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.

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Sermon Introductions and Badly Stained Tablecloths

This blog post is a response to an informal poll on Facebook in which I asked:

Hey Reformed friends, I’ve wondered for a long time about the first part of a sermon. Which of these two do you prefer, and why?

Option A:
1. introduction/story
2. scripture
3. exegesis

Option B:
1. scripture
2. introduction/story
3. exegesis

The responses were great. On the whole, the majority opted for option B or something similar. Here is my response to the poll:

Thanks everyone for the fantastic conversation about sermon form. You all give me hope that Facebook can be a place for faithful Christian dialogue. I purposely didn’t respond to anyone so as not to tilt the conversation. But now that the responses have slowed down, allow me to push back pretty hard on those who argue for the traditional structure of [scripture > introduction > exegesis] or even more rigorously, [scripture > exegesis].

I totally agree with the theological reasoning for placing scripture first and insisting on the primacy of the word. I do think that starting with scripture should be the norm from which we deviate, not the exception. But I can’t say that starting with an introduction is off-limits. Here’s why:

First, to the charge that starting with an introduction necessarily leads to eisegesis, I tend to think that the line between exegesis and eisegesis is very fuzzy. It is a noble pursuit to try to avoid certain kinds of eisegesis, but it is impossible to eliminate it. It is a function of our human finitude and inherent perspectival apprehension of the world. Better to relentlessly study and name and baptize your perspectives than to pretend that they are not there.

Second, worrying about the temporal primacy of the word in the sermon strikes me as an overworrying. Don’t we believe in the ontological primacy of the Word? Doesn’t that trump our petty squabbles about our experience of a tiny slice of time? Theologically, we can say pretty confidently that the Word precedes us in the creation of the world, and the Word precedes us in the inauguration of the Kingdom of God in the person and work of Jesus Christ as witnessed in the gospels. If we preach these truths regularly, I don’t think we need to freak out about whether or not we start the sermon with the scripture or with an introduction. (Besides, if you start the entire worship service with a votum, you are already starting worship with a curious interweaving of human and divine speech. So calm down. God and we are already, in the power of the Spirit, in this together.)

Thirdly, insisting that we start with scripture assumes a level of Biblical literacy that our congregations simply do not have. When I think about the Reformers (or even the later Puritans) insisting on scripture first, I am reminded that Calvin (and later John Owen) preached every day. In a context with that high level of scriptural knowledge, it makes a lot of sense to not distract your congregation with introductions. Oddly, for all of the Reformation polemics against monasticism, this kind of daily preaching of the word in places like Geneva was actually much closer to a monastic daily spiritual ordering of life than our contemporary American Reformed context. I don’t say this lightly, but times have changed.

And here, metaphorically, is the meat of it: preaching a sermon without an introduction is like serving up the most delicious culinary creation by plopping it directly onto the tablecloth. People need a plate on which to hold the food. If people begin to admire the intricate design on the plate instead of the food itself, then the sermon introduction has gone too far. But it is an act of hospitality, an act of missional engagement, and an act of love for your people to hand them the plate before you hand them the food.

Having said this, I think we can make clear distinctions between more and less faithful sermon introductions. As others have already said, a sermon introduction is helpful to the extent that it provides helpful context to the scripture passage, or asks a key existential question which the text itself will also ask or sharpen or answer. A sermon introduction can be less helpful if its purpose is to emotionally hook (or manipulate) the congregation, or establish the brand of the preacher, or flirt with and warm up the congregation. Put more bluntly: intros that lead into the text are good. Intros that lead too deeply into the interior life of the preacher (or even the congregation) are less helpful.

Sermon form carries invisible theological weight. The form of the sermon subtly shapes the way we see the contours of the life of faith. A sermon which begins with subjectivity (and, most likely in the application phase ends with subjectivity) will shape your congregation to view their spiritual life as the work of God framed within the larger framework of their needs and wants. A sermon which begins and ends with the work of God will form people to see their lives as surrounded by the active grace of God.

This is by no means to eliminate your emotions and guts from preaching. There is totally a place for feelings and subjective experience and your needs and wants in a sermon. It’s just not what should open, define or drive the sermon.

However, for the sake of hospitality, mission, and love, I have to say that in some instances (but not all) an introduction to the sermon can be a very good thing. If I am preaching a narrative, I would prefer to lead with the story of scripture. If I am preaching deep in the middle of Romans, or Hebrews, or Ezekiel, I as the waiter might want to set the table before I serve the chef’s special.

Improvisation and Mistakes

My friend Brendan made a great comment and asked a helpful question about my last post:

I would also add [to improvisation] the role of mistakes. Some of my greatest musical moments began as a mistake about which I was willing to have curiosity and creatively trace its relationship back into the original harmonic structure. Your thoughts on mistakes as they relate to improvisation?

I think Brendan is especially on to something when he says that the task of the artist when dealing with mistakes is to ‘creatively trace [the mistake’s] relationship back into the original.’ Here, the artist becomes a host, welcoming the mistake into fellowship with what has already been created. It is a kind of generosity.

Improvisation is an inherently open-handed posture toward the world. It invites surprise. Seen this way, welcoming and incorporating mistakes is a natural outpouring of the spirit of improvisation. From a harmonic perspective, mistakes are only the notes or colors or words that are farthest away tonally from the center of the work. Part of the task of the artist is to lovingly and thoughtfully welcome these estranged motifs on the margins into the center. Or, even more provocatively, to allow the mistakes to become a new center that now coexists alongside the original center of the work.

Really long nerdy footnote:

I would want to make a distinction between three different kinds of ‘mistakes.’ The first kind of mistake is what we might call a ‘sin’ in the singular. This kind of mistake is a moral wrongdoing committed against someone else. The second kind of mistake is the mistake that is not a ‘sin’ but is still a failure or non-perfect action. These mistakes are a feature of our finite nature as human beings, and in art they are not necessarily something to be avoided; they can even be celebrated. The third kind of mistake is a mistake judged by the internal rules of an art form. So, for example, within Western art music, a tritone could be judged a ‘mistake’ in certain musical contexts. But, as we know, in a different context, this kind of mistake can be re-evaluated to actually be something very good.

The first kind of mistake is moral, the second two are aesthetic. But as soon as I make this distinction, I am compelled to say that it is a false distinction. As much as the modern world has tried to sever them, the moral and the aesthetic are intimately and multivalently linked. I don’t think we can cleanly parse the three kinds of mistakes (And indeed, if you go with Augustine, even the first kind of mistake can take on aesthetic beauty, as in his idea of the “fortunate fall”.) But as serious as the first kind of mistake is, it should not prevent us from wholeheartedly embracing mistakes of the second and third kind, for the joy of artistic exploration.

Improvisation and Spirituality

I played jazz bass for the first time in a while last night. There’s nothing quite like creating new music in real time with two other people. I love those moments when I go off in a different harmonic or rhythmic direction right at the same moment when the drummer (Ben) or the pianist (Larry) breaks loose too, and for a split second something completely unexpected and beautiful happens.

I know that it bothers some people, but this is why I never play a song the same way twice in church. I’m always looking for those unexpected moments when a different harmonization or a different rhythm joins with the congregation in unexpected and beautiful ways. I love improvisation and I think that spirituality can be deeply improvisational.

Anyone who has ever improvised can tell you that it’s not simply “making something up.” It takes hours of practice, hours of discipline before the happy accidents can happen. There are rules and values that the improvisers share among themselves as they enter into improvisation together. Our walk with God is the same way. Hours and hours spent in lonely silence, in prayer or in scripture, can eventually lead to the most beautiful improvisation with God.

Watching Big Fish Again, Ten Years Later

Thursday night I watched “Big Fish” again. I hadn’t watched it in a decade. (Did you forget that the movie even existed?) It was way cheesier and sappier than I remembered. But apparently that didn’t matter: just like last time, I wept through the last twenty minutes of the film. I wept because of the deathbed father / estranged son story, even as it was full of cliches. But I also wept because the film raises a serious question about my faith: Is Christianity just an elaborate story we project onto the sky? As the father character dies, and the luminous glow of the film slowly fades, all we are left with is a faith in the power of human storytelling, and it is a terrifying spiritual darkness. Faced with the prospect that we are truly alone with our stories, I wept. But there is a chance that Christianity is true. There is a chance that we are not alone. The film proffers a set of myths that are so archetypal that nothing in the film is particular, nothing is unique, nothing is incarnated. Perhaps it is in what was missing from the film that our hope lies. In the Incarnation, I believe the preposterous claim that all the hopes of our myths were answered not with another myth, but with a scandalously particular human being. He was not a mythical everyman but a poor migrant Jew with no citizenship papers, living without any promise of food, clothing, or shelter. He probably smelled bad, had a crooked face, or maybe he had an annoying laugh. That this man, this obscure itinerant preacher, would be the revelation of God in his particularity as a human being, this is the Incarnation, and it tears through all of our myths and stories, presenting us with the possibility that God is among us.

Evangelical Christians like to point to the cross as the center of the Christian faith, but the early church was right to see our salvation as consisting of two centers. It is not only the cross, but the Incarnation that is good news for us. Without the Incarnation, all of our myths are a closed loop, a crushing canopy of immanence. Under the weight of that canopy, I wept. But by faith in the Incarnation, joy comes in the morning. There is nothing I can do to prove this, but by faith, I believe.

Official 24-Hour Dad-A-Thon Quiz

The first-ever 24-hour Dad-A-Thon was a smashing success! To celebrate, I’ve compiled this short quiz. (It’s like Buzzfeed, but without the gross aftertaste.) Can you guess the correct answers?
* * *
OFFICIAL DAD-A-THON QUIZ

1. For dinner we ate:

A) Mom’s away, now’s our chance! Taco Bell!
B) I made spaghetti.
C) Butch’s has great appetizer and drink selections.

2. During dinner, we:

A) listened to Calvin’s Institutes on audiobook, in silence, like some Protestant perversion of a monastic dining hall.
B) discussed plans for how to build a fort out of blankets, clothes pins, and reference books. It also included designs for a contraption called an “exca-lifter.”
C) FOOD FIGHT! (Table ended up sideways)
D) debated (unexpectedly) whether everything belongs to God and Jesus, or nothing belongs to God and Jesus.
E) B and D

3. The best spaceships are made out of:

A) Legos
B) K’nex
C) Legos AND K’nex.

4. Movietime! We watched:

A) Six episodes of Daniel Tiger, back-to-back.
B) Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. Without subtitles.
C) Fargo.

5. Ah. The kids are finally in bed. Time to unwind. I think I’ll:

A) compulsively check how the presidential candidate polls are doing.
B) read patristic commentaries
C) Ah, forget it. I’m going to sleep, too.

6. Number of kids who ended up in my bed in the night:

A) 2
B) 2
C) 0
D) 2

7. For breakfast, we ate:

A) “Alright kids, you’re on your own. I see some foragable green things growing in the backyard.”
B) I made french toast.
C) Mom’s away, now’s our chance! Cocoa Puffs and Pop Tarts! No, better: Cocoa Puff Pop Tarts!

8. After breakfast, there was an impromptu:

A) monkey dance
B) spelling bee
C) massive milk spillage

9. The maximum number of times it takes to ask a child to pick up a toy before he/she will pick it up is:

A) 1 (hint: this is the wrong answer.)
B) ∞
C) n + 1 (where n = promise of candy, movie, or immediate loss of all nearby toys)

10. Number of poop-trastrophes that happened while daddy was trying to make food:

A) 1
B) 1.5
C) 2

11. The best time to have a surprise “tubby” is:

A) 1-5 minutes after a major potty accident
B) 5-10 minutes after a major potty accident
C) As soon as you discover a major potty accident. Try not to think about how long it’s been.

12. Number of times I sent distress texts to Joanna:

A) 1
B) 0
C) 3
D) 8

13. The perfect ending to a 24-hour Dad-A-Thon is:

A) signal flare
B) a trip to the park
C) shopping trip to Cabela’s

14. Would daddy do a 24-hour Dad-A-Thon again?

A) yes
B) yes
C) yes
D) yes

Commentary Survey: Matthew

Here are my thoughts on commentaries for the book of Matthew, to be updated in the future as needed:

Hands down, no question, the best commentary for the book of Matthew is Davies and Allison’s ICC commentary. I usually find the ICC as a series to be dry, painfully technical, and of zero use to preachers or teachers in a local church. D&A is different. They do get pretty technical, but their technical work is so good and illuminating that it’s worth reading. Not only that, they also show you a stunning range of history of interpretation, and they are not afraid to illuminate the theological implications of the text. It is extremely rare to get all of this in one commentary. It is not easy reading, and it is not cheap (3 volumes, $50 a pop), but if you’re willing to make the investment of time, money, and mental energy, it is extremely rewarding.

For the less adventurous, Dale Bruner’s Matthew commentary is the go-to mid-range commentary. He will often give you a summary of what Davies and Allison say about a passage, saving you the time of slogging through their original work. Like Davies and Allison, he does some great work with history of interpretation, but he narrows his focus to a few “friends,” like Luther and Matthew Henry. He make the book of Matthew come alive, and he has plenty of ideas for how to preach the text, if you’re into that sort of thing. His tone is very colloquial and conversational, to the point of sounding silly at times. I have to admit: I sometimes find his chattiness to be distracting from what the passage is actually saying.

Don’t bother with Stanley Hauerwas’s Matthew “commentary.” It should not be called a commentary. It should be called “Story time with Stanley.” It would be worth reading if you were a big Hauerwas fan and wanted to read what would the be the equivalent of his album b-sides.

Lastly, I have spent very little time with Craig Keener’s Matthew commentary, but what I have read was good, as is usually the case with Keener.

Commentary Survey: I & II Samuel

Here are my commentary recommendations for I and II Samuel, to be updated as I discover more:

theological

Francesca Aran Murphy’s Brazos commentary is a fun romp through I Sam that does almost no close textual work, and the historical background stuff she does is really, really reckless. There’s some Balthasar and Augustine powering her engine, and she seems most interested in constructing an anti-modern political theology from I Sam. It’s really great.

Hertzberg (OTL) is a really great mid-twentieth century German theological commentary. Among other things, it is heartening to realize that solid theological interpretation of scripture was going strong earlier in the twentieth century before it fell back into vogue around the turn of the century.

I have not read it, but my friend Andy Kadzban tells me that Peter Leithart’s A Son to Me is a really great theological reading of Samuel. I’m pretty sure it’s a short and inexpensive book.

literary

Robert Alter’s translation of the David narrative (The David Story) is very interesting. He tries to translate I & II Sam as a piece of world literature, where dense literary weavings are his primary concern. His overtly atheistic and demythologized reading gets depressing after a while, though.

historical/critical/modern eat-your-vegetables commentaries

As you can see, I have not been able to find a good historical-critical commentary on Samuel, but there seems to be an abundance of good theological commentaries on it. There are far worse problems, to have, for sure…

First Impressions: On Watching The West Wing for the First Time

Because some of our good friends are longtime fans, my wife and I decided to give Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing a try. (Yes, I know we are 15 years late to the party.) We got the first DVD from Netflix and we’re watching the series straight through, starting with the pilot. I’m guessing, at the rate we’re going, with frequent breaks, we’ll finish the series in about another decade. So far, we’ve been loving it. We’re not very far in, so if I say anything that does not hold true through the entire series, I apologize.

 

My wife describes The West Wing as that show “my grandma and my aunt used to watch.” Other friends repeatedly tell me, “Oh yeah, my parents watched that.” It was something our elders watched. One friend confessed that whenever he watches it, he finds himself feeling incredibly nostalgic. I’d put it differently: how can a show made in 2000 feel so dated, already? The show is an artifact of a bygone era, the good old days, when a president could quote Cicero without having to apologize for reading dead white guys, when men could still be men, and women could still be second wave feminists, when geopolitics were simpler, kinder and gentler.

 

Wait, when was this? What kind of alternate Disney history of the United States is this? At times the brush strokes are so broad I feel like Sorkin is using a street sweeper to do Japanese landscape paintings. I can’t handle it. I can’t handle all the buddy-buddy warm fuzzies between the cast. I can’t handle Toby’s college sophomore idealism. I can’t handle the vaguely Copland-esque woodwind swells whenever someone gets all touchy feely about the American political system. (When was the last time you did that?)

 

And of course there is the agenda of the show. On the plus side, props to Sorkin for actually having something to say. That already puts him way ahead of 90% of television entertainment. On the negative side, his left-leaningness often comes across as, well, snooty. I’m all for a good leftist argument, but the self-back-patting gets kind of old. At times the show seems to be saying, “We Democrats are so much sexier than those sour, prune-faced Republicans. And we are absolved of the sins of our excesses because we are not afraid to beat ourselves up about all of the sins of America’s past.” I’d be the last person to stand for Mike Huckabee’s barks and bellows, but the auto-eroticism and self-flagellation of American liberal political identity strikes me as a bit silly. Sometimes the best comedy is unintentional: the aura of saintliness the show lovingly paints around 1999 Democrat values makes me giggle, just a little.

 

And yet I can’t stop watching. I can’t stop watching because of the writing. Good gravy, the writing! I love the way that Sorkin takes on more themes than he has room for. The effect is that themes flash in and out of our view, colliding with each other, creating unexpected connections, resonances, contradictions. An episode that is mainly about retaliatory military strikes also tackles racial equality in the workplace, gendered understandings of ethics, and the ambiguous political heritage of the Roman Empire. Some of the connections between plot and subplot can be a bit heavy-handed, but often the connections are subtle and enriching. Each episode introduces a slew of new themes, enlarging the show’s scope. Any given next scene could hypothetically be “about” anything. After a while, the cumulative effect is a feeling of encyclopedic grandeur. The show is open to the world in all of its abundance of meaning. Like the greatest Italian fiction from Dante through Calvino and Eco, it seems like the show wants to be “about” everything. It’s a blast.

 

I used to hate Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue. (I once fell asleep during A Few Good Men as an act of protest.) It is impossibly witty. It can be so contrived that it feels like a thin sheet of plastic wrap draped over real content. No one could ever think, let alone talk that fast. This time around, however, I decided to embrace the Sorkin dialogue autobahn for what it was. I needed to stop asking Sorkin for something other than he was offering. He is not attempting anything close to realism. The dialogue is not meant to emulate “the way people really talk.” He’s doing something different with language, something more compressed, more structured. Underneath all of the freewheeling wisecracks and one-liners, there is a rigorous formalism at play. In this way there is something Shakespearean about his dialogue. He starts with a foundation of highly formalized dialogue, but upon that foundation he spins an endless web of wordplay that is dizzying in its fecundity. Once I got past the thought that everything everyone was saying was completely ridiculous, I was able to sit back and watch the verbal fireworks. What a show.

 

I think, though, that the heart of the show is not any of this. It’s not the thematic density, it’s not the shimmering dialogue. It’s the characters. Somehow, the characters are just so… lovable. It’s the show’s secret sauce, because I don’t think it’s something that can be analyzed. Underneath the ideology of the show (and it is a thick layer of ideology), there’s a great group of people. Even when they deliver their improbable tear-jerker backstories, you buy it, because you want to. The true heart of the show seems to be a love for other human beings. Sure, this might all be emotional manipulation. The whole show could be engineered to manufacture impossibly likable people. But if the end result is that the viewer is more likely to see the people around her with a newfound love for their particularity, then I think the show is worth watching.

 

But I still have questions. Will Josh ever stop bouncing? Will Sam ever stop reminding me of Rob Bell? Is Danny the reporter supposed to be that creepy? Will Leo’s jaw ever come unhinged? (It looks stuck. He might want to get that checked out.) Will America ever have a president as lovable as Jed Bartlet again?

Why Feeling the Presence of Jesus is Not Enough

At least since the first Great Awakening, American Christianity has been built on the all-important goal of feeling the presence of Jesus. Feeling the presence of Jesus (however you “feel” Jesus) is an important part of religion, but there is a second, equally important question: Is there a Jesus on the other side of your feelings? What Jesus is on the other side of your emotive experience? Is there a God there on the other end? Is it really Jesus, or is it just your hormones, your racial/ethnic identity, your favorite songs? To ignore this question is to open yourself up to all kinds of idolatry.

It’s not a popular position to take in the cultural climate of American Christianity, but I am committed to promoting both the subjective and the objective dimensions of worship. Worship can’t just be about feeling the presence of Jesus. We are also called by God to think (and feel) deeply about the God who is there, not just our emotional experience of that God. Otherwise, we will find ourselves worshiping our music, our politics, or our endorphins.

* * *

We need a holistic approach to worship, one in which critical analysis of God’s work among us and holy, passionate experience of God’s presence are intimately linked. It’s a beautiful cycle:

1. God shows up; we experience God in a passionate, emotional, bodily experience.
2. We reflect (later?) on how God showed up, and slowly start to build a working vocabulary for describing God’s actions among us. We take as much as we can from Holy Scripture to feed our vocabulary. Some words we use are decided to be closer and truer in their description of God and God’s works than others. Some practices are decided to be more faithful than others in how we respond to God’s action.
3. In the context of our revised set of words and practices, God shows up again, and we experience God in a passionate, emotional experience.
4. We reflect (again) on how God showed up, changing our earlier words and practices to be even more faithful.

The process continues indefinitely. We grow in love and knowledge of God. The interplay between the odd steps and the even steps is the interplay between worship and theology. It’s at the core of the Christian life.

* * *

Two nerdy footnotes:

1. Of course nothing in this post is terribly original. It is all stolen with gratefulness from John Witvliet, David Kelsey, and a certain French theologian, who is unfortunately known for not being the most cuddly teddy bear in the toy box.

2. I’ll admit that in our current cultural moment, both objectivity and subjectivity have come under serious fire. We cannot say with certainty anymore whether there is a God out there, or whether there is a self inside of us. (Double yikes!) By grace the postmodern Christian is freed from both of these idols to hope for the knowledge of faith. In spite of our utter inability to know God or ourselves, God is gracious enough to reveal himself, and to illuminate our inner selves for self-knowledge by the light of revelation. But we can’t ground this knowledge in an objective standard (a rational system) or a subjective standard (feeling Jesus). The only ground of our knowledge of God is the self-revelation of God, received by faith, holistically integrating objectivity and subjectivity.