John Wenham: An Appreciation

Recently, I had the opportunity to read the autobiography of the late British biblical scholar, John Wenham,  entitled Facing Hell: The Story of a Nobody.  I had tracked down this out-of-print book largely because I was under the impression that it focused on the development of Wenham’s  doctrine of hell. For most of his adult life, he was an outspoken (though soft-spoken)  proponent of a view called ‘conditional immortality’, sometimes referred to as annihilationism, to which I also subscribe. This view, in short, holds that those who are not saved by Christ’s work are not punished eternally in hell, but are eventually destroyed there as the consequence for their sin and rejection of God’s offer of eternal life.

Because it is such a minority view in evangelical circles, I was interested in observing how Wenham’s adherence to this position practically impacted his pastoral ministry and I also wanted to learn how he responded to those who held to the traditional Augustinian view of eternal conscious torment.  Alas, Facing Hell turned out to be somewhat falsely advertised.  Though his developing views on the topic of judgment occasionally come up in the course of Wenham’s life story, it is not until page 229 that conditionalism becomes a central focus, and then, the section only lasts for 35 pages.  The author had described the genesis of this book in the preface as arising from the following intention:

I believe that endless torment is a hideous and unscriptural doctrine which has been a terrible burden on the mind of the church for many centuries and a terrible blot on her presentation of the gospel.  I should indeed be happy if, before I die, I could help in sweeping it away.

Sadly, I would say that this intention failed to guide the book that resulted from it, though his short defense of conditional immortality in Facing Hell is quite cogent and well-stated, and will accordingly serve as an asset in the history of theological support for this position.  However, what I did discover in this book is the story of a wonderfully earnest Christian thinker, who played an important role in the history of evangelical movement in the 20th century, and whose example deserves to be commemorated by subsequent generations of Christ followers.

At one point in the book, Wenham says, ‘I have felt at times that I am a forgotten man’ and in the preface, he describes himself as ‘a person of most limited gifts, a mere nobody’, ‘an ordinary person’, and ‘third rate’.  After reading this book, I would disagree with his humble self-assessment, though I do admire the spirit in which he offers it.  In the following post, I would like to highlight some of the many extraordinary facets of the life of John Wenham that I discovered in his autobiography.

At least, 35 pages of facing hell

First, it must be pointed out that it certainly makes sense that he considers himself ‘forgotten’ when compared to some of his friends and colleagues, since he served alongside some of the greatest names in 20th century evangelical thought:

  • Along with John Stott, J.I. Packer, and others, Wenham founded the Latimer House, an evangelical research center near Oxford University, designed to promote conservative Christian views in the midst of the liberal theological intelligentsia and to advance the evangelical voice in the Anglican church (thanks to Dom Vincent for the explanation of the purpose of the Latimer House, which I had a difficult time discovering!).
  • While serving as Warden of the Latimer House from 1970-73, Wenham had the opportunity to influence many students at Oxford.  At one point in his book, Wenham writes, “Tom Wright says that it was I who suggested that he should take up academic work-though I don’t in the least remember the occasion.”  Many readers may recognize ‘Tom’ as N.T. Wright, one of the most influential evangelical voices in our time.
  • Wenham was also good friends with F.F. Bruce and taught at various times with R.T. France, Colin Brown, and Anthony Thistleton.
  • He is also the father of Old Testament scholar, Gordan Wenham, whom Tremper Longman has described as ‘one of the finest evangelical commentators today,’ as well as New Testament scholar David Wenham.

However, though many of these names may be well known, Wenham does not lavish attention on his connection with them.  Rather, he praises a number of men whose names may be obscure to us, but who deserve tremendous recognition for the influence they had on men like Stott, apologist Michael Green, and many others.  For instance, a leader in Wenham’s Inter-Varsity Fellowship, Douglas Johnson, is described as ‘though almost unknown to the world at large was one of the great influences on the church in the twentieth century–perhaps the greatest.’

Another significant figure in Wenham’s life, Eric Nash, who was called ‘Bash’, was characterised by Alister McGrath as having an evangelistic ministry to young men that ‘laid the nucleus for a new generation of Evangelical thinkers and leaders’.  As we have seen in the influence of Wenham on N.T. Wright, I believe that John Wenham is one of these figures who may not be remembered by large numbers of people, but who has had a tremendous influence on Christian history in the 20th century.

Some of Wenham’s writings are still held in high esteem within the evangelical community, including his Greek textbook, The Elements of New Testament Greek; his conservative defense of Scripture, Christ and the Bible (which was recently touted by Thomas Schreiner as being a “classic work on the authority of Scripture”); his harmonization of the gospel resurrection accounts, Easter Enigma; and Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke, which supports patristic views on the authorship of the gospels and a very conservative dating of their order of composition.

This man was a classic conservative Bible scholar, well-regarded by some of the most traditionalist Christian thinkers, yet when he diverged from the party line on the subject of hell, somehow all of those conservative credentials and his profound understanding of Scripture vaporized into thin air and he became an antagonist against authentic evangelicalism, which is how he is portrayed in Al Mohler’s article in Hell Under Fire (where Mohler calls Wenham’s views on hell “hysterical”).

“My ability to view others charitably is THIS big.”

There, Mohler quotes from an article by John Ankerberg and John Weldon that lists out a number of annihilationists, such as John Stott, Philip Hughes, and Wenham, and follows with the tag: “and other well-known and reputedly evangelical leaders.”  These writers actually claim that “the doctrine of eternal punishment is the watershed between evangelical and non-evangelical thought.”  I’m not sure who elected these individuals to be the border guards of evangelicalism, but maligning men like Stott and Wenham as being “reputedly” evangelical in light of all that they have done for conservative Christian thought is a tactic that is not worthy of any true believer (see how I can use the same insinuating maneuver that they have?!).

Given what I have learned about John Wenham, his status as an evangelical is undeniable, his contribution to contemporary Christianity is invaluable, and I hope that his memory and influence will be lauded long after the Mohlers and Ankerbergs of Christianity have been revealed as the Joe McCarthy’s of a sad era in evangelical history.  I am proud to keep Wenham company in the ranks of a minority view on hell and I hope that I may in some small way help to contribute to his goal of sweeping away the traditionalist view of eternal conscious punishment in honor of the deeply thoughtful and fearlessly honest life that this man led for Christ and the truth.

UPDATE: I just came across an excerpt from John Stott’s biography which reveals a bit about the influence of John Wenham on Stott!

The Gift (I Burn for You)

Being that this is the time of year when we celebrate the birth of Jesus by giving one another all sorts of things that we don’t really need (check out the Advent Conspiracy for a counter-consumerist idea of Christmas), I thought it right to offer a small gift to you all…in the form of two versions of a song CALLED “The Gift (I Burn for You)” which has something of a fun history behind it.

In December 2007, Sufjan Stevens created what was called “The Great Sufjan Song Xmas Xchange,” which was basically a contest where anyone could submit a Christmas-themed song to Sufjan’s label, Asthmatic Kitty, and there would be a process of judging the songs with the winner being given the rights to a holiday song that Sufjan had composed.

I had written a number of songs in the past (30 or so) and felt like I could possibly come up with something creative enough to submit, and I had a few wonderfully talented friends whom I thought I could bring together to play/sing on the song in order to make it sound much better than I ever could myself.  So, I began brainstorming ideas for this submission.

I am embarrassed to admit that I believe it was the movie, The Holiday, with Kate Winslet that actually planted the seed of a song idea in my mind.  My wife was watching it and I caught just a glimpse of a scene where the character played by Ms. Winslet was giving a present to a man who was something of an unrequited love (if I’m remembering correctly).  I started thinking of how painful it would be to have put a great deal of time and energy into finding a present, which represented the deep affections in one’s own heart, and giving it to a person who could/would not appreciate what it truly meant.  So I started thinking of a story that would become the song I submitted.

The melody and structure of the song came to me quite easily, but it is a rather simple composition (verse/pre-chorus/chorus repeated three times with no bridge).  I asked one of my RA’s at the time (and a dear friend ever after), Erin Hennessy, to sing the song, as it was written from a female perspective and she has an eminently lovely voice, and I tried to form a one-off band with the ever talented Josh McBride, Jon Crosswhite, Justin Botz, and the one-and-only genius wunderkind, Elijah Wade Smith.

Erin & Josh singing "Boots of Spanish Leather" at Biola

Well, as the deadline approached, my superband did not pan out, but Elijah did record Erin and I playing the song the night before the contest deadline and so we submitted it to Sufjan as “Erin Hennessy & Sgt. Grumbles,” which was my pen name at the time (though due to a technical glitch, it was a mono recording and could only be heard from one side of a stereo system…Randall Wetzig later used some connections to fix this problem for your listening convenience).

Did we win the prize?  Nope.  Did we win an honorable mention?  Nope (though my friend Wesley’s band Boris Smile did!).  However, as Sufjan was writing about the over 600 submissions that he received, our song DID get a little shout out in this paragraph:

There were songs with banjos and ukuleles, songs with synthesizer strings, songs with Casio beats, techno beats, beat boxing, sugary shaker sounds and tambourines. There were songs in Latin, songs in Danish, songs in multiple key signatures, songs with vocoders, songs with Rhodes pianos, toy pianos, multiple xylophones, precious songs with Midwestern accents, sardonic songs with English accents, whistling songs, songs with wrapping paper as metaphor for an overbearing lover, songs as advice columns to Santa, as advice columns to ex-lovers, songs with reed organs and mouth organs and pipe organs. Songs with references to Henry James, in-laws, more ex-girlfriends, abstract ambient songs with twinkling bells and silver glitter, no-nonsense songs with the curmudgeon-y sneer of a Grinch, songs about innocence and forgiveness, songs about spite and regret, songs with great big bear hugs and songs with wintry gazes, songs with reminiscent, sentimental choruses, songs with the names of soccer players and American tycoons, songs with sleigh bells and happy rapping, songs with the thumping back beats of reindeer hooves, screaming children, bumbling boo hoos, bah-humbugs, songs with the beating hearts of all mankind. These were the generous songs of many creative voices participating in the convoluted mysteries of the Christmas tube sock! Yes!

So although we did not win the prize, just knowing that Sufjan had listened to a song I had written & upon which I was (weakly) playing guitar made all of the effort worthwhile!  (Also, the reference to Henry James in the song is meant to allude to his novella, “The Beast in the Jungle,” which deals with a story of unrequited love.)  But the story doesn’t end there…

Last Christmas, I received one of the best Christmas gifts ever, as Josh, Erin and Jon re-arranged and recorded “The Gift” and sent it to me, complete with banjo, sing-along “la-la” parts, and most cleverly, Josh’s voice singing the parts spoken by the man in the song under Erin’s lead vocal.  While I’m sure you will enjoy their rendering of this tune, because of the sweet friendship and affection which I hear in every note, I think it is simply one of the most lovely things I’ve ever heard!  I’ve included the original version here so you can hear Erin’s beautiful voice more clearly (the new version was recorded via the mic on a laptop) and to see the brilliance of the re-arrangement!

Hope you enjoy this “gift” dear friends and readers…

Download: “The Gift (I Burn for You)

The Gift (I Burn for You)

It’s dark outside, my hands are cold from pressing against the window pane

And a fire burns as I wait for you as if all my waiting was through.

My gift to you sits next to the tree, boxes in golden paper:

A record player and 40 LP’s—I searched hard for your favorite bands.

I know that this will give me away, but I don’t care at all…

The time has come to open my heart and accept whatever may happen or not.

.

I burn for you

Like the star shining over the manger

To direct you to

My heart lying quiet

Like Jesus the savior of men.


When you show up and take off your jacket, you’re wearing the sweater I gave to you.

I make myself wait ‘til we’ve finished dinner to show you the present, but then you say

“Did I tell you that my ex-girlfriend’s back in town from Colorado?”

Then you look away, I go make some coffee.

You ask me to borrow some Henry James.

I tell you to take whatever you want and you say that you’ll take it all

And then you ask, “Who’s that present for?” and I say, “It’s for my brother.”

.

It’s dark inside, my face is warm from shame and from tears and a hope that’s lost.

The fire dies, I cover my eyes but see through my fingers your present there—

Should I give it away?  I know it can’t stay, but I spent all my money on it.

I open it up and take out one record—of course, it had to be “Hey Jude.”

I hold it in my hands like it was my life they were singing about…

I kneel by the fire and then throw it in so that no one can ever hear it again.

“Two Months”: a melange of songs from 2010

SO, we are almost to the point where there are only TWO MONTHS left in 2010!  Which means, most importantly to those of us here at LITC, that Elijah and I have but two months to put the finishing touches on our annual “best of” lists (music, film, what-not).

In anticipation of that great day when we post aforementioned lists, I have put together a little “mix CD” with what I feel is some of the best music of the year–no guarantees that ALL of these bands will be on the list, but there are good “odds” (you might say) that some of them will certainly take their place on that hallowed post.  (Note: there is one track not from a release this year, a rare Jeff Buckley/Elizabeth Fraizer collaboration that I only recently came across…so it’s NEW to me!)

I have entitled the mix, “Two Months,” which I only the moment I began writing consciously realised was the amount of time left in the year.  I have included my stab at a cover for the mix (artwork from Craig Thompson), as well as the playlist so that you may recreate the song order on your own music management software.

I have posted the songs here in my “Dropbox”–I suppose you will have to download the program to access them (I’ve officially been told you do not), but I’ve found it quite a handy way to shar–um, access my own files from separate computers.  I do present these songs with the intention of promoting the artists & always encourage true music fans to obtain the original release if they find themselves in love with the songs.

1.  “I Think Ur A Contra”–Vampire Weekend/Contra

2.  “Tyrant Destroyed”–Twin Shadow/Forget

3.  “See How Man Was Made”–Josh Ritter/So Runs The World Away

4.  “We Used to Wait”–Arcade Fire/The Suburbs

5.  “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk”–The New Pornographers/Together

6.  “Heart to Tell”–The Love Language/Libraries

7.  “FootShooter”–Frightened Rabbit/The Winter Of Mixed Drinks

8.  “I Walked”–Sufjan Stevens/The Age Of Adz

9.  “Solitude Is Bliss”–Tame Impala/InnerSpeaker

10.  “Never Before”–The Guggenheim Grotto/The Universe Is Laughing

11.  “What Do You Think Will Happen Now?”–Owen Pallett/Heartland

12.  “The Owl And The Tanager”–Sufjan Stevens/All Delighted People EP

13.  “Acid Love”–Sleepy Sun/Fever

14.  “All Flowers in Time Bend Towards the Sun”–Jeff Buckley & Elizabeth Fraizer/Rarities from NYC

15.  “Sorrow”–The National/High Violet

16.  “The Last One”–Au Revoir Simone/Still Night, Still Light

17.  “Before You Go”–Sarah Jaffe/Suburban Nature

18.  “Victory”–The Walkmen/Lisbon

19.  “Hengilas”–Jónsi/Go

R.I.P. “Evangelicalism”?

Ah, we hardly knew ye...well, we hardly knew what ye meant

I am beginning to wonder if the time has come to retire the term “evangelicalism” from its role in describing the faith community to which I belong (or rather, less presumptuously, its role in my own self-identification).  The problem with using this term at this point in history comes from its association with two different contemporary phenomena:

  1. The term “Evangelical” has now been used in the media to describe the members of Insane Clown Posse.  I quote from an article Elijah pointed me to on The Guardian website:  “Insane Clown Posse have this entire time secretly been evangelical Christians.”  I’m not sure what exactly in the ICP statement of faith led to using the adjective “evangelical,” but it seems like it is sticking.  And if you know anything about this group, we should be heading a million miles an hour in the opposite direction of anything associated with them.  But beyond that, the term has also been used in connection with (almost) Koran-burning pastor Terry Jones, God-Hates-Fags-sign-holding pastor/dbag Fred Phelps, the founders and participants in the so-called “Jesus Camp,” and in reference to many more wackos and imbeciles.
  2. On the other hand, there are a number of quite intelligent Christian groups who want to co-opt the term “evangelical” to describe ONLY those who agree with the doctrines of  their particular tradition.  In other words, they want to re-write the definition of what it means to be evangelical…and due to their aggressive fervor and polemical methods, they are actually succeeding to some extent!  Suddenly, certain leaders, churches and organizations are declaring that Pentecostals are not “truly” evangelical, Arminians are “heretics,” theistic evolutionists are rushing headlong into apostasy, etc. and that only their doctrinally-pure tradition can safe-guard “true evangelicalism” from these heterodox movements.

Both of these appropriations of the term “evangelical” bring me to the point where I feel uncomfortable associating myself with this tradition, although evangelicalism is CLEARLY my background, these folks are “my people” in a cultural and traditional sense, and I have some inclination to maintain my affiliation with the term “evangelical” (albeit with some modifiers i.e. “post-conservative” as described here) in that it connects linguistically to “the Gospel” and historically to a Protestant heritage in which I find much to appreciate.

However, I also wonder if it might be helpful to dissociate from some of the term’s negative connotations for a period and allow a later generation to re-appropriate the term once the “ass” is removed from its “association” with these embarrassing and narrow-minded movements.  It seems obvious that Christian groups have often used a variety of labels throughout the centuries to identify their faith stance (beginning with the biblical moniker: “Followers of the Way”) and perhaps it is our turn to “re-invent” ourselves in this cultural era.

  • If you disagree and think those of us considered evangelicals should keep the label, how would you suggest we deal with the connotations which are being attached to this term?
  • If you agree with me or  have the slightest inclination to sympathize with this assessment…what should we begin to call ourselves (consider this a creative experiment intended more for fun–we mustn’t take this all too seriously)?

I have a few ideas, but I’d love to hear any of your thoughts first!

UPDATE:  One of my main theoroes, Roger Olson, has started a blog and wrote about “Deconstructing Evangelicalism.”  Here’s a pull quote that illustrates point #2 above:

Rather than practicing hospitality through dialogue and consensus-building, today’s conservative evangelicals are too concerned with excluding people.  In some cases this lack of value placed on alternity borders on violence.  Not physical violence but spiritual abuse which is another kind of violence.

A Portrait of the Artist in The Age of Adz

Sufjan Steven’s new album, The Age of Adz, officially comes out on Oct. 12.  For those of us anxious souls who pre-ordered the CD (myself) or vinyl (Elijah), a link to download MP3’s of the tracks was available this past Tuesday.  So I have listened to the album all the way through a few times and I wanted to post my initial reaction.

First of all, I experienced quite a bit of relief in listening to the album, because I was scared that I might not like it—that it would be too experimental (a la Enjoy Your Rabbit) to satiate my Sufyearning, or that it would somehow mark a decline in his songwriting career (the kind of artistic downturn pointed out in Trainspotting).

Indeed, it is neither of these things—the truth is, rather, that I absolutely love this album.  It is different than his last few LP’s, so beware of your expectations, and it takes us into a new aural and thematic territory, so you will need to submit to the album as a guide rather than following your own map of where you think the work should go (if you’ve listened to his cover of “You Are the Blood,” you’ll know what to expect).  Having said that, I want to share some interpretations of The Age of Adz which may or may not be completely legitimate, but rather represent my impulsive first responses to the work.

I haven’t read any reviews yet, but I saw in some pre-release material from Asthmatic Kitty that this album was not “built around any conceptual underpinning (no odes to states, astrology, or urban expressways).”  However, I don’t believe that.  I think that The Age of Adz actually is a concept album, but the “theme” of the album is quite simple:  it is a self-portrait.  This is no stunning insight, considering song titles like “I Walked,” “Now That I’m Older,” “All For Myself,” “I Want to Be Well,” as well as his self-address in “Vesuvius” (sounding like “Sufi-yan”) and his many references to himself on the album (even apologizing for being so self-critical)  I believe that this album is deeply autobiographical, taking the listener all the way from an external experience of Sufjan’s that causes him to go deeper and deeper into himself, on a tour through his emotions, thoughts, religious impulses, raw desires (“id”), and finally into his “Impossible Soul.”

Somehow, I believe, the figure on the cover of the album represents Sufjan’s self-conception.  All I know about this painting is that it is the work of an “outsider artist.”  Does this reveal something about the way Sufjan sees himself?  An outsider? To what?  The painting is primitive, even child-like, somewhat dark and cultic, but also looking like a kind of  superhero–in a word, conflicted.  There is a possible pun in the name:  “Adz” sounds like “odds”—is he at an age where he is at odds with something (clearly there is some reference to his sense of growing older)?  “Outsider,” “at odds”—these seem to hint at some deep inner tension and alienation…but from what?

The realization of this autobiographical form caused me to reflect on the fact that most of his previous songs from the past decade had been in the form of storytelling (where he used first person description not to tell his OWN story, but rather to take on a fictional persona) or worked within a structural framework of a central external concept.  This is not to say there were no autobiographical songs, which one may have found on A Sun Came or Seven Swans.  However, the majority of his songs were distanced from his own self-expression through portraying a fictional persona, illustrating a Biblical scene, or depicting some historical narrative.  Here we find Sufjan singing straight from his own soul with no personas, no “characters.”  It is a cathartic and desperate work of self-expression.

The first song, “Futile Devices,” sets up some of the formal dimensions of the work.  It begins with instrumentation that might make you think this album would be quite in line with his previous albums (the guitar melody/picking reminded me of the song “A Sun Came” in particular…later in “Futile Devices.” he references that he “sounds dumb” which takes us again back to a track on his first album, “Dumb I Sound”).  He even begins by singing, “It’s been a long, long time…” perhaps alluding to the time span since his last lyrically-based LP.  The song introduces the central conflict of the album in his feelings for a person whom he loves very much, but to whom he cannot express his passion.  In fact, he ends the song by saying “words are futile devices.”  Though this will be a lyrical album, the listener must look past the words to a deeper, more ineffable expression of feeling that runs beneath than the words—I believe the intricate instrumentation and emotional passion (the cracking and stretching of his voice) evident in this album are supposed to convey what words cannot.  This first song helps transition us from his “indie-folk” albums into this more experimental, electronic sound, which we find in the primordial bubbling and scratches of the first 25 seconds of “Too Much,” which felt like a sonic version of the old Disneyland ride, “Adventure Thru Inner Space,” shrinking us to fit into the writer’s inner world.

What compelling force draws me into this mysterious darkness--can this be the threshold of inner space?

Rather than analyzing song by song, I’ll just say that I perceived a great deal of internal conflict evident in the album in terms of Sufjan’s inability to express his love for someone and the deeper and more comprehensive self-analysis this feeling produces, leading to the exploration of his own emotional and spiritual complexity.  I began to wonder why this was the case?  What is so difficult about expressing his feelings, or why is he such a conflicted person?  He says again and again in the second song, “There’s too much riding on that” in relation to the feeling of “too much love” (there is more repetition of lyrics on this album than he  typically uses—perhaps revealing a hope that somehow what he feels can be revealed through saying the same thing over and over, or is it an exasperation that he can’t say what he feels, even though he says it over and over?)  What is tormenting him?  What is he afraid of?

Various possible explanations ran through my mind to these questions.  I’ll share my intuitions, which sometimes don’t have much evidence, and am quite open to you debunking these theories (and my whole idea of the album as a self-portrait).  When I get the album and lyrics, I would love to spend some more time considering the meaning and significance of this amazing album with many of my thoughtful friends…

So what are my theories to the central conflict I see in The Age of Adz?  With what is he at “odds”?

  1. Does it have something to do with his adherence to Christianity?  Does he feel like an outsider due to his faith?  His religious commitment results in experiences like prohibition of certain activities, guilt, and the need to confess and receive forgiveness that perhaps other friends (and potential lovers?) cannot comprehend.  Perhaps he is finding himself at odds with his faith itself as it impacts his relationships?  His Christian morality also (potentially) results in his celibacy (which I saw evident in the juxtaposition of the lines “I’m not fucking around” and “And I want to be”) which could produce both internal and relational tension.  So then this would mean that his feelings are complex because of his unique status as a high-profile Christian in a post-Christian world.  Perhaps, but this doesn’t seem like the most compelling theory to me.
  2. Is it that he struggles with relational “attachment” (in line with the psychological notion of “attachment theory”) and so finds he cannot commit to someone even when he feels deeply attracted to them?  Many of his earlier songs seemed to reveal issues with parents/family, so perhaps there are some abandonment issues or lack of relational stability in his history?  This theory is more intuitive than it is substantiated by the lyrics…
  3. Is he in love with someone who is unavailable to him?  Perhaps someone who is married or uninterested in him (which I personally would find hard to believe…come on, I have a man crush on him!)?  Unrequited love can be powerfully debilitating, requiring evasions and disguises to remain around the romantic object, which cause considerable emotional torment and inability to outwardly express one’s thoughts and feelings.  There may be potential here.
  4. I hesitate to offer this last theory, because it feels quite personal, but I wonder if Sufjan might be gay?  This may sound sensational and I don’t mean to pry unnecessarily, but to understand this work, I have to be willing to consider this as a possibility, particularly since it would potentially be extremely difficult to experience these feelings as a Christian (consider Jennifer Knapp’s story).  The first song, where the issue of undeclared love arises, seems to be written about a man.  However, there is contrarily the conversation with a woman who seems to be the object of love in “Impossible Soul.”  After listening to Morrissey’s repressed homosexuality for so long, I may simply be projecting this idea on Sufjan.

So those are my theories on the album for your perusal, dismissal, or development.  I hope you enjoy exploring the depths of this masterful work as much as I have and will continue to do!  If you do not have the MP3’s, you should go out and buy this album as soon as it comes out (and don’t file-share it for goodness sake)!!!

UPDATE:  Listening another time around, with all of this in mind…my theories are on shaky ground.  One intriguing song, “Get Real Get Right” contains some cheesy electronic sounds and vocal effects worthy of a segment on “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” and yet this is one of the more overtly “Christian” songs on the album with talk of seared consciences and getting right with the Lord.  Maybe this plays into theory #1?  There are some other kitschy moments on the album where a vocoder is used (similar to Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” or Bon Iver’s “Woods”) along with some other robotic vocal effects (similar to a lot of 1980’s songs).  Is he just having fun, or is there something in this particular choice?

ANOTHER UPDATE:  There are no lyrics in the CD sleeve.  Which reinforces the idea that words are “futile devices.”  Now what the hell do all those paintings by the “Prophet Royal Robertson” mean in the context of this album!?

Mocking Hipster Faith

The tracking site for all things viral, Buzzfeed, has just picked up on something that we here at Lost in the Cloud pointed out like MONTHS ago*, namely, the ridiculously lame choice of a cover image for the “Hipster Faith” article in Christianity Today.  The more I think about it, the more I detest this book/article/subcultural label (while remaining ignorant of the whole argument, since I haven’t read the book, and with a big “no offense” to the author of said materials).

*Ok, it was less than one month, but in terms of the attention span of today’s kids, that’s like YEARS!

The same website also posted on the Calvin College decision to uninvite The New Pornographers to play at their school (a topic which my friend Rob Kirkendall thoughtfully comments upon here).  I give props to whomever at Calvin invited them to come in the first place, but this decision feels like it’s just feeding the public perception of evangelical ignorance and presumptuousness.  I’m sure there are so many students & faculty/staff at Calvin that hate this decision as well, so it shouldn’t reflect poorly on them (we’ll let their soteriology do that!  heh-heh, um, J/K?), but really the more Christians cave in to the conservative power-brokers, the more we taint the image of what it means to follow Christ in the world…it’s time for a revolution.  Perhaps, a SECOND Reformation anyone?

The Mirror & the Telescope, Part IV

THE MIRROR & THE TELESCOPE, PART IV:  THE HERMENEUTICAL KEY

The dual subject view of biblical revelation obviously raises questions of how we should understand what the Bible is disclosing to us and how we may use Scripture to theological ends.  Witherington proposes that, in reading Scripture, we need to ask the question “in what sense, and in regard to what subject, is this text telling the truth?” He sees value in distinguishing between genres as a starting point for understanding the subject of revelation:  “In oracles [prophetic words], we can expect the will and character of God to be most clearly reflected.  Prayers and songs that come from the human heart may well tell us the truth about ourselves rather than about God’s character.  And narratives can reveal both of these sorts of truths.” (25) While this is moving in the direction of the approach I am advocating, I’m not certain that these broad strokes are completely helpful.  First, prayers and songs may indeed reveal God’s nature or plans, not merely human experience.  Second, Witherington’s generic distinctions still leave the largest portions of Scripture, which are narratives, in an ambiguous position.  Finally, sometimes we find false prophets speaking in oracles, so even the trustworthiness of prophecies require some level of discernment.

Pinnock points to the classical rule of context in hermeneutics:  “We must pay attention to who is speaking and what is being said to us in each place [in the Bible].” (84) However, if we put our confidence exclusively in the character of the speakers, we may find that sometimes those who are opposed to God may end up revealing truth (e.g. the pagan prophet Balaam in Numbers 22-24 or the Jewish high priest Caiaphas in John 11:49-52) while those who are God’s prophets may utter something questionable.  An example of this is found in Aaron’s commendation for the Hebrews to worship the golden calf he had fashioned as YHWH.  We also find in Habakkuk 1:2 and 1:13 an example where the prophet, speaking in an oracle, says that God does not listen to his cries for help and that God’s “eyes are too pure to behold evil, and…cannot look on wrongdoing.”  Although we may say this reflects a human emotion or desire to lift up God’s holiness, it is uttered in a form where we would expect it to be theologically accurate—yet we can see that God did hear Habakkuk’s cries and in fact does see evil and wrongdoing.  So sometimes where we may expect to find corrupt fallible humanity, we may actually discover divine truth; where we expect to hear God’s perfect voice, we may find the truth of human longing, pain, or other experiences.

Sometimes, even an ass can speak the truth (painting by Rembrandt)

Though this dual-subject theory of revelation adds a great deal of tension to our biblical interpretive strategies, there does exist a key that may help us understand and clarify the revelation of humanity and divinity in Scripture:  the God-man, Jesus Christ.  As we saw in the original analogy of the mirror and the telescope, we may see Jesus as the mirror in the telescope—perfect humanity who is near to us, revealing the perfect divinity of the transcendent Godhead who is far off.  Pinnock uses this analogy himself as he proclaims, “in Jesus Christ, the divine nature is mirrored.”  In a lengthier quote, he says

Jesus Christ is and must be the centerpiece of the Christian revelation, because in Jesus God entered our world within the parameters of a human life…The Scriptures exist to bear witness to him (John 5:39), and he is the sum and substance of their message.  No mere emissary of the prophetic sort, the Son is God incarnate, dwelling among us, the revelation of God without peer.  Of all the forms of revelation, this is the best. (Scripture Principle, 36)

As we consider the human and divine subjects in the totality of Scripture, we can measure them against the One who was perfectly human—understanding our experiences and tendencies while remaining sinless—and who was also perfectly divine—the “reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Heb. 1:3).  So, for instance, when we look at Psalm 137 and wonder if smashing babies’ heads against rocks represents God’s desire for humans, we can look at the words and actions of Jesus who commanded us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44) and who, “when he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten” (1 Peter 2:23).  As Jesus exemplified true humanity, we can derive our understanding of the anthropological ideal from him and discern whether other Scriptures reveal true examples of fallen human behavior or examples of redeemed human character which we should emulate.

By the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit, we must undertake the project of properly understanding revelation as God both making himself known to us, as well as revealing the truth of our own humanity to us, by using Christ himself as the hermeneutical key to distinguish between what is true of humanity and what is true of God (and conversely, what is false about both).  While this is not a simple operation, I believe that this provides the best basis we have for understanding the anthropological and theological dimensions of Scripture.  How do we do this exactly?  I’m not fully sure.  This is indeed the experiment which I am seeking to undertake:  re-reading the whole Bible, Old and New Testaments, and discerning between human and divine subjects, with Christ as the hermeneutical touchstone (while also necessarily leaving room for some unanswerable, ambiguous passages along the way).

In his book, Incarnation & Inspiration, Peter Enns describes what he calls a “Christotelic hermeneutic” for reading the Old Testament (which deals with the New Testament use of the OT).  I echo the sentiments he shares about pursuing his method as I contemplate the dual-subject approach outlined above; he writes that a coherent reading of the OT using his hermeneutic “is not achieved by following a few simple rules of exegesis.  It is to be sought after, over a long period of time, in community with other Christians, with humility and patience.” (170) I would love to read alongside any others who are willing to consider this approach and together rediscover, perhaps more accurately, what the Bible has to say about God and humanity in its pages.

Works Cited:

  • Donald Bloesch, Holy Scripture: Revelation, Inspiration & Interpretation, (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1994).
  • Peter Enns, Inspiration & Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005).
  • Carl F.H. Henry, “Revelation, Special,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology 2nd ed., ed. Walter A. Elwell, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 1021.
  • I. Howard Marshall, Biblical Inspiration, (1982; repr., Vancouver, BC: Regent College Publishing, 2004).
  • Clark H. Pinnock and Barry L. Callen, The Scripture Principle: Reclaiming the Full Authority of the Bible 3rd ed., (1984; Lexington, KY: Emeth Press, 2009).
  • Ben Witherington III, The Living Word of God: Rethinking the Theology of the Bible, (Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2007).

The Mirror & the Telescope, Part III

THE MIRROR & THE TELESCOPE, PART III:  EXAMPLES OF DISTINGUISHING BETWEEN DIVINE & HUMAN SUBJECTS

We will now consider several biblical passages in light of the dual-subject approach to Scripture.  In Psalm 137:8-9, an exilic or post-exilic author writes:  “O daughter Babylon, you devastator!  Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!  Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”  We must ask whether this text reveals to us theological source material that we may to develop a doctrine of God’s severity in paying back evildoers, or if it reveals anthropological source material in which we primarily see the human desire for brutal retributive justice (if not merely revenge)?

"By the Rivers of Babylon" by Eugène Delacroix

This passage in particular was what stimulated Witherington’s observation that Scripture may “be as much a revelation of human character as of divine character,” in that, we must consider how this text “comports with the idea of a God who loves all humankind and is especially concerned for the weak, the vulnerable, and the young.” (Living Word, 24) Witherington’s thought process hints at a hermeneutical key we will explore subsequently, but we may for now say that there is evidence to suggest that the divinely inspired author of Psalm 137 was revealing human nature to us rather than depicting God’s attributes.

Dealing with this passage in terms of anthropological source material, we must then ask whether it represents a revelation of positive human character that God is commending, or whether it is a negative attribute that is merely being accurately recorded.  To determine where this passage falls, we could see if the author had cited God’s approval of this desire for revenge; if so, then we may consider this a model of human behavior that God finds acceptable.  However, we do not see this, so without this divine endorsement, we must remain ambiguous toward the text:  it may be a legitimate human response to evil, or it may represent an attitude that is contrary to God’s will for humanity.  Overall, we can say that God certainly allows humans to express their feelings of anger, even in the extreme.  Also, this text reveals to us historical background on the plight of the Jews in exile—their experience must have been incredibly dreadful to elicit such a monstrous response.

Let us consider another example, from Psalm 13, which evinces a more specific claim about God that we must discern as being either theologically absolute or an example of human experience.  The author, presumably David, cries out, “How long, O LORD?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me? (Ps. 13:1).  Do we see this as theological source material from which we can develop a theology of God’s “hiddenness”—was David correct in asserting that God was hiding from him?  Had God indeed forgotten him, not literally, but relationally? Or does this reveal an anthropological picture of David’s experience of feeling like God was hiding from him and that God had forgotten about him?

There is more ambiguity here, due to the fact that many Christian thinkers (e.g. Luther, St. John of the Cross) see evidence for a theology of God’s hiddenness in the pages of Scripture.  While we cannot rule this out as being true of God, it does seem obvious that the passage is primarily speaking of David’s experience of feeling and thinking particular emotions and thoughts, so it would be safe to say this reveals more about the human subject than the divine.

We may wonder, then, if Psalm 13 is actually more about an experience of human perception than divine actuality, could we say the same about Psalm 139, where David makes claims that have been used to support a number of theological doctrines:  God’s omniscience (“Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely” v. 4), omnipresence (“Where can I go from your spirit?  Or where can I flee from your presence?” v.7), and human predestination (“In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them yet existed” v. 16).  Could all of these examples reveal David’s human sense of God’s intimate involvement in his life without necessarily being absolutely true of God’s being or plans?

One could ask the rather blunt question of David:  how exactly do you know all of these things?  What access do you have to God’s mind to comment upon what he knows?  Have you been to heaven or Sheol, or have you seen God’s book in which your days are numbered?  We can logically assume that none of these questions could be answered positively to support David’s assertions and yet we also find no evidence that David has actually been told these things by God, as we see in other parts of Scripture where it is claimed that “the Word of the LORD” came upon an author.  This is an argument from silence going in both directions—we don’t know whether God revealed these things to David or not, though they do seem in line with other theological claims we see in Scripture.  Ultimately, there is tension, particularly in a genre like lyrical poetry, between being able to clearly discern what is reliable theological source material and what are examples of human experience (such as doubt, fear, or anger) that contribute to an inspired and accurate anthropology.

We could also look beyond claims or statements in poetical works to accounts and narratives in Scripture in order to raise questions of whether the Bible is telling us about humanity or God.  For instance, when Noah curses Canaan to become “lowest of slaves” to his brothers in Genesis 9:25, do we take it to be the case that God approves of this curse, which was later used to promote racism and the practice of enslaving Africans (who were purported to be the sons of Ham)?  It is interesting to note from the text that Noah does ask God to bless Shem and Japheth and make Canaan their slaves (Gen. 9:26-27)—but we do not see evidence of whether God endorses Noah’s curse or not.

"Noah Curses Ham for His Mockery" by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

From a human perspective, we can see that Noah is angry, embarrassed, and struggling with a hangover—it would be natural for him to lash out at his son, as many of us would do in this situation.  We must not assume that merely because God commends a biblical actor at some points in the Bible that it means everything they do subsequent to that time is approved by God.  Noah’s reaction may clearly serve as anthropological source material, but to put a divine stamp of approval upon this curse is not necessarily justified from the text.  So why should we allow critics to place the blame of Christian use of this verse to support racism on God (even though the identification of blacks with the sons of Ham is nowhere in the text as well)?  Noah spoke the curse and we have no reason of which I am aware to believe God fulfilled it.  This stands in contrast with God’s specific promise to Abram to “bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse” (Gen. 12:3).

[In Part IV, we will consider the problem of discerning between the two subjects in biblical interpretation.]

The Mirror & the Telescope, Part II

THE MIRROR & THE TELESCOPE, PART II:  THE NEED FOR REVELATION ABOUT HUMANITY TO HUMANITY

[Part I available here]

Before delving into the issue of how we may make distinctions between claims about the divine and human subjects of Scripture, we must address the question of why we would need to have revelation about humanity, particularly since part of the intrinsic concept of revelation is that it is “the disclosure of what was previously unknown.” (Dictionary of Evangelical Theology, 1031) It is obvious that we need God to reveal himself to us because he is outside of our common experience, his nature and being are not evident to us, and as YHWH himself says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways” (Is. 55:8).  In contrast, we have a great deal of understanding about humanity:  we ourselves are humans, we see evidence and examples of humanity all around us, and we have created our own reflections on the human race in philosophy, history, and cultural artifacts.  So why would we need for God to write down an inspired account of humanity for us in the Scriptures?

Subliminal shout-out to Gregg TenElshof's book, I Told Me So

First, we tend to lie to ourselves about ourselves.  The prophet Jeremiah declares, “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).  The apostle Paul asserts that in our human wickedness, we have suppressed the truth, become futile in our thinking, and our minds were darkened (Romans 1:18-21).  Though Paul specifically refers in this passage to deceiving ourselves about God’s person, it seems reasonable to believe we do the same with our own self-knowledge (cf. 1 John 1:8).  We need revelation about the human subject because we need God to show us hard truths about ourselves that we are often unwilling to acknowledge.

Second, revealing the truth about humanity, particularly our sinfulness and inability to fully obey his commands, ultimately exposes our deep need for the Gospel and for holistic transformation.  In this light, an accurate anthropology both plays a part in the overall biblical story of redemption, as well as offering an unvarnished portrait of fallen humanity to which we can relate (for we do not only see examples in Scripture of perfectly holy people who do not make the same errors to which we seem prone).  This reason for revelation about humanity would explain the presence of lies, wickedness, and bad theology cited in our introduction.

Third, and more positively, disclosing the truth about humanity reveals occasions where persons do respond in faith and obedience, which we may imitate, as well as many other instances where God still chooses to use and bless people who are living contrary to his desires, which demonstrates his love, patience, and grace toward his creation.

All of these reasons make the inclusion of humanity as a subject of revelation a somewhat non-controversial addition to our understanding of Scripture.  What is more problematic, and likely more unsettling for the conservative, is the question of how to distinguish which parts of special revelation are about God and which are about humanity in the biblical texts.  The difficulty of parsing between theological claims in Scripture that reflect humanity’s perspective on God (such as Job’s friends) and those that accurately reflect Divine truth becomes a daunting proposition.  Indeed I. Howard Marshall despairs at the attempt:

The books of the Bible contain what are clearly regarded as the words of human actors telling about human actors and on occasion reporting what people said to God.  They also contain what are identified as the words of God [including divine communication to humans and prophetic announcements].  In many cases it would be hard to decide just where God stopped speaking and the human author took over—and indeed meaningless and futile to try to do so.  How could one distinguish between the more personal expressions of Paul’s emotions and his more direct statements of what he believed to be divine revelation? (Biblical Inspiration, 21)

This reticence on Marshall’s part may be due to his feeling that if one begins to identify human aspects in Scripture, then the “inspired” notion of the Bible becomes unintelligibly bifurcated into some parts human and some parts divine.  Clark Pinnock is more comfortable with dividing Scripture into levels of revelation:  “In the so-called ‘Writings’ of the Hebrew Bible…there are far fewer claims of divine revelation [than in prophetic works], only occasional references at best.”  Pinnock goes on to assert that “in the Old Testament collection there are different kinds of literature, some that make a powerful claim to divine origin and others that do not, some that stand on the high ground of revelation and others that occupy a little lower position.” (The Scripture Principle, 62)

While Marshall is reluctant to potentially split the inspiration in Scripture, Pinnock is willing to sort between “kinds and degrees of inspiration” (64) in biblical revelation; however, the approach I am proposing contends that indeed all of Scripture remains inspired, it simply reveals inspired truth about different subjects.  What we must distinguish is between the Divine or human subjects of revelation and not whether the things written in Scripture are fallible human statements or inerrant divinely inspired words of God through human authors.  We cannot limit ourselves to Donald Bloesch’s approving citation of the notion of a biblical “double truth” that must be held when he says, “the Bible is both God’s testimony about himself and the human writers’ inspired testimony about God.” (Holy Scripture, 67)  We must instead say that the Bible is both God’s testimony about himself and humanity, and the human writer’s inspired testimony about God and their fellow humans.

In a simple example of distinguishing between the two, we can clearly tell that the fool who says “There is no God” in Psalm 14:1 is an instance where a human perspective of bad theology is accurately and truthfully revealed in the biblical text, thereby evidencing that humanity is the subject of this portion of revelation.  However, when Moses says, “Hear O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone” in Deuteronomy 6:4, we may be sure that it is not Moses’ human opinion that is evident, but rather an instance of an inspired truth claim regarding the Divine subject.  We trust that Scripture provides us with some tools to distinguish between a fool and a prophet of YHWH.  Unfortunately, it is not always as easy to distinguish as in these two examples!  Indeed, we must face a greater deal of the complexity in the hermeneutical enterprise this position advocates, which we will do in Part III by looking to several passages from the Psalms.