The poets and artists leading the way

Western Christianity (Protestantism in particular, evangelical and otherwise) is in crisis in a few ways, all probably related. The bottoming out of church attendance and post-Christendom, for example, are undoubtedly related. And the bottoming out of church attendance is itself related to the fact that we have forgotten God, as Mark Galli has so succinctly diagnosed the problem in American evangelicalism.

As we have been slowly failing to get accustomed to this situation, many wonder who (or where) our guides in the Wasteland are. In the Introduction to A New Kind of Christian, McLaren writes, ‘Is there no Saint Francis or Søren Kierkegaard or C. S. Lewis in the house with some fresh ideas and energy?’ (p. xiv) Probably until 2010, many believed McLaren was that Kierkegaard or Lewis.

I’d like to imagine that the thinkers of my own direction, the ancient-future, are the guides in the Wasteland — D. H. Williams and the evangelical ressourcement, or Robert E. Webber with ancient-future faith, or Thomas C. Oden and Christopher A. Hall with palaeo-orthodoxy — but I fear these writers are largely un- or under-read (except Ancient-Future Worship by Webber, which seemed to do well amongst Michael Spencer’s iMonk set a decade ago).

Or maybe the theologians can lead the way? Sarah Coakley, perhaps? Hans Boersma (he’s almost the ancient-future set, though)? Miroslav Volf? Is Oliver O’Donovan too old to count? T F Torrance is dead, alas. What about non-Protestant guides? Frs John Behr, Andrew Louth, Kallistos Ware in the East?

But if we stick to our own set of Protestants with a bent towards historic orthodoxy and a desire to drive faith forward into the future, a desire to grab the living God and pull ourselves up into Him, a desire to set fire to the Enlightenment and show the world a real Persons at last, a desire to grab other people and show them the glory of God in its fulness —

The ancient-future set and the theologians will certainly help those who read them. (All, what, five of us?)

But I think Steve Bell and Malcolm Guite and (to toss in a Roman Catholic) John Michael Talbot are proving more helpful in this wasteland. Poets and musicians all, committed to the ancient paths but also to the shifting sand under their feet and bringing the power of the transcendent God of grace into our lives in a time when many within western Christianity feel uncertain or are walking away.

I say this as someone more likely to be like Christopher A. Hall (a patristics scholar who writes books about the Fathers for evangelicals) than Bell, Guite, or Talbot.

Their poetry and music — as well as Bell’s stories and his new Pilgrim Year resources, as well as Guite’s theological lit crit, as well as Talbot’s writings on the mystical and ascetic tradition — make truths immediate that are not always apprehensible in other forms. A Guite sonnet can carry freight that no theological article I have ever read can. Poetry and music grasp our souls in a different way from discursive analysis, much as I think the latter important.

I think on the rapture I have experienced at choral eucharists and evensongs. Or the hold that John Donne’s ‘Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God’ has on me. We need what the Romantics called the sublime. The sublime helps us rise up from the prosaic, mundane materialist world foisted falsely upon us by the Enlightenment. And as we rise, the transcendent God makes Himself immanent and enters our hearts and we can meet Him.

I may be amiss, but I think this is the case, and I think it make sense.

Regardless of the accuracy of the term ‘postmodern’, and regardless of how many of McLaren’s 2001 imaginings have come true, it is the case that the ‘postmodern’ is thought to be more interested in story than proposition, in the evocative than the precise, in connection than precise rationalisation.

Poets and singers, painters and architects, playwrights and novelists, can help bring us to God in such a culture.

May God raise up more to be the prophets to our generation.

(I’d list my musician friends, but I’m not sure they’d welcome the publicity…? And one has gone off to be a ‘normal’ person.)

Steve Bell’s website is here.

Malcolm Guite’s is here.

John Michael Talbot’s is here.

A New Kind of Christian by Brian D. McLaren

The short version: This book is written in the genre of a novel which I think is a really good way to explore those ideas bundled together as ‘postmodern’. It is geared towards disillusioned American evangelicals who still love Jesus but find a lot of problems in the way church is done and stuff is talked about in the year 2000 (a lot of these problems persist to this day). It is good at asking hard questions, but the few answers are sometimes too vague as to actually be helpful or only highlight more problems. The concepts of modernism/modernity and postmodernism/postmodernity as assessed. Sometimes I think there are factual errors in these discussions. Nonetheless, this book is good at problematizing — and I think a lot of people found it refreshing to start thinking about different ways of being Christian that did not mean abandoning historic orthodoxy.

18 years later, I am not sure I would recommend the book. This is because McLaren imagined the imminent arrival of postmodernity, yet we have found ourselves living in the hypermodern instead. For example, instead of a pluralist culture where Christianity is one respected voice amongst many, we have a situation that I was recently told is called ‘postsecular’ — secularism is so deeply ingrained in our society’s ways of operating that we are living in the truly secular age forecast by Charles Taylor years ago. That is to say: The book is good, but limited in part because of the new directions our culture is taking and has taken, unanticipated by 2001’s new kind of Christian.

Cultural assessments and critiques like this are probably meant to only have a certain shelf life.

I’ll set aside where I suspect the factual errors are in the description of modernity, and focus on the conversations about Christianity. The conversation partners clearly want to rise above the division of conservative/liberal, which is nice but likely impossible. Throughout, the main pomo fellow, Neo, says, ‘People think in this binary fashion. The conversation is actually up here.’ It’s a nice way of dodging answers. Nevertheless, a question raised cannot be un-asked.

For example, when the question of salvation comes up, this book gets really twitchy. I think McLaren was reacting against some unhealthy approaches to the question used by American evangelicals and fundamentalists. One of the questions about salvation was the question of universalism vs inclusivism vs exclusivism; the first means everyone is saved by Jesus’ saving power; the second means everyone who puts their faith in Jesus is saved along with certain people of other religions like the Calormene in C S Lewis’ The Last Battle; the third means only those who put their faith in Jesus are saved. Neo says that this question isn’t the Bible’s main concern, and the Bible is more concerned with living out your salvation with fear and trembling.

Except the Bible does have things to say that have bearing on the question. I would rather the new kind of Christian be humble in his or her answer, whichever of the three, than come up with some pomo pseudo-logic to avoid answering.

This is only one example of many. It leaves the book intellectually unsatisfying. I am, perhaps, more ‘modernist’ than I’d like to admit, but since the first moderns were mediaeval, and I like the rigour of Boethius and Anselm, I’ll take the label.

I do agree that late twentieth-century American (and Canadian) evangelicalism (which, not modern Christianity at large, is the real target of the book) needed a readjustment regarding the word salvation. Neo insists that the way evangelicals approach the question, of ‘getting saved’ and going to heaven, is selfish. I’m not sure that it’s selfish; it’s too small, however, and I appreciate the bigness of Neo’s vision when he incorporates the cosmos into the question.

But human salvation means the salvation of persons, and this is part of the biblical doctrine of salvation. When I think of salvation on the human level, I am certainly not thinking of a ‘Get out of Hell Free’ card in a heavenly Monopoly game. My reading of the Fathers, medievals, and Orthodox thinkers has been leading me down new paths about participation in Christ and the ongoing work of salvation and such. This sort of richness of human salvation would have benefited the book simply because it tempers evangelicalism without gutting it.

This or something like it could be my tune for almost all of my disagreements with this book. For example, looking for a third way of ethics that is neither fundamentalist moralising nor liberal social works with no regard for inner character (that’s not quite how it’s phrased) — you mean Roman Catholicism? There’s a different kind of Christianity with a powerful social teaching and regard for the despised and rejected as well as moral standards as high as those of any evangelical — except at least Catholics can drink beer!

I could go on because it is easier to complain than to praise. There is much good in this book in terms of shaking things up — What do you believe about the Bible? What about salvation? Your own? Others’? Those outside the church? What is the relationship between church and kingdom? What do we do regarding other religions? Science and religion? etc., etc. Some of the answers are satisfying, some are correction course (‘Hey, the Bible is mostly stories!’), some are unsatisfying in the extreme.

In the end, this chief weakness still comes back to me, though. The characters foresee a future where Christians re-engage ancient and medieval spiritual practices (yay!). They imagine training for ministry that includes reading broadly through the whole tradition in terms of time and space (yay!). They engage in endless periodization (ancient – medieval – modern – postmodern) (blah). But the ideas of ancient and medieval, let alone Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, Christianity are never presented as options for those disillusioned with the options currently on offer in modern Christianity.

From what I see, this problem would plague the emergent movement until it fizzled out. They want the pretty, evocative stuff of ancient/medieval Christianity (incense, icons, candles, compline, pilgrimage, mysticism, even fasting and almsgiving), but not the intellectual rigour of an Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Anselm, or John of Damascus. The existence of Roman Catholics is noted, but the richness of the Roman Catholic tradition rarely engaged.

This is true of all three of McLaren’s books that I’ve read — and the reviews of A New Kind of Christianity show him ramping it up with his ‘Greco-Roman thesis’ that the biblical plot of creation – fall – redemption – glory was an importation from Platonic philosophy (it’s not; it bears little to no resemblance to Platonism; I do not know where he got this), or that if you reject penal substitutionary atonement theory you reject Christ’s death atoning for us (all Christians before Anselm must be confused, along with all of Eastern Christianity) — if he had read the Fathers and the medieval and Byzantine theologians deeply, he would not have made these errors. He may still have been a heretic, but at least an informed one.

In the end, if you are disillusioned with contemporary evangelicalism and want to find a different way of being Christian, this book may be helpful. On the other hand, why not just read Ephrem the Syrian, or Sebastian Brock’s excellent book about him, The Luminous Eye? Or Isaac of Nineveh? Both are online for free, after all. There you will find a different kind of Christian who yet affirms the reliability of Scripture and the Nicene faith without all the hazards of either evangelicalism or liberalism.

Four Words to Describe Pre-Moderns

Jedburgh Abbey – gutted, like the pre-modern world today

I had the pleasure of enjoying lunch and Trappist beers with one of the lovely people of the Urban Abbey the other day. Among the many interesting topics of discussion (rates of growth/decline among the religions of BC’s Lower Mainland, the ultimate modernism of postmodernity, Charles Taylor, raising young children, Eastern Orthodoxy) was the idea of the pre-modern.

She said to me that many people say that she is pre-modern, then asked what four words I would use to characterise pre-moderns. They were:

  1. Homoousios (‘If that’s allowed?’ ‘Of course, that’s allowed!’)
  2. Celestially-minded (after asking, ‘Can I use hyphens?’)
  3. Rooted

And I didn’t come up with a fourth because the conversation moved in its own ways. Now I have too much time to think on it (how can I choose??), so I’ll just say numinous and then differentiate that from celestially-minded when the time comes. Allow me to quickly unpack why these 3/4.

Homoousios

This is the word of the Nicene Creed that we translate variously in English as ‘consubstantial’, ‘of one substance’, or ‘of one being’. As the theologians of the fourth century and beyond reflected on what homoousios meant (besides ‘How to exclude Arius’) in light of Scripture, tradition, and liturgy, they nuanced it not only in relation to the special, unique, unrepeatable oneness of the Triune Godhead but also in relation to created beings.

Humans are all united in this worldview. ‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,’ to famously quote John Donne (who is a very pre-modern modern if you read his poetry). Like begets like. Human begets human. My sons are of the same essence/substance/being as myself — I would argue that genetics backs this up.

There are various ramifications of such a worldview — some of which are that in the wrong hands, bad things can be justified. Amongst them is a drive to care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the sick, not simply because of Bible commands but because they are part of you. Amongst them is a feeling that we are all connected deeply — the sin of the sinner is never disconnected from the righteousness of the righteous. All justice is social justice, all retribution is remediary.

This also means that we find ourselves in community, something that is also bound up in the honing of Trinitarian theology — I think largely on the title of Zizioulas’ study of the Trinity (largely through the lens of the Cappadocians), Being As Communion. I would also argue that ancient Greeks and Romans had similar ideas about the oneness of the social community, even if their language and point of reference differed.

Celestially-minded

Here I do not mean literally fixated on the starry heights, although there is some element of that, I would wager. Rather, pre-modern people had a viewpoint that kept the divine in focus. They also lived in what Fr Stephen Freeman calls a one-storey universe — God or even the gods were everywhere. Indeed, even the polytheists with their vision of the Olympians dwelling on mountaintops believed that divine beings were present and active in their daily lives. Hence sacrifice, prayer, incense, etc., etc.

Of the many ramifications, I would argue that every act of existence was infused with meaning. The divine could be around every corner. Moreover, a common morality as handed down from the heavens or the ancestors was part of the fabric of life.

But they were not so earthly-minded as we late moderns are. The gods stride across Homeric battlefields as more than mere ‘symbols’. Nonnos writes an epic about Dionysus precisely because the theme is so great. The Christians write hymns and epics about Christ because there is nothing better to focus on. Why navel-gaze at your own psychology and inner turmoil when you could cast your eyes up and out into a world with celestial vision?

Rooted

This one is sort of less theological. In the pre-industrial world, people didn’t really move much. Most people lived and died where their parents, grandparents, etc., did. As a result, they had a strong sense of place. The early monastics also saw rootedness as important, something I’ve blogged on before in relation to St Benedict. In a spiritual sense, rootedness is important because you cannot leave yourself behind. You cannot overcome anger at others by becoming a hermit. Boredom is truly cured by standing still and living through it.

For most pre-moderns, rootedness was not a choice. Even if your movements were not legally restricted because you were a slave or a colonus or a serf, most people simply never had the wherewithal to go anywhere else. Choice or not, being rooted to a place, a people, and a community means that you can savour the slow, lovely moments of life. You can appreciate more and more the homoousiai persons in your midst.

Imagine if today we made choices about where we lived based on community and holiness rather than career advancement or school districts. Our constant moving is a reflection of our own rootlessness, our our disconnectedness from each other, our own existence as isolated, atomised, modern individuals.

Numinous (Sacramental?)

By a pure denotation of numinous, much of what I placed under celestially-minded would qualify as the sort of person aware of the numinous. A numen in Latin is a spirit at its broadest and vaguest, from the animist idea of a rock’s spirit right up to the Demiurge of Platonism. The sense of the numinous is that there is another world at the edges of our existence.

Part of the Resistance Movement against Modernity were Wordsworth and Coleridge (and Keats!). Coleridge’s ideas about language and symbol are perhaps more what I’m getting at here. Life is infused with meaning. Nothing is simply only its dead self. There is no mere matter. A rock can be a window, a symbol, a passageway into the divine.

The false dichotomy between body and soul has yet to make its way into the pre-modern mind. There is no dead matter. Nothing is meaningless, even if we will never fathom its meaning. Indeed, we will never fathom even a small portion of anything’s meaning. Nevertheless, at the edges of our perception there is more to this life than just animal existence — we are more than ugly bags of mostly water. We are more than our physical appetites.

The numinous also energises all our activities, especially the creative arts. Poetry dances at the fringes of our understanding and tickles our sense of the numinous bigness of the world. Music written in harmonies that correspond to the Pythagorean theories of music resonate not only with our souls but with the order of the universe itself. (I am listening to Striggio’s ‘Mass in 40 Parts’ as performed by I Fagiolini right now — numinous, indeed!) A cathedral is not a pile of stones but a gateway to God.

These are four words to describe the pre-modern world. They are worth investing energy in.

Review: Malcolm Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry

Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic ImaginationFaith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination by Malcolm Guite
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Early in the New Year, I finished this volume which is a beacon of hope for those of us who maintain faith in the midst of a dark night of rationalism, knowing that there is more afoot than reductionism and materialism and scientism with their false certainties provide. Yet how can we articulate that vision, having been raised in these -isms of late modernity?

Poetry is Guite’s answer. In this book, he discusses how poetry, with its fraught edges of language and human experience, its deployment of symbol and metaphor and juxtaposition, brings us into contact with the transcendent God and provides a medium for expressing those realities glimpsed at the corners of our vision that are almost inexpressible in modernist terms, realities, as I would express it, embodied in liturgy and the mystical. Here, the medium for this theological expression and outlet for realities beyond the ken of man is the poetic.

After setting up the problem of late modernity and postmodernism’s failure to solve or address the problem with any success, he takes us into the realm of imagination, of poetry, weaving in a few poems along the way. An extended discussion of two wonderful poems ensues — ‘The Rain Stick’ by Seamus Heaney, and ‘Prayer (1)’ by George Herbert. Here we see how language plays upon us and how the created world can be a window into eternity.

Then the methodology of reading poetry is brought forth, a methodology we should all use, whether reading theologically or not. Guite cites five ways of reading:

1. Tasting the Words
2. Echo and Counterpoint
3. Images and Allusion
4. Ambiguity and Ambivalence
5. Perspective and Paradox

Re-read each poem seeking after all of these.

The main body of the book is then arranged chronologically from The Dream of the Rood, a poem which I love, to Seamus Heaney, my appreciation of whom is growing. And that’s not a backhanded compliment, but a sincere enjoyment of a modern poet (rare for me). The poets along the way are Shakespeare, Sir John Davies, John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughn, John Milton, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Hardy, Philip Larkin, and Geoffrey Hill.

Not all of these men are Christians — Hardy, Larkin, and Hill are explicitly not. Guite’s treatment of them is sensitive and eloquent, showing how the honesty of these poets allows for the real life fissures in any belief, including unbelief. And not all of the poems are explicitly Christian, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest.

Reflecting and refracting throughout the book is the image from ‘The Rain Stick’ of glimpsing eternity through the ear of a raindrop. And, from the arrival of Sir John Davies, an important theme of Faith, Hope and Poetry is the inner person, the microcosm (incidentally, an idea originally imaged forth by St Maximos the Confessor in the 600s), and how, for all its subtleties, physical science can never penetrate the human soul. Know yourself — but this is not achieved by science.

A third major contributor, and possibility the theorist who gave rise to so much of this, is S. T. Coleridge and his philosophy of poetry and symbol. Coleridge is important, for he is the first of these poets writing after the Enlightenment (Endarkenment). He believes that God, as Creator, is writ upon creation in a real yet subtle way. Indeed, symbols are not simply one thing standing for another. No, symbols are pathways from one thing to another. They bridge the gap between apparently divergent realities, human and animal, God and creation, nature and supernature. This, I observe, is not dissimilar from much of the theology of icons in St John of Damascus or, more recently, Pavel Florensky.

There are many great insights in this book, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to come to poetry and to theology with fresh eyes.

View all my reviews

Evangelicals read the Fathers because they are relevant

‎My friend Scott, inspiration for this post, also noted that evangelical Christians read the Fathers because the Fathers are relevant to today. His comment was the following:

“… to disbelieve all, because that which says that all are untrustworthy is included in the number of those that are so” Clement of Alexandria Stromata 8.7. He could have been speaking to any number of people in the ‘post-modern’ world.

The quotation above points to the deconstructionists of the world, the people who take apart language and ideas to the point where they have no real meaning but are entirely unreliable, the products merely of language itself or of upbringing or education or genetics. It points to the reductionists who take a thought and reduce it to a single aspect, ‘Nothing but’-ism (as Brian J Walsh once said). It points to those who look at a Church on a Sunday morning and proclaim it a distasteful place — full of hypocrites.

The Fathers know of such people, and although they get fiery at times, they are not modernists, and they do not simply quip, ‘There’s always room for one more hypocrite.’ They speak words and pray prayers and lead lives that penetrate to the situation of this world as it loses the anchor and the tower of modernism — built on a flawed foundation — tumbles down around them.

The elegant universe calls forth to the glory of a God Who has designed it and set in motion with care. A God Who sustains it, even? So say the Fathers.

A universe with chaos at its root calls our attention to the reality of a world not entirely right. Fallen, maybe? So say the Fathers.

Texts have a multiplicity of meanings. The ancients knew this — we can rediscover this reality with them, as in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.

There is a loss of trust in the manifold structures of the institutions of this world, structures of church and state, of philosophy and family, of social norms and corporations. The Fathers can provide rootedness that goes deep, whether through the mysticism of Origen and Evagrius or the preaching of Chrysostom and Ambrose or the prayers of Basil and Hippolytus or the ethics of the Didache or the philosophy of Augustine and Gregory of Nazianzus. It is a grounding that is not monolithic, that must be tested carefully, but it can draw us to the living God, Who Himself is the surest foundation of all.

Not that God himself is fully knowable. Not that He is always what we want or expect. We must expect to have our expectations changed and shattered as we approach the Cloud of Unknowing.

And in unknowing what we thought we know, we enter into relationship. As helpful as Leo’s and Augustine’s and Cyril’s propositions are, the Living God is a real Person, living and active and abroad in the world.

The Fathers help draw us to Him. We are able to move beyond an intellectual assent to the propositions of Christianity into fellowship and communion with the One Who Is Himselfs Communion. And Communion lies at the heart and root and core of this Elegant, Chaotic Universe.

In a world torn asunder by war, by religion, by politics, by crumbling families, by disintegrating jobs, by falling marketplaces, by faceless governments, by rude neighbours, by fallen, failing humans, isn’t what we crave a deep relationship with someone who will be true, trustworthy?

I offer to you Big Brother Christ, explored in manifold ways and manifold paths by the Fathers. He is relevant to the sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, and dying of this world and our brief, flickering lives. Do not miss out on Him, for He loves you and would know you intimately.