30 April 2009

The Sordid Boon, part 2

** This is part two of three-part review of Craig Gay's Way of the (Modern) World; or, Why It's Tempting to Live as if God Doesn't Exist.

In the first four chapters, Gay outlines and analyzes a few modern American institutions that are, in the worst sense, worldly (i.e., that push us toward a practical atheism), and offers glimpses of a “theology of personhood” (mentioned in the first part of this review) at the end of each section before focusing on it directly in the last chapter of the book (he considers this theology, based as it is on social trinitarianism, to be a major antidote to the ills he describes throughout the book). Regarding these four American institutions, we must:
  • place human aspirations (protecting and preserving lives) over and against those of immanent political-social change. Over the course of the last one hundred years, countless human lives have been sacrificed on the alter of abstract ideals (like “progress,” “social justice,” and “freedom”). In light of this, Christian hope ought to be a political virtue (pp. 73ff). Why? Such hope gives us a healthy skepticism toward an earthly kingdom when it grasps at lordship; it relativizes large-scale political-social aspirations and exposes their hollowness and precariousness. Christian hope frees Christians up to act hopefully in the world. “It enables us to act humbly and patiently, tackling visible injustices in the world around us” Gay writes, “without needing to be assured that our skill and our effort will somehow rid the world of injustice altogether” (p. 77).

  • with respect to technology and science, “give an account of nature that does not deny the validity of scientific inquiry, and yet does not so stress the autonomy of the created order that it tempts us to believe that science can reveal the meaning of nature and of our own lives” (p. 126). We Christians must neither wholly disdain rational and empirical inquiry, nor must we assume that science can be used in an unbiased way. The paradox of “contingency” must be affirmed and proudly maintained in the face of rational-technical determinism. Creation is both independent of (contra pantheism) and utterly dependent on God (pp. 124–129; see also pp. 272–281). God is sure; all else is subject to change.
  • reject the logic of the modern economy, which reduces all things to objects of monetary value, and rediscover the Protestant work ethic of vocation as “calling.” That is, whatsoever we do, do heartily, as to the Lord and not to man (Col. 3:23). It means acting “ethically and substantively within the system no matter how impractical we may occasionally appear in doing so” (p. 175). This is, in a sense, an invitation to take seriously the vocation to suffer—theologia crucis in action.
  • in combating narcissism, or the “worldly self” (p. 181), leave-off the notion of ever being fully satisfied with both consumption and therapy (or any earthly kingdom/institution for that matter), and be filled with a Christian self-consciousness in which “love for God and neighbor is progressively realized and deepened” (p. 232). The need to rediscover the self before God (coram Deo) as opposed to the self simply submerged in mass society and culture has never been greater. Therapeutic consumption, like any other drug, requires more of us every time we use it, until our ravenous gluttony results in self-satisfaction at any cost. Instead of finding our identity in the glory of the lordship of Christ (ironically, through the shame of the cross), we settle for defining the self in terms of individual rights and needs.

The hope in summarizing Gay’s book up to this point has been to help inform us where practical atheism threatens the church and what must be done to resist it. This is not a book of prescriptive solutions; it is a book that provides (I believe) explicitly Christian tools with which we can resist the inherent atheism of (post)modernity. In the next and final part of this review, I'll briefly attempt to apply these tools.

27 April 2009

A Reluctant Messiah?

"The Truth" by Painter Michael D'Antuono, which will be unveiled on President Obama's 100th Day in Office at NYC's Union Square

Geez, this is enough to make a premillennial dispensationalist out of you (but, on the other hand, I find secular science fiction to be far more interesting). All things considered, I largely appreciate the public image of our president, despite the fact that my libertarian ideals recoil from many of his policies. I would like to think that if he caught wind of this endeavor by D'Antuono, that he'd distance himself entirely from it. I'm reminded of St. Paul and his careful intention to speak of Jesus, the true Messiah, as a direct confrontation to any and all imperial cults—ancient or modern. Here's to hoping this painting makes Mr. Obama profoundly uncomfortable.

**Update: Apparently, D'Antuono has cancelled the unveiling set for this Wednesday. The real sad thing in all this is how the painting encapsulates all too well much of what passes for Christian art these days—sentimental, trite, and just plain bad execution. For a taste of something quite the opposite—indeed, uncomfortably so—consider the following (by Guido Rocha, a Brazilian sculptor who himself had experienced torture):

Makes the above look ridiculous, doesn't it?

22 April 2009

The Sordid Boon

Today begins a three-part review on Craig Gay's Way of the (Modern) World; or, Why It's Tempting to Live as if God Doesn't Exist. I first read this book about eight years ago.

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

For this, for every thing, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.⎯Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
⎯William Wordsworth, 
The world is too much with us, ll. 4, 8–12.

Every four years, the American nation turns its deficient attention to presidential politics. The major news outlets, those purveyors of bite-sized and largely irrelevant bits of information, do of course turn their attention to such things at least one year earlier, while many, if not most, do everything possible to ignore it. Eventually,
notice is taken sometime around the summer before election day, with hopes of getting it over quickly (we might as well sing along with Simon and Garfunkel, “Laugh about it; shout about it; when you’ve got to choose, any way you look at it you lose”).

But we the people, not least the church, must resist this temptation—not by succumbing to the droning slogans of political pundits and cable news networks but by becoming thoughtfully deliberate about our everyday, taken-for-granted actions (like paying attention—or not—to presidential politics). This principle holds true, of course, for all of life (worship, while quite distinct from life, maintains this principle too). The church ought to be a deliberate people—deliberate about what they read, what they watch, what they buy; in short, what they think, say and do.

The church’s history from the first century onward teems with stories of churchmen and women who have resisted the slithering wiles of the world to some degree. From Saint John’s opposition to the seceders, Justin Martyr’s defense against paganism’s pseudo-morality, Tertullian’s repudiation of Gnosticism, the seven great ecumenical councils’ affirmations of orthodox Christian doctrine, to Pope Gregory’s defense of a future, bodily resurrection, Aquinas’ opposition to Avveroist "relativists," the Reformation’s recovery of the graciously free gospel, and the modern-day struggle over the authority of both the Hebrew and apostolic canonical scriptures—all of these serve to remind us that the catholic church has never been afraid of a fight. Where, then, is the battle today? And once the battle lines are drawn, how ought the church resist the attack?

In 1951, H. Richard Niebuhr wrote a haunting sentence: “How often Fundamentalist attack on so-called liberalism—by which cultural Protestantism is meant—is itself an expression of a cultural loyalty, a number of Fundamentalist interests indicate” (p. 102). In other words, (social) liberals and (social) conservatives, religiously speaking, are two sides of the same coin (that coin being the “Christ of Culture,” in his terms). It has always been the task of thinking Christians in America, not least since Niebuhr's project, to respond deliberately to this dilemma. It’s simply not enough to think we are avoiding both extremes, for the very actions we take for granted everyday are what is in question. What do our actions say about us? When we resist worldliness, what do our resisting actions say about the presuppositions that inform them? 

Craig M. Gay, in The Way of the (Modern) World, or, Why It’s Tempting to Live As If God Doesn't Exist, offers a thought-provoking analysis of this situation by focusing on what lay beneath the surface of modern American society. He uncovers something dreadful. Gay shows time and again how the unmitigated embracing of modern institutions by the church has rendered the gospel implausible to its hearers, as faith and prayer are constantly eclipsed by practical efficacy of expertise and technique (p. 3). By exposing the atheistic elements inherent within American institutions such as politics, science and technology, modern economy, and our own collective personality—rampant narcissism—Gay shows how each of these are worldly by definition, anti-teleological by nature. Our disdain of purpose then leads us to incessantly strive to create meaning for ourselves through political aspirations, through uncritical obeisance to science and the unthinking consumption of technology, through the dehumanization of others for financial gain, and so forth. Creation is thereby seen as an object for us to control, an object that we use solely to create our own purpose and meaning. The world is reduced to a human construction alone that attempts to blot-out the sovereignty and lordship of the risen Christ. In short, this “practical atheism” inherent within modern culture asserts that humans do not need God, that he is “largely irrelevant to the real business of life” (p. 2). However, this “practical atheism” does not preclude religious understanding: rather, “it simply requires that the object of religious understanding be subject to more or less ‘natural’ regularities” (p. 7). That is, we want a religion we can control. By maintaining this merely human construction over reality, we not only render the existence of a Creator irrelevant, we neutralize “the possibility of having any real encounter with the living God” (p. 7), and it is this deliberate constriction that prevents us from seeing the plausibility of the gospel (understood most simply as Rom. 10:9: “If you acknowledge with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be rescued.”).

Simply put, Craig Gay’s book is for those willing to take a critical look at their own actions, how they relate to the church, and whether they reinforce or combat practical atheism. While Gay’s frightening exposure of the church’s thoughtless consumption of modern remedies could send the reader into a seemingly irreparable quandary, he honestly wrestles with the problem in order to offer a valid solution: a theology of personhood. That is, to approach all of our relationships (with the world, people, and most importantly, God) in terms of “I–Thou” (as opposed to “I–it”). The only way there, Gay argues, is through the recapturing and reapplying of historic Trinitarian orthodoxy (see pp. 284–296).

* Update: See Part 2 and Part 3 of this book review.

16 April 2009

Photography Friday

On certain, undisclosed Fridays, I will publish a few of my photographs, taken in random places. The thought is, what good are they doing just sitting all alone on a hard drive in backup land?

This first round takes us to Athens, Greece—the Acropolis and surrounding areas to be exact. All shots were taken on a Canon AE-1 with Kodak E100VS (slide film), excluding the black and white, of course. Click on an image to get a closer look.

The Acropolis at dusk, taken from the top floor of the Dionysos CafĂ© and Restaurant.

A wide-angle shot of Athens, with Mars Hill in the foreground. 
Shot taken from atop the Acropolis, at the propulaia.

The Parthenon. Its eastern face.

The Acropolis at night, from a balcony at the Plaza Hotel.

Frescoes in the narthex of St. Anthony's Chapel at Moni Kessarianis.

08 April 2009


Carl Trueman, licentiate in the OPC and professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, has written a provocative review of David Wells' Courage to be Protestant.

It's provocative, not because of his twofold  conclusion (such has been said before), but because of his primary insight in substituting "consumerism with capitalism throughout the book," which, according to Trueman, would make Wells' argument "even more powerful because it would reveal to us the full power of the forces at play in the transformation of church life here [in the modern West]." Trueman goes on:
Consumerism is not some accidental, aberrant by-product of the West; it is the epiphenomenon of capitalism, a system within which we must all today live, move, and have our being, given the complete lack at this moment in time of any really viable alternatives for economic and social organization. Communism has failed; as did medieval feudalism, as will feudalism's modern-day relative, Muslim fundamentalism, Taliban style. To use the term consumerism potentially blinds us to the real, all-consuming (pardon the pun) power of the rip tide within which we swim.
Trueman rightly goes on to cut off at the pass that such talk necessarily means that the talker be suspected of incipient Marxism. Hardly. "One does not have to be a Marxist to acknowledge the powerful impact that capitalism and the free market have on all aspects of life, from the cost of living to the way we think." This is just applied sociology 101, and the church would do well to pay attention to it, for it helps us in two main ways: 1) recognizing that much good has come out of the forces that have simultaneously done so much damage; and 2) protecting us from promulgating a romanticized view of the past. Maybe the most important point in all this, however, is recognizing that we can't simply escape "the whole capitalist dynamic of our society." 

Part of the solution is no doubt deliberate practice in the here and now. But our expectations also must be realistic. There's much more to this review, but again I suggest reading it for yourself.

Incidentally, I think Jason Stellman's upcoming book on worship and life in this time between the times has something to say about this particular subject. Stellman's project doesn't suffer, it seems to me, under the optimism of which Trueman accuses Wells. But I'll have more to say on this when I get around to publishing the (ridiculously long) review I wrote of it. 

It should also be noted that Craig Gay's The Way of the (Modern) World: Or, Why It's Tempting to Live As If God Doesn't Exist did in one book what Wells attempted to do in the first three of this series, not to mention this last try. My guess is that, given Trueman's critique, he would have found it more palatable, if not helpful.

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