Vernon is consciously “religious”; some heritage or interest in his life has allowed him to conceive of his place in the world by means of that paradigm, which is hardly uncommon among artists.

The sermons are the first to rest

Bon Iver, Bon Iver is a far more spatially-cognizant album than For Emma Forever Ago. Most of the songs reference concrete space in some manner, which is not necessarily true of the previous album. While Vernon has located himself somewhere in these songs, it’s not as though he’s totally found himself. He still struggles with remaining somewhere, as in the first verse of “Hinnom, TX”: “Baby, pasts are slain / I got outta LaGrange.”

Nevertheless, Bon Iver, Bon Iver draws from a theological vocabulary less than For Emma Forever Ago, although still interestingly. In “Hinnom, TX,” the narrator briefly mentions “the Noachide / bodies wrapped in white / stranded every pain.” The Noachide laws were a set of laws purportedly given to Noah after his descent from the ark, which were to govern the acts of all in the postdiluvian world. The reference is oblique, and it is left as such.

In “Towers,” Vernon uses a more extended metaphor. The first hint of religious imagery is in the evocative “sacrum” in the bridge, which can refer not only to one of the body’s bones but also, per its Latin roots, a “holy place” or “holy thing,” particularly in Catholic circles. Whereas the rest of the song does move around the body of some unstated subject (sacrum, liver, tongue, and sternum), it closes with a picture of an anti-church: “Oh the sermons are the first to rest / smoke on Sundays when you’re drunk and dressed / out the hollows where the swallows rest.” Disregarding the organized ritual of Sunday worship, the narrator heads out to nature, to see the birds while hungover and smoking.

I don’t know how you house the sin

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“Heavenly Father”

Between Bon Iver, Bon Iver and 22, A Million, Vernon penned a song for Zach Braff’s 2014 film Wish I Was Here. “Heavenly Father” signals a shift in Vernon’s songwriting. In retrospect, this is obvious by the time 22, A Million is released at the end of 2016. Fans of Bon Iver were anxious for a new album, but it would be a couple of years before the next studio album from the songwriter.

“Heavenly Father” serves as a transition in Vernon’s discography. The link between it and Bon Iver, Bon Iver is certainly stronger than it and For Emma, but the movement toward what would become 22, A Million is unmistakable. Nevertheless, you get the sense while listening to “Heavenly Father” that Vernon is still “playing with” synthetization as an irreplaceable feature of the song. Perhaps this is why “Heavenly Father” can be “traditionally” composed and performed without losing its force, while “715 – CR∑∑KS” requires the Messina to convey itself appropriately; we’ll discuss that aspect more below.

A “traditional” composition and performance.

In any event, from the title of the song to the lyrical content, Vernon’s wrestling with god is undeniable. The significance of the song ending on a question should not be missed. “Heavenly Father” closes on an unresolved note:  “Is all that he offers a safety in the end?” In fact, the entire final verse is a frustrated cry to this silent figure. Our narrator has been alienated from god, wondering now in his separation if all that this heavenly father can give is postmortem security.

Moreover, the narrator finds god not in the ritual of organized religion or in the holy writ but in “the howling wind,” which revelation has made him “free.” The transcendent being, who purportedly governs the universe, cannot be bothered to answer the petitioner. And so, the petitioner turns inward and discovers the satisfaction of the immanent: nature, the inner space, and the other. A simultaneously transcendent and immanent god has no place here; all that can remain is a pantheistic god who is everywhere and in everything, which prompts the confusion: “I don’t know how you house the sin.”

I better fold my clothes

When 22, A Million was first released in September of 2016, fans were confused. What happened to the familiar melodic space of Bon Iver’s earlier albums? What’s with all of the computer-generated dissonance? Is there a real instrument on this album? 22, A Million was certainly off-putting at first, but the more I listened to it the more it grew on me. I began to see in it the same things I loved about Vernon’s earlier albums: beautiful lyrics, subtle harmonizations, and a serious grappling with the world, with god, and with ourselves.[1]

While the sound of 22, A Million starkly contrasts his earlier work, do Vernon’s lyrics in his newest album point toward a substantial change? Inasmuch as they are different, sure, but we’ll see that what’s changed in 22, A Million from For Emma and Bon Iver is at its core an intensification of beliefs already held. That is, Vernon has not turned around but has entrenched himself in latent, partially-formed (or partially-expressed) beliefs concerning himself, the world, and god. What do the album’s extra-lyrical elements contribute to this idea?

Style

22, A Million makes extensive use of synthetization, which demarcates it from Vernon’s earlier work. Though, again, we should note that 22, A Million is not the first album on which Vernon has toyed with synthesized sounds; Blood Bank, the 2009 EP on which Vernon subtly dabbled with Autotune, so influenced Kanye West that it helped facilitate a mammoth trend in popular music.

“715 – CRΣΣKS”

Vernon seems to have grown in his own facility with synthetization, even using a newly developed tool called “the Messina,” which creates a “huge, choral sound” per its co-creator Christ Messina. In fact, Vernon’s capacity to use the machine has rendered the songs from 22, A Million as in essence impossible to recreate without also recreating the Messina-effect, among others. As beautiful as a cover like this is, the distortive elements are missing, and the song is worse for it. Because Vernon has so deeply implanted distortion and synthetization into the life of the song, to attempt the music of 22, A Million without its inhuman, suprahuman components is to lose the album’s soul, as it were. In other words, “The medium is the message.”

So, what do his distortions and synthetizations mean? What is communicated? There are probably a number of things, but the one I can’t escape is the idea of the inaccessibility of one’s interior by another. That is to say, we are ourselves complex and contradictory beings, and we can barely know ourselves truly; others certainly cannot pierce the veil with certainty. 22, A Million‘s songs do not invite participation from the audience–not at the level of performance. The audience can listen and be carried along with the song, but these are not pop songs designed to get everybody singing along. They’re an experience to be enjoyed, or reflected upon. Synthetization works against participation, because, try as you might, it’s impossible to replicate the Messina-effect without a similar tool to change your voice.

Further, difficult-to-replicate seems to be at least part of the rationale behind Vernon’s choice of song titles. The first song is titled “22 (OVER S∞∞N)”, which is comprehensible but, admittedly, odd. Most of the songs contain a symbol of some kind (e.g., “21 M♢♢N WATER” and “666 ʇ”), with perhaps the most inexplicable being “____45_____”. Vernon’s decision to intelligibly though unclearly “spell” his titles through symbols suggests a disincentivized participation. Most people can hardly reference the song appropriately because of the obscurity of the symbols used.

Finally, every song title contains one number or another, and his lyrical videos are filled with iconography. While theories abound about an intended numerology, I’m satisfied with explaining the numbers and icons with the symbols: they are on a surface level self-explanatory, but going any deeper is likely a fool’s errand. Descending into another’s inner self is impossible; all that we have access to is their actions, their own “surface level.”

What do all of these elements suggest together? We are enigmatic creatures, who hardly know ourselves, who cannot deeply know others, and who (maybe or maybe not) live under a similarly unknowable god. We’ll see below that Vernon’s lyrics advance this thesis quite a bit, particularly with reference to god.

Substance

What does Vernon actually say about god? Quite a lot in 22, A Million, and by comparison far more than in previous albums. Moreover, he moves more deeply into introspection than his previous albums.

Beginning with the first track on the album, “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” reads as a fabulistic retelling of the expulsion from Eden, but one which excoriates god for his silence: “All these years / there I find you marked in constellation / there isn’t a ceiling in our garden / and then I draw an ear on you / so I can speak into the silence.”

However, the narrator isn’t met with kindness or with covenant loyalty. Rather, “I have carried consecration / and then you expelled all decision / as I stand up with a vision.” The song concludes with a “scission,” whether between the narrator and his creator or within the narrator himself, and the refrain, “It’ll all be over soon.” What once was whole has now been ripped apart–a perception of self not uncommon among my peers. An overriding sense of alienation pervades our world, exacerbated by our online lives, but there does not seem to be a healthy recourse (at least, outside the reintegrating work of god).

33 “GOD”

“33 ‘GOD'” is far and away the most explicitly religious song on the album. The lyric video displays at the front Psalm 22, which Jesus invokes as he hangs on his cross. Thirty-three being the popularly-held year of life at which Jesus was crucified, the song title and psalm together invoke the image of the Christ.

The song poignantly samples Paolo Nutini’s “Iron Sky,” taking Nutini’s “we find god and religions” and reworking it into, “I find god and religion.” It’s engineered in such a way as to sound as though it’s emerging from deep within the narrator’s psyche, perhaps unwittingly.

This pseudo-messianic figure has “found god and religion,” but he’s disinterested. The bridge expresses the postmodern sentiment best, “Said I woulda walked across any thousand lands / (no, not really if you can’t) / I didn’t need you that night / not gonna need you anytime / was gonna take it as it goes / I could go forward in the light / well, I better fold my clothes.” The narrator senses the transcendental call to embrace “the light,” but he doesn’t want it; he rejects it in favor of the mundane: I better fold my clothes. Ours is a distracted age, which makes the contemplative meditation necessary for rich, integral interior life difficult if not impossible. We’ll settle for completing things on our to-do list rather than striving for transcendence, which is what our hearts yearn for.

The song ends tragically, just as “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” does: “All my goodness to show / why are you so far from saving me? / Why are you so far from saving me?” Seeking an answer or assistance, the narrator is left with silence. Worse than “Heavenly Father,” who can only offer “a safety in the end,” this Christ-figure has been rejected at his point of greatest need.

In a curious reversal of the Christ-motif of “33 ‘GOD’,” the song “666 ʇ” pulls from the mythology surrounding the devil and the antichrist. Even in the title, the final character looks like an inverted cross, simultaneously associated with the apostle Peter’s crucifixion and satanism. A fitting confluence of religious obsession and suffering, “666 ʇ” and “33 ‘GOD'” together suggest an analogous Manichaeism, the dualistic cult with which Augustine argued in his Confessions and which held that good and evil exist in eternal conflict.

The actual lyrical content of “666 ʇ” speaks of an internal struggle with the narrator’s unanswered questions and, moreover, his place in the world. How does he belong? “Well, I’d stun and I’d stammer / help me reach the hammer / for then what will I ask?”

As one would expect, he takes this confusion and turns to god, praying for assistance, “I’m still standing in / still standing in the need of prayer,” but, receiving no answer, implores, “Just come off your kneel.” Again, frustration with a silent god pours out into the lyrics of this song. If god won’t answer prayers, there’s no point; you can hardly be certain that he’s there. Better to find divine comfort in nature and introspection than through a purely external grasping for a transcendent being.

22, A Million‘s final song is “00000 Million.” Fittingly, it’s thoroughly apocalyptic. The narrator yearns for “that grove … where days have no numbers,” a phrasing reminiscent of 2 Peter 3.8, another apocalyptic section of the New Testament. But the song itself closes with the refrain, “It harms me / It harms me / It harms me / I’ll let it in.” This tension between a promised solace and a present willingness to not only undergo suffering but embrace it–this is closer to Christian praxis than Vernon may believe. “Gnosis … ain’t gonna buy the groceries,” the narrator affirms, but he welcomes the responsibility to suffer well, looking for that time “when days have no numbers.”

Incorporating the Hidden God

What do we do with this? Vernon is a postmodern prophet for the alienated and irreligious-though-spiritually-concerned. He says poetically that which could be construed as my generation’s orthodoxy. This orthodoxy, however, conflicts with Christian orthodoxy, to be sure. God has been made known–not only as transcendent but also as immanent, not merely as “heavenly father” but also as the incarnate Son and indwelling Spirit. God tabernacled among us, and he made his home within us. Does that satisfy the existential dissatisfaction? Inasmuch as such dissatisfaction is grounded in rote ritual and exteriorized “spirituality,” certainly, but it’s never merely that. An ontological shift has to take place, in which we are remade to desire the things of god, but the desire for god to be present and to hear petitions is a good thing–we must merely be willing to hear and to acknowledge his response.

It’s not as though Vernon’s conception of god-as-enigma is wholly unorthodox, however. In fact, eastern theology is the foremost tradition for apophatic theology, in which god is known through denying things of him rather than attributing to him. God is, in this sense, unknowable except by negation. Yet, there is a more significant sense of god’s unknowability, one which finds itself lauded in western theology.

Drawing on Elizabeth Palmer’s Faith in a Hidden God, we can look back to two historical interpretations of the binding of Isaac. Martin Luther and Søren Kierkegaard both offered anagogical interpretations of the narrative, in which Abraham, who has demonstrated trust in the Lord up to this point, has now been commanded by Yahweh to take his promised son to a mountain in order to sacrifice him. Luther and Kierkegaard draw the audience not merely to the narrative but to the god described therein, who is shrouded in mystery and darkness and whom we are no longer certain we know. Who is this god who promises and delivers a son but who also commands us to kill him? Of course, the goal is not to leave the God of Israel unknown but to encounter him truly–and to be changed as a result, whether to a life of faith (Luther) or to a life of love (Kierkegaard).

In much the same way, the Christian can truly affirm god’s hiddenness to the world. The unbeliever may not truly know who god is, and they may have a multitude of confused notions about this god. N.T. Wright, reflecting on his time as chaplain, describes this encounter well:

For seven years I was College Chaplain and [sic] Worcester College, Oxford.  Each year I used to see the first year undergraduates individually for a few minutes, to welcome them to the college and make a first acquaintance.  Most were happy to meet me; but many commented, often with slight embarrassment, “You won’t be seeing much of me; you see, I don’t believe in god.”

I developed [a] stock response: “Oh, that’s interesting; which god is it you don’t believe in?”  This used to surprise them; they mostly regarded the word “God” as a univocal, always meaning the same thing.  So they would stumble out a few phrases about the god they said they did not believe in: a being who lived up the in the sky, looking down disapprovingly at the world, occasionally “intervening” to do miracles, sending bad people to hell while allowing good people to share his heaven.  Again, I had a stock response for this very common statement of “spy-in-the-sky” theology: “Well, I’m not surprised you don’t believe in that god.  I don’t believe in that god either.”

At this point the undergraduate would look startled.  Then, perhaps, a faint look of recognition; it was sometimes rumored that half the college chaplains at Oxford were atheists.  “No,” I would say; “I believe in the god I see revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.”  What most people mean by “god” in late-modern western culture simply is not the mainstream Christian meaning.

The same is true for the meanings of “god” within postmodernity.  We are starting to be more aware that many people give allegiance to “gods” and “goddesses” which are personifications of forces of nature and life.  An obvious example is the earth-goddess, Gaia, revered by some within the New Age movement.  Following the long winter of secularism, in which most people gave up believing in anything “religious” or “spiritual,” the current revival of spiritualities of all sorts is an inevitable swing of the pendulum, a cultural shift in which people have been able once more to celebrate dimensions of human existence which the Enlightenment had marginalized.  But one cannot assume that what people mean by “god” or “spirit,” “religion” or “spirituality” within these movements bears very much relation to Christianity.  I even heard, not long ago, an Italian justifying the pornography which featured his high-profile wife on the grounds that its portrayal of sexuality was deeply “religious.”  The Pope, he thought, would welcome it.

Eros has of course been well-known to students of divinities time out of mind.  But only when a culture has forgotten, through long disuse, how god-language actually works could someone assume that the deeply “religious” feelings, evoking a sense of wonder and transcendence, which serious eroticism (and lots of other things) can produce, could be straightforwardly identified with anything in the Judaeo-Christian tradition.  Did they ever hear of paganism?

It is vital that in our generation we inquire once more: to what, or rather whom, does the word “god” truly refer?  And if, as Christians, we bring together Jesus and God in some kind of identity, what sort of an answer does that provide to our question?

We must acknowledge the truth that god is unknown except through his self-disclosure in Jesus himself. Again, as Wright puts it:

In Jesus himself, I suggest we see the biblical portrait of YHWH come to life: the loving God, rolling up his sleeves (Isa 52:10) to do in person the job that no one else could do, the creator God giving new life[,] the God who works through his created world and supremely through his human creatures, the faithful God dwelling in the midst of his people, the stern and tender God relentlessly opposed to all that destroys or distorts the good creation, and especially human beings, but recklessly loving all those in need and distress.  “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd; he shall carry the lambs in his arms; and gently lead those that are with young” (Isa 40:11).  It is the OT portrait of YHWH, but it fits Jesus like a glove.

Sometimes, even for Christians, we can fear that there is a vindictive and petty tyrant who hides behind the back of the merciful Jesus. We have no need to fear this, and unveiling this disclosure to the world should be our joy. God is not divided into two pieces, where Jesus holds back a wrathful father from punishing his children. Those who have placed their faith in the risen Son have been united to him, and as such they cannot be rejected from the Triune God without tearing apart that perichoretic and eternal joy. The hidden god has been made known in the Son. We are no longer alienated from god–even from ourselves and those around us–but have been brought back into shalom and abundant life.


[1] I don’t want to suggest that Vernon is an existentialist, but his work attracts me for many of the same reasons that I’m attracted to the existential philosophy: he takes our place in the world, and our responsibility to act, seriously, in a way that I rarely see others consider it. There’s an angst and a frustration with the ways things are that can only be birthed in sustained reflection on and engagement with both the exterior and interior worlds. I strive for the same, and I do not suffer fools gladly who purport to offer wisdom without reflection.

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Review: None Greater (2019)

Matthew Barrett’s None Greater: the Undomesticated Attributes of God (Baker Books, 2019) clearly articulates the standard “classical theism” of much of western theology’s and reformed theology’s history. Barrett’s work is a capable defense of the idea that god is “infinite in being and perfection, a completely pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or emotions, unchangeable, immensely vast, eternal, limitless, almighty, completely wise, completely holy, completely free, and completely absolute” (Westminster Confession of Faith §2.1, via the EPC)–in other words, the notion that god is entirely simple, without emotions, and timeless.

Now, reading that may prompt a question in yourself: do I believe this of the Lord? Does this match the god I’ve encountered in Scripture? Is this who Jesus is? I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a committed classical theist; I haven’t done the research to be convinced one way or the other, and I’m still troubled by (a) god’s passibility and (b) how the divine and human natures correspond in the incarnation.

Nevertheless, it’s unquestionable that this conception of god is the predominant conception among western theologians (though, among the laity I doubt) up until the last century or so, and it therefore has the weight of tradition behind it. Which is to say, discard at your own peril. Barrett explains and argues for the model well, and the argument is worth your consideration.

The church exists for the purpose of the worship and glorification of god. Books such as this exist to equip the church to do so in spirit and in truth.


Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers http://www.bakerbooks.com/bakerbooksbloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

Review: Assured (2019)

Greg Gilbert published a very helpful little book on the doctrine of assurance through Baker Books this year. Most Christians have at times struggled with being assured of their salvation, letting doubt disrupt what ought to be a perfect confidence in their communion with the Triune God.

What triggers doubt in the believer? Gilbert points to a number of things, a few of which are (1) ignorance concerning the promises of god, (2) disobedience to the commands of god, and (3) inattention to the witness of the Spirit. One that I would add to Gilbert’s list, and one which I don’t think is treated with sufficient seriousness by most theologians, is a kind of neuroticism that makes assurance-qua-subjective-confidence mostly impossible. That is to say, the self-reflective “sure-ness” that we have in fact been purchased by the blood of Christ is psychologically troublesome for a certain kind of person–this despite the “objective promise” and “subjective obedience” of the faithful.

Nevertheless, inasmuch as Gilbert points to some of the biblical markers for assurance, he succeeds, and this little work will definitely be one I’ll push toward my students as they wrestle with their faith. One thing that I wished Gilbert had pushed more, however, was the call to “remember your baptism.” Baptism is a means of grace, one which occurred at a specific point in one’s life and therefore one which can be pointed back toward. Remember that the baptized have been buried with Christ in baptism and have been raised with him to walk in newness of life. When I question and doubt, remembering my baptism is an historical means of assurance, one which was applied to me from without and which images the spiritual reality of our union with Christ.


Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers http://www.bakerbooks.com/bakerbooksbloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

Why the Resurrection? Among Other Reasons

At risk of piling on to this widely critiqued conversation between New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof and president of Union Theological Seminary Serene Jones, I do want to share a few thoughts on the matter in light of this year’s Easter season.

Union has long had an unfortunate reputation as a seminary unconcerned with theology as an academic discipline, considering it more as a justifying force for particular socio-ethical positions–some laudable, others not. I recall Bonhoeffer’s utter dissatisfaction with the seminary’s standards, how mired it was even then with unserious theology, and even today the seminary’s president offers positions that are not only totally unsurprising for those who know the ideological history of theological liberalism but also entirely (and I mean, entirely) uninteresting.

Because of the theological stream that birthed Union and that has continued to water its soil, the tendency for its president and those who think like her is to divorce the narrative of Scripture (an overreach corrected by the postliberal movement) as well as the existential import of Scripture (an overreach corrected by the neo-orthodox movement) from the ethical principles (ostensibly) found in Scripture (though, in practice, more frequently imposed from without than found within). What matters, in other words, is not what Scripture says, nor what the church has traditionally believed, but how Scripture can inform and construct a contemporary liberal (though occasionally drifting into leftist) ethic.

In doing so, however, you can see the outright violence done to the actual text and canon of Scripture. Whatever isn’t convenient to the modern ethic is discarded or explained away(–which isn’t to say, however, that evangelicals and others aren’t as prone to this; theological liberalism, in my opinion, certainly seems more brazen about it–), while the rest can enthusiastically be pointed to as justification for the rest. The narrative is only an apparatus to be used when it’s useful for the appointed end: moral justification for what’s already believed.

This couldn’t be more clear than when Jones goes on ad nauseam about how the resurrection’s historical reality or, really, any concrete details at all are relevant to her greater point: it’s a symbol of the power of love, of faith, of hope, of whatever you’d like it to be. In fact, literally contradicting the force of the argument to which (per Barth) all of 1 Corinthians is directed, Jones pontificates:

For me, the message of Easter is that love is stronger than life or death. That’s a much more awesome claim than that they put Jesus in the tomb and three days later he wasn’t there. For Christians for whom the physical resurrection becomes a sort of obsession, that seems to me to be a pretty wobbly faith. What if tomorrow someone found the body of Jesus still in the tomb? Would that then mean that Christianity was a lie? No, faith is stronger than that.

Just so everybody is clear, I take Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 15.17-19 seriously. If Christ has not been raised, I’m going to find something else to do. I’m done with this faith, which calls me to die to myself and to live to Christ; I’m done with this disposition of hope, believing that the world will be made right; I’m done with all of it. I won’t step foot in another church if somebody were to demonstrate that Jesus of Nazareth died and remained buried. “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” I have better things to do if Jesus is still dead.

If it is not the case, however, that Jesus remains dead, if in fact the dead will be raised — some to judgment, some to life — then everything changes. Believing, then, that Christ has been raised, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep, and that we will be raised as well if we die before his return, then we can face destruction, persecution, and danger in confidence–confident that the Lord will not only vindicate those united to him but will bring them to the consummated pneumatic life of 1 Corinthians 15.

My attention is drawn to the martyrs of Sri Lanka, murdered as they celebrated the resurrection of our Lord by cowards and instruments of the destroyer. Over three hundred drawn to the presence of god, who await their own resurrected bodies. I try to imagine them. What comfort is there in this inane drivel from the president of one of the premier seminaries in the United States? How does resurrection qua purum symbolum provide the substantial ethical power (which Jones so desperately tries to get!) that is evidenced by the Christians throughout time who have suffered at the hands of godless men? No, Christians from the beginning have put their faith in the risen Christ, who will himself raise us to new life when he returns in glory. The inanities of this movement will die as the church suffers, and the blood of the martyrs will water the rejuvenated hope in the true gospel.

Elders without Overseers

My local church, where I worship and serve, has gone through a difficult period. During the last five years, we have installed two lead pastors only to see them depart shortly thereafter. This is unideal in any church, and that is no exception here. Attendance, congregational participation, and tithing have all dropped, though they’ve remained steady for a while thanks to god’s superintending grace and the wise shepherding of our interim pastor.

Over the course of our interim pastor’s service, he has led the church (including its elder board, its pastoral staff, and its congregation) through a process seeking to diagnose underlying problems and to institute changes to strengthen the body. One of the consistent refrains that surfaced during this diagnostic was a frustration with the elder board. It’s as close to common knowledge as one could get, for those familiar with the situation, and so I hope I’m not speaking out of turn. I know many of these elders (and their former comrades, who resigned from the board), and I also know that they faithfully served the church for decades. Nevertheless, despite historically functioning as an elder-ruled church, a humming dissatisfaction percolated in the background against the appointed form of governance.

A bit of historical background would probably be beneficial at this point. The church originally, and for nearly eighty years from its inception, existed within the Cumberland Presbyterian denomination. It broke off from the denomination in the early seventies, because of an encroaching liberalism, while retaining the presbyterian model of governance at the local corporate level.

Whereas the church had before been ruled by an elder board, who were then subject to a regional presbytery and national synod–to whom a grievance could be filed were the local presbytery not taking sufficient action in regard to a problem–after leaving the denomination, the church became an independent body ruled by an elder board, who were functionally accountable to nobody but the lead pastor who initiated the split from the denomination. Over the decades, the elder board served under this lead pastor, until he was forced to resign, and now the elders were in an unfamiliar situation: without the strong leadership of a single individual, how should the elder board rule in general and in the circumstance of a new lead pastor? By most accounts (again, depending on who you asked), the transition did not go well, and that leads us to today: a fractured church hoping for a brighter future.

Despite the immense frustration and heartbreak over what has occurred in our church, or, perhaps, because of it, I found myself drawn to questions of proper church governance–particularly, though, in this sort of context. For churches that prioritize elder-rule, what institutional mechanisms exist to prevent this kind of disaster? With the disintegration of (formal) denominations, how can a church wisely hold to a local presbyterian structure without the necessary denominational apparatuses that prevent abuse?

Our church is currently revising its constitution, hopefully answering that very question. I don’t serve on the committees responsible for those decisions. However, below, I’ll briefly outline a couple of possible solutions and their drawbacks with the aim of sketching out a forward path from this mire, for the good of our church and churches elsewhere.

“Elder-ruled” is an identity baked into our church’s self-understanding, which means it will not be easily shorn–this despite the influx of baptist émigrés who arrived over the last decade from other local churches. With that in mind, what are possible paths ahead?

Retaining a presbyterian identity and moving forward immediately rules out two choices: (1) reuniting with the Cumberland Presbyterian denomination and (2) modeling polity after the congregationalism of the baptists, which culminates in essence with the democratic vote of the membership. Both of these are disallowed by definition, but they can both be helpful for shaping possible solutions.

From what I can tell, there are two realistic solutions: (1) a modified presbytery or (2) institutional realignment. We’ll treat them in order.

The first option would also be the more clever of the two, since it would require reimagining the balance of power in the church’s governance; I also consider this option the more likely. With a growing constituency of “former baptists,” congregational desire has leaned more toward congregationalism than probably at any point in the church’s history. Further, with the current crisis having been wrought by the elder board (some would say), why not shake things up and transition to a pure congregationalism? I was aware of this possibility not long after our interim pastor arrived and expressed my fear of such a shift to him personally.

Nevertheless, the goal being to prevent “institutionally-permitted abuse” because lack of formal strictures, a modified presbytery would need to glean prudential wisdom from the congregationalists. In the absence of an external accountability structure (a regional bishopric or presbytery), permitting the congregation (via some designated diaconate?) emergency administrative powers could function as a workaround. When a problem arises, specifically with reference to the elder board, giving the congregation constitutional powers to bring the board to account is necessary.

By establishing some emergency board, to whom the elders are accountable and which is triggered after some “vote of no confidence,” a local congregation can simulate the prophylactic disciplinary measures a presbytery would traditionally wield.

However, this construction would fail to provide the positive, edifying role of a presbytery. Being discipled, shepherded, and having somebody to give you wise counsel are necessary for every Christian–not least the pastors and shepherds among us. The elders of a local congregation, in this scenario, would not have institutionally-constructed access to shepherds seeking their good as shepherds of this congregation. You can encourage or even require elder candidates to engage in routine, persistent discipleship, but in my estimation the more prudent way to go about requiring such a relationship is to enable it by means of how the church is organized. Moreover, this communicates to both elders and congregation the seriousness with which you take their spiritual health.

The second path forward is institutional realignment. By institutional realignment, I mean reincorporating this local body into a larger network of churches, each of which mutually “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” and for the good of the church. With traditional denominations in decline (sometimes in free fall, if we’re being honest) and novel networking taking place outside of them (Acts 29, for one), the manner in which a church unites itself to others may look differently than it has in the past, but that ought to engender creative problem-solving rather than resignation.

Traditionally, participating in a denomination provides both external accountability as well as a pooling of resources for particular congregations in need. Sometimes, the denomination itself foots the bill for a congregation’s mortgage or for a church’s leadership’s continuing education. Both of these financial benefits are blessings, but the external accountability — structured within the denomination and in other words “formalized” — surpasses both of them, by facilitating an ongoing discipleship and mentorship for congregational leaders, who are then able to better minister to their people. Whatever the future holds for denominations and church networks, the desire to continually shepherd the shepherds ought not be lost.

An ideal network, as far as I can tell, would be a collective of local churches working together and mutually ministering to each other for the sake of those within and without the church. In what amounts to an “evangelical co-op,” such a network would be best equipped to facilitate ministry in each church’s local context through strategic partnership, formalized discipling, and inter-congregational edification and fellowship.

Like I said above, I find this the less “sellable” prospect, because it would be more difficult to create, but it would probably be more fruitful for both particular congregation and wider “kingdom” movements in our communities. Nevertheless, both options can prove beneficial to a church’s maturation and edification.

Review: The Rule of Love (2018)

Church discipline begins and ends with love. At least, it ought to. The church, insofar as she is a demarcated people, must practice discipline for the good of her members but also, pointedly argued here, for the good of the world.

Jonathan Leeman, known for his work with Dever’s 9Marks parachurch organization, has published a mostly helpful little work on love and the life of the church under the title The Rule of Love. The thesis of the book is simple enough: the church must exemplify as well as point toward god’s love for his people and the world. Leeman spends much of the first half of the book expounding on the nature of love, whether our culture’s definition of it or the scriptural testimony of god’s inward- and outward-directed love. The book closes with practical applications for church leaders and members.

In all honesty, I won’t remember much of the book or his arguments. There were points in the beginning chapters at which I wondered whether I could correctly guess where he was getting his points from (hint: they sounded like Rand), but much of the rest of the book’s first movement was uninteresting because trite. Not to suggest that god’s love for his people and for the Son is trite, but it was quite clearly establishing very fundamental points in regard to a Christian doctrine of love–much of which has been said elsewhere and better. The Rule of Love does close with a collection of helpful thoughts and applications, and, as a beginning resource on church discipline, it holds its own.

Grounding Christian ecclesial practice in love is an important point to remember, and Leeman does well reminding us.


I received a complimentary edition of this work from Crossway in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Theology in the Flesh (2016)

Cognitive linguistics is a field of research that takes into account the ways in which our very human, very culturally-situated brains process and conceptualize the world. In short: cognitive linguistics, at least inasmuch as Sanders is concerned, holds that the particularly human instantiation in the world leads to certain “metaphors” for understanding the world (and away from certain others), and these conceptual metaphors play a formative part in how we understand the world.

John Sanders’ 2016 Theology in the Flesh helpfully applies the insights of cognitive linguistics to the “grammar” of theology and ethics. As far as I’m concerned, that we experience the world in a particular (i.e., non-objective) way necessarily entails that our perception of and reflection on the world are mediated–and therefore perpetually subject to correction or reinterpretation, per Olson’s Reformed and Always Reforming. We are embodied beings, and our very embodiment causes us to conceptualize the world in such a manner. Sanders’ hypothetical example of a jellyfish’s linguistic metaphors concerning motion as compared to a human’s is illustrative.

Is there an overarching “human” objectivity to the world, which supersedes a supposed “bird’s-eye” or “non-human” objectivity by virtue of its intuitive accessibility? I don’t know. That’s an argument for another day. Whether such a pan-human shared understanding/objectivity exists (or, moreover, is sufficient for the demands of objectivity!) is unclear. However, cognizance of the embodied/physiological limits of our rationality is a helpful and necessary corrective to the radical objectivity of disciples of a certain pseudo-philosopher. At the very least, awareness of our linguistic metaphors ought to promote a sense of humility as we offer theological and ethical arguments.

Altogether, Sanders’ work is a beneficial addition to one’s theological prolegomenon.