Monday, August 22, 2016

Kierkegaard: A Single Life

available here from Zondervan
A few months ago I realized I did not know Kierkegaard well enough. I'd read Fear and Trembling and Works of Love but I kept on picking up other volumes in used bookstores only to regrettably never quite get to them. All along there's been this nagging desire to go back and explore this nineteenth century thinker some more. Kierkegaard always seems to say something you haven't quite thought of that way before.

This brand new biography of Søren Kierkegaard by Stephen Backhouse hit the spot. It came to our door on Friday and I devoured it by Sunday night. It is immensely informative, insightful, and readable.

Rather than duplicate the denser intellectual biographies that already exist (on one hand), or offer up the life's story without reference to it's work (on the other), Backhouse gives us Kierkegaard in two parts: a telling of his story and an overview of his works. The first reads like a gripping novel, the second opens up inviting windows into texts both famous and unknown.

The 211-page 'life of Kierkegaard' which makes up the bulk of the book is nothing short of riveting. (And for those who wish to just do some beach reading, it could be happily left at that). The research that stands behind it is impeccable. Not only does Backhouse have a command of Kierkegaard's thought and of his historical context, he has also scoured the journals of Søren and his peers in order to give us a view of his life from inside-out and outside-in. This is sewn together not like a patchwork quilt or a dry historical treatise but almost like a psychological thriller. (Okay, 'thriller' might be too strong a word, but the drama of Søren's inner and public life is pretty intense).

Kierkegaard seems to have been hounded controversy. Just when it lets up he chases it again. One simultaneously admires his resolve and cringes at the pain he puts himself (and others) through. Backhouse gives a sympathetic account that does not cover up Soren's faults and quirks, but puts them in perspective and (thanks to his journals) reveals in them an intent that is better than many might have guessed. It would be easy to write Kierkegaard off as a controversialist, but through this insightful biography we see him as somewhat restrained given the burning of his conviction, the sincerity of his confession, and the sharpness of his vision.

Even though Backhouse highlights the work Kierkegaard was doing as it occurs in his life, I was thankful for the 54 page overview of his publications which rounds out the book. The pithy summaries have focused my understanding of books I have read, and given me a concise encapsulation of books which (let's face it) I probably never will.

More than that, Backhouse has put some books on my radar which need to go high on the reading list not just because they seem interesting, but because the thoughts expressed in them seem as important and challenging as ever. A few choice quotes (all Backhouse's words) will make this plain:

'The Romantics rightly accuse modernity of trapping people in a slavery of social customs, materialism, and shallow religiosity. Yet the Romantics also condemn people to a slavish devotion to their own subjective passions and immature whims. Irony, urges Kierkegaard, is a necessary moment on the way to exposing a lie.... Significantly, at the end of his life Søren would employ Socratic irony by claiming not to a Christian, thus exposing the Christianity of Christendom as no Christianity at all.' - on Concept of Irony
'The first-hand disciples faced the same challenge as did the second-hand disciples. The incarnation was as offensive to reason one second after it happened as it is thousands of years later.' - on Philosophical Fragments
'In an age overtaken by reflection, talking about doing something important replaces actually doing it. The crowd likes the appearance of decisiveness more than it tolerates the reality of it... Levelling is the process of abstraction, whereby decisive choices are stripped of their power by being morphed into "ideas" or "worldviews," and persons are subsumed into groups... One of the public's most potent weapons in the war to defend itself against individuals taking their existence seriously is an endless stream of celebrity gossip, manufactured ideological conflict, and opinion presented as facts no one owns but everyone has.' - on The Present Age
'In Kierkegaard's view, "discourses" denotes open-ended discussion whereas a "sermon" suggests the speaker is speaking "with authority." The book's four parts ... reflect Søren's deepening mistrust of Christendom's self-satisfaction.' - on Christian Discourses
'Christianity has forgotten this ['Come to me' from Matthew 11:28] is a hard saying, because the citizens of Christendom have forgotten to live in the present with Jesus ever before them.' - on Practice in Christianity
'The reformation betrays itself when it simply allows one form of anaemic cultural Christianity to replace another. Instead, authentic Christianity is ever new, reforming itself with every generation and every individual.' - on For Self-Examination
'The present age thinks the more people rally together about something the truer it is or becomes.' - on The Book on Adler
What comes to life in this book is not just the person of Søren Kierkegaard but the ethos of nineteenth century Copenhagen and its churches as well—an ethos not far off from our own. Read against the vividly painted backdrop of his context, one cannot help but feel Kierkegaard's work coming into clearer focus and still having lots to say.

Friday, July 29, 2016

A Conversation Waiting to Happen

first written in 2008
The following excerpt comes from Oliver O'Donovan's A Conversation Waiting to Begin: The Churches and the Gay Controversy. It puts quite perfectly what has been my conviction about the similarly problematic gender roles debates in my home denomination, the Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada (about which you can read more here). There's a vision of the church offered here which is as vital as the content of the controversy itself:

"On the one hand, obeying one's conscience is, apparently by definition, something it is always right to do. On the other hand, a mistaken conscience is, again by definition, a conscience that instructs you to do the wrong thing. So doing what a mistaken conscience tells you is to do right and wrong at the same time. 

There is a lesson to be learned from the deft way Aquinas, confronting this paradox of 'perplexity,' thrusts it aside. 'One can withdraw from the error,' he tells us [ST II-1.19 ad3]. Commentators have expressed bewilderment at this, for it is, of course, not an answer to the question, but an evasion. It does not tell us what to do when our conscience is mistaken; it tells us not to have a mistaken conscience... 

[Aquinas] means that there is something that the framing of the question has left out of account; the alternative is wrongly posed. It beguiles us into imagining a helpless innocent pathetically trapped between the devil of dutiful wrongdoing and the deep blue sea of guild-ridden right-doing. Moral reality is simply not like that. The perplexed actor always has a further recourse: she or he can reconsider....

Just as Thomas cuts the Gordian knot with the proposal, 'one can withdraw from the error,' so we [as churches] may suggest, 'one can address the disagreement.' 

Communion should not be broken, but that does not mean disagreement should be ignored. There are ways of addressing serious disagreements that affirm and renew communion by proven willingness and determination to resolve them. And the very attempt to reach a resolution transforms our experience of the disagreement. Disagreements ... are openings for those who share a common faith to explore and resolve important tensions within the context of communion.

This kind of proposal is, of course, easy to mishear. It can be taken to mean that parties to disagreements must be less than wholly convinced of their position, ready to make room for possible accommodation. When really serious issues are at stake ... urging the search for resolution can seem like an invitation to capitulate, to concede essential points before beginning. It can seem as though Scripture is deemed to be inconclusive and ambiguous, so that either side is free to concede the possible right of the other's interpretation. It can seem as though what is needed is an indefinite irresolution about everything important, in which there is no need for, and no possibility of, a decisive closure.

But all of that is a trick of the light. None of this is implied in the search for an agreement. The only thing I concede in committing myself to such a process is that if I could discuss the matter through with an opponent sincerely committed to the church's authorities, Scripture chief among them, the Holy Spirit would open up perspectives that are not immediately apparent, and that patient and scrupulous pursuit of these could lead at least to giving the problem a different shape---a shape I presume will be compatible with some of the views my opponent now holds, even if I cannot yet see how.

I do not have to think I may be mistaken about the cardinal points of which I am convinced. The only thing I have to think---and this, surely, is not difficult on such a subject!---is that there are things still to be learned by one who is determined to be taught by Scripture how to read the age in which we live.

Every approach to resolving disagreements may turn out to fail. In the end God may have so hardened our hearts that we can see no way through our difficulties and simply find ourselves apart God may in his judgment scatter a church that lacked the common will to search for its unity in the truth of the gospel. And then there may come a point at which this situation has to be given some kind of institutional expression. Nothing can exclude a priori the worst possibility that certain persons or groups, or even whole churches, may be declared to have left the communion of Jesus Christ. 

But it must be a declaration, a formal statement of what has obviously come to pass. It cannot be an act to produce a result. The problem with the notion of separation is its expressive, self-purifying character. It will not wait for God to purify his own church in his own time."

- Oliver O'Donovan, A Conversation Waiting to Begin (London:
SCM Press, 2009), 31-33, emphasis and paragraph spacing mine.

Monday, May 09, 2016

The Tourist (according to Cavanaugh)

This term a few of us got together to read William T. Cavanaugh's magnificent 2008 book, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire -- which I highly recommend. In it there's this excerpt from chapter 3, 'The Global and the Local', which I can't get out of my mind:

'The tourist stands detached from all particular times and places and surveys them all from above, as it were. The tourist craves what is different and authentic, but when particular locations make themselves available to the tourist, authenticity and difference are lost. Particularities, especially from the past, are invented for the tourist, but the tourist cannot participate in them. The tourist can go anywhere, but is always nowhere.  

The tourist is a type of consumer, a consumer of places. Consumerism is marked by desire with no telos other than consumption itself. Particularities are interchangeable. Above all, the consumer consumes; rather than being drawn ecstatically into a larger drama, the consumer empties things into the self.  Both the tourist and the consumer try to transcend their own limits by adopting a universal stance detached from and consuming particularities. But when they do so, the self becomes a kind of empty shell, itself dependent on the constant novelty of the particular for its being, yet itself simultaneously destroying the particularity of the many, and thus negating its own being' (74-75).

This is interesting to me on many levels--think church, society, globalism, identity--but the hardest to put my finger on is the personal. Maybe I'm supposed to be learning not to be a tourist. Not easy.

Friday, April 01, 2016

A Review of Ian Paul's 'Evangelical Leadership' (a Grove Booklet)

It used to be that alongside books and articles one of the ways one would get one's ideas into print would be by publishing pamphlets. Today, with the pervasiveness of blogs on one hand and a pejorative association with tracts on the other, one might think the pamphlet tradition difficult to revive. But if there is any merit to the complaints that academic writing is too inaccessible and popular writing is too careless, we might still see some value in the publication of shorter, thoughtful treatments of important topics by accomplished theologians and practitioners.

In Britain, Grove Booklets seem like an attempt to offer just that. Describing themselves as 'fast moving explorations of Christian life and ministry,' they are arranged in ten series ranging from biblical studies to ethics to youth ministry. Two that I picked up in my search for shorter pre-reading assignments recently included A Spirituality of Peacemaking and Leadership Resilience in Conflict. But the one I am reviewing today is Ian Paul's forthcoming next addition to the series, entitled Evangelical Leadership: Challenges and Opportunities.

This 28-page booklet (available here for £3.95) is divided into five short chapters, each of which ends with 'Questions for Reflection' that are intentionally personal, communal, and programmatic. The first chapter, 'Being a Leader', is the one I find most curious, but the remaining chapters show the relevance of the booklet for the church (of Britain) of today.

In chapter 1, 'Being a Leader', Ian Paul makes the simple (but very important) observation 'that "leadership" is not a very biblical word' - at least not as it is so often used today (3). What we ought to recall is that, if anything, the biblical witness borrows many models of leadership in order to encourage and enable a unique group dynamic of 'mutuality' in which authority is 'refracted' rather than concentrated in one place (4-5). If we think we can avoid this concentration by simply rejecting authoritarian models of church we are deluded; if we think we can give no one the responsibilities and empowerments of leadership we are not helping ourselves either. So it is helpful in this chapter that Ian Paul clarifies the 'language of leadership' and points to a 'spirituality of leadership' which fits. I would personally like to have read more about this.

In chapter 2, 'Being Evangelical', we get the observation that evangelicals 'have been good at being a small, persecuted minority' or 'a dominant majority' but 'are not very good at is being a significant but not dominant voice' in the church (8). Today evangelicalism tends not to be separate and distinct but 'diverse' and 'diffuse' - which makes it difficult to pin down (9). Even David Bebbington's classic fourfold outline (conversionism, activism, biblicism, crucicentrism) describes an overall phenomenon, not a precise theological definition (11). But that might be a good thing, suggests Ian Paul. What is needed is a vital discussion, not a set of fixed pillars. In that vein, one of the best parts of this chapter is a chart (by Jon Kuhrt) which ranges the tendencies of 'liberal' and 'conservative' evangelicals and challenges them to get past 'tribal theology' to a more appreciative 'dialectical' approach to one another (10-11).

In chapter 3, 'Being Missional', we get treatment of today's most common Christian buzzword (which, like it or not, is better than 'incarnational'). Here Ian Paul does well to point out that just because this term is trending does not mean that mission was previously off the church's radar (15). What we have in evangelical history is not a back and forth between 'mission' and 'maintenance' (wherein the former is loving and the latter is selfish) but an ebb and flow between legitimate emphases and approaches to mission and ministry (20). Churches at once want to 'reach out' and be a place worth 'gathering into': Each has an integrity of its own and an importance to the other. Thus it is helpful that this chapter searches out the tensions between social justice and proclamation, ministry and mission, by considering three models which Ian Paul considers complementary rather than competitive (18-20).

In chapter 4, 'Being Biblical', Ian Paul takes what once might have been a safe assumption about evangelicals and poses 'three major challenges to our engagement with Scripture' which have arisen in recent decades (23). Here we see how 'progressives' highlight the importance of ongoing interpretation, 'institutional' Anglicans emphasize the relative stability of tradition and reason as 'lenses' for doing so, and 'anti-authoritarian hyper-democratics' evoke high participation in the faith that God still speaks today - each of them offering worthy correctives of the other (23-24). Ian Paul rightly argues that they should listen to and then complement one another going forward. This will help them steer clear of their own foibles and gain from their mutual continuities, thus centering the Bible properly in evangelical churches today.

In that spirit, in chapter 5, 'Being Engaged', the evangelical leader of today is encouraged not to see 'discontinuity' with other church-types as a reason to 'disconnect', but quite the opposite. If evangelicalism has anything going for it, then its leaders should seek 'fullest engagement with their churches, with theological thinking, and with wider society' (25).

This is an important call for the church in Britain (and elsewhere) today. Where it has the potential to fragment further we ought to see an opportunity to come together and carry on in the ever-reforming grace of God. For this reason I think this booklet is a commendable resource. In particular I think it would make an excellent small group study for a leadership team on retreat or in the course of its regular meetings.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Top 5 Films Seen and Fiction Read in 2015

Several of these don't actually belong to 2015 but this is when I saw them or read them so that's why they're here. Click links for trailers (but don't watch in full because trailers spoil it sometimes!).
  1. Two Days, One Night
  2. Calvary 
  3. The Overnighters
  4. Foxcatcher
  5. Birdman

  1. Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing
  2. Marilynne Robinson, Home
  3. Dave Eggers, Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever? (see my review here)
  4. Jonathan Franzen, Freedom
  5. Andy Weir, The Martian


Here I was reading from all over the centuries so it would be even more of a stretch to venture a top five for 2015. However, the best recent-vintage books I read were Scott Prather's Christ, Power and Mammon, Robert Song's Covenant and Calling, and Amos Yong's The Bible, Disability and the Church. The best old books I read were Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue and Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Ethics. And the most disappointing books I read this year were Scot McKnight's Fellowship of Differents and Tim Suttle's Shrink. The worst book was Heaven is for Real but it was actually better than I expected.