A Man is Mostly Wright

My friend Grant invited me to a lecture at Samford last night by none other than Bishop Tom himself, the Reverend Doctor N. T. Wright. The main thrust of his talk – or what I took to be the main thrust – was excellent. He argued that natural theology is a good and worthwhile pursuit… as long as we agree that “Nature” includes the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus was a part of the natural world, and so we must include him in the catalogue of “natural things.” Once we’ve done that, we ought to have no trouble reasoning our way back to God the Father. In fact, that’s kind of what the whole New Testament is about.

Whenever I listen to or read Wright, I come away with the same feeling: he is extremely concerned with how he comes across to his audience. Obviously, this can be a good thing. He (usually) takes care to explain himself in language the average person would understand, and he always defines his terms (sometimes multiple times).

But Wright’s concern for his audience can trip him up, as well. For example, last night, he kept putting down “theologians” for misunderstanding important aspects of the Old Testament, which causes them to misunderstand Jesus. Their vaunted theology gets in the way. (Nothing wrong there. I’d do the same thing myself, given the opportunity. No one is more fun to make fun of than theologians.) The trouble is, Wright simultaneously takes great pains to maintain his own status as a respectable theologian. He mocks the in-group, then assures us that he is a member in good standing.

You can also see this in Wright’s use of extra-biblical texts to support his understanding of the Bible. Do we really need Fourth Ezra to understand Jesus’s use of the phrase “Son of Man?” Should we read Cicero’s de Natura Deorum to get the gist of Paul’s argument in Romans? Neither of those texts is out of bounds, but neither is necessary to understanding the content of the Bible. The Bible is its own interpretive key. Radical, maybe, but true. Wright seems to be a humble man and a true Christian. Many of his theological positions, however, smack of the academy he dismisses so readily.

A Man Honors His Father and Mother

We are called to honor this very long gallery of ancestors in its fullness, not just our fathers and mothers. How can we “honor” this chain of begetting and being begotten that disappears into pre-history, and earlier still, the chain of creation’s fecundity in producing and being produced?

Environmentalism is partially a response to the claim that we have evolved from the Earth. If the Earth produced us, then we ought to worship Her.

The quote above is from a First Things piece by Remi Brague, which is thought-provoking – even if many of the thoughts are along the lines of “what nonsense!” I’m sure Brague would dispute my interpretation of his question, since he’s a Christian, but it does help me understand the reverence with which some evolutionists speak of Nature.

A Man Considers the Church as Medium

John Durham Peters writes on media and theology:

Any theology of revelation is necessarily also a theory of media. Theophany is a media problem. God needs to assume a sensory shape or work sensible effects to reach humans the classic theological issue of the Word made flesh. Any revelation is, in a way, a short-term incarnation. A burning bush, clouds of smoke and pillar of fire, thunder, voice, writing, and a highly selective glimpse of God as he departs are some of the various modes of theophany surrounding the revelation on Sinai. The mountain itself is a kind of medium, which is declared holy ground and off-limits to the footsteps of the children
of Israel.

I don’t have time to develop this at the moment, but I think we ought to consider the church as a kind of medium, communicating Christ to the world.

A Man Follows Up on a Previous Post

My take on Spufford’s book Unapologetic got me thinking. I don’t deny the value of an emotional defense of Christianity. (See Nate Wilson’s Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl for a great one.) But Spufford specifically says that he wants to explain what it feels like to be a Christian, and there’s something curiously lacking from his explanation. For most Christians, being a Christian is primarily about interacting with other Christians. Another Christian raises you, befriends you, challenges you, teaches you, extends you grace, or all of the above. No one—and I mean no one—becomes (or stays) a Christian by themselves.

The more I think about it, the odder this absence is. What about Spufford’s relationships? How did he find his way back to the faith after a long absence? His book may have been stronger if it had been more autobiographical, in the vein of Surprised by Joy.

A Man Makes No Emotional Sense

Francis Spufford is a talented novelist. He has won prizes for his non-fiction. So I was interested to read his “non-defense” of Christianity, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. Apart from a few paragraphs here and there and one chapter (“Yeshua,” for those with the table of contents in front of them), it was, in the words of Christopher Hitchens, “not great.”

The problem, as I see it, is that Spufford is trying to have it both ways. He both does and does not want to defend his Christianity to other smart Brits. He does, because he doesn’t like being mocked by them (understandably so). He doesn’t, because he doesn’t really like formal apologiae, defenses of Christian belief. They are, he would say, not true to the actual experience of being a Christian. The question he wants to answer is “what does it feel like to be a Christian?” He’s going for “emotional sense.” Does he manage it? Sort of.

The book is laid out in a definite order, if not quite an argument. Spufford starts with what he calls the “human propensity to f*** things up” (HPtFtU, for short), which he assumes we will all recognize. Given that HPtFtU, especially as it applies to one’s own personal life, it makes sense that the next emotional (not logical) step is to peer into every corner of the universe in search of help. Many people find no help at all. Some people, Spufford among them, find, somewhere at the back of things, a kind of intuitive sense of all-powerful goodness. He sits in a quiet church, closes his eyes, and lets his thoughts roam freely. His insignificance washes over him. His utter helplessness. His wish to make things right. And, Descartes-like, he realizes that his very wish for goodness is a sign that goodness must be out there, somewhere. Despite his crookedness, he remains alive, though small beyond comprehension. Something larger and better than him consciously keeps him going. Throwing himself on the mercy of that large, good thing seemed like the best course of action. As an acquaintance of mine likes to say, “Why is there something rather than nothing? Looks like it’s time to worship!”

From there, Spufford reaches the problem of pain. (If there’s some all-powerful goodness at the back of things, why do I hurt?) His answer to the problem of pain is to throw up his hands and say, “No idea. All the explanations are bollocks. Christians just move on.” Okay… Moving on is part of it, so let’s do that now. Next up, a man in ancient Israel, a man who is that all-powerful goodness and yet fragile and time-bound and utterly human. Spufford’s description of Jesus’s ministry and death is the strongest part of the book by far. Nearly all of the “emotional sense” of the book is contained in this one chapter. The resurrection passes in a blink, then there’s a sort of muddle while he goes through all of the bad things Christians have supposedly done. His treatment of tradition is pretty poor, as is his understanding of the Bible. He has very odd ideas about morality, especially sexual. But he stalwartly declares his union in the body of Christ with undesirables such as Sarah Palin, whom he personally finds horrifying, so I have to admit that, yes, Francis Spufford is a brother in Christ. Christ, check. Church, check. Grace and peace, brother.

I may have mis-remembered bits and pieces of the book in my summary since I don’t have it in front of me. That’s entirely appropriate, since Spufford did no research for his writing, either. I did admire his willingness to admit that he could be wrong about things, but he was far too willing to distance himself from uncool intellectual positions. “Not all Christians believe thus-and-such” was his favorite line.

More than anything, the book affirmed my belief that, when Christians waffle on Scripture, they waffle on everything. Spufford pegs the early chapters of Genesis as a quaint myth. The Old Testament testifies to the Hebrews’ slow understanding of monotheism. The gospels were assembled decades after Christ’s ministry. (Yeah, right. These were Jews, Francis. They wrote down everything.) I may be one of the “really stubborn Americans” he mentions several times in the book, but I’m convinced that we have to treat the Bible as God’s Word, no matter what uncomfortable situations that may put us in (including defending creatio ex nihilo). There is no defense, emotional or otherwise, of Christianity that is not grounded in Scripture.

So does the book defend Christianity’s emotional sense? It defends a shaky truce between Christianity and acceptable British intellectual culture. But who says British intellectuals have their emotions in order?

A Man Arises Today Through a Mighty Strength

Reciting the prose version of St. Patrick’s Lorica in an acoustically alive room with a hundred other Christians will put a fire in your belly.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through a belief in the Threeness,
Through a confession of the Oneness
Of the Creator of creation.