What it is I'm privileged to do this fall

Starting Monday, I will have about 160 students spread across four classes, most of them freshmen. As I have been preparing for and praying about the beginning of the semester, and the formal beginning to my own career as a professor and teacher, it occurred to me what it is I am privileged to do this fall.

For 120 of those students, I will be teaching them the Gospels, especially the Gospel of Mark. Many of them know a thing or two about Jesus, and some of them know quite a bit. But some of them don't know a thing. And none of them has read the Gospels the way I will teach them to read them. They haven't heard about the Synoptics. They haven't heard about Logos Christology. They haven't thought about Mark 8, the "hinge" on which the whole book rests, when Jesus twice heals the blind man, and then twice heals his followers (present and future) in the person of Peter, rebuking him then teaching about the passion of the Messiah, about his death and resurrection…

A statement on white supremacy and racism

Yesterday Daily Theology posted "A Statement from Christian Ethicists Without Borders on White Supremacy and Racism," inviting any and all Christian theologians who teach ethics or moral theology to add their names to the signatories. My name's been added, alongside many others'. It's a small gesture, but lamentably necessary in light of the last few days.

Others have already written with greater passion, clarity, and eloquence that I am capable of. All I can is: Lord have mercy; Lord come quickly. Bring peace to this land, and justice for the vulnerable and suffering. Amen.

Scruton, Eagleton, Scialabba, et al—why don't they convert?

The question is a sincere one, and in no way facetious. Roger Scruton, Terry Eagleton, and George Scialabba represent an older generation of thinkers and writers who take religion, Christianity, and theology seriously, and moreover ridicule or at least roll their eyes at its cultured despisers (like the so-called New Atheists). And there are others like them.

Yet it is never entirely clear to me why they themselves are not Christians, or at least theists of one sort or another. In The Meaning of Conservatism Scruton refers vaguely to "those for whom the passing of God from the world is felt as a reality." In his review of Marilynne Robinson's The Givenness of Things, Scialabba remarks that, for neuroscientists, "the metaphysical sense" of the soul is a "blank," and asks further, "wouldn't it be a bit perverse of God to have made His existence seem so implausible from Laplace to Bohr?" (Surely an affirmative answer to this spare hypotheti…

Reinhold Niebuhr on the distinction between growth and progress

"The inner relation of successive civilizations to each other may be described as 'unity in length' or in time. The inner relation of contemporary civilizations to each other may be described as 'unity in breadth' or in space. The former unity is more obvious than the latter one. The history of Western civilization is, for instance, more clearly related to Greece and Rome than it is to its own contemporary China. Yet there are minimal relations of mutual dependence even in 'breadth.' While the Western world has elaborated science and techniques to a greater extent than the oriental world, it would not be possible to comprehend our Western scientific development without understanding the contributions of oriental scientific discoveries towards it.

"Perhaps the most significant development of our own day is that the cumulative effect of history’s unity in length is daily increasing its unity in breadth. Modern technical civilization is brin…

Silicon Eden: creation, fall, and gender in Alex Garland's Ex Machina

I originally wrote this piece two years ago next month. My opinion of the film has not changed: it's one of the best movies released in the last 20 years.

Initially I stayed away from Alex Garland's Ex Machina, released earlier this year, because the advertising suggested the same old story about artificial intelligence: Man creates, things go sideways, explosions ensue, lesson learned. That trope seems exhausted at this point, and though I had enjoyed Garland's previous work, I wasn't particularly interested in rehashing A.I. 101.

Enough friends, however, recommended the movie that I finally relented and watched it. The irony of the film's marketing is that, because it wanted to reveal so little of the story—the path not taken in today's world of Show Them Everything But The Last Five Minutes trailers—it came across as revealing everything (which looked thin and insubstantial), whereas in fact it was revealing only a glimpse (of a larger, substantia…

Teaching ecclesiology: topics and readings

This fall I am teaching a course on ecclesiology for upper-level undergraduate Bible and ministry majors. It's a long-standing course I took over from a recently retired professor of New Testament, who was kind enough to share his syllabus with me as a foundation on which to build my own. Here's the final breakdown of weeks, topics, and readings. It's basically set, so I won't be changing or adding anything at this point—and I'm already demanding a lot from my students—but since this is a course I'll be teaching repeatedly in the coming years (as the Lord wills), all manner of feedback, recommendations, and shared wisdom from similar courses is welcome.

The two required texts are Gerhard Lohfink's Jesus and Community and Alexander Schmemann's For the Life of the World; the two suggested texts are Rowan Williams's Why Study the Past? and Everett Ferguson's The Church of Christ.

Week 1: Introduction: Theology and Ecclesiology
Aug 29: Robert Jenson, …

A Question for Richard Hays: Metalepsis in The Leftovers

In the finale of season 1 of the HBO show The Leftovers, Kevin Garvey reads a passage from the Bible over the body of Patti Levin, which he just buried with Rev. Matt Jamison. The whole season has culminated in this moment, which was partially the result of his own decisions, decisions sometimes made after blacking out and sleepwalking. These frightening episodes were in turn the result of dealing with the unbearable grief of losing each member of his family one by one to their own grief in the wake of The Departure (a rapture-like event a few years before)—all while serving as Chief of Police for a town that is being torn apart at the seams.

So Jamison hands Garvey a marked passage, and Garvey reads:

The passage is Job 23:8-17 (NIV). The scene is probably the most affecting—and least typical (i.e., not Psalm 23 or Genesis 1 or a Gospel)—reading of Scripture I've ever witnessed on screen.

And it got me thinking about Richard Hays. Specifically, it got me thinking about his books E…

David Bentley Hart on contemporary versus premodern allegorization

"Historians or hermeneuticians frequently assert that what most alienates modern readers from the methods of premodern exegetes is the latter’s passion for allegory. But this is false. If anything, we today are much more culturally predisposed than our forebears to an unremitting allegorization of the tales we tell or books we read, no matter how elaborate or tedious the results. True, we may prefer to discover psychological or social or ­political or sexual narratives 'encoded' in the texts before us, rather than spiritual or metaphysical mysteries; we might find it impossible to believe that a particular reading could be 'inspired' in a more than metaphorical sense; but the principle of the metabolism of the fictions we read into the 'meanings' we can produce is perfectly familiar to us. The same critic who might prissily recoil at the extravagances of a patristic figural reading of the Book of Numbers might feel not the slightest dismay at the transform…

Scripture's precedence is not chronological

Protestants, especially Evangelicals, have a bad habit of defending Scripture's precedence with respect to the present-day church community by reference to its otherness, that is, its status as a text that precedes the community in time and stands over against it as an entity of which it is not the source. This is a bad habit because some members of the church (i.e., the apostles and their co-laborers) did write Scripture—the New Testament in this case—and, moreover, textuality per se does not require ancient provenance. It is a bad habit, further, because it is an unnecessary argument.

Thinking about that bad habit put me in mind of a brief discussion late in my dissertation, discussing John Howard Yoder's theology of Scripture. There I write, "Yoder is right to argue for Scripture’s independence, or externality. This claim entails neither denial of Scripture’s human craftsmanship or ecclesial habitat (which Yoder acknowledges), nor reference to its antiquity or alien cu…

A coda on doubt

I forgot to include one thing in yesterday’s post about doubt. The unqualified affirmation of doubt, combined with the extension or requirement of experiencing it to all, is a problem also on pastoral grounds. Namely, the goodness of the good news depends on the ability to proclaim it without reservation or condition. The gospel announces an unrestricted promise of divine grace and love: “God has come near in Christ Jesus—repent and believe the good news!” The creeping, casual generalization of doubt to all believers and all belief as such has the effect of nullifying the force of this proclamation. For it is not only the unconditional quality of the message but the divine subject of the evangelical predicate that makes the message a matter of glad tidings, an announcement that is much more than a strong suggestion, but rather a word that of itself has the power to change lives, because it has already changed the world.

For example, the gospel does not say “You are forgiven.” It says “…