Archive by Author | Greg

The Mirror & the Telescope, Part I

THE MIRROR & THE TELESCOPE, PART I:  TOWARDS A DUAL-SUBJECT APPROACH TO BIBLICAL REVELATION

Here is a trustworthy statement, worthy of full acceptance:  The Bible is filled with lies, wickedness, and bad theology.  [Pause]  Now before you begin gathering wood to burn me as a heretic, it must be said that this sentence is an accurate assertion that any signer of the “Chicago Statement on Inerrancy” could affirm.  Of course, there is some equivocation in the phrasing:  I should say, “the Bible is filled with examples of lies, wickedness, and erroneous theology.”

Now I know how Joan of Arc felt...as the flames rose to her Roman nose.

We see lies in Scripture, accurately recounted, from the beginning until the end:  in Genesis alone we see deception in the words of the serpent in the Garden, as well as from the mouths of Cain, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jacob’s sons, Potiphar’s wife, Joseph, and many more.  Examples of wickedness in Scripture include murder, brutality, rape, gang rape, incest, incestuous rape, and attempted genocide.  We may also find many examples of bad theology in the form of worship of idols (sometimes led by Israel’s leaders, such as Aaron in Ex. 32:4-5), false prophecies from those who claim to be true prophets of YHWH, and even the claim in Psalm 14:1 that “there is no God” (don’t worry, we’ll qualify this later).

The existence of these elements in the Bible is unquestionable; however, the purpose they serve in the text may sometimes perplex the thoughtful reader, particularly when one considers the classic concept of Scripture as “revelation.”  Most Christian definitions of “revelation” look similar to what we find in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology:  “the term is used primarily of God’s communication to humans of divine truth, that is, his manifestation of himself or his will.”

The question then is how do examples of lies, wickedness, and bad theology serve to reveal a “manifestation” of God or his will to us?  How does the presence of these disturbing aspects in the written “Word of God” act as divine self-disclosure?  In order to answer that question, I would like to argue that the Bible actually has two subjects of its revelation:  God and humanity (see footnote 1 below).  To use an analogy, Scripture acts as a mirror and telescope:  it is a mirror that accurately depicts and evaluates the human condition; and it is also a telescope, revealing the transcendent, eternally “other” Divine Being.  And ultimately, Christ serves as the mirror in the telescope, perfectly imaging near to us the fullness of God in heaven.

How a reflecting telescope works...

While many treatises on revelation focus primarily on the Divine subject, there are some theologians who have noted the significance of the divinely inspired revelation of the human subject in Scripture.  Ben Witherington poses the idea that “maybe the Bible is meant to be as much a revelation of human character as of divine character, and how the two do and should interact.” (Living Word, 24)  Although this is more of an aside for Witherington, his comments touch upon the need for students of Scripture to reconsider what it is exactly that we see the inspired Word as revealing to us: only God’s nature, or humanity’s as well.

I believe that we need to make more of Witherington’s conjecture that the Bible is indeed “as much” about humanity as it is about God, for the simple reason that as we consider the whole of Scripture, we see that large sections, particularly in the historical works and poetry of the Hebrew Scriptures, focus much more on revealing humanity than divinity.  For instance, God tells Job’s friends that “they have not spoken of me what is right” (Job 42:7); does this then cast much of this book’s contents into theological suspicion?  Being that the reader has seen what caused Job’s suffering in the prologue, we know at the very least that their accusations against Job are faulty—what about their theological ideas?  Could it be that Job’s friends serve as examples of bad theology, but they speak in ways which still accurately reveal authentic human perspectives?  This example suggests that we must distinguish in Scripture between theological source material (what we can say about God) and anthropological source material (how we see human beliefs and experiences depicted).  Furthermore, we must differentiate accurate theological ideas from erroneous ones (i.e. persons may say something about God in Scripture, but it does not mean it is true), as well as between accurate or positive anthropological material (including those Biblical figures we should emulate) and false ideas about or negative examples of humanity. (Footnote 2)

[In Part II, we will explore why it is that humans would need revelation about…humans.]

Footnotes:

  1. Of course there are more subjects in Scripture, such as animal and plant life, the cosmos, angelic beings, etc. but God and humanity are clearly the primary subjects of revelation
  2. It must be said that the Bible exists as more than informational “source material;” it also “performs” God’s covenantal actions (as Kevin VanHoozer has suggested) as well as transforming us into people who are “on mission” with God to heal and redeem the whole creation (as N.T. Wright has proposed).

See PART IV for Works Cited

“Hipster” “Christianity”: a “review”

First they came for the Jesus People, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jesus Person.

Then they came for the seeker-sensitive church, and I did not speak out—because I was seeker-insensitive.

Then they came for the emergents…or emerging, or whatever you call them, and I did not speak out—because I was not emergent/ing.

Then they came for the Hipster Christians and I was all “AW HELL NO BEEYATCHS!” in the most ironic tone possible.

________________

SO, it has become impossible to ignore the phenomenon of “Hipster Christianity” that is sweeping through evangelicalism these days (blazing from the cover of my newest Christianity Today).  Or should I say the COMMENTARY on “Hipster Christianity” (I’m going to keep using those ironic quote marks because I think it is such a ridiculous term, I don’t want to give it the pleasure of legitimacy in the realm of English idioms).

The LEAST hip illustration you could use...look up "trucker hat WWJD" for the best.

A while back, an acquaintance sent me a Facebook invite to become a “fan” of a page that “he thought I’d like”:  “Hipster Christianity.”  I was like, wha?  I checked it out.  There was a link therein to a “quiz” that would tell you if you were a “Christian Hipster.”  I clicked on said link, visited linked website which included these photo shoots of types of “Christian Hipsters” and questions about which kind of books or films I liked, then saw that this was all a quasi-interactive marketing scheme for a book called “Hipster Christianity” and I got THE HELL out of there.

What kind of queer (in the classical sense, my dear gay friends) Christian publishing house marketing person came up with this idea?  “See if you’re ‘hip’—ironically laugh at the stereotypes—ponder the connection between faith and culture in your own disaffected and detached way—now go buy the effing book you little shit.”  If anyone had the slightest inclination to consider themselves “hip” wouldn’t they know that aligning yourself with something that identifies you as such (using a word that has scarcely BEEN “hip” since 1965) is the first sign that you have lost all possibility of truly being that very thing?  So basically they are trying to appeal to people who are either poseurs or those who cannot stand “Christian hipsters”?  I can only assume it was the former…(Which, of course, is not the reason which I MYSELF left the website—I simply cannot stand Christian marketing…of anything.)

So I did not become a fan of aforementioned FB page or aforereferenced book.  My reasoning was that I thought the book was playing to the movement of those who would want to become known as “Christian Hipsters.”  However, I later came across the book & decided to scan over the beginning, just to see how ridiculous it was.  Turns out, the book is kind of a CRITIQUE of this movement (is it really a movement?  Maybe a style, a flavor, an expression of some part of a movement?).  Anywho, a central question in the “introduction” (lower case “i” in the book) was “whether or not Christianity can be, should be, or is, in fact, cool.”  The author claims that his book is “not an advertisement or rallying cry for ‘hip Christianity’ (my quotes, not his), nor is it an outright chastisement.  It’s a critical analysis.  It’s about the contradictions inherent in the phenomenon of Christian cool and the questions Christians should be asking of themselves if they find themselves within this milieu.”

Before I rip a hole in this idea of “contradictions” between “Christian” and “cool,” we need to zero in on one little word, not central to his claim, but which undoes any credibility to his forthcoming argument:  “milieu.”  WHO USES THIS WORD outside of a grad-school thesis?  I mean, I read that and I’m thinking “Ahem, is the milieu you mention au courant vis-a-vis the locus of a bête-noire or an enfant terrible?”  Oops, I missed one pretentious term, but he picks it up a few lines later:  “it’s en vogue for Christians to hate on Christianity in all of its mainstream forms.”  (I’m sorry, is it outre to hate on the use of ostentatious language?)  Maybe that’s the way he talks, maybe it just popped out from Thesaurus.com the day he was writing (at “a table,” he somberly notes, “in the dining room of the Kilns—the home of C.S. Lewis.”  This is relevant…apropos of what?).  I’m sorry, but all of this is adding up to a sorry picture of our tour guide through the world of “Hipster Christianity.”  And this “authorial tone” is part of the thing that cuts the legs off of the central argument I see here against Christians who are “cool” (though I must say I AM glad he is not advocating the sense I first got from his book’s website).

He says that this whole phenomenon “boils down to one simple desire: the desire to make Christianity cool.”  But his definition of “cool” seems to reveal more about his own social experience of cool than what anyone else may take the term to mean:  he writes, “Cool = an attractive attribute that embodies the existential strains to be independent, enviable, one-of-a-kind, and trailblazing.”  Hmm, except for the words “attractive” and “enviable” this definition could fit the Unabomber.  These two words then reveal that it’s all about what other people think.  The whole enterprise of “Hipster Christianity,” from this book’s perspective, feels like it’s about those who are trying to “one up” other people, to be in on something before anyone else is, to have people notice you, etc. and making their faith “cool” is part of this process.  Bro, these are SCENESTERS!  They’re followers of whatever is elusive (wearing a t-shirt that says, “I’m so indie, I’m into music even I haven’t heard of yet.”).  He even comes out and says that “cool is basically a perception of others—it can’t exist as anything intrinsic or detached from public perception.”  SAYS YOU!

I would argue that coolness is something like a combination of good taste, non-conformity and self-possession—it doesn’t matter if people think you have good taste or not (do YOU know why you like it?), or whether you are not-conforming to something which the majority of people reject or approve (you’re simply not willing to follow a trend just because others are—you think for yourself), and you don’t get flustered by others judgments or assessments of you (e.g. “I still like Coldplay…I don’t care if you think they’re corporate label Radiohead rip-offs”).  Was Jesus cool in this sense?  Absolutely.  Can Christians be cool?  Yeppers.  So can atheists, Sufi Muslims, Trekkies, sportos and motor heads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, and dickheads.

The metaphors for “cool” this book uses feel so off to me as to be referencing the opposite of what it claims–those who are so caught up in TRYING to be cool that there’s no way they could actually BE COOL:  “ahead of the pack,” “the road less travelled,” “survival of the hippest,” “the pursuit of individuality,” “affirmation through attention.”  In the author’s mind (and perhaps, experience), cool is a social phenomenon.  You’re not cool unless other people think you are cool and you have to struggle somehow to maintain cool or you could possibly become uncool.  And this is one of his central objections to “Hipster Christianity,” that somehow Christians are going to try so hard to be cool that they are going to eventually align Christianity with the pursuit of cool or get stuck in some old “trend” (“HIP” PASTOR:  “Hey micro-brewery night on Sunday!” POST-“HIPSTER CHRISTIAN”: “Micro-brews are so 2 months ago, I’m bailing on this whole Christianity thing”).

Man, if we need a book called “Hipster Christianity” then we also need some social analysis and critique of “Dork Christianity” or “Lemming Christianity” or “Sentimental Christianity” or any other number of phenomena that you can see in the church today.  Turning the microscope on guys with lumberjack beards isn’t really that insightful if they are just cut from the same old imitative cloth that every other era of Christianity has had—just write about people who have no internal sense of the good, the true, and the beautiful.  But it’s making my boy Elijah and I and people whom we truly consider “cool” look bad cause we DO like Sufjan and N.T. Wright and Wes Anderson and all of the things associated with these trend-stalking scenesters.  To be honest, I want to make a t-shirt that says, “If you have to write a book, you wouldn’t understand.”

All this to say, I suppose, that while this author’s critique may fit some bills, I’d prefer if he didn’t label my friends and I according to his little scheme, photo shoots & quizzes.

One last thing:  I remembered seeing an association of “hipster” with “Christian” in the liner notes of a Belle & Sebastian album from 2000 (a tell-tale sign of my “hipness”)…I reproduce it here as a more positive association of these terms:

Update:

"Awesome Christianity"

Another update:  My friend, Matt Barber, pointed me to a review of “Hipster Christianity” by philosopher James K.A. Smith that is along the lines of what I’ve pointed out above, except that it is a well-formed argument, written by a prolific published author, and doesn’t sound quite as bitchy.

The Onion on the [slightly close to] Ground Zero ‘Mosque’

Though this piece lacks some of the sublime subtlety that the Onion has evidenced in the past, I do love the counter-karmic force their “article” on the average American’s opinion regarding the NYC ‘mosque’ controversy may produce.  For instance, the “We’ve Got to Stop the Mosque at Ground Zero” video is just beyond evil…(Joseph Goebbels is cracking a little smile in whatever worm-ridden corner of hell he’s rotting in).  Here’s the beginning of the Onion piece (full article here):

Man Already Knows Everything He Needs To Know About Muslims

SALINA, KS—Local man Scott Gentries told reporters Wednesday that his deliberately limited grasp of Islamic history and culture was still more than sufficient to shape his views of the entire Muslim world.

Gentries, 48, said he had absolutely no interest in exposing himself to further knowledge of Islamic civilization or putting his sweeping opinions into a broader context of any kind, and confirmed he was “perfectly happy” to make a handful of emotionally charged words the basis of his mistrust toward all members of the world’s second-largest religion.

“I learned all that really matters about the Muslim faith on 9/11,” Gentries said in reference to the terrorist attacks on the United States undertaken by 19 of Islam’s approximately 1.6 billion practitioners. “What more do I need to know to stigmatize Muslims everywhere as inherently violent radicals?”

“And now they want to build a mosque at Ground Zero,” continued Gentries, eliminating any distinction between the 9/11 hijackers and Muslims in general. “No, I won’t examine the accuracy of that statement, but yes, I will allow myself to be outraged by it and use it as evidence of these people’s universal callousness toward Americans who lost loved ones when the Twin Towers fell.”

“Even though I am not one of those people,” he added.

When told that the proposed “Ground Zero mosque” is actually a community center two blocks north of the site that would include, in addition to a public prayer space, a 500-seat auditorium, a restaurant, and athletic facilities, Gentries shook his head and said, “I know all I’m going to let myself know.”

Counter-point (to my own post):

Would everyone be cool with an “International Center for Political Cartoonists Who Depict Mohammed” going up next door to the mosque?  What’s good for the goose, eh?

Moby Books in Comparision to Original Text

In response to my post on the Moby Books Illustrated Classic Editions, one of our faithful readers…ok, my brother, asked what the difference was between the abridged version of a Moby Books edition (MB) and the original version.  I thought I would provide a sample of the first chapter from the MB edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island in contrast to Stevenson’s original text.

Chapter 1:

The Old Sea-dog at the Admiral Benbow

SQUIRE TRELAWNEY, Dr. Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17__ and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow inn and the brown old seaman with the sabre cut first took up his lodging under our roof.

I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a hand-barrow–a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man, his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulder of his soiled blue coat, his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails, and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white. I remember him looking round the cover and whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out in that old sea-song that he sang so often afterwards:

“Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest– Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!”

in the high, old tottering voice that seemed to have been tuned and broken at the capstan bars. Then he rapped on the door with a bit of stick like a handspike that he carried, and when my father appeared, called roughly for a glass of rum. This, when it was brought to him, he drank slowly, like a connoisseur, lingering on the taste and still looking about him at the cliffs and up at our signboard.

“This is a handy cove,” says he at length; “and a pleasant sittyated grog-shop. Much company, mate?”

My father told him no, very little company, the more was the pity.

“Well, then,” said he, “this is the berth for me. Here you, matey,” he cried to the man who trundled the barrow; “bring up alongside and help up my chest. I’ll stay here a bit,” he continued. “I’m a plain man; rum and bacon and eggs is what I want, and that head up there for to watch ships off. What you mought call me? You mought call me captain. Oh, I see what you’re at– there”; and he threw down three or four gold pieces on the threshold. “You can tell me when I’ve worked through that,” says he, looking as fierce as a commander.

And indeed bad as his clothes were and coarsely as he spoke, he had none of the appearance of a man who sailed before the mast, but seemed like a mate or skipper accustomed to be obeyed or to strike. The man who came with the barrow told us the mail had set him down the morning before at the Royal George, that he had inquired what inns there were along the coast, and hearing ours well spoken of, I suppose, and described as lonely, had chosen it from the others for his place of residence. And that was all we could learn of our guest.

He was a very silent man by custom. All day he hung round the cove or upon the cliffs with a brass telescope; all evening he sat in a corner of the parlour next the fire and drank rum and water very strong. Mostly he would not speak when spoken to, only look up sudden and fierce and blow through his nose like a fog-horn; and we and the people who came about our house soon learned to let him be. Every day when he came back from his stroll he would ask if any seafaring men had gone by along the road. At first we thought it was the want of company of his own kind that made him ask this question, but at last we began to see he was desirous to avoid them. When a seaman did put up at the Admiral Benbow (as now and then some did, making by the coast road for Bristol) he would look in at him through the curtained door before he entered the parlour; and he was always sure to be as silent as a mouse when any such was present. For me, at least, there was no secret about the matter, for I was, in a way, a sharer in his alarms. He had taken me aside one day and promised me a silver fourpenny on the first of every month if I would only keep my “weather-eye open for a seafaring man with one leg” and let him know the moment he appeared. Often enough when the first of the month came round and I applied to him for my wage, he would only blow through his nose at me and stare me down, but before the week was out he was sure to think better of it, bring me my four-penny piece, and repeat his orders to look out for “the seafaring man with one leg.”

How that personage haunted my dreams, I need scarcely tell you. On stormy nights, when the wind shook the four corners of the house and the surf roared along the cove and up the cliffs, I would see him in a thousand forms, and with a thousand diabolical expressions. Now the leg would be cut off at the knee, now at the hip; now he was a monstrous kind of a creature who had never had but the one leg, and that in the middle of his body. To see him leap and run and pursue me over hedge and ditch was the worst of nightmares. And altogether I paid pretty dear for my monthly fourpenny piece, in the shape of these abominable fancies.

But though I was so terrified by the idea of the seafaring man with one leg, I was far less afraid of the captain himself than anybody else who knew him. There were nights when he took a deal more rum and water than his head would carry; and then he would sometimes sit and sing his wicked, old, wild sea-songs, minding nobody; but sometimes he would call for glasses round and force all the trembling company to listen to his stories or bear a chorus to his singing. Often I have heard the house shaking with “Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum,” all the neighbours joining in for dear life, with the fear of death upon them, and each singing louder than the other to avoid remark. For in these fits he was the most overriding companion ever known; he would slap his hand on the table for silence all round; he would fly up in a passion of anger at a question, or sometimes because none was put, and so he judged the company was not following his story. Nor would he allow anyone to leave the inn till he had drunk himself sleepy and reeled off to bed.

His stories were what frightened people worst of all. Dreadful stories they were–about hanging, and walking the plank, and storms at sea, and the Dry Tortugas, and wild deeds and places on the Spanish Main. By his own account he must have lived his life among some of the wickedest men that God ever allowed upon the sea, and the language in which he told these stories shocked our plain country people almost as much as the crimes that he described. My father was always saying the inn would be ruined, for people would soon cease coming there to be tyrannized over and put down, and sent shivering to their beds; but I really believe his presence did us good. People were frightened at the time, but on looking back they rather liked it; it was a fine excitement in a quiet country life, and there was even a party of the younger men who pretended to admire him, calling him a “true sea-dog” and a “real old salt” and such like names, and saying there was the sort of man that made England terrible at sea.

In one way, indeed, he bade fair to ruin us, for he kept on staying week after week, and at last month after month, so that all the money had been long exhausted, and still my father never plucked up the heart to insist on having more. If ever he mentioned it, the captain blew through his nose so loudly that you might say he roared, and stared my poor father out of the room. I have seen him wringing his hands after such a rebuff, and I am sure the annoyance and the terror he lived in must have greatly hastened his early and unhappy death.

All the time he lived with us the captain made no change whatever in his dress but to buy some stockings from a hawker. One of the cocks of his hat having fallen down, he let it hang from that day forth, though it was a great annoyance when it blew. I remember the appearance of his coat, which he patched himself upstairs in his room, and which, before the end, was nothing but patches. He never wrote or received a letter, and he never spoke with any but the neighbours, and with these, for the most part, only when drunk on rum. The great sea-chest none of us had ever seen open.

He was only once crossed, and that was towards the end, when my poor father was far gone in a decline that took him off. Dr. Livesey came late one afternoon to see the patient, took a bit of dinner from my mother, and went into the parlour to smoke a pipe until his horse should come down from the hamlet, for we had no stabling at the old Benbow. I followed him in, and I remember observing the contrast the neat, bright doctor, with his powder as white as snow and his bright, black eyes and pleasant manners, made with the coltish country folk, and above all, with that filthy, heavy, bleared scarecrow of a pirate of ours, sitting, far gone in rum, with his arms on the table. Suddenly he–the captain, that is–began to pipe up his eternal song:

“Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest– Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum! Drink and the devil had done for the rest– Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!”

At first I had supposed “the dead man’s chest” to be that identical big box of his upstairs in the front room, and the thought had been mingled in my nightmares with that of the one-legged seafaring man. But by this time we had all long ceased to pay any particular notice to the song; it was new, that night, to nobody but Dr. Livesey, and on him I observed it did not produce an agreeable effect, for he looked up for a moment quite angrily before he went on with his talk to old Taylor, the gardener, on a new cure for the rheumatics. In the meantime, the captain gradually brightened up at his own music, and at last flapped his hand upon the table before him in a way we all knew to mean silence. The voices stopped at once, all but Dr. Livesey’s; he went on as before speaking clear and kind and drawing briskly at his pipe between every word or two. The captain glared at him for a while, flapped his hand again, glared still harder, and at last broke out with a villainous, low oath, “Silence, there, between decks!”

“Were you addressing me, sir?” says the doctor; and when the ruffian had told him, with another oath, that this was so, “I have only one thing to say to you, sir,” replies the doctor, “that if you keep on drinking rum, the world will soon be quit of a very dirty scoundrel!”

The old fellow’s fury was awful. He sprang to his feet, drew and opened a sailor’s clasp-knife, and balancing it open on the palm of his hand, threatened to pin the doctor to the wall.

The doctor never so much as moved. He spoke to him as before, over his shoulder and in the same tone of voice, rather high, so that all the room might hear, but perfectly calm and steady: “If you do not put that knife this instant in your pocket, I promise, upon my honour, you shall hang at the next assizes.”

Then followed a battle of looks between them, but the captain soon knuckled under, put up his weapon, and resumed his seat, grumbling like a beaten dog.

“And now, sir,” continued the doctor, “since I now know there’s such a fellow in my district, you may count I’ll have an eye upon you day and night. I’m not a doctor only; I’m a magistrate; and if I catch a breath of complaint against you, if it’s only for a piece of incivility like tonight’s, I’ll take effectual means to have you hunted down and routed out of this. Let that suffice.”

Soon after, Dr. Livesey’s horse came to the door and he rode away, but the captain held his peace that evening, and for many evenings to come.

Moby Books Illustrated Classic Editions

“Rosebud.”  The classic symbol of nostalgic longing from Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (though I won’t mention what Rosebud is exactly, as I myself had the mystery spoiled by finding out the answer before I had seen the film).  Just as William Randolph Hea–oh, I mean, Charles Foster Kane, yearned for the symbol of his lost childhood in his dying moments, many people today become fixated on preserving some memento from their younger, more care-free days when they become adults:  sports trading cards, doll collections, Star Wars action figures, etc.

The logo that launched a thousand internet searches.

For me, the emblem of my childhood is a set of mini-books called “Moby Books Illustrated Classic Editions.”  These were a series of small (5 1/2 x 4″) editions of classic novels published in the 1970’s and 80’s which had been abridged and simplified so that a young reader could grasp the story and encounter key sections of the original dialogue and narration of a classic work of literature.  One of the most notable features for me, as a young reader, was the comic-style illustrations that accompanied each page of the narrative, as well as the vividly-depicted covers, which had a simple, Van Gogh-like beauty in their coloring and style.

How, exactly, does one see this as being a “grocery”?

I have discovered in my wanderings on the sea of human information that is the Google Search Engine that there are others who share in my fascination with these books; however, there has yet to be a definitive site dedicated to these volumes (as was pointed out here–this post was part of my motivation to finally write this!).

While this will not be the final word on Moby Books, I would like to share as much information as I have with my fellow devotees and the world at large; however, there are many more questions that require researchers far better than myself to answer.

My first memory of Moby Books came from opening a McDonald’s “Happy Meal” sometime in the late 1970’s (back when only millions had been served) and discovering a copy of Charles Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” inside (smelling of french fries I’m sure).  McDonald’s apparently worked with Moby Books on a special promotion tied into a TV series the fast-food company was sponsoring on PBS called “Once Upon a Classic.”  After years of searching, I found a copy of this version in quite good condition, which is the crown of my Moby Books collection.

God bless Moby Books…each and every one!

Replacing the MB logo with the golden arches? BLASPHEMY!!

After reading that first book, I pressed my parents to buy more and more of these books (which could be found at grocery stores!) and began to fancy myself quite the literary type.  At my elementary school library, I checked out a copy of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers (the unabridged original), believing that I had already taken on his The Last of the Mohicans (in Moby Book form)–I was in for a sharp awakening, as I couldn’t get past the first few pages!!  Even though it took me a while to wean myself from the Moby Books versions of classic novels, they were my “gateway drug” to the realms of classic and contemporary fiction which have been a passion ever since.

Around 5 years ago, my mom brought over some of my old Moby Books to give to MY kids and it reawakened so many memories of being lost in other lands and people’s lives in these books that I decided that I needed to obtain the full collection.  At this point, I believe I have all of the books that are available to be had (41 total), but I would love to complete the collection if I find any more.  Here are some facts about the Moby Books collection I have discovered, as well as some questions that I have, followed by a categorized list (by volume number) of all the Moby Books of which I am aware.

MOBY BOOKS FACTS & FAQS

  • There were 36 Moby Books Illustrated Classic Editions published in 3 batches of 12 each in 1977, 1979, and 1983.  “Moby Books” was the brand name, published by Playmore Inc. out of New York City in arrangement with I. Waldman & Son, Inc.
  • Playmore later released (sometime between 2001-2002) a number of “Illustrated Classic Editions” without the Moby Books imprint and featuring a different style of cover art & illustrations.  I do not consider these to be part of the “canonical collection,” however, these later editions were given catalog numbers in sequence with the earlier editions, so there seems to be some sense of intended continuity by the publisher.
  • The McDonald’s editions are an interesting puzzle.  There seem to have been two sets released of “4 volumes” each in 1977 and 1979; whereas the original series catalog numbers are from 4501-4536, the McDonald’s editions are given catalog numbers from 1001-1004/95.  The books I own from the 1977 set include The Wizard of Oz (1001/95, vol. 1), Black Beauty (1003/95, vol. 3), and The Three Musketeers (1004/95, vol. 4).  I have never found the 2nd volume of this set.  Of the 1979 set, I have Tom Sawyer (1002/95, vol. 2) and A Christmas Carol (1004/95, vol. 4); I have also never come across any other books from this set.  Since two books share the same catalog number (1004/95), I am assuming these were completely different sets with no shared titles.  I would love to find out about these missing editions if anyone has any information…

     

  • In the back of the 1977 and 1983 books, there are two catalogs of the editions in the series.  While the 1983 listing contains the full 36 books from the official Moby Books canon and no more, the 1977 listing includes 5 books that apparently were intended to be part of the series, but were never actually published:  Frankenstein (which was later released in a 2002 “non-canonical” edition), Aesop’s Fables, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Kim (by Kipling), and “Stories from the Bible.”

This is the information I have.  For those wishing to begin their own collection of Moby Books, I would recommend a frequent search of eBay listings, as you can find people selling 15-20 books for 5 dollars total.  There is also a site called Series Books which sell the books, but they are much more expensive.  The McDonald’s editions are quite hard to come by and sell for $25-30 a piece (I found mine for around $3-5 a while back!).  Below I have listed the books with catalog numbers…any corrections or new information would be greatly appreciated!

Moby Books Illustrated Classics editions

Catalog No./Title/Author/Publishing Date

4501 Wizard of Oz, The Baum, L. Frank 1977
4502 Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Hound of the Baskervilles Doyle, A. Conan 1977
4503 Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, The Defoe, Daniel 1977
4504 Black Beauty Sewell, Anna 1977
4505 Kidnapped Stevenson, Robert Louis 1977
4506 Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, A Twain, Mark 1977
4507 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Verne, Jules 1977
4508 Heidi Spyri, Johanna 1977
4509 Three Musketeers, The Dumas, Alexandre 1977
4510 Treasure Island Stevenson, Robert Louis 1977
4511 Little Women Alcott, Louisa May 1977
4512 Around the World in 80 Days Verne, Jules 1977
4513 Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, The Pyle, Howard 1979
4514 Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Twain, Mark 1979
4515 Call of the Wild, The London, Jack 1979
4516 Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Twain, Mark 1979
4517 Oliver Twist Dickens, Charles 1979
4518 David Copperfield Dickens, Charles 1979
4519 Count of Monte Cristo, The Dumas, Alexandre 1979
4520 Moby Dick Melville, Herman 1979
4521 Last of the Mohicans, The Cooper, James Fenimore 1979
4522 Mutiny on Board H.M.S. Bounty Bligh, William 1979
4523 Oregon Trail, The Parkman, Francis 1979
4524 Tales of Mystery and Terror Poe, Edgar Allan 1979
4525 Ben-Hur Wallace, Lew 1983
4526 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Doyle, A. Conan 1983
4527 Swiss Family Robinson, The Wyss, Johann 1983
4528 Journey to the Center of the Earth, A Verne, Jules 1983
4529 War of the Worlds Wells, H.G. 1983
4530 Time Machine, The Wells, H.G. 1983
4531 Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Stevenson, Robert Louis 1983
4532 Tale of Two Cities, A Dickens, Charles 1983
4533 Man in the Iron Mask, The Dumas, Alexandre 1983
4534 Great Expectations Dickens, Charles 1983
4535 Prince and the Pauper, The Twain, Mark 1983
4536 Captain Courageous Kipling, Rudyard 1983
4537 Red Badge of Courage Crane, Stephen 2002
4538 Frankenstein Shelley, Mary 2002
4539 King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table Pyle, Howard 2002
4540 Jungle Book, The Kipling, Rudyard 2002
4541 Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Hugo, Victor 2002
4542 Wind in the Willows, The Grahame, Kenneth 2002
4543 Gulliver’s Travels Swift, Jonathan 2002
4544 Invisible Man, The Wells, H.G. 2002
4545 Legend of Sleepy Hollow, The Irving, Washington 2002
4546 Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm Wiggin, Kate Douglas 2002
4547 Alice in Wonderland Carroll, Lewis 2002
4548 Pride and Prejudice Austen, Jane 2002

Band Evangelist, ch. 2

A while back, I came out as a self-proclaimed prophet of musically anointed ones…only to go into a period of silence worthy of the inter-testamental era (part of which was due to school and the other part due to a slightly incapacitating disability in my left hand which keeps me from typing with ease).  In any case, I have come back out of the wilderness, having exhausted ways to prepare locust with honey, and am here to declare some praise-worthy tunes for those with ears to hear.

To begin by updating you from my last post:

  • Lightspeed Champion:  middling effort, almost a bit too melodramatic/fussy
  • Sleeping States:  downloaded a few songs (on par with lo-fi homemade genius of former recordings), but still don’t own the whole album
  • The XYZ Affair:  unknown what will happen to the album they had in the works

What about the album from Frightened Rabbit?  Well, that brings me to the shortlist of albums that WILL LIKELY BE on my best of 2010 list.  FR’s album is INCREDIBLY GREAT–on par with their unbelievably brilliant last album & a sign of their lasting power.  So, the short list?  In no order other than as they come to me:

  1. Frightened Rabbit/The Winter of Mixed Drinks
  2. Titus Andronicus/The Monitor (these guys are like a mix of Joe Strummer/Shane MacGowan, early Dinosaur Jr., the high points of Rancid, and some kind of American conspiratorialism  welded together–it’s kind of a marriage of classic rock n’ roll and alternative/indie via a variety of road stops…the only problem is that they have an occasional tendency to repeat some lyrics ad infinitum, which is a pet peeve of mine, and the punk ethos requires that some of the singing is off key, which is hard to listen to when you have perfect pitch)–I have to give a shout out to Rob Kirkendall for hooking me up with these guys
  3. Tame Impala/InnerSpeaker:  first off: their name is lame impala.  But their sound, the tones and eras and magic and youth and coolness they emit, is so GORGEOUSLY CLASSIC (if you love the Beatles, the vocalist channels John & George’s best qualities; if you love classic rock, they have instrumentation that brings to mind the Who, Jimi Hendrix [but not the guitar], The Edgar Winter Group, etc.; definite psychedelia [though I can’t cite any particular groups), but yet in spite of all this, it doesn’t feel derivative but somehow distinctively of this time–as if all that had never existed and they just invented it…
  4. The National/High Violet:  you already have this
  5. The New Pornographers/Together:  you SHOULD already have this.  Half of it is my favorite album of the year…Neko Case IS the Midas touch, but everyone in this supergroup is talented beyond measure
  6. Owen Pallett/Heartland:  now this guy is a true discovery.  I’ve heard he did some orchestration for indie bands (Arcade Fire, etc.), but all I really know about him is from this album.  He is a musical brother to Andrew Bird, a cousin of Sufjan, from the genus of chamber-pop…lovely, fascinating, highly original.  Often, a song intentionally veers toward the brink of dissonance, but it never goes over
  7. Josh Ritter/So Runs the World Away:  I need a few more listens to definitively place this album on the list, but it has potential

Some varying levels of disappointment:  Band of Horses, Broken Bells, Jonsi (is that ok to admit?  I love him still…), Teenage Fanclub (embarrassingly weak), She & Him. Disagree?  Feel free to prove me wrong in the comments!

I don’t really have any prophecies at the moment…maybe The Walkmen, Cloud Cult, Interpol in September/October?  I could use YOUR recommendations if you have any.  Until later…

The Serpent and the Woman

This is a narrative reflection I wrote for a class on Genesis, where the assignment was to choose a character from the book of Genesis and outline their thoughts on a particular occasion.  I chose the serpent preparing to tempt the woman in the garden, Eden (Genesis 3:1).  [Note: the use of plural pronouns with singular verbs in what follows is an attempt to convey the serpent/Satan’s awareness of the trinitarian reality of God.]

from Gustave Dore's illustrations for Paradise Lost

“The eternal One knows I am here in Their garden, but as yet They has done nothing to acknowledge my presence.  I know that I am neither welcome nor forbidden in this fecund new world, but I had expected my visit to, at the least, elicit some Divine comment.  I did feel the backside of the Breath, at once both cold as the empty heavens and hot as the greater light, move past me when I was hiding in the goat, eavesdropping on Their final act of making:  the pathetic dirtlings.  Hah!  Made in the image of Their holy perfection?  No host will ever ring out in anthem in praise of those lumpy bipeds…I guarantee it, not one single gloria.

But when They knelt next to the inert form of the man, I shuddered with horror at the tenderness with which Their hand cupped the thing’s head and pushed its hair back from its brow—at that moment, I began to stomp and whinny with such disgust that the she-goat at my side snuffed, bared her teeth at me, and wandered off—and then, as I looked back again, They leaned in toward the earth creature, so close as to kiss its face.  And They held Themself there, breathing softly over it for a time.  I had to turn away from the choking revulsion and burning in my eyes, as if a thorn had just scratched my face.  I made to leave the goat, but glanced over, just for an instant, only to see the man staring into Their face.  As much as I hate this creature, and the next one who came out of him, and though I mean to destroy them both, I will acknowledge that there was a glimpse of something like the purity and beauty I remember from the court reflected in its eyes as it gazed into the love of the eternal One.  I could stand the recognition no longer and fled the bewildered and agitated goat.

Now I wait for the woman, in a serpent, near the edge of the gentle river where she wades and dips under the water.  I’ve taken notice that she likes the serpent, as it is slender and smooth in her soft hands and as the man once tickled her tender heel with its flickering tongue.  She feels no intimidation with its size and therefore will sense no coercion when I speak to her about the prohibited tree, one of only two ancient things in this nascent land.  She goes to the center of the garden sometimes to gaze at the tree, with mostly a happy curiosity and yet also a little fear, as she never comes close enough to really look at it with more than a squint.  I mean to escort her right up to its limbs, close enough for her to see a different reflection in the luster of its fruit—her own beautiful face.  I can see her, already, pulling the branch down and yanking off the fruit, sinking her teeth deep into its flesh, juice and seeds dripping down her neck.  Will she feel as I did:  a surge of power and then terror?

But how to get her from here to there…

She shakes her head, like the beasts, to send the water back to its source, which indicates she means to walk to the shore.  And I now I need to find the words to get her to go with me to the tree.  If I command her, she will simply laugh at me and stick out her tongue, saying, “Who are you, serpent, to command me, your queen and keeper?”  If I say I wish to walk alongside her, hoping to subtly lead the way to the center, she will likely want to find the man to accompany us—she is drawn to his presence like rain to the earth—and he lacks any desire to go that way, as he avoids the tree altogether (the prohibition was among the first things They said to him, after all, and he heard it directly from the Voice, unlike the woman).  I could deceive her and tell her the eternal One asked me to bring her to the tree, but then if They was not there, she would call out for Them and all would be for nothing.

But perhaps, and here she comes, perhaps if I asked her a question, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” she will want to take me to the place and correct my ignorance by pointing to the one forbidden thing, telling me this alone is the tree.  And then, when we are close enough, I will tell her what I know, what I have tasted.

And she will want to know as well.

She will want to taste as well.

She stands now before me, unaware of her naked flesh for the last time.

Tea Partiers: True Patriots, Misguided Zealots, or Just Plain Idiots

Dear reader, as much as I am loathe to pay attention to anything having to do with politics, economics, etc. (i.e. anything that has practical/real implications for life), the media won’t let me ignore this whole “Tea Party” movement, which to this point I have associated with [shudder] Sarah Palin-ites, grumpy old white people, and ignorant loudmouths.

Social suicide is not an American value

But now it’s come to my attention that a Republican primary candidate for California’s 30th State Senate District (which includes La Mirada, where I live) named Warren Willis has attached himself to the Tea Party movement.  This would not make a lot of difference to me if I didn’t know that Willis was running an organization (the California School Project–CSP) which promotes and empowers on-campus Christian evangelism by students.  I know a number of very thoughtful and intelligent people who work for CSP and who think highly of Willis, so I am left to wonder about his association with this group.

I have run across a few articles of late which have reinforced my predisposition to see the flaws of this movement.  I’d be happy to encounter other perspectives if you can send them my way…

Some quotes from the articles I mentioned:

The movement is not yet united on a single platform or agenda…The lack of specifics allows anyone who is just existentially fed up (and who isn’t, on some days?) to feel right at home. No one will demand to know what he or she is fed up with…

The Tea Party movement has been compared (by David Brooks of The New York Times, among others) to the student protest movement of the 1960s. Even though one came from the left and the other from the right, both are/were, or at least styled themselves as, a mass challenge to an oppressive establishment. That’s a similarity, to be sure. But the differences seem more illuminating.

First, the 1960s (shorthand for all of the political and social developments we associate with that period) were by, for, and about young people. The Tea Party movement is by, for, and about middle-aged and old people (undoubtedly including more than a few who were part of the earlier movement too). If young people discover a cause and become a bit overwrought or monomaniacal, that’s easily forgiven as part of the charm of youth. When adults of middle age and older throw tantrums and hold their breath until they turn blue, it’s less charming…

Some people think that what unites the Tea Party Patriots is simple racism. I doubt that. But the Tea Party movement is not the solution to what ails America. It is an illustration of what ails America. Not because it is right-wing or because it is sometimes susceptible to crazed conspiracy theories, and not because of racism, but because of the movement’s self-indulgent premise that none of our challenges and difficulties are our own fault.

“I like what they’re saying. It’s common sense,” a random man-in-the-crowd told a Los Angeles Times reporter at a big Tea Party rally. Then he added, “They’ve got to focus on issues like keeping jobs here and lowering the cost of prescription drugs.” These, of course, are projects that can be conducted only by Big Government. If the Tea Party Patriots ever developed a coherent platform or agenda, they would lose half their supporters.

Principled libertarianism is an interesting and even tempting idea. If we wanted to, we could radically reduce the scope of government—defend the country, give poor people enough money to live decently, and leave it at that. But this isn’t the TPP vision. The TPP vision is that you can keep your Medicare benefits and balance the budget by ending congressional earmarks, and perhaps the National Endowment for the Arts. (quotes above from an essay in The Atlantic magazine)

Jim Wallis points out 5 contentions between Christianity and the Tea Party/Libertarian movement in a recent Sojourners online post:

  1. The Libertarian enshrinement of individual choice is not the pre-eminent Christian virtue.
  2. An anti-government ideology just isn’t biblical.
  3. The Libertarians’ supreme confidence in the market is not consistent with a biblical view of human nature and sin.
  4. The Libertarian preference for the strong over the weak is decidedly un-Christian.
  5. There is something wrong with a political movement like the Tea Party which is almost all white.

What are your thoughts on this movement?

Reformed and Always Reforming, Part III: The Essence of Christianity

Sorry to delay the next installment of this series so long (also see part I and part II), but I’ve been busy wrapping up the end of my seven years on staff at Biola University, so now I can TOTALLY come out of the closet as a raging liberal (kidding…kind of?).  On the note of “liberals*,” namely those people of whom many at conservative institutions like Biola would say are not actually Christian (perhaps a little residual “phantom limb” reflex from the amputated Bible-thumping arm of our fundamentalist heritage), Olson explores in the next section the idea of what truly constitutes “authentic Christianity.”

Postconservative evangelicals (PCE) “believe that conservative evangelicals (CE) tend to place too much emphasis and value on facts” and that “authentic Christianity is too often equated with correct grasp of information” and the “propositional nature of revelation and the cognitive aspects of Christian discipleship.”  Olson is quick to point out that PCE thinkers AGREE that there is an important cognitive and propositional content to our faith–it is simply that many CE thinkers have overemphasized and indeed become obsessed with this dimension as THE essence of true Christianity.

My boy MILLARD's classic one-volume systematic...

He cites examples of this from the works of two CE theologians, Millard Erickson & D.A. Carson, whom Olson expresses admiration for even while disagreeing with their elevation of “cognitive knowledge and affirmation of correct doctrines as the hallmarks of authentic evangelical faith.”  Olson points out that the CE view tends to “highlight the didactic side of Scripture and interpret revelation as primarily communication of information about God.”

Olson quickly points out the common ground between CE & PCE thought:  “both believe that there is a gospel supernaturally communicated to human beings by special divine revelation and that apart from this gospel people cannot know God as they should.”  The difference lies, he says, in whether the transcendent source of of authority for believing and living, as well as the Christian identity it creates and preserves, is primarily a content of information or a means of transformation.  (He concludes that it is indeed BOTH, but that the CE view is out of balance in it’s overemphasis on the informational component.)

Olson continues by digging at the dual roots of contemporary evangelicalism:  Puritan Reformed theology, with its emphasis on confessional preservation of orthodox belief & the Pietistic/Revivalist emphasis on the experience of God’s transforming power.  He describes how a growing awareness of this duality led to the two groups beginning to “snipe at each other and take potshots at each other in print” (pointing specifically to Carson’s The Gagging of God & David F. Wells No Place for Truth).

Olson begins to defend the PCE view, and in particular his friend, the late Stanley Grenz, from the attacks and suspicions of CE thinkers, specifically refuting any “shallow interpretations” that would try to link the PCE movement to liberal theology and the ideas of the first liberal theologian, Friedrich Schliermacher, who emphasized feeling and experience over reason and ideation.  Indeed Olson says PCE’s have “no interest in being liberal” but rather desire to free evangelical theology “from captivity to the Enlightenment culture’s rationalism and obsession with ‘facts’ to the exclusion of truth in experience and personal knowledge.”

While acknowledging the role of information in the Christian life, PCE’s “do not believe that facts constitute the essence of authentic Christianity or true evangelicalism, both of which are primarily expressions of the transforming power of a relationship–the relationship between God in Jesus Christ manifested through the Holy Spirit and the person in community.”  In this perspective, doctrine is the “second-order language of the church that brings to expression this [supernatural] transforming experience.”  Doctrine serves experience, and not vice versa.

A quote from Alister McGrath points in this direction (though McGrath does not go as far as identifying experience as the essence of evangelical faith):

It is a travesty of the biblical idea of ‘truth’ to equate it with the Enlightenment notion of conceptual or propositional correspondence, or the derived view of evangelicalism as the proclamation of the propositional correctness of Christian doctrine (from A Passion for Truth: The Intellectual Coherence of Evangelicalism).

More explicitly, Stanley Grenz pointed toward the concept of “convertive piety,” which is “a certain experience of God that is supernatural, personally transforming, and centered around the cross of Jesus Christ and the indwelling of the holy spirit.”  Olson goes on to point out, and this is what makes some squirm, that “a person who has this experience may be a real Christian–and an evangelical–without yet being orthodox doctrinally.”  While “doctrinal systems have their value,” it is “a distinctive spirituality that forms evangelical Christianity’s essence.”  Grenz succinctly stated in his groundbreaking 1993 work, Revisioning Evangelical Theology, that “the truth of the Christian faith must be personally experienced truth.”

Grenz points out that while “doctrinal systems and worldviews inevitably arise within communities and shape individual identity and group knowledge…[they] cannot replace or stand in for spiritual experience [but are] expressions of it.”  In Grenz’s view, “the ultimate authority for developing Christian belief and life is the Spirit speaking through the Scriptures in the context of the community shaped by a common spiritual experience of convertive piety.”

So what about doctrinal correctness?  Olson replies that while it is important, correct doctrine does not trump the experience of a converted believer.  “Apart from the transforming experience, authentic evangelicalism does not exist even where doctrinal correctness is present.  And where right experience and right spirituality are present in Jesus-centered living, authentic Christianity may be present even if doctrinal correctness is not yet fully present-provided that movement in the right direction is clearly discernible.”

The difference between CE and PCE thinking on this point may be hard to detect…Olson lays out a few areas of competing emphasis:

  1. CE proponents “assert that the basis of our Christian beliefs must not be experiential because experience is subjective.”  For them, “the basis of our [faith] must be reason grasping divine revelation [and that] the system of beliefs drawn from [divine revelation] is rationally superior to all competing systems of belief.”
  2. PCE thinkers (and allies such as McGrath) fear that CE theology is “turning evangelical faith into a philosophy and the Bible into a book of facts to be organized into a coherent system.”  (I’ve seen this mentality at work many times in my experience with the CEE.)  PCE thinkers hold narrative up as an alternative to CE overemphasis on the propositional.  “Narrative is meant to transform and does transform; it creates identity in a way factual statements do not…The point of this announcement in story form is to transform people; it is a story about salvation and brings about salvation.”  The cognitive dimension is not dismissed, but is rather relegated to secondary status.

This does allow for more uncertainty and ambiguity as to who is “in or out” of evangelicalism and makes heresy hunting a bit more difficult, but PCE’s are comfortable with this tension without becoming “relativists.”  Rather, Olson says they are “critical realists”:  “Absolute truth is what God knows; our grasp of truth is always from a certain finite perspective and infected with finitude and falleness.”

This emphasis on intellectual humility is one of the aspects of the PCE that appeals so much to me and I find myself willing to live with greater tension and ambiguity as I look at other people who claim to follow Christ.  Do you find, however, that too much is lost in making an experience of “convertive piety” the essence of Christianity rather than assent to a set of doctrinal propositions?  I’d love to hear your thoughts…

*[update:  I just finished two classes where we explored in a bit more depth the history, methodology, & theology of classical Christian liberalism and its modern descendants…goodness & mercy, I am no liberal!]

Reformed and Always Reforming, Part II: The Postconservative Style of Evangelical Theology

So what exactly does “postconservative evangelical (PCE) theology” look like?  Some inclinations were hinted at in the “10 features of conservative evangelical theologians” in Part I of this series and Olson begins in his next chapter to sketch six features that will give a sense of the “mood” of PCE theology (you can see already the desire to elude rigid categorization, can’t you?).

Before he lists these characteristics, he delves into the issue of whether some in the Conservative Evangelical Establishment (CEE–my term, not Olson’s) would question whether PCE theologians are indeed “evangelical.”  Olson answers this by proposing two “controversial theses”:

  1. Evangelical theology is theology done by an evangelical theologian (do you wonder if he was being ironic with the word ‘controversial’?)
  2. An evangelical theologian is someone who claims to be evangelical, is generally regarded as working within the evangelical network, and adheres to five cardinal features of evangelical faith–biblicism, conversionism, cross-centered piety, activism in evangelism and social transformation & respect for the Great Tradition of Christian belief

The second thesis might cause controversy among some in the CEE because they are uncomfortable with the confusion that exists as to who are truly evangelicals, as well as dismayed at the “rampant diversity of interpretation among evangelicals.”  Olson points out a distinction that CE thinkers (such as D.A. Carson in The Gagging of God) would like to draw between “sociological evangelicalism” (those people who participate in evangelical churches, organizations, etc.) and “authentic doctrinal evangelicalism” (detailed theological orthodoxy).

While Olson acknowledges the legitimacy of concerns with doctrinal pluralism and the contemporary “desertion of the cognitive substance of faith” and he also admits that CE theologians are correct that “authentic evangelical faith includes a strong commitment to orthodox doctrine,” he holds that they are wrong “insofar as they elevate doctrinal orthodoxy to incorrigible status where it is functionally infallible and therefore equal with divine revelation itself” (which Olson sees in CE “traditionalism that enshrines [the intellectual content of] Protestant orthodoxy as it was developed in the post-Reformation period by Protestant scholastics and especially by the Old Princeton School theologians in the nineteenth century”).

Olson sees the only way to keep from raising doctrinal formulations to peer status with Scripture is “to leave a door open to doctrinal reconsideration and revision in light of Scripture [by defining] the evangelical attitude toward orthodox doctrine as one of respect and deference but not slavish adherence.”  He proposes that “what makes a theologian evangelical is not strict faithfulness without mental reservation or reconsideration to doctrinal orthodoxy [but rather] that he or she works enthusiastically from within and embodies the ethos or the evangelical movement” (as defined in his 5 cardinal features above).

Olson delves briefly into a section on the two predominant approaches to American evangelical faith, or the “dual inheritance” of the “two strands of Protestantism that flowed together in the Great Awakening,” which reveals a great deal about the tension and turmoil in the contemporary Western evangelical community.  The two approaches are:

  1. Puritanism that was publicly focused, scholastic, and whose outlook on salvation was Reformed or Calvinistic, exemplified in Jonathan Edwards & influencing contemporary Reformed movements such as the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals
  2. Pietism that was more inwardly focused in its experientialism, with a view of salvation that was influenced by synergism and more Arminian (though predating Arminius to Melanchthon and the Anabaptists), exemplified in John Wesley & influential in the Jesus People movement of the 1970’s, the Pentecostal-Charismatic movements, as well as the emerging churches network and the house church movement

Olson points out that the “vast bulk of evangelicalism lies somewhere between these expressions, combining aspects of each” and reflecting the two often conflicting impulses of “evoking experience of God” (Pietism) and “inculcating correct beliefs” (Puritanism)  He also suggests that PCE theology is “by and large a derivation of the Pietist side of the evangelical movement” and CE theology (and the fundamentalist movement preceding it) has arisen out of the Puritan ingredient.

Some of these limbs wish they had a saw...

Now we finally move to the six features of the postconservative style of doing theology (I’m not using quotes, but am condensing/editing Olson’s words in these paragraphs):

  1. PCE theologians consider the main purpose of revelation to be transformation more than information (Note: while CE theologians would agree with the transformational goal, they would see revelation as primarily as the communication of information/facts for the purpose of creating knowledge, while PCEs wonder if knowledge is the only or best means of transforming persons).  PCEs do not reject a propositional, factual, and informational aspect to divine revelation, but stress that revelation is given primarily for the purpose of redemption through personal encounter and relationship, and that nonpropositional aspects of revelation can be useful for theological endeavor.  They see the Bible as not as a “book full of timeless truths” but as a vehicle that contains many types of revelation, all of which support that which is primary in Scripture:  narrative.  PCEs are generally enamored with narrative theology, which emphasizes the power of story to transform people in a way propositions do not, and they worry that CE theology is too caught up in the idea of cognitive Christianity to the neglect of transformation and relationship with God.
  2. They see theology as a pilgrimage and a journey rather than a discovery and conquest and hold that the constructive task of theology is ever unfinished–there are no closed, once and for all systems of theology.  A few quotes from the late PCE theologian Clark Pinnock will illustrate this point:  “Why do conservatives assume that the received doctrinal paradigms created by human beings like ourselves are incapable of improvement?” and “How awfully easy it is for people who think themselves in possession of God’s infallible Word to transfer some of that infallibility to themselves.  And how easy for them to respond to anyone who questions any aspect of their fortresslike position with righteous anger and adamant rejection.”  PCE thinkers believe that taking risks in theological endeavor with thought experiments is not a sin and also appreciate the role of imagination in theological work.
  3. They evidence a discomfort and dissatisfaction with the reliance of CE theology on Enlightenment and modern modes of thought.  Alister McGrath points to the covert modern influence on CE theology: “Certain central Enlightenment ideas appear to have been uncritically taken on board by some evangelicals, with the result that part of the movement runs the risk of becoming a secret prisoner of a secular outlook which is now dying before our eyes.”  PCEs are concerned that conservative foundationalism and propositionalism elevate something alien to revelation above revelation as the criterion of truth, reducing Christianity to a philosophy.  They believe that some forms of postmodern thought can help liberate evangelical theology from the Enlightenment.
  4. They view evangelicalism as a centered set category rather than as a set having boundaries.  This means that the question is not who is “in” or “out” of evangelicalism, but who is nearer to the center and who is moving away from it (the center being Jesus Christ and the gospel & reflecting the 5 core elements above).  There is no evangelical magisterium to decide who is in or out of the movement.  The issue of how you can have an identity with a fuzzy boundary is responded to with the following clarification: an organization has boundaries (such as a nation, i.e. Who is an American?  Any US citizen.), but a movement does not (i.e. Who is a “Westerner”?  Not all Europeans or Americans are truly Westerners culturally and many people living in Asia are Westernized!).  So it is with an evangelical–there is no test for determining who is an evangelical and yet we all know that not everyone who claims the label deserves it.  In this, PCEs are more comfortable with possible ambiguity as to who is truly an evangelical.
  5. They have a tendency to view the enduring essence of Christianity, and the core identity of evangelical faith, as spiritual experience rather than as doctrinal belief.  Stanley Grenz argued that evangelicalism is a vision of the Christian faith expressed primarily in a distinctive spirituality, a shared experience of “convertive piety” that manifests itself in a personal, transforming relationship with Jesus Christ and is expressed communally in shared stories/testimonies, hymns, witness, and worship.
  6. They have a tendency to hold relatively lightly to tradition while respecting the Great Tradition of Christian belief, even as they subordinate it to revelation and consider it at most a guide.  Kevin Vanhoozer agrees, noting “Sola Scriptura means at least this: that the church’s proclamation is always subject to potential correction from the canon.”  Two terms that could be used to describe this tendency would be “generous orthodoxy” and “critical orthodoxy.”  While not eschewing doctrine, propositions, or tradition, they believe that all of these ideas are subject to the greater authority of divine revelation in Jesus Christ and in Scripture, which may at any time break forth in new light that corrects what has always been believed and taught by Christians.  The PCE style demands humility, generosity, and openness of spirit in conducting the work of theology and handling the cognitive content of the faith.

These are merely sketches that Olson goes on to fill out in subsequent chapters…any thoughts on these features from our intrepid readers (i.e. those who read through to the end of this post)?

[Part III available here]