Tell a Story that Captures Hearts: A Review

Imagining the Kingdom is the second volume of a projected trilogy by James K.A. Smith called Cultural Liturgies. In the first book, Desiring the Kingdom (which I have not read, but Smith gets the reader up to speed in the early parts of this book), Smith argued that humans are primarily shaped more by the imagination than the intellect. It is the stories we inhabit, and not so much the arguments we believe, that give our lives purpose. In other words, “we don’t think our way through to action; much of our action is not the outcome of rational deliberation and conscious choice. Much of our action is not ‘pushed’ by ideas or conclusions; rather, it grows out of our character and is in a sense ‘pulled’ out of us by our attraction to a telos [end or goal].” We are shaped by the liturgies that tell attractive (not attractive in the sense of “pleasant,” but rather, “resonant”) stories and fuel our imaginations, whether those liturgies are secular or religious: “Through a vast repertoire of secular liturgies we are quietly assimilated to the earthly city of disordered loves…. So we toddle off to church or Bible study week after week … without realizing that we spend the rest of the week making bread for idols (Jer. 7:18).”

In this book, Smith looks specifically at what that insight means for the practices of worship and Christian education. The book comes in two parts. In part 1, the theoretical part of the book, Smith walks the reader through expositions of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Pierre Bourdieu, asking what their theoretical models of how we are formed might mean for how we worship. In part 2, the practical part, Smith talks explicitly about how the theory discussed in part 1 reframes Christian formation and gives a fresh understanding of how worship works.

Smith intentionally pitches this book to be accessible to both worship practitioners and the academy, meaning that one audience will think there are too many footnotes, and the other will think there are not enough.

It is an enjoyable and thought-provoking (as well as, it is hoped, practice-provoking) read. Throughout, Smith attempts to practice what he preaches by telling his readers stories that enable them to imagine what he is talking about. One of my favorites comes early in the book, when he talks about the disconnect between thought and action he experienced when he was reading (and approving) the agrarian writer Wendell Berry while sitting in a Costco.

But since the ultimate goal of the book is the renewal of practice, I was hoping for a bit more in part 2. How can this formation take place? What are some habits of worship that can be used to re-orient us? If we are shaped by stories, I wanted Smith to tell stories about how it has been done in a few communities. Smith points, for example, to the importance of the arts for the church, but by the end of the book I was not quite sure exactly what he meant: painting during a worship service? Liturgical dance? Preach stories instead of sermons? Although I deeply resonated with the argument of Imagining the Kingdom, I think there is a danger—like reading Wendell Berry in Costco—of reading, agreeing, and yet not having the map to get to the place Smith is pointing us to. Perhaps Smith plans on doing more of this in volume three.

Note: Thanks to Baker Academic for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.


Rodney Stark on “The People’s Religion”

I’ve been reading Rodney Stark’s The Triumph of Christianity, and I’m struck by what he says about one of my major interests, Christian education, during the Reformation and post-Reformation:


The English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) noted that a preacher “may as well talk Arabic to a poor day-labourer as the notions” that the Anglican clergy preferred as the basis for their sermons. By the same token, Martin Luther’s efforts to provide religious education for the German peasants and urban lower classes failed so completely because the lessons were conceived by a university professor primarily far more concerned with intricate theological nuances than with basic themes….

Luther’s error was not unique. All across Europe, the established churches failed to convert and arouse the “masses,” by failing to recognize that it was a job for preachers, not professors. But the clergy seemed unable to grasp the point that sophisticated sermons on the mysteries of the Trinity neither informed nor converted….

As James Obelkevich explained, “what parishioners understood as Christianity was never preached from a pulpit or taught in Sunday school, and what they took from the clergy they took on their own terms…. Since the clergy were incapable of shaping a more popular version of the faith, villagers were left to do so themselves.”…

Although the people’s religion did often call upon God, Jesus, Mary, and various saints, as well as upon some pagan gods and goddesses (and even more frequently invoked minor spirits such as fairies, elves, and demons), it did so only to invoke their aid, having little interest in matters such as the meaning of life or the basis for salvation. Instead, the emphasis was on pressing, tangible, and mundane matters such as health, fertility, weather, sex, and good crops. (265–66)


In short: You have to meet people where they are if you want to hold their attention.

Why I’m Not (Currently) Studying for a PhD

Every now and then, someone I know will ask me, “Elliot, you’re a pretty smart guy. Why don’t you go on to further studies?” I am flattered by their assumption that I’m intelligent, but here is my answer to that question:

1. While I love to study, I don’t have a strong enough interest in a single subject. I’m generally a curious person, and I love learning new things. I would be happy taking classes in various disciplines for the rest of my life. However, it seems to me that to get a PhD you need to have an exceedingly strong interest in one particular area. This interest has to be strong enough to sustain you through several years of study and (in most cases) poverty. I do have a strong interest in the areas of theological ethics and hermeneutics, but am I interested enough in one particular idea or person to devote several years to exploring that person or area? I don’t think so.

2. No one I know with a PhD has recommended that I pursue one. Sure, there have been people who have suggested it, but none of those people have had PhDs. This criterion is important to me, because the kind of people who would know best whether I would enjoy/be successful at getting a PhD are the ones who have gone through the process themselves. In all of the time I’ve spent in school, I’ve never had a professor come up to me and say, “You should consider going on to further studies.” That, I think, is significant.

3. I don’t think that it would seriously improve my job prospects. There are already a lot of highly educated people in the world, and it seems to me that the number of highly educated people is growing much faster than the number of universities that would employ them. If I were to get a PhD, it would probably be in an area closely related to theology. This means I could only teach at places where there was a department where people with PhDs in theology could teach, which severely limits the number of institutes of higher learning at which I could be employed. When you combine this reality with the fact that I would most likely get into debt in the course of pursuing a PhD, I say: why bother? There are people to whom it makes sense to get a PhD in theology, but at this point I’m not one of them.

4. I love to teach, but I am more interested in the church than I am in the academy. What gets me excited to teach something is the idea that it will help to make people better and more faithful disciples of Jesus. This means, I think, that I would be happy teaching in a church or in a church-sponsored school, but not anywhere else. I enjoy teaching at my church, and I will continue to do that until I feel called to do something else. Some people feel called to be a Christian witness in secular academia. While I think that calling is important, I haven’t felt it myself.

5. Speaking of calling, I don’t think God has called me to it. This isn’t a completely a separate reason from all the others, because the first four reasons express aspects of it. I believe that God primarily calls people to himself, but he is also able to call his people to certain tasks at certain times. I think that he does call some people to get PhD’s, but I have not felt that he is calling me to do that. During those times in my life that I have thought God was calling me to something, I felt a strong tug in my own heart that was corroborated by the counsel of wise and prayerful friends. I have not felt that call with respect to getting a PhD. That’s not to say that I will never feel it, but that is the situation right now.

Laing Lectures 2008: Walter Brueggemann (1 of 3)

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann came to Regent College to give the Laing Lectures on October 8 and 9. I graduated from Regent in the spring, but currently I don’t live too far away, so I decided to hoof it up to Vancouver to see friends and listen to some good lectures.

The lecture series was titled, “The Church in Joyous Obedience: Biblical Expositions.” Brueggemann lectured for about 50 minutes each time. Then he was responded to by Phil Long, who teaches Old Testament at Regent, and by Paul Williams, who teaches Marketplace Theology at Regent and is trained as an economist.

The first lecture was titled “From Exodus to Sinai: The Journey to the Common Good.” I’m going to summarize the lecture here, but be warned: I’m working from my notes rather than a transcript, so I may not present Brueggemann’s, Long’s, or Williams’ ideas quite the way they would. But I’ll do my best. Update: The audio of all three lectures is available for purchase from Regent Audio here.

Brueggemann began by saying that the great crisis among us is the crisis of the common good. The journey that we must make is the journey out of our selfishness to the common good. He then proceeded, in the first part of his lecture, to look at one impediment to the common good in the Old Testament: Pharaoh’s Egypt.

Pharaoh’s Egypt, Brueggemann says, is the paradigmatic example of a threat to the common good. He begins looking at Egypt in the latter portion of Genesis, when Pharaoh has a nightmare about a coming famine (chapter 41). Joseph then interprets the dream and becomes Pharaoh’s second-in-command. He proceeds to create a food monopoly that makes Pharaoh wealthy and, by Gen. 47:25, creates a nation of slaves who are grateful to be slaves. We know of Exodus deliverance, but we don’t acknowledge that slavery to begin with was a result of manipulation in the interest of power. By the beginning of Exodus, everyone is anxious: the slaves, who have submitted themselves to the state monopoly, and Pharaoh, who is scared to death of his own workforce. This anxiety, Brueggemann says, produces insanity in policy. The anxiety system of Pharaoh precluded the common good.

But then, he goes on, suffering comes to speech. There is a cry, a prayer, declaring publicly that the social system has failed. This cry reaches the ears of YHWH, whose ears are a magnet for the cries of the abused. YHWH then sends Moses, a human agent who can dream outside the imperial reality. There is a juxtaposition between Pharaoh’s nightmare of scarcity and Moses’ dream of liberation.

The second part of the lecture has to do with God’s abundant provision. The plagues come, the Israelites are freed, but by Exodus 16 they want to go back. They are still living under Pharaoh’s terms of anxiety. God provides them with quail and manna, and in Brueggemann’s words, “they wondered what it was, and it turned out this wonderbread did not fit their categories.” Manna, Brueggemann says, “is a show of YHWH’s inestimable generosity that stands in contrast to Pharaoh’s nightmare of anxiety about scarcity.” In fact, bread is a recurring sign in the Old Testament of divine generosity: 2 Kings 4:42-44, Isaiah 55.

All empires, says Brueggemann, act according to the principle of scarcity. All are anxious and think they need more, whether it be manpower, bread, oil, land, etc. But the quotas of the empire can never be met. So he asks, “Why do you bust your ass to serve the empire?” Why are baptized people in the rat race? The text issues a summons away from the ideology of scarcity.

The third part of the lecture deals with God’s act of generosity breaking the anxiety of scarcity. The 10 Commandments, Brueggemann maintains, are about an alternative grounded in generosity. Commandments 5-9, for example, tell us that all kinds of neighbors are not to be exploited as they are in Egypt. Commandment 10 condemns predatory practices that make the little guy vulnerable to the big guy. This Brueggemann related directly to the recent economic collapse. Commandment 4 encourages the Israelites to undertake community enhancement and activities that have no production value.

Brueggemann concluded his lecture with a few points of instruction: first, people who live in anxiety and fear have no time or energy for the common good. Second, it takes an immense act of generosity to break the grip of anxiety. Third, those who receive generosity can care about their neighbors. You can’t just preach to those wrapped up in the ideology of anxiety; they must be able to receive generosity.

He also pointed out some applications: First, Pharaoh’s kingdom of anxiety is alive and well today. Second, there is an alternative to the kingdom of scarcity. Theological education is learning the act of departure from this kingdom. Third, the journey from scarcity to abundance to neighborliness is a journey that all must take. Fourth, this journey is entrusted to the church and its allies. Brueggemann referred here to the New Testament feedings of the 5000 and 4000. With these signs, Jesus says that wherever he is, the world of scarcity is transformed into the world of overwhelming abundance. In Mark 8:14-21, the disciples didn’t understand because their hearts were hardened – just like Pharaoh. But those who receive the bread of abundance, Brueggemann says, have energy beyond themselves for the sake of the world.

After the lecture, Phil Long was given the chance to respond. Here are just a couple of things he pointed out, or asked questions about: first, was Pharaoh’s dream just a nightmare, or was it also a providential dream? Second, how do we understand the phrase “common good”? Even the builders of the Tower of Babel were working for their understanding of the common good. Third, how do we understand “abundance”? Is it to be seen in socioeconomic terms? Long hinted that he thought a good understanding of abundance is connected to the word “Shalom” in the Old Testament. This is deeper, and can exist even in socioeconomic adversity.

Paul Williams had more things to say, but as with Long, I wasn’t able to write them down quickly. He asked whether it was the case that the crisis we’re in is that we’ve reached an ideological dead end, with multiple competing definitions of what the common good is. We should not just appeal to a vague common good, but to a particular good, and a particular God. Williams commended Brueggemann for using the phrase “consumer militarism,” rather than “consumer sovereignty.” Brueggemann responded that he came up with the phrase because of his observation that, in the United States, you can’t maintain our level of consumption without a strong military that wrests resources away from others. Finally, Williams also expressed surprise that Brueggemann had not mentioned the notion of Jubilee from the Old Testament as a way of further defining what the “common good” was.


This past Friday, I handed in my Christian Spirit take-home final, the very last thing that I had to write in order to complete the requirements for my Master’s in Divinity.

Which means, I’m done! All I have left to do now is graduate next Monday, April 28. My parents are both coming out to visit, which will be a lot of fun. They have both come out to Vancouver before, but it will be nice to have them there for graduation, and so they can meet more of my friends. I will be hanging around in Vancouver during May, saying goodbye, organizing my notes, doing my taxes finally, slowly packing up, getting rid of any furniture or clothing that I don’t think I’ll use anymore, and generally enjoying spring in Vancouver. In June, Mary, my dad and I will be going on a cruise. In July, Mary and I will head up to Skagway, AK for one last summer of tour bus driving.

After that, well… I’ll let you know soon in another post. Or you can talk to me in person and I will tell you what is likely to happen.

But for right now, I’m celebrating! God has been more than faithful these past four years, and I am thankful to have completed my degree.


Finished writing a paper today, and now I’m done for the semester. It was a 3800 word paper, and I’d been so busy with other things until mid-week this week that I didn’t actually start writing it until Wednesday. After hours and hours of writing and reading and subjecting my body to obscene amounts of sugar, caffeine and sitting, it’s finished. I now know lots more than I used to about postmodernism in the church.

I’m just not interested in talking about it right now.

Wolterstorff on Love and Justice

I hope I look this good at 77
Last week Wednesday and Thursday, philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff came to Regent to give the Laing Lectures: 3 lectures, 2 days, 1 topic. The topic of his lectures was “Love and Justice.” He was basically answering the question: “Why is it that so many Protestant Christians are uncomfortable with the category of social justice, especially when ‘rights’ language is used?” Most are OK with the idea of retributive justice, and are also OK with talking about justice when it comes to family matters (e.g., abortion), but why the discomfort about social (which Wolterstorff also called “primary”) justice?

He gave some secondary answers to this question to start the lecture: this kind of justice is usually associated with liberalism, almost all social reform movements in the 20th century used “rights” language, and the popular understanding of “rights” language among these Christians is that it came from Enlightenment individualism, which is bad. But he traced the primary root of this discomfort back to the way that love (agape) has come to be understood by these Christians. The particular understanding of love known as “agapism” was exposited by Barth, Niebuhr, J.H. Yoder, Kierkegaard and others, but especially Anders Nygren. According to Wolterstorff, these men believed agape to be a love that is a form of benevolence. It wishes a person’s good, and is justice-blind and justice-indifferent. It is so strict a form of benevolence that it is not possible to love another person while at the same time seeking your own benefit. Loving someone because you have an attachment to them (they are in your family, or they live nearby) is also not agape. It has no attachments. Kierkegaard said that a recognition of duty is the only thing that can make you love agapically. Other kinds of love, like friendship love and erotic love, fail the test, because they are not done out of duty.

In the second lecture, Wolterstorff showed that “Nygrenist agape” is not an accurate interpretation of the New Testament use of the word. Nygren opposed the moral vision of the NT to the Old Testament vision of law and justice. Whereas justice has requirements, agape is spontaneous, and therefore they can’t coexist. Nygren believed this, Wolterstorff claimed, because he thought that forgiveness was paradigmatic of all of God’s actions. Since God is not required to forgive, Nygren reasoned, justice (with its ideas of requiredness) is taken completely out of the picture.

But justice still intrudes on this picture, and in the end the agapist scheme won’t work. Agape which is never motivated by justice will sometimes perpetrate injustice. An example that Wolterstorff gave was of a professor who, out of his love for a student and desire to make him less cocky, decided to give a “B” to an “A” paper. The professor was truly motivated by a desire for the student’s well being, but his agape perpetrated injustice. In an example that hits a bit closer to home, Wolterstorff said that, unlike someone who has a sense of justice, the pure agapist cannot object to torture if it is perpetrated in the name of some greater good.

Nygren interprets Jesus’ parables in defense of his thesis that we should not be disturbed if agape abets injustice: the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, and the parable of the lost son. But the point of these parables, says Wolterstorff, is not that love trumps injustice, but that we need to re-think what our ideas of justice are.

In the final lecture, Wolterstorff claims, against Nygren and the agapists, that Jesus nowhere teaches that justice has been supplanted by a different idea of love in the NT. He refers to Jesus’ reading Isaiah 61, to Jesus’ response to John the Baptist asking about his identity, and Matthew’s claim that Jesus came in part to proclaim justice to the Gentiles (12:18). Wolterstorff also made a fascinating excursus into the uses of dikaios and dikaiosune in the NT. In most places they are translated “right” and “righteousness,” but Wolterstorff emphasized that they also have the meaning “just” and “justice.” So for example, in the fourth Beatitude, when Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for dikaiosune,” it should be translated “justice.” Because who is ever persecuted for righteousness, which is after all only a personal trait? It is those who seek justice who are mocked and insulted by society.

Wolterstorff then proposes a way forward that emphasizes justice as the recognition of the worth of persons. Justice is nothing more nor less than a respect for worth, which Christians can recognize because of people being made in God’s image. Justice is not, as someone like Reinhold Niebuhr would say, merely a way of mediating conflict.

He also proposes that we re-think love: it is not only advancing the well-being of the neighbor, but honoring that neighbor’s worth (thus, love includes justice – and we need look no farther than Leviticus 19 to see the close relationship between the two).

All in all, I thought that Wolterstorff was right-on. And Iain Provan and Patti Towler, who responded to him, thought so as well. In their responses, they generally didn’t say that there was anything wrong with what he said; if anything, they said that he should take it farther (e.g., toward respecting the worth of creation because God made it). As I’ve mentioned briefly in a previous post, the idea of human rights is something that I fully endorse, but I’m skeptical of the Enlightenment individualistic reasons behind the current interest in human rights. The world needs a view of love, justice and human rights that is built on God’s relationship to human beings; if built on anything else it is built on sand.

Update (June 2, 2008): Wolterstorff’s lectures are available for purchase from Regent Audio here.

A “B” (probably) for Well-Being

I realized at about 4:30 this morning that life had become unbearably ironic.

The reason why I was up that early/late is that I was working on a book review for a class of Thomas Morris’ Our Idea of God: An Introduction to Philosophical Theology. The reason why I came to think that life had become ironic is because I was depriving myself of sleep and general health and well-being in order to write a review of a book about God. Also, I had just spent three days spending a lot of my time reading that same book in order to get it done before the due date, and I had slipped severely in my daily Bible reading. So, I was depriving myself of relationship with God in order to read a book about God.

I then remembered something that Prof. John Stackhouse said once: every year, he is convinced, there are many people who get A’s in classes at Regent against the will of God. That is, they neglect their other obligations to God, family, friends and church in order to put that extra effort in to get a good grade. Since Dr. Stackhouse is the professor for whom I was writing this book review, the choice was obvious. I went to bed. And I’ll turn it in tomorrow for a slightly reduced grade.

In other news, I changed the look of the site. I’m not sure whether I like it or not; I mostly changed away from the old look because none of the widgets on the side worked anymore. We shall see if that was just a glitch on that particular theme, or if WordPress as a whole is having issues with widgets.