It’s a bit early for a best-of-the-year roundup, but nearly getting beaned by a falling tree last week has convinced me that there’s no time like the present. So enjoy these capsule summaries of the best Christian nonfiction I’ve read this year, and be sure to prune your pear trees before they get top-heavy. (Although some would argue that God was angry at my perennials bed for supporting gay marriage.)
J. Denny Weaver’s The Nonviolent Atonement (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001) argues, to my mind persuasively, that traditional “satisfaction” theories of atonement are inconsistent with the nonviolent character of Jesus, and have also done harm by permitting Christians to romanticize abuse and oppression. The satisfaction model portrays Christ’s death as the saving act that was required to reconcile God and humanity. Weaver, coming from the Anabaptist “peace church” tradition, prefers a model he calls “narrative Christus Victor”, in which Christ’s death is a by-product of the collision between good and evil. The salvific event is Christ’s resurrection, which has both objective and subjective effects: on the cosmic level, it assures the eventual defeat of the powers of evil, and on the human level, it invites us to begin creating an alternative power structure that will be fully realized only at the eschaton–one in which self-giving love triumphs over domination. This is not something we must do to earn salvation; it is salvation itself, defined as participation in the reign of God and restoration of God’s image in us.
Theologians throughout the ages have come up with different metaphors for how the satisfaction-atonement worked, each (as Weaver observes) reflecting their own contingent cultural viewpoint. The 11th-century scholar Anselm conceived of God as a feudal lord whose honor required blood repayment, while the Puritans employed the language of their harsh penal system. Contort the metaphors as they will, Weaver argues, all of these narratives ultimately make God the author of Jesus’ death. Narrative Christus Victor actually puts the blame where it belongs–on us!–and defuses charges of “divine child abuse”.
Weaver frequently accuses the mainstream atonement tradition of severing the links between ethics and Christology, or ethics and salvation. The actual values that Jesus embodied in his earthly ministry become irrelevant, or even contradictory, when we picture God as restoring cosmic order through vengeance. Protestants have become so skittish about works-righteousness that we’ve reduced salvation to a transaction that occurs in some apolitical, supernatural realm–which conveniently allows us to dodge self-scrutiny about the church’s collusion with oppressive social structures. I do feel that Weaver is too quick to dismiss the Nicene-Chalcedonian creedal formulas as examples of this post-Constantinian turn toward empty philosophizing, but to be fair, the progressive political implications of the Trinity don’t get nearly as much press as they deserve.
In the second half of the book, Weaver surveys developments in black, feminist, and womanist Christian theology, offering a respectful summary and critique of several authors who have argued that satisfaction atonement reinforces abusive power dynamics by mischaracterizing the giving and receiving of punishment as expressions of love. I appreciate Weaver’s willingness to buck the anti-supernatural trend among liberal Christians by insisting that Jesus as moral example is important but insufficient; we also need the cosmic dimension of Christ’s victory over sin, effectuated by the resurrection.
Readers interested in exploring the Christus Victor motif may enjoy the writings of N.T. Wright, the Anglican bishop credited (or blamed) for this so-called “new perspective on Paul”. Wright is the featured speaker at the April 2010 Wheaton theology conference, where fans and foes of his writings on justification will be duking it out. I’m hanging up my traveling shoes for awhile, so please send me your impressions of the conference for possible publication in this space.
British novelist Sara Maitland’s A Big Enough God: A Feminist’s Search for a Joyful Theology (New York: Riverhead Books, 1995) is an amateur theology book in the best sense of the word. In the same spirit as Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Maitland loves God’s creations and loves using her literary gifts to share her vision of a God who is wonderfully complex, dynamic, mysterious and risk-taking. (Amazon.com informs me that there’s a sequel from 2002.) Maitland reads a much better story from the book of nature than the rule-bound, abstracted and boxed-in God that religious people want to defend against the perceived onslaught of Galileo, Darwin, and Freud. Her theology is specifically feminist in that it celebrates particularity, difference, and embodiment as evidence of God’s boundless creativity, rather than a threat to the (unattainable) universality of some theological system.
But this is not a fuzzy-minded, sentimental book about Dear Mother Earth. Both the human and non-human elements of creation are marred by violence and decay. Revelation is necessary because nature is not sufficient as a guide to ethics. Maitland firmly believes in the gospel story, which she views as no more or less improbable than the life cycle of the woodlouse. Read her book and you might agree.
Maitland’s solution to the inclusive-language dilemma is a creative one. She warns feminists against setting up a new kind of gender essentialism which merely strokes our egos and denies the dark side of the maternal. Purging liturgical texts of all gendered metaphors won’t do either, because in our incarnational faith, God is known through the particulars. For herself, Maitland concretizes the “both/and nature” of God by calling God “Father” but with female pronouns: “she is Father”. She suggests that men would benefit from using the reverse formula, “he is Mother”, because in both cases, imagining God as the opposite sex acknowledges “that God is ultimately Other, the beloved Other; the transcendent, the enormous, the infinite; everything that I’m not, won’t be come and can’t experience, understand or claim to own.” (p.21)
I’d love to see more exploration of transgenderism as a theological metaphor. Transpersons’ experiences might help us fully celebrate the masculine and feminine energies within God, so that our theological language can avoid both watered-down androgyny and the privileging of one gender over another. (Ex-ex-gay activist Peterson Toscano is doing interesting work in this area.) As Maitland writes:
There seems in all of us to be an enormous resistance to the idea that a thing can simply be different from another thing (usually with myself as the normative thing and divergence from that as abnormal) without becoming better or worse. Yet the scandal of particularity, the fact of the Incarnation, holds up difference, specificity, as desirable. Moreover if difference and diversity are not good in themselves then it is a little difficult to see how this can possibly be the best of all possible worlds–this cosmos in which difference proliferates and the number of insect species is uncounta
ble. The theology I am looking for must affirm the reality of difference; call attention to it; honour and proclaim it as part of the glory. For unless difference is proclaimed the possibility of communicating in love with each other, let alone with God who is manifestly and necessarily different from us, is patently impossible. (pp.8-9)
While we’re on the topic of harmony within diversity, Thomas Breidenthal’s Sacred Unions: A New Guide to Lifelong Commitment (Cambridge, Mass.: Cowley Publications, 2006) develops an inspiring and inclusive vision of marriage as a Christian vocation. A Christian marriage points beyond itself to service to God and community. It gives us the most intensive schooling in how to love another person as one’s self, with complete commitment of body and soul. Learning how to honor and cherish the spouse’s otherness also teaches us about intimacy with God, who is the ultimate Other. Meanwhile, the particularity of marriage, our love for a specific and irreplaceable person, reminds us that neighbor-love must be equally reverent toward the dignity of each individual we encounter; it is not merely directed at humanity en masse.
Perhaps I’ve been spending too much time in the gay male alternate universe, but I wished Breidenthal would have spent more time explaining why sexual exclusivity is the only possible definition of sexual fidelity. Certainly it’s always felt that way in my marriage. On the other hand, I know at least one gay male couple who consider themselves married and use their marriage as a home base for the type of ministry and activism that Breidenthal envisions, yet have a wide-open relationship.
If there is still a reason why one-night stands are incompatible with a Christian way of relating to others, maybe it’s the “Ensign Expendable” problem. Each of us naturally thinks of our life as a drama with ourselves as the main character. A few others, such as our primary sexual partner, are also characters who are acknowledged to have feelings and worth. The rest of the people we encounter are props, extras, existing only to advance our storyline. On “Queer as Folk“, the audience isn’t supposed to feel anything for the random hunky guys that Brian is banging each time Justin walks in and wants to talk about their relationship. Their anonymity is part of the sight gag. But from God’s standpoint, Mr. Right Now is just as important as Brian.
My guess is that it’s hard for gay Christians to discuss these issues openly because they’re still fighting for basic recognition in the churches, which requires assimilation to the heterosexual ideal. Given that many straight Christian couples also break their vows of fidelity, I look forward to the day when we can pool our knowledge about the best ways to achieve a stable, honest and healthy marriage.