Reformed and Always Reforming, Part I: “Who in the What Now?”

A while back, while outlining my “Reading List,” I promised I would write more about a very important book to me, namely Roger Olson’s 2007 book, Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Theology.  I am now making good on that promise; however, rather than writing a short summary praising the book’s merits & interacting with any of its perceived shortcomings, I have decided (to follow Jesus!) to summarize THE ENTIRE BOOK for your consideration, which will require me to divide the posts into a number of parts. 

I’m not sure how many of our dear readers would be inclined to read the book for themselves, but I’d love to interact over the specifics of the approach he outlines in the comments section—I will even try to restrict my own editorial opinion to that location—because it is an approach that I am very seriously considering taking on as my own (to some extent).  To do this without input from my community would be foolhardy, in my highly-relational opinion.  So without further ado, I give you my post:  Reformed and Always Reforming, Part I:  “Who in the What Now?”

Olson’s central thesis in the book is that “it is possible to be more evangelical by being less conservative”—speaking specifically in this book about theology, which he defines as “reflection on divine revelation in order to believe rightly and understand what is rightly believed.”  He distinguishes between theology and doctrine:  “theology is process; doctrine is raw material and product.  Theology examines doctrines (beliefs about God) and produces doctrines, often by reaffirming, restating, or revising older ones.”  The last action of “revising” is central to the postconservative approach (or “mood” as he calls it) Olson will commend.

In the book, Olson sets up what kind of conservative he is “post” by describing his understanding of “conservative evangelical theology.”  The idea of being conservative is clearly connected to “adherence to tradition”—Olson posits that conservative evangelical’s (CE’s) have, perhaps unconsciously, established a “magisterium” that “exercises prior restraint over the critical and constructive tasks of theology” and while he acknowledges that many CE’s would deny this, “their conservatism shows in their tendency to slam down any and every new proposal for revisioning Christian doctrine” by an appeal to received traditional (or evangelical) beliefs.

He sees an example of a CE magisterium in the 1990 volume Evangelical Affirmations edited by Kenneth Kantzer & Carl F.H. Henry.  Olson perceives that this was an attempt to preserve “evangelical integrity [by] identifying who is ‘in’ and ‘out’ of the evangelical club” through establishing “firm evangelical boundaries.”  Throughout this collection of essays, “appeal is made repeatedly to…an alleged evangelical consensus” which Olson sees as something that would “be used in evangelical institutions in making decisions about hiring and continuing employment.”  In essence, it looks like a power play to consolidate the authority to identify who may call themselves an “evangelical.”  The problem with this is that it functionally places “a set of human statements on the same plane with scripture.”

In providing examples of specific conservative evangelical theologians, he divides them into two main camps:

  • Biblicist evangelicals:  those who “seem concerned to protect the propositional nature of revelation as primary and [who] seem to believe it is relatively easy with training and skill to move from biblical exegisis to establishment of sound doctrine without the aid of other sources and norms such as tradition, philosophy, or culture.”  They “tend to follow the methodology of 19th century Princeton theologian Charles Hodge” and Olson includes Carl F.H. Henry, J.I. Packer, Wayne Grudem, Millard Erickson, Norman Geisler, D.A. Carson and David F. Wells in this category.  Their approach contains the “idea that doctrines are to be mined out of the Bible and that evangelical doctrines are simply biblical teachings and not the secondary language of the church,” as well as a “frequent appeal to an evangelical faith once and for all delivered as a negative norm for ruling out new ideas.”
  • Paleo-orthodox traditionalists:  those who explicitly identify an “ancient, ecumenical doctrinal consensus” (sometimes including Reformational teachings, but usually based on the early church fathers) as a “governing authority for evangelical theology.”  These thinkers include Thomas Oden, D.H. Williams, and Robert Webber.

Olson also offers 10 features that he believes are common among conservative evangelical theologians which are a cause for concern to the postconservative approach (I’m not using quotes, but am condensing/editing Olson’s words in these sentences):

  1. A tendency to treat correct doctrine—orthodoxy—as the essence of authentic Christian faith and of evangelical faith, and a response to theological innovations as leading to apostasy.
  2. A tendency to treat revelation as primarily propositional, glossing over the personal and eventful nature of revelations as well as the revelational power of stories, images, and speech acts.
  3. A tendency to elevate some tradition to the status of a magisterium for evangelical theological identity (closing off fresh theological reflection & revisioning of doctrines).
  4. A suspicion of the constructive task of theology, rejecting or neglecting attempts to construct new doctrinal formulations or reconstruct old ones & a tendency to be defensive of their understanding of orthodoxy, patrolling evangelical boundaries.
  5. A view of evangelicalism as a bounded set category—within which it should be easy to tell who is in or out & a sense that they should have the authority to strip others of the evangelical label.
  6. A tendency to regard the “evangelical tent” as relatively smaller than the number of those who call themselves evangelicals.
  7. A high degree of suspicion towards both modernity (even though they may be influenced by it!) and postmodernity, which they see as relativistic and destructive of authentic Christian faith, which consists of absolutes known with a high degree of certainty.
  8. A tendency to think that it is possible to do theology relatively uninfluenced by history and culture (antihistoricist), and a recoiling from the idea that every doctrinal and theological formulation or method is culturally embedded, as they believe in and look for a transcultural expression of the gospel.
  9. A tendency to remain tied to fundamentalist roots (even though they would prefer not to use that term) in use of tactics such as harsh, polemical rhetoric and angry denunciations or ad hominum arguments when writing about fellow evangelicals with whom they disagree.
  10. A tendency to do theology in the grip of fear of liberal theology and insistence on placing every theologian or theological proposal on the spectrum of left to right as defined by attitudes towards modernity, with liberal theology representing maximal accommodation to modernity.

Olson also points to two “mediating evangelical theologians” who don’t totally fit into either camp:

  • Donald Bloesch, whom conservatives are fond of because of his strongly confessional stance and defense of traditional doctrinal formulations, but who can also be considered progressive because he denies biblical inerrancy and leans toward Karl Barth in a form of “evangelical neoorthodoxy.”
  • Alister McGrath, who is also defensive of traditional orthodoxy and reluctant to express support for theological innovation, but critical of the influence of modern rationalism on theology which craves certainty through empirical-historical evidences or logical deduction from a priori truths (rational presuppositions).

Olson ends his introduction by pointing out two groups which are vying for the attention of a new generation of evangelicals:  a fairly aggressive form of Reformed theology with a strongly Puritan flavor, influenced by Packer, R.C. Sproul, John Piper & Carson; and the emerging church network, led by Brian McLaren.

So now what does the postconservative approach look like?  That will have to wait until the next post.  However, since I’ve laid out so many names already, I will add those theologians whom Olson labels “postconservative” who are influenced by the last-generation theologians Bernard Ramm and Lesslie Newbigin, as well as philosopher Alasdair McIntyre, including:

  • Stanley Grenz (deceased)
  • Clark Pinnock (deceased)
  • Kevin Vanhoozer
  • John Sanders
  • John Franke
  • Nancey Murphy
  • James McClendon (deceased)
  • Miroslav Volf
  • Brian McLaren
  • Rodney Clapp
  • Greg Boyd

[Part II available here]

Eff you, Oscar…here’s The Arts & Faith Top 100

Oscars are on Sunday.  Some good films will be celebrated, some so-so films will get awards–sadly, the best film of the year (Fantastic Mr. Fox) will walk away empty-pawed (though you must check out this terrifically funny animated acceptance speech made by Mr. Anderson).

However, an online group affiliated with the thoughtful religious-y journal IMAGE (who once bastardly REJECTED a story I sent in!) just released their collaboratively determined top 100 films, somehow relating to Arts & Faith (not crystal clear on the criteria…).

One of the crafters of A & F 100, Jeffrey Overstreet, a film critic/novelist whom I had the chance to grab a meal with once upon a time, wrote a bit about the list in anticipation of questions raised by the list–here’s one response I liked quite a bit:

Question #6: Is it just me, or do most of these films look like hard work?

The Arts and Faith Top 100 are not favored for their difficulty. They are honored for their excellence, their beauty, their capacity to inspire us to become more fully human.

Each movie on this list explores fundamental and provocative spiritual questions. Questions that challenge us to grow in understanding. Questions that cultivate community through the experience of bracing conversations. Questions that kindle our deepest longings for all that is sacred and good.

In other words, yes—some of these films require serious work on the part of the viewer. But they are full of rewards for those who give them a chance.

The Arts and Faith Top 100 Films will arrest you with their vividness and strangeness. They are full of beauty and mystery. And unlike what is commonly categorized as “Christian art,” they will leave audiences with some doubt as to their precise application. They tease the mind into thought and reflection—again and again and again.

I agree wholeheartedly with his point & lament it at the same time.  As a culture, we’ve been raised on a steady diet of candy art, making these cinematic banquets taste bitter to our palates.  I’d love to encourage us all to line up a number of these films on the ole Netflix queue, yet at the same time, I feel MY OWN resistance to sitting down to 3+ hours of static camerawork, silence on the soundtrack, and characterizations that feel incredibly ripe for satire (ahh, the pretension!).

Let me then suggest two things:

1.  My own recommendations from this list.  I love the following films enough to own them–I will gladly loan them to you and am also willing to sit down and watch/discuss them together (if you live in a 20 mile radius of La Mirada, CA).

  • #2  The Decalogue (it’s about 10 hours long, in Polish–one short film per commandment, but they are not really interconnected so you can dip your toe in with a few films, maybe I, VI, or X)
  • #3  Babette’s Feast (Danish, Oscar winner, slow but beautiful story of the lavishness of grace)
  • #8 Andrei Rublev (Russian, B/W, slow as hades, but lovely as Abraham’s bosom)
  • #12  Wings of Desire (German, my favorite film of all time!  Just got a new Criterion edition too)
  • #15  Three Colors Trilogy (Polish/French, you should watch all 3 and tell me which you connected with the most)
  • #30  Stalker (Russian, MOLASSES SLOW, but deep as can be, haunting, beautiful)
  • #36 Days of Heaven (American, pretty accessible…amazing cinematography)
  • #51 The Spirit of the Beehive (Spanish, so sweet & profound & memorable)
  • #56  Ponette (French, on my personal top 10, unbelievable performance from a 4 year old)
  • #65  After Life (Japanese film about dead people picking one memory to live in forever)
  • #90  Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher (I didn’t actually LOVE this documentary–it’s a bit amateur–but the STORY is so worth exploring)
  • #96  The New World (American, I have the extended director’s cut–so powerful!)

2.  Please challenge ME to take on one of these based on your recommendation…I need to keep my tastes from atrophying due to my consumption of the “frivolity-industrial complex” produced films that are playing in my local excuse for a cinema.

With our great affection for lists, perhaps someday we’ll have a “Lost In the Cloud Top 100″…until then, enjoy these selections!

The State I Am In (or, I’m so bored with the C.E.E.)

“And so I gave myself to God; there was a pregnant pause before he said…’Ok.'” — Belle & Sebastian, from ‘The State I Am In’

For a while now, I have been feeling somewhat disconnected from the theological tradition in which I was raised—namely, conservative evangelicalism (or, as I suspiciously call it now, the Conservative Evangelical Establishment).  When I described my religious views on Facebook a while back as “evangelical-esque,” it became even more clear to me that I was uncomfortable aligning myself with a term that most of my community seemed to embrace with no anxiety.

It wasn’t that my conservative evangelical church or my friends were the problem, though occasionally my squeamishness would rear its head in those contexts.  My contention was more with certain types of people who seemed to speak VERY LOUDLY (or at least wear their merchandise) in the public square as representatives of all evangelicals, and even certain leaders within the movement (and I’m not talking about Pat Robertson and the “God Hates Fags” nuts, cause I’m pretty sure they are universally despised).  The types of people I was looking to distance myself from (and I KNOW this is going to be incredibly patronizing, harsh & self-righteous) include, but are not limited to the following:

  • “know-it-all” dogmatic polemicists (usually those who aRE FORMED in a certain theological system—ouch, sorry Calvinist buddies [not because you are this way, but these may include some of your heroes]—but also including a fair share of thinkers of other stripes, who like to think they are God’s gift to orthodox doctrine and love the way the words “heretical” and “heterodox,” if not “compromised Christianity,” roll off the tongue)
  • zealous morality crusaders (whose calling it is to inform non-Christians how they ought to behave as if they were Christians [Yes on Prop. 8 fanatics…and I mean the ones who acted like the world was going to end if it didn’t pass] and to remind loose-living, backsliding “carnal” Christians what a wet blanket, parade-pissing killjoy Jesus wants them to be)
  • Americangelicals (a word I believe I just coined, describing those who believe America is [or should return to being] a Christian nation, flag displayed in the church, patriotic songs sung in a worship service while F-22’s soar behind the projected lyrics, who usually end up acting as useful idiots to the Republican Party—ouch, sorry GOP buddies, of which I have been one my whole life!)
  • sentimentalists (collecting Precious Moments figurine versions of Moses, Jesus, and probably Satan) and other cheesy, tasteless simpletons (unlicensed stickers of Bill Watterson’s Calvin praying on the rear window, NOTW belt buckles, Left Behind novels, Contemporary Christian Music—ouch, sorry 80% of my extended family and acquaintances!)

Obviously these are caricatures of modern conservative evangelicals—however, you’d be surprised at how little scratching at the surface of the seemingly normal Joe Q. Evangelical in the pew next to you it takes to reveal the crazy-eyed & mushy-brained undercover fundy-brother beneath!  (If you doubt me, watch the documentary films Jesus Camp or Hell House, or read the article ‘Jesus Made Me Puke‘ or the book The Unlikely Disciple.  I know some may think I’m a-feared of “the world” thinking that I’m different and ashamed of the gospel, but I’m more scared of my children ever behaving in a manner that anyone with two neurons to rub together can readily see as gross over-simplification and reductionistic pig-headedness!  NOTE:  It has occurred to me that perhaps I am over-simplifying too.)

SO what’s to be done, I ask?  I’m obviously bitter (mainly because these kinds of voices tend to hold the power and the pocketbook in C.E.E. institutions) and disenfranchised to a great extent (this comes as no surprise to those who hear this whole tirade in reply to the question, “How are things going?”).  Where do I go, what do I do?

Do I bail from the C.E.E. and forge into other religious communities (the high church, the paleo-orthodox, the liberal)?  Do I try to work out my issues within the C.E.E. system while experiencing this incredible and often unbearable theological and intellectual, not to mention aesthetic, cultural and moral tension (the whole, “the church is a whore, the church is my mother” high-wire act)?  Do I go into exile from my community for a period and either come back head-in-hands repentant or fire-breathing prophetic?

I’m not sure as of yet.  And I ask all of these questions rhetorically and with only a mild sense of the exasperation that my critical, angry-young-man posture must produce in those who have sat and listened, responded patiently and gently so many, many times in these past years and even read this now.

In the midst of all of my frustration with the evangelical label, I am so grateful for the thoughtful brothers I have who will hear me bark and scowl and rage and who will even then pray for me, even in the midst of their own frustration WITH me, and whom I believe God will use to help me sort this out…my dear Matthew, Ryan, Dan, David, and Wade.  I definitely need to spend some time with Les & Steve in the near future, and am so grateful for my flesh & blood brother Mark, who is sometimes a comrade-in-arms, sometimes a sparring partner.  Finally, I am thankful for the inspiration of my dearly loved Elijah, who is so much younger & so much wiser than I am, sadly thousands of miles away.  I love you all and ask you, along with any dear reader to come across these longing and hurting words, to hope for me in figuring out where I am, where I am headed, and where I am wrong-headed…in the state I am in.

21 Artifacts from the 21st Century

The end of the decade has resulted in a number of best of the decade lists.  We’ve kind of OD’d on best of lists here already, but Elijah and I wanted to throw in our votes for those works of culture from the 2000’s WE think will/should stand the test of time.

I feel somewhat presumptuous putting this out there, as if my vote actually mattered, but what I have found is that my friends, acquaintances, and YOU dear reader, often find your interest piqued by something that has been declared “the best.”  I know that some of Elijah’s musical selections caused me to listen to albums I had not heeded before…so perhaps you may find something here that causes you to want to experience, reconsider or even maybe avoid (?) the following creative endeavors.  Hope you enjoy…see you next decade!

– Greg

Albums (Greg | Elijah)

  1. Illinois/The Avalanche (2005/2006) Sufjan Stevens | Kid A/Amnesiac (2000/2001) Radiohead
  2. The Texas Jerusalem Crossroads (2001) Lift to Experience | Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State (2003) Sufjan Stevens
  3. In Rainbows/Bonus Disc (2007) Radiohead | Figure 8 (2000) Elliott Smith
  4. The Midnight Organ Fight (2008) Frightened Rabbit | The Sophtware Slump (2000) Grandaddy
  5. Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State (2003) Sufjan Stevens | Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant (2000) Belle & Sebastian
  6. Figure 8 (2000) Elliott Smith | Songs in A & E (2008) Spiritualized
  7. Kid A/Amnesiac (2000/2001) Radiohead | Jane Doe (2001) Converge
  8. Lifted, Or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground (2002) Bright Eyes | Turn On the Bright Lights (2002) Interpol
  9. Feels (2005) Animal Collective | Illinois/The Avalanche (2005/2006) Sufjan Stevens
  10. Funeral (2004) The Arcade Fire | Blood Money (2002) Tom Waits
  11. Takk (2005) Sigur Rós | Control (2002) Pedro the Lion
  12. Boxer (2007) The National | Veckatimest (2009) Grizzly Bear
  13. Asleep in the Back (2001) Elbow | We Are the Only Friends We Have (2002) Piebald
  14. A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002) Coldplay | The Midnight Organ Fight (2008) Frightened Rabbit
  15. Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009) Animal Collective | Hot Shots II (2001) The Beta Band
  16. Gang of Losers (2006) The Dears | The Life Pursuit (2006) Belle & Sebastian
  17. Control (2002) Pedro the Lion | Tyrannosaurus Hives (2004) The Hives
  18. The Last Broadcast (2002) Doves | The Argument (2000) Fugazi
  19. The Invisible Band (2001) Travis | Hail to the Thief (2003) Radiohead
  20. Oh, Inverted World (2001) The Shins | Sea Change (2002) Beck
  21. Retreiver (2004) Ron Sexsmith | How It Ends (2004) DeVotchKa

Books (there were so many that we didn’t read [Elijah read only a handful of novels from the 2000s], so this list is incredibly subjective and limited in scope)

Novels:

  • Cloud Atlas (2004) David Mitchell
  • House of Leaves (2000) Mark Z. Danielewski
  • 2666 (2004) Roberto Bolaño
  • Atonement (2001) Ian McEwan
  • The Book of Illusions (2002) Paul Auster
  • Black Swan Green (2007) David Mitchell
  • American Gods (2001) Neil Gaiman
  • Thinks (2001) David Lodge
  • The City & The City (2009) China Mieville

Misc:

  • Blankets (2003) Craig Thompson, graphic novel
  • A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000) Dave Eggers, memoir
  • The Book of Other People (2007) ed. Zadie Smith, story collection
  • The Perry Bible Fellowship: The Trial of Colonel Sweeto and Other Stories (2007) Nicholas Gurewitch, comic collection
  • Box Office Poison (2001) Alex Robinson, graphic novel
  • The Rough Guide to Cult Fiction (2005) literary survey
  • Wall and Piece (2005) Banksy, art collection

Religion/Christianity:

  • Free of Charge (2006) Miroslav Volf
  • Jesus of Nazareth (2008) Pope Benedict XVI
  • The Sacredness of Questioning Everything (2009) David Dark
  • Renewing the Center (2000) Stanley Grenz
  • Across the Spectrum (2002) Gregory Boyd & Paul Eddy
  • The Mosaic of Christian Belief (2002) Roger Olson
  • The Shaping of Things to Come (2003) Michael Frost & Alan Hirsch
  • These last three Tom Wright books are included for their effective introductory appeal rather than any necessary anticipation of ‘classic’ status.
  • Paul: In Fresh Perspective (2005) N. T. (Tom) Wright
  • Simply Christian (2006) N. T. (Tom) Wright
  • Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (2009) N. T. (Tom) Wright

Film (G | E)

  1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) Michel Gondry | ditto
  2. Amelie (2001) Jean-Pierre Jeunet | Lord of the Rings (2001-03)  Peter Jackson
  3. Children of Men (2006) Alfonso Cuarón | There Will Be Blood (2007) P. T. Anderson
  4. Lord of the Rings (2001-03)  Peter Jackson | The Pianist (2002) Roman Polanski
  5. The New World (2005) Terrance Malick | Dancer in the Dark (2000) Lars von Trier
  6. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) Wes Anderson | The Royal Tennenbaums (2001) Wes Anderson
  7. All the Real Girls (2002) David Gordon Green | Memento (2000) Christopher Nolan
  8. Waltz with Bashir (2008) Ari Folman | Adaptation (2002) Spike Jonze
  9. In the Mood For Love (2000) Kar Wai Wong | Big Fish (2003) Tim Burton
  10. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2001) Ang Lee | ditto
  11. The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford (2007) Andrew Dominik | Zodiac (2007) David Fincher
  12. WALL-E (2008) Andrew Stanton | The Proposition (2005) John Hillcoat
  13. There Will Be Blood (2007) P. T. Anderson | Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) Wes Anderson
  14. Memento (2000) Christopher Nolan | The Prestige (2006) Christopher Nolan
  15. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) Guillermo del Toro | Elephant (2003) Gus Van Sant
  16. The Royal Tennenbaums (2001) Wes Anderson | A Beautiful Mind (2001) Ron Howard
  17. The Proposition (2005) John Hillcoat | Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) Guillermo del Toro
  18. The Prestige (2006) Christopher Nolan | About Schmidt (2002) Alexander Payne
  19. The Lives of Others (2007) Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck | Capote (2005) Bennett Miller
  20. Moulin Rouge (2001) Baz Luhrmann | Lost in Translation (2003) Sofia Coppola
  21. Donnie Darko (2001) Richard Kelly | American Splendor (2003) Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini