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

A Disentangled Diety: a book review

Keith Giles is an Anabaptist in the house church movement.  His new book, Jesus Untangled is an attempt to disentangle Jesus from the political Right. He doesn’t advocate for wedding Jesus to the Left either. The problem with American Christianity is that Jesus is so enmeshed with nationalism that we fail to see Jesus on his own terms. In 186 pages, Giles offers his diagnostic of American Christianity and offers a solution: the recovery of Jesus as the central component of Christianity. The implication is that following Jesus chastens our nationalism, empire building, militarism, and violence.

Lju_mockupike others in the Anabaptist tradition, Gile harkens back to the early Christian community—the days before Constantine. He demonstrates how the early church saw a strong division between Church and the State, and how since Constantine (or around his time) we increasingly entangled political influence with Jesus message:

What we see when we looks back at the Christian church in the first 300 years of history is a uniformity of conviction that Church and State were opposite realms and that being a citizen of Christ’s Kingdom was to be uninvolved in the affairs of the kingdom of this world. They embraced this idea by living under a clear set of values that brought them in a near-constant conflict with the world around them.  The pagans couldn’t help but notice how different the Christians were. Those Christians couldn’t help but stand out from the crowd by the way they lived theif lives in stark contrast to those around them (55).

In the pages that follow, Giles challenges the wisdom of Christian political involvement, war, and American nationalism. He points to the bankruptcy of looking to politics as a solution to what ails the American soul. Giles calls the question on whether or not we are a ‘Christian nation’ and exposes the real politick behind many of our political and transnational dealings.

Let me say up front that I am sympathetic to Giles conclusions. I am a peace loving Evangelical who doesn’t have much use for the way the Christian faith is often co-opted by politics (usually the Republican party). I am deeply disturbed by Christians who say they love and follow Jesus and yet demonize and dehumanize enemies of the state (so as to justify killing them). Stanley Hauerwas’s axiom is apt, “The first task of the church is to let the world know it is the world” (or alternatively, “the first task of the church is to be the church). The gospel is not the American dream and does not inhabit the same spiritual space. In these pages, Giles describes the distinction between faith and politics and urges Christians to not conform to the ways of the world.

Nevertheless, despite my sympathy with Giles message, I found myself reacting a little bit. I think he is guilty of overstating things to make a point. For example. he describes his reading of Scripture as “Jesus-centric,” over against a ‘flat reading of scripture’ of everyone else.  The Jesus-centric are all about Jesus mission in the world. The flat Bibe readers argue that all scripture is equally authoritative, downgrade Jesus’ message of the kingdom *emphasizing instead grace and forgiveness (36-37). Giles argues that an emphasis on the whole Bible allows for the justification of torture, war, militarism, violence and nationalism (37). An emphasis on Jesus does not. Giles argues that a Jesus-centric approach by necessity marginalizes Old Testament texts.

I certainly agree with the Jesus-centric approach. Jesus the Word of God made flesh and the key to understanding the Bible—God’s written world. However, I think a number of his opponents (Reformed Evangelicals, Arminians, etc.) also try to read all scripture Christocentricty (there are a few thenomists out there but they’re kind of nuts).  I personally don’t know any thoughtful Christian that argues for the flat Bible reading he describes. While I am sympathetic to Giles’s readings, I think categorizing all Evangelicals who disagree with him as ‘flat bible readers’, does not win any sympathy from the opposition.

However, I applaud Giles’s commitment to the nonviolent ethic of Jesus and his sensitivity to the way Christ gets coopted in political discourse. This is a timely book. President Trump (who was elected with overwhelming white, evangelical support) just started bombing Syria. This is the time for Christians to press into what it means to follow Jesus (who’s answer to human violence was to suffer a cross). When America goes to war, Christians ought to ask, “who would Jesus bomb?” Giles (and the Anabaptists before him) point out us to the love ethic of Jesus and asks us to live for Christ’s kingdom (not the American one). I give this book four stars.

Note: I received this book from Speakeasy in exchange for my honest review

Unkingdom Come as it is in Heaven: a book review

Whatever we say about the Kingdom of God it is not like any other kingdom we’ve seen. To say Jesus is Lord is to declare Caesar is not and to sound the death knells on empires everywhere. In The Unkingdom of God: Embracing the Subversive Power of Repentance author Mark Van Steenwyk examines how the gospel is about far more than personal transformation. It exposes the lies of consumerism, the dehumanizing effects of the powers on communal life, and the myraid ways that ’empire’ or ‘Christendom’ poison the well. The good news is that real freedom from powers and structures is possible According to Van Steenwyk, Christ’s kingdom is an unkingdom where Jesus is unking (96).  In Christ it is possible to live with a group of people (church) without being ruled.

If you haven’t guessed from the above description, Van Steenwyk is a part of two maligned and poorly understood groups: he is a Mennonite and an anarchist. As a Mennonite and therefore stands within a tradition which strives to be a faithful witness to Christ while looking suspiciously at the Constantinian drift in the wider culture. He is also an anarchist challenging the dehumanizing structures and powers at in our society. These converge in his vocation as pastor of the Mennonite Worker in Minneapolis, his work as an editor for Jesusradicals.com  and as host of the Iconoclast podcast. The themes of this book were also addressed in an earlier book, The Holy Anarchistthough this volume is better executed and crafted.

Van Steenwyk has some challenging stuff to say and he says it well, but the thing that makes this book a compelling read is how he weaves his theological and sociological reflections together with his personal narrative. He tells of his early camp conversion and the radical streak he had which was effectively exorcised by the charismatic church he grew up in.. As a young teen he was a patriotic, cowboy hat wearing Garth Brook’s fan brought to tears singing ‘I’m proud to be an American.” Yet as his faith matured, Van Steenwyk began to question the evangelism-as-conquest approach of his Evangelical upbringing, and the highly individualistic gospel he had proclaimed. This set him on a journey to a more communal and political witness (or apolitical, though not in the apathetic, disengaged sense).

Van Steenwyk is astute at naming the insidious nature of structures and powers, controlling-myths that blind us, the false promises of consumerism, and the ways that religion, even Christianity, can be a enslaving power, rather than a wellspring of freedom in Christ. In the latter part of the book he invites us into practices which help us enter more fully into the Unkingdom of God:  He invites us to encounter the feral God through experimenting with God, embracing our creaturleliness,and practicing silence (121-6); he summoned us to walk with Christ with a localized imagination, paying attention to what is in front of us, and learning from the margins (133-8). He calls us to discern the subversive spirit through open worship and consensus decision-making, the practice of naming powers and resisting, and ‘arguing with Jesus’ through engaging both scripture and what is rising in us in opposition as we read (145-9).

It is a testament to how good a book is, when upon finishing it, I have no desire to place it on the shelf–marked off as done and collecting dust. I’ve thumbed back through the pages several times already, re-reading passages I had underlined. There is so much here that causes me to examine again the way racism, unjustice to Native-Americans, the marginalization of children, the bankruptcy of political discourse on the right and left are the effects of empire and institutionalized structures. I also love how vulnerably Van Steenwyk tells his own story. Sometimes anarchists/anabaptists are dismissed as idealists who don’t live in the real world. Van Steenwyk shares the ways he has struggled to move from patterns that are selfish and accommodating to the dominant culture to a lifestyle that is more communal, more radical and ultimately more faithful to the gospel.

I need books like this. There are a lot of ways where I would be out of step with Van Steenwyk. I am challenged by and enlivened by the writings of Anabaptists and Christian anarachy. The former because it is part of my heritage, the latter because I have been a part of churches with an unhealthy authority structure, and in my own role as pastor have sought to lead in ways that were non-manipulative.  Still I sit somewhat outside of both camps. Van Steenwyk call is to a faithfulness to the gospel and resistance to the powers. I can get behind both objections even if I demur from his conclusions at various points (i.e. consensus leadership, his handling of Romans 13, etc). I still happily give this book 5 stars and recommend it for anyone who  would like an accessible and thoughtful take on the life of radical discipleship. ★★★★★

Thank you to SpeakEasy for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.