and still it is not full: on epigraphs

and still it is not full: on epigraphs

As a reader, I’m a sucker for intruiging epigraphs.

These are the short quotations, usually from another writer, placed at the start of a book or chapter. Since I’m working on a new writing project now, I’ve already started a Word doc with a list of possibilities.

For my last book, the overarching epigraph was a single line from N. T. Wright:

“Sometimes, believing in providence means learning to say perhaps.”

N. T. Wright

Here are a few of my favorites from books other than mine.

EAST OF EDEN

Though it’s more a dedication than an epigraph, I’ve always loved the inscription that precedes my all-time favorite novel, East of Eden. According to legend, when John Steinbeck finished the 250,000-word manuscript, he placed it into a mahogany box that he had carved. Then he sent it to his friend, Pascal “Pat” Covici. When you open East of Eden, these words greet you:

Dear Pat,

You came upon me carving some kind of little figure out of wood and you said, “Why don’t you make something for me?”
I asked you what you wanted, and you said, “A box.”
“What for?”
“To put things in.”
“What things?”
“Whatever you have,” you said.
Well, here’s your box. Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full. Pain and excitement are in it, and feeling good or bad and evil thoughts and good thoughts—the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation.
And on top of these are all the gratitude and love I have for you.

And still, the box is not full.
~John

East of Eden

OF BOLDNESS AND REQUESTED BODIES
Then there is this thought-provoking verse from Mark’s Gospel that James K. A. Smith chose as the epigraph for his book on Christian public witness and political philosophy (Awaiting the King):

“Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body”

Mark 15:43

I love it because it seems so purposeful and yet so unexpected. It made me stop and ask, Now why the heck did he choose that!? Is this a Christian attitude toward cynical leaders and corrupt governments? …to ask not for prayer in public schools or Ten Commandments on a courthouse lawn, but for a corpse to bury in strange anticipation of a kingdom still to come? …and to do so “boldly”?

It’s perfect—precisely because it raises questions more than answers them. You’ve got to keep read on. And in this case, you should.

CUTTING POPPIES
Then there’s this from Søren Kierkegaard’s masterpiece Fear and Trembling—a book that probes the nature of faith in the frightening story of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son. Kierkegaard chooses this:

“What Tarquinius Superbus said in the garden by means of the poppies, the son understood but the messenger did not.”

Fear and Trembling

Who’s Tarquinius? And why the cryptic message sent by way of flowers? Once again, the quotation is just strange enough to make me care. It plays upon the universal human impulse that drives attention to ancient oracles, true crime podcasts, and ridiculous Q-drops—a mystery to be figured out.

THE PAST AS PROLOGUE
Finally, I’ve long loved the epigraph that opens Zadie Smith’s debut novel, White Teeth:

“What is past is prologue”
–Inscription in Washington, D.C., museum

The phrase is a well-worn line from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Yet Smith messes with it. Shakespeare’s “What’s” is changed to the rather clunky “What is”; and the origin of the phrase is deliberately mis-cited: “–Inscription in Washington, D.C., museum.”

For careful readers—and it took me auditing a college Brit Lit class to have it pointed out—these small but deliberate changes illustrate the theme of Smith’s sprawling, multi-generational epic on what it’s like to be an immigrant, or the child of one, in modern Britain. Her novel plays upon the complex ways in which the past influences the present, even while the present tweaks and misremembers the received tradition. It’s brilliant. And on the novel’s final page, Smith gives one last nod to the lesson from her epigraph:

“To tell these tall tales and others like them would be to speed the myth, the wicked lie, that the past is always tense and the future, perfect. … It’s never been like that.”

Zadie Smith, White Teeth

LESSONS LEARNED

Over time, I’ve formed opinions on what makes for an arresting epigraph: (1) Short beats long; (2) one beats many; (3) cryptic beats obvious or preachy. But like most writing rules, these may be broken under the right circumstances.

The true constant, and the real magic of a perfect epigraph is that it functions exactly like Steinbeck’s little hand-carved box: As the writer, all you have is there—the whole book–though the words are not your own:

—the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation.

and still it is not full.

***If you have a favorite epigraph, post it in the comments. I’d love to see it.


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public library preaching

public library preaching

This past week, I preached – and I spent chunk of my Sunday sermon prep time in our local public library. One motive was mercenary: It’s summertime, the kids are home, and Teddy had been asking to go there.

Normally, I’d be doing that work in my university office, surrounded by commentaries and a trove of books I own and draw from regularly. I’m comfortable there, and the university library has even more commentaries just a few steps from my office.

But increasingly, I’ve wondered if that routine isn’t hurting my preaching.

One danger for speakers is that our illustrations start to come from all same places, over and over, for years on end, until we die or stop talking—which is basically the same thing. I’m guilty of that as much as anyone.

But last week, sitting there near the kids area during library story time, I sensed several benefits of what one might call “public library sermon prep.”

First, the folks seated around me came from a wider range of demographics than I would encounter in my usual prep spaces. And writing my sermon in their presence was a reminder to include them as my intended audience: the elderly couple reading the morning paper, the ESL group learning English, the kids and moms at story time, the homeless man by the magazines, a group of firemen and city employees meeting in the conference room, the grad student huddled over the DSM 5, and even the suspicious teenager googling “how to build a pipe bomb” on the library computer. If the bane of many sermons is that we speak to only one or two types of people, maybe crafting messages in such a diverse setting could help that. (On a related point, see here.)

Second, the library has a trove of magazines and periodicals that speak to our cultural moment—even if I wouldn’t want (and couldn’t afford) to subscribe to them myself. What’s more, these sources come from a variety of perspectives and biases—so you’re less prone to fall into the echo chamber of your choice. This is particularly important in a day and age in which it quickly becomes apparent which “silo” into which your preacher has algorithmically fallen.

Third, walking through the stacks filled with different genres and perspectives made me feel more creative—and it gave me ideas I wouldn’t have had before. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a steady diet of C. S. Lewis and N. T. Wright (two of my favorites), but this week I also ended up with quotes or stories from Molly Shannon (yep, that Molly Shannon), Atul Gawande, and Paul Kalanthi.

All that to say, I’ve decided to take a big step in my vocation as a longtime academic / preacher: I’m getting a public library card. Teddy says I can’t use his anymore.


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psychic numbness

psychic numbness

This summer I slogged through the 25th anniversary edition of Richard Rhodes’ Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb.

The work was recommended by my brother-in-law, and was made more relevant by renewed concern over nuclear war after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s easy to see why Rhodes won accolades, though the 800+ pages contained more scientific minutia than this theologian could digest.

One of the more thought-provoking passages includes an observation on how civilized and ostensibly Christian allied powers got to the point of indiscriminately fire-bombing enemy cities—and eventually dropping atomic bombs on civilians.

After harrowing first-person accounts of the Feuersturm in Hamburg, where at least 45,000 people (mostly old people, women, and children) were killed in a single night, Rhodes writes:

“Civilians had the misfortune to be the only victims left available. […] No great philosophical effort was required to discover acceptable rationales. War begot psychic numbing in combatants and civilians alike; psychic numbing prepared the way for increasing escalation” (475; emphasis added).

Summation: War begets numbness. Numbness abets escalation.

My point here is not to say anything about the bombing campaigns of WW2. I’m well aware of the complexities that surrounded those decisions—and of the calculus of possible lives saved by avoiding invasion of the Japanese home islands. None of that is my direct concern.

Instead, Rhodes’ claim strikes me as insightful insofar as it may apply to other “escalations”— beyond firestorms, incendiary bombs, and even nuclear war.

His point is that cultures don’t transgress certain self-imposed / ethical “red lines” because smart people devise sufficient rational arguments. To the extent that such arguments exist they are more likely post facto rationalizations. In times of “war” (read: trauma, fear, and intense conflict), drivers of human behavior are more concussive than cerebral. And in this way, they are exacerbated by “psychic numbing.”

In both Old and New Testaments, the language of no longer having “ears to hear” and “hands to feel” sounds a bit like anesthetic state described by Rhodes. Thus, when Walter Brueggemann describes the function of prophetic witness, he often sets it in contrast not merely with error or idolatry, but with a kind of apathetic numbness.

In this sense, prophetic speech is not primarily concerned with making people feel badly—but with helping people feel rightly—in the midst of a culture that has numbed them to that which should strike them as unhealthy and destructive. “Worldliness,” in the words of my old professor, David Wells, “is anything that makes sin seem normal and righteousness seem strange.”

If that’s true, then one of the chief goals of preaching is not simply to point people to Jesus or to make valid observations about Scripture; it is also to break through “psychic numbness.”


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prophets and scribes

prophets and scribes

Here’s a delightful passage from Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead:

“How do you tell a scribe from a prophet…? The prophets love the people they chastise, a thing this writer does not appear to me to do.”

I wrote a fair bit on the distinction between prophets and demagogues in Perhaps; but I don’t think I included this insightful snippet.


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On ditching Facebook and reinvesting in this blog

On ditching Facebook and reinvesting in this blog

Uvalde did it.

I’ve felt for awhile that I’d be wise to step away from social media. But of course, I have excuses. For instance:

I write books. And publishers care about your online following. Will they still grant me contracts if I ditch socials?

What about my friends who live far away? How will I keep up with them?

And most germanely, what if I miss the world’s greatest meme?

But in the wake of so much political and cultural bickering, I’ve finally reached a tipping point—at least for the foreseeable future.

In the inimitable words of Alan Jacobs:

“I left Twitter because I watched people who spent a lot of time on there get stupider and stupider, and it finally occurred to me that I was probably getting stupider too. So after some reflection, I decided that I couldn’t afford to get any stupider.”

Same—but Facebook.

The danger in that comment is it may sound self-righteous—as if everyone doing the thing I stopped doing five seconds ago is foolish and immoral. I don’t feel that way. And this post isn’t a legalistic humble brag.

As I said, the digital aftermath of Uvalde (and a dozen other issues) pushed me to a breaking point. As a dad with four small kids in public school, my nation’s bi-monthly mass casualty events hit differently. It feels sometimes like it’s just a matter of time before I get a text—like the one I received a few years back—that reads: “Active shooter on campus. Shelter in place; this is not a drill!” Thankfully, that potential gunman was arrested before he made it to the school where I work. But the security alert remains as a reminder.

THE ENCORE

If the real-life tragedies are not enough, there are the invariable (and entirely predictable) “encores” on social media: laments, followed by outrage, followed by hot takes, followed by arguments, followed by memes. Repeat that process over a thousand contentious topics and you can sell a lot of ad revenue, mine a lot of data, and change nothing but your anxiety level.

ON KURT COBAIN AS ELEVATOR MUSIC

That’s why Uvalde did it.

If it were five years ago, I would have (1) thought about it for a day or two, (2) crafted a blog post, (3) had Brianna read it to ensure I wouldn’t get fired, and then (4) shared the post on social media. If my writing happened to be punchy or provocative enough, dozens of people would share it, a few thousand might read it, and if everything went just right I might have the privilege of adding to the very social media firestorm I’ve come to loathe.

When that happens—and it’s happened a few times for me—you realize what Kurt Cobain must have felt like to stand inside an elevator and hear an instrumental version of Smells like Teen Spirit wafting through the tiny speakers–played by Kenny G. It’s the sense that your work has been co-opted to contribute to the very thing it tried to demolish.

Hence, if you haven’t noticed, I don’t do that much anymore.

ON THE FUTURE OF THIS BLOG

I’ve been wondering, in fact, if I should shut down the blog. Or perhaps just write on topics that are less combustible—like books that only a tiny fraction of society will care about. But recently, I’ve considered another possibility:

What if I dedicated a year to rebuilding the blog and simply got off Facebook?

Because I like writing. I just hate “the encore” on social media.

(I won’t pretend that this approach is perfect. Maybe it’s no different from Cobain selling songs to Kenny G and then refusing to ride elevators.)

In any case, I’ve been off Facebook for about a month and I feel better.

There are a few hundred of you out there who subscribe to these posts and receive them via email. I appreciate that little group, and I wonder if I could develop it apart from the digital hellscape that is Zuckerberg’s outrage-boosting algorithm.

At some level, I need to write—for the simple reason that I need to think.

On that point, I relate to Saint Augustine who remarked later in life that people would never understand how much he changed his mind by writing. Composition doesn’t just convey one’s thoughts, it crystalizes and confounds them. Something emerges in the process. Writing is thinking. And thinking is sorely needed in an age that has become—in the words of Jonathan Haidt—uniquely stupid.

So here’s what I’m thinking:
• I’m ditching Facebook for the foreseeable future.
• I’m going to try to invest regularly in this blog.
• My posts will likely be shorter and less polished (not that they were ever particularly long and shiny), partly because I have two books in the works—and they take precedence.
• If you enjoy these posts, I invite you to subscribe by way of that green button on the homepage.
• They’re all free, and worth every penny.

Peace, ~Josh


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How (not) to affirm penal substitution

How (not) to affirm penal substitution

“What is modern life if not an endless argument over acronyms? CRT, MAGA, BLM, LGBTQIA—and in some theological circles—PSA (penal substitutionary atonement).”

~The London Lyceum

The good folks over at The London Lyceum asked me to write a response to the 2017 Southern Baptist resolution on penal substitutionary atonement (PSA).

My piece comes as the first installment (here) in what promises to be a fantastic series that the Lyceum is doing on Christ’s saving work. Future posts by other scholars will come out every couple days for the next week or two.

For newcomers, it’s safe to say that fights over PSA have often generated more heat than light in recent decades–with one camp crowing loudly that PSA simply is the gospel (full stop), and another likening the doctrine to pagan notions of “divine child abuse.”

I wrote on the topic at length in The Mosaic of Atonement.

In a nutshell, I do think Scripture teaches that Christ willingly endured a judgment for sin on our behalf–both “in our place” and “instead of us.” So I’m a “Yes!” on a properly nuanced form of penal substitution.

Unfortunately, not all expressions of the doctrine are nuanced, biblical, or charitable.

That brings us to the 2017 SBC resolution.

The goal in posting my response is not to throw stones at the SBC (there are many fine folks within that tribe), but to make some headway in how Christians ought to affirm the biblical claim that Christ bore the judgment for human sin on our behalf, so that we might be redeemed.

You can read my piece over at The London Lyceum (here).


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The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: A Review (pt. 2)

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: A Review (pt. 2)

This post is part 2 of my review of Carl Trueman’s new book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. With the overview now complete, I’ll offer a few of my own thoughts on the book’s strengths and weaknesses.

To recall, Trueman’s goal is to trace the evolution of the self within the modern West—a transformation which culminates especially in novel views on identity and sexuality (e.g., “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body”).

IN PRAISE OF RISE AND TRIUMPH

From start to finish, the book is well written. And for readers who may be overwhelmed by its 400+ pages, Trueman has since released a slimmer version (Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked Sexual Revolution). I was struck, however, by the sense that a bright undergrad student could still follow the original work without too much trouble.

Maybe the greatest pedagogical virtue of Trueman’s project is its easily-remembered three-part progression. How did we get here? Well, (1) the self was first psychologized (see Rousseau and the Romantic poets), (2) that psychology was then sexualized (see Freud), and finally (3) sexuality became highly politicized (see Nietzsche, Marx, and their postmodern heirs). When dealing with a long and complex history, the ability to simplify these shifts is a fantastic gift to students.

Of course, simplicity and memorability are not reliable guides to truth. Hence the famous quote from H. L. Mencken, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.” But in Trueman’s case, I think his three-part progression remains helpful.

Trueman also filled important gaps in my own reading. A danger of book reviews like this is that the reviewer sometimes feels driven to pretend like he or she already knew everything in the text—which then leaves space only for summary and smug critique (credit to Alan Jacobs for that point).

Not so here. Several sections in Trueman’s book filled key holes in my understanding. Specifically, my training in theology and philosophy did well in covering the rationalist underpinnings of the modern era, but it was often inadequate in detailing the Romantic counterbalance to the Enlightenment—which on these questions, is almost certainly the more important set of influences.

Hence, I had never deeply studied the writings of Rousseau in particular. Similarly, though I was familiar with the likes of Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx, I had not delved into later thinkers like Wilhelm Reich, Herbert Marcuse, and Simone de Beauvoir. In all of this, Trueman taught me much.

Lastly, I appreciated Trueman’s attempt to build bridges between intellectuals and other aspects of contemporary culture. He writes not merely of Freud and Marx, but of internet pornography, Supreme Court rulings, and (yes…) Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande.

Halfway through the book, I anticipated critiquing Trueman’s approach as a quintessential “Great Man History”—as if the world we inhabit was merely the product of some brilliant (if misguided) intellectuals writing treatises in university libraries. I still think the book veers in this direction, but the “bridge-building” sections help balance that tendency.

To further ameliorate this quasi-Great Man approach to modern identity, I suspect Trueman could have allotted more space to the influence of technology, consumerism, the attention economy, and free market capitalism. But of course, that would have made a long book even longer.

SOME QUIBBLES

There were also other aspects of Trueman’s narrative with which I’d want to quibble. None are damning, but each one might have added balance and context to the work.

First, much of the book is taken up with critiquing what Trueman dubs (but never defines) as “The New Left.” The move is not unwarranted since the sexual revolution and shifting views on identity have been driven by progressive ideology. Still, it seems unlikely that other segments of society contributed almost nothing to our modern view of selfhood.

I’ve written previously of the heresy of radical individualism—which (depending on the topic) is quite likely to flow from either Right or Left. Trueman is not completely silent on this point (p. 335), but his critiques sometimes seem one-sided, as if he—like so many others—has been watching only one Cable News network, and is writing to only one side of the aisle.

He speaks, therefore, of how the nation-state no longer provides people with a sense of identity, and how patriotism is assumed to be a bad thing (p. 404). Here, it seems quite odd to glide past the massive global upsurge in nationalism—now leveraged by strongmen of all stripes. In sum, one cannot tell the story of the modern self merely by attending to the progressive antecedents of the “New Left.”

Second, I suspect Trueman’s history could have benefitted from a bit more of what I’ll call “The Holland Principle.” In his popular book, Dominion, historian Tom Holland argues that many secular forces now arrayed against traditional Christian values actually have their roots in presuppositions that can be traced only to the Judeo-Christian tradition. (This is especially the case for the modern, secular concern for victims, minorities, and the marginalized.)

The same is true of what Trueman dubs the modern “inward turn”— the decision to look inward (i.e., inside the self) to encounter truth and meaning. My own PhD thesis explored the importance of Saint Augustine’s influence at this point—and despite Augustine’s brilliance, it was not an altogether positive inheritance. After all, it is no coincidence that Rousseau chose to name his own autobiography after Augustine’s introspective masterpiece, Confessions. Here too, Trueman is too good a historian to be completely blind to such influences (see p. 45), but I wonder if the book would have been more balanced–especially coming from a church historian–if he had noted the pre-modern origins of certain modern, secular impulses—bastardized though they may be.

Finally, since questions of sexuality and identity are so fraught within the current culture wars—I’d want to balance Trueman’s able dissection of the history with some pastoral sensitivity. Indeed, when approaching LGBT+ questions in particular, conservative Christians like myself must continually remind ourselves that we are dealing with people—not just issues, ideas, or partisan politics.

Perhaps this critique is unfair to direct at a work on intellectual history. Nonetheless, if I were assigning the book to my students (and I would assign it), I’d want to balance it with other readings that strike a more empathetic and pastoral tone—even while maintaining a biblical foundation that does not shrink from conclusions simply because someone labels them insensitive.

CONCLUSION

Despite these quibbles, I found much to appreciate in Trueman’s book. The ideas he tackles regarding identity and and the transformation of the modern self are among the most important facing the church today. And as he rightly notes, we can’t think through them without a sense of how we got here.


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The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: A Review (pt. 1)

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: A Review (pt. 1)

How’d we get here?

That’s the question Carl Trueman tries to answer in his new book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Crossway, 2020).

The project’s origins involve Trueman’s curiosity over a now-common phrase which he claims would have baffled people like his late grandfather: “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body.” How did we arrive at a point where this statement now seems not only common but–in some settings–impervious to criticism at the risk of punishment?

Since I just finished Trueman’s book, I thought I’d craft a quick review of it, noting both what I appreciated and where I might differ. (See guys, I do still have a blog! All it took was me catching COVID to write a new post!) This first installment is merely an overview of Trueman’s work. If you want my “hot takes” you’ll have to wait till part two.

THE BIG IDEA

The key claim of Rise and Triumph is that one cannot understand the modern revolution regarding sexuality without going deeper—to talk about the transformation of the modern view of “selfhood.”

While sex used to be something one did, it is now considered constitutive of identity in a way that is novel throughout human history. It is about who you are at your most primal level. Thus, the evolution of selfhood, not sexuality, is at the heart of Trueman’s historical survey.

Helpfully, Trueman simplifies his entire historical narrative with a three-step progression.

“The self must first be psychologized; psychology must then be sexualized; and sex must [finally] be politicized” (221).

The first move is traced through Rousseau and the Romantic poets. The second involves Freud with an assist from the authority of scientific verbiage after Darwin. And the third involves a look at Nietzsche, Marx, and their (post)modern inheritors.

I’m obviously skipping rather quickly past several hundred pages, but before I turn to my own takeaways (part two), a bit more context is in order.

TRUEMAN’S HELPERS

Trueman credits three philosophers for helping him to diagnose the pathologies inherent in the modern view of selfhood: Philip Rieff, Charles Taylor, and Alasdair MacIntyre. The contributions of these thinkers are too complex to summarize in a brief post, but others are certainly correct to note that one of Trueman’s accomplishments is to distil and simplify key facets from these thinkers for an audience that may not have read them.

One of his central takeaways involves the triumph of the therapeutic impulse. This includes the mentality that inner psychological well-being (i.e., how a person feels) is every bit as important as damage done to a person’s physical body or property. Thus, Trueman:

“While earlier generations might have seen damage to body or property as the most serious categories of crime, a highly psychologized era will accord increasing importance to words as a means of oppression. And this represents a serious challenge to one of the foundations of liberal democracy: freedom of speech.”

“Once harm and oppression are regarded as being primarily psychological categories, freedom of speech then becomes part of the problem, not the solution, because words become potential weapons.”

This is just one insight that Trueman draws from his three philosophical helpers.

CONTEMPORARY CASE STUDIES

Lastly, Trueman seeks to root his history of ideas in some contemporary case studies that include the world of art (surrealism), the Supreme Court, pornography, pop music, and the addition of the “T” into the fragile alliance between feminism the LGBT+ movement. All this serves to keep the book from becoming too focused on key thinkers without any “bridges” (Trueman’s word) to popular culture.

CONCLUSION

It’s all too much to summarize here, but one last point now bears repeating: Trueman’s stated aim (regardless of whether he actually achieves it) is that the book be neither a lament nor a polemic—though it is abundantly clear that he has much to criticize. As he writes in the Introduction,

” … giving an accurate account of one’s opponents’ views, however obnoxious one may consider them to be, is vital, and never more so than in our age of cheap Twitter insults and casual slanders” (31).

His goal and tone are therefore somewhat different from the many popular level treatments of these subjects from so-called evangelical thought-leaders. (Most of those texts have some version of the word “woke” in the title.) As Trueman notes, a necessary precursor to engaging in these increasingly-polarized discussions is to understand a bit about the question that began this post:

How’d we get here?

(In part two I’ll share my own thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of Trueman’s history.)


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Forsaken?

Forsaken?

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps 22:1; Matt 27:46)

What is the meaning of those haunting words of Christ upon the cross?

That’s the question my student asked this week as we stood outside my office. It’s Holy Week, and he was preparing to speak in his Spanish-speaking congregation on the so-called Cry of Dereliction. But he wanted to be sure he didn’t mess it up.

After all, he knows Christians believe in one God who exists eternally in three persons—Father, Son, and Spirit. And he knows that triune persons enjoy an eternal relationship of holy love. But if that trinitarian reality is true, what can it mean when Jesus screams out “Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani?”

CRINGING ON GOOD FRIDAY

Those who teach theology sometimes cringe when we sit through Good Friday sermons. (Though, to be fair, I sometimes cringe when listening back to my own sermons). It’s not just that the cross is horrific, but that Jesus’ words there are sometimes interpreted in ways that violate a pretty fundamental Christian teaching—the doctrine of the Trinity.

In extreme examples, we even hear that the Father made the Son the object of his perfect hatred on the cross. “God damn you!” is the vivid description offered by the late R. C. Sproul, of what the Father said to the Son upon the cross.

Is that right?

When someone asks about The Cry of Dereliction, I always answer the same way: “You should read this little book by my friend, Tom McCall.” It’s called Forsaken, and it’s written for a popular audience—not just for scholars (see here).

But there is problem with that sales pitch: Good Friday is this week (tomorrow, actually, as I type these words). And even with Amazon Prime, you probably don’t have time to read Tom’s book before then.

So what are some choices for interpreting The Cry of Dereliction?

OPTIONS FOR INTERPRETTING THE CRY OF DERELICTION

The following options are not exactly Tom’s points but more like my own quick and oversimplified articulations.

  1. Utterly Forsaken
  2. Utterly “Quotation”
  3. Feeling, Not Fact
  4. Forsaken Unto Death

Let’s work through them.

  1. UTTERLY FORSAKEN

The first option claims that there is a radical separation, enmity, abandonment, breach, or even hatred within the life of God upon the cross. A version of this is argued by more progressive theologians like Jürgen Moltmann. But in evangelical churches, it usually shows up in rhetoric about Jesus’ judgment-bearing death.

The Father turned his face away.

The Father rejected the Son.

God cursed Jesus with damnation.

God punished Jesus.

To be clear, I’ve written a whole book (The Mosaic of Atonement) that affirms the idea that Jesus saves (in part) by willing bearing the penalty for human sin. So I am not challenging that broader claim. But to affirm Christ’s penalty-bearing is quite different from saying that Father hated the Son or the Trinity was broken.

The problems with the “utterly forsaken” view are many: (a) Scripture never says it; (b) virtually no one in church history ever said it prior to the modern era; (c) it violates the doctrine of the Trinity.

So don’t go that way.

John Calvin quite correctly writes the following:

“We do not, however, insinuate that God was ever hostile to him or angry with him. How could he be angry with his beloved Son, which whom his soul was well pleased? Or how could he have appeased his Father by his intercession for others if He were hostile to himself?” (Institutes, 2.16.11)

  1. UTTERLY “QUOTATION”

Another option is to say Jesus is merely quoting Psalm 22. After all, his words come directly from David’s passage, and the rest of the psalm describes events that sound an awful lot like crucifixion.

At the end of the psalm, however, the result is not forsakenness but divine presence, vindication, and God’s message going out to all nations. Since that’s true, maybe Jesus was simply quoting a text to show himself as fulfilling it by way of death and resurrection.

Unfortunately, it seems like a stretch to say that he was only quoting something (in the same way I would be if I were reading from the Old Testament passage in front of a congregation). This seems to downplay the human experience of Jesus, the plain sense reading of his words, and the feeling of cursedness that would have assailed any Jew being hung upon a pole (Deut 21:23).

If the first choice breaks the Trinity, the second one diminishes the Son’s humanity.

  1. FEELING, NOT FACT

A third option might be to say that The Cry of Dereliction honestly describes what Jesus felt: He felt as if he had been utterly forsaken by God—but he hadn’t been. In this way, Christ would be like many a suffering Psalmist who claimed that God had abandoned them forever—when in fact God remains close by the afflicted.

I have no doubt that Jesus did feel forsaken; but to claim that he was wrong would surely cause some problems for one’s Christology.

One way to get around this worry might be to say that the Son was simply identifying fully with the feeling of forsakenness experienced by humanity at large. Perhaps that works. But I still think there is a better option.

  1. FORSAKEN UNTO DEATH

This last option is the one McCall chooses. The claim here is that Jesus remains (as Calvin said) the beloved Son, even in his death. But his forsakenness is real in at least one crucial sense: the Son was allowed to suffer and die. The Father could have saved him from this death, but he did not. Thus, Jesus was forsaken unto death.

In this act, Jesus identifies with humanity in all our pain and shame and the effects of fallenness. McCall writes:

“It is we who have—as rebellious sinners—abandoned God. But rather than leave us in our state of abandonment, the Son has become human and has identified himself with us: ‘These are my people. I am here for them. I have come to redeem them from this abandonment and to bring them home'” (44).

CONCLUSION

No, the Trinity wasn’t broken.

And the Father didn’t hate the Son upon the cross. Nor did he torture him with the sadistic smile of a pagan storm-god. That’s not the gospel. That’s a Netflix series about Norse mythology.

Nonetheless, Jesus was really forsaken unto death on our behalf. More than that, he passed through death to resurrection life, so that the final verses of Psalm 22 are as true as the first:

27 All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him,
28 for dominion belongs to the Lord
and he rules over the nations.

29 All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
those who cannot keep themselves alive.

30 Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord.
31 They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it!

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God and Cormac McCarthy

God and Cormac McCarthy

“God-haunted” is an apt way to describe the novels of Cormac McCarthy.

I have returned to McCarthy’s writings often over the past few years for a variety of reasons (see here). He is sometimes considered America’s greatest living novelist; his descriptions of a bygone life along borderlands of Texas and Mexico are both arresting and frightening; and his books are always utterly obsessed with God.

A prime example of this haunting comes in a scene from his dark Western, The Crossing.

The following words are spoken of a grief-stricken father whose only son has been crushed to death in the terrible “terremoto” (earthquake) of 1887 in the Mexican town of Bavispe.

“Men do not turn from God so easily you see. Not so easily. Deep in each man is the knowledge that something knows of his existence. Something knows, and cannot be fled nor hid from.”

Then we read this:

“It was never that this man ceased to believe in God. No. It was rather that he came to believe terrible things of him.”

WHAT KIND OF GOD?

This scene from The Crossing demands attention for at least two reasons.

First, McCarthy highlights an important point that is often underemphasized by both Christian apologists and their atheistic foils. The most pressing theological question is not necessarily “Does God exist?” But rather: “What kind of god?” And in fact, this is the question with which Scripture is most interested.

The deity described by McCarthy is often “bloody and barbarous,” to cite a recent commentary on his work. And this may be because McCarthy was taken by elements of Gnosticism. But that is not the focus of my present post.

Second, and most importantly, I am intrigued by what McCarthy has this grieving father do next.

“It was at this time that he began to pray.”

BENEATH THE DOME

In his anguish, the man sets up camp beneath the tottering ruins of a church (below). The dome of this great building has been shattered by the quake and threatens to collapse at any moment. Thus, both priests and parishioners have abandoned the sanctuary, which is rumored to sway visibly in the wind.

La Purísima Concepción de Nuestra Señora de Caborca

“Beneath that perilous roof he threw down his pallet and made his fire and there he made ready to receive that which had eluded him.”

Over time, a crowd gathers. “They were interested to see what God would do with such a man.” And all the while the grieving father paces, Bible in hand, making his Job-like case against the Almighty—daring God to bring the dome down upon him.

Eventually, a priest is called. The padre tries to reason with this “misguided man” about the nature of God and the work of grace within our lives. The two men argue back and forth, each making points and citing Scripture—but with one important dissimilarity: The priest will not set foot beneath the faltering dome.

In the narrator’s judgment, both men were “heretics to the bone”—perhaps because the priest does not believe the platitudes he speaks. Yet there is this key difference between them: “The priest wagered nothing.”

Only the grieving father remains within the church. He is its anchorite. And he is later buried in its cemetery. At his death, he speaks these words to the same old priest who came to counsel him: “Save yourself.”

“In the end we shall all of us be only what we have made of God. For nothing is real save his grace.”

CONCLUSION

It would be wrong to assume that the above quotations represent McCarthy’s own views. But the fact that he can sketch such scenes shows why he deserves to be read by theologians as well as fiction lovers.

As James K. A. Smith notes, the most interesting questioners of Christianity in recent years are not the so-called new atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. While these figures suck up all the oxygen in the great God debate, the worthiest conversation partners are often artists and storytellers, like Cormac McCarthy.

For pastors, apologists, and theologians, The Crossing reminds us of the need to address the father’s question: “What kind of god?” And indeed, it is a query that can only be rightly engaged with reference to the long history of Israel: a manger, a cross, and the vault of a borrowed tomb that is shaken by a Sunday morning earthquake.

But most importantly, The Crossing admonishes all pastoral comforters to “wager something”–and to sit beneath the dome with those who suffer.


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