Odds and ends for a Friday

I realize I’m exactly the type of person you’d expect to like a Sufjan Stevens album, but nonetheless–the new album is really good!

Evangelical Christian groups are working on a statement of theological concern regarding factory farming. I’m no longer a vegetarian (and feel vaguely guilty about it), but I’m all for any efforts to reform how we treat the animals we raise for food.

There’s been some good stuff published to mark the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. Some pieces I found of particular interest were this on why we should mark the surrender of the Confederacy with a national holiday, this one on how the issues that split the country still drive our politics and this one on the surprising divergence of Grant’s and Lee’s reputations after the war.

Yesterday was also the 70th anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s death at the hands of the Nazis. Bonhoeffer continues to inspire Christians of every stripe, who often jostle to claim him as one of their own. But Bonhoeffer was far from a plaster saint and clearly recognized his own complicity in evil. Which, if anything, makes him more relevant for us.

Ready for Hillary?

Why early Christians confessed Jesus as divine

In his review of Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God, Luke Timothy Johnson readily concedes that neither the empty-tomb stories nor the accounts of Jesus’ appearing to the disciples after his crucifixion prove–or could prove–the Christian confession that Jesus is divine. Rather, Johnson says, this confession was rooted in the early Christians’ experience of being made “new creations” through the power of the Holy Spirit:

To close that gap [between the appearances and the confession of Jesus’ divinity] we must turn to a register of language in the New Testament’s earliest writings (the letters of Paul) that Ehrman’s historicist blinders do not allow him to consider. Paul speaks of the “new creation” as a reality that is experienced, not by a few visionaries, but by all the members of his churches. This new creation is at work through the presence of a personal, transcendent, and transforming power called the Holy Spirit.

The Resurrection experience, in Paul’s letters, is not something that happened to Jesus alone. It is happening now to those who have been given this power through the one Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 15:45 as having become “life-giving spirit”—a statement oddly absent from Ehrman’s discussion of that chapter in First Corinthians. Similarly, Ehrman fails to consider 1 Corinthians 12:3, where Paul states emphatically that “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” The presence of the transforming power of the Spirit among believers is the basis for Paul’s remarkable language about the Holy Spirit “dwelling” in them (Rom 8:9) and their being “in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:2–3). In the same way, Paul speaks about Christ “dwelling” in his followers, and their being “in Christ ” (Rom 8:9–10).

In short, it was not the reports concerning an empty tomb or claims about post-mortem visions among a few of Jesus’ followers that caused the early Christians to recognize Jesus’ divinity. It was the shared experience of divine power—manifested in a variety of wonders and gifts and new capacities of existence—among those who had all “drunk the same spirit” and had become members of “Christ’s body” (1 Cor 12:12–27).

As Schleiermacher would say, the heart of Christian piety is the experience of redemption in Christ. This, not “proofs” derived from historical reconstructions, is the basis for Christian faith. As Johnson notes, both Christian apologists and their critics like Ehrman tend to argue on the positivist ground of historical criticism. “But the good news is not and never has been based in verifiable fact; from the beginning and still today, it is based in the experience of God’s power.”

“Get down, you damn fool!”

When Confederate General Jubal Early drove a small Union army out of the Shenandoah Valley in the summer of 1864, crossed the Potomac, and threatened Washington itself before being driven off, Lincoln went personally to Fort Stevens, part of the Washington defenses, to observe the fighting. It was on this occasion that a Union officer standing a few feet from Lincoln was hit by a Confederate bullet and that another officer–none other than Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.–noting without recognizing out of the corner of his eye this tall civilian standing on the parapet in the line of fire, said urgently: “Get down, you damn fool, before you get shot!” A chastened president got down.

–James McPherson, “Lincoln and the Strategy of Unconditional Surrender,” from Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, pp. 67-8

“Jesus’ wife” revisited

It looks like the so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus fragment has been shown to be authentic–meaning that it comes from a legitimately ancient document, and may represent a tradition going back to a fairly early point in Christian history:

A wide range of scientific testing indicates that a papyrus fragment containing the words, “Jesus said to them, my wife” is an ancient document, dating between the sixth to ninth centuries CE. Its contents may originally have been composed as early as the second to fourth centuries.

The fragment does not in any way provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married, as Karen L. King, the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, has stressed since she announced the existence of the fragment in the fall of 2012. Rather, the fragment belongs to early Christian debates over whether it was better for Christians to be celibate virgins or to marry and have children. The fragment is weighing in on this issue, according to King.

“The main topic of the fragment is to affirm that women who are mothers and wives can be disciples of Jesus—a topic that was hotly debated in early Christianity as celibate virginity increasingly became highly valued,” King explained.

I blogged about the theological implications of this back when the fragment’s existence was announced. (Short version: there aren’t many.) There are ample resources in canonical Christianity to support the value of married and family life and the equality of the sexes. If anything, the existence of women disciples who were not linked romantically to Jesus seems to make a stronger case for equality.


Best of the week

I end up sharing a lot of links on Twitter, so I thought it might be worth collecting what I think were the stand-out pieces of the week. (“Stand-out” doesn’t necessarily mean I agree with every word, just that these were the most interesting or thought-provoking items I came across).

Anyway, here goes:

–Elizabeth Stoker, “The Christian case for raising the minimum wage”

–Mary Charlotte Ella, “Gladiators of the gridiron” (the moral case against football)

–Isaiah Berlin, “Roosevelt through European eyes” (from the Atlantic, July 1955)

–Eric Reitan, “Civil Marriage vs Civil Union: Why NOT Leave Marriage to Churches?”

–David A. Graham, “Peter Seeger’s All-American Communism”

–Michelle Goldberg, “Feminism’s toxic Twitter wars”

–William Saletan “The Work Ethic” (on the economic philosophy underpinning President Obama’s State of the Union address)

–Claude S. Fischer, “Libertarianism is very strange”

And for fun, Miley Cyrus (yes, that Miley Cyrus) doing a surprisingly good cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”:

Favorite books read in 2013

This is not based on any kind of rigorous methodology;  these are just the books I enjoyed and/or that “stuck with me” the most throughout the year. As should be obvious, these were not necessarily books published in 2013.


Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

I decided to start reading this late last year after seeing the film version starring Keira Knightley. I’m frankly in awe of it, and nothing I can say will do it justice. But the thing that probably struck me the most was Tolstoy’s ability to draw fully realized characters and make the reader truly view the world from their perspective (including, in one case, a dog!). I can see why some people have compared Tolstoy to God: he intimately knows and truly loves each of his characters (sometimes, one senses, in spite of himself). And I haven’t even mentioned the delicately intertwining stories, the astonishingly clear and beautiful scenes Tolstoy draws, the social commentary, and the philosophical and religious musings. Basically, this book deserves every bit of its reputation as one of the greatest novels ever written.

True Grit, Charles Portis

I’d seen both movie versions, but had never read the book. Portis’s unforgettable characters, deadpan dialogue, and tightly constructed plot made this a hugely enjoyable read.


The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, James Oakes

Oakes’ recounting of how the radical abolitionist Douglass and the temperamental conservative Lincoln converged around a particular brand of antislavery politics isn’t just a fascinating story about two important figures at a pivotal point in American history (it is that, though!). It also serves as a rebuttal of sorts to radicals of every stripe who think they’re too pure for the grubby business of electoral politics.

Systematic Theology, vols. 1 and 2, Paul Tillich

I disagree profoundly with some of Tillich’s basic theological positions, but his thought remains, nearly 20 years after I first read him, a source of stimulation and insight.

Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America, Garry Wills

I’m not sure Wills persuaded me of his main thesis, namely, that Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg was, in effect, an ideological re-founding of the Republic. But his erudition is undeniable, and his analysis of the address in light of classical and contemporary examples of funeral oratory is extremely illuminating. He also writes like a dream.

Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, Francis Spufford

Spufford avoids nearly every cliche of contemporary religion writing and provides the freshest take on Christian faith I’ve read in ages. Sharp, funny, and heartfelt without being sappy. As I said in my “non-review,” I think Spufford captures how many of us in the “post-Christian” West experience our faith.

How Much Is Enough?: Money and the Good Life, Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky

This father-and-son team (an economist and philosopher, respectively) ask why the richest societies in history have so much inequality and so little genuine leisure. They blame a combination of political and philosophical failures, and argue for recovering a broadly Aristotelian concept of the good life than can help us get off the production-and-consumption treadmill. Their skewering of trendy “happiness” research and its associated policy prescriptions alone is worth the price of admission. Also worth noting is their critique of liberal “neutrality” regarding the good life.

I’ve got a couple of books going now, and if any finish any before December 31st that blow me away, maybe I’ll update this. Also, looking this over, I realize that I really need to read more books not written by white men.

To effect an intellectual revolution

This was the perfect medium for changing the way most Americans thought about the nation’s founding acts. Lincoln does not argue law or history, as Daniel Webster did. He makes history. He does not come to present a theory, but to impose a symbol, one tested in experience and appealing to national values, with an emotional urgency entirely expressed in calm abstractions (fire in ice). He came to change the world, to effect an intellectual revolution. No other words could have done it. The miracle is that these words did. In his brief time before the crowd at Gettysburg he wove a spell that has not, yet, been broken–he called up a new nation out of the blood and trauma.

–Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg

The address itself, delivered 150 years ago today.

Slavery, divine judgment, and atonement

During my vacation I read James Oakes’ The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics. Oakes tells the story of how the radical abolitionist Douglass and the temperamental conservative Lincoln converged on a brand of antislavery politics that eventually resulted in the emancipation of America’s millions of slaves (via a bloody civil war, of course).

One thing that struck me was Oakes’ description of Douglass’ response to Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Douglass adhered to what Oakes describes as “a messianic Christianity in which a vengeful God commanded the bloody overthrow of the slave system.” In Lincoln’s speech, particularly its references to the war being a form of divine judgment on the nation, Douglass saw a vindication of his view.

Oakes points out, however, that there were differences between Douglass’ and Lincoln’s views of divine judgment. Douglass saw things in more black and white terms–slaveholders and those who enabled them were sinners, and God would judge them accordingly. Lincoln, meanwhile, saw the sin of slavery as something that both North and South bore responsibility for, and he held that neither side’s cause could be simply identified with the divine will. “The Almighty has His own purposes.”

(Of course, Lincoln, as a free white man, had the privilege of taking this “broader” view, while Douglass–a former slave–had first-hand knowledge of slavery’s evils. So you could see why Douglass was less inclined to magnanimity.)

But what really interested me about this was that divine judgment played an important role in both men’s thinking, even though they represented what would be considered the “progressive” position of their time, politically speaking. They were invoking God’s judgment–even wrath–in the service of social justice and equality. This contrasts with a lot of contemporary progressive theology, which seems uncomfortable at best with the notion of divine judgment. Instead, God is often portrayed in terms of unconditional acceptance or “hospitality.”

But can unconditional acceptance of oppressors–slaveholders, victimizers, or abusers–be at the same time hospitality for their victims? If God loves his creation, wouldn’t he be wrathful at seeing his creatures abused? (It was Elizabeth Johnson’s defense of divine wrath in her feminist theology She Who Is that first made me realize this was not necessarily a “conservative” position.)

Maybe this is why, despite the many critiques that have been leveled at it, I still find something worth holding on to in traditional “satisfaction” accounts of the atonement. As Paul Tillich has written, we relate to God both as Father and Lord–that is, as a loving Father with whom we can have an “I-thou” relationship, but also as the universal governor of the universe and upholder of the moral order. Tillich thought that the emphasis on God’s fatherhood to the exclusion of his lordship accounted in part for liberal theology’s neglect of what he calls the Pauline doctrine of the atonement.

Lincoln and Douglass both believed there was a moral order in the universe, upheld by divine governance and that this would ultimately doom slavery. But it’s less clear to me whether Lincoln, with his God of inscrutable judgment, or Douglass, with his God of vengeance, could make room for divine mercy. (At least in Oakes’ account, Christ didn’t seem to play much of a role in either one’s theology.)

For all the distortions, that’s what the Anselmian doctrine of atonement–and its many offshoots–tries to do: hold together mercy and justice. God wants to save his creatures but does it in a way that preserves the moral integrity of the creation. There is a price to be paid for sin, though the Christian message is that God, in the person of his Son, has paid it himself. I’m not sure the doctrine is entirely successful, but it at least points to a genuine problem.

Wesley’s “conversion”

Methodist and other churches remember today as the anniversary of John Wesley’s “Aldersgate Experience.” Richard Hall at Connexions provides some of the background here. Essentially, Wesley reported having a vivid experience of assurance in his own salvation when hearing a reading from Luther’s Preface to Romans. While this has sometimes been described as Wesley’s “conversion experience,” it seems that later Methodist lore may have invested it with more significance than it warrants. Wesley was undoubtedly a very sincere Christian virtually his entire life, and had been preaching justification by faith for some time prior to this experience.

As Stephen Tomkins relates it in his very accessible biography, Wesley experienced several turning points in his faith and ministry: when he started the “Holy Club” at Oxford (which became the nucleus of the Methodist movement), when he encountered the pietistic German Moravians during his mission trip to America, at the meeting at Aldersgate Street, and when he began his field preaching, among others. Tomkins traces a life-long dialectic between Wesley’s emphasis on God’s free grace and on the need for personal holiness. As Tomkins puts it, “He had an evangelical horror of trying to satisfy God by good works, but an even greater horror of trying to satisfy God without good works” (p. 196). When he felt that one pole of the dialectic was in danger of being over-emphasized, he often swung back toward the other. For example, the classic evangelical experience represented by Aldersgate and Wesley’s preaching on justification by faith has to be viewed side-by-side with the teaching on “Christian perfection,” arguably his signature doctrine.

Reading highlights of 2012

This was the year I finally got into Civil War history. My reading of McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, mentioned in the last post, was a follow up to reading Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery earlier this year. I really enjoyed Foner’s book, but felt that I lacked an understanding of the broader context of the war, which led me to McPherson’s book. Now I’m looking forward to moving on to James Oakes’ The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, a copy of which I received as a Christmas gift.

On the theology front, Friedrich Schleiermacher loomed large this year. I read his systematic theology, The Christian Faith, and it has had a significant effect on how I think about theological questions. I supplemented it with Terrence Tice‘s and B.A. Gerrish‘s introductions to Schleiermacher–the latter was particularly helpful. Currently I’m working through F.S.’s On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers.

I’ve also been revisiting the work of Paul Tillich. I read a lot of Tillich in college, but hadn’t paid him much attention in years. This year I read two collections of his sermons–The Shaking of the Foundations and The New Being. Right now I’m just over halfway through his History of Christian Thought, and I have The Courage to Be and Theology of Culture on deck. I’ve discovered that I still find Tillich’s approach to theology helpful, even if I may not agree with all his specific conclusions.

Fiction-wise, the high point of my year was Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. Great Expectations (which I read late last year) was my first foray into Dickens, but Copperfield edges it out in my estimation. While Expectations is more tightly plotted, Dickens’ famous knack for generating larger-than-life characters is on fuller display in Copperfield. I’m thinking about finally tackling Tolstoy in 2013–possibly Anna Karenina.

What were your favorite books this year?