Reading Shakespeare makes me a better reader of scripture. There are places in Shakespeare’s plays, especially throughout The Winter’s Tale, and in key places in Hamlet, where the language breaks down and meaning is obscured. Editors have tried to emend the text, trying to make it make sense. But I think that Shakespeare was intentional in letting the language decay and break down. The same is true in Hebrew poetry. There are places where the language breaks down, and biblical scholars have tried to emend the text to make it make sense. I think this is a mistake. One of the powers of poetry is the power to break language for the sake of truth. Example: in the final line of Psalm 88, the Hebrew breaks down. As best as I can tell, the literal Hebrew is “My companions––darkness.” Scholars and translators try to “fix” the Hebrew by inserting verbs and prepositions: “My companions *are in* darkness.” But I think the original Hebrew is intentional. The psalmist is so consumed by grief that her language itself breaks down, bordering meaninglessness and the void. Language doesn’t have to work properly in order to work effectively. And this itself is something that Psalm 88 teaches us about a life of prayer: God doesn’t want our perfect polished prayers. God hears our broken, grammatically incorrect, incoherent prayers.
Nonetheless, as a pastor, if someone explicitly comes to me for counsel about their suffering, I do have to make choices about how best to counsel them, and those choices are heavily dependent on which kind of suffering they are experiencing. So, in a real way, wrestling with this typology has concrete and important consequences for offering spiritual wisdom to people who are suffering.
The ethics of I Peter in its household code is driven by a desire to remove offense within its cultural context, for the sake of witness. But today, I Peter’s ethical code would be considered offensive in a contemporary American context. What do we do with this? If Peter’s intention was to establish absolute ethical norms, then we are bound to follow him, even if it is noxiously countercultural. But if his intention was to remove offenses that would obscure the message of the gospel within a particular cultural context, then we might react to his list of ethical injunctions very differently. We might approach the same things (class, gender, suffering, and inequality) with an eye toward removing cultural offense. Peter writes: “Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds.” What would “honorable deeds” look like, not in patriarchal Rome, but in egalitarian America? Peter writes, “For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution.” If we are called to truly accept the authority of *every* human institution, then does that include not only the authoritarianism of an emperor, but also the egalitarianism of a consumer capitalist democracy? And how do we reconcile this stance of cultural accommodation with Peter’s other impulse to be spiritual migrants and refugees, staying different, called out, holy?
“Do you think my view lacks authority? It was Augustine who first opened the way for me to understand this commandment.” –– Calvin, Inst. II.VIII.50, 414.
It took me fifteen months, but I finally finished reading America’s God by Mark Noll. It’s not hyperbole when I say that it is without a doubt one of the most important books I have ever read, and should be required reading for anyone studying to be a pastor in America. The most important thing I learned from the book is this: The way that Americans read the Bible is not the way that any other Christians have read the Bible, ever. In fact, the way we read the Bible was invented less than 300 years ago. We like to say that “The Bible says what the Bible says,” but we should be more honest about the ways in which our American culture deeply influences the way we read the Bible. Americans like to think that they read the Bible without tradition getting in the way, but the uncomfortable truth is that our way of reading IS a tradition, the tradition of Francis Bacon, John Locke, and Thomas Reid. Wouldn’t it be better to be honest about our tradition and reform it? We needer a stronger understanding of the activity of God in the act of reading the Bible, the work of the Holy Spirit in an interpretive tradition, and the deep, forgotten links between sanctification and interpretation. In short, we need to return to a Trinitarian way of living inside scripture. Thanks, Mark Noll, for being an incredible historian and a gift to the church.
The Age of Anxiety is one of Auden’s greatest works, indeed probably one of the greatest poems of the Twentieth Century, but I do think the popular verdict is correct. It is a poem that is more fittingly respected than loved.
The poem is not sure what genre it is, which makes it both jungly diverse and plain cacophonous. I don’t know enough about poetic forms to catch all of the references, but it is at least simultaneously a medieval quest/dream poem, an oblique account of World War II, a landscape poem, a mystical treatise, and a philosophical and psychological thought experiment, with hints of a murder mystery. I think it is safe to say that the poem does not succeed in accomplishing all of its tasks, but it cannot be faulted for leaving such a monstrous to-do list incomplete.
Almost the entire poem (and it is long!) is written in Medieval alliterative verse, but in thoroughly modern English. The result is a dissonant clash of registers. It’s one of Auden’s signature blends, the twin obscurantism of arcane sites of Western civilization and dated slang. I felt like I was reading a bizarre chimera of Piers Plowman and Casablanca. I must confess that I love alliterative verse, but I recognize that the whole technical enterprise was a bit… nerdy.
Theologically, the poem is an attempt to follow Kierkegaard down into the depths of our sin, cultivating the ancient spiritual practice of admitting just how screwed up we really are. The poem is about 80% law and 20% gospel, but even that 20% of gospel is shown to be half-meant and play-acted. The result is a brutal assessment of Western culture’s sickness in the middle of the twentieth century. And the diseases Auden diagnoses – consumerism, technology worship, information overload, propaganda as advertising, pervasive loneliness – have only intensified. It’s not a happy poem.
But, perhaps undercutting the poem’s bleakness is the poetry itself, which contains many bright miniature worlds dreamily interwoven into the poem’s plot. (Although, to say that the poem even has a plot is a bit of an overstatement.)
After finishing The Age of Anxiety, I don’t think I will return to it as often or with as much relish as I will some of Auden’s other poems. Still, for anyone seriously interested in Auden or culture care, it is essential reading.
PS The introduction is by Alan Jacobs, and, as with pretty much everything else the man writes, it is amazing and worth reading on its own.
Karl Barth, The Faith of the Church: A Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed
This is a fantastic book. It is basically Barth’s running commentary on Calvin’s running commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, which is itself a sort of commentary on the New Testament. It’s not often that I read a book with this many rich layers of conversation embedded in it.
Calvin’s commentary on the Creed is already gold, even without Barth’s comments. It is a succinct and compelling distillation of Reformed theology. Even more importantly, it gives the reader a feel for the underlying motivations and drives of Reformed theology. You get a sense for what fires Calvin up, not just for how the system fits together. More and more I am convinced that Reformed theology at its core is more about heart motivations than head formulations, more a passionate engagement with the sovereignty and freedom of God than a set of abstract doctrines.
But *then*, you get Barth’s comments on Calvin. And here is a fascinating window into some of the central conflicts within the Reformed tradition. At several key points, Barth departs from Calvin, and in almost every instance, Barth’s modifications of Calvin’s theology seem to me to be welcome improvements. For example, Barth criticizes Calvin for not affirming the goodness of created matter and the body strongly enough, and he is also bothered that Calvin reads hell and eternal judgement back into the creed, when it is not strictly there. (Thank you, Barth.) Equally interesting are passages where Barth agrees with Calvin but subtly (or not so subtly) transposes Calvin’s thinking into a distinctly twentieth century key. The way that Barth translates Reformed doctrine to address modern questions compels me to ask how it could be retranslated to address 21st century questions.
AND, if you’ve never read Barth, this book is a great introduction to his theology. A ton of his major themes find their way into the book. If you are not interested in chewing through the Church Dogmatics, but you are curious about his theology, this is a great summary.
I’ll admit, there are a few points where Barth does his Barth thing and takes flight with soaring, beautiful, outrageous claims that have no grounding in scripture. But he understood that theology always has an aesthetic component, that truth has not only solidity but also intentional, dancing motion. (His passage on Christ as a bird in flight is one of the best paragraphs of theology I have read anywhere.)
I used this book as a conversation partner during a sermon series on the Apostles’ Creed, and it was wonderful. Even as a book charting the genealogical progression of one trajectory of Reformed theology, it is very informative. Highly recommended.