Shakespeare, Psalm 88, and the Erosion of Meaning

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.


Three Kinds of Suffering

The ideas in this essay are very much works-in-progress. I welcome your thoughts and corrections as I wrestle with suffering. Because it is a work in progress, the essay will change over time to reflect the input of others and my own conversions.

There are three kinds of suffering: suffering for bad choices, redemptive suffering, and suffering that is beyond our understanding.

The first kind of suffering happens when we make bad choices. If you stick your hand in the fire, you get burned. If you steal a car, you go to jail. In the Bible, this kind of suffering shows up in places like Deuteronomy and Proverbs. It is rigid, orderly, tit-for-tat. Of the three kinds of suffering, this kind makes the most sense to us.

The second kind of suffering is redemptive suffering, or suffering for a higher purpose. People sacrifice themselves for higher purposes all the time. They might suffer so that their families can have a better life, or they might die for a country in military service.

For Christians, the ultimate example of redemptive suffering is displayed on the cross. Jesus Christ willingly suffers so that we might be saved. Christ’s suffering is the reason why I Peter can call his readers to suffer for their faith. This kind of suffering is part of a bigger story. Peter (and also Paul) call us to suffer for Christ, because of “an eternal weight of glory” that is coming. Because in the end all shall be well, we can endure a little suffering now. This suffering still kind of makes sense, because this kind of suffering now is leading to glory later. It is not pointless.

But there is a third kind of suffering, the suffering that defies reason and explanation. It’s possible to suffer for doing something stupid, it’s possible to suffer for following Jesus, but it’s also possible to suffer for no reason at all. There is some suffering that will never make sense in this life. This is the suffering of Job, and some of the lament Psalms. As Job finds out at the end of the book of Job, the reason for this kind of suffering is a mystery. It lies beyond us, in the dark, majestic, beautiful and terrifying holiness of God. As Job’s friends discovered, if we try to explain this kind of suffering, we make things much, much worse.

Did you notice that all three kinds of suffering are in scripture? That’s because all three kinds of suffering are valid human experiences before God. If you are suffering, God may be calling you to discern, in conversation with pastors, friends, and family, what kind of suffering you are experiencing. But there is always a chance that the reason for your suffering will elude you. If you are a pastor, or in a position of spiritual authority, it is worth remembering that there is more than one kind of suffering. This should increase our compassion, and cause us to pause and listen before we diagnose other people’s problems.

Also, people are complicated. It’s possible that someone is experiencing more than one kind of suffering at the same time. We should never be too quick to tell someone why they are suffering. As sufferers and spiritual caregivers, a posture of humility, patience, and discretion goes a long way toward Christian love.

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.

I think that these three kinds of suffering form a helpful typology for helping people to walk through their suffering with God. But, like any typology, it is reductionistic and overly simplifies the complexity of people.

There is a deep paradox to the cross that cannot be simply explained by human models of redemptive suffering. The suffering of Jesus on the cross is not exactly like someone jumping on a grenade for someone else. It doesn’t have the same simple formula of “I suffer so that you don’t.” If God truly took his own wrath upon himself on the cross, and if God invites us to take up our own crosses and enter into suffering with Christ, then the redemptive suffering of the Christian life is much more mysterious than simply suffering for a higher cause. It is nothing less than an entryway into the dark, majestic, beautiful and terrifying holiness of God. So the typology breaks down at the foot of the cross. As the earliest readers of the Bible knew, the suffering of Job and the suffering of Jesus are mysteriously, figurally linked. There is a kind of suffering that is beyond our understanding, but it is not beyond God.

And this is why the Psalms of lament are the place for us to go in our suffering. The Psalms remind us that all of our suffering –– whether from stupidity or the cross or for no reason at all –– happens in the presence of a Holy God. Suffering is beyond us, but it is not beyond God. Suffering finds its end in the heart of the Trinity, as the Lamb stands slaughtered before the throne.

By the Holy Spirit we are joined to Christ and enter into the life of God. In this age, our life includes suffering. Even though that suffering sometimes makes no sense, we still follow Christ into the mystery of the holiness of God.

What Do We Do With I Peter’s Ethics?

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?

Dante. The Trinity should not be boring.

It’s true. Paradiso is not as interesting as the rest of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Compared to Inferno (and even Purgatorio), Paradiso is a slow, dreary slog. Like Milton’s Satan, Dante’s Inferno is yet another embarrassing example of the curious literary axiom that the wicked make better stories than the pious. For some reason, damnation will always be a hot seller. And yet, I couldn’t help but notice the sizable entrance of the Trinity into Paradiso. While it is almost nonexistent in Inferno and Purgatorio, the Trinity is a key “character” in Paradiso. I wonder how differently the three parts of the Divine Comedy would be if the Trinity was allowed a little more economic wiggle room across the three-tiered universe? The vision of the Trinity in Paradiso is so geometric. It is a celestial mobile with everything in its right place, a little too much like the forced symmetry of the Athanasian Creed for my taste. (I know, the creeds aren’t really cooked to taste. I will gulp down the Athanasian Creed, even though it burns a little. But it does seem like Dante poured too many Euclidian axioms into his pot.) I wonder if Paradiso would have a better reputation if we saw something in heaven of the mystery of the cross and the unpredictability of the Spirit?

Speaking of the Spirit, throughout the Divine Comedy the Holy Spirit is almost non-existent. The Spirit’s work is supplanted, replaced largely by the benevolent influence of the stars, the angels, and the saints. And the Holy Spirit is not the only person who is obscured. Throughout the entire work, Jesus Christ’s humanity is downplayed to the point of near invisibility. The Son fills out the Trinity, but the incarnation of that Son occupies a woefully small place in Dante’s cosmology. As a result (and following much late Medieval theology), Mary comes to completely occupy the place of human mediator. When Christ is rarified to a cosmic principle, someone else has to step in to fill the mediating void. Or, as Athanasius put it: “What has not been assumed has not been redeemed.” If Jesus didn’t really become human, he didn’t really save humanity.

This elimination of Christ’s human nature shows up in Dante’s religious epistemology, too. If the Word was not fully incarnated, then there is a curious gap between our natural and our supernatural knowledge. For Dante, Virgil comes before Beatrice; reason comes before revelation. Then, at the end of the poem, Bernard comes after Beatrice, so that contemplation comes last after revelation. There is a fairly strict order to knowledge: first reason, then revelation, then contemplation. To borrow Hans Boersma’s striking image, in the late scholastic period, the beautiful tapestry of heaven and earth, revelation and reason began to come apart at the seams. The universe was already rivening into Kant’s chasmic bifurcation. Reason happens first, then revelation, and never the two shall meet.

Here, Augustine and Anselm are a good corrective, with their definition of “faith seeking understanding.” Reason doesn’t precede revelation. Revelation precedes reason, and indeed continually sanctifies it. On this, contemporary theologian Sarah Coakley is especially helpful. For Coakley, contemplation is not the end of theology. It punctuates our theological work as the beginning, the middle, and the end. As such, it is an essential practice of theology. Contemplative prayer continually sanctifies our reasoning about the revelation that we have received. I wonder if Coakley’s non-hierarchical model of knowledge is a more integrated and faithful way of receiving the grace of God daily in our acts of knowing.

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At the very end of the Divine Comedy, at the highest heights of heaven, St. Bernard prays to the Virgin Mary that she would “keep [Dante’s] affections pure after so great a vision.” Dante does have room for life after contemplation, but that life is one of precarious purity, not one of emboldened action. Compare St. Bernard’s prayer for pristine preservation with the actions of Jesus coming down from the mountain of the Transfiguration. Where Dante tries to keep his elevated contemplative superiority over against his Florentine rivals, Jesus re-enters the active life with vigor, by healing, casting out demons, and hanging out with dirty sinners. And he does all this in the power of the Spirit, a power which, as I mentioned earlier, is ominously lacking in Dante’s work.

Yes, it is also true that the vision of the Trinity at the end of the poem is intensely moving and aesthetically powerful. And it is true that at the end of the poem, all of the saints are gathered around the throne, forming a recap of the history of salvation. But it’s not enough. Where is the economic Trinity? Where is the action of God, known as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the world of embodiment and history?

I am reminded of Wendell Berry’s sly mashup of the Divine Comedy in Jayber Crow. Berry, ever the modern, refuses to grant Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory their borders, preferring instead to blend them up inside one man’s soul. What if, cautiously following Berry, we let the Trinitarian cat out of the celestial bag and let it play in the theater of the world a little more, even into the depths of our condition? As Sarah Coakley would put it, the Holy Spirit dismantles our vision of God and puts it back together, in a daily process of being joined to Christ and so growing closer and closer to God. This practice of contemplation does not simply withdraw us into interiority. It also thrusts us out anew into passionate engagement with the world. This is the way the Trinity truly crafts our lives, not in a geometric model of the universe, not just within the caverns of our souls, but within the drama of the Triune God.

‘soul-map’ readings of scripture

For years, I’ve wished for a better word than ‘psychological’ to describe a certain way of reading scripture. You know the reading I’m talking about. It’s not dogmatic, historical, social, or grammatical. (Yes, those are all great ways to read the Bible.) I’m talking about the way of reading where the text is mapped onto the contours of the soul. In this way of reading the text, the Bible tells us something about our deepest selves, so that we come to know ourselves better.
I don’t like the word ‘psychological,’ because it is so strongly linked to James, Freud, Jung, Pavlov, Erikson, Skinner, Rogers, etc. All of those thinkers were important, and we need to grapple with their systems. But when I think of a ‘psychological’ reading of scripture, I’d like to include views that predate Freud, listening to premodern monastic and contemplative voices. When I do a ‘psychological’ reading of a scripture text, I’m more interested in how Teresa of Avila or Evagrius Ponticus or Bernard of Clairvaux would read the passage than how Freud or Jung would read it.
Soul-mapping has been going on for a long time, long before it turned into a modern ‘science.’ I think that reading a scripture passage as a window into the soul is a rich and faithful way to read the Bible, especially when it is paired with Trinitarian theological readings.
So what’s a better word to use to describe this way of reading scripture? We could call it a ‘contemplative’ reading, but even that is not specific enough. A contemplative reading of a Bible passage could be a contemplation of our inner selves, but it could also be a contemplation of the divine life. In some way, these two tasks do interweave, but I’d like to be even more specific.
What if we called it the ‘interior’ reading? That’s still too fuzzy. What about the ‘soul-map’ reading?
I need help here. Anyone have a better name for what I’m after?

Pensées on the mechanics and magic of poetry

The study of poetry is a study of both the mechanics and the “magic” of words.

What do words do when they make meaning? We can map and analyze some of it (the mechanics), and some of it will remain a mystery (the “magic”).

To read a text well, you have to attend to both how the words work, and how the words refer to things beyond themselves.

The liminal space between a word and its meaning(s) is one key place where the “magic” happens.

The transformation of a word when it is severed from its original context and placed in an alien environment is a second key place where the “magic” of poetry happens.

To read the Bible well, you have to attend to both the mechanics and the “magic” of the words.

Therefore, studying poetry should make you a better reader of scripture. The skills learned in reading the former will spill over into your reading of the latter.

This is, of course, not all there is to reading the Bible. In mysterious cooperation with (and sometimes contradicting) our labor, the Holy Spirit acts in freedom and speaks to us through scripture.

It is a mistake to conflate the “magic” of words with the revelation of the Holy Spirit. This was Coleridge’s mistake in the Romantic period.

All the same, I still strongly suspect that there is something super-rational about words and the way that they mean meaning.

Calvin’s Sources of Authority

“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.
What is interesting about this quote is that Calvin is explicitly using Augustine as a stated source of authority. Clearly sola scriptura was a more subtle concept during the Reformation than we are led to believe.

America’s Bible

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.

Review : Age of Anxiety by W. H. Auden

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.

Book Review: Karl Barth’s The Faith of the Church

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.