Blog Moving — Come Along!

After a year or so of inactivity, I’ve decided to start blogging again, but I’m moving to a new, self-hosted blog. It’s an opportunity (read: headache).

Come along!

The new blog is

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Published in: on June 11, 2014 at 1:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

Reading, Annotating, and Reviewing Books: My Method

As a scholar, my job consists of assimilating and disseminating information. The process of reviewing books entails both. My method prioritizes efficiency: reading as quickly as possible with as much comprehension and long-term retention as possible. The information also needs to be stored in a format that makes scholarly work on the material easy. For me, reading is aimed at reviewing; reviewing completes the process of reading. A book is assimilated only when I can express my reflections on it. The method is divided into three steps: 1) setting up the reading environment; 2) reading and taking notes; and 3) drafting the review.

1. Setting Up the Reading Environment

Reading is both a physical and mental activity. People vary as to what they find congenial writing environments, but some physical requirements are invariable. My method uses 1) a book stand, 2) a physical book, 3) a pencil, and 4) a computer. The book’s spine should be broken in to the point that it will lie flat on the book stand without falling shut. If you have to keep holding the book open, you can’t type with both hands. (If you can’t type with both hands, learn.)

The book stand should be positioned so that the book hits your eyes at a 45-degree angle. This improves reading speed. To minimize eyestrain, lighting should be bright but diffuse. Diffuse  lighting is generally from multiple sources or sunlight and doesn’t cast dark, sharp shadows when you hold your hand over the page. You should be able to see both the book and the computer without turning your neck too far. For typing ease, your computer’s resting surface should be at about elbow height when you’re sitting with your arms hanging down. Too high and you will scrunch your shoulders. All of these factors are aimed at allowing you to read comfortably for long periods of time. The book stand is especially important, since you lose too much time typing if you keep setting the book down and picking it up again or try to hold it one hand.

2. Reading and Taking Notes

a. Setting Up the Note File

A few minutes of preparation before reading saves time later. I create a file in OneNote, but other programs are fine. I type the title and author in the page title slot. Then, I type next to it the complete bibliographic information. I operate under the assumption that I may never see this physical book again; this note file needs to contain everything necessary for the review and any future scholarly work. Then I go to the table of contents and copy the chapter headings, giving me a skeleton for my notes. Here is an example of the first stage of setup:

setup shot

b. Reading and Taking Notes

I take notes by chapter; if the chapters are unusually long, I may subdivide the chapters into sections. With a pencil in hand, I focus on reading quickly but thoroughly. When I see a section that looks significant, such that it might be worth making a note, I mark its boundaries in the page margin with my pencil. I don’t write comments or underline each word, because the goal is to interrupt reading as minimally as possible. When the chapter or section is finished, I go back and decide whether the sections I marked are really worth making into notes. Often I find that a passage I marked contains a concept that the author expresses more succinctly later in the section, or even that the idea wasn’t as profound as I originally thought. Sometimes I read books without my pencil, typing notes as I go, and I always end up taking too many notes.

Having chosen the passages, I make a few types of notes. Regardless of the type of note, I always include the page number(s)! A note without page number is worthless for citing later. The first type is a verbatim quote. I make these fairly often, but I tend to sprinkle ellipses liberally to condense the best parts of paragraphs. The second is a paraphrase, in which I state a proposition from the book in my own words. The third just marks content that didn’t get detailed notes. For example, recently I came across a section on Manichean beliefs in a book about Augustine. This section wasn’t particularly relevant to my current resource, so I didn’t take any detailed notes, but I wrote “Manichean beliefs – 72-84” so I would know this section was there in case I need to look up that topic later.

Sometimes I mark up my notes to make them more useful. I often preface a note with a topic to put it in context. For example: Ambrose’s influence, “quoted portion.”  If there is a key word or phrase embedded in a longer quote, I highlight it. Likewise, I might mark listed items embedded in a paragraph. If a particular claim seems unsupported or I suspect the author has made a factual error, I mark the note in red.

c. Writing a Chapter Summary

Once the notes on the chapter are finished, I go back to the beginning of the chapter in my note file and write a summary of it. The summary is really more like a mini-review, as I am already thinking about and interacting with the material. The goal is to write the summary using only the notes in my file. If I did a good job understanding what I read and took good notes, I won’t have to refer back to the physical book. If I do, I may take an additional note or two to remedy the situation.

Here is an example of a section of notes:

notes sample

3. Drafting the Review

A book review’s purpose is to allow the reader to determine whether to read the book and what priority to place on doing so. The reviewer does not just give a generic recommendation, because people are not generic. The reviewer needs to keep in mind individual readers’ interests and abilities. I am still developing my style as a reviewer, but I make adjustments based on the criterion of the review’s purpose. [My reviews are listed here.]

My first paragraph gives a general overview of the book. I introduce the author and outline the theme and general plan of the book. A few body paragraphs summarize the content of the book. However, a review is not an abstract. I try to take a few body paragraphs to highlight remarkable themes or arguments. Here I interact with the book, offering some evaluations and showing how it has influenced my thinking. Toward the end I try to make general remarks about register (academic, literary, popular) and style. I offer an evaluation of the book as a whole and suggest what types of readers would benefit most from it.

The review completes the process of reading by forcing me to think through how the book as a whole fits into my broader intellectual development. It is only in teaching, in the sense of speaking authoritatively to others after a period of reflection, that one completes learning.


The above is my method. Was this helpful? Do you have questions? Do you want to share your own methods?

Published in: on January 3, 2013 at 8:07 pm  Comments (6)  
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The Augustinian Order and Papal Power

The papacy created the Augustinian Order; the Augustinians in turn created the papacy. By the Augustinian Order I mean Ordo Eremetarum Sancti Augustini (OESA, today OSA), the Order of the Hermits of Saint Augustine. The hermits part distinguished them from the other Augustinian Order, the Canons Regular of Saint Augustine (CRSA), with whom they often squabbled, debating who had the better claim on Augustine’s legacy. The Hermits came into being when Pope Alexander IV gathered representatives from several hermetic groups and announced that they would all be fused into a single, new religious order under the Rule of St. Augustine. He confirmed this a bit later in the bull Licet ecclesiae catholicae (1256).

Boniface VIII helped the newly formed order gain parity with other orders. His Ad consequendam gloriam (1295) prohibited other orders from building establishments within 140 rods of an Augustinian church. His Sacrae religionis merita (1298) allowed them to elect their own prior general. His Tenerem cuiusdam constitutionem (1298) protected them from the forced consolidation of newer religious orders decreed by the Second Council of Lyons. Sacer ordo vester (1299) placed the Augustinians and Carmelites under his personal rather than diocesan jurisdiction. Inter sollicitudines (1303) allowed the Order to preach and hear confessions, protected their burial spaces, and generally granted them the same privileges enjoyed by the Franciscans and Dominicans.

The summit of papal favor toward the Augustinians was John XXII’s bull Veneranda sanctorum (1327). The bull ordered the Canons Regular to share with the Hermits the religious services at San Pietro, the tomb of Augustine. By giving the Hermits partial custody of Augustine’s body, the pope acknowledged them as true heirs of Augustine, reinforcing the corporate identity they had spent the last 70 years crafting. Thus both their existence and their identity were secured through the beneficence of the papacy.

The Augustinians merited the popes’ grace. From the beginning, they were staunch supporters of the papacy, despite its sometimes scandalous condition in this period.  Doubtless political maneuvering and quid pro quo considerations factored into their tenacious support, but the DNA of the Order also disposed them to lean toward the pope. Unlike the Dominicans and the Franciscans, the Augustinians had a bishop as their founding figure. Whereas modern people tend to encounter Augustine as the introspective, poetic voice in Confessions, medievals knew him in many ways, perhaps primarily as the bastion of church authority against heretics. The Augustinians, seeking to be true sons of their father, developed an ideal of Christian perfection that was as much ecclesiastical as it was communal. Church reform was envisioned as the task of bishops, and above all of the bishop of Rome. The Augustinians, a relatively new order, set about constructing an ecclesiology that made room for them in the Church, one that matched their ideal of Christian perfection.

Giles of Rome (1243-1316) set the theological course of the Augustinian Order. He was a distinguished theologian throughout much of his career, becoming prior general of the Augustinians in 1292 and archbishop of Bourges in 1295. He worked tirelessly to articulate the role of his fledgling order in the Church, and a vision of the Church amenable to the ideals of his order. His De renuntiatione papae (1297–1298) defended the legitimacy of Boniface VIII’s papacy. His most notable work on the Church was De ecclesiastica potestate (On the Church’s Power, 1302), which may have even been a source for Boniface’s bull Unam sanctam (1303), one of the strongest claims to papal power in the middle ages.

De ecclesiastica potestate was a sweeping synthesis, as was typical of high scholasticism. In such a work, earth mirrors heaven, the physical moves to the rhythm of the spiritual. Two arguments in particular stand out. The first rests on the spirit/body relationship. As the human soul is meant to rule the human body, so the spiritual power of the Christian empire (the Church) is meant to direct the physical power (the civil magistrates). Any other state of affairs would flout virtue. In this way, Augustine’s doctrine of the ordered soul was transposed into politics. The second argument relates the hierarchy of the Church to the hierarchy of angels outlined by Pseudo-Dionysius’ Celestial Hierarchy. (Of course, it is quite likely that Giles believed the document to have been written by Dionysius, the disciple of Paul mentioned in Acts 17:34.) The threefold division of angels matches the threefold division of the Church (bishops, priests, deacons). Erik Saak summarizes Giles’ position:

Just as God sits at the helm of the angelic hierarchy, so does the pope, as God’s vicar on earth, preside over the ecclesiastical hierarchy, which is synonymous with Christian society. As God’s vicar, the pope is the spiritual being that judges all and can be judged by no one. And just as God has complete and supreme sovereignty over all creation, so does the pope have complete sovereignty on earth, a true fullness of power. Moreover, the pope possesses the same divine discrimination in the exercise of his authority as does God. Just as God by his absolute power can do whatever God chooses to do immediately without secondary causes, so the pope, who in the usual administrartion of his authority employs secondary causes as his instruments, can by his absolute power affect whatever he chooses immediately and directly in his plenitude of power. Only thus, based on the pope’s ordained powers, does temporal sovereignty come into being and exercise a distinct realm of jurisdiction…. The pope, as pope, is the embodiment of the Church, the embodiment of God’s reign of earth, exercising the authority of Christ himself, through whose Passion all will be saved who will be saved, in the final triumph of the kingdom of God (High Way to Heaven, 38-39).

Several other Augustinians contributed to the extreme theory of papal power. Augustinus of Ancona’s Summa de potestate ecclesiastica (Summary of the Church’s Power, 1326) awarded the pope infinite power, placing him above all law and human judgment. William of Cremona’s Reprobatio errorum (1327) defended the Church’s hierarchy against the more egalitarian theory of Marsiglio of Padua.

Thus the Augustinians gave back to the papacy by establishing a theology that bolstered its claims to supremacy over both princes and councils. Giles’ analogy between the celestial hierarchy and the Church became a stock argument even through the Reformation. In all these documents, a particular interpretation of Augustine’s legacy is evident. Augustine reforming the Church as bishop became the inspiration for a theology of top-down reform. The Church was its hierarchy for the Augustinians, and it was through this hierarchy, particularly through the vicar of God on earth, that God would reform his Church. This was the position of the Augustinians until one Augustinian, Martin Luther, superseded it, appealing beyond the pope to God himself.

Published in: on October 24, 2012 at 8:39 am  Comments (3)  
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The Religious Education of Charlie Johnson: My Bible

In the religious education of Charlie Johnson, the Bible was, and in many ways still is, everything. I was raised a “biblicist,” a term I will try to describe rather than define, at least at first. Even the qualification “religious education” is somewhat misleading here, because for a fundamentalist, all education is religious education. The Bible is authoritative, not in a limited sphere marked “spiritual,” but for all of life. It speaks clearly and authoritatively to hard sciences, social sciences, politics, and daily choices as much as it does to God, Jesus, or morality.

For a biblicist, the Bible is understood primarily as a collection of verses, that is, fairly self-contained sentence-length authoritative units. (The verse structure of the Bible is not part of the original text, but was developed later to facilitate advanced study and public reading.) Children learn the Bible by memorizing verses, lots of verses, sometimes arranged thematically and sometimes with no seeming order at all. I remember the first (partial) Bible verse I memorized, with my kindergarten teacher off of a flashcard: “God is love” (1 John 4:8). I think I remember this verse because the kid in front of me couldn’t get it right. He kept saying, “God loves us.” The teacher would say, “No, God is love.” “God loves us.” “Listen, I’ll say it slowly: God…is…love.” “God loves us.” Wow, kid, I know you’re new at this, but really? Three words. Yet, was he so wrong? Often in my religious education, familiarity with exact wording was stressed over meaningful appropriation. Later in my education, I had teacher who insisted that I memorize the punctuation perfectly and follow sometimes strange capitalization rules. I realize now that part of this was driven by a stance my Christian school held, that the King James Bible was God’s perfectly preserved Word in the English language. (Not even touching that. Yet.)

I loved memorizing the Bible. It helped that there were Bible memory competitions, because I also loved to win, or at least hated to lose. I would spend hours memorizing them out of my gigantic hardback Ryrie Study Bible. One summer, in Neighborhood Bible Time (think Vacation Bible School on Holy Ghost steroids), my friend Jeremy and I were neck and neck for first place. I studied all day and unleashed a slew of Bible verses on my teacher. He failed to show up that night, rendering my victory a bit hollow. My prize for winning? A cheap gift Bible signed by the pastor and NBT evangelist. Because obviously the kid who memorized the most Bible verses needs a Bible. In fact, I have never stopped memorizing the Bible. In high school it turned from verses to chapters, in college to whole books. I also began to memorize from the Greek New Testament. As I became less attached to biblicism and to a single Bible version, though, my Bible memory efforts lessened to make room for other ways of studying the Bible. That’s for later.

Memorization was a means to an end. One of the purposes of memorizing Bible verses was to resist temptation. The rationale for this was the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Three times Satan came to Jesus with a temptation, and three times Jesus responded with a quotation from the Old Testament. Foiled, Satan left. Also, there was Psalm 119:11, “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee.” Thus, I was taught “silver bullet” Christianity. When the Devil came whispering a temptation in my ear, I was supposed to dredge up the appropriate Bible verse and dispel the temptation. Tempted to lie to a teacher? “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.” Steal a candy bar? “Thou shalt not steal.” Disobey parents? “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” Sometimes I used the silver bullets to resist temptation. Sometimes it worked. But this superstitious, incantational use of the Bible can’t function over the long term. The Bible isn’t a spell book, and it’s one thing to know what’s right, another thing to do it.

My education stressed not only memorization, but meditation. I was taught to read my Bible by myself every day. Usually, I would pray before or after, or both. I was supposed to think about how to “apply the words to my life,” an exercise for which no real instructions were given, and seemed to be easier with verses such as, “Be ye kind, one to another” than with, “Now this man purchased a field with the reward of iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out” (Acts 1:18). Application note: when buying a field with the reward of iniquity, watch my step.

I did these daily devotions, as they’re called by some, sporadically as a child, but with ardent fervor as a teenager. From 8th grade through college, I doubt I missed more than a handful of days. Sometimes I tried reading programs, such as reading through the Bible in a year. Sometimes I concentrated on specific books. Sometimes I “let the Spirit lead” by reading randomly. Psalms are good for that, by the way, except for imprecatory Psalms, where the Psalmist calls down divine judgment on God’s (his) enemies. They don’t quite deliver that warm fuzzy that one looks for in devotions. For years I prayed two verses during my devotions, John 17:17 “Sanctify them by thy truth; thy word is truth,” and James 1:5, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” I believed then and still do now that God answered those prayers.

I have been confused, frustrated, and even angered by the Bible. I have been enraged and mortified by the ways Christians, including myself, have used the Bible. Some of those uses, as I encountered them, I will try to explain in my next installment. But I have always loved the Bible. I consider the greatest advantage of my religious education my thorough knowledge of and deep reverence for Scripture. So deeply ingrained is it in me that I simply cannot imagine God, myself, or the world in terms other than those provided by the Bible.

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Published in: on October 19, 2012 at 10:45 am  Comments (1)  

The Religious Education of Charlie Johnson: Raised Fundamentalist

“A fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something.” ~ George Marsden, historian of fundamentalism

I was born Christian, but raised fundamentalist.  This installment in my story is more background than autobiography. I hope to give readers some perspective on Christian fundamentalism: to remove some misleading notions, to place it in historical context, and to offer a summary from my own experience. I will endeavor to reassert the personal and reflective tone in following installments, but since I am an academic, you must forgive me my pedantic digressions.

Now, “fundamentalism” is a tricky word. To some people, the word conjures the image of a person so extreme, and perhaps even violent, that he in no way resembles a normal person. In reality, most fundamentalist Christians share many features in common with the average American. Fundamentalists can be accountants and police officers, life insurance and Mary Kay salespeople, doctors and scientists, even politicians. They don’t live in compounds out in the woods, but are sprinkled throughout America’s rural and suburban neighborhoods, and maintain a presence in every major metropolitan area. They might dress a bit differently at times, particularly the women, but rarely to the extent that they would be easily identifiable, and certainly not to the extent that a Hasidic Jew’s or a Amish person’s dress marks him as a member of a particular religious community. Thus, it is entirely possible to know a fundamentalist Christian without knowing that he is one. The fundamentalist will likely be eager to inform you of his Christian faith, but even so, you may not realize how distinct a sort of Christian he is.

Fundamentalist Christianity is a subset of evangelical Christianity, which is in turn a subset of Protestant Christianity. The relevant history can be sketched in three phases. First, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the old Protestant orthodoxies were shaken by a more democratic, more emotional, more activist form of Christianity – evangelicalism (or pietism for Lutherans). A series of “awakenings” or “revivals” swept across many countries (but most significantly English-speaking ones), leaving behind many new, zealous Christians or newly recommitted Christians who often had only loose ties to institutional churches. Most important to these evangelicals was not the institutional church with its sacraments and subtle theological systems but rather the personal experience of conversion and the immediate zeal for a pure life. Evangelicals formed mission societies, rescue missions, children’s homes, publishing houses, and a host of other Christian organizations; yet they often skirted established denominational channels to do so. Evangelicals were not opposed to established churches, but were confident in their abilities to act independently of them, either alone or in voluntary societies established for specific purposes.

The second stage in this history is known as the modernist controversy. Around the beginning of the 20th century, various scientific, philosophical, and theological currents from Europe gravely disturbed the evangelical status quo. Many of these threatened the way evangelicals read the Bible. Trends in geology and biology (Darwinism) cast doubt upon the creation narratives and other cosmological descriptions in the Bible. New literary and historical approaches to biblical criticism raised questions of diversity and inaccuracy in the Bible. Continental philosophy tended to be more guarded about one’s ability to perceive true reality directly than was the reigning Scottish common sense realism. Some theologians, particularly from German-speaking territories, were suggesting reinterpretations (or abandonment) of doctrines tightly held by evangelicals: the virgin birth, miracles, the cross as substitutionary punishment, Jesus’ bodily resurrection. Many evangelicals reacted with an uncompromising condemnation of modernism; these were known as fundamentalists. Interdenominational coalitions were formed to promote and defend traditional ways of thought and life. However, in the end, modernism won control of the five largest Protestant denominations, including their seminaries and publishing houses. Fundamentalists were still numerous, but were banished to the periphery of cultural influence. Here they began to distrust traditional denominations. Believers, they said, must separate themselves from apostate institutions.

The third epoch occurs in the middle of the twentieth century. A split arose within fundamentalism. A group of bright, ambitious, well-educated individuals became dissatisfied with fundamentalism. They found it intellectually stifling, culturally backward, and socially disengaged. They did not want to be liberals, as the modernists came to be called, but wanted to regain cultural standing. (Carl Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism might be considered a manifesto.) They called themselves the new evangelicals (or neo-evangelicals). Perhaps most visible in this group was the rising evangelist, Billy Graham. The neo-evangelicals’ attempt to reform fundamentalism met with stiff resistance. They were labeled compromisers, willing to sacrifice truth on the altar of prestige and respectability. They were eventually squeezed out of the fundamentalist network. In reality, the new evangelicals were not always terribly sad to go. Various judgments have been made about the effectiveness of neo-evangelicalism, but its influence on fundamentalism is critical. Fundamentalists became even more retrenched. They learned that attacks could come not only from openly apostate liberals, but even from seemingly orthodox brothers! The neo-evangelical split fixed fundamentalism, culturally and intellectually, firmly in the 1950s. Fundamentalists formed a doctrine of “secondary separation,” stating that it is necessary for believers to cut institutional ties not only with liberals, but with those who would compromise with liberals. Thus, one’s associations became as important as one’s doctrines for determining one’s standing in the fundamentalist community.

In the present day, many of these labels are passé. Much of mainline Protestantism has moved on from the type of liberalism featured in the early 20th century. Huge swaths of evangelicalism exist that have no particular orientation toward the issues that divided fundamentalists and neo-evangelicals. But, for true fundamentalists, the battle lines drawn in the 1950s are eternally valid archetypes. When I arrived at a fundamentalist Bible college in 2004, within my first week of classes, I was handed a sheet of paper that displayed a breakdown of Protestant Christianity into 4 groups: liberals, neo-orthodox (a reform movement arising within liberalism), neo-evangelicals, and fundamentalists. I learned quickly that a key fundamentalist skill was taking any person or writing and placing it in the correct box, so that one would know how to deal with it.

As a child, I did not know about the distinctive qualities of fundamentalism. To me, fundamentalism was simply Christianity. The next four articles will treat four aspects of my experience of fundamentalism: authoritarianism, biblicism, separatism, and revivalism. None of these four characteristics is unique to fundamentalism; one can easily find other Christians who manifest one or several of these traits. It is rather the combination of all four into a single seamless, organic religious experience that constitutes the fundamentalism of my youth. In fundamentalism, all four factors influence each other, so that one might say that fundamentalists are not just biblicists, but they practice biblicism in an authoritarian-separatist-revivalist way. Then, repeat the process for the other three.

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Published in: on September 10, 2012 at 10:21 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Religious Education of Charlie Johnson – Born Christian

I was born a Christian. That statement may confound evangelicals, who put little stock in being born compared to being “born-again,” but it is an accurate description of my childhood. Some of my earliest memories are of my father praying over me before putting me to sleep. One night, when I was 5 or 6, he left my room without praying, because he realized he had forgotten to bring the dog inside. He forgot to come back, and without my bedtime prayer, I did not sleep that night.

My parents were (still are) devout Christians, and my home was filled with Christian paraphernalia. Every room had at least one Bible. Over my bed hung two framed cross stitches by my ancestor, Mable A. Peckham. One was the opening line of the Pledge of Allegiance. The other displayed the beloved Christian lullaby, “Jesus loves me, this I know / For the Bible tells me so.” (The juxtaposition of God and America is a recurring theme in my evangelical upbringing.) We went to church, a Bible-believing Baptist church, every week. Sometimes we went 2 or 3 or more times per week. I memorized Bible verses and catechism questions to “store up God’s word in my heart.” Everyone I knew was a Christian. I was, as most children are, completely oblivious to the religious diversity of the wider world.

“God is dead.” Friedrich Nietzsche (died 1900) elegantly summarized what he saw as the present and near future state of western culture. The dome of Christendom had cracked. God or any godlike metaphysical absolute seemed unnecessary to explain the workings of the cosmos. Even ethical absolutes appeared to him to be mere human constructs that covertly benefited the rule-makers at the expense of the rule-followers.  The Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor speaks of the rise of the “buffered self.” Pre-modern people, he said, felt that they were surrounded by supernatural forces that could and often did directly influence their lives for better or worse. Modern science replaced those living, unpredictable powers with inert physical laws. Angels and demons, sprites and fairies, everything numinous and transcendent was banished to somewhere outside the everyday world of predictable functioning. A buffer had been erected between humanity and God, and the experience of living in the presence of God was slipping away from many people. Matthew Arnold captured the feeling in a wistful stanza:

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

In my evangelical household, God was very much alive, no buffers isolated me from the divine, and the Sea of Faith roared in my ears. God was present, or rather, omnipresent. A good turn of events was surely the blessing of God. A string of misfortune could be God punishing someone, or “trying to get their attention,” or testing their faithfulness. No event, from running into an old friend in the grocery store to the results of a national election, was devoid of supernatural import. God knew everything I did, everything I wanted to do or even thought of doing. There was no hiding from God; he poured through every crack. If I behaved well, God was happy. If I didn’t, God was angry, or at least disappointed. (Who knew a child had such power over God’s emotional equilibrium?) At times, the intensity of God’s presence was overwhelming, even terrifying, and the revivalist churches of my youth had no problem exploiting that in their evangelistic zeal. Margaret Miles, reflecting on her childhood in Augustine and the Fundamentalist’s Daughter, describes the weight of God’s infinite presence as so oppressive and invasive that it reduced her to nothing. God was too present, especially in the form of her overbearing parents, to allow her self any space.

For the most part, though, I was comforted by God’s presence. God took care of me. He had a plan for my life. He held me in the palm of his hand (whatever that meant). He would keep me safe, like Daniel in the lion’s den. He would talk to me through the Bible, and I would talk back to him in prayer. He would convict me when I sinned and take me back when I repented. As the cross-stitch said, I knew Jesus loved me, and that I loved him. I was born Christian. But that wasn’t enough.

The Sinner’s Prayer is what really matters most. At least, it’s the preferred method of Baptist parents for ensuring that their children won’t go to hell.  It’s a form prayer, which would normally be bad because Catholics use form prayers; but this one gets a pass because it is absolutely central to the dynamic of revivalist evangelicalism. It goes something like this: “Dear Jesus, I know that I’m a sinner and that I deserve hell for my sins. But I believe that you sent Jesus Christ to die on the cross to save me from my sins. And he rose again the third day. Please forgive me for all my sins and give me eternal life. Thank you for saving me. In Jesus’ name, Amen.” It’s best to stick to the form pretty closely, though God allows some flexibility on the wording, since you are praying for eternal salvation, after all.

I first prayed The Prayer when I was, I think, 5 years old. I asked my older sister how to get saved, and she proceeded to lead me in prayer, making sure I got it right. Instructing me in the way of righteousness was one of my sister’s hobbies growing up, doubtless due to her sinless perfection, which my family swears persists to this very day. The Sinner’s Prayer has drawbacks, though, including doubt. Did I do it right? Did I mean it? Enough? Am I supposed to feel something? From time to time, just to make sure, I would pray it again. It couldn’t hurt. This cycle, in which (usually young) Christians struggle with “assurance of salvation,”  is a hallmark of Baptist churches, particularly where aggravated by revivalism. More on that soon.

This semester at Villanova University (my employer) there will be a graduate  class entitled Christian Spirituality after the Death of God. Much of the world struggles to re-establish a connection to God that the culture has severed. Several strategies have been suggested by Catholics, Protestants, and Jews to “re-enchant” the world so that God can once again be perceived. The death of God is a real issue that deserves careful thought, and I do not wish to make light of it, but I find myself able to relate to it only in the most distant way. After all, it’s difficult to feel estranged from someone who has been in your life since before you can remember, someone who speaks to you and listens when you speak, someone who holds you when you cry and inspires you to nobility. I don’t know how to fix the problem of the death of God, but I wonder what would happen if every child had a Bible in each room, a Jesus-loves-me stitch over his bed, and a daddy to pray over him at night.

Next: Raised Fundamentalist

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Published in: on August 23, 2012 at 10:17 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Religious Education of Charlie Johnson – Prologue

In which the author contemplates the nature of autobiography and invites readers to join him

Jesus answered, “Even if I do bear witness about myself, my testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going.    ~ John 8:14

For the one reading the Gospel of John for the first time, Jesus’ statement in John 8:14 will likely provoke surprise. It follows on the heels of an accusation by the Pharisees, Jesus’ religious opponents, that his testimony about himself is not true. In Jewish law, at least two witness must agree for a piece of testimony to be admissible in court. One might expect Jesus to answer the charge by reminding the Pharisees that he is not in court, but Jesus does no such thing. The other sensible alternative is to produce corroboratory witnesses, which he does in a sense, but not initially. Jesus’ first response is to claim that the law does not apply to him, because he knows where he came from and where he is going.

I suspect, based on my familiarity with the Gospel of John as a whole, that the allusion is back to Jesus’ pre-existence as the Word who was with God and was God (John 1) and forward to his return to the Father (John 14). Jesus was telling them that if they had any idea who they were dealing with, their demand for his credentials would appear absurd. Authorial intent aside, Jesus’ statement raises a question: What does it mean to give a truthful account of oneself? What would such an attempt require? Using Jesus’ words as a touchstone, it occurs to me that both knowledge of the future and the past are necessary to offer a complete description of a human life. An autobiography is always misleading, because perceptions of the past are colored by hopes (or fears) for the future. Insofar as my own future is uncertain to me, being constructed moment-by-moment, or keystroke-by-keystroke right now, every attempt at total knowledge will come up short. In five years, I may view with disdain some past actions that I now celebrate. A disease, a divorce, a battle, a baby, a conversion, a crisis—any of these could radically overturn my narrative of what is most and least important or what were the happiest and saddest days of my life. All such attempts always come up short; only God on judgment day reveals the deepest truth of the heart.

Given these obstacles, among many more that could be listed, is there any reason to press on with an autobiography? I believe so. If it is true that the future affects our perception of the past, it is equally true that our perception of our past shapes the kind of future we can imagine for ourselves. Especially in times of crisis, people express hope by telling a story of the past that seems as though it ought to have a happy ending. The effect is similar to positioning oneself midway through a Shakespearean play. One usually glimpses whether the play is a comedy or a tragedy before the final act makes the conclusion certain.

Perhaps the most significant example is the creation of the Torah (or the “Pentateuch” for Christians), the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. The Torah as we know it was constructed during a period known as the exile, a time when foreign powers had captured Jerusalem (God’s city), destroyed the temple (God’s house), and deported the Hebrews (God’s people). The Hebrew people responded by fusing together ancient oral traditions and written sources to answer a question: what does it mean that we are the people of God in the light of this present God-forsakenness? In the Torah God calls Abraham, predicts slavery in Egypt, permits them to suffer in slavery for a time, raises up Moses as a deliverer, leads the Hebrews to the Promised Land, builds a house (tabernacle) for himself among them, and delivers to them his laws in the form of a covenant. That covenant promises blessing for obedience and removal from the land for disobedience. It also promises that even if the Hebrews are removed from the land, God will have pity on them and return them. In this way, the Torah gave the Hebrews in exile a reason for their present predicament (where they came from) and a hope for return (where they’re going).

Individuals are constantly engaged in a process of self-creation similar to that of the Torah. Loosely following Heidegger, we are after an existence characterized by integrity or wholeness. Our lives consist of a series of fragments, and we hope that in the end these fragments will all come together in something like a mosaic. If one were to come across an unfinished mosaic with no accompanying instructions, one could try to complete it several different ways, but not an infinite number of ways. Based on already present tiles, certain additions would result in an utter lack of discernible pattern. A wise artisan would study carefully the present configuration and intentionally add pieces that contribute to a complete, intelligible figure. Likewise, making sense of the past is an essential part of moving toward a future with integrity.

Autobiographies are valuable for another reason. They are invitations. They entreat the reader to look at life, specifically the author’s life, through the author’s eyes. However, they also invite the judgment of the reader upon the author’s life. This cannot be avoided, though the author obviously has several strategies to influence the reader’s judgment. Augustine, in his Confessions, deflates the reader’s criticism by judging  himself far more harshly than almost any reader ever would. That strategy served his purpose of emphasizing divine grace. Rousseau, in the beginning of his autobiography (also named Confessions), walks up to the throne of God with his book in hand and dares any other mortal to claim to be a better man than he. (Rousseau claims to have given a completely accurate account of his virtues and vices, a claim some of his readers have found woefully duplicitous.) Another famous autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, describes Adams’ recourse to self-education when he found that traditional educational methods failed to provide him the tools necessary to adapt in a rapidly changing world.

In closing, I would say that autobiography is evangelistic. An author wants the reader to share his view, not only of his life, but also of life in general. My readers at this point may well ask what my gospel is, what view of life I wish to impart to them. My answer is, to a large degree, that I do not know. I have not actually begun to write anything autobiographical, and I just may surprise myself by the time I finish. I can say that it will deal specifically with my religious upbringing and my personal and professional studies of Christianity, thus the allusion to Adams in my title.

Another reasonable question is whether anyone ought to read this autobiography. I freely grant that I am a person of little importance; no great deeds, great influence, or remarkable events attach to me. You would be quite justified in ignoring this writing altogether. I certainly have more to gain from this than anyone else. But perhaps some people who care about me, or who have found some profit in my other writings from time to time, or who have had a religious education similar to mine and are still reflecting on it—perhaps some of you will give me some attention and time, though I have not earned it.

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Published in: on August 21, 2012 at 5:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

Gregory of Nyssa and a Genderless Humanity

Gregory of Nyssa’s interpretation of human nature and gender is a provocative departure from commonly accepted ideas in the late ancient world. To recognize the ingenuity of his approach, it is fitting to consider two common alternative paradigms.

One comes to us as the myth of Aristophanes, told through Plato’s Symposium. Originally there were three human races – male, female, and hermaphrodite. Each individual was spherical and actually a doubled self, both sides anatomically complete. In a bout of hubris, they assailed heaven. As punishment, Zeus sliced them in half, and the resulting half-beings now must seek each other out for completion. (The originally male and female beings explain homosexuality, and the original hermaphroditic beings explain heterosexuality.) Each of us is fundamentally incomplete, looking for another to supply our lack.

The other alternative, adopted by many Christians, viewed gender (as we know it now) as an integral part of our nature. However, the masculine was identified with nous or the rational faculties whereas the feminine was identified with sense perception and with sexuality (contra contemporary Americans, who tend to regard males as the more sexual gender). This identification creates a clear spiritual hierarchy, since early Christians associated the image of God with the higher rational faculties. A common theme found with variations in the Gospel of Thomas, Philo, Jerome, and others, is that a woman who devotes herself to God spiritually transcends her gender and becomes male. Under this paradigm, males and the masculine are unequivocally superior to females and the feminine. Augustine, an heir of this tradition, modifies it somewhat toward equality.

Gregory of Nyssa’s view of gender diverges widely from the two paradigms above. His theology of creation indicates that gender is not a dissociation from previous wholeness nor an essential aspect of human nature. Instead, Gregory’s creation theology is informed by his eschatology. Finding in Paul that in Christ there is neither male nor female, Gregory reasons that there will be no gender in the final state, and thus that gender was not part of the original created intention. He takes as a matter of course that the original blueprint for humanity corresponds to the final product.

Human nature, then, is essentially and primitively genderless. God intended for them to procreate spiritually after the manner of angels (whatever that means). However, God foresaw that they would fall into sin, and in his provenance created humans with gender so that they would be able to procreate after the manner of beasts. The logic seems to be that since the Fall was a result of the first parents falling prey to the sensual side of their natures, they became enslaved to sensuality and would not have the spiritual state required for spiritual procreation.

The foundational insight of Gregory’s theology of creation, then, is that gender is accidental to human nature. Several significant consequences follow from this premise. First, each individual is spiritual whole in himself or herself. Humans do not need to find completion in another person, but only in God. Vows of virginity do not make a woman spiritually male, as per Jerome, but prepare the person for the deified state.   Further, both genders are spiritually equal, since the image of God is itself genderless. One wonders what this theology would have accomplished in the church if it had been widely embraced and if it were not held in check by hierarchical cultures.

Gregory’s creation theology is a welcome departure from theories that make men and women spiritually dependent on each other for completion or that subordinate women to men. Yet, there are still concerns. Most contemporary people identify more strongly with their gender than seeing it merely as a way to procreate. Most see their gender as an integral part of their personality; even transgender behavior points to a more than biological need to identify with gender. Gregory’s theology does not seem to leave room for gender to play any important role in constructing human personality, including spirituality.

[Note: this post is a reflection on Gregory of Nyssa’s views on gender as presented in J. Warren Smith’s Passion and Paradise. The informal nature of a blog exempts me, I believe, from precise footnoting.]

Published in: on March 3, 2012 at 11:24 pm  Leave a Comment  
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A Different Kind of New Year’s Resolution

One day each year, it seems that grace-alone, faith-alone Protestants abandon everything they believe. No, it’s not Halloween. It’s New Year’s Day. When it comes to New Year’s resolutions, even Christian pastors will pile on the law: read your Bible more, pray more, attend church more, read more Christian books, tithe more, witness more. In short: do more, do better, try harder. The gospel melts into Christian moralism.

So this year, I want to put the indicative before the imperative. I propose a different kind of resolution, a joyful abandonment to grace and a sure confidence in God my Father.

1. Resolved, that God, who made heaven and earth, made me also, and loves me, and delights in me.

2. Resolved, that God, who is infinitely holy and demands perfect adherence to his moral law, took upon himself the task of restoring me, his fallen child.

3. Resolved, that Jesus—through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension—has become my wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption.

4. Resolved, that even when my faith seems to waver and my conscience accuse me, God is greater than my heart and will reassure me.

5. Resolved, that in my baptism, God tells me that I have been washed from sins, born anew, and filled with the Holy Spirit.

6. Resolved, that in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, Jesus offers himself to me for spiritual food.

7. Resolved, that God will sustain my faith and bring me, through trials, into his beautiful presence, never more to depart.

8. Resolved, that all my brothers and sisters in Christ are likewise objects of God’s love and mercy, and are thus my friends and fellow-travelers.

There are many more I could add, but as the numbers multiply, it becomes more difficult to focus my attention on each one. My daily perseverance requires embracing God’s promises, not inventing my own, which I cannot keep. There will come a time for resolutions in the conventional sense, personal goals and the shouldering of responsibility. But the law will bear crops only where grace has fertilized the soil. So, at least for the first month of this new year, my focus will be not on what I plan to do better, but what has been done perfectly for me. Resolved.

Published in: on January 2, 2012 at 9:31 am  Comments (7)  

Book List Fall Semester 2011 – Non-Fiction

I didn’t keep good records this semester, so this list is retrospectively constructed from memory. I noticed that full book reading dropped off this semester as individual chapters or journal articles gained prominence. Also, language work (especially Latin) cut down the amount of English reading. Yet , papers still offered chances to do some heavy plowing.

Titles marked with asterisks I especially enjoyed.

*Aquinas on God by Rudi te Velde

Aquinas on the Divine Ideas as Exemplar Causes by Gregory Doolan

At the Origins of Modern Atheism by Michael Buckley

Augustine & the Pelagian Controversy by B. B. Warfield

Augustine Through the Ages, ed. Allan Fitzgerald

Catholic Social Thought: The Documentary Heritage

Christ and Culture by Reinhold Niebuhr

Christ and Culture Revisited by D. A. Carson

*Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church by the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice

Contra Academicos by Augustine

Enchiridion by Augustine

Foundations of Christian Faith by Karl Rahner

French 1 (Cliffs Quick Review)

Grammatical and Exegetical Study of New Testament Verbs of Transference by Paul Danove

Maximus the Confessor by Andrew Louth

Models of Revelation by Avery Dulles

Portraits of Paul by Bruce Malina and Jerome Neyrey

*Postmodernism: A Beginner’s Guide by Kevin Hart

Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon

Rethinking Christ and Culture by Craig Carter

Surprised by Hope by N. T. Wright

The Mission of God’s People by Christopher Wright

The Moral Vision of the New Testament by Richard Hays

*The Nature of Doctrine by George Lindbeck

The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder

*The Prologue of the Fourth Gospel by Peter Phillips

*The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism by Louis Bouyer

The Theology of the Primacy of Christ According to St. Thomas by Thomas Potvin

*The Trinitarian Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas by Gilles Emery

The Trinity by Gilles Emery

Thomas Aquinas on the Divine Ideas by John Wippel

Thomas Aquinas: Theologian by Thomas O’Meara

*To Change the World by James Hunter

Transforming postliberal theology : George Lindbeck, pragmatism and scripture by C.C. Pecknold

Verbum: Word and Idea in Aquinas by Bernard Lonergan

Published in: on December 31, 2011 at 9:54 am  Leave a Comment