Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Review of Velvet Elvis (Part Two) - Problems

As it often goes, the strengths of a book turn out to be the flipside of its weakness. Specifically, I would like to note three problems of Bell's book Velvet Elvis that correlate directly to the prospects discussed last week.


(1) Theology

Bell rightly calls for theology to go beyond tradition without leaving it behind. He beautifully describes doctrines as springs that give us energy to jump. Unfortunately, when it comes to actually doing theology, he only pays lip service to the tradition. For instance, in ch. 1 he puts himself in the line of Luther by the simplistic parallel that Luther changed things and now he is changing things. Doctrinal development is more complicated than that. One needs to really immerse him- or herself in the doctrinal tradition. Bell may have done this in some respects, but it certainly doesn't show. And there are cases where he has reinvented the wheel, which is not really development at all, but regression. For instance, he rightly captures a world-affirming eschatology in ch. 7. But a little help from Jonathan Edwards (or a host of other figures) could have helped him iron out some of the remaining wrinkles as well as kept him from making over-compensating moves. Repainting the Christian faith requires a thorough knowledge of the original painting, which includes the long history of Christian thought. Only then will we be sufficiently "trained by the masters" to pick up our own brush in the contemporary situation.

(2) Judaism

Although Bell helps to correct our perennial Israel-forgetfulness, he assumes a Jewish-Christian continuity that is historically and theologically dubious. Practically speaking, he encourages Christians to "play Jew." This is utterly offensive to still-walking-and-talking Jews who would prefer that we don't pretend to practice their religion and ours at the same time. Bell has gone half-way by acknowledging the Jewish background of Christianity. Now he needs to go all the way by acknowledging the Jewish neighbor in our midst. Despite our shared roots, Jews remain a religious "other" to Christians, and it is our responsibility to respect that otherness. Blurring the lines not only hurts our relationship with God's chosen people but also risks our own identity as the Church of Jesus Christ. For Christians, Jesus is not just another Rabbi. Unfortunately, Bell's misconstrual of our relationship with Judaism leads him to such a Rabbi-Christology, which leads us to our last point...

(3) Jesus

Although Rob Bell certainly focuses on Jesus, he falls short of a true Christocentrism. In ch. 3, he explains the relationship of the divine Logos to the man Jesus in a way that the true, the good, and the beautiful are logically prior to the identity of Jesus Christ. We follow Jesus because he is true, good, and beautiful, rather than seeking truth, goodness, and beautiful out of our radical discipleship to this man who is God in the flesh. Although this may seem like a picky issue of priority, it has big implications. Why? Once some general principle is in control of Jesus, aspects of his story that don't fit well into the system get marginalized. Noting just one huge example: Bell's Jesus in Velvet Elvis is a Jesus without a Cross. Now Bell certainly speaks elsewhere about the death of Christ, but the fact that it can be left out of even a short book on the Christian faith is troublesome. It shows that Bell seeks the Jesus known via the bits-and-pieces of his sayings, having not yet discovered that the Cross is the string that holds these pearls of wisdom together.

Thus my review of Velvet Elvis in short would be to follow Bell's prospects in a way that does not fall into Bell's problems. Read Bell's book. Take his advice to read it critically. I hope that these warning will be a guide toward such a critically appreciative read.

Any thoughts?
Do you concur with my assessment?
Any problems that you would add?

Sunday, January 22, 2006

"Hospitality & the Grammar of Holiness" - New Item at The Writing of John Drury

A new item has been posted on The Writing of John Drury.

"Hospitality and the Grammar of Holiness"

It is a draft of a paper to be presented at the Annual Meeting of the Wesleyan Theological Society in Kansas City this March. Feel free to check it out and provide any feedback here at this post.

Also, if anyone is thinking of going to WTS and needs a roommate, let me know here or via e-mail.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Review of Velvet Elvis (Part One) - Prospects

I had a chance to read Rob Bell's book Velvet Elvis over Christmas break. I would like to add my own contribution to the now raging dialogue concerning its claims and implications. A quick glance of the reviews on Amazon will reveal a lack of mediating responses. Most reviews are either a 1 star indictment or a 5 star defense. Well, I intend to fill that gap with my own mediating perspective. In other words, I would give it 3 stars.

As with most thinkers, Bell's strengths are the flipside of his weakness. Specifically, I would like to note three of such prospects. I will discuss their corollary problems next week.


(1) Theology

First of all, Bell has an uncanny grasp of what it means to do theology. His subtitle is instructive: Repainting the Christian Faith. He understands tradition as kinetic power that moves us forward into new developments. He grasps that the history of the Church is precisely the history of the development of doctrine. In particular, Bell makes us of the concept of "binding and loosing" as a practice of responsible interpretation of the Bible (ch. 2). The key word here is responsibility: the church in general and Bell in particular can and should take responsibility for their theological decisions. As the Jewish Christians in Acts 15 did, so we too must make decisions, claiming only that "it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us." Such a clarion call for responsible theological thinking is sorely needed.

(2) Judaism

Bell's particularly way of doing theology is by tapping into the Jewish roots of Christianity. Bell thankfully reminds us that Jesus was a Jew (too bad he didn't say that Jesus is a Jew, but more on that later). Familiarity with such Jewish roots provides a treasure-trove of exegetical insight (ch. 5-7). The result is the Bell actually deals with actual Biblical texts, making him the most "biblical" of the Emergent cadre of writers. Furthermore, such a focus on Jewish roots re-embeds the Christian faith in history (where it belongs), and thus brings with it a world-affirming spirituality sorely needed for the progeny of individualistic-forms of evangelicalism.

(3) Jesus

Bell is unquestionably a Jesus-centered thinker. He shares with many a focus on Jesus at the center of our faith, but with a detailed attention to Jesus' words and thoughts and deeds often lacking in most Jesus-talk. Building on his knowledge of Jewish backgrounds, Bell is able to get to the heart of Jesus' message within the context of the whole of Scripture, attends to specific Jesus-texts and their interpretation, and takes seriously the political aspect of Jesus' life. Such concrete advances among the typically shallow Jesus-people are a contribution for which I am grateful.

Any thoughts?
Do you concur with my assessment so far?
Would you add any other points of strength?

For part two of this review, click here.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

New Items Posted at The Writing of John Drury

Two new items have been posted at The Writing of John Drury, my collected writings page:

Calvin Seminar Paper -- “God's Fatherly Nourishment: An Analysis and Critique of B. A. Gerrish, Grace and Gratitude

Barth Seminar Paper -- “Jesus Christ is on His Way: Transitioning from Christ to Us without Eclipsing the Spirit in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics IV/3 §69.4”

If you are into that sort of thing, check them out here under "hotspot." If you have comments, feel free to leave them at this post.

And remember to regularly check out for essays new and old.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Is the Christian Story Tragic or Comic?

I just watched Woody Allen's Melinda and Melinda. If you haven't seen it, I can share the basic premise without spoiling it at all. Two playwrights debate over dinner whether life is basically tragic or comic. In order to make their case, each one narrates the story of the same character Melinda via their respective dramatic lens.

Woody Allen's film experiment invites us into this thought experiment: Is life ultimately tragic or comic? More specifically, is the Christian narration of existence tragic or comic?

At the center of the Christian story there hangs a man who we call God dying on a cross. This moment of abandonment is utterly tragic. It serves to embrace the tragic elements of life. Christians ought not to approach suffering glibly. We worship a God who takes on our suffering.

But the tragic story of the cross is revealed as a triumph by the Easter story. The resurrection of Christ is the comic twist in the story. Moreover, Easter reveals that the Cross of Christ was not a failure after all, but achieved our salvation. So the there is a “happy ending” to the Christian story.

The question for Christians is whether this comic aspect undermines any genuine tragedy in the story. Does the “happy ending” that gives us hope eliminate a real embrace of the tragic? Practically speaking, are Christians able to embrace the suffering in this world, call it what it is, not try to gloss over it, yet all without losing hope? Can we despair and hope at the same time?

Putting the question back into dramatic categories, we might ask whether there can be a hybrid of tragedy and comedy. Of course, there are many instances of tragedies than begin comically (Romeo & Juliet being the most famous of these). But can a story that ends comically ever truly embrace the tragic?

It seems to me that the story of Jesus may be such a hybrid. Easter does not undermine the pain of the cross, but embraces it. The risen Christ remains the crucified Christ, as the scars in his hands and side attest. Thus the Christian outlook includes both a tragic and comic vision. We really can take others’ pain seriously without leaving them in despair. And we can offer others real hope without dismissing their pain and calling evil good.

Any thoughts?
How can we keep these aspects of the Christian story together?
Are there any clues or habits to help us?
How does this play out in our relationships with those who suffer?

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Busting the Categories

Over the Christmas break I read this excellent article about the busting of categories on the web. The author makes the observation that some web searches (e.g., yahoo) retain the librarian’s mentality that every item has a “place” where it “belongs.” Other searches (e.g., google) have busted the categories wide open, allowing the user to determine the parameters of her search. In other words, information on the web has no “place” and thus categories are free form.

If categorical thinking is busted wide open on the web, what might be the implications for theology (at least when it is practiced on-line)?

One of the essentials of systematic theology as traditionally practiced is the loci-format. Loci are the topics or domains of Christian doctrine that one works through systematically. Courses in systematic theology are usually structured around these loci, as are the outline of theological texts.

But a perennial problem for this loci method is the placement of certain topics. I will give one significant example: where does the doctrine of predestination belong? Does it come at the beginning in the doctrine of God (where it has a tendency to control everything that follows)? Does it come with the doctrine of sin (where it becomes an explanation of a problem)? Does it belong somewhere in the doctrine of salvation (where it functions in a highly individualistic way)? Does it go at the end of the doctrine of salvation as an aspect of assurance (where Calvin puts it)? Does it go with ecclesiology (where it evades the difficult questions)? Wherever you put it, the doctrine of predestination will perform differently within your theology.

The googlization of categories leads me to ask: what if this doctrine does not have a “place” where it “belongs” at all? What if predestination is just a biblical theme that we talk about again and again in connection with all sorts of other doctrines? What if this is true for all the loci of theology – that they do not belong anywhere, but can be treated freely when needed? What would it mean to be “systematic” under these open conditions? Could one systematically integrate theological topics by means of hyperlink rather than an outline?

What are the dangers of this approach to categorization?
What are the benefits?
Any other implications to add?