N.T. Wright on ‘The Whole Sweep of Scripture’

“Until we wrestle with Scripture like that we are not really honoring it. If this is the book God meant us to have by the Spirit, then it is important we actually take that seriously instead of just snipping it down to make it digestible; like somebody with a huge banquet in front of them who insists on going to the back room and just making a peanut butter sandwich instead.” N.T. Wright

Below is a really great video from ‘The Work of the People’ with N.T. Wright on how to read the Bible. In it he touches on a problem that I take to be rather rampant in North American Christianity – that of picking and choosing verses here and there to the neglect of the whole story.

The holes in North American hermeneutics are revealed in the pursuit of agendas (whether consciously or unconsciously) of making the Bible merely into a source of raw data and proof texts for personal systematic theologies and apologetics (like the HCSB Apologetics Study Bible), a ‘life application’ instruction book (a la the Life Application Study Bible), or a self-help manual (have you seen the Joel Osteen Hope for Today or Joyce Meyer Everyday Life Bibles?). [Yes, I realize I probably just picked on some people’s favorite ‘study helps’ in this paragraph.]

Americans love control and I personally believe these (again, whether consciously or unconsciously) are ways that Scripture is held a bay and at a safe distance … one verse at a time.

Instead Wright encourages us to get swept up in the ‘whole sweep of Scripture’ and compares reading the Bible to listening to a symphony. One of the points of course is that one doesn’t merely listen to a symphony ‘one note at a time’ – one necessarily listens to and experiences the whole thing. To do otherwise simply doesn’t make sense and is to miss the point of the symphony itself. And it also occurs to me that the thought of a ‘note of the day’ devotional is rather odd; its inconceivable that one would think they can get swept up in the symphony in this way. Yet ‘verse of the day’ devotionals seem to be the steady diet of a great many North American Christians.  Are we settling for peanut butter sandwiches when there is a banquet available?

I say let’s put away the daily verse approach and really ‘press our noses against the window’ of Scripture.

The Whole Sweep Of Scripture from The Work Of The People on Vimeo.

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John Milbank – Radical Orthodoxy

I remember when I first read Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason by John Milbank. It was a thick read (still is) and it blew my mind (still does) but one that was part of my own maturing as a theologian (and still is). There are three themes that I initially came away with from reading Milbank that have endured for me:

1) a participatory and incarnational sacramentalism that is part of creation itself,

2) a trinitarian ontology, and

3) the importance of liturgy and our existence as ‘liturgical’ creatures before we are even linguistic/language creatures.

Milbanks ideas have become a movement known as Radical Orthodoxy. Below is a video where you can be introduced to Milbanks ideas, including the three I listed above, in about 15 minutes (either enjoy now if this is your thing or save it for later if you find it boring and need help sleeping :-)).

PS: Also be sure to take a look at one of my favorite engagements with Radical Orthodoxy – Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-Secular Theology by James K.A. Smith. Very good!

Lament, Liturgy, and Living ‘In Between’ (pt 2): What Have We Missed?

Yesterday, I posted some preliminary reflections on the need for lament in the wake of manifestations of evil and suffering like the Aurora shooting. In the wake of this tragedy I suggest that instead of offering words of comfort (however well meaning) up front, instead of offering clichés meant to defend God’s honor or keep other’s faith from failing (ie, ‘God has a greater plan in mind’), and instead of delving into intractable political debate at this time that we…

Stop!

Just stop…

And grieve…

And cry out to Father, Son, and Spirit…

And lament.

To lament is not to offer words of comfort, or to try to solve the problem right now, or even to attempt to come to God’s defense (which raises the question that if God is really as providential and sovereign as people claim, why then is there such a felt need to ‘defend’ God? I really suspect modern apologetics has failed us here). Politicizing the tragedy for political gain is not lament. Delving into a conversation about gun control right now, which in our gun worshiping culture obsessed with violence I think needs to happen at some point, is not lament either.

I want to additionally suggest that many of these things that are not lament still need to be done, but they cannot be done well until we take the time to share the pain of the ‘other’ (incarnation), cry out to God for a creation that is not as it should be, and lament. A couple of people at work today asked me about my weekend. I talked to them about the need for lament. One just looked at me funny … the other was offended and put off. ‘The Lord calls us to rejoice not lament’ they told me … ‘Its not right to question God!’ I wondered if they had ever read the Psalms, or Lamentations, or Romans 12:15.

The language of the cruciform people of our liberating King Jesus, in an ‘in between’ world where the already inaugurated kingdom is still also ‘not yet’, is not politics, programs, or platitudes but first and foremost lament.

So, this leads me to the main question at hand in this post: what have we missed that lament is not our first language … that it seems so many do everything they can to avoid lament?

I offer three suggestions (with help from Stanley Hauerwas)…

First, we have missed the inadequacy of our theodicies both formal and informal.

Hauerwas says in God, Medicine, and Suffering (note: I read this book during my year residency as a CPE/chaplain resident and it impacted me greatly, but I don’t own it myself. Therefore, I am having to pull these quotes from the Theology Forum blog)…

Only after the seventeenth century did the problem of evil become the central challenge to “the coherence and intelligibility of Christian believe per se” . . . That Christians now think the problem of suffering renders their faith in God unintelligible indicates that they now are determined by ways of life that are at odds with their fundamental convictions.

For the early Christians, suffering and evil . . . did not have to be “explained.” Rather, what was required was the means to go on even if the evil could not be “explained”—that is, it was important not to provide a theoretical account of why such evil needed to be in order that certain good results occur, since such an explanation would undercut the necessity of the community capable of absorbing suffering. […]

Apparently it never occurred to the early Christians to question their belief in God or even God’s goodness because they were unjustly suffering for their beliefs. Rather, their faith gave them direction in the face of persecution and general misfortune [quotes Rom 5:1-5]. Suffering was not a metaphysical problem needing a solution but a practical challenge requiring a response. […] (48-52, emphasis mine)

Hauerwas here is pointing out the basic inadequacy of theoretical accounts of evil and suffering and justifications of God in the face of such. In general terms a theodicy is simply an account for why evil and suffering exists. In more academic terms theodicies are attempts at the justification of God in the face of evil and suffering (ie, “If God is love, then why…?).

The study of theodicy can be very fruitful … in perspective.

There are numerous academic theodicies one can formulate as well as numerous ‘folk’ theodicies that come out in response to evil and suffering. ‘God has a better plan in mind’ is an example of a ‘folk’ theodicy. We must remember that theoretical accounts of evil and suffering and theodicies are revealed to be inadequate in the face of the real experience of human suffering and anguish. I have learned both through personal experience (which I will share more of in a subsequent post) and as a hospital chaplain, that no matter how correct we presume our ‘explanations’, defenses, or accounts – in the face of evil and suffering all our theodicies are stripped and laid bare. When revealed to be inadequate and laid bare we are simply left with lament.

Second, we have missed how Christianity actually ‘works’.

Hauerwas comes to our aid again (HT Matt Tebe),

[There] is a deep misunderstanding about how Christianity works. Of course we believe that God is God and we are not and that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit but that this is not a set of propositionsbut is rather embedded in a community of practices that make those beliefs themselves work and give us a community by which we are shaped. Religious belief is not just some kind of primitive metaphysics, but in fact it is a performance just like you’d perform Lear. What people think Christianity is, is that it’s like the text of Lear, rather than the actual production of Lear. It has to be performed for you to understand what Lear is — a drama. You can read it, but unfortunately Christians so often want to make Christianity a text rather than a performance. (emphasis mine)

In the wake of, and under the influence of modernist impulses, much of Western Christianity is proposition or in the words of Hauerwas, ‘text’ oriented. As such, it often seems that what really counts is just saying ‘true’ and ‘correct’ things about God. With the prominence of such propositional thinking, Christian responses to evil, suffering, and tragedies simply reduce to reading from the script with no variation from the ‘text’ … in fact, many people seem to think it is enough to simply quote Bible verses out of context about the ‘joy of the Lord’ and such – as if a Bible verse a day will keep the grief away.

The Christian faith is not simply a repeating of the ‘text’ of the Bible. It is rather like a performance of the story of the Bible – a performance of the drama of our liberating King. Of course this will include propositions, but propositions are not the main thing here. They are instead ‘storied’ and embedded within the faithful performance of the Jesus story and biblical narrative. Propositions without fitting improvisation and faithful performance by a community of practices simply leave us with moral theory and abstraction unable to withstand the weight of the experience of human suffering, grief, and despair. Instead of treating the Christian faith like a ‘text’ we ought to commit ourselves to fitting improvisation and faithful performance – even in the face of evil and suffering. We must recover the cruciform practice of lament.

Third, because of the above we have missed our proper ecclesial response to suffering.

Hauerwas continues from God, Medicine, and Suffering

Historically speaking, Christians have not had a “solution” to the problem of evil. Rather, they have had a community of care that has made it possible for them to absorb the destructive terror of evil that constantly threatens to destroy all human relations (53, emphasis mine)

Hauerwas contends that what is needed is not a ‘solution’ to evil or a theoretical account of suffering but the proper response. And Hauerwas contends that this proper response is in essence an ecclesial response – a response of a community of care (ie, the church) able to absorb suffering and the ‘destructive terror of evil’.

The upshot here I think is at least two fold…

1) That lament itself is the most fitting response, improvisation, and performance of the drama of the Jesus story in the wake of human suffering (ie, it is intensely incarnational).

2) That this response, improvisation, and performance of lament, while personal, must also be communal (ie, that is intensely ecclesial).

Lament is something that we do even when we are alone, but not something we can simply do on our own. I propose that we must recover lament as a cruciform, sacramental practice both as a daily discipline and as a weekly corporate performance. We must learn to lament weekly as incarnational communities of our liberating King Jesus.

Lament is not optional for those of us who claim to be incarnational, missional Christians and participants in the cruciform story of Jesus. We cut ourselves off from the mission of the triune God and the cruciform story of Jesus when, both personally and communally/ecclesially, when we fail to lament as the people of the liberating King. Let me restate: the language of the cruciform people of our liberating King Jesus, in an ‘in between’ world where the already inaugurated kingdom is still also ‘not yet’, is not politics, programs, or platitudes but first and foremost lament. May we seek to take up the practice and performance of lament as a cruciform people of the kingdom in the coming days.

A prayer of lament:

O God, you are our help and strength,
our refuge in the time of trouble.
In you our ancestors trusted;
They trusted and you delivered them.
When we do not know how to pray as we ought,
your very Spirit intercedes for us
with sighs too deep for words.
We plead for the intercession now, Gracious One.

For desolation and destruction are in our streets,
and terror dances before us.
Our hearts faint; our knees tremble;
our bodies quake; all faces grow pale.
Our eyes are spent from weeping
and our stomachs churn.

How long, O Lord, how long
must we endure this devastation?
How long will destruction lay waste at noonday?
Why does violence flourish
while peace is taken prisoner?
Rouse yourself! Do not cast us off in times of trouble.
Come to our help;
redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.

For you are a gracious God
abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.

By the power of the cross,
through which you redeemed the world,
bring to an end hostility
and establish justice in the gate.
For you will gather together your people into that place
where mourning and crying and pain
will be no more,
and tears will be wiped from every eye.
Hasten the day, O God for our salvation.
Accomplish it quickly! Amen.