Sunday, May 24, 2015

Abortion and the Apostolate

In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul writes that in the sequence of those who met the risen Christ, he was one "untimely born" (1Cor15:8). In his monograph from Gorgias Press, Abortion and the Apostolate (2014), Matthew Mitchell tackles this mysterious metaphor. His helpful analysis of the Greek term ektroma (abortion, exposure, unwanted child) and compelling discussion of the text reveals that Paul probably refers here to his unwanted status as an apostle. Mitchell makes a solid case for viewing Paul's calling and ministry as an unwelcome addition to The Twelve Jerusalem apostles.

Mitchell's discussion of the pertinent Corinthian and Galatians texts and their historical context occupies only 63 pages of his 220-page monograph. Most of the remainder deals with a second-level analysis of the work of Pauline scholar F. C. Baur and the academic reception of his work to the present day. Precisely on this issue my interest in Mitchell's work suffers a steep decline. As an exegete, preacher, and pastor, I may have different goals than Mitchell's intended audience ("Pauline specialists, the broader community of biblical scholars, and classicists and ancient historians of the ancient Mediterranean," p. x). Whereas Mitchell's work on the biblical text will certainly inform my handling of it, his lengthy navigation of academic perspectives helped me little. In fact, given the title of his text (and the rear cover, which led me to purchase the book), Mitchell's engagement with scholarly complexities seems more of a digression from what might be more helpful work: instead of what could have been a unified monograph, Mitchell has produced a schizophrenic duograph.

Symptomatic of this split intention are his words on page 211, when the book is nearing its finish: to "begin to explore the connection between the pre-Damascus Paul's zeal and the post-Damascus Paul's mission brings the issue of his attitude toward the Law too much into play if one is interested in discussing his conversion." After pointing, several times over the course of his book, to the tangled knot of Paul's conversion as a crucial problem, Mitchell's dodging of the issue seems strange to me. His bravado and conviction in addressing an even more tangled knot--that of scholars' continued enmeshment with F. C. Baur's work--reveal that Mitchell ought not to fear complex matters. Why dodge the most fascinating issue in current Pauline studies?

As someone who does not frequently read scholarly monographs, I admit the possibility that this category of work has implicit rules or purposes to which I have not been initiated. (As a speculation, perhaps a novel approach not only to the biblical text but also to scholarly history is required of Mitchell's kind of work.) Or, in a turn of ivory tower allegory, I wonder of Mitchell is trying to draw a parallel between Paul as the rejected (but ultimately essential) apostle and Baur as the rejected (but ultimately indispensable) Pauline scholar. This parabolic interpretation of the monograph would certainly fit its tone.

With respect to the pragmatic needs of this reader, however, 160 more pages of work on the relationship between Paul's conversion, his view of the Law, and his rejection as an apostle would have been exciting and helpful. The more I read Paul, and try to use his words to inform our present-day faith, the more I see these issues coming to the fore. To assert, for instance, that Paul's Damascus Road experience allows him to dodge the requirements of an apostle named in Acts 1 is to allow post-resurrection mystical experience to change the direction of the Church. And the fact that Paul's new definition of apostleship is enshrined in scripture adds urgency to the matter. May the risen Christ personally enlist new apostles in every generation, whose calling will redefine long-standing traditions of law and grace? How does Paul's experience and theology, authoritative as it is for so much of the Church, lead us to answer?

These matters unfold from Mitchell's work. I hope that as he begins to publish works for wider audiences we may find him plumbing not only the murky depths of scholarship but also the mysterious depths of scriptural interpretation.

~ emrys

Friday, May 08, 2015

Grudge Match

The cover has the look of a pre-Modern Tyson v. Holyfield poster: the profile of John Calvin, 16th-century Reformer, nose-to-nose with John Wesley's, his younger Anglican counterpart. Calvin vs Wesley: Bringing Belief in Line with Practice (Abingdon Press, 2013), is Professor Don Thorsen's cutting compare-and-contrast between the fathers of Calvinist and Wesleyan streams.

For someone wrestling with the big historico-theological questions, the book provides a solid review of the various themes operating in the thought of Calvin and Wesley. It covers sovereignty, scripture, predestination, grace, salvation, spirituality, the church, and ministry from the perspective of each theologian. Alternating between each Reformer, the book reveals a deep well of research into these writings which have had such an impact on the history of Christian thought. Thorsen's work encourages the reader to reflect with gravity on how one's theology impacts one's Christian practice, and vice versa. No matter the setting, or the heavyweights brought as champions, this reflection always bears good fruit.

I opened this book expecting a neutral theological assessment, but received instead an endorsement of Wesley over Calvin. Once I perceived this bias, the rhythm of the book made more sense. Thorsen's ostensible goal is to help Christians avoid Socrates' "unexamined life," which goal I cherish as well. However, in its concluding remarks the book's attempt at a balanced tone tips openly in the direction hinted at in every chapter: "If you want to become more intentional about conceptualizing your Christian beliefs in ways that fortify--rather than weaken--biblical teachings and your Christian living, then I strongly encourage you to learn about, reflect upon, and then follow Wesley's theology and ministry" (p126). I can only imagine the Genevan Reformer's response to a 21st-century professor suggesting that Calvin's writings "weakened" biblical teachings and Christian living!

An area left unexamined by the book is how the historical circumstances of these two greats may have shaped their systematic (or, in Wesley's case, semi-systematic) theologies. It may have been necessary, for reasons of space, to deal only with their writings, but human authors do not compose in a vacuum of objectivity. I found myself wondering, often, whether a Calvin writing in 17th-century England would have written more like Wesley; or whether a Wesley would have been possible in 16th-century Geneva. Entertaining this question opens the door to the possibility that our theologies--no matter how rigorously derived from the Bible--are conditioned by our circumstances. If this is the case, then I wonder how useful it is to pit one historical figure against another.

In many places, Calvin vs Wesley reveals clearly the similarities between Calvin's and Wesley's thinking. The strength of these similarities suggests to me--who has read some of Calvin but none of Wesley--that much of the contrast between the two is nit-picking in support of a Wesleyan bias. I hold this suspicion lightly; Thorsen's work is thought-provoking, challenging to me as a practitioner of Christian theology, and I am happy to leave a complete assessment to another scholar more familiar with both fathers of Protestantism.

With Thorsen's driving aim for his readers I whole-heartedly agree: Our theology ought to line up with our practice. If we believe in Jesus Christ, we ought to live as if we believe in him; and airtight theological rationalism will not stand in for sincerity of ethics. For helping me to examine this connection in my own life, I am thankful for this book.

And thanks to Ben Shaw, colleague and fellow student of the scriptures, who brought this book to our group of rabbis for study and discussion. I am enriched.

~ emrys

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

You, Too, Fans

I just finished a massive tome of interviews and photos entitled U2 By U2 (2006). I enjoyed getting such an in-depth chronological look at the growth of U2's music and career as a band. For those will only a passing interest in the Fab Four (who, ultimately, cannot do what they do without a host of others), or for those who are only interested in the music, this book will provide way too much.

But for those of us who like drinking from the fire hose, it's perfect. In the midst of vast amounts of autobiographical data about the band's struggles and relationships, there are little gems of humor, like Edge's assertion that it's never a good idea to let Bono play lead guitar. The book reveals how four awkward Dublin teenagers could become super rock stars and, at the same time, remain four awkward boys trying to figure out how to play together.

When the house was asleep and I couldn't, this book gave me an entree to the dream land of impossible arcs of musicianship, fame, and living poetry. Well worth the read to me, and might well be for you, too.

~ emrys