How Absurd Shall We Then Live? a book review

If theology is, in some sense, biography, Gospel of the Absurd(Wipf & Stock, 2017) bubbles up from R. Scot Miller’s circuitous faith journey. Miller grew up Lutheran in Flint, Michigan, rejected his childhood faith, and found belonging among anarchist and Marxist groups, practicing resistance in Detroit’s punk scene of the 1980s. There, he succumbed to a crack-cocaine addiction. His journey back to faith coincided with his journey into recovery. Today, he is a Quaker, a minister at Common Spirit Church of the Brethren in Grand Rapids, a dairy farmer, substance abuse therapist and adjunct professor of theology at Earlham School of Religion. His theology combines a post-liberal hermeneutic with an Anabaptist Constantinian critique of civil religion, Christocentric virtue ethics, anarchist dissent and a commitment to justice and Christian community. Miller wears simple clothes and a wide-brimmed hat but is also a vocal supporter of causes like Black Lives Matter. He is the embodiment of a punk-rock-Amish aesthetic.

9781498296465[1]What is the gospel of the absurd? The absurd claim “that voluntary sacrifice of privilege is the proper response to human brokenness and the systems of domination that have lured the church toward apostasy” (back cover). Too often the Christian public ethic has been coercive, seeking to legislate morality through political power (often issues like abortion and marriage-equality). Miller writes, “I suggest that the failure of Christian ethics is related to Christianity’s continuing quest for power as a political force, because it is perceived to be a coercive force in people’s lives” (7). Miller proposes instead a biblical informed, communal ethics characterized by faithfulness.

Miller’s argument unfolds in roughly three parts. The first four chapters provide a diagnostic for the failure of Christian public witness and ethics in America. Chapters five through seven describe how narrative, revelation and eschatology give shape and specificity to Christian ethics Chapters eight through eleven describe the components of a communal, embodied virtue and care ethic.

Chapter 1 describes the failure of Christian ethics because we have understood our ethical claims as universally authoritative for all (and therefore coercive). In Miller’s analysis, Scripture remains an authority, interpreted contingently by the faith community because “it provides a community with textual discourse by which the world and truth claims can be evaluated in faith” (13).

In chapter 2, Miller describes ‘the dark shadow of the Enlightenment.’ Enlightenment and Post Enlightenment ethics rested on rationalism, utilitarianism, and emotivism. Miller names also the growing absence of the use of Scripture to articulate a credible ethic to the secular world, even among Christian ethicists. This comes into focus in Chapter 3 where Miller discusses how civil religion (à la Reinhold Niebuhr) blurs the lines between Christian faithfulness and our faith in the power of democracy. In contrast Miller describes a biblical ethic of absurdity which makes no sense to the wisdom of our age:

Perhaps a biblical ethic is an ethic of absurdity. The gospel is absurd on its face when one reads the claims made in the Sermon on the Mount, or the manner in which Jesus feeds crows of five thousand from a few loaves and fishes. Stories of resurrections may or may not be absurd, but belief in such stories most certainly is. Yet, if an ethic is to be Christ-centered, I propose that it must have two qualities at the very least: the particulars of the Christian ethic must be gleaned from a faith community’s reading and discussing scripture together, and those communities most be brave enough to have faith that even the absurd produces possibilities, and most radical kinds of faithfulness are the most fruitful. If one believes in the resurrection of the messiah, one must live as though it is true and embody the meaning of such an event for both church and world. (40)

In chapter 4, Who would Dirk Willems torture?, Miller draws upon the witness of the sixteenth century Anabaptist martyr and places him in contradistinction to contemporary evangelical discussions of the acceptability of torture. As with civil religion, scriptural and Christological considerations, get pushed to the margin, but in so doing, a Christian’s ethics become less than Christian. Our ethical arguments rest on emotivism or pragmatism.  Miller observes:

The Christian ethic is voluntary, so while an individual may eschew the Christ-centered interpretive activity of loving one’s enemies by feeding them and providing drink, they may choose an alternative, secular or military ethic by which to abide. Such a decision automatically rejects the Christian path in favor of another. A Christian may choose to torture, but in doing so may automatically render his claim to be a Christian moot. She may indeed find herself barred from participation in her congregation or group until she repents of her engagement with the world through adherence to the secular ethic. (54).

In chapter 5, Miller describes how a shift from describing ethics as a rational system, to understanding ethics through narrative, allows us to articulate an ethic of faithfulness (with a particular focus on the biblical narrative). Miller writes, “The reality of experience can only be translated from one age to another through narrative, providing the story with the authority to credibly interpret events” (70).

His argument comes into sharper focus in chapter 6 and 7 as his discussion turns toward the nature of revelation and eschatology. Miller calls us toward an understanding of revelation “as neither mystery or paradox, but a call for the church to act in history with a new understanding of brokenness” (81). This shifts our concept of revelation away from philosophical and abstraction towards actionable faithfulness. Miller also asserts the biblical narrative gives shape to our understanding of how to be in the world. In his discussion of eschatology, Miller encourages us to not see eschatology and the coming of the Kingdom of God as an end to our space-time universe, but the in-breaking of the Spirit of Christ into human history and our present (103). Thus, eschatology is not about the world burning, but our ability to imagine new possibilities in God.

In chapter 8, Miller describes his own commitment to non-violence, the practice of the early church (evidenced by the fourth century Acts of Philip) and the call for Christians to embody an ethic of faithfulness. So while there is an eschaton in which Miller appeals to, he is hoping also for a recovery of the faithful witness of the church prior to Constantine:

I have suggested that to begin a return to being a church that reflects faithfulness, a starting point is not to suspend reason, but rather to prioritize faithfulness to God and the divine desire for human relationships evidenced in the life of Jesus. We must also revisit the history of the early church to identify not only what the witness of the church looked like before Constantine, but what social and political factors facilitated the radical changes I believe occurred during that era that skewed the manner in which Christians viewed the role of the church in the world. (111)

This ethic of faithfulness, presses Miller toward a virtue ethic patterned on Jesus (who embodied faithfulness to God) and lived out in the faith community (126-127). Miller builds on this Christological virtue ethic, by drawing on womanist theology to illuminate a care ethic which enables us to become “more Christlike, more biblical in our work, and more present in our work for God’s justice” (132).

In chapter 10, Miller explores the experience of injustice faced by African-Americans in this country, and the theology of James Cone and womanists, in order to describe ethics from “the other.” Miller notes that the Bible has been used selectively against people of color and on the margins in our country (e.g. to prop up slavery, Jim Crow, sexism to maintain systemic injustice and patriarchy, etc.); however a theology from the margins  “rejects both naïve realism and idealism” and engages in both a hermeneutic of suspicion and resistance (147). By exploring the African-American experience, Miller elicits both empathy for the injustices black Americans have suffered and invites us to listen to their wisdom on what it means for us to walk in the way of Jesus. Miller writes:

White Christians cannot relate to or walk a mile in the shoes of African-Americans, refugees from war zones, undocumented Latinos, or American Muslims targeted as “terrorists” Yet, I offer the views of black Americans above to illustrate how we might view the historic person of Jesus within a context that allows for an experience of Ricoeur’s “secondary naivete” of Jesus’ social location, as well as an understanding of the necessity of emptying oneself of privilege in order to perform as a witness to God’s redeeming and reconciling work through incarnational presence. We can begin to unpack the nature of the cross, and what is necessary to the efficacy of the cross in light of resurrection theology. I believe we can embody the moral vision that is part and parcel of this kenotic theology through the development of care ethics grounded in a community’s interpretation of the text. Practice will lend itself toward sanctifying perfection.

Chapter 11 concludes the book with some reflections on our current political moment (2017) and invites congregations to share meals and discuss the gospels and Acts and ask what we are expected to do in response to what we find there (153).

Miller synthesizes the insights of John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, Alasdair MacIntyre, and presents a strong case for re-engaging scripture in community with an eye for how we should then live. He also highlights some of the common missteps which keep us from embodying faithfulness in the way of Jesus (e.g. rationalism, emotivism, civil religion, etc). There is a lot that is fruitful here, for this moment of history. There are evangelicals who have accepted Trump as their champion, while never asking what his agenda has to do with the way of Jesus. There are those more upset about football players dishonor a flag than they are about the systematic and state-sponsored destruction of black bodies. This is our cultural moment. Miller calls us back to the gospel faithfulness first modeled for us by Jesus. Following in the way of Jesus means both to the obedient life of discipleship and to a lifestyle of care for the marginalized victims of systemic injustice and patriarchy. And to Christians like me, raised and nourished by an evangelical faith that emphasized personal salvation, Miller reminds us that the Christian life is lived in community.

I read this book a couple of times before writing this review, to make sure I was following the flow of Miller’s thought. There is no introductory roadmap and for a short book, it is fairly dense. That isn’t a criticism, so much an acknowledgment that if your church small group is used to reading something fluffy and banal (I’m resisting the urge to name names here), this may be too close to the deep end for them. However, this would be a great book to read and discuss with your thinker and activist friends. I give this four and a half stars. -★★★★½

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Wipf & Stock Publishers in exchange for my honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own

It’s Unclobbering Time!- a book review

When I hear the word clobber, I  always think of  Ben Grimm—the rock-giant dubbed “The Thing” from the pages of Fantastic Four. Ben would arrive on the scene in his blue Speedo, pummel the hoards of evil henchmen and shout, “It’s Clobbering Time!” Ben Grimm or his speedo has very little to do with the book I’m reviewing here.  Colby Martin’s Unclobber was not written as an answer to comic book violence, but to the so-called clobber passages—the six passages in the Christian Bible that directly address homosexuality used by conservatives to prove the sinfulness of the gay lifestyle.

unclobberMartin is the founding pastor of Sojourn Grace Collective , a progressive Christian community in San Diego; yet Martin didn’t start out as a progressive. He grew up conservative  and was ordained as the worship arts pastor at a conservative evangelical Bible church. However, he became increasingly uncomfortable with the traditional view of the LGBTQ community as his passion for justice, mercy and grace grew. Then his tenure at the church ended  because of one Facebook post.

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed and Martin expressed joy on social media for what he felt was the end of a discriminatory policy. This sent shock waves through his faith community. Martin was called on the carpet and asked whether or not he believed homosexuality was a sin. He presented the elders with a ten-page paper explaining his position and reading of Scripture. He was fired even though his church had never taught publicly on homosexuality. In the aftermath, the clobber passages were quoted to him ad naseum.

Unclobber is one part memoir and one part exegetical survey. The even-numbered chapters walk through the clobber passages, unclobbering them, and providing an affirming interpretation; the odd chapters describe Martin’s journey from conservative pastor to LGBTQ ally. Martin is still very much evangelical, the Bible bleeds into his story, and his testimony informs his reading of scripture. Martin wrote this book for anyone who has felt the dissonance between head and heart in their response to the LGBT community (i.e. believing the Bible clearly teaches homosexuality is a sin, but feeling affirming toward for LGBTQ neighbors and uncomfortable with some judgmental rhetoric).

Martin is an attentive reader of scripture and it is his reading of the Bible which leads him to the affirming position (when he is fired from the church, he doesn’t actually have any close gay friends). In his handling of the clobber passages he engages in narrative and canonical criticism of Genesis 19 (the one narrative clobber passage), historical criticism, rhetorical criticism and linguistic analysis. The clobber passages Martin discusses are Gen 19, Lev. 18:22; 20:13; Romans 1:26-27, 1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:10.

I like this book, in part because I like memoirs of pastors getting fired. They make me feel good. Martin’s story is a compelling read, he is funny and vulnerable. Martin also makes several strong cases in his handling of the clobber passages. He does a good job demonstrating Genesis 19 (the destruction of Sodom) has little to say about homosexuality (i.e. gang rape and inhospitality are much bigger issues in the text). He ascribes the Levitical prohibitions to a cultural, covenantal moment where Israel (possibly just the Levites) were  instructed on how to be radically different from the nations by repudiating Canaanite practices (many of the Levitical restrictions no longer apply to us, or at least not in the same way). He sets the Romans passage within the larger argument of the epistle and asserts it is possibly a Jewish quotation which Paul uses rhetorically before addressing where his Jewish readers likewise fall short of the glory of God.  With the other epistles, he discusses the nature of arkenokites and malakos  (the active and passive members of a male gay relationship, or prostitute and the John?) as describing a type of homosexual practice which bears little resemblance to committed, monogamous same-sex relationships. He opens up the possibility that some types of homosexuality are condemned in scripture, though not all.

Martin doesn’t dismiss these clobber passages, so much as offer an account of them which is self-consciously inclusive and gracious. I appreciate his commitment to wrestling with the scriptures he finds difficult rather than simply jettisoning the hard stuff. But conservatives and traditional interpreters won’t likely find Martin’s arguments compelling. He traverses similar ground similar to other pro-LGBTQ hermeneutical approaches (i.e. William Countryman, Dale Martin, Matthew Vines) which conservatives are well aware of. Occasionally I found his arguments convoluted (especially in the case of Romans). I also felt like Martin did a better job with the Old Testament passages than he did with interpreting the Pauline Epistles. Still, this remains an intelligent case for reading the Bible inclusively  from a Bible-believing cisgender, heterosexual pastor. You don’t see that everyday.

This is a worthwhile read whether you agree with Martin’s biblical interpretation or not. Conservative Christians ought to examine these clobber passages and discover what they say (or don’t say) about sexual orientation and gender. To that end, Martin is a good dialogue partner because he takes the Bible seriously and engages these texts. LGBTQ allies will appreciate Martin’s story and commitment to understanding the Gospel of Grace inclusively. Those on the fence will find plenty of food for thought. So put on your blue Speedo and attack this book. “It’s Unclobbering time!” I give it four stars ☆☆☆☆

Note: I received a galley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Ethics as Discipleship: a book review

Recently I sat through a presentation where the presenter made the claim that people always act out of their own self-interest. That ethical egoism was enshrined as the only option for personal decision making made my inner-ethicist cringe. In that environment it was too much to hope for a full-scale discussion of ethical approaches (i.e. the role of rules, formational habits, or even the ‘greater good’). While this discussion didn’t happen in a religious environment, the moral decision making of Christians often looks the to the same as everyone else. And as much as I may balk at that presenter, we live in an ethical-egoist-age.

9780830824656In Pursuing Moral Faithfulness, theologian Gary Tyra explores the realm of moral decision-making under the rubric of Christian discipleship. Tyra is professor of biblical and practical theology at Vanguard University and has more than three decades of pastoral experience. His approach to ethics as discipleship aims to set ethics within a larger frame. One that has the possibility of theological and moral realism, accounts for the Spirit’s role in moral guidance, and balances respect for rules with considering consequences and cultivating character (21-27). The goal of ethics is to make thoughtful ethical decisions in keeping with what it means to be a follower of Christ.

This book divides into two sections. Part one introduces readers to Christian ethics and names the major ethical options (i.e. deontological and consequentialist approaches, and the effects of our cultural moral relativism on our ability to make ethical decisions). Part two aims at describing the ethic of responsible Christian discipleship: Christ-centered, biblically informed and Spirit empowered moral decision making.

Tyra is a pastor and theologian. His ethical formation came from studying with Lewis Smedes at Fuller Seminary (and practical theology from Ray Anderson). Throughout this book he focuses on the practical dimension of moral deliberation in the Christian life. The rubric of discipleship enables him to include the best elements of deontological, consequential and virtue ethics.  In this respect his approach reminds me of Dennis Hollinger’s (Choosing the Good, Baker Academic, 2002).

One of the features of Tyra’s approach is his use of scripture. He points to the ethical insights of Micah 6:8, the importance of consequences and God given wisdom for proper moral deliberation evidenced in Proverbs 2, how Jesus’ antithetical statements in the Sermon on the Mount (Mathew 5:21-47), reveal God’s heart in a way that hyper-literal observance of the law did not (216-219). Tyra doesn’t explore Torah at length or the ten commandments; he is more interested on what the heart behind a law is than mere legal observance. Laws and consequences are re-framed relationally. So is formation (the Spirit’s work guiding and enabling our moral life). I think his articulation could have been sharpened by a more substantive engagement with the Pentateuch and the concept of covenant. however, Tyra paints a practical picture of what responsible Christian moral decisions look like.

This is a good introductory book for Christian ethics. Tyra argues for a thoughtful approach to ethics which defies the relativism of our culture. This will be a good text book, and a helpful resource. I give this four stars.

Note: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.

 

 

 

Taking, Making and Faking Life: a Christian Approach to Bioethics (a book review).

Modern medicine poses ethical dilemmas for Christians. Controversial issues like abortion, euthanasia, in vitro fertilization, cloning and genetic engineering challenge Christian views of morality and human dignity. But how are followers of Jesus supposed to make decisions about health care and life and death?

Christian Bioethics was written to provide guidance for pastors, health care professionals and families. C. Ben Mitchell, PhD, and D. Joy Riley, MD conduct a dialogue on a range of topics. Mitchel is Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University and Riley is physician specializing in Internal Medicine and the director of the Tennessee Center for Bioethics. Together they frame the issues, discuss relevant scriptures and share their suggestions of how Christians ought to respond.

Mitchell and Riley argue for a return to the Hippocratic and Christian tradition of medicine. They urge physicians to heal  not harm and promote respect for the dignity of human persons. Their ethical discussion ranges from Taking Life (abortion and euthanasia) to Making Life ( Infertility and reporductive technologies, organ donation, cloning and animal-human hybrids) to faking/remaking life (aging and life extending technologies). The two of them are adept at framing the issue and limiting what they are talking about. They also say some thoughtful stuff. I particularly enjoyed their discussion on dying and their reference to both the Bible and to the Christian tradition. Quite a lot has been written on the topic of ‘dying well’ and Mitchell and Riley bring things together in a winsome and relevant manner.

Rather than sharing their thoughts on every issue, I would like to share what I found most helpful. I think the biggest value of the book is their ethical framework. On pages 41-2 they layout the process for medical ethical decision making:

  1. Define the ethical issue or problem
  2. Clarify the issue.
  3. Pray for Illumination by the Holy Spirit.
  4. Glean the medical data on the issue
    • What is the diagnosis?
    • What are the available treatments?
    • What are the possible outcomes
    • Are there complications?
    • Are there implications for spouse, family members, or others?
    • What precisely is the moral question(s) to be answered?
  5. Glean the Scriptural data on the question, identifying the biblical issue:
    •  Precepts or Commands
    • Principles
    • Examples
  6. Study the scriptural instruction carefully:
    1. What does the text say?
    2. What does the text mean?
    3. What is the genre?
    4. What are the literary style and organization?
    5. What definitions and grammar are significant?
    6. What is the context?
    7. What are the overall theme, purpose and historical significance
    8. Apply the biblical instruction to formulate a potential answer.
  7. Engage in dialogue with the Christian community.
  8. Study the views of the church down through the ages
  9. Formulate a decision. (41-2)

This method delineates the approach that Mitchell and Riley attempt throughout this book. I really appreciated the care by which they approached the issue and sought out the wisdom of scripture with hermeneutic sensitivity. They make judicious use of the Bible. I am in general agreement with their conclusions (pro life, human dignity and trust in God) but I think this hermeneutic piece is the most  helpful, especially since neither is a specialist in theology or biblical literature.

One small criticism is that Mitchell and Riley claim this book is a ‘guide for pastors, health care professionals and families.’ I can readily see how pastors and families would benefit. I think health care professionals would to, but they spend too much time explaining medical terms, issues and procedures in dumbed-down layman terms for people in the discipline. I think most people who work in healthcare would find these parts of the book overly simple.  I would think a more technical volume would probably be of more value for those in health care.

I am happy to have this book as part of my pastoral library (alongside other books like Shuman and Volck’s Reclaiming the Body). It does a good job of connecting the Bible to contemporary life issues. I give this book four stars. ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the publisher via Cross Focused Reviews in exchange for my honest review.