How to read the Bible

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Reading the Bible as Christian Scripture is both simple and complex. It is complex because—like any art, craft, or sport—it requires a range of tools and much practice in order to reach a level of significant competency. Mastery remains elusive, and not only because Scripture’s subject matter (God) escapes human comprehension. But reading Scripture is also simple. An ordinary reader can go far toward deep understanding, without special training or even a Bible study guide, because the most basic task of reading Scripture is paying close attention to words.

I feel privileged to have spent the last fifteen years learning from some of the cleverest, wisest, kindest, and most sophisticated readers of Christian Scripture I know of, and they each have contributed to the habits and skills I now bring to reading Scripture. So in the spirit of my teachers’ generosity, here are

Ten Practical Tips for Studying the Bible as Christian Scripture:

1. Read for yourself. There is no substitute for doing your own reading. Read the words on the page, ignoring chapter breaks, subject headings, and any commentary. Puzzle over what you don’t understand without resorting to external resources. It’s okay not to understand everything. It is better to learn the words and let difficulties stand than to have them quickly resolved.

2. Take notes. Tracking what you discover is easier if you write it down. Numbers 3-9 below suggest some categories for organizing notes. Taking notes isn’t essential for learning to read the Bible well, but writing aids thinking and memory, so note-taking rewards the effort.

3. Read whole books. Each book of the Bible is a cohesive document, and so books are good units for study. Like other stories and letters, biblical books want to be read from start to finish without interruptions. Start reading the book straight through—in one sitting, if possible. Look for structure and recurring themes. Reading whole books is like taking a good, long, memorizing look at the picture on the jigsaw puzzle box so you know what the assembled puzzle should look like. Finding structure and recurring themes may take several all-the-way-through readings. I have found listening to audio recordings of biblical books effective for this purpose. 

4. Read small portions closely. If reading whole books is like viewing the picture on the box of the puzzle, then reading small portions closely is like looking carefully at each piece to analyze how it fits into the whole. One can’t look at an entire mural, hear a whole symphony, or read a novel all at once. Readers must select portions small enough for our ability to focus. Close reading catalogs the details in a short passage for how they contribute to the purpose of the whole book. Ask, “What would the larger image lose if this smaller section were missing?” The best reading toggles between wide-angle and close-up, fostering both depth and breadth of understanding.

5. Pay special attention to God. Obvious, but worth saying: The Bible is mainly about God, and ostensibly, Christians read the Bible in order to know God better. Every last word about God matters—how God is named, how often God appears, whom God addresses, what God says, what God does, when God isn’t mentioned, and when and where God surprises human beings. God’s many names throughout the Bible also matter. “God,” “the LORD,” “Holy One of Israel,” “Holy Spirit,” “Son of God,” “Son of Man,” “Jesus,” and “Christ” each illuminate God’s identity in particular ways. Listing names for God and ways God appears is a useful exercise, but even a mental note makes a fine start.

6. Note beginnings and endings. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). In this first verse of the Bible, both the biblical story and the whole sphere of human existence begin with God. These convictions frame the entire Bible—this world belongs to God, and so all reflection about the world’s proper order has a theological shape. A biblical book’s beginning often provides its framework. Endings frequently draw the reader into living well in this world. The oldest manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel end abruptly with the fear and silence of the women who first saw the empty tomb, but the last words of dialogue send them and the disciples—and the reader by extension—ahead to Galilee to find and follow the risen Jesus (Mark 16:1-8). Revelation’s last verses draw the reader into expectant waiting for Jesus’ return, and into the grace-filled life that Jesus makes possible (Rev 22:20-21). So beginnings and endings merit close attention.

7. Attend to context. Every portion of Scripture was written at a particular time and place. Some books note such information clearly, or provide the setting of the story. For example, Isaiah specifies the time of his vision as, “In the year that King Uzziah died” (Isaiah 6:1), which gives the event a narrative framework readers can find in 2 Kings 15. The story of Luke’s Gospel begins, “In the days of Herod, King of Judea…” Paul addresses his letters to particular churches in specified cities, often naming particular people in those churches. Exodus begins with the narrator’s note that “there arose a new king over Egypt who did not know Joseph,” which does not specify a historically identifiable place and time, but does indicate an important change in situation for Jacob’s family in Egypt. Contextual markers paint the backdrop against which the books make the best sense.

8. Notice characters. The main characters don’t hide—Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Jesus, Peter, and Paul. But many fascinating and important actors get little air time, and some aren’t even named. For example, without the deception of an obscure, enterprising Canaanite woman named Tamar, the line of Judah—which eventually leads to David and Jesus—would have died out in Genesis 38. Without two wily midwives named Shiphrah and Puah, his unnamed mother, sister, and an Egyptian princess, Moses would never have survived his infancy (Exod 1-2). Without Mary’s receptive generosity and Joseph’s obedient listening to God, Jesus would never have been conceived (Luke 1:38) or have survived childhood (Matt 1:18-24; 2:13-21). Neither the Syrophoenician/Canaanite woman who answers Jesus so cleverly (Matt 15:21-28 // Mark 7:24-30), nor the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-41), nor the marvelously insightful man born blind (John 9) have names in their stories, but each provides unique insight into Jesus’ identity. In the book of Jonah, nearly everything is animate. A storm, a great fish, the sea, a ship, a “sultry east wind,” the “beasts of Nineveh,” a plant, and a very hungry caterpillar all have active roles in a drama displaying God’s wide mercy. In the Bible, every character matters, whether named, unnamed, human, animal, vegetable, mineral, force of nature, or human-made object.

9. Watch for repeated, interesting, or strange words. Although variance in translation may obscure some connections, it is still possible to gain significant insight into Scripture by taking note of key words. A concordance can help, but one can do such work simply by reading and comparing passages. Words repeated in a single passage often signal an important point of emphasis. For example, the word “ground” recurs in Genesis 2-3 eight times:

1. “there was no man to till the ground” (2:5)
2. “a mist went up from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground” (2:6)
3. “the Lord God formed the human being of dust from the ground” (2:7)
4. “out of the ground the Lord God caused to grow every tree” (2:9)
5. “out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air” (2:19)
6. “cursed is the ground because of you” (3:17)
7. “till you return to the ground” (3:19)
8. “to till the ground from which he was taken” (3:23)

The “ground” plays an important role in the creation of all life, and so the curse on the ground shows the magnitude of human disobedience. Similarly, God’s promise, after the flood, “never again to curse the ground because of human beings” (Gen 8:21) spells the beginning of creation’s redemption. So repeated words are important, and a single word that appears in two apparently disconnected stories can reveal an unexpected connection. Every word matters. 

Cloister Walk, Duke Divinity School

Cloister walk, Duke Divinity School

10. Share. Reading Scripture within the church’s tradition is like learning a language. Reading the Bible for oneself using the above suggestions is like intentional language study (learning grammar, building vocabulary, etc.). Discussing and interpreting the Bible with others, reading commentaries, and studying historical interpretation of Scripture are a bit like practicing a language one is in the process of learning (actually speaking the language). Like learning a language well, becoming an adept reader of Christian Scripture involves both intentional study and practice.

For me, these practices elicit profound joy in discovering the character of the God to whose revelation Scripture bears witness. I hope they do the same for you.

 

Jesus enters Lent…

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…a poem for Ash Wednesday, 2014

Time was I set my face toward Jerusalem
Light of nations and Israel’s glory
But cross-ward facing,
Feel not so
Prepared for the way before me
To Jerusalem
Of prophets’ tombs and apostles’ dooms
Twittering unsheltered chicks
Helpless, yet ready to fight
Jerusalem arrests me
Not seeing
Not knowing
The things that make for peace
Will shatter me
Will save Jerusalem.
On garden ground
My heart rends of holding grief and hope
It has never been done before,
But being done now
Will render Jerusalem’s new gates never shut

Dogwood blossoms, Duke University West Campus

Dogwood blossoms, Duke University West Campus

How Jesus makes us true

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Karl Barth

Karl Barth spoke on several occasions about Christians’ need to read newspapers in light of the New Testament. Just so. But most Christians require guidance in order to do that in the way Barth means. Most of the world does not take the Gospel for granted—some simply people reject the Gospel’s account of reality by default; some actively oppose it. Christians often respond with fear, worry, and defensiveness, which suggest we believe disagreement or opposition actually threaten the truth of the Gospel. Absurd. If the Gospel is true, no human power make it false; if it is false, no human power can make it true. These realizations raise a salient question: How should those who take for granted the truth of the Gospel face encounters with those who reject or oppose it? Together, the Gospels and the book of Acts answer this question clearly:

In words and common life, tell the story of Jesus as good news without trying to enforce it, and see what happens.

Antonio Ciseri, Ecce Homo

Antonio Ciseri, Ecce Homo

Most everyone who has heard of Jesus knows how his life ended. Far fewer people link his death to his repeated confrontations with the Pharisees, scribes, lawyers, and other authorities, and finally Herod and Pilate. Many Christians immediately spiritualize the significance of Jesus’ death, crafting elaborate doctrines of atonement. In attending to the spiritual, we see Jesus’ death as inevitable by divine ordination, and miss the political significance of deliberate choices Jesus made to live with integrity among powers that deemed him a threat, even as he knew they would likely kill him. Jesus knew, as Sam Wells has said, “what happens when the utter goodness of God is utterly vulnerable in the presence of the shortsightedness and cruelty of human beings.” Even in that light, these authorities could have reacted differently to Jesus; they could have accepted him, but they did not. In the Gospels, Jesus’ death does fulfill Scripture and God’s plan, but he also dies because he threatens the power of those who wield the sword and prioritize their own luxury over others’ basic needs. Once we see that Jesus’ death means more than atonement, and we remember that to be a Christian is, principally, to follow Jesus, we must face—with much less surprise—Jesus’ unpalatably constant insistence that his disciples will suffer as he did.

Jesus takes for granted that those who follow in his way will be hated, excluded, insulted, and their names “cast out as evil” (Luke 6:22). Jesus’ followers will face opposition, persecution, and suffering exactly because Jesus does: “The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be killed by the elders and the chief priests and scribes, and on the third day be raised. … If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (9:22-23). Again, when Jesus reproves the lawyers for building the tombs of the prophets, he prophesies that they will go on persecuting the prophets and apostles whom God will continue to send (11:49). So Jesus foretells the violent opposition the apostles he commissions (Acts 1:8) will encounter. Especially since he sends those apostles first to Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to it (Luke 13:34), they can expect to fare no better than Jesus. Lest any doubts remain, Jesus tells them explicitly: “they will seize and persecute you, betraying you to synagogues and prisons; you will be brought before kings and governors for the sake of my name” (Luke 21:12-13). At this point, Jesus himself will shortly stand trial before Herod the king (Luke 23:7-11) and Pilate the governor (23:1-6; 13-25). As with Jesus, so with the disciples. Jesus knows exactly the conflicts his followers will face.

Resistance to the way of Jesus—even if not universal or unmitigated—is a fact of Christian life. In Acts the apostles quickly discover how accurately Jesus predicted the opposition and conflict they would face because they speak, teach, and heal a crippled man in Jesus’ name. Jesus in John’s Gospel puts the matter starkly: “The servant is not greater than the master; if they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:16). There is no reason to suppose Jesus’ followers today should fare differently.

In this light, modern Western Christians need to rethink the subject of persecution. We tend to think we should be able to follow Jesus without suffering for it. We’re obviously not reading the Gospel if we think that. Second, we wrongly count as persecution a prohibition against officially organized prayer in public schools or other public institutions,  sanctions against public display of the ten commandments in a context that would present them as normative, or—a particularly relevant example given the approaching season—businesses forbidding their employees to wish customers a “Merry Christmas.” And some of us worry that President Obama is a Muslim and will, therefore, depose Christians from our privileged cultural status. I recently ran across an article about a woman in Germany who interrupted an interfaith Muslim-Christian worship service and “denounced a Muslim call to prayer by reciting Martin Luther, proclaiming, ‘Jesus Christ alone is Lord over Germany!’” One commenter was outraged that a “Muslim Call to Prayer” should occur in a Christian church and asked, rhetorically, whether American Christians would “stand up for Jesus” when—not if—this sort of thing begins happening in America.

Such mild opposition hardly counts as persecution. Of course some people do not believe what Christians believe. It has always been so. More importantly, neither Jesus nor the apostles ever exhibit the smallest fear that others’ unbelief in Israel’s God poses a threat to their own life of faith. Others’ beliefs have no bearing on the truth of the Gospel, the being of Israel’s God, the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, or his identity as Lord of all. The apostles insist upon preaching in Jesus’ name because it is good news—not because they aim to secure their own survival or power, or the truthfulness of the message. They assume it is true! If it were not, they would have a much bigger problem. They do not argue against others in order to prove to themselves what they claim to believe, or to make it true by saying it loudest and longest. They do not believe the truth of what they speak depends in any way on them, and they live accordingly. The apostles’ example says that Christians should never accost others with talk of Jesus out of fear—fear that our faith isn’t strong enough, that the story might not be true, or that Christianity will lose the place of socio-political power it has held in the West since the 4th century. Christians’ social power has nothing to do with making the Gospel true. For the apostles, not having to make it true means they can show what it looks like when lived, as can Christians today. Indeed, the apostles seem to recognize something that modern American Christians seem to get backwards, namely, that the direst threats to the credibility of Christian life are not people who reject our beliefs or think them false. Rather, Christianity’s credibility suffers most from those who claim “Christian principles” or “Christian faith” but whose lives look little or nothing like Jesus’ life.

The story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 shows just how seriously lapses in obedience to Jesus threaten the early church’s life and witness. Acts presents Ananias and Sapphira in contrast to those in the community who sell a piece of property and bring all the proceeds to the apostles for distribution within the community. This couple sells a field and donates just a portion of the proceeds, but they do so in such a way that implies they give as generous and costly a gift as those who are giving the entire proceeds of a sale. In this community, such an act undermines both trust and economic stability—if the rich in the community deceptively withhold property for themselves, they will create mistrust, reinforce the economic disparity that the Gospel heals, and so undermine the community’s witness to Jesus. The immediacy and severity of Ananias and Sapphira’s punishment indicates how great a threat their action posed to the community’s life and its proclamation of good news. When the apostles confront Ananias and Sapphira with their deception, they fall down dead—the Holy Spirit removing them from the community like cancer from a body. Ananias and Sapphira lack the integrity to live the story they claim to believe. Such behavior does not threaten the truth of the story, but it puts an axe at the root of community life and undermines the proclamation of good news. How Christians live and present the story of Jesus has everything to do with whether others can receive the story as good news. Christian proclamation of Jesus’ story should always serve its being received as good news.

Jesus’ first apostles mostly told their story because they were found doing something (or something was happening to them) that required explanation: tongues of fire and new language at Pentecost (Acts 2) and a crippled man walking again (Acts 3-4). Sometimes they told the story in response to a direct request—an Ethiopian eunuch asking for guidance reading Scripture (Acts 8), or a summons from a centurion (Acts 10). The apostles generated, in Sam Wells’s words, “a context that demands an explanation, a living mystery that invites scrutiny.” The apostles’ preaching about Jesus gathered a community whose common life elicited wonder and joy from those who saw it. That is how the church should proclaim Jesus—with words and deeds commensurate to one another. If the church is “a context that demands an explanation,” then “the explanation is Jesus,” and it’s the church’s job to show how Jesus explains the life we’re living:

Sam Wells, pictured around the time he delivered the quoted sermon; from http://colloquium.duke.edu/people/sam-wells/

Sam Wells

We should seek to embody in our church life such hopefulness, such faithfulness, such patience, such endurance, such forgiveness, such truthfulness that could only be possible if Jesus has saved us. We must ensure that salvation in Christ is never just a theory. It’s a reality. It has to be seen in context. And it could just be that that context, at the moment, doesn’t just mean the Jews. It means us.

Being that context does not mean we should not use words to tell Jesus’ story. We should tell the story as truthfully as we can, but our best telling will be with those who invite us to speak. Berating others with the Gospel does not only waste the time of all involved; it actually undermines the truth of the story we hope to communicate. Part of being a good witness of Jesus involves learning when to speak, when to remain silent, when to wait for an invitation to speak, and when to make an offer uninvited. But we need never ensure the truth of the story we tell. If we relinquish that vain task, we can instead begin spending our energy on displaying ever more beautifully, creatively, and compellingly, how Jesus’ story is true in our common life—indeed, how Jesus saves us.

Why do people need Jesus?

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Rembrandt - Three Crosses

Rembrandt – Three Crosses

Two years ago, in a conversation about being a Christian amidst non-Christians, a friend of mine noted that Christians today struggle to answer well the question, “Why do people need Jesus?” In attempting to respond, she observed, Christians often spend substantial effort trying to convince our interlocutors we’re not crazy! But “crazy” is a matter of perspective, and Christians have known since the first century that from some perspectives we are indisputably crazy. And so, in fact, no one can give a universally satisfactory answer to the question, “Why do people need Jesus?” But Christians are charged to be Jesus’ witnesses (Acts 1:8), which requires us to communicate the story of Jesus’ cross and resurrection even as we know that those who do not already believe will receive it as “foolishness”  (1 Cor 1; 2 Cor 4). Jesus gives Christians the gift and burden of a commission to tell as “good news” a story that will most often be received as “crazy.” So here we are. What now?

Christians should not apologize for our crazy; we should not try to make ourselves make sense according to general or supposedly universal standards of the rational, acceptable, or sane. Such standards, whether those who promulgate them know it or not, arise from particular perspectives no less than ours do. If we accept the rules of a different game, we lose before we begin. I cannot prove myself sane, but my inability on that score does not absolve me of Jesus’ commission to be a witness—to tell, portray, live the good news. I need not prove my sanity in order to tell the story.

The Milky Way, photographed from Waldo Mtn, S. Oregon by Matt Connell, mattconnellphoto.com © mattconnellphoto.com 2013

The Milky Way, photographed from Waldo Mtn, S. Oregon by Matt Connell, mattconnellphoto.com © 2013

One can only begin in the middle. The first important thing to say concerns epistemology—theories of human knowledge: I see no reason to suppose human beings can perceive everything that exists. I don’t mean microscopes versus telescopes here, or subatomic particles versus galaxies thousands of lightyears away. I refer to things our senses lack the ability to apprehend. I simply don’t suppose that in this world, what you see is what you get; just as likely, there exist untold things of which we know nothing. Philosophers would identify the converse assumption as an argument from silence—a weak argument. No objective foundation supports the claim that the sets “things knowable” and “things in existence” overlap exhaustively. In other words, epistemology and ontology are distinct subjects.

Second, the story seems internally consistent. In short, the Christian claim that the God who created this world speaks to us in Scripture seems totally plausible to me. Here’s why. Imagine God is utterly distinct from us—not a different kind of being, and not a person or a thing or a force somewhere in the universe, but the sole source of existence itself, and therefore, able to create this entire universe without the benefit of raw materials. Imagine Being that can and did generate matter and energy, and fashioned the world and everything in it. Imagine Life that cannot die, and so can bestow life on material creatures. If God created everything including us, creatures capable of communicating, it makes sense to me both that God would seek to communicate God’s existence to us, and that doing so would be no small feat.

Imagine the difficulty involved in communicating between Being itself and a created object, or creature. The distance between God and human being is categorically and infinitely greater than the distance between a human potter and a clay vessel. The potter and the jar both consist of matter and occupy the same material world, but God does not live somewhere in our universe. Imagine a potter speaking to her pots—and expecting comprehension, to say nothing of response! The analogy is flawed, but it begins to show the difficulty of communicating between Creator and creature.  Creator-creature communication must begin from the Creator side, and success depends on the Creator.

“Rembrandt’s Mother as Biblical Prophetess Hannah” (1631)

“Rembrandt’s Mother as Biblical Prophetess Hannah” (1631)

The Creator must use methods adapted to creaturely limitations. The message must appear familiar enough to be apprehended, but not so much like usual human communication that we mistake the source of the message. A message from God must come in a form we can receive, but also that we can perceive as divine. That God would successfully give us any message is nothing short of miraculous—several times over—even before reckoning with the general attitude of skepticism prevalent since the 17th C. Especially in the post-Enlightenment era, Westerners prefer nearly any characterization of an event other than “act of God.” Even if God wrote in flames across the sky, “This is God.  Let me tell you about myself…” we could easily imagine other more probable causes of such a spectacle. Grand gestures do not suffice. We require a strong dose of the ordinary in our messages from God. We need burning bushes, human teachers, and written words.

Byzantine mosaic of Moses and the Burning Bush

Byzantine mosaic of Moses and the Burning Bush

It strikes me as totally plausible that God would select a few people with an epistemic apparatus open to the experience of God and charge them to write the texts that communities throughout history have treasured and preserved because they found in them witnesses to God’s own revelation. It makes complete sense to me that God would choose the kind of thing Christians call “Scripture” as the primary means of communicating God’s identity.

Beyond internal consistency and the recognition that no story anyone tells about the world stands on an objectively knowable foundation, I can only say, third, I find the scriptural story a compelling account of reality. Telling the story of the world as God’s story—God creating, God calling Israel, God in Jesus, God calling the church, and God making all things new—strikes me as both plausible and beautiful. God calling particular people in the world as ambassadors to the rest of the world seems like the most plausibly effective way of communicating God’s plan for the world to humanity. God  becoming human in order to communicate and save us seems like just the sort of thing the Creator God would do. The character of Jesus and the way that God saves us in Jesus’ cross and resurrection strike me as exactly fitting and beautiful. Jesus at the center of the story matters all the way down, and I never saw that more clearly than I did after reading Stanley Hauerwas’s The Peaceable Kingdom. Here’s how.

hauerwas-peaceable-kingdomJesus’ life is the life of God in the world[1]—the God who “overcome[s] the powers of this world, not through coercion and force, but through the power of this one man’s death.”[2] Jesus does not capitulate to violence by participating in it, but rather subverts it by submitting to it. Jesus rejects violence not because he is powerless, but because he possesses the true power of God, which, “exactly because it is a genuine and truthful power, does not serve by forcing itself on others.”[3] Jesus’ power overcomes worldly powers not because Jesus wields a stronger version of it, but because Jesus wields a non-oppressive power against which the world’s corrupted powers are ultimately impotent.  Jesus’ power subverts and voids any power expressed as violent subjugation and oppression.  Jesus’ cross inaugurates God’s peaceable kingdom—a kingdom that cannot be inaugurated or inhabited through coercive means.

God’s raising of the crucified Jesus confirms that love and forgiveness inhere in the structure of God’s world.[4] Moreover, the inner logic of God’s world presents a life-paradigm for those who would live well in it. Christians, therefore, reject violence not because it is inherently evil or merely because it is ultimately ineffective, but rather because it is incommensurate with imitating the God who rules creation not through force but through nonviolent love. Hauerwas writes, “The nonviolence of the church derives from the character of the story of God that makes us what we are—namely a community capable of witnessing to others the kind of life made possible when trust rather than fear rules our relation with one another.”[5]  Here Hauerwas names the core from which Christians’ peaceableness derives and Christians’ resultant primary posture toward the world as “witness.”  The Christian church is that community which, through both its internal and external relationships, bears witness to the God revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Christians bear witness to the God who rules creation through nonviolent love.

This is the story I find compelling. Suppose it’s true. What if God really did raise Jesus from the dead?

Cover illustration by Pauline Baynes for C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Cover illustration by Pauline Baynes for C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

That’s the point on which everything turns—Jesus’ resurrection. If Jesus is not God incarnate, risen from the dead, and the only one who saves us, we don’t need him after all. We can only say why people need Jesus if we already assume the Christian story is true. We can only know the truth of the Christian story by living it with other people, and we can only communicate that truth by inviting people to come and see it in action. That’s what it means to be Jesus’ witnesses. Yes, it’s a circle, and philosophers hate that. But it’s a good circle, if you have to pick one… and, some say, you do. Or, it just might pick you.

[1] Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics, (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), 78.
[2] Hauerwas, Peaceable Kingdom, 76.
[3] Hauerwas, Peaceable Kingdom, 81-82.
[4] Hauerwas, Peaceable Kingdom, 87.
[5] Hauerwas, “The Moral Authority of Scripture: The Politics and Ethics of Remembering,” in A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic, 53-71 (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 70.

 

Romance for Goodness Sake

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Katharine Ashe has a new novella out today! How to Marry a Highlander, closely related to How a Lady Weds a Rogue, has just become available. Today also marks a year since I finished reading the last of Ashe’s six full-length novels for the first time. So it’s a good day to talk romance novels, once again.

Ashe’s books gave impetus to my writing about romance novels in the first place. In my previous post on the topic I suggested one good reason that Christians might read romance novels, namely, the good of talking more—comfortably and thoughtfully—about sex. A particular group of books have helped me to identify additional reasons having to do with (surprise, surprise!) the role of stories in moral formation.

As I described in my previous post, one essential feature of the romance novel is the “happy ending,” or as some readers put it, the Happily Ever After. The romance novel HEA involves the hero and heroine committing to be together in a way likely to last and to benefit them mutually. (It does not require them never to have a disagreement or interruptions to their marital bliss.) The happiness of the happy ending derives ultimately from the attractiveness of the hero and heroine—it’s happy because we get to see two lovable people rewarded. The characters’ attractiveness is usually revealed through the eyes of each as they meet, get to know one another, and overcome whatever obstacles stand in the the way of their relationship’s flourishing.

Of course attraction has many layers, the physical among them. The characters often start off finding one another physically attractive even if not otherwise. (These books include plentiful descriptions of physical beauty, but since readers get the story almost entirely from the perspective of the hero and heroine about each other, well, no wonder. People’s tastes vary, but everyone sounds gorgeous through the eyes of a lover. If they didn’t like each other’s looks it wouldn’t be much of a romance novel.) But no good romance novel leaves attraction at the level of the physical. Further layers of attraction develop as the two characters get to know one another. The best romances present characters whose attractiveness has its deepest roots in their active goodness. Attraction that will sustain a “happily ever after” credibly must see through deceptive charm and outlast fleeting good looks. Lasting attraction must be built upon the heart’s beauty.

The romance novel genre, then, excels in making goodness both interesting and appealing—no small feat, that. Very often the characters are interesting because they do good despite wrongs they’ve suffered, despite the temptation to choose an easier path. They struggle to do the good they know, engage conflicts fruitfully, and navigate well the rolling tide of unexpected emotions. The more interesting and true-to-life the struggles of the characters, the more satisfying the “happy ending.” Reconciliation and hope for a wholesome life often come after the characters’ redemption from past injustices, mistrust, or disordered habits. In the romance genre, goodness doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness, but you don’t get happiness without goodness.

At their best, romance novels are a celebration of beauty and goodness. In the last year I’ve discovered fifteen books that exemplify how romance novels commend these qualities. In these books the heroes and heroines habitually place the good of others ahead of themselves. Some of them devote their lives to helping the downtrodden. Others practice kindness more subtly. But their stories all show the unity of goodness with lasting love and happiness. So here, by author’s last name and then chronologically (by setting; not publication date), follows the list of books along with some description to explain why they’re on the list. This’ll make for a much longer post than usual, but, well, describing fifteen books takes a bit of space.

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By Katharine Ashe

Swept Away by a Kiss1810. Slavery has been abolished in the British Empire, but some British citizens still trade slaves illegally for high profit. Viscount Steven Ashford, half-English half-Natchez, captains an anti-slaving ship. He uses whatever tactics and takes whatever disguise will help him accomplish his goals. It’s a bit inconvenient that when he meets Valerie Monroe, and is tremendously attracted to her, he’s also masquerading as a Jesuit priest. Love has never been so forbidden, or so dangerous. Steven’s work has made him a few enemies, and he has no desire to endanger Valerie by involving her in it. But she is strong, resourceful, and persistent—she won’t be stopped from helping him.

Captured by a Rogue Lord1816. Alex, the Earl of Savege, leads a secret double life as the pirate Redstone, captain of the Cavalier, who has gained a reputation plundering the ships of other aristocrats who gain their wealth by unjust means, donating the proceeds to charities that care for orphans and widows. But he’s getting tired of that life and wants to find some peace—settle in at home to look after the affairs of his estate. When they meet, he and Serena Carlyle, the daughter of his neighbor, experience an immediate attraction. It only grows as Alex learns how Serena acts as kind advocate for her step-siblings against their own evil mother, and that she has made it her mission to find a way to stop the smugglers from wreaking havoc on the coastline bordering the Carlyle and Savege properties. When Serena discovers Alex’s alter ego, he captures her heart completely—and she expects him to act the hero that deep down, he really is.

When a Scot Loves a Lady1817. Kitty Savege is deep into a long personal espionage against a corrupt lord when she locks eyes across a ballroom with Earl Leam Blackwood, in the guise of a barbaric Scot, and hears him say with one glance that such activities are unworthy of her. But Leam himself is involved in stealthy operations through the Falcon Club, an organization commissioned by the British government to retrieve certain citizens who have been lost and whose rescue must be achieved discreetly. But Leam wants to quit. He and fellow Falcon Club member Wyn Yale are on a last mission when they become stranded by a snowstorm at the same Shropshire inn as Kitty and her friend Emily Vale. In the midst of their attraction, Kitty and Leam discover that the trouble that initially led Leam to join the Falcon Club in the first place has followed him to Shropshire. But this time, they team up to get to the bottom of it and rescue each other in the process.

How to be a Proper Lady1818. Fifteen years ago, Viola Carlyle was kidnapped off the beach near her home in the presence of her sister Serena. When Alex Savege, now married to Serena, tells his former first-mate, Jinan Seton, about Viola’s disappearance, Jinan vows to himself to find her and return her home in payment of a life-debt he owes to Alex. Jinan has the best back story I’ve seen this side of Aragorn. He is half-Egyptian, half-English, and was enslaved for two years as a child. He spent much of his youth and young-adulthood violently repaying the world for the injustices done him as a child, but in recent years has joined the Falcon Club and pursued its errands around the world as the Cavalier‘s captain. As opportunity arises, he quietly purchases and frees slaves, placing them in positions of safety and employment. At twenty-nine, Jinan rarely encounters a situation he can’t navigate or master. And then he finds Viola. Well, she sinks his ship, which is a lovely metaphor for her effect on Jinan, who still hasn’t made peace with his past or found his place in the world. Having been absent from Society from the age of ten to twenty-five, Viola likewise feels displaced. The main adventure unfolds as these two people—at sea both literally and figuratively—manage to find safe harbor with one another.

How a Lady Weds a Rogue - 1820. Wyn Yale has one last errand for the Falcon Club before he plans to end his life. He can’t forgive himself for a careless mistake he made five years ago—he accidentally shot an innocent rather than rescuing her. Ever since, he has been drinking to excess and has become a high-functioning alcoholic. He has the skills of a spy: he reads people with incisive clarity and possesses formidable intelligence, but he is nearing the end of his body’s tolerance for the bottle. Sometimes he loses control, but nothing allows him to forget that horrible night. Despite the drinking, Wyn remembers everything. Only one avenue would allow him to forget permanently, and Wyn plans to take it after finishing this last mission. On the way, however, he encounters Diantha Lucas, Serena Savege’s younger step-sister, who has a mission of her own—to find her mother, who abandoned her five years ago without any explanations. Diantha is a young lady alone on a public mail coach, unchaperoned and a target for untoward advances. Wyn, being more deeply a gentleman than anything else, cannot continue with his own errand without first seeing to Diantha’s safe return to her family. Of course that’s easier planned than done, as Diantha matches Wyn for wit and will, and much prefers not to go home just yet. He soon discovers, too, that his gentlemanly impulse to help people has its own analogous counterpart in Diantha’s character. The rescuer also becomes the rescued.

In the Arms of a Marquess – 1821. The Marquess Benjirou Doreé was his father’s third son, and never expected to inherit the title, but war robbed Ben of one brother and the oldest died along with his father in a fire at the family’s hunting retreat. With his half-Indian heritage, Society views him warily despite his rank among the peerage. But he cares little for it, except as it allows him to orchestrate ongoing comprehensive operations dedicated to righting injustices and helping the oppressed wherever they’re found. Ben last saw Octavia Pierce, the young Englishwoman he first met as a girl in Madras when he rescued her from abduction, seven years ago. Their attraction was immediate and strong, but her family disapproved Ben’s mixed heritage. Ever since, Ben has mistakenly thought Octavia shared her family’s opinion, her interest in him only superficial. When they meet again in England, all the old feelings rekindle, but now Ben must take care who knows Octavia’s importance to him. Those who wish to thwart his operation threaten to harm her. But she won’t be cowed, and furthers Ben’s aims with her own clever boldness. And if he needs rescuing, she’ll see to that too.

Up next: Ashe’s next release is the first in her new Prince Catchers trilogy, I Married the Duke, due for release August 27th. The final two in the Falcon Club quintet will feature Lady Constance Read: Leam’s cousin, friend to Ben Doreé, and a clever Society beauty with a tragic past; and Viscount Colin Gray, the Falcon Club secretary who looks after the other members and communicates the director’s orders.

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By Elizabeth Hoyt

Thief of Shadows1738. Winter Makepeace presents an unassuming persona as the manager of a home for orphaned children in St. Giles, but Lady Isabel Beckinhall is about to discover his daring alter-ego: the Ghost of St. Giles, a harlequin who roams about in the night protecting and rescuing the innocent from those who would harm them. Lady Beckinhall is one of the Children’s Home’s patronesses. When some of the other ladies who support the Home decide that its principal representative to Society—Winter—ought to be more trained in genteel manners, they elect Lady Beckinhall to the task. And he must cooperate, or be removed as manager. In addition, Winter’s life as the Ghost has just become more dangerous—he’s wanted for rescuing a notorious pirate from the gallows, and shortly also for murder, and he’s trying to track down a ring of “lassie snatchers” who kidnap and exploit young girls. The lassie snatchers don’t exactly appreciate it. But Winter no longer has to face these dangers alone; now he has a lady on his side, and she won’t let him fail or come to harm.

Lord of Darkness1740. As it turns out, Winter Makepeace is not the only Ghost of St. Giles. Godric St. John, too, wears harlequin and marauds by night, safeguarding people from footpads and other villains. He takes the Ghost’s persona as a way of dealing with the pain of losing his beloved wife, Clara, to a long illness. But the Ghost’s activities become increasingly dangerous as people on both sides of the law believe him the murderer of Roger Fraser-Burnsby, a gentleman. Among these people, unfortunately, is Lady Margaret Reading, who was Roger’s lover, now Lady Margaret St. John. That’s right—Godric’s wife. They married two years ago, but Godric hasn’t seen her since, and she doesn’t know he’s the Ghost of St. Giles. But of course such a secret is not easily kept when Margaret comes back into Godric’s life to become his wife in truth, and begins seeking the truth about Roger’s death. When she does unmask Godric, she realizes he can’t have killed Roger, but then who did, and why? She and Godric then have a mystery to solve together, besides a marriage to build.

The Leopard Prince - 1760. At twenty-eight, Lady Georgina Maitland no longer expects to marry, and since she has come of age and inherited her own estate she need not. But an estate requires management, so she hires a land steward, Harry Pye. Harry has the benefit of having grown up in the region of Georgina’s estate, and so knows exactly how to manage its affairs. But he also has an unfortunate history with the neighbors: Lord Granville would much prefer Harry didn’t exist, and diligently blames Harry for various local crimes in the hope of getting rid of him. But Lady Georgina trusts Harry, and he vindicates her support repeatedly by seeing to his duties faithfully, prioritizing Georgina’s safety, and caring for the vulnerable among the villagers and country people close by. Of course they fall in love with one another, but their match seems impossible on many levels—the threats from Granville on one side and the vast difference in their social class on the other. Harry doesn’t play Robin Hood like some of the other heroes above, but he consistently prioritizes the good and care of others over his own, which matches him rather well with his lady.

Up next: Elizabeth Hoyt’s next book is the third and last of her books featuring a character who disguises himself as the Ghost of St. Giles: The Duke of Midnight, due out October 6th.

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By Laura Kinsale

The Prince of Midnight1772. S.T. Maitland is hiding in the foothills of the French alps since he’s a wanted man in England for playing a Robin Hood type character—a highwayman known as Le Seigneur du Minuit, the Prince of Midnight. His last conflict with the authorities left him broken and a near invalid; he is deaf in one ear and frequently loses his balance. So when Leigh Strachan finds him and begs for his help with avenging her murdered family, half of him wants to take the challenge and the other half knows it for a fool’s errand. How can he fight off her enemies if he can’t reliably walk without falling down? But his heart is in helping the vulnerable—whether four-legged like his pet wolf Nemo and his beloved horses, or Leigh. A more damaged and bedraggled rescue party has scarcely ever been assembled. Wit, wile, and courage, however, they do possess in spades. And they must use all these qualities judiciously if they intend to emerge from this adventure with their lives intact, and discover together just what wounds love will heal.

Up next: That’s a good question. While Kinsale has written other books, her latest doesn’t really fit on this list, and I’m not sure what her next project is. But if you want more Kinsale, you might try Seize the Fire or Flowers from the Storm, and watch her website for news of her next book.

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By Lisa Kleypas

Suddenly You1836. Successful authoress and almost-thirty spinster Amanda Briars meets her new publisher in unusual circumstances. No longer expecting to marry but still a virgin, she approaches a madam to send her a gentleman caller. Jack Devlin arrives on her doorstep instead, only she doesn’t know who he is until she meets him at a party a week later, much to her mortification, and learns his true identity. Jack has had his eye on Amanda’s work for quite awhile already, and is willing to compete with other publishers to get it. But now he’s also interested in Amanda for herself. Despite her reluctance to have anything to do with Jack, she can’t help but notice the unflinching loyalty of his staff. And Jack is very persuasive—he did not become so successful a publisher without first possessing a more than generous helping of determination. Before long Amanda discovers the depth of generosity that has motivated Jack’s hard work, but past betrayals also make him reluctant to trust others—Amanda included.

Worth Any Price1842. Nick Gentry has lived on the streets since he was a boy, surviving imprisonment, becoming a thief and then a thief-taker before moving to the right side of the law as a Bow Street Runner. His Bow Street work is a sort of therapy—he enjoys chasing and outsmarting the members of the underworld he once knew so well. He has been hired to track down a lady, Charlotte Howard, who has run away from her family in order to escape a lascivious, possessive, and controlling fiancé, Lord Radnor. In fact, Charlotte’s fiancé hired Nick. When Nick finds Charlotte, he realizes he cannot in good conscience return her to her fiancé, but the only way he sees to keep her safe is to marry her himself. Having few avenues open to her, she agrees. Nick soon discovers that the woman he has rescued is better therapy than his Bow Street work, and far from helpless. But they certainly confront their demons more effectively together than alone.

Up next: Lisa Kleypas is by far the most prolific and established author in this list, and she’s written many books that I’ve enjoyed, but none that really belong on this list. But there’s a long list that feature characters of substance. I could wish for more books like the Bow Street Runners series, but the idea might well have run its course. Ms. Kleypas’s latest books are contemporary romance, a genre in which I’ve yet to find a really satisfying read.

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By Julie Anne Long

These books are part of the Pennyroyal Green series, which are in chronological sequence but can be read independently of one another. The first book gives a helpful overview of the supporting cast and an important feature of the series: the animus between its two leading families—the Redmonds and Everseas—who have been feuding in one way or another since the 11th century.

The Perils of Pleasure (book 1)Regency, after 1815. Colin Eversea is about to hang for a murder he didn’t commit when Madeline Greenway, a mercenary, orchestrates his rescue. But before she can collect her fee someone tries to shoot her just as Colin pushes her out of harm’s way. Mystified by their situation and mindful of their peril, Colin and Madeline team up to find out who wants Madeline dead, who wants Colin alive, and to gather the evidence of Colin’s innocence. This story has all the plot twists of a mystery novel. The strongest characteristic of both Madeline and Colin is their ability to confront impossible circumstances gracefully, and with a shockingly well-developed and witty sense of humor.  And they learn from each other how to play better with the hand they’ve each been dealt before deciding that perhaps their teamwork should continue.

I Kissed an Earl (book 4) - Regency, after 1815. Violet Redmond is determined to find her oldest brother, Lyon, who disappeared a year ago after falling disastrously in love with the Everseas’ oldest daughter, Olivia. Violet suspects that her brother has taken to sea as the pirate Le Chat, who captains a ship called, of course, the Olivia. When Violet learns that Asher Flint, the newly styled but scarcely civilized Earl of Ardmay, has a mission to find Le Chat and bring him to justice, she finagles her way aboard Flint’s ship. She must find her brother and persuade him to return home, but doing so will require her to betray Flint, which, as she gets to know him, she is increasingly reluctant to do. It’s inconvenient to fall in love with the the man who wants to see your brother hang, and maddening to know both men as noble, determined, and both seeking justice in their own way.

It Happened One Midnight (book 8) - Regency, after 1815. Jonathan is the youngest Redmond son, and has garnered a reasonably deserved reputation as a rake and libertine. What’s less well-known—even to his own father, Isaiah—is Jonathan’s innate impulse to help those in need, and his talent for investing. In an effort to make Jonathan grow up, Isaiah cuts off Jonathan’s allowance and promises to withhold his inheritance unless Jonathan marries “appropriately” within the year. When Jonathan finds Thomasina (Tommy) de Ballesteros crouching under the window of the Duke of Greyfolk, he asks her why she has a knife. “I’m carrying a knife,” she said slowly, “because . .  . I don’t own a pistol.” He nodded at this inanity thoughtfully. “Oh, one should always carry a pistol. In fact, I’m carrying one now.” And there it is in his hand. When Tommy also learns that Jonathan lacks capital for his next investment, she decides to cut a deal with him. She provides the capital, he provides the pistol—and wields it, if necessary. But Tommy, far from being a shady character, is as cleverly disguised a philanthropist as Jonathan, and more daring to boot. She steals young servant children from abusive employers and places them in safely in schools, homes, or apprenticeships. When Jonathan accompanies Tommy to rescue the next child, they both begin to realize their kindred spirits—and attraction. Of course Tommy is far from “appropriate,” in the eyes of Isaiah Redmond, but he’s also about to discover a side of his son he never knew existed.

Up next: It Happened One Midnight was just released on July 2, but Long promises a ninth novel in the Pennyroyal Green series, Between the Devil and Ian Eversea. As part of the Eversea clan, Ian has featured prominently in several books in the series. If the last book forecasts the promise of the next, Ian’s story will be tremendously satisfying. It’s due for release in March 25, 2014. Ever since reading I Kissed an Earl, however, the story I most anticipate is Lyon Redmond’s. It will fit right into this list, but there’s not been a peep about it from Ms. Long just yet.

If you’re still reading, go find one of these books instead! When you do, I’d love to hear what you thought of it.

Video

“Alleluia”

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I’ve got a backlog of several posts I want to write, but I did want to post something fairly quick before much more time elapsed.

This video is a lovely recording of Eric Whitacre’s stunning “Alleluia,” which is a choral adaptation of his instrumental “October,” which I also love. I heard this “Alleluia” for the first time live at a concert of Eric Whitacre conducting his singers as part of his “Inspirations” tour. It was a few weeks ahead of Easter, but now in the Easter season there’s little that’s more appropriate than nine minutes of alleluias.

For anyone studying for finals right now or writing papers, it’s a wonderful accompaniment.

On theological education

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Goodson Chapel, Duke Divinity School

Goodson Chapel, Duke Divinity School

I recently had occasion to consider how the last twelve years of my own theological education have formed my perspective on what theological education should be, and why I want to participate in the theological education of others. Foremost, I view the world theologically. As the psalmist declares, this world and everything in it belong to God (Psalm 24:1). God is not an object in the universe, but the Creator and Lord of everything that exists; God is the measure of all things. If God is the measure of all things, and theology encompasses all thought, speech and reasoning about God, then a person’s theology will govern her thought, speech, and reasoning about all else. Theology is inextricable from an entire way of life. Theology matters “all the way down.” So viewing the world theologically involves measuring my life on God’s terms. Human beings cannot reflect God’s life in the abstract; doing so requires a particular story. Christians stake their lives on the reality of God’s story as told in Scripture and summarized in the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds. Theological educators should invite students to know the God of that story and explore this world as God’s world. Christian theological education should unite the conviction that God is the measure of all things with the distinct content of God’s story that Christians confess, and should use all the resources of the academy that serve the living knowledge of this story.

School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University

School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University

All my post-secondary schooling has taken place in institutions committed to this perspective on theological education, which has shaped my work profoundly. After graduating from Seattle Pacific University’s School of Theology, I came to Duke Divinity School—first for the M.Div. and now the Th.D.—because I sought academically rigorous study integrated with Christian confession and, ultimately, a doctorate oriented toward ecclesial life. I named my major area “Christian Scripture,” because these words together identify the community whose presuppositions and story frame all my work. I have focused on discerning what habits and skills make faithful ecclesial reading of Scripture possible and developing them. I have learned to use whatever academic tools prove helpful for understanding the Bible as Christian Scripture—that is, as witness to God’s self-revelation, and indispensable and authoritative for ecclesial life.

Duke Divinity School, Gray Building

Duke Divinity School, Gray Building

I exercise this training every time I sit down to work on my dissertation, which engages the portrait of “witness” in the book of Acts as a whole, to the end of illuminating a Christian ethic of reading Scripture. Acts portrays a community endeavoring to live out the conviction that the God revealed in Jesus is the measure of all things. This community must articulate its identity not only for itself but also to an entire range of others, who run the gamut from eagerly receptive to violently hostile. Acts is peculiarly concerned with matters Christians must consider whenever we try to make ourselves intelligible to those who do not share our epistemic assumptions or our deepest convictions. The book of Acts, and especially its idiom of witness, offers resources for thinking through how Christians can rightly make claims to knowledge of God. “Witness” in Acts holds together precisely what theological education should: the conviction that God is the measure of all things with the particular story of Israel’s God revealed definitively in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

My reasons for writing this dissertation correspond to three main challenges I see facing 21st Century theological educators:

1)    Remaining committed to God as the measure of all things even as we work in American higher education, which requires that we neither reject entirely the prevailing epistemic paradigm nor measure all our claims to knowledge on its terms,

2)    Reshaping study habits formed by easy access to information, which inhibit the careful attention that learning to know God requires, and

3)    Maintaining the close connection between thought and life that the truthfulness of our convictions demands.

My thinking about these challenges continues to evolve, but here I offer how I am currently considering the way forward.

1) Because Christian theology begins from the presupposition that God is the measure of all things, working within American higher education presents a peculiar challenge. Modern people, whether in the academy or otherwise, are unaccustomed to considering God the measure of all things. Rather, modern people accord epistemic preeminence to science and history—disciplines that trade in encyclopedic knowledge and assume the reliability of human sensory experience. On one level, trusting historical and scientific judgments makes good sense. Christians, too, rely upon these disciplines and their epistemic underpinnings in our daily lives, but we cannot accord them epistemic preeminence without undermining our faith. Indeed, excellent scholarship requires that we use whatever tools its disciplines make available, but our commitment to reading the world on God’s terms obliges us to consider more and different possible realities than these tools alone can make available. All Christians, but especially those who work and teach in the theological disciplines, must develop the intellectual agility to use the tools of modern scholarship while not adopting its epistemology and, instead, maintaining the conviction that God is the measure of all things.

Such agility involves recognizing our single identity as one and the same person whether writing, teaching in the classroom, or participating in worship. The scholar and the Christian do not come apart. The practical form of such agility will vary according to discipline and the scholarly tools most appropriate to the kind of theological claims one makes. Modern theological study of the Bible, for example, can and should make use of historical-critical tools in order help bridge the gap between the Bible’s original context and our own. But biblical scholars should always keep the ultimate object of study in view, and not limit the Bible’s subject matter to historical possibilities.

From the very beginning of my theological training, my mentors have modeled such reading and have encouraged me to hone my skills in this art. As a result, I have not only learned by doing; I have had to think deeply about how such reading works and is possible. I am convinced that the flourishing of the Christian church requires that we continually return to Scripture, so I consider learning the art of faithful reading vital.

2) Theological study requires habits significantly at odds with the methods of information retrieval that both serve and plague our society. Most future college students  have never lived without nearly ubiquitous Internet access. A bottomless store of information ready at our fingertips can distort our understanding of what constitutes knowledge, inhibit our ability to judge the quality of information, and hinder us in developing practices of seeking suited to our object. Theological study’s object is God, and knowing God is not quick, easy, or available via Google. Christian Scripture rewards and requires slow, carefully attentive reading. As always, how we know shapes what it is possible to know. Theological educators will have to recall students to slow, careful, methodical observation, and to long and thoughtful mulling. We must resist thinking of knowledge as a commodity—a thing available as a product in the classroom. A theological view on the world requires the constant reminder that knowledge of the deepest reality available to us comes only as a gift from God’s side of the Creator/creature distinction, and can only truly be known through living its truth in communion with others.

3) Living this truth in community is the final and most constant challenge for theological educators. I have already partly addressed this concern in noting that Christians must maintain the integrity of their identity. There can be no real distinction between the scholar and the Christian—no division between “work” and “life.” But living the truth of our convictions demands even more. Theological education exists not for its own sake, but for the flourishing of the church, which likewise exists not for itself, but in ministry to God’s world. Perhaps more than some others, the theologically educated are in danger of calling Jesus, “Lord, Lord,” and not doing what he commands, not following him as his disciples. The good of viewing the world theologically consists, finally, in becoming more like God. Such is the aim of my own life, and the way of life I hope to commend to my students.

Reading Acts with Others: Theological Storytelling as Witness

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Can one culture talk to another? This and similar questions animate one of Kavin Rowe’s current courses at Duke Divinity School, The New Testament and Graeco-Roman Philosophy, which I visited once just over three weeks ago. The day I visited, the texts under discussion were Romans, 1 Corinthians, Acts, a pseudepigraphal letter exchange between the apostle Paul and the Stoic philosopher Seneca, and Rowe’s own Achtemeier Award-winning essay on Paul in the Areopagus (Acts 17) titled, “The Grammar of Life.” Reading those texts together opens a conversation much more complex than I can do justice here, but the question that, to my mind, sparked the most interesting conversation involved a thought experiment of reading New Testament texts from the perspective of Seneca.

What would Seneca understand from reading 1 Corinthians? How would a Stoic philosopher read Paul’s words about the “Lord Jesus Christ,” “eloquent wisdom” (σοφίᾳ λόγου), the power of the cross, and the “foolishness of God” as “wiser than human beings”? These words and phrases simply do not mean in the same way within a Greek philosophical idiom that they do as part of the Christian story. What Seneca would mean by using the word “God” (θεός), for example, differs widely from what Paul means. As the class discussed “what Seneca would understand by reading 1 Corinthians” it seemed that either Paul’s letter would read as utter nonsense, or Seneca’s different frame of reference would render his interpretation something other than what Paul’s writing means as a text framed within the Gospel story. When the class discussion turned to Acts, particularly focused on Paul’s encounter with the Stoics and Epicurean philosophers in the Areopagus, it struck me that Seneca reading Acts might have quite different results. It makes a good deal of sense to frame a discussion about whether Paul and Seneca can make sense to one another by attending to the one passage within Acts where Paul actually interacts with some Stoics. But if one asks whether Seneca would understand Acts by reading it, well, one can’t really extract chapter 17 and make it the test case. Acts makes meaning as a narrative.

Acts’ making meaning as a narrative serves the possibility of communicating across cultures in at least the following four ways:

First, language that tells a story resists extraction and transplanting into another story not because the “meaning” of the words somehow doesn’t change because it comes from a story, but rather exactly the reverse. Extracting words from stories utterly changes their meaning. Stories make readers face this reality in a way that treatises do not. So someone could pull the word “God” from Acts and use it in a different story, but doing so makes clear that “God” no longer refers to the reality Acts intends by using the word “God.” Stories show how inescapably the meaning of words depends on their context. This rule doesn’t keep readers from using storied language in competing stories, but it exposes such re-appropriation for what it is.

An icon of Pentecost, from http://en.wikipedia.org

Second, because the meaning of stories relies much more deeply upon effective communication of happenings than on the meaning of particular words, and because stories resist dissection into their constitutive parts, stories translate much more readily than treatises do. Acts itself provides perhaps the most salient illustration of this point: Pentecost promises and portrays the translatability of the Gospel—the diaspora Jews gathered in Jerusalem hear in their own languages what the apostles are saying through the Holy Spirit (Acts 2). But whatdo the apostles convey in all these other natural languages? They do not recite theological treatises or propositional arguments. Rather, they tell “God’s mighty acts” or “deeds of power.” To tell what God has done is to tell a story.

Third, because of the particular story Acts tells, it requires the reader to recognize it as a story within a story. In the first verse Luke mentions the first book, implying that Acts is the second one. Any reader with two brain cells to rub together should think, “If I want to understand the second book, I’d better go read that first book.” Then Peter immediately goes on interpreting recent and present events as clear fulfillment of Scripture (see, esp. Acts 1-5). So the reader thinks, “There’s even more before this story begins than I realized. I wonder what it is.” Well, happily, Luke goes on to lay out the whole thing through Stephen’s speech in chapter 7.

Finally, as Rowe himself has noted, Acts as a narrative reflects the story-embedded nature of all human life. Even the economic identity of God (meaning, “as revealed in the created world”) cannot be told other than through a story. Not surprisingly, then, when Paul preaches to the pagan philosophers in the Areopagus, he subtly reorients the words of their poets by embedding them within the story of God’s saving acts on earth (for more on that topic, see Rowe’s “The Grammar of Life” (New Testament Studies, vol. 57 [2010] pp. 31-50).

By highlighting these ways Acts works I don’t mean to hold it up as a generally superior text within the New Testament. It is no more (and no less!) Scripture than Paul’s letters. Obviously Acts is likewise not the only narrative text in Scripture, and one can argue persuasively that Paul’s letters depend for their intelligibility upon a community of reception embedded in a particular story—the same one, in fact, to which Acts belongs. But these unique qualities of Acts might make it singularly effective, among the canonical texts, at opening lines of cross-cultural communication. Indeed, as Rowe’s World Upside Down suggests, reading Acts in its narrative integrity offers a sound beginning point for opening the Christian story to those not already living it. And it is sound precisely in its inexorable gentleness—its simultaneous resistance to being coopted and refusal to promote its agenda through appeals to supposedly universal truths. One might even call it witness.

Because sometimes the best way to interpret one story is to tell another.

Why Write (a Dissertation)?

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One last thing.

ABD. All But Dissertation. I began this blog a week after I had defended my dissertation proposal and could finally claim those three little letters. From the front side of all those requirements—coursework, language exams, preliminary exams, proposal, and two oral defenses—they seemed like staggering obstacles. On this side of them, however, with most of my dissertation still ahead, they look like mole hills. My dissertation sometimes feels like a tall mountain the top of which I can’t see, but that I am, nonetheless, expected to climb. I mean that in both a positive and a negative sense. The cartoon below, by Dave Walker of cartoonchurch.com, communicates some of the negative sense in which I feel it:

Sometimes, when I see the mountain, writing a dissertation seems like chasing a bare outline stretching endlessly into the distance. Following that horizon feels like a meaningless endeavor, with no finish line in sight, utterly stripped of its grandeur and beauty. When I consider all the reasons I have to finish my dissertation, it feels like someone has blocked my view of the real mountain I’m climbing with a false image of line peaks, just like in the above cartoon. One peak bears the label, “no more fees.” Another has, “job eligibility,” and the next, “freedom to do whatever’s next.” The text on those peaks is just as bare and lifeless. The words represent real goals of mine, but held up as reasons to write, they prove shockingly uninspiring. They also falsely represent the real object of my pursuit at present.

I am writing on the New Testament book of Acts of the Apostles. Acts may well be the best adventure story in the whole Bible. The Holy Spirit animates this story with fire, new language, bold proclamation, miracles, healing, martyrdom, preservation amidst shipwreck, and trials before councils and kings. Reading Acts affords a vivid encounter with the Holy Spirit’s living presence on earth. What could be better? What I learn through reading Acts and writing about it excites me tremendously. I imagine Acts and my work much more truthfully when I think of a trek into the Grand Tetons rather than a flat, illusory line drawing. I imagine my work actually looks a lot more like this:

These mountains indicate the positive sense of the cartoon: writing a dissertation worth writing does resemble a mountain-climbing adventure, but the quest is not inherently and irrevocably fruitless and dull.

Another cartoon, this one from Pearls Before Swine by Stephan Pastis, illustrates how other incidentals can rob good work of its joy:

from “Pearls Before Swine,” June 1, 2008

So a dissertation is not a marriage, but both usually begin with at least some passion. And they are both for something beyond the good things that they make possible, and both require more for their meaningfulness than the daily routines and tasks that make them possible. Losing sight of writing a dissertation because one has a good topic and something important to say about it precisely names the point where the “Passionsaurus” dies. And, as in the cartoon, it dies so slowly and quietly, one hardly notices.

It’s beyond essential, so I’ve learned, to keep in view what the work is really for. One might think the labels on the cartoon peaks name the work’s purpose accurately, but such an assessment mistakes the matter. So writes Dorothy Sayers in the essay, “Why Work?”:

Dorothy Sayers

[Work] should be looked upon not as a necessary drudgery to be undergone for the purpose of making money, but as a way of life in which the nature of man should find its proper exercise and delight and so fulfill itself to the glory of God. … it should, in fact, be thought of as a creative activity undertaken for the love of the work itself; … man, made in God’s image, should make things, as God makes them, for the sake of doing well a thing that is well worth doing.

Doing well a thing well worth doing—that, and nothing less, should provide the foundational reason for writing a dissertation.

Good Romance: Sex is not Embarrassing

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This past July, for the first time, I read romance fiction. I liked it, and I’m out to convince you that you should too. And no, it wasn’t Fifty Shades of Grey. Definitely not.

It all began when I read Camille Jackson’s Duke Today article “outing” historian Dr. Katharine Brophy Dubois as Katharine Ashe, Duke’s own award-winning author of historical romance novels. As I read the article I mused, “Ah, Duke has a little bit of ‘anything you can do I can do better‘ here: ‘Fifty Shades may be creating a sensation, but our romance writer actually can write, and she knows her stuff.’” I remain uninterested in Fifty Shades, but the article persuaded me to try Ashe’s books. As I read them one after another, I realized I was reluctant to let anyone know. Why not? What’s wrong with reading romance fiction and liking it?

The most obvious answer derives from the general denigration of the romance genre, which Jackson identifies:

“The success of current bestseller “Fifty Shades of Grey” notwithstanding, romance fiction is generally viewed with contempt as lowbrow, poorly written, cheap, tawdry, worthy of mockery — especially among academic literary types.”

I understand that in the case of Fifty Shades Jackson’s list of usual criticisms may well hit the mark. But I wasn’t reading Fifty Shades of Grey, and the above modifiers do not describe the entire romance genre. So why the discomfort with reading good romance fiction?

The basic genre convention requires a love story with a happy ending. Take that away and it’s not romance. Perhaps to some readers, love stories with happy endings seem sentimental, naïve, or unrealistic. While such failings can occur, they’re not inevitable. Moreover, happiness and love do belong to the realm of possibility in the real world. It actually requires no more imagination or suspension of disbelief to dwell upon how love develops and flourishes than to wallow in cynicism. Plenty of classical literature likewise ends happily, so that cannot be romance fiction’s fatal flaw.

But something more insidious may have caused my discomfort. Dubois notes that romance fiction, “. . . is an industry run by women and consumed by women. What does it mean that it is stigmatized? I’d suggest it is latent misogyny in American culture.” Does romance fiction suffer social denigration because women like it? Here’s a novel idea: a thing is not automatically ridiculous because women like it, or because men do not, or because women like it more than men do. Because—and for this original thought I owe Dorothy Sayers—women are just as much human beings as men are. Women’s preferences and interests, therefore, belong equally to the definition of “human being” as those of men. To denigrate romance fiction because women like it… well, I’m speechless. I’d be hard pressed to think of a worse reason.

But there’s that other, additional uncomfortable element. Sex.

Sex! The books describe sex!

Well, yes. And?

Good girls are innocent! They aren’t supposed to think about sex, or talk about it.

. . . or so I’ve heard metaphorically stage-whispered to me over the years, which probably goes furthest to explain why it took me awhile to screw up my courage to write this post. (And I still wouldn’t say, “Go read romance novels!” full stop.) Three factors tipped the balance: First, if Katharine Dubois can admit she’s also Katharine Ashe, I can admit I enjoy what she writes. She writes emotionally satisfying love stories including candid descriptions of lovemaking without apology or embarrassment. Second, Ashe’s books are good. She writes well-plotted and paced stories with delightful total content and beautiful language; they actually sound like they arise from the linguistic imagination of the early 19th C. These books deserve a wider audience—yes, including Christian adults, which brings me to the third factor. I’ve lately become convinced that all Christians including single people who aren’t sexually active—even “good girls”—should learn to talk about sex well, which will take practice. Loving romance, accepting and enjoying one’s existence as a sexual creature, and comfort with talking about sex all belong quite compatibly to a chaste sexual ethic. Open enjoyment of Ashe’s romance books (and perhaps select others) could help create space for productive and wholesome talk about sex.

So, the books: Ashe has published six novels (in order of publication): Swept Away by a Kiss, Captured by a Rogue Lord, and In the Arms of a Marquess in the “Rogues of the Sea” trilogy, and three books of a coming five in “The Falcon Club” series: When a Scot Loves a LadyHow to be a Proper Lady, and How a Lady Weds a Rogue. All take place in Britain’s Regency period (1811-1820) with main characters from the gentry and nobility, and each of her main characters also appears in at least one other book. I did not read the books in the order of publication, and one really could begin anywhere. So far my favorite has been How to be a Proper Lady, but for the sake of understanding more of the characters better I was glad I had read Captured by a Rogue Lord first. Had I also first read When a Scot Loves a Lady, I might have enjoyed it even more. But each of the books stands alone as well as belonging to a larger narrative world. Although I think her more recent books are stronger writing and I’ve enjoyed them more, none of her books has disappointed me.

What about the characters? Commitment to verisimilitude prohibits writing a modern feminist heroine set in the Regency period. Despite this limitation, however, Ashe writes heroines as smart and courageous as her heroes, as independent as social constraints allow (sometimes bending them!), and suited with talents and interests that team up well with the noble occupation of the hero. These young women combine fundamental goodness with unusual passion, which begins to explain why they match well with Ashe’s heroes, several of whom operate as clandestine advocates of tangible justice. And of course the characters’ goodness and generosity spill into their lovemaking. The novels do not raise any individual as the one character worth emulating in every detail; all have flaws. But like a good “faerie story,” the overall effect nudges the reader toward celebrating the true, the good, and the beautiful—with a lot of wit, humor, and passionate love along the way.

This feature epitomizes the good of romance fiction: At its best, it inspires readers to love the true, the good, and the beautiful. But reading good romance—especially openly and with others—can do something more. It can create space for good talk about sex, which brings me back to the third factor above that tipped the balance toward my writing this post at all: Good talk about sex is legitimate Christian business. Christians need to re-imagine not just how to talk about sex, but who can and should talk about sex. In a word, everyone—men and women, single and married. As a good friend of mine, who happens to be married, observed recently, “Sex is a part of life whether or not you’re having it.” And all of life belongs properly to the scope of Christian theological-ethical reflection. So here’s to removing the stigma of talking about sex, and learning to do so gracefully and joyfully.

N. B. – Folks in the Durham area can meet Katharine Ashe at the Regulator Bookshop on October 10 at 7:00 PM, where she’ll be promoting the just released, How a Lady Weds a Rogue.

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