Showing posts from June, 2017

Teaching the Gospels starting with John

This fall I am teaching a course on all four Gospels ("The Life and Teachings of Jesus") to freshmen. Precedent, biblical scholarship, and the textbook I'm using all suggest going the typical route: Synoptics then John, and within the Synoptics, Mark first, then Matthew and Luke in some order, then John. Basically in presumed chronological order of their writing, with John as the odd duck coming in at the end—either adding a dose of high-level theological questions or, as semesters tend to get away from professors, getting the requisite nod and discussion but not nearly as much attention as the earlier, ostensibly more reliable and relatable (because more historical) Synoptics.

That's how I'll teach it this fall, and maybe the one after that. But I'm already thinking how to re-shape the course once I get a handle on it.

And I'm thinking I'd like to start with John.

The class is neither for seminarians nor for historians. It isn't a historical intr…

"Nobody's stronger than forgiveness": breaking the cycle of fear and violence in ParaNorman

Occasionally I will re-post here on the new blog some of my favorite pieces from the old one. The following was originally published on August 22, 2012.

Did This Ever Happen to You

A marble-colored cloud
engulfed the sun and stalled,

a skinny squirrel limped toward me
as I crossed the empty park

and froze, the last
or next to last

fall leaf fell but before it touched
the earth, with shocking clarity

I heard my mother’s voice
pronounce my name. And in an instant I passed

beyond sorrow and terror, and was carried up
into the imageless

bright darkness
I came from

and am. Nobody’s
stronger than forgiveness.

—Franz Wright, God's Silence (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), p. 22

- - - - - - -

Let me begin with a thesis: The recent stop-motion film ParaNorman is a sophisticated parable about communities' exclusion of those labeled different than the norm, the underlying fears that motivate such exclusionary acts, and the common resources capable of halting and redeeming the result…

Ronald Knox on how to think of Paul's epistles

"So let's try and think of the Epistle, always, as a personal letter sent to us from St. Paul, or one of the other apostles, who is a long way away, but still very much interested in us. Take that Epistle this morning—there's nothing there, I think, St. Paul wouldn't be wanting to say, isn't wanting to say, to you or me. 'We have been praying for you, ' he says, 'unceasingly'; of course he has; the saints in Heaven go on praying all the time, and they pray for all Christian people. He has been praying that you and I may have a closer knowledge of God's will; that you and I may live as God's servants, waiting continually on his pleasure; that you and I may be inspired with full strength, to be patient and to endure; isn't that nice of him? We feel inclined to say "Hurrah!" at the end of it; only we don't say it; we just think "Hurrah!" when the server says Deo Gratias."

—Ronald Knox, The Mass in Slow Motion (…

Mary Midgley on living forever among the boys playing computer-games in the solitudes of space

"It has for some time been proposed that Homo sapiens should colonize space, and should, for convenience in this project, transform himself mechanically into non-organic forms. This project is now held to look increasingly feasible, on the grounds that computer software is the same whatever kind of hardware it runs on, and that minds are only a kind of computer software. Thus, as the eminent Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson puts it:

'It is impossible to set any limit to the variety of forms that life may assume. . . . It is conceivable that in another 1010 years life could evolve away from flesh and blood and become embodied in an interstellar black cloud . . . or in a sentient computer . . .'

"Our successors can thus not only avoid ordinary death, but also survive (if you care to call it surviving) the heat-death of the universe, and sit about in electronic form exchanging opinions in an otherwise empty cosmos. This, Dyson thinks, would restore the meaning to life,…

I've got a new piece up at Marginalia

Called "Systematic Theology and Biblical Criticism," it's a review essay of Ephraim Radner's latest book, Time and the Word: Figural Reading of the Christian Scriptures. The book is an important entry in the ongoing scholarly reflection on the doctrine of Scripture, theological interpretation, historical-critical scholarship, and revisionary metaphysics. Last month Michael Legaspi reviewed the book for First Things, as did Michael Cover for Living Church. Happy to add my voice to the mix. Looking forward to further conversations about the book.

Kathryn Tanner featured in The Christian Century

I don't know that Kathryn Tanner (meine Doktormutter at Yale) ever thought she'd be the cover story on a national magazine, but there she is gracing the front of The Christian Century. It's called "How Kathryn Tanner's theology bridges doctrine and social action," written by Amy Plantinga Pauw. It's an excellent, accessible entree to Tanner's thought, particularly the last ten years or so and the ever-present emphasis, throughout her three-plus decades of work, of the non-competitive relationship between divine and human action. Go check it out.

Pauw only hints at a possible criticism, namely the role and doctrine of the church in Tanner's thought, but doesn't explore it further. That's because she already did so in an article some years ago, which gently but less tentatively suggests Tanner develop an ecclesiology—which Tanner then did, albeit briefly, in a response to that essay. For those interested in pursuing that line of thought, two…

More on the analogia entis (from my inbox)

I emailed my last post to a couple friends and asked them to spot any errors. They came back with some helpful clarifying comments and questions, so let me post some of them below along with my responses.

Friend #1:

I like the first half of this. I think you’re right to make the doctrine fundamentally metaphysical (with the latter allowing certain epistemological moves). I read the analogy of being in Thomas as shorthand for the whole metaphysical process of emanation and return, and with that of the corresponding epistemological moves of affirmation and negation in positive and negative theologies.

The second half (the Barthian bit!) raises some questions for me. Firstly—and this is a predictably historicizing point—when you say things like “the analogy of being makes the claim,” what exactly do you mean? To put it bluntly, the doctrine “the analogy of being” doesn’t obviously say anything it all. Doctrines don’t make claims. People and texts make claims about doctrines. And …

A stab at the analogia entis

The analogy of being does not analogize God and creatures under the more general category of being, but is the analogization of being in the difference between God and creatures.

—David Bentley Hart 

What is the analogy of being? Here's my stab at a clear, sympathetic description.

The analogy of being is a Christian theological claim about the relationship between God and creatures and the ontological conditions of the possibility for the latter to know and/or speak about the former. As I understand it, it entails three core claims.

First, God is and creatures are;
Second, God is the creator of all that is that is not God, that is, creatures have the source and sustenance of their being in the one triune God;
Third, God speaks to human beings, as the rational embodied creatures they are, thus eliciting their reply and constituting a unique relationship (compared to other creatures' relationship to God).

The analogy of being makes the claim that the ontological condition of the …

I've got a new article out in Modern Theology

It's called "What is the Doctrine of the Trinity For? Practicality and Projection in the Theology of Robert Jenson." You can find it here (paywalled). And here's the abstract:

"This articles engages the theology of Robert Jenson with three questions in mind: What is the doctrine of the Trinity for? Is it a practical doctrine? If so, how, and with what implications? It seeks, on the one hand, to identify whether Jenson’s trinitarian theology ought to count as a “social” doctrine of the Trinity, and to what extent he puts it to work for human socio-practical purposes. On the other hand, in light of Jenson’s career-long worries about Feuerbach and projection onto a God behind or above the triune God revealed in the economy, the article interrogates his thought with a view to recent critiques of social trinitarianism. The irony is that, in constructing his account of the Trinity as both wholly determined in and by the economy and maximally relevant for practical hum…

The real problem with political liberalism

"Near the beginning of the book, Tuininga takes brief notice of recent theological critiques of liberalism, but it’s not clear he has grasped the objections. He defines liberal democracy as a system of representative, democratic government erected to protect rights 'in accord with the rule of law under a system of checks and balances that includes the separation of church and state.' Virtually none of liberalism’s theological critics objects to these forms and procedures as such. Their complaint isn’t against representative government or voting or freedom of speech and association. No one advocates a fusion of Church and state.

"Rather, they claim that such a formal, procedural description masks the basic thrust of liberalism. Liberalism’s stated aim is to construct a society without substantive commitments, leaving everyone free to choose whatever his or her . . . own may be. Liberalism’s common good is to protect society from adopting any single vision…

The liturgical/praying animal in Paradise Lost

In Book VII of Paradise Lost, Milton has the angel Raphael recount to Adam the six days of creation, and this is what he says concerning humanity:

There wanted yet the master-work, the end
Of all yet done—a creature who, not prone
And brute as other creatures, but endued
With sanctity of reason, might erect
His stature, and upright with front serene
Govern the rest, self-knowing, and from thence
Magnanimous to correspond with Heaven,
But grateful to acknowledge whence his good
Descends; thither with heart, and voice, and eyes
Directed in devotion, to adore
And worship God Supreme, who made him chief
Of all his works.

What is striking about this account is the way in which the rationality ascribed to humanity, unique among all creatures, is specified and given content. Initially it seems quite in line with classical accounts: humans are distinct by virtue of their reason. But what sort of reason, and to what end?

According to Milton, men and women are rational inasmuch as, and so that…

Webster on Barth's engagement with philosophy

"Barth's insistence on speaking [with philosophy/non-Christian disciplines] on his own terms is not to be interpreted as obstinate reluctance to come out of his lair and talk to the rest of the world; quite the contrary: in writing, as in life, Barth showed remarkable openness to all manner of ideas, provided he is allowed to exercise Christian nonconformity."

—John Webster, Barth, 2nd ed. (New York: T&T Clark, 2000, 2004), p. 174

P. D. James on the sameness, the joylessness of lust

"Dalgliesh walked through Soho to the Cortez Club. With his mind still freshened by the clean emptiness of Suffolk he found these canyoned streets, even in their afternoon doldrums, more than usually depressing. It was difficult to believe that he had once enjoyed walking through this shoddy gulch. Now even a month's absence made the return less tolerable. It was largely a matter of mood, no doubt, for the district is all things to all men, catering comprehensively for those needs which money can buy. You see it as you wish. An agreeable place to dine; a cosmopolitan village tucked away behind Piccadilly with its own mysterious village life, one of the best shopping centres for food in London, the nastiest and most sordid nursery of crime in Europe. Even the travel journalists, obsessed by its ambiguities, can't make up their minds. Passing the strip clubs, the grubby basement stairs, the silhouettes of bored girls against the upstairs window blinds, Dalgliesh thought tha…

The best American crime novelists of the last century, or: a way into the genre

Four and a half years ago I decided I wanted to try out the genre of crime fiction. I was about to take a semester off from my doctoral studies for paternity leave, and I knew my academic reading would be on the wane, at least while I was caring for my newborn son during the day. I needed something punchy, new, and different that would grab and hold my attention during downtime, long walks, and seemingly endless Baby Bjorn–pacing.

So I ordered a few books: The 39 Steps by John Buchan, The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins, The Hunter by Donald Westlake, Killing Floor by Lee Child, and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John le Carré. An odd, eclectic sampling, obviously made by an outsider. In any case, the experiment worked.

Turns out I love crime fiction.

From there, I wanted to get my hands on the best stuff out there. But the way my mind works, I wanted to do this in a particular way. First, I wanted to get a sense of the genre as a w…

Four writing tips for seminarians

In the spring of 2016 I served as a teaching assistant for a course at Yale Divinity School on theological interpretation of the New Testament (co-taught by Dale Martin and Kathryn Tanner. I know!). After the first month of class, the students began submitting one 3-page theological exegesis of a NT text on a weekly basis until the end of the semester, for a total of eight mini-papers. The goal—quite successful, as a matter of fact—was to offer detailed feedback on each student's writing in order to see a much improved paper #8 compared to paper #1. It was a lovely thing to see how much improvement could come in just two months.

At the beginning, however, there were a lot of problems to work out. After finding patterns across a number of students' papers, I wrote up a list of writing tips, and I thought I'd share them here. They probably lean in the direction of liberal seminarians, or at least seminarians at a liberal school—though my sense is that even the most conservat…

Freud's historical-critical methods

"When I use Biblical tradition here in such an autocratic and arbitrary way, draw on it for confirmation whenever it is convenient, and dismiss its evidence without scruple when it contradicts my conclusions, I know full well that I am exposing myself to severe criticism concerning my method and that I weaken the force of my proofs. But this is the only way in which to treat material whose trustworthiness—as we know for certain—was seriously damaged by the influence of distorting tendencies. Some justification will be forthcoming later, it is hoped, when we have unearthed those secret motives. Certainty is not to be gained in any case, and, moreover, we may say that all other authors have acted likewise."

—Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, trans. Katherine Jones (New York: Vintage Books, 1939), 30n.1

Barth on what matters in the Gospel narratives

"In the editing and composition of the Evangelical narratives the interest and art and rules of the historian do not matter. What matters is His living existence in the community and therefore in the world. What matters is His history as it has indeed happened but as it is present and not past. What matters is His speaking and acting and suffering and dying today as well as yesterday. What matters is the "good news" of His history as it speaks and rings out hic et nunc. It is not a question of digging out and preserving Himself and His history in order to have them before us and study them. It is a matter of living with Him the living One, and therefore of participating in His history . . . . It is quite right that the voice and form of Jesus cannot in practice be distinguished with any finality in the Gospels from the community founded by Him and sharing His life. The historian may find this disconcerting and suspicious (or even provocatively interesting). It is furthe…

Figural christology in children's Bibles

The two Bibles my wife and I read to our children are The Jesus Storybook Bible, written by Sally Lloyd-Jones and illustrated by Jago, and the Jesus Calling Bible Storybook, by Sarah Young. Their favorite story by far is "the Moses story" (a title I required instead of their original "the Pharaoh story"), which they quickly came to know like the back of their hand.

One night, when I persuaded them to let me read them something other than the Moses story, we read the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. To my delight, when we got to the part where the three were thrown into the fiery furnace, and "a fourth figure" was there with them, and none of them were burned by the fire, the text and illustration both delivered on the christological implications of the episode and drew the figural connection implicit within it.

First, my children recognized the fourth figure as Jesus, for the simple reason that he is depicted exactly as he is later in the same Bi…

Zechariah as the sixth evangelist

Isaiah was famously heralded by the church fathers (originally Jerome?) as "the fifth Evangelist." If there's room for another at the table, I propose we give the honor to Zechariah. Having never read the book start-to-finish before, in doing so the last couple of weeks I was repeatedly struck by how deeply interwoven it is into the canonical Gospels; along with Second Isaiah and the Psalms, it is an ineliminable feature of the Evangelists' depiction of Jesus's person, teachings, ministry, actions, and passion. Tug on that thread, and the texts unravel. Given its importance, I wonder—because I don't know—whether and to what extent the fathers and medievals read and commented on Zechariah, or whether, for whatever reason, it slipped by the wayside. Given its non-linear and non-systematic character, its apocalyptic and sometimes violent imagery, and its simultaneous emphasis on contemporaneous political events as well as the coming eschatological …

Marilynne Robinson on biblical scholarship

A lovely little missive from outside the theological academy, directed right at the heart of biblical scholarship. Amen and amen:

"Perhaps I should say here that when I say 'Matthew,' 'Mark,' or 'Luke' I mean the text that goes by that name. I adapt the sola scriptura to my own purposes, assuming nothing beyond the meaningfulness of forms, recurrences, and coherences within and among the Gospels, at the same time acknowledging that different passions and temperaments distinguish one text from another. I have solemnly forbidden myself all the forms of evidence tampering and deck stacking otherwise known as the identification of interpolations, omissions, doublets, scribal errors, et alia, on the grounds that they are speculation at best, and distract the credulous, including their practitioners, with the trappings and flourishes of esotericism. I hope my own inevitable speculations are clearly identified as such."

—Marilynne Robinson, The Gi…

Thomas Aquinas on the Trinity in Genesis 1

"[One reason] why the knowledge of the divine persons [that is, that God is triune] was necessary for us . . . [is that i]t was necessary for the right idea of creation. The fact of saying that God made all things by His Word excludes the error of those who say that God produced things by necessity. When we say that in Him there is a procession of love, we show that God produced creatures not because He needed them, nor because of any other extrinsic reason, but on account of the love of His own goodness. So Moses, when he had said, In the beginning God created heaven and earth, he subjoined, God said, Let there be light, to manifest the divine Word; and then said, God saw the light that it was good, to show the proof of the divine love [that is, the Holy Spirit]. The same is also found in the other works of creation."

—Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Q32 a1 ad3

Augustine on multiple interpretations of Scripture

"There are doubtless other ways of understanding our Lord's words, Why ask me about the good? No one is good but the one God (Matt 19:17). Provided however they do not favor belief that the Son's substance, by which he is the Word through whom all things were made (John 1:3), is of a lesser goodness than the Father's, and are not otherwise at odds with sound doctrine, we may cheerfully use not merely one interpretation but as many as can be found. For the more ways we open up of avoiding the traps of heretics, the more effectively can they be convinced of their errors."
—Augustine, De Trinitate I.31

Brevard Childs as John Rawls

In the coming days I'm going to be intermittently re-posting pieces here, on the new blog, that originally appeared on my previous blog. I wrote the following post in February 2015.

Reading the work of Brevard Childs, in tandem with its critical reception, it strikes me that he is the John Rawls of late 20th century biblical scholarship. Enormously talented, undeniably brilliant, hugely influential, an intellectual pillar at an elite Ivy League institution—and yet, the "big idea" that animated his thought throughout his career never stopped evolving, never quite reached clarity in presentation, and by the time retirement came it had, as it were, reached the point of exhaustion, becoming a disciplinary touchstone that basically nobody was persuaded by anymore. Reviews and summaries tend to treat both men's thought similarly: we "must" talk about them; they "changed" the field; and, today, we are "beyond" them. One's feeling …

"About This Blog"

I've created an "About This Blog" page here (along with a page for my CV here). Here's what you'll find there:

My name is Brad East, and I am a theologian, professor, and writer. As of fall 2017 I will be Assistant Professor of Theology in the College of Biblical Studies at Abilene Christian University. I will walk in December with my PhD in Theology from Yale University, having earned my Master's of Divinity from Emory University in 2011 and my Bachelor's from Abilene Christian in 2007. For more academic credentials, see my CV.

I've been blogging on and off since summer 2006. I began to blog in earnest when I entered my Master's studies in Atlanta in 2008, a practice that continued through my course work in New Haven, but tailed off after that.

Why pick it up now? And what do I want this blog to be?

I'm one of the lucky ones in the academy, getting a great job offer right out of doctoral studies. My blogging had decreased to almost n…

More on "everyone," and the market

Two more thoughts on my last post regarding the use of "everyone" in political and pop-culture punditry.

First, "everyone" is commonly used to refer to either TV viewership or movie audience numbers. So that "everyone" saw Summer Blockbuster X or "everyone" watches Game of Thrones (or Big Little Liars or The People vs. O. J. Simpson). Or even "everyone" on Twitter.

Part of the problem, which is generally admitted, is that the so-called "monoculture" is a thing of the past: gone are the days when nearly half of all American adults watched an important or popular primetime TV episode. But critics and commentators yearn for the relevance of the art they write about, so if either a show generates a lot of content online or if it is legitimately popular by today's standards, the old dependable trope of "everyone" gets tossed about with liberality.

But just consider Game of Thrones, perhaps the most popular show on TV…

The thing about "everyone"

Both political pundits and pop-culture commentators have the exceptionally bad habit of referring to "everyone" when what they mean is either (a) an extraordinarily small slice of the population or (b) themselves, their friends, and those like them.

Two examples.

Last November, while discussing the new Marvel film Doctor Strange on The Watch podcast, Andy Greenwald said, "I think that people are battered and beaten down by comic book movies and the Marvel movies." In context, the conversation was about how "everyone" feels—e.g., "people"—regarding the cultural phenomenon of comic book movies.

But note how silly and easily falsified this comment is (coming from an otherwise lovely and thoughtful writer and podcaster). People keep going to see these movies. Not only that, but by all accounts, not least self-report, many to most people who keep going to see these movies appear to like them, even like them very much. That is my own anecdotal experie…