An atonement typology

This post grew out of a brief handout I drew up quickly for a class I was teaching on the atonement, which I then shared on Twitter. I thought I would expand it here with some initial definition and reflections.

Let me note two things at the outset. First, I took initial inspiration from Ben Myers' lovely patristic-flavored post on atonement theories from a few years back. Second, it seems to me that atonement is a particularly resonant English word that is very nearly interchangeable with salvation. To ask what atonement consists in, it seems to me, is to ask how Jesus saves. Or at least so I have assumed in what follows. Third, atonement is not one of my pet doctrines; I haven't read widely and deeply in it the way some of my friends and colleagues have. I'm sure that, somewhere below, I have left something out or inexpertly explained this or that theory. Pardons in advance.

Without further ado, my sixfold (really, 6 x 5) typology of the atonement.


What does holiness look like?

The Protestant account of vocation smooths out the hierarchies of office (the priesthood of all believers) and of holy living (monastic life is no "better" than life working a farm). From one point of view, this is a good thing: no special religious caste; it flattens out "quality" of life: God calls each to his or her own station in life; holiness is democratized. From another point of view, this is a problem: it treats everything and everyone "the same," thus losing all differentiation; it lacks honesty, since in fact church ministry or serving the poor are, and will be treated as, more important than, say, working as a notary or drilling for oil; and worst of all, it loses the eschatological dimension of Christ's call, draining it of radical disorientation through the cross and resurrection and replacing it with the simple pleasures of local, family, and/or bourgeois life.

One way to frame the disjunction is to ask the question: Is the good life—th…

On Episode IX and J.J. Abrams

In 16 weeks, Episode IX—the conclusion to the final trilogy in the trilogy of trilogies that the Star Wars saga has become, not to mention the other stand-alone films and the new live-action TV show—will be released. The new teaser made available earlier this week generated a lot of discussion and speculation about plot lines and, above all, the direction the script will take and, ultimately, how it will wrap up the story.

Up till now I've tried to be realistic but hopeful about the possibility that J. J. Abrams might actually stick the landing, if not perfectly, than satisfactorily. What he did in VII was a combination of good and bad, but Rian Johnson took the hand he'd been dealt and did something masterful with it in VIII. Could Abrams have something equally excellent up his sleeve? Could he surprise us all by finally overcoming his worst tendencies and producing truly original, brilliant work?

The truth is that we have no reason to think so.

Consider the other films Abram…

Anonymous Americans

Perhaps someone else has made this connection before, but it seems to me that there is a secularized form of Rahner's so-called "anonymous Christians" at work in American political discourse. It has right and left variations, but the theme is the same: In principle, the world is always already America; persons from other places, citizens of other nations, are Americans in embryo: the potential merely needs to be made actual. In this way non-Americans are in fact anonymous Americans, Americans without knowing it, Americans of the heart: related to and defined by America simply in virtue of who they are and how they live. And though they may lack this knowledge, we Americans, we explicit, public Americans—we know it on their behalf.

On the right, this takes the form of speaking as if other countries are good places to live just to the extent that they approximate the American way of life; so that any person or family beyond America's borders would, if given the chance …

Political spectrums

I live deep in the heart of red state Texas, which means I regularly find myself trying to expand the political imaginations of my students. Not, that is, to switch their allegiances from one color to another, but to redraw the map they've inherited; to place a question mark next to its self-evident obviousness, which they treat as if it were the periodic table of elements (with only two to choose from!).

So I've come up with a heuristic that is meant to help students in my context. Mostly I want them to see the array of combinations, both of political first principles and concrete policy convictions, beyond lining up the GOP's national platform versus the DNC's. So, e.g., I want them to be introduced to (the concept of) Catholic Communists and Pro-Life Progressives and Democratic Socialists and Communitarian Conservatives and so on.

What follows is the set of spectrums, eight in all, that I've conjured up in order to help them in this process. I would be very inte…

New essay published in Plough: "A Better Country"

In Plough this morning I have a review essay of Michael Brendan Dougherty's My Father Left Me Ireland: An American Son's Search for Home. It's a beautiful book that I loved reading, some of whose ideas and proposals call for theological interrogation. I also compare his work to that of Ta-Nehisi Coates, the hyphenated identity of e.g. the Irish in America to African-Americans. It was a pleasure to write; I hope it holds together. Here's a taste:

"Dougherty is Roman Catholic, a faith recovered, like so much else in his life, in adulthood. Where he foregrounds father and fatherland, though, God remains mostly in the background. The resulting imbalance leaves certain questions unanswered. For example, Dougherty is right to insist on the heart’s reasons beyond wonk positivism. But sometimes the heart’s reasons are not enough. The Rising should not be protected by a moat of romance and high speech. Christians do indeed celebrate at the altar the ultimate sacrifice, an …

Questions for Jake Meador after reading his lovely new book

Jake Meador is one of my favorite writers to read today on the intersection of faith, politics, and culture. (Am I contractually obligated to call him a "young" writer? What are the rules here when you're not sure whether you're older than the young writer in question?) We've yet to meet, but he's been gracious to me over the past few years, posting and soliciting essays I've written for Mere Orthodoxy, which he edits.

I was eager to read his new book, In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World, and I wasn't disappointed. The book will be a boon to a variety of folks, especially pastors, churches, and college students. Indeed, I'm assigning it to one of my classes this fall. Given Meador's politics—a social conservative against racism, an agrarian against abortion, a Christian against the GOP, an evangelical against Trump, a Calvinist against capitalism—his writing makes for nice inroads to conversations with ordinar…

A confusing error by John Gray

Early in John Gray's Seven Types of Atheism, he writes the following:

"The[] Jewish and Greek views of the world are not just divergent but irreconcilably opposed. Yet from its beginnings Christianity has been an attempt to join Athens with Jerusalem. Augustine's Christian Platonism was only the first of many such attempts. Without knowing what they are doing, secular thinkers have continued this vain effort" (29).

From an otherwise admirably lucid and fair-minded thinker, I find this a bizarre claim in a number of ways.

First, Augustine was far from the first to "join" Platonist philosophy with Christian faith. His most prominent predecessor being (I can barely resist saying of course in all caps) Origen of Alexandria, whose influence spread far and wide, east and west.

Second, Gray's presentation suggests that Hellenization and Platonization commenced after Christianity's advent, after its creation as a post-Jewish phenomenon—indeed, apparently on…

Genre criticism

I'm in a book club with some buddies in town, and as it happens I'm the only one who liked the latest book, a work of fantasy. Two issues with the book have come to the surface, and I've been thinking about their status for fiction more generally.

First, I've realized that I don't believe in "pace." Or rather, a book's having a slow or fast pace is at best a neutral statement that requires content to be filled in: was the slow pace done well, or was the fast pace rushed? More often, I think pacing is a cipher for other matters: whether the reader finds the characters, interactions, descriptions, and events engaging—or not. In that sense a reader might well say, "I found the pacing slow," to which the author could reply, "Yes, exactly, that's the idea," at which point the reader then must supply further reasons as to why the slow pacing was a problem. There may be good reasons to make such an assertion, but they involve referenc…

Pop culture, for and against

Jake Meador has kindly cross-posted my original blog post "Against pop culture" over at Mere Orthodoxy, and it's gotten a second round of (much larger) attention. Mostly the responses have been appreciative or generously critical, but let me address some of the criticisms as well as clear up some misunderstandings.

1. The piece is meant to be provocative, as both the title and tone suggest, so part of this is doubtless my own fault; but the overall point I'm trying to make is not that pop culture as such, or Netflix, is Bad, or that Christians should not ever "engage" it. The primary argument, instead, is that Christians (with an audience) who believe or write that Christians (in general) ought to "engage" popular culture as an imperative are wrong. That is, even if pop culture is neutral (which it is not), there is no good argument that Christians (again, in the aggregate) should, as a prescriptive norm, make it a priority to watch more Hulu, see…