“Our hopes…have got to be supernatural.”

Body of Christ

On October 2, 1962, Thomas Merton wrote in his journal,

Today, the community begins the novena for the II Vatican Council…The Council is certainly a most momentous event. Much more than we realize, although we keep telling ourselves how important it is. Important not at all as window dressing or public relations, but as a supernatural event. I have no patience with the thesis that the main purpose of the Council is to show the rest of the world that the Catholic Church is united, coherent; articulate (indeed, there is talk of struggle and conflict)…Our hopes for the Council have got to be supernatural. What matters now is prayer.

I am a United Methodist pastor (a Provisional Elder, in UMCspeak, if you’re fluent). We too are in the midst of major church-changing events. As one official source frames it (more cordially than many of us are actually experiencing it), “The matters of human sexuality and unity are the presenting issues for a deeper conversation that surfaces different ways of interpreting Scripture and theological tradition.”

Like Merton said of Vatican II, we’re in the midst of “a momentous event…more than we realize, even though we keep telling ourselves how important it is.” The biggest pieces right now are cases before our Judicial Council (with the majority of its April docket relating to human sexuality), The Commission on a Way Forward, and the presumptive special General Conference in 2019.

Perhaps especially if you understand all that church jargon above, it’s easy to lose sight of this main point: despite all the human trappings, this is a supernatural event. God is at work here. (Actually, if Jesus is fully man and fully God, then we shouldn’t be surprised at supernatural human events being the normal way God works.) And if it’s a supernatural event, then indeed “What matters now is prayer.”

The whole UMC has been called to pray, my bishop has called my Conference to pray, my District Superintendent has called me to pray, and I know I ought to be praying, but I rarely have. Merton’s clear-eyed diagnosis gives me the emotional shove I need (and perhaps channels the Holy Spirit’s shove) truly to commit to prayer in the midst of all this. I hope you’ll join me, that even if we United Methodists are not your tribe, you’ll recognize our connection to you within God’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

——
Bonus: this is what a novena is.

The Sign and the Sacrifice: The Meaning of the Cross and Resurrection by Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams numbers not only among the most influential theologians in the world, but among the top living minds, period. His career is both impressive and praiseworthy—dedication over the course of his career to both local church ministry and the Christian academy, faithful leadership at the top of the Anglican Communion through its recent global rupture, and no hesitation to use his weight as a public theologian and political figure in the UK and beyond.

Williams also keeps writing lovely little books for the church, like The Sign and the Sacrifice: The Meaning of the Cross and the Resurrection.

Rowan Williams Sign and the Sacrifice

This book is divided neatly in two. Part 1: The Meaning of the Cross is subdivided into “The sign,” “The sacrifice,” and “The victory.” Part 2: The Meaning of the Resurrection is split into “Christ’s resurrection—then” and “Christ resurrection—now.” Along the way Williams presents, analyzes, and invites us to contemplate just as wide of a swath through Christian history, theology, and practice as the book’s subtitle and organization suggest. Deep dives into Scripture and theology accompany references to literature as well as—in what turns out to be most distinctive in this book—the hymnody and prayers of the church.

The annoyance I have with this book is that points of theological argument and conversations in Biblical criticism are frustratingly lacking in footnotes. The bigger qualm I have is that in the second part of the book, I want Williams to unequivocally state, “I believe in the resurrection of the body,” and he never does. There are certainly statements that can be read that way, particularly a conversation on how Jewish conceptions of resurrection at the time of Jesus could not imagine a resurrection apart from this earth. In Part 2 as a whole, however, I find Williams to be equivocating on what the nature of Jesus’ resurrection is, and thus the nature of what our resurrection will be, although he certainly believes that God raised Jesus from the dead, and that it was the defining act of the new creation.

In terms of best audience and application, the book is successfully aimed at normal church folks. It is intellectually serious, but it isn’t unapproachable, and it even has helpful conversation questions at the end of each chapter. For me personally, I can think of several people to recommend it to, especially fellow pastors. It would be a tremendous book to plan a sermon series around, especially during Lent.

I’ll end with a longer quote to draw you in to take a chance on this excellent book:

Jesus’ death is not a ritual sacrifice. It doesn’t happen in a temple, it happens on a bleak hilltop on an execution ground. Jesus’ sacrifice is the sacrifice of obedience. At every moment of his life he has given his heart to God in such a way that God is able to work through him with no interruption, with no diversion. At every moment Jesus has fulfilled the law; not by ticking off at the end of every day a series of acts performed; not by obeying God like a reluctant corporal with a sergeant major ordering him around; but at every moment Jesus has done what God wants. So even before his crucifixion we could say in Jewish terms that he was offering a sacrifice, giving his heart to God in such a way that God is pleased with his gift.

But as with those martyrs in the period between the Testaments, it was an obedience that led to death. Jesus’ single-minded gift of his heart to the Father leads him to the shedding of his blood, because obedience to God in this world of sin, oppression and violence puts you lethally at risk. This is a world in which if you try to give your heart to God you may find your blood shed.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

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Hillbilly Elegy is J.D. Vance’s first book, but it is not his first publication. He has had articles in National Review going back at least to 2013, and he was an editor at The Yale Law Journal (a publication run by Yale Law students) while a Yale Law student.

Vance’s personal story would be important to a book review even if this book were not a memoir. A child one generation out of Appalachian Kentucky, with family ties to the Hatfields (of the Hatfield-McCoy blood feud), Vance was raised in an environment of poverty, substance abuse, and family dysfunction. With the help of his “Mamaw” (his maternal grandmother) in particular, he was able to find a measure of stability in his life, enter the Marines out of high school, then go on to blaze through a degree at Ohio State University and excel at Yale Law School.

This is not only a brilliant and accomplished man, but he tells a good story. On the first page of chapter one, Vance describes Jackson, Kentucky, where his family roots remain even though he grew up 200 miles away in Middletown, Ohio:

Jacksonians say hello to everyone, willingly skip their favorite pastimes to dig a stranger’s car out of the snow, and—without exception—stop their cars, get out, and stand at attention every time a funeral motorcade drives by. It was that latter practice that made me aware of something special about Jackson and its people. Why, I’d ask my grandma—whom we all called Mamaw—did everyone stop for the passing hearse? “Because, honey, we’re hill people. And we respect our dead.”

For my own part, I was interested in how similar his experience might be to my own. Not only do I have plenty of Scotch-Irish roots, but I’ve never been very insulated from white working class poverty, family dysfunction, mental illness, and substance abuse. Vance may write that only in Appalachia do children have grandparents named “Mamaw” and “Papaw,” but I grew up with Mamaw, Papaw, Mamaw Mac (short for Maxedon, my great-grandmother), and Papaw Mac in central Illinois. My mom is “Mamaw” to my two sons and all my siblings’ children. Like Vance, multi-generational family networks of support—and like him, especially female family members–alongside formal education have made a tremendous difference in family outcomes.

On top of this, I am a United Methodist pastor who tomorrow could be reappointed to any of 800+ United Methodist Churches in the southern 3/4 of Illinois. Most of those areas are rural, and plenty are decades into the same loss of factories and community institutions that both Rust Belt Ohio and Appalachian Kentucky have experienced. In fact, both communities in which I currently serve exist because of coal mining, with all of their mines long dormant, and all their local properties requiring mine subsidence insurance for what may or may not be beneath them. (This reason enough for me to recommend it universally to pastors.)

Vance could not have picked a better time for his book to be published. When Hillbilly Elegy was released in June 2016, Donald Trump was headed for a victory at the July Republican National Convention. His strategy of massive rallies was well established, and he was clearly aiming at white voters who had felt economically and politically disenfranchised for decades.

Writing this review two days after President Trump’s inauguration, I think most of the analysis for how and why Trump was elected is premature. For instance, early claims that it was poor Americans voting for him simply turned out not to match the data. And this particular book, probably the most-mentioned this year for explaining that phenomenon, has been overhyped in that early, easy analysis as well.

For its own part, Hillbilly Elegy does not hesitate to refer widely to economists, sociologists, psychologists, and political scientists. Vance’s engagement is not only with popular regurgitations of various studies but with the studies and researchers themselves. But taken as a whole, the political diagnostic work forms the weakest portion of the book.

To be specific, Vance believes that his experience is unique, when it is actually quite widespread. Two generations of genealogical data in most families can uncover violence, substance abuse, poverty, family dysfunction, and lack of access to education. When Vance contemplates going to college, he feels he’s not ready and joins the military. This too is a common American story (albeit one with far more clear-sighted self-knowledge by the 18-year-old in question). Finally, Vance describes not knowing what to do with all the silverware on the table and not knowing how to order off of an extended wine list while being pursued by  employers as a Yale Law student. This experience would be alien in the exact same ways to most Americans in their mid-to-late twenties.

It is only in passing that Vance ever notes the problems of class inequality and its causes, which reads as an ideological blind spot given his regular publications in National Review. When he speaks of political and social solutions, it is both lovely to see how he holds up the need for strong communal institutions alongside strong families to create opportunities for people, but it is dismaying to not see him dig deeper into how institutions and government work together.

Even with these caveats, I won’t hesitate to recommend this book widely. I love memoirs, and this is easily among 2016’s best. Perhaps best of all, and not mentioned thus far, this is a book-length thank you to Vance’s Mamaw. The gratitude that flows for this woman—a foul-mouthed, quick-to-violence, idiosyncratically religious, and ultimately loving human being—is a grandson’s gift to her memory.

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Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers by Christopher A. Hall

Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers cover

How familiar am I with the Christians who lived before my time? Have I read their books and pondered their thoughts? Why or why not? How would I describe my theological and spiritual diet over the past ten years? Are the books that I have read still in print? Were they faddish or substantial, a light dessert or a substantial repast? If I were to list the ten books that have most significantly shaped my understanding of the Bible, what would they be?

(p. 179)

Christopher A. Hall is the associate editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, a professor at Eastern University, and the heir apparent to Thomas Oden’s paleo-orthodoxy project. In Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, Hall has created a historical survey which then moves into practical ways of reading Scripture with the Fathers as part of contemporary exegetical work in the church. The heart of the book includes chapters on the four Doctors of the East, the four Doctors of the West, and the contrasting and complementary schools of the early Christian intellectual capitals, Alexandria and Antioch.

I never met the Church Fathers until seminary, where I met a whole lot of them and immediately fell in love during my first semester of Church History with Dr. Warren Smith. For a kid who grew up technically a United Methodist but basically a non-denominational evangelical, this was a big day. Ever since, I’ve had the desire to share the depth, beauty, and wisdom of the Tradition with others.

In a very trim 200 pages, Hall digests a huge amount of primary sources and standard secondary literature, and provides ample footnotes for further study. I would especially recommend it for preachers and other Bible teachers who long for deeper roots than contemporary conversations in Biblical studies. It could also make for a strong central text for a somewhat advanced reading group within a church.

It’s a great book.

 

Tuesday Reading Roundup

This past week I have been reading three wonderful books:

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter

This book had a slow start. First is the fact that it is two authors’ work, the former an oil-executive-turned-amateur-historian and the latter a self-described “professional co-author.” The bigger issue is the basic issue of reading about a group of men dedicated to protecting art in the midst of World War II: aren’t there enough important things which happened in that war that we never need to get to talking about art? Then there is the fact that there were never any “Monuments Men” there to protect anything but Western art.

I’m 65% of the way through, and there has yet to be a real discussion about what it says about human nature and its contradictions that a fabulously successful death cult also dedicated itself to collecting the greatest works of the human spirit. Certainly that’s above the pop-history pay grade, but as a pastor and small-time theologian, I’m endlessly amazed by our human capacity for self-deception, and this whole piece of history is fuel for further thought.

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

This year I have an ambitious reading goal anchored by a narrower list of fewer than 40 books. That smaller list includes the complete novels of Toni Morrison (at least the ones I’ve not yet read) as well as a couple of her non-fiction collections. I’m currently wondering if this might be her best work, but it’s been years since I’ve read Beloved.

Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God by Lauren F. Winner

Although it will be difficult for Winner to ever outsell her Girl Meets God, she has become an unbelievably stronger writer since then. In my opinion, Still is the one that has a chance to enter into the classics categoryWearing God, the follow-up to that book, now confounds my expectations that she could never top it. Of course, I’m only thirty pages in. Fans of Madeleine L’Engle’s non-fiction and Barbara Brown Taylor’s more personal work will love this book, in which the title refers to the off-the-beaten-path Biblical images of God that Winner says we need to add to the familiar Shepherd, Father, King, etc. in our heads, hearts, and prayers.


Tuesday Reading Roundup has been a regular feature of this blog and its predecessor for several years. Entries must: 1) Have been read by me in the previous week; 2) Have been particularly interesting, thought- or conversation-provoking, and/or entertaining.

All Things “New”

Psalm 23 KJV

“Broadly speaking, one may say that in the case of the modern versions, the problem is a shaky sense of English and in the case of the King James Version, a shaky sense of Hebrew.”

-Robert Alter, “Introduction,” The Five Books of Moses

When church members and other folks ask me what Bible translation I would recommend, I boil it down to 1) a decent translation into English 2) that you will actually read. Over the years, I’ve personally both enjoyed and had problems with the NIV, KJV, NKJV, NASB, New Jerusalem, RSV, NRSV, and ESV, and I’d endorse any of those but the KJV for a first-time reader. They are all (including the KJV) decent translations into English, and you may note I don’t place a single paraphrase on the list.

The latest translation I’m both enjoying and having problems with is the Common English Bible. It’s probably the main claimant to a replacement of the NRSV for mainline Protestant churches, and it’s very good, even though it smooths over textual difficulties from time to time (just as every pleasant-to-read English translation ever has). The CEB also makes some translation choices that follow trends in current scholarship but can be pretty jarring to those familiar with older translation conventions.

The big one, which the editors and translators defend in the “Preface”: Jesus’ familiar self-identification as “the Son of Man” is rendered “the Human One.” I mean, yes, that’s an accurate translation, and I recognize that “Man” is no longer gender-inclusive in modern English usage…but why not “Son of Humanity?” Why break that far from convention? There’s a reason that so many contemporary translations still follow conventions from the King James (and the Tyndale, from which the King James heavily borrowed): the King James is brilliant and beautiful English, and it will never be beaten in terms of influence.

But the reason I’m writing this post is that the Common English Bible is the first mainstream translation I’m aware of (unless you want to argue the NET Bible is mainstream) that embraces the “new” (or new?) reading of pistis Christou in Paul. It’s hard to find an online summary to describe the New Perspective on Paul controversy (as you can see on this food fight of a Wikipedia page), so I’ll show you instead.

These are various takes on Galatians 2:16, with the English translation of the Greek pistis Christou (in these cases, pisteos) rendered in bold…

King James Version

Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.

New International Version

know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.

New Revised Standard Version

yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.

English Standard Version

 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law,because by works of the law no one will be justified.

Common English Bible

 However, we know that a person isn’t made righteous by the works of the Law but rather through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. We ourselves believed in Christ Jesus so that we could be made righteous by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the Law—because no one will be made righteous by the works of the Law.

If you’re unfamiliar with the debate, the reason it matters to people so much is that theological arguments turn on it. Very briefly, is the pistis (faith, faithfulness) from the human’s side or Jesus’ side? If it’s on the human’s side, then how does it not become just another kind of work to earn God’s acceptance? If it’s on God’s side, then how does human will, choice, assent, or cooperation come into it? The “new” scholarship says it’s on Jesus’ side, which makes much better sense of Paul, who has experienced and believes that it’s grace all the way down.

And you’ll note that alongside the Common English Bible, the other translation reflecting this “new” reading isthe KJV.

“forgiveness is not a legal action”

Alexander Schmemann on “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” from his Our Father:

to ask forgiveness of this sin, means to acknowledge our disunity with others, and it implies an effort to overcome it, which already implies its forgiveness. For forgiveness is a mystical action that restores a lost wholeness so that goodness reigns once more; forgiveness is not a legal action, but a moral one. According to the law anyone who harms me must be punished, and until he is punished the law is not satisfied, but according to conscience the moral law does not require a legal satisfaction, but rather the restoration of wholeness and love, which any law is powerless to effect. Only mutual forgiveness has this power. If we forgive one another, then God forgives us, and only in this mutually related forgiveness of ours and the forgiveness from above is the conscience purified and light reigns. It is this for which man thirsts and searches at his very depths.

For indeed, man does not really need external order as much as a clean conscience, that inner light without which there can be no true happiness. Therefore, ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’ is actually a petition for moral purification and rebirth, without which any law of this world is no help.

Perhaps the terrible tragedy of our times, of those societies in which we live, consists precisely in the fact that while there is much talk about legality and justice, while many assorted texts are cited, these societies have almost entirely lost the power and moral beauty of forgiveness.

Especially with the last paragraph, it is worth explaining that this book was originally a set of radio lectures on the Lord’s Prayer broadcast by Radio Liberty into the USSR (culled from 30 years of weekly broadcasts which Schmemann made). Yet “those societies in which we live” not only accurately describes the Soviet Union in 1980 but the United States in 2016. Far worse is that Schmemann’s words to a large extent describe American Christianity.

I find myself wondering how much of this is due to Protestant reduction of the reconciliation of all things in Christ to a mere legal transaction resulting in eternal salvation, benefits payable on (and not before) death. As easily as that can be packaged and preached, a courtroom drama is far from expressing the fullness of the Gospel. Even Paul, the main popularizer of that legal metaphor, experienced and spoke of the Gospel in much larger terms than any courtroom could hold, as in Colossians 1:19-22:

Because all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him,
        and he reconciled all things to himself through him—
        whether things on earth or in the heavens.
            He brought peace through the blood of his cross.

Once you were alienated from God and you were enemies with him in your minds, which was shown by your evil actions. But now he has reconciled you by his physical body through death, to present you before God as a people who are holy, faultless, and without blame.

To make the practical turn: preachers who are interested in proclaiming a Gospel that draws and then transforms people with its goodness, beauty, truth, hope, and love (to be clear, this is the only Gospel) have to stop taking lazy shortcuts in presenting the Gospel in narrow and shallow terms week after week. And if we don’t take up that challenge, then we bear moral responsibility when people don’t seem to grow spiritually or to find growth in relationship with God or to practice substantive peacemaking with their closest neighbors and family. A legal action cannot accomplish those things, but the power of the Gospel is the power of God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–to do infinitely more than we can ask, think, or imagine.

Preaching the heights and depths of the Gospel destroys the shallow “gospel” of legal action in any contest of theology, Biblical faithfulness, missionality, or the pure practicality of transfigured lives and communities. Thanks, Fr. Schmemann.

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