Reflections on Robert Louis Wilken at Wheaton

This past weekend, I took a quick jaunt up to Chicagoland to hear Robert Louis Wilken give the inaugural lecture for the Center for Early Christian Studies at Wheaton College. As I’ve written before, I’m a fan of Wilken’s work. A friend of mine is a grad student in biblical exegesis at Wheaton, and we often spar over various “methods” of scriptural interpretation, that is, “critical exegesis” vs. “theological interpretation” (both of which travel under myriad other names), which I’ve also written about before. To top it off, the title of Wilken’s lecture was “Going Deeper into the Bible: The Church Fathers as Interpreters.” My friend had invited me to stay with him and his wife, so I thought it would be fun to drive up there and have a full-out theological smackdown weekend, and it did not disappoint (except that the weekend was too short). The lecture was great (though, disappointingly, no Q&A session), we had lots of good conversation, and I got to visit IVP and see our old stomping grounds of, well, two months ago.

But this is not just a “newsy” post (the kind my mom covets so much). I want to write about a dynamic I perceived that I think is emblematic of the American theological/Christian scene and evangelicals’ place in it. A bit of biography on Wilken is in order here. While not quite in his winter years, Wilken is at the tail end of a prolific and accomplished career. He is a former president of the American Academy of Religion, an institution not historically amenable to traditional and confessional forms of Christianity, and until recently even somewhat hostile to them. One of his earliest books, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (now a classic), aims pretty hard at debunking idealized notions of the early church by sympathetically exploring the logic of Roman criticisms of Christianity. He’s taught at both Notre Dame and Fordham, both Catholic institutions, but not ones where faculty necessarily have to adhere to the strictest forms of orthodoxy. He’s spent the better part of his late career at the University of Virginia. All this is to say, as you’ve probably guessed, that Wilken has always had at least one foot firmly planted in the secular academic world. One could interpret his career in one of two ways, I think. Either, you could say, he intentionally built his intellectual and academic reputation on works that would gain respect not just in seminaries but in the secular academic realm of religious studies in order to later articulate a more positive and robust faith in works like The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, a wonderful exploration of the patristic theological heritage. Or, you could say, he actually did shift throughout his career from a more liberal to a more conservative position, marked in the middle by his conversion from his Lutheran faith to Roman Catholicism. This latter scenario is what I think is more likely.

Okay. If you’re still with me, I applaud you. For here finally is my observation. Wilken’s lecture at Wheaton consisted basically of the lineaments of patristic scriptural interpretation, buttressed by weighty examples from the likes of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine. Now for those familiar with these kinds of discussions, there was nothing surprising; it was pretty basic, full of all the classic mistakes that my Bible professors warned me that the church fathers make. Prooftexting! Eisegesis! Allegory! Platonism! (Though it takes some fancy interpretive footwork for them to legitimate the fact that the authors of the New Testament are guilty of all the same “heresies.”) My friend had pointed out to me beforehand his biblical exegesis professors sitting in the audience, who evidently spend a good deal of time meticulously constructing these patristic straw men in order to knock them down with a wave of their historical-critical finger. But here is where the night came to its full ironic climax, and where I realized yet again why—as caustic, dismissive, and cynical as I have often been—I so often prefer the semi-educated, nonacademic “exegesis” in the local evangelical churches I have attended over the years. Here I am, sitting at Wheaton College, a school dripping with evangelical heritage—Billy Graham was president here for goodness’ sake—arguably the center of “thinking” evangelicalism, a school that supposedly defines itself by its fidelity to a broadly confessional evangelical milieu, and I can almost hear the pedantically dismissive demurrals from the exegesis professors when Wilken tells us that Scripture is alive, and that when we read it we encounter God in the words, and that proper interpretation of Scripture is intimately connected to doctrine and to the individual’s spiritual comportment. I can almost hear them say, “But what does that have to do with the ancient Near Eastern background!” And the kicker was when Wilken said, referring to our interpretation of Scripture—and he repeated it two or three times—”It’s not in the head, it’s in the heart.” At this point, though, the biblical exegesis professors had probably already stopped listening.

Evangelicalism in the academy is in such a weird place right now. Does it really take somebody from entirely outside the scope of evangelicalism, and a papist for that matter, to tell us that our Bibles can teach us something useful for our lives? That we don’t have to have a Ph.D. in ancient Semitic languages, or even a preacher who does, to understand the text? The Bible belongs to the church, not the professors.

Two things. First, Wilken knew what he was doing. He knew his audience, and while it was a thoroughly academic delivery, not short on the language of the church fathers, when it came down to it, he could have dwelled at length on phrases such as fides quaerens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”), but he didn’t. He said, “it’s not in the head, it’s in the heart,” a distinctly evangelical locution.

Second, it didn’t fall entirely on deaf ears, as I have made it appear. This was, after all, the inaugural lecture for the Center for Early Christian Studies, whose mere existence is a late indicator of a shift in the world of evangelicals’ relationship to Scripture and their opening up to the intellectual and cultural ferment of the first six or seven centuries of the church (though I would like to see us open up to the tradition as a whole; there’s still about, oh, a thousand years we all skip between the end of the patristic age and the Reformation). I slaved over the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture at InterVarsity Press for the last two and a half years, for pete’s sake. But I was there with my modern biblical exegete friend (who, I must say, is not entirely unsympathetic to my views), and taking it all in through his eyes and the eyes of his professors, one of whom we overheard after the lecture declaiming in smug tones to a gaggle of students that if Wilken wanted to go on speculating about whatever he thought the text meant, why then, by all means, it’s a free country (or some such dreck). I don’t think the biblical exegesis profs at Wheaton are talking much to their historical and systematic theology colleagues, the latter of whom are even writing books about this stuff. Which is a shame really. My friend put a few questions to Wilken after the lecture, some about what biblical exegesis profs think about this kind of stuff, and Wilken was a tad prickly about the whole thing, and even tersely advised my friend to stay away from biblical studies! I would say Wilken was dismissive, but I got the impression that he had tried many times to have discussions with those ensconced in the world of biblical studies, and had finally decided to wash his hands of them. And while I used to say that there was an equal amount of mud slinging from one side to the other, I have come to think that it tends to be a bit one sided, especially among evangelical academics. Theologians who want to interpret Scripture “theologically” generally don’t dismiss historical-critical endeavors but try to put it in its place, while those in biblical studies tend to dismiss theological interpretation as wrongheaded.

And here at the end I reiterate the weird thing about the academic evangelical moment. While more and more evangelical biblical scholars are embracing the spiraled heights of critical exegesis, theological interpretation, that is, interpretation according to the church’s tradition, is all the rage in the larger academy. And then these evangelical scholars accuse them of faulty interpretation! Pot, meet kettle.

First Impressions on Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus

I have just begun to read, at the strong behest of a friend (in fact he even bought me the book), Doctor Faustus, by Thomas Mann. I think I am in for a long, wild ride into the world of mid-twentieth-century German intellectualism. And I am very excited, geeky as that may be. From what I can tell so far, it’s about the nature of intellectual and artistic genius, and particularly its dark side, as it is a reworking of, naturally, the Faust legend (the demonic side of genius, deals with the devil, etc. etc.). The prose in John E. Woods’s translation, moreover, is dazzling. Here are two quotations that have got me swooning in giddy, ecstatic, nerdy delight, and generally excited for that subgenre referred to as the “Novel of Ideas.”

Culture, specifically in its flowering in the humanities, is a beautiful thing, which embeds itself in the culture as a form of a tradition, passed on through what the narrator refers to here as pedagogy:

I cannot help savoring that inner and almost myserious bond between my interest in classsical philology and a lively and loving eye for man’s beauty and the dignity of his reason—a bond made manifest in the very name we give the study of ancient languages, the “humanities,” whereby the psychological connection between linguistic and human passion is crowned by the idea of pedagogy, so that the call to be an educator of the young proceeds almost as a matter of course from one’s vocation as a scholar of language. The man of the exact sciences can, of course, become a teacher, but never a pedagogue in the sense and to the degree that the disciple of bonae litterae can.

But the beauty of that culture comes at a price. Here the narrator is reflecting on a study trip to Greece, where he realized that the awakening of that beauty in the ancients was a ritualized form of acquiescence to a more potent, but much more dangerous power: a pact (hence, again, Faust).

As I gazed out from the Acropolis across to the Sacred Way, along which initiates to the mysteries had processed—adorned with the saffron band, the name of Iacchus on their lips—and then, upon arriving at the place of initiation itself, as I stood in the enclosure of Eubouleus under the overhanging rocks beside the cleft of Pluto, there and then I sensed something of the abundant feeling for life that found expression in the initiatory rites by which Olympic Greece honored the divinities of the deep; and later, behind my lectern, I often explained to my senior students how culture is actually the reverent, orderly, I may even say, propitiatory inclusion of the nocturnal and monstrous in the cult of the gods.

Again, my thoughts are first impressions, and I’ve been proven wrong before, but no matter what, I’m looking forward to a good read.

Lewis Ayres Summarizes Pro-Nicene Theology in Two Sentences

Wrap your mind around this, or rather let this wrap itself around your mind.

Learning to speak of Father, Son, and Spirit as inseparably operating while still affirming that any one of the divine persons is not the other two, and that each possesses the fullness of the Godhead, does not so much lead us to an easy imagining of their diversity and unity as it defers our comprehension and draws our minds to the constantly failing (even as constantly growing) character of our interpretation of what is held in faith. The development of such attention to the mysteries of divine triunity is, ideally, the shaping of an ongoing process of analogical judgement, a process in which we learn to display a balance between admitting human inability to comprehend the divine and appropriately exploring the providentially ordered resources of the language of faith (Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and Its Legacy [Oxford, 2004], 297).

Now that’s theology!

What to Do if You Are Here Searching for Ben Gibbard

Probably you should just leave. Because you’re not going to find much of interest here.

On this blog, I regularly get hits in the teens, maybe fifty or sixty—maybe a hundred if I generate some current-events controversy in my small circle of friends, family, and acquaintances. But now I am officially part of the Blogosphere. Fame! Fortune! Gossip!

I have noticed in the last several months that the number of hits has regularly crept close to 100 per day, and then 150. Where was all this traffic coming from? Well, it seems that there are a lot of tweens out there searching for pictures of Ben Gibbard, and a while back I published a post called “Monday Morning Diversions,” which was not very exciting but happened to include a few pictures of Gibbard, and not even for reasons related to Death Cab for Cutie or even Ben Gibbard himself. Nevertheless, that post has generated, by far, the most traffic to my blog that I have ever had. Just tonight I was looking at my stats for the first time in a long time, and I noticed that on September 21, the number of hits to my blog spiked dramatically. 408 searches for Ben Gibbard! 499 total hits! A quick Google search tells me that Ben Gibbard was wedded to Zooey Deschanel on September 21. A match made in indie-band heaven.

So, tweens, sorry to disappoint. Off you go now.

The Freelancing Life

Well, I have just finished and turned in my first project as a full-time freelancer, and it was, how do you say . . . a doozy. Not only did I have to pack all the allotted work time into less than a week, on Friday, I worked all day on my laptop, got home in the evening, transferred the file to my desktop and saved over the original only to realize, to my horror, that I had saved the original over the newer one. All my work for the day, every keystroke, was instantly lost to the ether. (Here I would like to say that if you try to give me some smarmy lesson about saving backup files, I will spend the remainder of the day exerting all of my fragile emotional energy on thinking of ways to bring about your excruciatingly painful, torturous, and terrifying demise.) Anyway, almost half of the three-hundred-page book was footnotes, and seventy-three pages of it was bibliography. I’m glad I did it though. It was a far cry from IVP, to say the least. (In a related side note, this is the third author I have edited this year who participated in the Jesus Seminar. Who would’ve thunk?) I am glad it is behind me. Now I move from Jesus Seminar to John Chrysostom. It boggles the mind.

Things should even out from here on (knock on wood).

Goodbye, IVP

So quiet around Mode of Expression lately. Today is my last day at IVP, and I’m just about to go out for lunch with my department to say goodbye. Tomorrow it’s off to Kansas for the rest of my life. Hopefully things will pick up a little after we all get settled in. Thanks for a good, fulfilling job, IVP. I’ll miss you all.

Evangelicals, Globalization, and Papal Encyclicals

Take it from me, sitting in the belly of the beast, when Evangelicals ask you for a “serious dialogue” about “new models of global governance,” reach for your gun.  Or your rosary.

Cabel Stegall, here, commenting on sixty-eight evangelicals’ response to Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate.

N.B. I don’t reproduce this simply to hate on evangelicals; it’s just that sometimes I grow weary of my tribe’s penchant for middle-ground—and hence often middling—positions in public discourse (so often frustratingly and even self-referentially on display here), especially in relation to globalism. Why is it so scary to be radical? I suppose there are two reasons: first, our emphasis on evangelism leads us to “be a light” to the broadest number of people—i.e., fewer extremes, fewer alienated potential believers—and second, our penance (or is it just embarrassment?) for our (now-crumbling) association with the Republican Party since Reagan. I mean this in the least snarky and most objectively observant way possible.

The Historical Jesus: Eschatological, Apocalyptic Prophet. Or Not.

I’m proofing a book on the historical Jesus, and in the following two quotes cited in the introduction, the volume editors point out that consensus is often in the eye of the beholder:

One of the strongest consensuses in New Testament research is that Jesus’
mission was to proclaim the dawning of God’s Rule, the Kingdom of
God. Research on Mark 9:1 has convinced virtually every specialist that
Jesus’ teaching was emphatically apocalyptic and eschatological. (J. H. Charlesworth, 1994)

The old consensus that Jesus was an eschatological prophet who proclaimed the imminent end of the world has disappeared . . . [and] is no longer held by the majority of North American scholars actively engaged in Jesus research. (Marcus Borg, 1988)

The Shams of My Demographic

It’s interesting to catalog people’s reactions to the blog-cum-book Stuff White People Like. The responses that intrigue me most are the cloying, almost gleeful way white people themselves, directly at the center of the author’s crosshairs, are eager to identify themselves as such: “Guilty!” or, “He’s right, I do LOVE my Macbook!” or, demonstrating an even more profound lack of self-awareness, “But I’VE loved the Cubs from the beginning, before it was popular to like the Cubs.” (I actually saw a comment to this effect, and a savvy commenter pointed out that this demonstrated a typical strategy of white people, viz., to claim authenticity by trumpeting their a priori loyalty to the trendy object under scrutiny.)

These responses are a little bit bewildering to me, because the insights of the blog/book seem so utterly damning, and irony is in so many ways central to white people culture. And here let me insert myself into the equation. I am a white person (albeit in qualified ways, but there is much proof). So when I read the blog, it’s like having the mirror held up to me, and as a good caricature often shows, I am able to see my flaws all the more clearly, and hopefully able to view myself with a little more irony than before. In other words it provides an opportunity for self-examination and a mild form of catharsis — some worthy Socratic and Aristotelian practices. But I said it was damning, not just funny and a little bit helpful. Perhaps this review by Matt Milliner will help explain why. Near the end he says, “Stuff White People Like . . . has defined not a race but a demographic; and by defining it, has exposed one massive pretension: We white people thought we had escaped demographics.” And later on he says, “Lander [the author of Stuff White People Like] so effectively demolishes our attempts at uniqueness that his book could legitimately be called the end of Generation X. In other words, we’ve all been found out.” (The subtitle to the book, by the way, is “The Definitive Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions.”

So I necessarily ask myself as I write this: am I really just trying to demonstrate that I am part of this trendy demographic? Well, I hope not. But in many ways I can’t escape it — my adherence to evangelical Christianity providing the major exception to the rule, although Milliner also notes that Lander “inadvertently provides the definitive guide to the Emergent Church.” (But let’s be clear: I in no way identify myself with the Emergent Church, aside from also being a young evangelical Christian, and as such somewhat confused about my identity.) So what’s the tonic? The ironic self-posturing and sham pretensions of my demographic/generation having been exposed and lampooned, what to do? Here’s Milliner’s remedy, which has much to commend it:

Have children, stay married, learn more about economics, be more sincere than ironic. Despise not the specter of Lander’s book – “the wrong kind of white person” – i.e. the ones at Sam’s Club. Know that it’s as pathologically weird to hate one’s country as it is to hate one’s parents. Above all, take traditional faith seriously.

Good words, and ones I intend to (and already do) follow. But still, but still. The more cynical part of me remembers this quote from Life After God by Douglas Coupland:

You know – I’m trying to escape from ironic hell: cynicism into faith; randomness into clarity; worry into devotion. But it’s hard because I try to be sincere about life and then I turn on a TV and I see a game show host and I have to throw up my hands and give up. Too many easy pickin’s!

There’s some kernel, some germ of truth to the shams and pretensions of my demographic, some search for a genuine and authentic lifestyle that’s at the heart of much of the facade (and much of the answer, or the beginnings of one, is also found at the end of Life After God). I think it’s for people like me to parse that answer out, but importantly, much of that must be done privately, under the discipline of silence, without the snobby pretense that usually accompanies it. To that I now go.

Tertullian and the Interpretation of Scripture

We . . . do not take the parables as sources of doctrine, but rather we take doctrine as a norm for interpreting parables. (Tertullian On Purity 9.1)