Saturday, January 29, 2011

Barth I.1 §4.1

In CD I.1 §4.1, Barth begins to talk in earnest about what indeed the "Word of God" is.  He has been using this term without a definition for some time.  In the previous sections he has talked about proclamation, "preaching" and the "sacrament" as attempting to bring forth the Word of God.  Now, Barth begins to define more of what he means by this Word of God.

Not all proclamation is real proclamation.  Proclamation (church preaching and sacrament) cannot ever claim to "be" the Word of God.  It cannot contain the Word of God, hold it, grasp it, claim it as its own.  No, according to Barth, "Proclamation must ever and again become proclamation." (CD I.1 §4.1 p. 88).

How does proclamation "become" the Word of God.  Barth gives four factors, which he calls concentric spheres. 

1) In the outermost sphere, the Word of God is a "given commission." The givenness is important here.  This is not a human word.  It is given from God and cannot be created through human means, through human motivations.  God's word remains free.

2) God's Word is the theme of proclamation.  God's word cannot be reduced to objects of human perception, either external perception (the five senses) or internal perception (thought, perception of the mind).

3) Proclamation is judged not by human standards of judgment, but by the Word of God itself.  God's Word judges whether proclamation is or is not the Word of God.  Human judgments must be made about proclamation, but they are not decisive.

4) Finally, the Word of God is an event in which God acts.  As Barth writes, "proclamation becomes real as God commands, God comes on the scene, God judges." (CD I.1 §4.1 p. 93).

What I found most interesting in this section is the close intertwining of the human and the divine.  When God's Word comes, when God decides to act, it is through human means.  God does not come and subsume the human factors.  God comes through the human factors.  God comes through humanity, with all of its weakness, all of its frailty, all of its imperfections, nevertheless God comes and redeems, makes the human all that it should be. 

Let's end with the words of Barth himself:
"The miracle of real proclamation does not consist in the fact that the willing and doing of proclaiming man with all its conditioning and in all its problems is set aside, that in some way a disappearance takes place and a gap arises in the reality of nature, and that in some way there steps into this gap naked divine reality scarcely concealed by a mere remaining appearance of human reality... As Christ became true man and remains true man to all eternity, real proclamation becomes an event on the level of all other human events." (CD I.1 §4.1 p. 94).

Barth I.1 § 3.2

In Church Dogmatics  I.1 § 3.2, Barth continues his discussion of church proclamation, by which he means church preaching and the administration of the sacrament.  For Barth, proclamation is the primary task of the church, the center of its mission.  Yet, this proclamation is a human effort, the words are human and fallible, and therefore there is a need for testing.  Dogmatics is the vehicle of this testing, of making sure that church proclamation conforms to its subject.  As Barth writes,
"Concrete dogma, indeed, is simply the kerygma [preaching] tested, provisionally purified, and reduced to a correct formula by the church." (CD I.1. §3.2 p. 82).
Yet, Barth admits that this testing in dogmatics is in itself a human work, and therefore cannot claim any concrete authority.  Nevertheless, this testing is necessary.

I know that I have been in churches that disdain theology.  They like to go with the Spirit, preach what comes from the heart.  These churches are anti-intellectual, claiming that seeking to think about preaching, to subject it to tests and intellectual rigor, will actually quench the Spirit.  All churches do theology, whether they claim to or not.  The ones that claim not to engage in theology, but follow the spirit, usually proclaim bad theology.  As Barth says,
"The freedom claimed when men think they can and should theologise 'quite untheologically' is the freedom to prattle heretically or in a way that makes for heresy.  There is no room in the church for this freedom." (CD I.1. §3.2 p. 77).
In his pessimistic appraisal of human capability, he claims that there is a necessity for theological testing of church proclamation.  Yet, knowing that this testing is no more infallible than church proclamation, he calls for a continual testing.  The work of dogmatics is never complete.  It must always be undertaken anew.  Dogmatics can never stand on its own as a final word.  It must always be tested again and again.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Steve Douglass does it again

Steve Douglass at Undeception has done it again, he has a post that so captures my thoughts on a subject that it is impossible to say It better. How did I not meet this guy at SBL, And how is he not even in the Biblical Studies field?

Here is a snippet, but go check out the whole post.

"A mandated necessity to believe the right things is hard to locate in Scripture, but commands to do the right things, one of which occasionally includes believing, is positively ubiquitous in both Testaments."

Monday, January 24, 2011

Barth Reading Page

I now have a stand alone Barth reading page on my blog where I have linked to my posts on Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics.  Thanks again to Daniel Kirk for proposing this seven year reading and synchroblogging project.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Jesus Healed Werewolves

This morning's Gospel reading was from Matthew 4:18-25.  I always take my Greek New Testament and read along with the lectionary readings.  I know what you are thinking, I am a Greek snob.  Well, that may be the case, but I don't do it to show off, I just like reading the Greek.

Anyway, after Jesus calls Peter and Andrew and James and John, he goes on a healing spree.  Whenever I am reading along, I notice words that I don't know off the top of my head, and one stood out to me today.  In the list of ailments that Jesus was healing in 4:24 is the folowing: σεληνιαζομένους (seleniazomenous).  This is usually translated as "those with epilepsy."  Yet, the root of this word is "selena" which is Greek for moon.  One of the definitions in Liddell Scott is "moonstruck." 

Now, maybe I just have read and watched too much Harry Potter, but this got me thinking, what else could moonstruck mean?  Could this be the ancient word for werewolves?  What do you think?  Was Jesus curing wherewolves?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Barth I.1 §3.1

In Church Dogmatics I.1 §3.1, Barth begins his discussion of the doctrine of the Word of God as the criterion for dogmatics.  He begins, not with the Bible, as most current evangelicals would do when discussing the Word of God, but rather, with preaching and the sacrament.  Preaching, or "proclamation" and the sacrament should, according to Barth, be at the center of the church's mission. 

Carrying over his sparring partners from §2, Barth continues to engage with Catholics and Protestant liberals over the issue of preaching and the sacrament.  For Barth, Catholics relegate preaching to the margins of the church while elevating the sacraments to the center, the one true means of God's grace.  On the other hand, in protestant liberalism, preaching is self-exposition.  As Barth writes:
"Proclamation as self-exposition must in the long run turn out to be a superfluous and impossible undertaking." (CD I.1 p. 64). 
Preaching and sacrament are the one place for Barth in which the church actively seeks to bring forth the Word of God.  Now, for Barth, the Word of God can come through various mediums.  It can come in theology, church instruction to youth, church social service, yet only in preaching and the sacrament, is there a true commission from God for the church to bring forth his Word.  In one of the few moments where Barth steps down from his esoteric language and engages in common speech, Barth writes:
"God may speak to us through Russian Communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub, or a dead dog.  We do well to listen to Him if He really does.  But, unless we regard ourselves as the prophets and founders of a new Church, we cannot say that we are commissioned to pass on what we have heard as independent proclamation." (CD I.1 p. 55).
Key here for Barth is that God's freedom is preserved, namely the ubi et quando visum est Deo (where and when it is pleasing to God).  God remains free to speak in any way and anywhere he so desires.  Yet, only in the areas of preaching and the sacrament is the church actually "commissioned" to proclaim the word of God.  For this commission, Barth goes to the "Great Commission" of Matthew 28, but does little exegesis on the passage.

A couple of notes about the current situation of the evangelical church.  1.  Preaching is certainly central, but I think you would be hard pressed to find many conservative evangelicals in the American conservative evangelical movement that would ever elevate preaching to the status of "Word of God."  Yet, Barth's counter part to preaching, that of sacrament, is largely neglected in the current evangelical church.  It would be rare to find an evangelical church today that takes communion as seriously as preaching.  Many churches only take communion once a month, some only once a quarter.  2.  Is the "Great Commission" truly the one commission that Jesus gave his church.  Sure, it was the last, at least according to Matthew.  Are there not many other "commissions," things that Jesus called his church to do?  How about Love your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.  Is not this a "great commission" for the church, yet certainly preaching does not cover all of the churches activities that might fulfill this commission.  I have seen many "Great Commission" oriented churches that neglect many other parts of Christ's message.  So, is Barth correct in claiming that only in preaching and the sacrament is the church "commissioned" to bring forth the Word of God. 

One more thing: though I have read some other Barth, and think I have a fairly firm idea of what Barth means by the term "Word of God," he uses the term throughout this section and never gives a satisfactory definition of what he means.  Why not start with a firm definition of what Word of God means to Barth before he talks about preaching as the primary vehicle for the church proclaiming the Word of God?

Apostolic Succession

In the period between the apostolic age, when the church was more or less dependent upon the apostles for their sense of right belief, and the age of Constantine when the church began to look to church councils to the determine doctrine, there was an epoch of strife between certain forms of belief.  In this period, where did one turn to find authority on matters of Christian belief and practice?

I brought up this question with my freshman students this last class period, and the first answer they gave was, "read the Bible."

There are multiple reasons why this was not the primary answer given in the early church. 

In order to read the Bible several conditions have to be met:

1) There has to be a Bible.  Though all of the books of the NT had been written, there was no canon per se. Part of the whole controversy is deciding which books were authoritative and which were not.
2) You have to be able to read, which most of the early Christians could not.
3) If you can read, you have to also have enough money to buy a copy of the scriptures, or pay a copyist to copy one for you. You couldn't just walk down to Barnes and Noble and pick up a copy of the Bible.

And one more reason why scripture did not automatically guard right belief was that the heretics used scripture just as much as the orthodox did. 

Therefore, where early Christians turned more often amidst debates about doctrine were the church leaders.  Careful consideration was given to appointing church leaders who could faithfully carry on right teaching.  Even more than this, there was some emphasis put on who discipled certain leaders.  This led to an emphasis on apostolic succession.  In its most basic form, this meant that one could trace a certain leader's spiritual lineage back to one of the disciples.  In a very specific form this meant that one leader could trace back his discipleship lineage to Peter, the original "Bishop" of Rome.

Interestingly, though in its Roman Catholic form, this appeal to authority is often thought to be a later development.  Indeed, in say the second century one cannot even speak of a Roman Catholic Church in the same sense as it existed after Constantine.  Yet, the seeds of this appeal to the authority pf the bishop of Rome has very early roots.  Consider Irenaeus, late 2nd century, who listed the first thirteen Bishops of Rome, including Peter himself.  Irenaeus writes:
3. The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone [in this], for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles. In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brethren at Corinth, the Church in Rome dispatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace, renewing their faith, and declaring the tradition which it had lately received from the apostles, proclaiming the one God, omnipotent, the Maker of heaven and earth, the Creator of man, who brought on the deluge, and called Abraham, who led the people from the land of Egypt, spoke with Moses, set forth the law, sent the prophets, and who has prepared fire for the devil and his angels. From this document, whosoever chooses to do so, may learn that He, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, was preached by the Churches, and may also understand the tradition of the Church, since this Epistle is of older date than these men who are now propagating falsehood, and who conjure into existence another god beyond the Creator and the Maker of all existing things. To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus. Alexander followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telephorus, who was gloriously martyred; then Hyginus; after him, Pius; then after him, Anicetus. Soter having succeeded Anicetus, Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate. In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3.3).
Interesting stuff!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Bodies and Souls

Yesterday I posted about gnosticism.  Today, I want to follow that up with a couple of links. 

Inherent in any gnostic system in which the world is divided into two parts, that is,the evil physical reality and the good spiritual reality, is the necessary corollary that humans are also divided in this way into our bodies and our souls, the soul being the essential "me" and that which lives on after death. 

I have discussed this view of the human in a multi-part series earlier which you can find in the following links (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 4b, and Part 5)

Also, my wife had a great quote about bodies on her blog today which you can find here.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Gnosticism and the Hydra

Gnosticism is a fascinating topic to me. What makes its lure so great?  What made it such a formidable challenge to the early Christian church?  Why does it capture the imagination in pop culture?  Think of movies like the Matrix, the Da Vinci Code, and Vanilla Sky. 

Gnosticism is like the hydra, cut off one head, and others regrow to take its place.  When you think you have finally defeated the monster, it comes back with a vengeance. 

I think one of the most alluring aspects of gnosticism is its individualism and self centered nature.  At its heart, gnosticism is about individual salvation through some esoteric knowledge.  Therefore, gnosticism is self flattering, "I have this special knowledge that is not given to the masses.  I am special, I figured it out." 

A second alluring aspect of gnosticism is its conspiratorial nature.  In gnosticism, this world is illusory.  Humans are kept prisoners in this world by the conspiratorial powers that be.  Conspiracy, in itself is tantalizing.  While I am no conspiracy theorist, I at least find them interesting.  I like listening to people's conspiracy theories, even if I rarely buy into them.  The conspiracy of gnosticism, that this world itself is the big conspiracy, is fascinating; it is the mother of all conspiracy theories.

Gnosticism, though officially "defeated" in the first few Christian centuries through scripture, creeds, and orthodox writings, never really disappears for the church.  It is always a tempting alternative, or perhaps one should say additive to the mission of the local church.

I remember when the movie the Matrix came out.  I loved it, the parallels with Christianity were unmistakable.  Neo, the savior  figure, defeating enemies, leading a small community to salvation.  Yet, the movie is unadulterated gnosticism.  This world (i.e., the matrix) is illusory.  Only through special knowledge (i.e., that the matrix is a computer construct) can one be freed to join the real world.

I remember a sermon that I heard about the same time.  The preacher stood up on the stage and waved his shod foot around and asked, with regard to his shoe: is this me?  Of course not.  He took off his shoe and wiggled his socked foot around.  Is this me?  Of course not.  He took off his sock, and wiggled his now bare foot: is this me?  Of course not.  This body is just a shell for the true me, my soul.  This guy was a total gnostic.  He didn't know it, I think his motives were right, but the lure of gnosticism had caught him to. 

As Christians, it is important to affirm this created order, that God created the world good.  Sure, there has been evil and corruption, the world did not continue in its pristine created state.  Yet, the answer is not a gnostic escape from this created order, but rather the promise of new creation, of a restoration of the cosmos to its rightful place, the time when God will redeem all that is wrong with the world.  As John writes,
Rev. 21:1  Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.
Rev. 21:2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
Rev. 21:3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
    “See, the home of God is among mortals.
    He will dwell with them as their God;
    they will be his peoples,
    and God himself will be with them;
Rev. 21:4     he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
    Death will be no more;
    mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
    for the first things have passed away.”

Monday, January 17, 2011

Martin Luther King Jr. Scholar? (Repost)

(On this Martin Luther King Day, I offer this repost, originally posted this last Spring)

When I think of Martin Luther King Jr. I think of a great speaker, civil rights activist, a Baptist Minister, a rhetorician, a non-violent protester, a martyr, and other such titles, but I do not think of a scholar. Upon a re-reading of his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" I will have to re-think my judgment.

A letter such as he wrote would be nearly impossible today, even from a scholar. As I was re-reading the letter in preparation for my yearly lecture on the Civil Rights Movement in my Christian Heritage class at Baylor University, I was struck by one thing that I had not noticed before. Sure, I have always noted King's ability to weave words into powerful figures of speech as a means of persuading his audience. Sure, I have noticed his empassioned plea for racial equality. Sure I have noticed his well reasoned defense of non-violent resistance. Yet, I had never noticed the depth and breadth of his scholarly knowledge.

King, from a prison cell without any source material rattles off quotes from a surprisingly diverse group of scholars. Among his citations are a comparison of himself to Socrates acting as a social gadfly from Plato's Apology, Augustine's claim that "an unjust law is no law at all," a comparison of segregation to a reduction of human relations to Martin Buber's "I-it" relationship, and a comparison of segregation to Paul Tillich's definition of sin as separation.

Moreover, King, in a masterful rhetorical argument of ethos, does not shy away from calling himself an extremist and quotes several famous extremists of the past, such as Jesus, an extremist for love, "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.." Amos, an extremist for justice, "Let Justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." Paul, an extremist for the gospel, "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Martin Luther, " Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." John Bunyan, "I will stay in Jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." Abraham Lincoln, "This nation cannot survive half slave half free." Thomas Jefferson, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..."

King wrote this masterful work from prison, drawing on and often quoting great leaders and scholars from over 2400 years of human history. Add one title to the list of those attributed to Martin Luther King Jr: Scholar!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Barth I.1. §2

In Church Dogmatics  I.1. §2 Barth takes up the question of a prolegomena to dogmatics.  By prolegomena, Barth means to lay out the foundation for a "way of knowledge" for dogmatics. 

His first question is whether a prolegomena is indeed necessary.  Barth answers in the affirmative, but only after a lengthy argument.

First, Barth deals with the issue of prolegomena taking the form of apologetics.  Should a theologian seek to argue for the faith on the basis of human reason, as a way to confound unbelievers and thus lay a rock solid foundation for dogmatics.  Barth answers in the negative.  For, to do so takes one away from the task of dogmatics itself, and takes unbelief far too seriously. 

On the contrary, only other faith, or other belief ought to be taken seriously, that is that only heresy in which one can discern a true faith in the "other" should serious debate take place.  And for heresy, Barth finds that only with the reformation does a true heresy become a real possibility for the church.  Barth writes:
"That only since the reformation has heresy become a generally and fundamentally experienced problem.  If there was nothing new formally, it was something quite new materially that the Evangelical Church of a Luther or Calvin should see heresy in the Papacy and Roman Catholicism of the 16th and 17th centuries and vice versa. It was then for the first time that the Church learned what is meant by divergent faith."  (CD I.1 p. 35)
That is, only with the divergence of Roman Catholicism and Protestant theology were there two divergent faiths that must deal seriously with one another.  It is for this reason that Barth believes that only after the reformation is there a real need for a prolegomena to dogmatics.

Barth then moves to his second question, and that is of the possibility of a prolegomena to dogmatics.  To illustrate this possibility, Barth plays his Evangelical way of thinking off of the Evangelical Faith's two sparring partners, the theology of modernists and the theology of Roman Catholics.  These are the two "heresies" in which the Evangelical recognizes faith, a heretical faith, but nevertheless one which must be taken seriously.

On the one hand, Barth finds a problem with modernist (By which I take him to mean protestant liberalism, embodied most fully in Schleiermacher) prolegomena to dogmatics in that they find their foundation for the way of knowledge in dogmatics in an "anthropological prius."  By this "anthropological prius" Barth is referring to a dogmatics based on a way of knowledge found in the fact of the existence of humans.  The existence of humans becomes the basis for knowledge of the divine.  That is, in fallen humanity, there is some "point of contact" with the divine.  From this point of contact, one can then construct a dogmatics or true talk about God.  Barth utterly rejects this notion of an "anthropological prius."

On the other hand, Barth finds a problem with Roman Catholic prolegomena to dogmatics in that they find their foundation for a way of knowledge in scripture, church tradition, and living Catholic teaching through the infallibility of the Pope.  Barth takes issue with this foundation for true talk about God, in that he sees the free act of God and the reality of the Church bound up in the human institution of the Roman Catholic Church as a limitation of the true God.  God is no longer free to act after being institutionalized and subjected to the Roman Catholic Church.

Therefore, Barth finds only one foundation for a way of knowledge of true talk about God, and that foundation is the Word of God itself.  Now, the next section in CD will be an elucidation of Barth's doctrine of the Word of God, so I cannot speak fully on this doctrine at this moment.  Yet, it is clear that for Barth, the Word of God is not merely equal to holy scripture, just as it is not bound up in Roman Catholic Church tradition or teaching.  The Word of God is the free revelation of God to humans, it is an event.  For, as Barth himself summarizes his thoughts on a prolegomena to dogmatics:
"The place from which the way of dogmatic knowledge is to be seen and understood can be neither a prior anthropological possibility [contra modernists] nor a subsequent ecclesiastical reality [contra Roman Catholics], but only in the present moment of the speaking and hearing of Jesus Christ Himself, the divine creation of light in our hearts." (CD I.1. p. 41).

Thursday, January 13, 2011


So we begin.  This marks the first week of my Christian Heritage class where I get to complete the story that I began to teach in my Christian Scriptures course.  The story of Christianity is incomplete if one reads the Bible and then skips to today.  There are nearly 2000 years of Church history that intervene, and we cannot understand our own place in the Christian story if we do not know what has happened between the time of the Bible and the present.

One of the first things that comes up in a discussion of early Christianity is the issue of orthodoxy and heresy.  What is orthodoxy?  What is heresy?  Who decides?

Walter Bauer and Barth Ehrman have set forth a reconstruction of early Christian history in which Christianity was made up of incredible diversity.  There were numerous vibrant groups of Christians with divergent views about God, Christ, the church, salvation, etc.  These groups existed side by side, often in debate, but none of these groups having the theological upper hand.  Only after the rise of Constantine in the 4th century and the subsequent squelching of all but one strand of Christian faith was there an imposed unity of orthodoxy.

Contra this opinion are writers such as H.E.W. Turner, Andreas Kostenberger, and Michael Kruger (I have read Turner, and look forward to reading Kostenberger and Kruger's The Heresy of Orthodoxy) who argue that while there was some diversity in pre-Constantinian Christianity, there was more or less a norm of Christian belief which could then be used as a standard to judge heretical elements.

What we know for sure is this: pre-Constantine we do have evidence of diversity in Christianity.  This cannot be denied since we have the literature from groups with divergent beliefs.  What we do not know is the extent to which these groups had a following.  Besides what could be labeled as proto-orthodox writings (that is, those in line with what was later to be deemed orthodox), which had a wide distribution and following, we do not know to what extent other writings were influential.  For example, the gnostic writings found at Nag Hamadi, while fascinating, may not have had much influence at all on the vast majority of Christians. 

Here's what D.A. Carson has to say about this view of heresy and orthodoxy in the pre-Constantinian period. (from blurb on the back of Kostenberger and Kruger's book The Heresy of Orthodoxy).
“In the beginning was Diversity. And the Diversity was with God, and the Diversity was God. Without Diversity was nothing made that was made. And it came to pass that nasty old ‘orthodox’ people narrowed down diversity and finally squeezed it out, dismissing it as heresy. But in the fullness of time (which is of course our time), Diversity rose up and smote orthodoxy hip and thigh. Now, praise be, the only heresy is orthodoxy. As widely and as unthinkingly accepted as this reconstruction is, it is historical nonsense: the emperor has no clothes. I am grateful to Andreas Köstenberger and Michael Kruger for patiently, carefully, and politely exposing this shameful nakedness for what it is.”
—D. A. Carson, Research Professor of New Testament, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (HT Rod Decker and NT Resources Blog)
 So, which reconstruction of early Christian history do you find most persuasive? 

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Coleridge and Sci-Fi, Part II

In my previous post, I cited an excerpt from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and hinted that I think there is a connection between his words and why I enjoy watching/reading sci-fi/fantasy movies/tv/books.

Here is the first part of the quotation:
In this idea originated the plan of the 'Lyrical Ballads'; in which it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. (Samuel Taylor Coleridge 1817. Biographia Literaria ch. 14 p314 in Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. by H.J. Jackson, Oxford, 1985)
What I would like to focus on is Coleridge's statement concerning a "willing suspension of disbelief." In order to fully participate in a work of fiction, an audience must be willing to suspend their disbelief, to accept the story on the story's terms.  If a story is told well, this suspension of disbelief is usually easy, but this also depends on genre.  In a typical television drama, say a medical or crime drama, the threshold for willing suspension of disbelief is low.  These shows do not stretch reality all that much, and therefore, the audience does not have to suspend much disbelief.  In a sci-fi or fantasy show, the threshold of willing suspension of disbelief is high.  The audience is asked to accept a reality that is far beyond the confines of our own reality.  Yet, anyone going into a sci-fi movie or television show already knows this (usually) and they are prepared to suspend their disbelief.

For example, it is no great stretch for the creators of Battlestar Galactica to introduce robots that are indistinguishable from humans in every way, down to their anatomy and physiology.  It is a sci-fi show, and therefore the audience is expecting strange things.  Likewise, in the Matrix, it is not a stretch that in the virtual world, Neo can move faster than a bullet, or that one can jump across impossible distances from rooftop to rooftop.  The audience expects this kind of un-reality reality.  And this is the kicker, because the threshold of willing suspension of disbelief is already so high, these shows can stretch reality in other ways, especially on the religious and philosophical boundaries of what moderns call reality.

Because the audience is already willing to suspend disbelief to such a great degree, these shows can also treat other issues that lie at the boundaries of reality.  [Spoiler Alert Lost] For example, given the strangeness of the island in Lost, is it such a great stretch to imagine a semi-divine figure such as Jacob, one who stands at the crossroads of predestination and free will.  [Spoiler Alert Battlestar Galactica] Is it so hard for the audience believe in Battlestar Galactica in the death and resurrection of Kara Thrace, and perhaps the possibility that she is an angel?  Is it so hard to believe in an "oracle" who knows what people will do before they do it in the Matrix? No, these elements are seamlessly woven into the narrative and are unobtrusive, because the audience has already suspended so much of their disbelief.

Therefore, the sci-fi and fantasy genres are able to deal with mystery, with the boundaries of reality, in ways that would be nearly impossible in other genres.  In a crime drama, a divine figure like Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation would be simply unbelievable and absurd.  Yet, the questions that a character like Q, or like Jacob from Lost, prompt, are dealt with easily in the sci-fi and fantasy genres.   These genres can embody these mysteries, usually reserved for discussions of religion or philosophy, in compelling stories, and they can do so unobtrusively.  Therefore, I think that the best literary discussions of these questions of mystery, or metaphysics, take place in these genres with a high threshold of willing suspension of disbelief.  And, imho, these stories often do a better job at grappling with these mysteries than do religion or philosophy proper.  These mysteries are better dealt with embodied in a story than they are in abstract religious or philosophical concepts.  These mysteries are communicated more powerfully in story than they ever could be in propositional language.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Coleridge and Sci Fi

In this idea originated the plan of the 'Lyrical Ballads'; in which it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. Mr. Wordsworth on the other hand was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand. (Samuel Taylor Coleridge 1817. Biographia Literaria ch. 14 p314 in Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. by H.J. Jackson, Oxford, 1985)
I hope to unpack this statement over the next couple of days, because in this sentence, I find one of the main reasons that I watch/read scifi/fantasy movies/tv/literature.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Barth Reading Redux

In a project initiated by Dr. Kirk (, Barth reading schedule here), several bibliobloggers have signed on to a seven year reading project through Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics.  This last Friday was the end of the first reading assignment and saw a number of great posts on CD I.1 § 1. 

I love this synchroblogging project because it allows for a personal reading, then an outlet for reflecting on that reading through a blog, and finally, a chance to read and respond to what others have said. I have found my tour through the other Barth synchroblogs to be highly rewarding, noting things that I may have passed over, sharing frustrations over Barth's style, and finding clarifications on things that I did not understand in my reading of Barth. 

After reflecting on the posts of others, one thing stood out to me that I passed over in my Barth blog post.  I noted this when I first read it, but it escaped my mind when I went to blog.  That is, Barth's threefold division of theology as follows:
"Does Christian utterance derive from Him [Jesus Christ]?  Does it lead to Him? Is it conformable to Him?  None of these questions can be put apart, but each is to be put independently and with all possible force.  Hence, theology as biblical theology is the question of the basis, as practical theology the question of the goal, and as dogmatic theology the question of the content of the distinctive utterance of the church." (CD I.1 pp. 4-5)
Therefore, there are three types of theology.  At the center of each is the reality of God's free gift, namely Jesus Christ.  Yet, while Christ is the center and the true goal of each, each type of theology, biblical, practical, and dogmatic, all have their own spheres.  Biblical dealing with what has been said about Christ in the scripture.  Practical theology dealing with the work of the church, and dogmatic theology dealing with the "distinctive utterance of the church" about Christ.  For, again, as Barth writes,
"Hence dogmatics as such does not ask what the apostles and prophets said but what we must say on the basis of the apostles and prophets." (CD I.1 p. 16)
 I see in this a positive evaluation of biblical exegesis, which is the goal I have set my life to, and also a distinction of dogmatics from biblical exegesis, which is the goal to which Barth in the Church Dogmatics has set himself.  Barth is interested in challenging, reforming, and setting forth the church's distinctive utterance about God.  This is based on, but not identical to biblical exegesis and theology.  It is not merely restating and systematizing what has been said in the Bible, but rather, it is, on the basis of what has been said, formulating what now the church must say about Jesus Christ.

In all of this, typical of Barth, Jesus Christ, and not the Bible, not the utterance of the church, and not the work of the church, is central.  All three, biblical theology, practical theology, and dogmatic theology have as their goal the one true goal of Jesus Christ.  Christ is central, the others are only a means to reaching that ultimate goal. 

I, as a biblical scholar, see the task of biblical exegesis and theology as continually important.  We continue to strive to set forth what "the apostles and prophets" said about Christ.  But, biblical scholars must always be warned, the Bible is not the end.  The Bible is a means to something greater, namely, Jesus Christ.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Barth I.1 §1

I, like many others (see for others synchroblogging Barth's CD) will be blogging through Barth's Church Dogmatics over the next several years.  Thanks to Dr. Kirk for instigating this activity. 

I start by saying to myself what Bruce McCormack said to me in my second year of seminary, "Keith, you just don't have the mind of a theologian."  At the time I was very put off by this comment, but I have come to see that he was correct.  I have the mind of a biblical scholar, which I have found is very different than the mind of a theologian.  I have little patience for endless abstract concepts and subjects that are mercurial.  Yet, when I read great theologians, even though they frustrate me to no end, I find myself challenged and enlightened in ways that are good for me.  That said, I will pursue a reading of Barth with great humility.

This first week reading was great, and challenging, for me.  I don't particularly like the way that Barth writes (see my post here).  He often circles around an issue while not saying much.  For example, his talk of theology as a science I found obtuse.  He seemed to be saying: theology is a science, but it is unlike any other science, and cannot be subjected to the norms and standards of other sciences.  Yet, he gives no positive definition of what he means by calling theology a science and therefore no justification as to why he insists that theology is a science.  More in theology as science later.

In the second subsection, Barth discusses theology as enquiry and I found this section refreshing.  At times Barth can rise to great linguistic force, and in this section he does so.  Barth writes,
"Christian speech must be tested by its conformity to Christ.  This conformity is never clear and unambiguous.  To the finally and adequately given divine answer there corresponds a human question which can maintain its faithfulness only in unwearied and honest persistence." (CD I.1 p. 13).
 Barth brings up a very good point that the act of dogmatics is never complete, it is always a stretching and striving for completeness, for a full grasp of the truth, but as a human act, it is always incomplete.

Barth follows up this discussion of dogmatics as enquiry with a discussion of dogmatics as an act of faith.  It is in this section that Barth shows his reformed tradition, basing the truth and attainment of dogmatics solely on the will and free act of God.  Only through faith may one stumble upon a true dogmatics.  The theologian may believe, pray, attempt to speak rightly about God, but only through the free act of God is such a faith granted and a true dogmatics achieved. 

I want to return briefly to Barth's discussion of theology as a science.  I do not know, since I could not find a positive definition of science in Barth, why he insists on calling theology a science.  As the 20th century put to lie the claim of pure objectivity in any field, I wonder what use it is to call theology a science.  Theology, as Barth's section on dogmatics as an act of faith demonstrates, is not a disinterested study of a subject.  Rather, it is the pursuit of true discourse about God based on faith.  Why then call it a science?  Is it to bolster the authority of said theology?  Is it to raise theology to a respectable academic study?  Comments? 

Judicial Activism?

In a previous post, I talked about how the debate over constitutional interpretation mirrors a similar debate about biblical interpretation.  With regard to the constitution debate, I talked about a spectrum ranging on the far right with textual literalists (i.e., the text speaks for itself in its literal meaning) to the left extreme where the text is a living, breathing document in need of constant reinterpretation.  I could not think of a good label for those on the left extreme, so I called them "pragmatists," and "judicial activists." 

My friend Peter Pope, himself a lawyer, rightly pointed out that by using the term judicial activist, I had unwittingly used a pejorative term used by right wing pundits to describe left wing judges.  I meant the post to be neutral and descriptive, but was properly chided by Pope for my improper use of the language. 

Yet, this whole topic gets me thinking.  Though right wing commentators often use the term "judicial activist" or the even more inflammatory language of "legislating from the bench" I have never been able to determine what they really mean.  To my understanding (and I am no legal or constitutional scholar), there is not one law, one sentence, one word or even one letter in any law code or in any piece of the constitution that was written by means of a judicial decision.  By my understanding, every law, every word of every law, is written by legislatures.  No judge, by making a judicial decision, ever gets that decision written down in a law code. 

Sure, through judicial review, judges can rule certain laws unconstitutional, and through judicial decisions, judges get to interpret laws, but they never write any of the laws, that is for legislatures.  So, the language of "legislating from the bench" seems to be completely false and inflammatory rhetoric.  In the sense that right wing pundits use the terms "judicial activist" and "legislating from the bench"  all judges are judicial activists, right and left alike.  In making any judgment on a given law, the judge is interpreting the law.  What the right wing pundits really mean when they say that a judge is a "judicial activist" or is "legislating from the bench" is that the judge made a decision or interpretation that they don't like.  So, if any given judge makes a decision on a law that a right wing pundit does not like, they call that judge a judicial activist and automatically that label is enough to dismiss that judge as a kook. 

So, we are not really dealing with "judicial activism" or "legislating from the bench" at all, but rather, we are back to the question I raised in my previous post: how do we interpret the constitution.  Should one look for original intent, or should the document be viewed as a living, breathing document in need of constant reinterpretation, or anywhere in between these extremes.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Bible as Instruction Manual

The other day I heard someone I respect compare to the Bible to an instruction manual for humans.  This is not a new analogy, as a simple Google search of "Bible instruction manual" will demonstrate.

Yet, how does this analogy hold up?  Is the Bible an instruction manual?  Is it a guide to all our problems in life?

In my experience, here is how most people use instruction manuals.  They get a new product, open the product and throw the instruction manual in a drawer.  The manual is only used when something goes wrong with the product.  Then, they pull out the manual, flip to the index or troubleshooting section, flip to the relevant portion of the manual and try to fix the problem.

Unfortunately, I think this is how many Christians use their Bible.  When something goes wrong in life, or some difficult decision comes up, they go searching their Bible for some solution.  They flip to the index (called a concordance when used in reference to the Bible), look for key words, then flip to the relevant verses.  This can lead to the worst kind of proof texting, that is, taking a verse out of context in support of a specific position.  On proof texting, see this wonderful video from the West Wing, which illustrates the danger of taking verses of the Bible out of context.

Right now I am looking for a job.  Just out of curiosity I looked in one of my Bibles with a concordance and found the following entry under "job(s)."
Job(s): should you seek rewards in......... Lk 20:45-47
I then turned to Luke 20:45-47, which reads:
Luke 20:45  In the hearing of all the people he said to the disciples,
Luke 20:46 “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets.
Luke 20:47 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
 This is clearly a condemnation of seeking rewards from one's job, right?

My big problem with viewing the Bible as an instruction manual for life is that it does justice neither to the complexity and richness of humanity, nor to the complexity or richness of the Bible. Reading the Bible requires context, nuance, historical understanding, literary understanding.  In short, the Bible is not an instruction manual, it is a story, it is history, poetry, confession, memory, prophecy, visions.  It is all of the greatest of God's revelation to humanity and humanity's reaction to an experience of God.  It requires a little more care than merely looking in an index, finding a relevant verse, and doing what it says.  Human beings are also much more than pieces of equipment or technology.  We are living, breathing beings in relationship to God.  No book, however divinely inspired, can merely be mined for quick answers to problems that arise for any given human.  So, next time you pick up your Bible, take time to read it, not just exploit it.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Holiday Whirlwind

It has been a crazy few weeks.  On the 17th of December Brooke and I left for Colorado and the odometer on my car read: 95580.  When we finally ended our holiday tour on Monday, my odometer read 98881.  Two weeks, 3,301 miles, three states, multiple beds, and Brooke and I are ready to finally be home for a while.  For a while it seemed like we were living out of our car.

It was a great holiday time for us.  We first went to Colorado for about a week and visited both of my parents.  We got to spend some great time with both sides of the family, spending our nights in my Mother's cabin in outside of Drake, Colorado.  It was gorgeous.  The weather was perfect, but not very Christmas-like.  No snow to speak of.  Just balmy Colorado winter days allowing for safe driving and gorgeous mountain views.

Then it was back to Waco for a short hiatus while Brooke worked two and a half days.  Then on Wed. December 29th it was off to Houston for the Texas Bowl featuring Baylor vs. Illinois (ughh, no comment).  Then, up early in the morning for a trip down to Brooke's family's ranch for New Years.  It was a great time in South Texas, 90 degree days, watching the wildlife.  I saw many white tail deer, some javelinas, and a gorgeous bobcat. 

We ended the trip with a wonderful evening in the historical Gruene Mansion Inn in Gruene, TX on the Guadalupe River.  It was a nice end to a whirlwind couple of weeks.

Now, back in Waco, gearing up for the Spring semester.  I can't wait to get back to teaching, and blogging.

Happy New Year