The Good Thief’s Penance

Bryan at Creedal Christian has posted this meditation from the late Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh (Bloom) that I hope to remember whenever I feel ensnared in persistent sins:

So often we ask ourselves and one another a very tormenting question: How can I deal with my sinful condition? What can I do? I cannot avoid committing sins, Christ alone is sinless. I cannot, for lack of determination, or courage, or ability truly repent when I do commit a sin, or in general, of my sinful condition. What is left to me? I am tormented, I fight like one drowning, and I see no solution.

And there is a word which was spoken once by a Russian staretz, one of the last elders of Optina. He said to a visitor of his: No one can live without sin, few know how to repent in such a way that their sins are washed as white as fleece. But there is one thing which we all can do: when we can neither avoid sin, nor repent truly, we can then bear the burden of sin, bear it patiently, bear it with pain, bear it without doing anything to avoid the pain and the agony of it, bear it as one would bear a cross, — not Christ’s cross, not the cross of true discipleship, but the cross of the thief who was crucified next to Him. Didn’t the thief say to his companion who was blaspheming the Lord: We are enduring because we have committed crimes; He endures sinlessly… And it is to him, because he had accepted the punishment, the pain, the agony, the consequences indeed of evil he had committed, of being the man he was, that Christ said, ‘Thou shalt be with Me today in Paradise…’

Read the whole post here.

C.H. Connors and Other Smith College Poets

Earlier this week, the Poetry Center at Smith College celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2008 with readings by alumnae from the past 60 years. Poems by the participants and other Smith graduates are featured on this web page. Carolyn Connors ’60, who publishes her poetry online at, has kindly permitted me to reprint her poem “A Glory from the Earth”, which she read at the gala. I especially love the last line.

A Glory from the Earth
by C.H. Connors

Our science has achieved its opposite
    and taken us down a peg or two.
    Our animal nature has come unglued
from ghost; we’re Things with skills and wit.

Once we had a soul because we thought
    the world was also made in part
    of spirit. Taught by story, art
and church, we went about the earth in awe.

Those who went before believed with ease,
    an opening between two roots
    gave passage to the underworld.
Enchanted bridges spanned the burning seas

between defeat and safety, peril and hope.
    Of host of angels, fairy host,
    song sifted from the sky or rose
in mists of heavenly vapor from the moat.

By silver water, fruit of gold bowed low
    to free the spellbound prince from form
    of tree or beast, or keep from harm
the peasant girl before whom all will bow.

What shall we do with all our magic now?
    Our wands are turned to sticks to beat
    each other off and school belief.
Once, our gift of meaning to our world

gave back the gift of meaning to our days.
    But even still, imagination
    lets all understanding happen;
even then, curiosity was praise.


Other favorites from the Smith College reading were Tanya Contos, Celia Gilbert, Anne Harding Woodworth (her chapbook Up from the Root Cellar, just out from Cervena Barva Press, tops my soon-to-read list), and Jane Yolen, whose original fairy tales enriched many hours of my childhood. If you can lay your hands on a copy of her out-of-print books The Hundredth Dove and The Girl Who Cried Flowers, pay any price. I’m grateful that I saved most of my picture books, including The Bed Book, a dreamy little oddity by late lamented Smith alumna Sylvia Plath.

Book Notes: Liberating Tradition

Kristina LaCelle-Peterson’s Liberating Tradition: Women’s Identity and Vocation in Christian Perspective offers a solid introduction to Christian feminism, and a wake-up call to the churches not to mistake culturally conditioned gender roles for gospel truth. Topics surveyed include the strong women of the Bible and their often-overlooked successors, from the female monastics to the 19th-century social reformers; feminine metaphors for God in Scripture; sex discrimination and body image; the diverse forms that marriage has taken in the Judeo-Christian tradition; and the egalitarian message of Jesus.

While at times I feel that Liberating Tradition goes in too many directions at once, this smorgasbord may be useful to conservative Christians who have not previously been exposed to basic feminist critiques of consumerism, for example. The book’s main strength is that LaCelle-Peterson backs up mainstream feminist-egalitarian arguments with detailed Biblical citations and historical evidence of women’s leadership roles in the church.

I was encouraged to see this book being sold at the recent Wheaton College theology conference, on the table of Baker Books, a leading evangelical publisher. As egalitarian perspectives become more reputable in evangelical circles, space also opens up for a more dynamic, historically aware method of reading Scripture, which hopefully can benefit other marginalized groups. It’s no longer plausible to say that we must replicate the family structures of first-century Palestine or else we’re undermining the authority of the Bible. Educated, active, Spirit-filled women, in numbers too great to ignore, are forcing the church to recognize that history and personal experience must inform our interpretive process, which means that our understanding of what the Bible says about women will change over time.

LaCelle-Peterson distinguishes herself from secular feminists and Christian complementarians, both of whom see the Bible and feminism as inherently incompatible. Instead, she argues that the Bible as a whole affirms women’s full humanity and equal participation in God’s kingdom. She does not take the liberal approach of throwing out texts that offend her politics, but rather contextualizes them and asks whether the “obvious” interpretation merely seems so because of the sexist cultural lenses through which we read.

God’s maleness, for instance, is not evident from Scripture. Compared to the other gods of the ancient Near East, who all had consorts and fertility rituals, the God of the Old Testament is strikingly non-gendered. Why do we assume that God is a literal “father” when this metaphor appears, but have no trouble perceiving the figurative language when God is compared to a stream of water, a rock, a nursing mother or a brooding hen? Since the God of the creation story transcends gender, “made in God’s image” applies equally to men and women.

After the Fall, hierarchy is introduced into the male-female relationship, with elements of oppression and unhealthy craving. Again, Christians have easily recognized that the other aspects of Adam and Eve’s new situation are a curse to be alleviated: “Are the items in Genesis 3 describing the state in which God wants us to live? For example, since God said farming would be difficult, does that mean using tractors is contradicting God?…Is it wrong for a woman to have epidural anesthesia in childbirth, since God said that women will have increased pain as they bear children?” (p.40) By contrast, we take Adam’s rule over Eve to be a moral norm, not a warning that their sin now taints all intimate relationships with the possibility of abuse of power.

In Jesus’ earthly ministry, we see God’s original plan for an egalitarian kingdom. Jesus validated Mary the sister of Martha when she assumed the posture of a male disciple, and provocatively ignored the purity taboos that would have kept him from healing, touching and speaking with women.

In a section titled “Discipleship Trumps Gender Roles”, LaCelle-Peterson adds, “It is interesting that Jesus also refuses to affirm positive traditional roles for women, even when asked to. Most significantly, unlike the tradition of some sectors of the Christian church, he does not put his own mother on a pedestal and value her simply for having borne him.” (pp.58-59) In Mark 3:33-35 (“Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother”) he takes an exclusionary status marker, one’s membership in a family, and makes it open to all who follow God. Women who fulfill traditional expectations as wives and mothers are no more privileged than their widowed, poor, or unpartnered sisters, including those with a checkered sexual history. Similarly, in Luke 11:27, Jesus proclaims that anyone, through discipleship, can be on a par with the woman who gave birth to him. “He isn’t putting Mary down, but raising the status of all the women in the crowd.” (p.59)

LaCelle-Peterson takes on the verses in the Epistles that seem to limit women’s participation, such as 1 Cor 14:33-35 (“women should be silent in the churches”). She notes that these lines occur within a discussion of how both men and women should behave decorously when they pray and prophesy, so that non-Christians will not be scandalized. It is assumed that women will be preachers and teachers (e.g. Phoebe and others in Romans 16). As many scholars now believe, 1 Cor 14 probably refers to women in the congregation who talked during the service, perhaps asking their husbands to explain the Scriptures, since women were not generally literate.

LaCelle-Peterson suggests that 1 Tim 2:11-15 (“…I permit no woman to teach or hold authority over a man…yet she will be saved through childbearing”) addresses a specific problem: female followers of Diana or other mother-goddesses who were proclaiming their superiority to men within the church. Saved “through” childbearing does not mean “by” (as in, salvation comes through being a mother) but “during”; God will bring them safely through childbearing, so they no longer need to hedge their bets by praying to Diana.

Anyone who’s cringed at the selection of pastel-tinted “Christian womanhood” books in a Lifeway bookstore, or sat through one too many John Eldredge lectures on how men naturally long to be rescuers and women to be rescued, will appreciate LaCelle-Peterson’s deconstruction of gender stereotypes that have been picked up by the evangelical marketing machine and reinforced with so-called divine authority. Consumer culture teaches young girls that their self-worth depends on being pretty, delicate, and unthreatening. Gimmicks like Revolve, the Bible packaged as a teen fashion magazine, misdirect Christian girls’ energy toward externals rather than internal spiritual maturity. It would be funny if it wasn’t so dangerous.

One of the most helpful sections of this book is its tour through the many manifestations of marriage in Biblical times and beyond. What Christian conservatives call the “traditional” family, with the man working outside the home and his wife staying home to raise the children, is an artifact of 19th-century capitalism. Before industrialization, husbands, wives and children often worked side by side on the farm or in the artisan’s workshop. Both parents were involved in teaching the children the skills they would need to carry on the business.

However, when capitalism turned men into salaried employees of a large corporation, women’s non-cash-based labor became devalued and invisible. It was a sign of upward mobility if your wife could afford to stay home. This meant that the woman became an ornament to the male ego rather than a contributor to society. That pride-based arrangement doesn’t sound like the model of mutual submission we read about in the Epistles, still less the actual patterns of discipleship in the early church. Yet today’s conservative churches have uncritically
adopted a commercialized vision of gender roles as if it were based on natural law.

To me this suggests the dangers of an ahistorical reading of the Bible. Human beings are inescapably embedded in history, both enriched and constrained by the specifics of our time, place, and material interests. When we are afraid to contextualize and move on from the social arrangements that happened to prevail in New Testament times, because we are seduced by an impossible dream of an “objective” social order that stands outside historical contingency and fallibility, we also lose perspective on our present-day social arrangements and how they unconsciously shape our hermeneutics. 

Liberating Tradition contains many more useful arguments from history and Biblical criticism than can be summarized in this review. By necessity, LaCelle-Peterson limits her focus to women’s heterosexual relationships and church leadership roles, but the logical extension of her critique of gender is unavoidable. Having admitted, in any context, that the meanings of maleness and femaleness are historically variable — and having recognized that our fallen nature easily converts difference into inequality, contrary to the radically inclusive vision of Jesus — we cannot honestly say “marriage is between one man and one woman” without admitting that most of the important words in that sentence are ambiguous, including (pace Bill Clinton) “is”. Will the female pastors and theologians in today’s conservative churches, who owe their leadership roles to feminist readings of the Bible, speak out against heterosexist idolatry, or will they pull the ladder up after them?

Poems by Conway: “Walls” and “Things That Hang”

New poems below from “Conway”, my pen pal serving 25-to-life for receiving stolen goods under California’s three-strikes law. I’m exploring self-publication options for his chapbook, but would also appreciate being contacted by any interested publishers. 


As I stand in contrast
questioning authority, to which it stands

Is this wall of concrete asking itself
why I stick around, never leave?
Seeming to grieve this stoic stance
held so long, by a pillar built society.
Do the walls rejoice, in my familiar visage
whenever I caress that sharp roughness
with this softer flesh
polishing the stone.

Or, is it just hope
that makes me imagine the wall alive
with sight, even sturdy voice?

Then, I wonder
is it this stone
that exiles me in
or the world out…


Things That Hang

A sound in the air
until caught by an ear
wanted people
on the post office wall
offering money to call
A kite by the wind
with a string
on the other end
that question
of doubt
you know
what I’m talkin’ about
A hope
and a prayer
pants, on a leg
the shirt
off his back
A corpse
without any slack…

Poem: “Called Out”

The baker, said Luther, glorifies God in bread.
He was a fat fellow, knew good beer from a bad sermon.
Enough of these piglets in neckcloths
sweating through bare words never meant
to be dragged up from belly to lips.
Inside every man I want, I want
cries like a baby, but ashamed
of bread sopped in milk,
choleric to grab his father’s knife.
The helmsman glorifies God by seeing sharks.
The constipated scholar can afford to toss his ink
at demons in the frost,
his own chamber glass cracking.
But bluff sailors, their red hands freezing to the wheel,
need gloves, not Latin.
Bless the tanner and his scrawny boy
who sleeps in the horse-hay,
wakes to crack the trough’s icy skin
and offer the first bite
of an ordinary apple to the steaming mare.
Let him be too young to dream of whores
like Reason, Luther’s false bride.
She is all painted with vocations
of monk and knight and merchant,
pale halo, priapic spear,
the great ships laden with lemons.
The leper glorifies God by losing
his fingers. Luther counted beads
but could not count his dreams
where his shadow-self barreled through Cockaigne,
poor paradise without bakers
where sugar drops from trees and women
are all thighs and stopped mouths.
The beggar glorifies God by opening his hand
to the butcher and the nailsmith, the fool
by singing his cradle song over stones and pennies
flung round him like stars in the dirt.

This poem won third prize in the 2008 Utmost Christian Writers poetry contest.

Rediscovering the Trinity (Part Three)

Highlights of the final day of last week’s “Rediscovering the Trinity” conference at Wheaton College (you knew there were going to be three posts in this series, didn’t you?):

Philip Butin, president of San Francisco Theological Seminary, was an engaging speaker who proposed that preaching could be a continuation of the divine speech that we find in the Bible. He cited the views of Calvin and other 16th-century Reformers that preaching didn’t just expound God’s word, it could be God’s word under certain circumstances. Since the written text of Scripture is derived from a prior oral tradition, we can’t say that God only works through written language. Proper preaching is not speech about God but speech by God, declaring what Jesus has said and done, and what He will do through the Spirit. To preach Christ means to allow the Spirit to speak through you. However, this is not automatic; the preacher has to unblock the channel for divine communication by staying true to Scripture.

Now, I find these claims for preaching to be unduly restrictive at best, dangerous at worst. Why should preaching be more likely than other verbal art forms, or non-verbal expressions of worship, to reveal the Spirit? And what does it mean when preachers disagree? The diversity of views within the Bible itself is confusing enough. Back then, we had church councils who decided which writings about Jesus counted as Scripture. Now that the church has fractured into thousands of denominations, we couldn’t even begin to agree on an authority that would determine the divine status of particular sermons. I realize that Butin wasn’t actually proposing a new canon, but in that case, what benefit is there to making these extreme claims for one human activity as opposed to all others?

Butin helpfully exegeted St. Paul’s discussion in 2 Cor 2-4 of how his own words could carry divine authority. Paul’s unique insight: because of the normative pattern of Incarnation, divine revelation is most profoundly and authentically communicated through ordinary, flawed human leaders and their words. We have this treasure in earthen vessels so that it will be clear that the power comes from God alone (2 Cor 4:6-7). God communicates through our sincere, vulnerable, broken selves. Through the transparency of not hiding our inadequacies, we remove the veil and let the gospel shine through. This is the most comforting and life-changing message I can imagine; again, though, I don’t see why preaching should be singled out.

Leanne Van Dyk of Western Theological Seminary offered a more holistic, inspiring vision of how our entire lives can be a proclamation of our incarnate faith. The church first of all proclaims the gospel by being a community that lives differently, and only secondarily by verbal evangelizing. The church is the gathering of people who worship, confess, and give witness in concrete ways to the reality of God’s kingdom that has broken into our world. The church is not mainly about generating personal spiritual experiences or dispensing true information.

The church’s mission is a subset of God’s mission, not coextensive with it. In the Bible, and the world around us, we see God using persons, cultures, institutions, and even nonhuman creatures (Balaam’s donkey) who are outside the current covenant community.

Authentic and coherent patterns of Christian life are central to the task of witnessing. Don’t discount the power of small, mundane acts of patience, deference, hospitality and unselfish love. When we make dinner, plant a garden, or spend time with friends, we are also proclaiming the gospel (or not!). Proverbs and Ecclesiastes show that God cares how we go about such daily business, because that’s how we spend most of our time. Honoring the proclamatory aspect of everyday routine can make space for sabbath rest, freeing us from the pressure to be always busy at service projects or preaching. (One of my favorite bloggers, the Internet Monk, calls this pressure “wretched urgency”.)

Van Dyk said mission is not a project or a goal so much as a way of life. No kind or honest or patient deed is wasted. It is all taken up into God’s own purposes for the restoration of shalom.

Someone asked whether we could really call these activities proclamation if Jesus is not mentioned. I didn’t get a clear sense of how Van Dyk would distinguish Christian “implicit proclamation” from other types of good works. But since she wasn’t saying that action should replace God-talk, only that it’s on a par with it, this may be yet another instance of Trinitarian “both/and” not “either/or”. 

During a wrap-up panel discussion at the close of the conference, the question was posed whether a proper Trinitarian understanding of unity would help us overcome doctrinal divisions within global Christendom? (John 17: “that they all may be one”.) John Franke and Edith Humphreys disagreed over whether unity should even be our goal. Franke, who is writing a book called Manifold Witness, said the plurality of truth is part of divine design. Part of learning to manifest unity is living peaceably with our genuine differences, trusting that God is at work in ways we can’t see. Humphreys saw differences as God’s response to original sin, His plan to teach us humility and make us aware of our incompleteness, not His ultimate design for humanity. Franke put forth an alternate view that multiple perspectives are needed to capture a multifaceted God. Butin concurred; God is unity not in spite of diversity but because of it.

Want more Wheaton? Collected papers from each year’s conference are published as anthologies by InterVarsity Press. I picked up their 2006 collection The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts at this year’s bookfair, and the one from last year’s excellent conference on the early church fathers has just been released.

Rediscovering the Trinity (Part Two)

More highlights from last week’s Wheaton College conference on “Rediscovering the Trinity”:

Jonathan R. Wilson (Carey Theological College) and Steven M. Studebaker (McMaster Divinity College) gave presentations on the Trinity and the created world.

Wilson summarized the thought of several theologians concerning the role played by each Person of the Trinity in creating and sustaining the cosmos. The late Colin Gunton, for example, elaborated on Irenaeus’ metaphor that the Son and the Spirit are the two hands of God in the world. Gunton suggested that the Son is the unifying power of creation, reconciling all things and holding them together by his atonement, while the Spirit is the particularizing power of creation, guiding each part to reach that perfection appropriate to its nature. Through them, the Father both prevents creation from slipping back into chaos and restores its teleology.

Meanwhile, according to Wilson, theologian Robert Jenson observed that the Trinitarian doctrine of creation answers “both/and” to the question of whether God created the world for His glory or to have someone to love. In the Trinity, God’s love and God’s glory are one. The Father initiates creation, the Son makes it good, and the Spirit sets it free to be distinct from God.

So how does this apply to our life? If all we have is God the initial creator, we are bound to inflexible structures of the created order, and fall into legalism and fatalism. We try to live according to the pattern He has laid down, but there is no redemptive activity of God in the world to help us. On the other hand, if all we have is the Spirit immanent in creation, we end up deifying nature and losing our identity as humans. There is no God apart from nature to give it meaning beyond itself–no teleology.

One frequent error in Christian spirituality is a proto-Gnostic view of creation as simply a fallen realm from which we must be rescued. The good news of redemption is separated from the goodness of creation, severing Son from Father and Spirit. Because of the Spirit, when I receive a new life in Christ, it doesn’t mean that my identity is wiped out. My particular self is part of God’s originally good creation, though flawed by sin.

Studebaker spoke of “creation care” (good ecological practices) as a spiritual discipline. Why do Christians worry about the music we listen to and the clothes we wear, while being indifferent to our consumption habits and their impact on the planet? This has to change. We’re not used to caring for the environment as part of our Christian responsibility, because we think too much about the afterlife and the end times, sometimes even rejoicing over natural disasters as signs that the Second Coming is near.

But Christ doesn’t just save our “souls” for “heaven”. Romans 8 speaks of “the whole creation” groaning for redemption. If our groans arise from the Spirit, so does the cry of the nonhuman creation, seeking liberation from bondage to decay. The Spirit is the breath of life in all creation and is devoted to bringing it into loving fellowship with God. We can participate here and now in God’s life-giving love by caring for His world.

Studebaker urged us to recover a sacramental understanding of all life. Our incorrect mind-body dualism makes us abandon the realm of practical decision-making to secular influences.

An audience member asked, if the pine tree gets to take part in the new creation, why not unbelievers? One of the panelists replied that unlike humans, the tree’s bondage to sin is not of its own volition, so “creation care” spirituality doesn’t necessarily lead to inclusivism on the question of salvation for non-Christians–though in my view, it’s yet another good argument for that position. After all, if you believe in total depravity, humans after Adam and Eve don’t really have the free will not to sin, either; our sins are just as derivative as those of the pine tree.

John Franke (Biblical Theological Seminary) and Mark Husbands (Hope College) genially duked it out over “social Trinitarianism”. Traditional theology, using categories borrowed from Greek philosophy, emphasized that the three Persons were united in one “substance”. The majority of contemporary writers about the Trinity are more concerned with relationality–the mutual love among the Persons as a model for the Christian community. I’m not entirely sure why this difference has risen to the status of a debate (“less filling? tastes great!”). My guess is that the “anti-social” folks are worried that our theology is being revised to fit current political sentiments, importing too much democracy into our relationship with God. Some social Trinitarians are also feminist theologians, still a suspect category at a conference where rose-tinted books on Biblical womanhood uneasily shared shelf space with books on postmodernism and liberation theology.

Franke, a social Trinitarian, began with a caveat about the inadequacy of all descriptions of God. What we call “the Trinity” is not a precise literal picture but still a true guide to certain revealed features of the divine life. So we need an inclusive, pluralistic treatment of theological models, because this diversity best captures the multifaceted nature of God and the Bible. Thus, he was not arguing that his preferred model was the best one for all times and places.

Some modern theologians feel that the traditional focus on ontology makes God seem too static and isolated. When we say “God is Love,” we must be affirming that relationship is God’s essence, not a mere attribute He shows us. It fits with our current understanding of human selves as constituted by interpersonal relationships, not atomized individuals. Similarly each Person within God is unintelligible save in relation to the others. The social model of the Trinity counteracts modernity’s objectifying, isolating tendencies.

Husbands objected that this model misses the transcendence of God, the fact that there is more to God than His interaction with us. Moreover, human beings are really not capable of emulating the complete mutuality of the three Persons, even leaving sin out of the picture. Ontologically, we are separate individuals with our own agendas and perspectives, whereas the Father, Son and Spirit are a unified subject. We should emulate Jesus, not the inner life of the Trinity, which is beyond our comprehension.

Husbands’ critique is logical but I wonder whether he’s looking at the relational model too literally. We can base our communities on the essential values of the Trinitarian God (love, mutual submission) without having to replicate God’s structure.

Robert Lang’at, the provost of Kabarak University in Kenya, proposed that Christianity is intrinsically missionary because the dynamism within the Trinity extends to the pouring out of God’s truth and love upon the world. Words such as sending, service, sacrifice, love, self-giving, and community were Trinitarian words before they were missionary ones. Just as the Father sends Christ and the Spirit, they send us to continue God’s mission in the world.

Lang’at said it was a mistake for modern “seeker-sensitive” evangelists to play down distinctively Christian concepts like the Trinity, because this just ensures that they will be exporting their culture instead of the gospel, opening the door for Western consumerism (the prosperity gospel) or imperialism to infect developing nations. Having
lost our theological moorings, we now teach missions as a form of marketing, with our message being dictated by social-science strategies rather than Christian truth.

Individualism and totalitarianism are two sides of the same coin, he argued, like relativism and imperialism–an extreme solution to the problem of the one versus the many, which results when we lose the Trinitarian ideal of dynamic mutual coexistence. Neither Western individualism nor Asian and African polytheism are properly balanced, by contrast. The absolutizing of the individual–the dogma that I can be myself without my neighbor–is a disease of the West. The counter-reaction, which Lang’at sees often in politically unsettled African societies, is a sort of demagoguery leading to repressive mass social movements.

He warned evangelists against conceding too much to African polytheism in order to make their message accessible. Africans aren’t fazed by the idea of God having a son, because their creation myths almost always start with the gods’ giving birth to their tribe, but these myths are always tribal (our god created our people), not universal, as Jesus is supposed to be. We lose the radical message of the brotherhood/sisterhood of all people in Christ.

Keith Johnson, who trains ministers for Campus Crusade for Christ, explored whether Trinitarian thinking can help us understand Christianity’s relationship to other religions. I have to admit I had trouble following this one because Johnson was mainly critiquing several other theologians I’d never heard of. His main point, similar to Husbands, was that the Bible does not exhort us to emulate the Trinity per se but Christ. When we bypass Scripture and merely use the concept of the Trinity as fodder for elaborate metaphorical schemes about how plurality relates to unity, we have no reason to believe any of these schemes are reliable.

Anointed by Art

I had to share this quote from the latest Image Journal e-newsletter, summarizing an article in their print edition about artist Makoto Fujimura:

Fujimura makes a powerful argument for art by citing the passage in the Gospels when Mary anoints the head of Christ with expensive perfume. He sees this as a warrant for art: something apparently luxurious and useless which somehow becomes an essential gesture of our humanity. The only earthly possession Christ wore on the Cross was the very aroma of the perfume Mary poured upon him.

Visit the website for Fujimura’s new book River Grace here.

More good stuff from Image: Read poet Franz Wright’s “Language as Sacrament in the New Testament” here. A sample:

Sin first results from all our attempts to escape or briefly elude the horrors of our physical condition here (which are part of free will’s gift, that is, an inevitable side effect and accompaniment to the gift of life, of sentience, just as pain and illness are an inevitable accompaniment to the gift of having a body). If we can come to see suffering as the norm, and spend our time alleviating it in others rather than causing more, we have mastered the necessity of sinning—there is no longer any need to do “evil,” which again just means trying to escape for a moment from suffering.

Sin results from temptation or disobedience only next—that is, when we have had our sight restored, see the true nature of things and the simple manner in which suffering can be accepted and transcended, and yet persist in giving in to wrong actions.

The main thing is, God gets it. He understands this, and part of his infinite love and pity for us is that he gets it—to the point where he was willing to come and (as an utterly sinless being, Jesus) participate in all the unhappinesses and horrors that drive us to do “evil,” to “sin,” to participate to the point of torture and death and in participating (which gives his teaching the ultimate credibility) to show us the way out of “sin,” the way to accept suffering, and how to transmute it into the energy required to be always alleviating rather than contributing to the suffering of others.

Literary E-Zine Highlights: Ginosko, The Rose & Thorn

Two favorite literary e-zines, Ginosko and The Rose & Thorn, have just released new issues. Some poems and stories that held my attention:

Penny-Anne Beaudoin, “The Morning Routine”
(The Rose & Thorn, Spring 2008)

I can feel her cool blue eyes on my face as I struggle to pull her pressure stockings over her clawed feet, her shriveled calves.

“You’re not very pretty, are you?” she says.

I should have seen that coming, but I hesitate before replying.

“No,” I say. “I’m not.”

Read the rest here.


Peter McGuire, “After ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes'”
(The Rose & Thorn, Spring 2008)

I love listening to bad poetry
Especially yours
The way you enunciate
Like a bus with cut brake lines
Veering for the bay

Read the rest here.


Dane Myers, “Sleeping With God”
(Ginosko, Issue #6)

Cynthia lifted her head from Dubliners and stared at the pale north wall, opposite their bed. Albuquerque’s April evenings were growing long and the fading light created a shadow that made the ironwood cross above her dresser appear crooked. A rare drizzle filled the air with a smell other than dust and muted the yaps of the neighbor’s three schnauzers. Cynthia tried to think how she could get out of sex, at least for the night. Wednesday had become the worst day of the week: Bible study and sex. That night’s discussion had been on Isaiah—her favorite prophet, until Jim had nicknamed his penis Isaiah.

Read the rest here (PDF file, p.76).


Randall Brown, “Let the Wind Have It”
(Ginosko, Issue #6)

I discover her in the basement, uncovered, her lips stained green. When the house ran dry, she drank mouthwash, then cough syrup, finally anti-freeze. I imagine her in the grave, still warm. Instead, they burn her, give her back to me in a vase, handing me the responsibility for the gesture that will define her death for me—the scattering of my mother.

A week after the funeral, my father calls. He wants the ashes. He will do lines of my mother until his synapses can no longer fire. She stopped loving him a year after the marriage— and told him so. He didn’t believe her, waited forty years for her to be proven wrong, forty years of asceticism and celibacy and silent waiting. He deserves the ashes, he really does, except my mother did not want to be with him, not in life, surely not in death.

Read the rest here (PDF file, p.10).

Rediscovering the Trinity at Wheaton (Part One)

The annual theology conference at Wheaton College in Illinois is one of the spiritual high points of my year. Wheaton is the evangelicals’ Harvard, a small school located on an idyllic and superhumanly neat campus in the Chicago suburbs. This year’s topic was “Rediscovering the Trinity: Classic Doctrine and Contemporary Ministry”.

The Trinity is wonderful because, as Calvin College professor John Witvliet noted, its dynamic reconciliation of opposites (divine/human, unity/plurality, spiritual/physical) counteracts our perpetual tendency to reify particular concepts and then dismiss all aspects of life that fall outside our favorite abstract scheme. Nietzsche wrote that in every ascetic morality, man adores one aspect of himself as god and demonizes the rest. An incarnational, Trinitarian faith is anti-ascetic, frustrating our legalistic binary oppositions and the scapegoating that occurs when we inevitably project the disfavored trait onto some social group (as in, spirit=male, flesh=female).

In becoming man in Jesus, God redeemed all of human nature; therefore, no area of life is beneath God’s concern or unable to be used for God’s purposes. The sending of the Holy Spirit shows us that God is not only “up there” but equally an ongoing presence on earth; that revelation is not only in the past but continuing to unfold through today’s preachers, teachers, writers and mystics.

Several presenters at Wheaton noted that many Christians have a de facto Unitarian or dualistic faith because the doctrine of the Trinity has not been clearly presented in their churches. We imagine God as a static entity in heaven, sealed off in a realm of divine perfection, while we fumble around blindly on earth, unable to receive reliable communications from that other reality. But this is not the God of the Bible, who, though surely ineffable, time and again condescends to pour some aspect of His being into forms that we can comprehend. Kevin Vanhoozer, in his two-part talk on Trinitarian Biblical interpretation, noted that arguments against the Bible’s divine inspiration ask “How can the finite contain the infinite?” but that this is precisely what we believe happened in Jesus. That miracle was not a one-time event but continues through the Holy Spirit, who allows the human words of the text to be a channel for divine speech.

Other highlights:

Edith Humphrey of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary discussed the hierarchy of persons in the Trinity. Although the Son and the Spirit proceed from the Father, our thinking about God should begin with the Son, because Jesus is the lens through which we see, for the first time, the true identity of the God of the Old Testament. Humphrey pointed out some of Jesus’ miracles as signs of this self-identification. For instance, Jesus’ calming of the seas harks back to Psalm 107 and Isaiah 51 where God is named as the one who creates order out of the primordial waters. The Transfiguration similarly recalls the cloud of glory in which God appeared to the Israelites in Exodus. Finally, when the resurrected Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on his disciples, this is a new creation of humankind, replacing the breath that God breathed into Adam and Eve.

“Amazing love, how can it be/That thou, my God, shouldst die for me…” In word and song, Humphrey rhapsodized on the awesome self-limiting of God as revealed in Jesus. The God who restrains the seas now pours water into a basin to wash our feet; the one who fixed the foundations of the earth is affixed to a cross.

In what was an odd move by one of the only two female presenters, Humphrey ended with a strong critique of inclusive language in the hymns and liturgy (she’s an Anglican), saying that the new wording often obscured the hierarchy both within the Trinity and between God and His creatures. Because the question period was much shorter this year, I didn’t get to ask her whether hierarchy was inseparable from masculine language or whether instead this was just theological sloppiness by the revision committees. (Being among evangelicals makes my feminism more radical and vice versa.) Because of my own family background, I personally like imagining God as my father but I’m not going to defend it as theologically superior.

John Flett of Princeton Theological Seminary observed that Protestants have relied too much on secular social structures to give shape to our institutional life, allowing us to be co-opted by materialism and consumerist individualism. How can we recover the Catholic sense of the church as an alternative kingdom, without replicating its monarchical structure? In the Trinity we find a model of symmetrical and decentralized power. Flett and Humphrey seemed to be on opposite sides of the main divide running through this generally peaceful and collegial conference: the “social trinitarians” who emphasized egalitarian and pluralist aspects of the Trinity, and others who focused on hierarchy and unity. Among the latter group I sensed a certain donnish determination to “resist the spirit of the age”.

John Witvliet, one of the most engaging speakers, discussed ways to integrate Trinitarian ideas into our liturgy and spiritual practices. We need to communicate that the Trinity is life-giving, exciting and true — that we worship a God who embodies mutual love rather than solitary dictatorial power. Through the Son and the Spirit, we are invited to participate in the relational life of God. These fully divine agents perfect as well as receive our worship, making it a dance of grace that we join, not an achievement we must master in order to reach God on our own (contra the Pelagian heresy). Perichoresis, which means the mutual interpenetration and indwelling of the three Persons, is based on the Greek word for dance.

How do we get people to live their faith in a Trinitarian way? Witvliet said the real question is not “how do we theoretically explain the Triune God” but “how would your prayer life and identity change if you believed Jesus and the Spirit were fully divine?” As C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity (Book IV, Ch. 2), when we pray, we are praying to God the Father, prompted within by God the Spirit, aided by God the Son who prays with and for us. Arian or Enlightenment theology eliminates this mediation, putting impossible pressure on us to close the human-divine gap with our own good works.

Gordon T. Smith, president of reSource Leadership International, made the case for a greater Protestant emphasis on the sacraments (baptism and communion) as the embodiment of our Trinitarian faith. Through the Lord’s Supper we accept God’s offer of Himself through Christ, and recognize the ongoing presence of the Spirit. We can’t experience God through theory alone. In the sacraments, the life of the Trinity is formed in us.

Protestants outside the Anglican tradition historically downplayed the sacraments in response to what they saw as Catholic superstition, investing too much power in a human being to magically turn bread and wine into divinity. However, this is not how the sacraments work. It’s not a human-effectuated transformation but a decision to recognize and participate in something God is already doing. A Deist or Unitarian theology puts God completely outside the material realm, but an incarnate theology shows that divinity already pervades this world through the actions of the Spirit (contra dualism), though God the Father is larger than His creation (contra panentheism).

Kevin Vanhoozer of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School argued that most contemporary Biblical hermeneutics are de facto Deistic. “Inspiration” is simply the answer to why we read this book (God as creator of the canon), but not a way of reading differently (i.e. with the Holy Spirit’s guidance). In some sense God’s providence is the cause of all books ever written, but that doesn’t make them Scripture. What sets the Bible apart is the claim that God continues to be involved in this text in a unique way, by promising that the Spirit will use it to disclose God’s truth over time.

Vanhoozer had some quibbles with the analogy of the Bible as a second Incarnation. The complete fullness of God does not dwell in the Bible as it does in Jesus and the Spirit, because the Bible is an object and not a person. Speech extends a person’s presence but is not a person in its own right. For me, this opened up some liberating possibilities for the development of doctrine. If the dynamic Holy Spirit in some sense outranks the static text, perhaps we block the Spirit’s action when we don’t allow new information from history, science, psychology or personal experience to reinterpret words whose meaning once seemed clear. (Insert your favorite controversy here.)

In the second installment of his talk, Vanhoozer depicted the Trinitarian God as essentially communicative, both in God’s inner life and in His interaction with the world. The gospel is not mere information but the speech-act of God’s declaring us to be forgiven. The Incarnation resolves the Kantian or postmodern impasse where we’re trapped in a play of symbols and perspectives, while true uninterpreted reality is “out there” in a noumenal realm we can’t touch. Our language is reliable because God uses and upholds it; by God’s grace, there is no incompatibility between divine transcendence and human speech.

The high-priestly prayer in John 17 shows that the three Persons communicate by giving glory to one another and declaring that glory to us. The Spirit makes public this intra-Trinitarian conversation, drawing the church into God’s communion by pouring divine love into our hearts. Conversing is part of God’s identity. One could say that God is the name for this mutual loving and glorifying activity of the three Persons. The Bible is the locus for this ongoing communication with God.

What then is the place of “truth” in a Trinitarian reading of Scripture? It is neither the liberal extreme of truth as fleeting interpretive moment, putting primacy on subjective experience, nor the conservative extreme as an objective property of the text, with no need for the Holy Spirit. The Bible is like a baseball bat that needs the Holy Spirit to swing it in order to hit a home run. Or, to use another analogy, Scripture is like a musical score that must be realized by the musicians, i.e. the worshipping interpretive community. Biblical truth is a dynamic event.