Friday, January 12, 2007

Two new books

I received a couple of books in the post today, the sort that I haven’t read for quite a while, so I’m looking forward to reading them.

The first is Peter Rollins’ How (Not) to Speak of God (Paraclete Press, London: 2006), and the second Karen Sloan’s Flirting with Monasticism (IVP, IL: 2006). While I haven’t started the latter, I dived into the first this evening.

Thus far, How (Not) is a very enjoyable and thought provoking read - even if, to be fussy for a moment, a few statements are not altogether true. For example, his use of 2 Cor 5:7 on page 16 is dubious. He ironically ‘modernistically’ understands the text so as to pretty much read it as a universal principle concerning ‘human abstractions’, and is based upon, in my opinion, a mistranslation of ouv dia. ei;douj (ou dia eidous). ‘Sight’ is not a good translation, despite most English bibles! I believe the best is ‘not by appearance’ – i.e. the appearance of the apostolic ministry in its weakness and suffering. But I’m really just being fussy as this is turning out to be another gem from the heart of the ‘emerging conversation’. I leave you with a coupe of quotes, the last of which won’t let go of my thoughts.

‘Western theology has all too often reduced the beautifully varied and complex descriptions of God found in the Bible to a singular reading that does violence to its vibrant nature. The Bible itself is a dynamic text full of poetry, prose, history, law and myth all clashing together in a cacophony of voices ... [involving] inconsistencies that make any systematic attempt to master the text both violent and irredeemably impossible’ (pp. 12-13).
OK, I cut quite a bit out of that one; I lost motivation about half way through! But it was listening to Walter Brueggemann make this very point all those months ago that helped open me up theologically, and gave me the necessary sweet kick up the for-all-intents-and-purposes-Fundamentalist backside. The argument left me shakened but changed. The second:
‘[R]eligious truth is ... that which transforms reality rather than that which describes it’ (p. 23)
A false either/or? Either way, this thought will go with me to bed!

A final thought. I wonder if this book, if it touches on this issue, will attempt to respect the tried and tested epistemological value of scientific research, rather than lumping all means of knowledge together in a postmodern one size fits all? I hope so, as the more I discuss these matters with friends, the less confident I am that we should speak of postmodernism at all (at least in terms of epistemology), and think of it more as a blip on the screen of late-modernism that has helped to add an important ‘critical’ before our realism. Though I have preferred two ‘criticals’ in the past (see my biblioblogs interview here), in retrospect I think that was just being pedantic! In other words, I’m uncomfortable with saying ‘Postmodernism, therefore ...’. But whether Rollins touches on this matter or not, I'm eager to read on, so I'll say 'goodnight'.


At 1/12/2007 10:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the quotes and your thoughts Chris. I guess 2 new books is a great way to bury your head from what is going on here:
I'd be interested to hear more from/about both of these books as you share you thoughts at Christendom.

At 1/12/2007 6:58 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Oh Lord, yes. I don't want to know about that!

At 1/12/2007 8:24 PM, Anonymous John P. said...

Hey Chris,

Seeing that boook on "How (not) to speak about God" reminded me of the Book by James K. A. Smith: "Speech and Theology". Have you seen this book? it is part of the Radical Orthodoxy series. I am sure that it is probably a tad more "academic" than the book you mentioned, but i wondered if there was overlap?

I found Smiths' book insightful at some points, but well over my head at others. i am just not as familiar with the philosophers he was engaging...

anyway, just curious...thanks for the heads up on these two books!

At 1/13/2007 5:47 AM, Anonymous Christian A said...

Hi Chris. Yes I agree with the thrust of your post that we must be cautious not to take the beautifully complex Biblical descriptions of God and attack them with the blunt hammer of a simplistic systematic theology. But ironically I don't think this blunt hammering would be as hideous a crime if the Biblical descriptions of God being bludgeoned were the inconsistent mess that Rollins seems to make them out to be. If all we have is an unseemly pile of bricks, mortar, metal and glass, then frankly I wouldn't object to a muscular systematic theologian having a hurried crack at constructing something. But if we're standing before a beautifully and carefully constructed building THEN we need to be careful how we handle it.

To admit that the Biblical descriptions about God have a unity and coherence is not to admit they aren't rich and complex. To use a museum metaphor, I think to have a richly worked tapestry on display and insist that visitors look at different sections of it from only two inches away and never take a step back to see the coherent whole is as much a crime as it is to lock the tapestry safely away and give visitors a small descriptive brochure showing its distinctive features.

I listened to a set of Brueggemann talks on the Old Testament and he made some fantastic observations about how Israel's ancestral "stories" spoke powerfully to our society today. But I was disappointed in his reluctance to refer to the Old Testament as a single "story", a meta-narrative. Surely there is continuity as well as discontinuity between the individual stories, a coherent thread running through the variety of narratives, a coherence which itself represents the purpose of God.

If all the Israelites had in their Scriptures was a set of incoherent stories which gave inconsistent views of God, how did they manage to say with conviction on a daily basis for centuries "the Lord our God is one"? And how did they manage to retain such an insistent hope in their God and in his consistent character and promise in the times when their circumstances screamed at them that their God was inconsistent and had changed his mind about them?

When they read their rich and varied Scriptures they didn't hear a cacaphony of clashing voices, but rather a timeless melody telling them again of the monumental meta-narrative which they found themselves in and the consistent and faithful God who guided them through it.

At 1/13/2007 10:08 PM, Anonymous Shane Clifton said...

I am with Christian on this one. The emerging movement's critique of systematics is getting boring. Sure, we can't put God in a box, but neither should we capitulate to sloppy thinking. We now seem to have reached the point where inconsitency is understood to be a virtue!

Perhaps i am just sunburnt and grumpy after a three week surfing holiday in sunny Aus (and the prospect of work next week). Trust your new year is going well Chris.

At 1/14/2007 11:16 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Thanks for mentioning Smith's book, John P. I haven't read his book and I'm sure it is objectively the better of the two - Rollin's book is more for beginners.

Christain A, thanks for these thoughts, and I must say that I agree, and perhaps Rollins would too. The more I read, the more I tend to think that the problem of the book is that it has adopted a philosophical system that is by its chronological nature reactionary in its emphasises to modernism. Likewise Rollins is making some false either/or exagerated statements. But like you, I agree with the basic thrust!

Grumpy Shane!

"Sure, we can't put God in a box, but neither should we capitulate to sloppy thinking"

Rollins explicitly tries to address this interpretation of the implications of his argument. Whether it is convincing or not, I am not sure ...

Try to stay out of the sun for a while ;-)

You lucky git.


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