2017 in Five Books

Quite the year was 2017. In the midst of a tumultuous political season (what with statues and whatnot being torn down), the rest of the year felt like a whirlwind; it seems like only yesterday we were celebrating last year’s Christmas season. Despite the whirlwind, I was able to carve out some additional time to read this year, totaling to 43 books to date. I may be able to finish one or two before the year’s up, but I can chalk up 2017 to a (mostly) successful reading adventure.

That said, here’s my five favorite books (in no particular order) from the last year.

5114p4t32wl-_sx298_bo1204203200_1. John Hollander, The Figure of Echo: a Mode of Allusion in Milton and After (1984)

Hollander’s work first came to my attention after reading Richard Hays’ The Faith of Jesus Christ. Most of Hays’ argument depends on the kind of reading that Hollander describes and practices in The Figure of Echo. Hollander takes note of the mythical figure of Echo in her original story (a mountain nymph who makes herself known only by repeating the words of others) as well as her use in literature thereafter, especially in Milton. A book written by an English professor for literature scholars, The Figure of Echo can enrich your reading habits if you have the patience to walk through it. In nuce: there’s more to the sentence than the words on the page.

41uadtpj4yl-_sx325_bo1204203200_2. Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (2009)

Murakami is a Japanese author who, obviously, also runs. One of the curious things that happened this year is that, while I increased the amount of time I spent reading each week, I also increased the amount of time I spent running each week. Reading and running are both intensely private acts. Joining a reading group or a running club still does not overcome the essentially solitary nature of both activities; you can be spurred on by your comrades, but the embodied experience of both running and reading (and writing) all belong to you alone. Murakami understands this. His memoir follows his growth as a runner, which, insofar as Murakami is concerned, mirrors his growth as a writer. The simple prose of Murakami’s book magnifies the complex experience of the interior in running and reading and writing.

173433. C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces: a Myth Retold (1956)

Lewis’s Till We Have Faces is a retelling of the myth of Psyche and Cupid, told from the perspective of Psyche’s older sister Orual. Orual in large measure despises the gods for how she’s been treated throughout her life, and Lewis carefully treats us to the perspective of one whose own perspective has been skewed inward by a life of selfish preoccupation with one’s own priorities. Till We Have Faces was Lewis’s last novel, and the complexity of structure and content is clear. To distill some of the essence of the work, hear the words from the priestly character: “Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.”

51mc3o-2bqgl-_sx323_bo1204203200_4. Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men (2005)

The Coen Brothers adopted No Country into what is perhaps the most true-to-book adaptation I’ve watched. McCarthy’s work swaps between deeply introspective, deeply subjective sections and utterly exterior, utterly objective chapters. It’s difficult to summarize succinctly the story that McCarthy is telling in No Country for Old Men. It is, in equal measure, the story of a treasure discovery gone horribly wrong as well as the story of an “old man” out of place in the new world. It’s the intersection (almost, but not quite, because Sheriff Bell is always a step behind) of the old way and the new, of convention (Bell) and absurd evil (Chigurh, whom Moss misunderstands as “Sugar”), of life and chance. The book is incredible. If you’re not going to read it, at least watch the film.

220px-structure-of-scientific-revolutions-1st-ed-pb51618we2bvgl-_sx320_bo1204203200_5. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) // Peter Bergman & Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: a Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (1967)

I understand that it’s a little unfair to include two books under the same heading, but both of these works should be read together. These two have continued to entrench the “critical realist” epistemology that Nicholas Wolterstorff first introduced to me–and that N.T. Wright has continued to exemplify in his own scholarship. Kuhn and Berger/Luckmann both, in similar but different-enough ways, point to the importance of the community in constructing “knowledge.” For Kuhn, communities (scientific communities specifically, but the application is clear for communities broadly) by and large function according to “normal science.” The time comes, however, when “normal science” fails to answer the questions that are being posed to it, and from the margins emerges “revolutionary science[s],” which will fight for ground by purporting to best answer the new questions. Whichever science wins will then become the new “normal science,” by which a community engages the world. Berger and Luckmann proffer a similar view, whereby the individual is born not as a tabula rasa but as one whose view of the world has been shaped by the relationships and signs and explanations given to them by their community. How one views their family, their workplace, and the broader cosmos are all informed by/directed by/nudged by their community. These two works together shed light on how knowledge is achieved.

Such is a year in review.

Until 2018,

j

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Appraising the Reformation

The five hundredth anniversary of Luther’s Wittenberg theses, and therefore the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, was acknowledged[1] today. Luther developed and disseminated ninety-five theses, and taken together these theses helped prompt the theological, political, and social revolutions of the 16th and 17th centuries.

As a result of the Reformation, the Western church would never again recover the formal unity that it had theretofore enjoyed. From that time, Christians in Protestant-majority Europe and North America have failed to worship and labor for the kingdom of god under the same ecclesial institution, instead being born into or joining markedly different Protestant traditions with varying emphases. Some would argue that such disparate fellowships are the necessary cost for freedom of association/thought/worship or are the unfortunate, though again necessary, response to the papal abuses of Medieval and Renaissance Europe.

I don’t intend to delve into whether or not the initial situation justified the response taken by Luther and the reformers. I’m inclined to believe that some measure of reformation was required; the degree to which the figures of the Reformation acted appropriately is not for me to discern–I’m no expert in Reformation scholarship. While I would consider myself unqualified to judge whether or not the Reformation ought to have taken place, I do think we’re in a position to judge whether the results of the Reformation have been beneficial, harmful, or a mixture of good and bad.

One would find it difficult to develop an argument that the Reformation has produced purely good or purely bad fruit. The most obvious, and also the easiest, assessment of the Reformation’s influence is that it brought about a mixed harvest:  some rotten apples, some ripe, and a great deal that isn’t as easily assessable. I’m going to key in on one apple:  the diversification of models of Christian theology, practice, and worship in the wake of the Reformation.

One could claim that shattering the institutional control of the Catholic Church brought about prized freedoms of conscience and assembly. Such a victory comes at the tremendous cost of dismantling–or, at least, reconfiguring–the institutional church, which, unless one will deny the importance of the corporeality of the body of Christ on earth, requires a serious cost-counting:  Does the individual’s freedom of conscience justify disassembling Christ’s church? Or had this institutional body so squelched the “spiritual” body of Christ within its members that the formal body could be done away with without violence to its head? How one understands the relationship of the institutional church to the “body of Christ” to the individual church and its individual members will in large part color their perception of the Reformation.

If there is no spiritual church without the institutional church, and if the institutional church is the Catholic Church founded by Jesus Christ through the apostle Peter, then such a Reformation attempts to dismember violently the body of Christ. On the other hand, if there is no institutional church without the spiritual church–if the spiritual church serves as the prior and necessary foundation to any institutional body whatsoever, then deference will be made to the volition of atomized believers who freely join together for common worship. These two positions are, of course, the two poles of argument in Western orthodoxy, but in this case the boundaries of debate are not populated sparsely.

To sketch out my own position, I defer to local communities of faith to determine for themselves the proper modes of worship and teaching. Beyond the local manifestation of Christ’s body, however, it seems necessary that there be some norming norm that stands above particular bodies and unites them into a common whole–such that all of Christ’s churches are Christ’s Church. The content of the norming norm is difficult to pin down. Scripture doesn’t interpret itself, and therefore, because every interpretation of Scripture is necessarily a contextualized interpretation, particular to its own time and culture, it seems impossible to point to a particular confession or conciliar decree as a once-for-all articulation of Christian orthodoxy. And yet, there have been (at the very least malleable) fenceposts of Western Christianity, beyond which Christians of most stripes dismiss as false religion. However, the further one moves from Christianity in toto to Christianity in hac civitatem, the more malleable the distinction between their and our Christianity becomes–but the pain of departure also becomes more acute, because the abstract transforms into the concrete. We operate according to a number of different received traditions, but those which most directly impinge on the everyday life of our local bodies are those which most clearly color the content of our theology and worship.

Under that model, insofar as the Catholic Church dictated from Rome the modes and emphases of teaching and worship throughout its reach, it overstepped its authority.[2] Following Tillich’s comment in Theology of Culture, “The church has to pronounce the principles and to criticize the given reality in the light of these principles, but it cannot decide about their concrete application. At least the Protestant church cannot. It must leave this to the courage, intuition, and risk of voluntary groups.”[3] The church as an institution has been tasked to develop and disseminate the content/boundaries of orthodoxy, but “voluntary groups” of the local community are responsible for applying it. Where the institution of the Catholic Church encroached on those elements of Christian praxis that belong specifically to the local body, it invited a response in that moment, and the response that arose has reverberated for five hundred years.

The response was the splintering of Western Christianity into innumerable sects, many of which share large amounts of their theology together (even together with the Catholics). Although there are clear differences between Lutherans, Presbyterians, and American Evangelicals, many of these groups do tend to share some very basic propositions of faith and practice.

However, one must consider that dismantling the monolith could have had the effect of obstructing the work of the kingdom, streamlined through one institution, for the sake of the freedom of conscience. Rather than working under a shared Tradition, most Protestants work under common traditions but with a distinct Tradition acting as their particular umbrella within the larger field of Western Christianity. Was the obstruction worth the concomitant gain? It’s difficult to tell. Breaking fellowship with our Catholic comrades (and, prior to them, our Orthodox and Coptic comrades) seems antithetical to John 17. And yet, Christians ought to be those who prize truth for its own sake. What’s the balance between fidelity to truth and fidelity to the church? Without dissolving one into the other, one has to show their hand as regards their preference.

It seems obvious that the proliferation of contradicting (or at least tense) positions within Protestantism itself is a problematic that require serious treatment. Whereas Catholics can point to a Sacred Tradition, embodied in the teaching of the church and in the Catechism, Protestants only have (if they’re confessionally-oriented, that is) their varying confessions of faith, which, in terms of scope, aren’t as impressive–but which may very well encapsulate the teaching of Scripture to a greater degree than the Catechism. If it is in fact the case that Christ established the Church with Peter as its vicar–that is, if the institution of the Catholic Church is identical with the Church of Christ’s establishing, then no departure from Scripture could warrant a departure from the church, because Christ would intervene to prevent radical departure. If it’s not the case, however, greater freedom for reconfiguration remains, although the desire to reform should be tempered by the desire to “cherish the brethren.”


[1] “Acknowledged” is the most value-neutral term I can use. My readers include Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox, the latter two of which will do anything but “celebrate” the Reformation.

[2] You’ll note that I have dealt sparingly with the actual content of Renaissance Catholic theology. I am more concerned with the problems of form raised by the results of the Reformation than with the theological debates that raged at the time (and continue, in some measures, today). Drawing the lines of argument along the contours of Reformation theology as such is to invite another argument:  Does one show fidelity to “truth” or to the institution that Christ established? Or, how does one be faithful to Christ’s church, how to the truth? Is there a manner in which, counterfactually, the Reformers could have done both without forsaking Rome? I will not pursue those questions at this point.

[3] Tillich, Paul. Theology of Culture. Edited by Robert C. Kimball (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959), 196 – 199.

Postscript to On Abortion

I was connected with Jonathan Haidt’s website yourmorals.org after finishing The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. The site has a number of quizzes that place you in a context of other self-described liberals and conservatives who have also taken the quiz.

Along the lines of my previous post on abortion, the results here show that I do not attribute rights on the basis of intellectual and sensual capacity. I don’t really have anything of substance to add to this post except to say that the bottom two charts suggest I am a bit of an outlier on the issue. You can take this quiz for yourself, after registering, here.
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2016 in Five Books: a Review

This was an okay year for reading, as far as I was concerned. I set out to read 55 books, and at this point I’ve read 33 with a couple more that I’ll probably finish before the year is over. That said, I’m quite happy with the books that I did read–or, rather, the ones that I chose to read. My recent graduation from seminary opened up some time and brainpower to plow through works that have been on my list for a while. In addition, 2016 marked a return to fiction, and for that I’m thankful. Without further ado, here are my five favorite works from the last year.

1. N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, vol. 1 in Christian Origins and the Question of God (1991)

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In terms of paradigm-shifting works, there wasn’t one this year that was more effective than Tom Wright’s first volume in his Christian Origins series. He did more to situate the early church in her historical, Jewish context than three years of seminary and private study. His work will have you questioning the essentially Gentilic nature of Protestant Christianity. And that’s a good place to be for a time. I recommend this to anybody who has trouble making the connection between Christianity and its Judaic roots.

2. C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (1961)

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The introduction by Madeline L’Engle is worth the price of the book, but Lewis’s thinking-out-loud over sixty pages over the loss of his beloved H is especially poignant. He bleeds onto the page. The master storyteller lays out his doubts and struggles for his diary–and then the world–to see. If you have recently suffered a loss, I have no doubt that Grief may be the balm you need.

3. Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959)

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The progenitor of the current(ly regrettable) rash of dystopian books and movies, Canticle masterfully paints a world, in all its fullness, that has wrecked itself with nuclear war and is picking up the pieces. Moving in three parts and following the religious order connected to one of the physicists responsible for the Deluge, Canticle offers a view of knowledge, spirituality, and humanity that is worth considering.

4. George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thronesvol. 1 in A Song of Ice and Fire (1996)

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The inspiration for the widely-acclaimed HBO series Game of Thrones, Martin’s A Game of Thrones sets the stage for the massive chessboard that is the Seven Kingdoms. I’ve seen it described as a grown-up Lord of the Rings. There’s little to dispute about that characterization. It’s engrossing. It’s compelling. It’s heartbreaking at times. Read it.

5. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ (1989)

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Moltmann’s 1992 book is dated in terms of the contemporary events that he chooses to address. However, the method of his Christology in this book is absolutely worth looking into. Rather than relegating the nature and work of Christ to some abstraction, he maintains a relevant-Christ that can still speak prophetically and apocalyptically to the contemporary world. His Christ can address nuclear war, global warming, poverty, and all other ills.

To see all that I’ve read this year, click here for my Goodreads.

Until 2017,

j

 

 

Aside

I have uploaded a draft of my term paper for my course on 2 Corinthians. It is titled Death and the Spirit, Condemnation and Justification.

I would greatly appreciate your feedback either on Academie, where if you will ask me I will give you annotation rights, or on here. After the period of review is over, I will reedit, and publish a final copy here.

Grace and peace.

New Paper Uploaded: 2 Corinthians 3.7 – 18

An Apology

I accept the absurdity of a public apology on a blog that has an infinitesimally minute readership. One could compare the scene to a man muttering to himself on the street while passersby skirt their gaze away from him. Nevertheless, whether I mutter to myself or speak just loud enough for one or more of you to hear me, an apology is warranted.

At the very end of March, I promised a future series on Friedrich Schleiermacher, one of the most influential theologians of the 18th century, whose work carved the path which modern mainstream Protestantism has followed in many respects to this day. Little did I know that in a few weeks I would receive the call for which I had waited since the previous fall, to begin working full-time with Nike. The additional hours at work, joined with the already busy personal schedule and course-load, meant that the energy which I had originally allocated for this project would now be turned elsewhere.

Having the distance of a few months from the original promise, I can look back and say that it’s well enough that Schleiermacher waited another day for study. Other, more pressing topics concerned me. In fact, I’ve begun to clarify for myself what it means to do theology, philosophy, etc., as a Christian. Although my schoolwork suffered with the increased hours at work, the long shifts and mindless labor meant that I had time to think and allow the mind to wander. However, Schleiermacher never wormed his way into my subconscious — hence this apology. Nevertheless, thanks to the time I had spent recently reading Tillich and Pannenberg, it was as though I had caught the aroma of an ex-lover while I worked. I remembered the hours spent devouring Sartre, Hegel, Merleau-Ponty (well, we had a fling), de Beauvoir, Heidigger, and Camus.

Their writings resonated with me in a manner that most of the other philosophers I had read failed. They attributed a significance to human choice and action that meant our lives had substance, even if in the final analysis we return to nothing. They took seriously the uniquely human apprehension of the abyss. They acknowledged the inherent complexity of human life, and faithfully the implication of that to the real obscurity and limitations of moral reasoning and rationality as such.

I want to return to these figures, having the benefit of a few more years of maturity (one can hope) behind me. There are two books by one of these philosophers that I want to tackle first. Simone de Beauvoir is the fountainhead of contemporary feminism. My experience with her so far has been limited to her work The Ethics of Ambiguity, published in 1947. This will be the first project. The second will be her most well-known piece, The Second Sex, which she published in 1949.

Until next time.

‘Til human voices wake us: an introduction

The title for this blog is, obviously enough, “‘Til human voices wake us.” It’s a line that I pulled from the last stanza of T. S. Eliot’s epic poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock You can read the full poem here (or hear the poet himself recite it here), but these are the closing lines:

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

I wrote a nondescript essay on the poem for one of my literature classes at the University of Memphis. There’s no need to dredge up the contents of that paper, but, for now, it will do to note that I’ve always felt a certain semblance to Mr. Prufrock. Eliot characterized his narrator as one frustrated with incompetency, who knows himself well enough to recognize that there is “time yet for a hundred indecisions / and for a hundred visions and revisions, / before the taking of a toast and tea.” I’ve started countless projects, research, hobbies — to not pick them up again for weeks or months.

Yet, the poem culminates with Prufrock awakening in the sea, drowning. Having drifted to dreams of mermaids and other fantasies, he disregards his passions, his duties, etc., and he finds himself on the losing side of a fight between his lungs and seawater. I don’t want to wake up one day and find myself floating listlessly, doing stuff. I have aspirations, and I intend to fulfill them. But I have intermediate steps to take, which I often neglect.

Blogging is one of those areas of neglect. I choose not to devote time to the art of reading and writing, and for that reason both of them suffer for me. The blogosphere is one place that I can pen and think out loud without much interference, and I intend to do just that. Have no misgivings that what you will find on this page will be life-changing. My goals are much more modest: reflect and write on a consistent basis.

I’ve entered a sort of transitional state in my life. I’m (fairly) recently married — this summer. I’m a year out from graduating with an M.Div. degree, and now is the time where I have to begin considering where I want to get a Ph.D. — if that’s even what I want to do. I’m well convinced that it is, but, you know, thoughts. Where do we go from here? What am I supposed to be doing? What are we supposed to be doing? What do the next five years look like? These are the kinds of questions I’m asking, but it’s a time in my life where the answers actually have some longterm ramifications. Whether a material transition occurs or not, my wife and I will set on a specific course, and we would do well to come onto it with some kind of thought. This site is a fruit of that reality in our lives: a time to think, which means, for me, a time to write. I hope I’ve not rambled too much here.

I’m not sure what to tell you to expect. My interests vary with the tides.

All the best,

J