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Take and Read 2021

Four new books that are shaping theological conversations

May 6, 2021

Here’s the Take and Read Review I did recently for the Christian Century Magazine:

The week before Thanksgiving I celebrated a Service of Death and Resurrection for a retired fireman in my congregation. Vince was not the first parishioner to die of COVID-19, but his funeral was the first worship service that we had conducted in-person since we had shut the church doors for the second Sunday of Lent. I was walking out of Door #2 to head home when a car screeched to a stop in the visitor’s spot of the parking lot. The car needed a new muffler but not another partisan bumpersticker. The driver rolled the window down with her left hand— I didn’t recognize her— and yelled at me, “Do you go to this church?!” 

“Um, sort of, I guess.” 

“And do you know the minister at this church?” she asked with an edge to her voice. 

“Uh, well, um…Yes, I do know the pastor.” 

“Well, you tell that radical, leftist, SOB to take down that racist, sacrilegious trash before a good, god-fearing patriot takes matters into her own hands.” 

With her hand extended out the driver’s window, she was pointing at the Black Lives Matter display an artist and a few church members had erected in the yard over the summer. The exhibit is a series of multicolored doors anchored on giant easels and adorned with corroborating  verses of scripture. “Black Live Don’t Just Matter,” the doors say, “They’re Sacred.”

Watching her turn out of the parking lot, I considered how our exchange, coming as it did on the heels of our first in-person worship gathering, encapsulated so much of what the year had exposed: the fragility of life and the denial of death, the depth of cultural antagonisms and the entrenchment of its tribes, the persistence of America’s original sin and the conundrum of how the church is to be Christ’s Body in the midst of it all when bodies themselves are to be kept at a safe remove. Without corporate worship, program-based ministries housed in brick-and-mortar buildings, or the edible promise of the eucharist passed from one sinner’s hands to another’s, 2020 forced upon the church an even broader and perhaps disconcerting question, “What is Christianity all about?” 

What Christianity is at its root and how we are to live as if our lives depend upon it are the questions Frederick Bauerschmidt dares to answer in his beautiful primer, The Love that is God: An Invitation to Christian Faith. The spare, poetic prose of Bauerschmidt’s meditations on the essentials of the Christian faith not only buttresses the alluring intent of his subtitle, it reinforces his thesis that the radical claim of the Christian Gospel is, at bottom, a simple aesthetic assertion: God is love, crucified love. Christianity, at its heart, is not about doctrinal beliefs or moral positions, Bauerschmidt argues, nor is Christianity about liturgical practices or discipleship programs. This is good news given that beliefs and ethics bitterly divide Christ’s body while the pandemic has shelved many of the Church’s core practices and most essential programs. “But what Christianity is about must be something more,” Bauerschmidt writes, “than a collection of beliefs and behaviors; it must a mystery that sinks its roots into the heart of life itself. This mystery, however, is mysterious not because it is complicated, but because it is so simple.”

Demonstrating that theology is best done in service to the proclamation of the Word, The Love that is God is an expansion of a homily Bauerschmidt preached during Eastertide for his Baltimore parish. On her way out of mass, a listener that day commented to the preacher how she wished her daughter, who now no longer had much time for or interest in the faith, had heard his homily. Rather than email this mother a copy of his sermon, he’s given something even more helpful. The Love that is God is a brief series of extended reflections upon the five claims of his original homily: God is love; the love that is God is crucified love; we are called to friendship with the Risen Jesus; we cannot love God if we do not love each other; and we live out our love from the community created by the Spirit. Mining voices as diverse as Augustine and Pope Benedict, Martin Luther King Jr and Friedrich Nietzsche, Julian of Norwich and Ignacio Ellacuria, Bauerschmidt anticipates the questions and doubts of readers like his listener’s daughter and, with a gentleness that is itself an apologetic, makes a case for the faith to those convinced Christianity has nothing to say to those who desire “a more just and equitable world, who seek to live lives of compassion and kindness, who want more from life than simply employment punctuated by entertainment.” 

The final phrase in the previous sentence is but an example of the subtle elegance with which Bauerschmidt commends the faith— an elegance that serves the same purpose as the turns of phrase in Luther’s Small Catechism, memorization. For example, in unpacking the mystery of the Triune God and the gratuity of creation ex nihilo, Bauerschmidt writes, “If what it means for us to love someone or something is to say, “I am glad you exist,”” then what it means for God to love us is for God to say, “Because I am glad, you exist.” The Love that is God offers an obvious simplicity that makes it accessible to lay people— I’ve already used it as a teaching tool— but a deceptive depth saturates Bauerschmidt’s prose such that it should be the envy of every ordained preacher or credentialed theologian. In other words, The Love that is God is uniquely valuable not only for what it says but for the manner in which it says what it says. Bauerschmidt has given the Church a sort of theological version of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, for The Love that is God is a book that, by its example, can teach preachers and theologians how to write for the cause of the Gospel. 

Even more crucial, at a time when partisan distinctions and tribal identities appear to have calcified, Bauerschmidt has written a persuasive and beautiful account of the Christian faith that resists classification into the culture’s categories. The Love that is God is neither progressive nor conservative. Though he is a Catholic deacon, his book eludes characterization as Catholic or Protestant. Thus, in putting forth the “essence” of the Christian faith, Bauerschmidt also provides an example for how to communicate that faith, broadly and generously, in a context that, increasingly so, is as divided as it is secular. 

One essential feature of Christianity, Bauerschmidt claims, is that we are called to friendship with the Risen Jesus. Note the passive voice. This is a relationship we do not merit or initiate. “You did not choose me,” Jesus tells his disciples, “But I chose you.” Being a Christian is the result of an event, an encounter with a person, which makes it odd that theology should so often say so little about the practical, emotional impact of Christian beliefs on human lives. If Christianity is about an actual relationship with a real and living person, then it is insufficient for theology to provide elegant descriptions of God or theological doctrines like salvation and sanctification but ignore how these ideas might feel in relation to the everyday realities of life. There is a difference, of course, between intellectual assent to a theological doctrine and a theological doctrine making an emotional impact upon a believer. In The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience, Simeon Zahl confronts a question of foundational significance: “how is it  that meaningful and effectual connections come to obtain between theological doctrines and the practical experiences of Christians?” Or, as clergy often colloquially put it, “That’ll preach!” 

Gleaning insights from Augustine and Luther to queer studies and affect theory, Simeon Zahl mounts a dynamic, cross-disciplinary exploration of why some doctrines “preach” to the hearts of believers. The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience imparts a helpful corrective to the suspicious posture with which modern theology, owing to Karl Barth, regards the subjective experience of the believer. It’s uncontested that theological doctrines “do not develop in a vacuum or fall fully formed from the sky” but are the products of particular cultural contexts and specific historical periods; however, it’s often unexamined how theological doctrines are similarly inextricable from “our feelings, our moods, our predispositions, and the personal histories we carry with us.” Our life experiences not only shapes our beliefs; our beliefs are the products of our experience of God. To observe that theology is historically and culturally determined, Zahl notes, is to identify theological beliefs as expressions of “concrete experiences of God’s Spirit in history.” Talk of experience is an inescapable outcome of a Living and Loquacious God. In The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience, Simeon Zahl unfurls a kind affective hermeneutic that not only provides an intelligible and necessary place for feeling in Christian theology but makes a convincing case for why Christianity itself is emotionally intelligent. “To speak of experience,” Zahl contends, “is to speak of the Holy Spirit.” Thus, the experiential provides Zahl a motif by which to examine the work of the Holy Spirit in salvation and sanctification. In particular, Zahl pushes back against the contemporary academic tide that has dismissed sixteenth century Protestant theology, especially the doctrine of justification by faith alone, by showing how social science corroborates Luther’s understanding of the experience of grace— and specifically Luther’s understanding of how the two words of law and gospel are applied to a sinner. 

There’s a reason why the message of justification still “preaches” and it is backed up, Zahl shows, by insights from critical theory. Rather than outdated relics from a guilt-ridden, God-haunted past, the doctrines of the Reformation provide an “affective pedagogy” in which the Holy Spirit works in the felt experiences of hearers through the instruments of the law and the gospel. After over a year in which much of the Church’s ministry has been shelved and many of its members made anxious, angry, and frightened, The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience delivers the glad news that what the Church can still do in any circumstance— proclaim God’s grace for sinners— is actually good medicine for troubled souls. Perhaps even better news after a year of pandemic, The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience shows how our emotions are not ancillary to our theology. They are the terrain on which the Holy Spirit acts. 

That our experiences, especially our experiences of the Holy Spirit, shape our beliefs makes it doubly important that we attend to the experiences of others, taking care not to make our own religious affections normative. This is but another essential attribute of Christianity, for we cannot befriend the Risen Jesus without loving his friends. These notions of friendship and feelings resist sentimentality. As Frederick Bauerschmidt writes, “I sometimes tell students that the most important moral decisions they have made and will make are those regarding who their friends will be.” Friendship is at the heart of morality not the least because friendships require forgiveness, and forgiveness, Bauerschmidt observes, is “the most attractive and most repellent aspect of Christianity.” In fact, Bauerschmidt judges, belief in the forgiveness of those who’ve harmed us may be “the best possible reason to reject the Christian faith.” Keri Day, in Notes of a Native Daughter: Testifying in Theological Education, demonstrates the morally serious nature of Christian friendship and the hard work of forgiveness— and repentance— it yet requires. “I call theological education to repentance,” she writes frankly, “by being truthful about the racist character of the theological enterprise even in the midst of its growing racially diverse landscape.”

Day’s Afro-Pentecostal faith shapes the form of her book. She has written in the mode of testimony, and Notes of a Native Daughter evinces all the characteristics she says mark Afro-Pentecostal practice of testifying in that it’s “visceral and verbal, emotional and demonstrative.” The purpose of testimony, she notes, is to bear witness to an adversity overcome by the power of the Spirit. In this case, Notes of a Native Daughter is is a searing theological critique of theological education itself in the hopes of uncovering and exorcising the colonial impulses embedded within it: “Theological schools must wrestle continually with the emotional carnage left in the wake of institutional racial disenfranchisement.” 

The practice of testimony, Day shows, also “forged a truly democratic community” in the congregations in which she had worshipped. In other words, testimonial offers an imaginative alternative to a theological education, fettered by colonialism and its enabling myths, that has been sacrosanct in seminaries and divinity schools for generations. The practice of testimony exemplifies not only how theological education can move marginalized students from the periphery to the center of it curricular concerns but also listen to them as reliable witnesses to the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. Notes of a Native Daughter echoes the Holy Spirit and Christian Experience on this point of critique of modern theology. Theology that has no room for subjective experience and emotion is also theology that has had no room for the full breadth of Christ’s body. The result is that theological education is bereft of room for emotions and comprised by “structural inequalities and broken promises of inclusion.”

What Zahl and Bauerschmidt characterize in terms of feelings and friendships Day puts in the form of testimony. Testimony is not sentimental. Testimony “involves telling truths about hard matters.” The truths she tells are themselves difficult. She testifies to the struggle to “pass” in the academy whilst not being free to be fully a charismatic woman of color, what WEB DuBois called the “double consciousness” of black folk. She testifies to the long history of racism in which institutions,  like my own alma mater, Princeton Theological Seminary, where Day is a professor, have participated. She testifies to the way local churches do not embody the aspirations they put on their marques. And Day respects her mission and honors her readers enough not to pull her punches. For example:

“Many liberal Christian communities may offer formal nods to those who occupy the fringes of society, but they refuse to gather them in. These liberal communities refuse to enter into authentic community with the poor or with people of color. Black same-gender-loving persons have described the insidious, covert racism they experience within white gay Christian communities. And while the poor are mentioned in the liturgy and theological proclamations of white and black liberal communities, the poor are rarely invited into such communities to speak and to participate fully in the common life of the congregation. How can liberal communities truly be in the vanguard against poverty if they have a hard time sitting next to homeless people on Sunday morning?”

In Notes of a Native Daughter, Day aims at “a theology of the edge” that not only acknowledges the humanity of marginalized people but also gathers them in order “to participate in authentic community,” the kind of community Frederick Bauerschmidt insists the love that is God requires of us. 

While Day’s critique of my own mainline liberal tribe left me nursing bruises for its honest accuracy and while hers is a quite personal reflection about a very specific discipline, the way her call for repentance serves a broader redemptive hope serves as an exemplification of how the larger church and individual congregations might engage current dialogues on systemic racism and collective sin. For example, Day’s account of how Archibald Alexander, the first professor of Princeton Seminary, understood— explicitly so— Christianity as a vehicle for the spread of Western, white, masculine culture around the globe provides a small canvas on which to reflect on the larger cultural debate about whose narrative is signified by the term “American history.”  

“I testify to the complexities and contradictions of the past and present,” Day writes, in order to “testify to what futures might be on the horizon.” In Notes of a Native Daughter she gives a distinctly theological but abashedly hopeful way for readers to confront questions and issues that the past year has only thrown into sharper relief. 

The church is a necessary element of the essence of Christianity. “We live out our love from the community created by the Spirit,” Frederick Bauerschmidt writes in The Love that is God, which perhaps makes it problematic that theology is so often a solitary endeavor. In Conversation: Samuel Wells and Stanley Hauerwas inadvertently reveals the extent to which theology is monological as much as it is monochromatic. If the love that is God is Trinity, the work of theology should more frequently resemble these ten conversations between two practitioners as they discuss, disagree, respond to, and build upon the contributions of each other. More important than the topics of their conversations, however, is the tone of them. “If you believe that Christ through the forgiveness of sins has healed the past,” Sam Wells says to Stanely Hauerwas, “and through the gift of eternal life has turned the future from a threat to a gift, then you can for the first and only time live in the present.” This freedom to be present in the present imbues In Conversation with winsomeness, a gracious mirth where they feel free to dissent and clarify without fear of judgment or anxiety that it’s up to them to get it all right. At a time when basic civility feels like a mirage, In Conversation feels like Stanely Hauerwas and Sam Wells staging a sort of intervention to compel us to do Christianity in a healthier way. While their mutual friendship no doubt makes the patient, playful mode of their conversations possible, Frederick Bauerschmidt would remind us that all of us who love the Risen Jesus already have been made friends with one another. In Conversation shows how we should speak one another in light of who God in Christ has made us.

The woman with the busted muffler sped away before I had the chance to bear any sort of witness to her. Christian community is no easy endeavor because the love that is God remains a love the world would rather crucify. While I’m not one to attribute the trials of the year past to the hand of God, I have received these four books as providential gifts given to God’s people to help us abide amidst this world in the love that is God. 

 

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