Ted Grimsrud

Archive for April, 2009|Monthly archive page

The Prophetic Faith: Amos and Hosea

In Biblical theology, Justice, Pacifism, Politics, Theology on April 27, 2009 at 6:08 pm

Here is the fourteenth in a series of Bible studies that present the Bible as being in the side of pacifism. This essay, “The Prophetic Faith: Amos and Hosea,” reflects on the challenge Israel’s 8th century prophets brought to the injustices and idolatries that characterized the community of God’s covenant people.

Amos focuses on a critique of Israel’s injustice that incongruously co-existed with thriving religious practices. Such injustice, though, turns the religious practices into the worst kinds of blasphemy. Amos warns of inevitable consequences to such a departure from the intentions of Torah, but he concludes with a vision of healing that points to an over-arching concern on his part not simply to point to judgment but to point to the possibility of restoration should genuine justice be practiced.

Hosea goes even further in pointing to the possibilities of healing should Israel turn from its violence and idolatries. Hosea grounds this hope in an understanding that God’s “holiness” moves God to turn from punishment and toward healing.

Paul Redekop. Changing Paradigms: Punishment and Restorative Discipline

In Anabaptism, Book reviews, Justice, Mennonites, Pacifism, Restorative justice on April 27, 2009 at 5:48 pm

Paul Redekop. Changing Paradigms: Punishment and Restorative Discipline. Herald Press, 2008.

I like the basic argument of this book very well. A Canadian Mennonite peace educator and practitioner has taken on a tremendously important topic: how do we respond to harm-doing without adding to the cycle of harm? And he states a clear point of view, that punishment (by definition a form of violence) is never appropriate. And he seeks to follow the logic of this point of view wherever it takes him–challenging the use of on corporal punishment on children, the use of retributive approaches to criminal justice, and the justification of international violence (i.e., warfare).

On the positive side, Redekop draws the insights of the restorative justice movement to articulate concrete alternatives to dealing with harm-doing in ways that do indeed promise to bring about genuine healing. His proposals may seem utopian, but they are based on actual human experience and are carefully thought through. Given the dead end road we are on with our dynamics of punishment and spirals of violence, he presents us with bases for hope that change may be possible.

I am delighted to see such a thoughtful and internally consistent presentation of this perspective. Though Redekop does not engage theology very seriously (and this is a problem), he frames his argument from within the Christian peace church tradition and its interpretation of the Bible. Sadly, Redekop’s Mennonite tradition with its generations long profound and lived-out opposition to state violence has nonetheless not been very self-aware about the damaging punitive practices toward its own children that have undermined its witness. Redekop alludes briefly to his own punishment-drenched up-bringing in a Mennonite family. And it’s great that he makes these connections–an exercise in self-awareness still pretty rare among the Mennonites I know and know of.

I do wish Redekop had been able to engage theology more deeply, but he at least gives theologians some impetus to test and expand his argument.

I do have one stronger criticism. I am sorry to say that I found the writing style to be uninspiring. The book has an exciting story to tell, but does not tell it in an engaging way. I had to plow on through most of the book. So my recommendation will be qualified. I fear people who are not already disposed to appreciate Redekop’s thinking here may find the book fairly tedious going and may lose patience. I hope not, though, because there is much wisdom and new thinking here.

Tom Wright. Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision

In Biblical theology, Book reviews, Romans, Theology on April 27, 2009 at 5:27 pm

Tom Wright. Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. SPCK, 2009.

N.T. Wright has achieved that stature among theologians that he can whip off a long, wordy direct response to a critique of his thought and have it become a major publishing event–which I think is mostly a good thing. I do find his switching back and forth between “N.T. Wright” and “Tom Wright” as the author of his various books to be irritating. And this book is being rushed out, seemingly in order to utilize the buzz among evangelicals concerning the debate between Wright and the super-Calvinist pastor/theologian John Piper while it lasts. The British edition has come out in paperback and can be purchased on line in the States.  The American edition, to be published by InterVarsity this month will start out in hardback–another indicator of the effort to exploit Wright’s popularity.

Nonetheless, this is an important and helpful book. As with all of Wright’s work, we have an engagingly written, theologically oriented, and exegetically careful treatment of central issues of the interpretation and application of New Testament writings. In this case, Wright focuses on the issue of “justification” in Paul’s writings–especially Galatians and Romans.

For the more general reader who is not particularly interested in the extremist views of someone like John Piper, chunks of Wright’s book will lend themselves to skimming. However, when he focuses on his constructive interpretation of Paul’s thought (which is, happily, for most of the book), Wright gives us a great deal to chew on. Basically, Wright understands “justification” in the context of the salvation narrative of the entire Bible–and makes what seems to me to be a quite persuasive case for this kind of reading. Linking with the argument of his fine recent book, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (to be reviewed on this website soon), Wright interprets Paul as presenting justification as a world-transforming impetus from God in the present world–not as a matter of an individual believer finding one’s way to an otherworldly heaven after death.

He sees Paul articulating a “covenant” theology: “the belief that the creator God called Abraham’s family into covenant with him so that through his family all the world might escape from the curse of sin and death and enjoy the blessing and life of new creation” (page 222).  Well said!

So, all things considered, I highly recommend this book and anticipate the publication of Wright’s promised big, big book on Paul’s theology–which will, no doubt, be published under the name “N.T. Wright.”

The Battle with Baal: King Ahab vs. Elijah

In Biblical theology, Pacifism, Theology on April 16, 2009 at 7:51 pm

Here is the thirteenth in a series of Bible studies that present the Bible as being in the side of pacifism. This essay, “The Battle with Baal: King Ahab vs. Elijah” focuses on a story that highlights the evolution of human kingship in ancient Israel away from loyalty to Torah and toward self-aggrandizement and power politics. King Ahab expropriates an Israeli’s land (his “inheritance”) in defiance of the message of Torah and has the man killed. He doesn’t quite get away with it and the great prophet Elijah embodies the loyalty of true prophets to Torah and challenges the King.

Barry Hankins, Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America

In Book reviews, Theology on April 15, 2009 at 6:39 pm

Barry Hankins. Francis Schaeffer And the Shaping of Evangelical America Eerdmans, 2008.

Barry Hankins, professor of history at Baylor University, in this cleanly written and remarkably objective short biography of Francis Schaeffer, the so-called evangelist to intellectuals, divides Schaeffer’s public live into three distinct stages. One’s feelings about Schaeffer and his impact on “evangelical America” might be closely related to which of these stages the reader is most interested in.

The first stage would be of interest to those who want to know about one important element of the intense fundamentalist reaction toward and separation from mainline Protestant Christianity in the United States (and the subsequent conflicts among the separatist fundamentalists, especially those in the Presbyterian tradition).  The young Francis Schaeffer (he was born in 1912) began his seminary studies in 1935 at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia (Schaeffer’s home town). Westminster had been started in 1929 by the prominent and militantly conservative  New Testament scholar J. Gresham Machen in direct opposition to what Machen and his collaborators saw as in intolerable drift toward liberalism on the part of the flagship Presbyterian seminary at Princeton.

Schaeffer studied at Westminster for two years, a time of increasing tensions within the Westminster community that culminated at Machen’s death in 1937 when another splinter seminary was formed. This new school, called Faith Seminary, was led by disenchanted Westminster faculty Allen MacRae and the infamous Carl McIntire. Schaeffer was Faith’s first student, first graduate, and was the first minister ordained in a new demonination formed by MacRae and McIntire known as the Bible Presbyterian Church.  This new group, according to Schaeffer, felt especially concerned about three issues: Westminster was seen as too extreme in its commitment to Calvinism, Westminster was too tolerant concerning the use of alcohol, and Westminster was amillennial rather than premillennial.

Between 1938 and 1948, Schaeffer served several Bible Presbyterian congregations as pastor, joining wholeheartedly in the efforts of Bible Presbyterian leaders to persuade like-minded congregations to leave the mainstream Presbyterian denominations and join with them.  He emerged as a rising star in this context, but in time felt fairly battered by the constant conflict such an approach to Christian faith seemingly required.

So when the opportunity arose in 1948 to move his family to Switzerland and undertake the task of helping to reintroduce doctrinally “orthodox” Christianity into western Europe, the exhausted young pastor accepted the call. During the 1950s, the Schaeffers struggled to make their way. Francis did find the opportunity to engage Europe’s most prominent Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, in a brief dialogue. Schaeffer managed to alienate Barth fairly quickly, leading to a note from Barth calling an end to the “conversation.” Barth believed that Schaeffer had basically accused him of being a heretic, devoid of truth and logic, so what was the point of dialogue?  “The heretic has been burnt and buried for good,” Barth wrote. “Rejoice, dear Mr. Schaeffer (and you calling your-selves ‘fundamentalists’ all over the world)! Rejoice and go on to believe in your ‘logics’ and in your-selves as the only true ‘bible-believing’ people! Shout so loudly as you can! But, pray, allow me, to let you alone” (page 39).

By the summer of 1954, Schaeffer came to the end of his relationship with Carl McIntire and the Bible Presbyterian Church. The bitter break led to a loss of financial support from and formal connection with the church agencies that had sent Schaeffer to Europe. Out of this turmoil came the opportunity to begin an independent ministry, L’Abri. This constitutes the second stage in Schaeffer’s career–Hankins terms it “The Making of a European Evangelical” in distinction from the first stage, “The Making of an American Fundamentalist.”

The ministry of L’Abri led to a quite different focus for Schaeffer. Rather than struggling over the creation and sustenance of a doctrinally pure church over against other Christians, Schaeffer’s attention now was focused on offering hospitality and witness to young people, many of whom were not Christians. In this context, Schaeffer developed his apologetic approach, meant to persuade these non-Christians of the truthfulness of the faith and to lead to their conversion.

Schaeffer’s effectiveness with this work led to the gradual growth of L’Abri and of his reputation. Part of his appeal was the sincere effort to provide a non-judgmental, empathetic presence for young people struggling with hope and meaning.  Part of the appeal, added to significantly by Edith Schaeffer, was practical love and care shown to the ever-growing number of visitors. However, as Hankins suggests, part of the appeal of the Schaeffer ministry also stemmed from underlying certainty in the truthfulness of the message being delivered. Schaeffer’s break with McIntire really had nothing to do with the general theology of Presbyterian fundamentalism–especially the insistence on the perfect errorlessness (“inerrancy”) of the Bible and the utter rejection of the validity of “liberal” Christianity.

Schaeffer’s big breakthrough came with the idea to transcribe his lectures for publication. The books that resulted, in particular his “trilogy” (Escape From Reason, The God Who Is There, and He Is There and Is Not Silent) became a bit of a sensation. They gained wide circulation among North American evangelical Christians, expanding Schaeffer’s ministry greatly–and changing the focus a bit from encounters with European atheists and agnostics more to working with doubting Christians and former Christians from North America who made the pilgrimage to L’Abri.

The third and final stage in Hankins’ story comes when Schaeffer moved from books to film in an attempt to expand his audience. How Should We Then Live?, a film series and an accompanying book that sought to provide an analysis of Western culture in service of Christian apologetics did indeed expand Schaeffer’s audience and signaled a whole new focus for his ministry. His filmmaker son Franky persuaded him to enter into North American controversies such as the struggle over biblical inerrancy and the conflict over abortion.

This entry into these issues moved Schaeffer into the political arena with both feet–and aligned him closely with the emerging Christian Right. In fact, Franky (now Frank), in his recent memoir, Crazy for God (reviewed here), makes a not far-fetched claim that his father’s final three works (How Should We Then Live?, Whatever Happened to the Human Race, and A Christian Manifesto) and their attendant conferences and publicity combined with overt efforts to expand the Schaeffers’ network of allies (which included links with “co-belligerents” such as Jerry Falwell and Tim LaHaye) served as one of the founding impulses in the emergence of the Christian Right as a major political force in the United States (Frank came greatly to regret his role in this process).

Francis Schaeffer became a kind of superstar in conservative Christian circles–becoming friends with Presidents Ford and, especially, Reagan. Schaeffer suggested that Reagan’s election provided a providential “window of opportunity” for politicized Christians to move the US back to its Christian foundations via, among other things, legislation to criminalize abortion. Schaeffer contracted cancer and died in 1984, so we don’t know what his assessment of the Reagan administration might have been, but it’s hard to imagine he would not have been disappointed.

Hankins, who treats Schaeffer with a great deal of sympathy throughout the book, suggests that when looked at now in retrospect, these three stages in Schaeffer’s career provide a fairly coherent whole. During the third stage, many of those who had been ministered to through L’Abri and Schaeffer’s early books (including several such as theologian Clark Pinnock and historian Ronald Wells who went on to prominence as evangelical scholars and teachers), came sharply to critique what seemed to them a shift toward a much more militant and fundamentalist orientation. In Hankins’ telling, though, the main difference between stage two and stage three was simply the move toward a more overtly political focus–indeed a significant shift that transformed the nature of Schaeffer’s audience, but not one reflecting any philosophical or theological changes.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in the Schaeffer phenomenon. Any criticisms I could mention would be minor–the book is well-written, based on solid research, and tells a fascinating and coherent story. My main regret is simply that the book is too short. It is part of a series of biographies on various religious figures and clearly was required to fit in lengthwise with other books in the series.

Reading this book certainly triggered a lot of memories and reflections for me. I encountered Schaeffer’s work about the time he was making the transition from stage two to stage three. During the summer of 1975, I joined a new church and immediately became immersed in a book study group that was working through Schaeffer’s trilogy. At that point I was a self-identified fundamentalist who very much lived in a dualistic world–my Christian faith on Sunday and college studies during the week. Schaeffer’s message to me was to bring these worlds together. I swallowed that message hook, line, and sinker, and in many ways the course of the rest of my life was set.

During my senior year in college I read everything Schaeffer had published plus numerous other writings from his L’Abri colleagues such as Os Guinness, Udo Middelmann, and Hans Rookmaaker. About this time I also encountered Anabaptist writers, especially John Howard Yoder. For a brief time these two schools of thought vied for my allegiance. Very quickly, though, Yoder won a decisive victory over Schaeffer. The key issue was his attention to the story of Jesus and his utterly persuasive case for the present-day normativity for Christians of Jesus’ politics. I came to see in Schaeffer just another version of political Constantinianism and a theological (or Christological) evasion of the core elements of Jesus’ message (including, at its heart, pacifism).

By the Spring of 1977, I was ready to leave Schaeffer behind. The process was accelerated with the film series How Should We Then Live? I co-taught a course at the University of Oregon on this series right after it was released. I have learned that the best way to become aware of the weaknesses in scholarly works is to teach them. That certainly was the case with this book and film. As we taught the class, I became increasingly disenchanted with Schaeffer’s perspective and his tendency to make highly questionable generalizations and fit everything into his apologetic box. I had numerous debates with my co-teachers, and in the end I was through with Schaeffer. When he followed up this project by moving much further to the Right politically and joining with some of the most obnoxious Christian and political leaders in our country, I realized his true colors were becoming ever more apparent.

Hankins’ book helps me understand better my experiences and perceptions of Schaeffer–and confirms most of them. As I said above, Hankins writes with great objectivity and sympathy–there is nothing here to suggest any motivation to attack Schaeffer. But he is a good enough historian to give us the information we need to assess Schaeffer’s career for ourselves.

Several elements of the story jumped out for me. I knew a bit about Schaeffer’s connection with the arch-separatist Carl McIntire, who had become quite an embarrassment by the end of his long life. It was interesting and revealing to learn how closely Schaeffer worked for McIntire and for how long they remained close allies. Schaeffer certainly remained utterly hostile toward anything that sniffed of theological liberalism throughout his career. This hostility seems especially problematic given that many of the elements of Schaeffer’s critique of anti-human aspects of Western culture have a lot of truth to them. But his antipathy toward fellow Christians who would share that critique and want to work to bring healing in our culture undermined his efforts tremendously.

A classic case, which I alluded to above, is Schaeffer’s attitude toward Karl Barth. On any reasonable theological spectrum, Barth stands pretty far to the right, pretty strongly founded on the biblical message, and pretty affirmative of the theological tradition (i.e., Augustine, Luther, Calvin, et al). But Schaeffer did treat Barth as an arch-heretic, a thinker firmly below the “line of despair” who consistently leads Christians astray.

A telling comment by Hankins, which he brings up almost in passing and does not emphasize at all, puts this in perspective. “It is highly unlikely that Schaeffer ever actually read Hegel, Kant, Kierkegaard, and the other modern thinkers he would later critique in his lectures and books.  It is doubtful that he even read Barth in depth.  Schaeffer’s knowledge of these thinkers was superficial….[He] was a voracious reader of magazines and the Bible, but some who lived at L’Abri and knew him well say they never saw him read a book” (page 43).

Hankins does not go into much detail about Schaeffer’s rationale for his uncompromising stance on biblical inerrancy and his rejection of the theory of evolution. These stances were front and center through all stages of Schaeffer’s career and certainly mark him as a fundamentalist and even as, in some basic ways, anti-intellectual.

The one account of Schaeffer’s intellectual shallowness that Hankins tells in some depth is quite revealing. Schaeffer’s final book, A Christian Manifesto, centered on Schaeffer’s long-standing assertion of the United States as originally a fundamentally Christian nation. This was part of his critique of how we had lost our bearings as a culture due to losing the original Christian element. Two of evangelicalism’s most accomplished historians, George Marsden and Mark Noll, challenged Schaeffer’s reading. Noll, especially, patiently devoted a great deal of time to respectfully arguing his case in a series of letter exchanges with Schaeffer. Despite being unable to marshal any evidence to support his argument, Schaeffer refused to budge–implying that the present cultural war required his argument, regardless of the evidence.

My impression, based in part on my own experience and in part on reading Hankins’ book as well as numerous other pieces over the years, is that Schaeffer (even if poorly grounded) provided evangelical and fundamentalist Christians in the 1960s and 1970s with inspiration to enter the intellectual life. For some, this inspiration opened doors to a lifetime of learning and working to intergrate faith and scholarship. Perhaps he deserves our appreciation for this. However, given the enormity of his influence in encouraging powerful anti-intellectual dynamics among Christians and a politics of division and coercion that culminated in the disaster of the George W. Bush presidency, it’s hard not to conlude that ironically and tragically, the deepest legacy of Francis Schaeffer was to hasten the diminishment of the standing of Christianity in our world.

Around the Internet

In Current Events on April 8, 2009 at 6:35 pm

Americans who are religious and politically progressive have seemed to be an endangered species in recent years.  The election of Barack Obama promises to breathe new life into this community–however the initial dynamics may be foreshadowing conflicts ahead.

It has seemed to many of us that one of the most dangerous directions the Obama administration could follow will be to deepen American military involvement in Afghanistan.  The dangers obviously most centrally include the destruction that will be imposed on the Afghani people. Another danger is the possibility of severely damaging Obama’s potentially to govern effectively.  Norman Solomon, one of the most perceptive and critical commentators on American war practices sees these dangers becoming more likely.

The Episcopal Church in the U.S. has been embroiled in intense conflicts recently–however the notion that the defection of numerous conservative Episcopalians in endangering the larger Episcopal Church has little basis in fact.

An area of our society that is taking a hit with our current economic meltdown that may not get the attention as some others but which certainly concerns me as a college professor is the impact of what’s going on on higher education. Some troubling reflections on this issue.

Dean Baker continues to provide some of the most helpful analysis on economic issues in the US.  Here is a recent defense of our Social Security system.

Some sharp words for the leaders of our financial system from Bill Moyers.

What’s happening to Christianity in America?  Here’s Newsweek’s take.

King Solomon and Temple Politics

In Biblical theology, Pacifism, Politics on April 8, 2009 at 4:15 pm

Here is the twelfth in a series of Bible studies that present the Bible as being in the side of pacifism. This essay, “King Solomon and Temple Politics,” interprets the story of King Solomon as, when read in the context of the larger story of politics in the Old Testament, ultimately as a story of Israel’s return to the ways of Egypt. Solomon’s exercise of power politics, seen in a paradigmatic way in his construction of the Temple as a means of domesticating the faith practices of his people, pushes Israel strongly in the direction of domination.

As the story continues, Solomon’s efforts at centralizing power and gaining control over religious practices leads away from the message of Torah–and toward destruction.  In many ways, Solomon represents what will be rejected when the promise to Abraham comes to be seen as continuing apart from (in spite of) the nation state and its violent ways.

Adam Hochschild. Bury the Chains

In Book reviews, Justice on April 8, 2009 at 3:24 pm

Adam Hochschild. Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves. Houghton-Mifflin, 2005.

Adam Hochschild has told us an engaging and dramatic story with tremendous significance for our present day. As Hochschild points out, in 1787, “well over three quarters of all people alive were in bondage of one kind or another, not the captivity of striped prison uniforms, but of various systems of slavery or serfdom.”  He states that just as “such a world would, of course, be unthinkable today” it was, “to most people then, unthinkable that it could ever be otherwise” (page 2).

That date, 1787, is important for Hochschild’s story because on May 22 of that year a group of twelve people met together in London, England, to begin a movement that would within twenty years lead to the British Empire ending the slave trade and within another thirty years lead to the actual abolition of slavery throughout the Empire.

This group of twelve included ten Quakers, continuing the anti-slavery concerns that long characterized many in that community, and two others, both Anglicans. One, Granville Sharp, was for many years a crusader for various social justice causes, known to be a bit eccentric. The twelfth man, the central hero of Hochschild’s narrative, was a young man studying for the ministry named Thomas Clarkson.

In his studies at Cambridge, Clarkson entered an essay contest, and prepared, as an academic exercise, a piece arguing against the slave trade. What began as an exercise in debate soon came to possess Clarkson’s soul. Initially, he later wrote, “I had no motive but that which other young men in the University had on such occasions; namely the wish of obtaining literary honor.” The more he learned, though, the more horrified he became. “In the day-time I was uneasy. In the night I had little rest. I sometimes never closed my eye-lids for grief.”

Clarkson won the top prize with his essay. His finished his studies, set to begin what seemed likely to be a successful career in the ministry. But, as he reported later, slavery “wholly engrossed my thoughts. I became at times very seriously affected while upon the road. I stopped my horse occasionally, and dismounted and walked. I frequently tried to persuade myself in these intervals that the contents of my Essay could not be true….If the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end.” Hochschild suggests that this day in June 1785 when Clarkson struggled with the need for “some person” to fight slavery “is a landmark on the long, tortuous path to the modern conception of universal human rights.”

Clarkson continued to wrestle with his grief and passion. “Could a lone, inexperienced young man have ‘that solid judgment…to qualify him to undertake a task of such magnitude and importance;—and with whom was I to unite?’ But each time he doubted, the result was the same: ‘I walked frequently into the woods, that I might think on the subject in solitude, and find relief to my mind there. But there the question still recurred, “Are these things true?”—Still the answer followed as instantaneously “They are.”—Still the result accompanied it, “Then surely some person should interfere.”‘ Only gradually, it seems, did it dawn on him that he was that person” (pages 89-90).

Once Clarkson became clear on his task, though, he took it on with a depth of commitment and effectiveness rarely matched in all of the history of human efforts for justice. The rest of his long life was devoted to this work–and he lived to see it come to fruition.  Clarkson died in 1846 at the age of 86, eight years after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. Shortly before Clarkson’s death he received a visit from American abolitionists Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison who recognized his greatness in the cause.

Quakers play only a peripheral role in Hochschild’s story (unfortunately), but he does make a point to mention several times in the course of the book the Quaker tradition of Quaker men never removing their hats while in the presence of powerful people. This sets up the concluding sentences of the book, an account of Clarkson’s funeral. “In both the funeral procession and the overflowing church where the service was held, the mourners included many Quakers, and the men among them made an almost unprecedented departure from long-sacred custom. They removed their hats” (page 354).

This book is much needed tonic today for anyone today who trembles at the thought of successfully resisting the forces of violence and injustice that seem so overwhelming. Hochschild probably wisely sticks simply to telling the story. I would have liked more analysis of the processes of abolition (when the final legislation is passed, we get only a cursory account of the action). I also would have liked more attention to the role of the Quakers who were central to the effort. However, the story of the perseverance, the numerous set-backs, the extraordinary suffering of the Empire’s slaves, and the ultimate success against overwhelming odds is well told and carries its own power.

Peace Theology Book Review Index