Friday, March 30, 2012

The first modern Western

John Ford's 1939 film Stagecoach did two important things: it turned an unknown B movie actor named John Wayne into a star, and it struck the mold for the modern Western. Hollywood had been making Westerns for decades, some very good ones in fact, but it took Ford to unlock the genre's full potential and demonstrate it's worthiness of serious artistic attention.

Ford and Wayne had run into each other back in 1928 when the latter was still Marion "Duke" Morrison. Duke worked summers as a propman while attending USC Law and playing football, and as fate would have it he was assigned to a Ford picture called Four Brothers. Ford was drawn to the young man, but as often happened with the temperamental director, Wayne did something to offend Ford and was given the silent treatment for years. It was quite a surprise then when Ford offered Duke the plum part of the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach. It would be the first of many fruitful collaborations between Ford and the man he treated alternately as a son and whipping boy. All this and more is related in Scott Eyman's engaging Ford bio Print the Legend.

Eyman goes on to discuss the appraisal of some critics that for all the praise given to Stagecoach, it's basically a B movie Western with stereotypical characters not far removed from what audiences had seen over and over again -- "there's a whore with a heart of gold, a good bad man, the drunken doctor quoting Shakespeare, a crooked banker, a courtly Southern gentleman." While true, it's the compassionate way Ford presents his characters and the thematic and visual richness of Stagecoach that make it the great motion picture it is.

Eyman writes:

Stagecoach remains the paradigmatic Western. As Andre Bazin wrote of the film, "Art has found its perfect balance, its ideal form of expression." Bazin found the film the ideal fusion of form and content, that, like a wheel, "remains in equilibrium on its axis in any position."

Ford would make deeper films than Stagecoach, and he would make more virtuosic films than Stagecoach, but he would never again make one so nearly perfect, more filled with an easeful grace, with perfectly inflected camera and characters. It's a film as pure and refreshing as deep breaths of mountain air. It's his City Lights, his Rules of the Game, but unlike those pictures, which don't fall into any neat genre classifications, the characters and settings of Stagecoach could be all too easily replicated by other, less expert hands.

I watched Stagecoach for the first time a few nights ago. I was blown away. What surprised me was how strikingly fresh and contemporary it felt -- as if it could have been made last week. Citizen Kane is routinely ranked at the top of best American film lists. Interestingly, the film Welles studied most before shooting his masterpiece was none other than Stagecoach.

Quotes from pp. 205-6 of Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford (John Hopkins University Press, 1999)

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Jamie Smith on N.T. Wright

In a post at The Twelve blog, Jamie Smith (a self-described "Tom Wright enthusiast") fairly describes what it is about Wright that bugs a lot of people that otherwise admire him. It's not the substance of his arguments, but the way he presents them as a "new" discovery of what everyone else has missed. Musing on Wright's latest book Smith writes:

. . . For example, notice the subtitle: Wright is offering us the "forgotten story of the Gospels." This may be a publishers' ploy, but having heard Wright talk about this argument in several different contexts, he clearly affirms the claim: for hundreds and hundreds of years, we have not been able to properly read the Gospels. And now Tom Wright has come along to give us what we lacked: the backstory of Second Temple Judaism, the historian's read of Israel's expectations, the secret keys we need to finally read the Gospels. (This reminds me way too much of Brian McLaren's title, The Secret Message of Jesus--wherein the "secret" was that Jesus cared about poverty and oppression and injustice, which was only a "secret" if you were an a-political pietist or a right-wing fundamentalist.)

There's another layer here that adds to my frustration: Wright regularly faults the catholic creedal tradition as the villain that tempted us to miss this "forgotten story." Nicea and Chalcedon are blinders and screens that prevent us from seeing what Wright, "the historian," has uncovered. The creedal tradition, on Wright's account, was fixated on ontological questions about divinity and humanity and thus missed the backstory of Israel's covenant which really makes sense of the Gospels. And so when he frames his argument, even if he doesn't reject "Nicene Christianity," he certainly dismisses it and sees little if any value in it. For those of us who have been struggling to get evangelical and Reformed folk to remember they are catholic, it is disconcerting to have yet another teacher come along and promise a new "secret key" to unlock the Bible.

I agree with Smith. For all his marvelous scholarship Wright risks becoming as parochial in his reading of Scripture as he accuses his critics of being. No man (or theologian) is an island.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

There's no dying in football

Last Saturday I was enjoying the rare (because of the time difference) opportunity to watch my favorite English football team, Tottenham Hotspur, in action live as they went up against rivals Bolton in the quarterfinals of the venerable FA Cup tournament. Shortly before halftime, with the teams tied 1 - 1, the whistle blew as a player went down in what 99 times out of 100 is a minor injury, or "knock" in footballing parlance.

But as the minutes passed the tone of the announcers and the stunned looks on the faces of players and fans told a more foreboding tale. The phrases "cardiac event" and "epileptic seizure" were mentioned, and the cameras caught Bolton manager Owen Coyle gesturing towards his heart. To the credit of Fox Soccer they never showed the stricken player after he went down -- which turned out to be 23-year-old Bolton midfielder Fabrice Muamba -- or ran a slow-motion replay of his sudden collapse (I doubt the same would be true if something like this happened during an NFL game). After several long minutes of uncertainty the referee led the teams into the locker room, and it was announced that the match was being abandoned. As Fox abruptly cut away to other programming I thought it very likely that those watching the match had just witnessed an athlete die on the pitch. Not supposed to happen, right?

Thankfully that turned out not to have been the case. Though if death means your heart and lungs have stopped working, then Fabrice Muamba was as good as dead as he lay on the grass surrounded by medics.

The always-excellent Brian Phillips tells the story:

Athletes fall down all the time. They get tackled. They lose their balance trying to make a move. They hit the ground diving for a loose ball. It's a little strange, when you think about it. I mean, who just falls down? If you're a stockbroker or a car salesman, chances are you don't hit the turf during the course of a normal workday. But in most sports, learning how to fall is part of your job. It's something you train for.

And most of the time, for those of us watching on TV or in the stands, this is no big deal. Athletes fall. Even when there's an injury, we know there's a procedure in place to take care of it as efficiently as possible. He's holding his ankle, here comes the trainer, they're helping him off, light smattering of applause. Cue Geico commercial. It's part of the game.

Every once in a while, though, an athlete goes down and it's … different. There's no good way to describe this, but if you've watched sports long enough, chances are you've seen it once or twice and never want to see it again. A player goes down, and almost immediately there's this miserable, crawly sense that something is different; something is wrong. It's a sensation, a sort of tingle that spreads from the other players to the fans in the stadium to the people watching at home. Oh no. You can tell when this has happened because within about 10 seconds, no one at the game remembers which team they're cheering for. Fans on both sides look on with their hands clasped in front of their faces. The top half of the player disappears under a dome of medics. You stare at the player's foot and will it to move. Did it just twitch? Please get up, please get up, no one is supposed to die playing sports, please get up …

On Saturday, March 17, 2012, just over 40 minutes into the first half of Bolton's FA Cup quarterfinal match against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane, as Gareth Bale chased a long pass down the left flank toward Bolton's goal, Bolton midfielder Fabrice Muamba fell down. For a moment, nobody noticed. When the ball was whistled dead, the camera cut to a close-up on Bale, then cut to Bolton goalkeeper Adam Bogdan as he prepared to resume play. At that point the director found Muamba lying facedown in the grass, with a member of Bolton's medical staff crouched down beside him.

There had been no one near Muamba when he fell; he simply collapsed. Everyone could see that there was something different about the way the trainer was interacting with him. Why was Muamba not rolling over when the medic was pulling on his shoulder? More and more trainers kept running out; someone brought out a defibrillator. Pacing around the medical staff, the other players looked terrified. Tottenham's Rafael Van der Vaart covered his mouth with his hands, the universal gesture for helpless near-panic. The fans — the ones who weren't staring straight ahead in shocked silence — started singing Muamba's name. After two minutes, Bolton manager Owen Coyle ran out onto the pitch to be by Muamba's side. After three minutes, players started openly praying. After four minutes, the referee, Howard Webb, called off the rest of the game.

As Muamba was carried off in a stretcher, journalists at White Hart Lane reported that he wasn't breathing. A short time later, we heard that he was being rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, accompanied by Coyle and Bolton captain Kevin Davies. We heard that the medical personnel had administered CPR all the way to the hospital. And then, for around two hours, we heard nothing.

There's no gentle way to put this, so I'll just say it: I think everyone who watched this unfold believed that they had just seen a player die. Muamba had had a heart attack, was the (correct, as it turned out) assumption. On Twitter, in forums, and I imagine in a thousand conversations, there was optimism, but it was mostly of the hoping-against-hope variety. Something to cling to when you know that no one's supposed to die on a sports field. . . .

Continue reading "A (Seemingly) Impossible Fall"

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Read it and weep

George Packer writing today in The New Yorker:

. . . It shouldn’t be hard to see the bright line between war fatigue, or P.T.S.D., or whatever name you give it, and hunting down, shooting, and stabbing little children in their homes, and women and men, burning their bodies, and then returning to base and demanding a lawyer. If there was alcohol, it doesn’t matter; if there were marital strains (how could there not be), it doesn’t matter. That Bales assaulted a woman ten years ago is irrelevant. None of these facts begin to explain why he stands accused of monstrous crimes. The idea that no non-combatant is fit to judge a man in uniform is ridiculous—an insult to all the combatants who, in the same extreme circumstances, don’t lose all sense of the humanity of the other and descend into criminality. Worse than ridiculous is the ugly praise Bales has received on some right-wing Web sites, as if war crimes were a blow against political correctness. The smugness of the I-told-you-so anti-war crowd isn’t much better. Pundits and commenters of all stripes find that the Panjwai episode proves what they were saying all along. How satisfying.

No: shame is the only response the rest of us are allowed.

Part of the shame goes beyond the massacre. Just as it should be possible to stare at this nightmare without medicalizing or psychologizing it away with a few biographical details, it should also be possible to see its singularity and its context: a decade of war with no clear, measurable goals and no end in sight, fought by the tiny number of Americans who belong to our all-volunteer military. President Obama has recently been eloquent on the subject of war, its seriousness, its costs. But it has been in the interest of neither his Administration nor his predecessor’s for the electorate to think too much about the fighting on the other side of the planet. Politically, both Presidents have downplayed it—Bush by creating a false image of a clear moral cause demanding relatively little sacrifice, Obama by talking about it as little as possible.

So the fighting goes on and on without a national discussion, or a national investment. It’s easy for most Americans to go days without giving the war a thought. That’s a quieter, longer source of shame. It’s wrong to put the whole burden of a protracted war on so few people while the rest of us get a pass . . .

Monday, March 19, 2012

Trueman: "Eating the Apple"

Carl Trueman:

The announcement of the launch of the Apple iPad3 was greeted with predictable positive promotion in the media and the usual level of hysteria among the shopping public which we have come to expect. When Steve Jobs died last year, it was as if a messiah had left the earth yet, when his c.v. is examined, it contains no cure for AIDS, no effective treatment for cancer and no answer to world poverty. He designed cool looking computers, snazzy cell phones and juke-boxes of a size that can be carried anywhere. We live in a world of small messiahs these days.

The fascinating thing about Apple is, of course, the company's ability to pull off the same con-trick time after time. We all know that capitalism requires the constant creation and recreation of markets. Apple have this down to fine art: they release an under-equipped product; indeed, by the time the product is released there are usually rumours circulating about the upgrade to come; and then a year or so later (if that long) they release the new version (at about the same time as the rumours of an even newer version start to spread). There is not even any real competition here beyond mere chronology. Apple competes, in effect, against itself, and everyone's a winner. That sounds very close to a commercial equivalent of the secret of perpetual motion.

What is perhaps so surprising is that everyone - me included - falls for this. You would imagine that, sooner or later, the buying public or the media would realize that we are all being systematically ripped off; but here is the single coolest thing about Apple - they have so taken hold of the imagination that we believe their ripping us off is actually doing us a favour; thus, the media hype continues unabated and the queues outside shops seem never to become any shorter.

Chasing John Ford

Any discussion of American filmmaking greatness has to include John Ford (1894 - 1973). During a career that began in the silent era and ended in the late 60's he created a series of landmark American films that went a long way toward defining a generation's self-understanding of the American experience. Films like Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath and The Searchers manage to be both personal statement and eloquent expressions of universal human themes, not to mention their monumental technical brilliance.

I'm reading a superb biography of Ford by local author Scott Eyman. Incidentally, I had the good fortune to meet Eyman at a Christmas party last year hosted by some mutual friends. I buttonholed him in the kitchen and we had an enjoyable chat about his current project (a biography of John Wayne), as well as some of the other figures he's written about. There have been other noteworthy Ford bios, but as far as I can tell this is the most exhaustive. I'm on page 107 and we're still in the 1920s! The title, Print the Legend, comes from the final scene of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and it hints at the difficulty of writing about the "legend" that is John Ford, since that legend was largely self-constructed. I like how Eyman describes his biographical approach.

Any artist's work takes precedence over his life, but, to an unusual degree, Ford's work was his life; his own history and beliefs are scattered like seed through his films, and ripened into vast statements in both his middle and late periods.

I have tried to record John Ford's life, what he said and did and thought. I have attempted to resist the oppressive moral vanity of our age, in which biographers adopt the role of prosecutor and profess disappointment over human failings that occur nearly as frequently among biographers as they do among artists.

To be a serious artist is to have a single-minded mania for control, the precise quality that makes it extremely difficult to be a loving husband and father. To spend hundreds of pages primly documenting every instance of ill temper or alcoholic outburst strikes me as pointless as writing about fish and reporting with outrage that they are cold and wet.

Any artist who arouses clean, uncomplicated feelings will almost certainly turn out to be unworthy of serious attention. Human beings are not clean and uncomplicated, and John Ford was a very human being.

The great epigram of Ford's career is, of course, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend," from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. With all due respect for the amber hue of myth, this book concerns itself with how the facts of John Martin Feeney led to the legend of John Ford.

Quote from pp. 22-3 of Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford (John Hopkins University Press, 1999)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Truth, Justice and Grace Under Pressure

Courtroom dramas have long been a staple of Hollywood, but few if any can match the visceral power of 12 Angry Men. This 1957 American film classic staked out a unique place for itself by going beyond the public face of justice into the inner sanctum of the jury room. In fact, except for a brief scene where we hear a bored-looking judge giving final instructions to the jury (along with a brief shot of the defendant), the 95-minute film takes place entirely in that claustrophobic space. But before that the film signals its broader aim with an opening shot in which the camera pans up the pillared facade of the New York Supreme Court building to the inscription above: "The True Administration Of Justice Is The Firmest Pillar Of Good Government." It then proceeds to celebrate a key bulwark of that true justice and good government -- the right to trial by jury of one's peers. It's not always a pretty sight, indeed it gets downright ugly at times, but 12 Angry Men leaves this viewer proud of our American system of justice, imperfect as it is.

It also leaves me pondering the nature of moral courage, the kind possessed by juror number 8 played magnificently by the incomparable Henry Fonda. Part of Fonda's greatness as an actor lay in his ability to be "naturally natural" on screen (Gregory Peck was another one with the same quality). Juror 8 starts out as the only dissenting voice -- one man against 11 -- but ends up persuading each of his fellow jurors to change their initial opinion. The final holdout is Juror 3, played memorably by Lee J. Cobb. Cobb may be lesser known to the casual film buff, but his performance here and in On the Waterfront three years earlier make him one of the memorable figures of 1950s American cinema. Here, his blustering bravado and eventual emotional meltdown are amazing to behold.

I could go on and on about this cast. Each juror is beautifully characterized and represents a slice of America -- America circa 1950s that is. Modern viewers will quickly notice that this is twelve angry white men. Nevertheless, human nature hasn't changed and thus this film has aged well. 12 Angry Men is a brilliant study of group psychology, and demonstrates the truth that pressure brings out what's really inside a man -- like when you squeeze a tube of toothpaste, I once heard a preacher say. The fact that the deliberations take place on the hottest day of the year, in an era before air conditioning, only adds to the volatility of the situation.

Orson Welles said that every movie begins with the written word. It's fair to say that 12 Angry Men owes the lions share of it's success to the screenplay by New York writer Reginald Rose. But don't dismiss the contribution of first-time director Sidney Lumet. Still working fruitfully until his death early last year, Lumet was surprised when producer and star Henry Fonda personally recruited him to helm this project. It turned out to be a fortuitous choice.

Lumet faced the exquisite challenge of making what was in essence a filmed stageplay, taking place almost entirely on a single set, into gripping cinema. He achieved that goal with a multitude of inventive camera angles and masterful blocking worked out thru hours of rehearsal (blocking is the stage term used for the movement and positioning of actors within the frame of a film). He also hit on the idea of conveying the increasing tension and pressure of the situation by bringing his camera ever closer to his actors -- finally pushing his close-ups in so tight that the tops of the actors' heads are cut off by the frame. Below are two examples featuring Juror 3 played by Lee J. Cobb (TOP) and Juror 4 "the man who never sweats" played by E.G. Marshall (BOTTOM).

Here's a key scene. Juror 10 (played by Ed Begley) has had enough. At last his heretofor barely disguised prejudice spills out into the open. His memorable diatribe alienates his fellow jurors, even the ones still on his side. The reaction of the jurors who shun Juror 10 by literally turning their backs strikes me as a bit too theatrical, but it's a powerful scene nonetheless. Note the graceful way Lumet executes it in a single shot, concluding with a slow push-in on Fonda as he discusses the concept of reasonable doubt that their verdict hinges on, while his calm demeanor demonstrates the proverbial truth: "a soft answer turneth away wrath."

Monday, March 12, 2012

Hope and fidelity (Grenz)

Stanley Grenz captures well the tension felt by those of us who reject religious pluralism (i.e., all roads lead to God), uphold the exclusiveness of Christ as the only way of salvation, yet are deeply troubled by the thought that someone who never had a chance to hear and respond to the gospel is eternally lost.

To summarize the current situation: The evangelical heart, it seems, would deeply desire to hold out hope that the eternal community will include persons who have been found by the God of the Bible even though they appeared to live beyond the reach of Christian evangelists. At the same time, given the scanty information available in Scripture about such persons, evangelical zeal rightly keeps before the church the crucial task of carrying the good news to persons who have not yet heard Jesus' blessed name.

This quote is found on p. 276 of Renewing the Center, and comes at the end of an excellent summary of the three primary contemporary Christian approaches to other religions -- exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism.

Confessions and Scripture

In the first paper of The Fellowship Theology Project -- which is the doctrinal basis of a burgeoning new Presbyterian denomination (more on that later) -- is a discussion on the role of creeds and confessions in the life of the church. I really like this as an articulation of why I choose to be part of a confessional church and Christian tradition. So I throw this out there for your consideration.

Why should contemporary Christians bother with confessions?

The Reformed understanding of the church’s confessional and theological tradition sees contemporary Christians as participants in an enduring theological and doctrinal conversation that shapes the patterns of the church’s faith and life. Communities of believers from every time and place engage in a continuous discussion about the shape of Christian faith and life, an exchange that is maintained through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Today’s church brings its insights into an ongoing dialogue with those who have lived and died the Faith before us. . . .

Participating in their colloquy frees us from the narrow prison cell of our own time and place by listening to the voices of our brothers and sisters who struggled to be faithful in diverse circumstances. Through their confessions of faith we are privileged to hear their wisdom in the midst of our own struggle to be faithful. We overhear conversations among our forebears that expand and enrich our apprehension of the gospel. Sometimes we simply listen in on their discussion, at other times we pay particular attention to one of their voices, and many times we find ourselves participating actively in lively instruction.

The questions of our parents in the faith may not be identical to ours, but their different approaches enable us to understand our own questions better. . . . Throughout the conversation we are aware that all councils may err, yet because we are not doctrinal progressives we acknowledge the confessions have a particular authority over us: we are answerable to them before they are answerable to us.

What is the relationship between confessions and the Bible?

The confessions are not final authorities; Scripture is the authority that measures all doctrinal, confessional, and theological expression. The Reformed tradition has always understood that while confessional standards are subordinate to the Scriptures, they are, nonetheless, standards. They are not lightly drawn up or subscribed to, nor may they be ignored or dismissed. Being questioned by the confessions is not an exercise in servitude, but liberation from the tyranny of the present that enables us to live freely and faithfully within God’s will.

As subordinate standards, the confessions are not free-standing authorities. They are subject to the authority of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, who is known through Scripture, the word of God. Subordination to the Lord and to Scripture’s witness serves to locate confessional authority, however, not diminish it. The confessions provide reliable guidance to our reading and reception of Scripture, protecting us from self-absorbed interpretation, and opening us to Christ’s way, Christ’s truth, and Christ’s life.

Confessions of the distant and not-so-distant past serve as a guard against what C.S. Lewis called "chronological snobbery, the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited." I eagerly accept the historic creeds and confessions of the church as foundational to my personal understanding of Scripture. Before asking the question 'What do I think this text means?' there is great value in asking 'What have Christians of the past thought this text meant?' In other words: I believe in the communion of saints.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Out Of Your Car, Off Your Horse (Wendell Berry)

In 1991 Berry wrote "Twenty-seven Propositions About Global Thinking and the Sustainability of Cities". They're included in the collection of essays Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community. Here are the first four.

I. Properly speaking, global thinking is not possible. Those who have "thought globally" (and among them the most successful have been imperial governments and multinational corporations) have done so by means of simplifications too extreme and oppressive to merit the name of thought. Global thinkers have been and will be dangerous people. National thinkers tend to be dangerous also: we now have national thinkers in the northeastern United States who look upon Kentucky as a garbage dump. A landfill in my county receives daily many truckloads of garbage from New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. This is evidently all right with everybody but those of us who live here.

II. Global thinking can only be statistical. Its shallowness is exposed by the least intention to do something. Unless one is willing to be destructive on a very large scale, one cannot do something except locally, in a small place. Global thinking can only do to the globe what a space satellite does to it: reduce it, make a bauble of it. Look at one of those photographs of half the earth taken from outer space, and see if you recognize your neighborhood. If you want to see where you are, you will have to get out of your spaceship, out of your car, off your horse, and walk over the ground. On foot you will find that the earth is still satisfyingly large, and full of beguiling nooks and crannies.

III. If we could think locally, we would take far better care of things than we do now. The right local questions and answers will be the right global ones. The Amish question "What will this do to our community?" tends toward the right answer for the world.

IV. If we want to put local life in proper relation to the globe, we must do so by imagination, charity, and forbearance and by making local life as competent, independent, and sulf-sufficient as possible—not by the presumptuous abstractions of "global thought."

If that strikes a chord (and I hope it does) you can read the rest here.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Word of the Day

Donnie Brasco (dir. Mike Newell, 1997)

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Buildings and mosaics

I've been enjoying Renewing the Center by the late Baptist theologian Stanley Grenz (1950 - 2005). I picked this book up on a whim at a used book sale. It was $5 well spent. Grenz is often associated with the emergent church crowd, and Brian McClaren contributes a Foreword. Yet I don't see in Grenz the eagerness to jettison (or water down) unfashionable Christian doctrines that one sees with McClaren, Doug Pagitt, et al. This book seems to me a thoughtful attempt to come to grips with postmodernism in a way that remains faithful to the Apostolic Nicene faith, and that retains a high view of Scripture and the centrality of the church to God's plan of salvation. One of the things I like most about Renewing the Center is it's call for evangelicals to make ecclesiology more central. He suggests that the postmodern turn is an opportunity for evangelicals to recognize how influenced we've been by Enlightenment individualism and empiricism, and a tendency to rely too much on unaided human reason.

But what exactly is evangelicalism? Some have argued that the term has become so broad as to have lost any value. In addition, since the 1970s the word is increasingly associated with political and cultural agendas rather than the evangel (good news) at it's root. Critics are right to point out the problem with that. In trying to get a handle on evangelicalism Grenz cites a classic formulation from historian David Bebbington, which is as good a definition as any. Evangelicalism is characterized by conversionism, activism, biblicism and crucicentrism. Stated that way "evangelical" is a word worth defending.

But back to the book. The first half is basically a theological history from the Protestant Reformation to the late 20th century, and it's a cracking good read. Grenz follows the various streams that flowed from Luther and Calvin and shows how each of them influenced the evangelical movement that emerged in the wake of the fundamentalist/modernist controversies of the 1920s & 30s. It's fascinating stuff. Included are extended discussions of evangelical luminaries like Carl Henry and Bernard Ramm. Grenz is always charitable in his assessments, even when he's critical. His biases do occasionally show, though. For instance, when portraying the legacy of Old Princeton as a victory of arid Protestant scholasticism (the cognitive-doctrinal) over and against a concern for personal piety (the practical-experiential). In my opinion this is a caricature that doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

In the second half the author begins to set out the parameters of the book's subtitle: an evangelical theology for a post-theological era. Here we're in the realm of philosophical concepts and academic jargon, but it remains an engaging read. Grenz agrees with the postmodern thesis that Enlightenment foundationalism is dead. This is the notion that "certain beliefs anchor other beliefs, i.e., certain beliefs are 'basic,' and other beliefs arise as conclusions from them." Foundationalism seeks to gain "epistemological certitude by discovering an unassailable foundation of basic beliefs upon which to construct the knowledge edifice." In this way of thinking the quest for knowledge, indeed the quest for truth, is like building a skyscraper. You lay a foundation and then build it floor by floor. In the quest for theological truth evangelical theologians have imitated the methods of their secular counterparts, who arbitrarily assign religious beliefs to the realm of "nonbasic status". (all quotes from p. 208)

This begs the question: "What killed foundationalism?" The short answer is postmodernism killed it. Postmodernism is one of those words/concepts that's notoriously difficult to get a grip on. I agree with the wag who said postmodern is really mostmodern! In any case one of the insights of postmodernism is that human reason is "person specific" and "situation specific." This is argued by self-styled Reformed epistemologists Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff. Grenz points approvingly to these two eminent philosophers as examples of constructive Christian engagement with the postmodern context. They don't deny the existence of basic beliefs, but they "join other nonfoundationalists in claiming against the Enlightenment that there is no universal human reason. That is, there is no single, universal set of criteria by means of which we can judge definitively the epistemic status of all beliefs." (p. 208)

In summary one's conception of truth is inseparable from one's community.

Plantinga and Wolterstorff acknowledge the inevitability of our being situated in a particular community and the indispensable role our respective communities or traditions play in shaping our conceptions of rationality, as well as the religious beliefs we deem basic and thus by appeal to which we test new claims. And they readily admit the attendant loss of certitude involved with this acknowledgment, for they realize that these various communities may disagree as to the relevant set of paradigm instances of basic beliefs.

The difficulty this poses for any claims to universal truth ought not to be overlooked . . . . Nevertheless, the communitarian turn marks an important advance. This focus returns theological reflection to its proper primary location within the believing community, in contrast to the Enlightenment ideal that effectively took theology out of the church and put it in the academy. More specifically, nonfoundationalist approaches see Christian theology as an activity of the community that gathers around Jesus the Christ. (p. 209)

Grenz further defines that community as one made up of individuals who've had a saving encounter with Jesus Christ and who now find their identity in him. This is not to turn religious experience into a new foundationalism ala Schleiermacher and Protestant liberalism, but it's to make it "the identifying feature of participation in this specific community." (p. 210)

In turn this community becomes basic for formulating Christian theology. Instead of the metaphor of a building, this results in something more like a mosaic.

This mosaic consists of the set of interconnected doctrines that together comprise what ought to be the specifically Christian way of viewing the world. This worldview is truly theological and specifically Christian, because it involves an understanding of the entire universe and of ourselves in connection with the God of the Bible, and the biblical narrative of God, at work bringing creation to its divinely destined goal. (p. 213)

For the most part Christians have engaged negatively with the grab bag of ideas called postmodernism, viewing it (often rightly) as a threat to orthodox faith and practice. But what if, instead, we saw it as an opportunity to articulate a fresh vision of "the faith that was once for all entrusted to God's holy people." (Jude 1:3 NIV) This book is a worthy attempt to do just that. In writing it Grenz saw opportunities where others saw only danger. We need more optimistic books like this one!

Quotes from Stanley Grenz, Renewing the Center: Evangelical Theology in a Post-Theological Era (Baker, 2000)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Lord of the night (Bonhoeffer)

Reading Psalm 74 just now reminded me of a striking passage from Life Together. This comes at the end of a section on the daily corporate prayer life of a Christian family fellowship.

. . . in all the ancient evening prayers we are struck by the frequency with which we encounter the prayer for preservation during the night from the devil, from terror, and from an evil, sudden death. The ancients had a persistent sense of man's helplessness while sleeping, of the kinship of sleep with death, of the devil's cunning in making a man fall when he is defenseless. So they prayed for the protection of the holy angels and their golden weapons, for the heavenly hosts, at the time when Satan would gain power over them. Most remarkable and profound is the ancient church's prayer that when our eyes are closed in sleep God may nevertheless keep our hearts awake. . . . Even in sleep we are in the hands of God or in the power of evil. Even in sleep God can perform His wonders upon us or evil bring us to destruction. So we pray at evening:

When our eyes with sleep are girt,
Be our hearts to Thee alert;
Shield us, Lord, with Thy right arm,
Save us from sin's dreadful harm.

But over the night and over the day stands the word of the Psalter: "The day is thine, the night also is thine" (Ps. 74:16)

Praying that way seems strange to us moderns, unaccustomed as we are to absolute darkness of night (thanks to electricity) and prone as we are to dismissing talk of Satan and evil spirits. It might be good to let those ancient prayers against the powers of darkness shape our own perspective on prayer. It's a gift to go to bed knowing my sins are forgiven and that I'm in the hands of the God confessed in Psalm 74: "God my King. . . working salvation in the midst of the earth."

Working salvation while I sleep.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Tim Keller Q & A

Recently Tim Keller fielded some very tough questions at Oxford University. Now more than ever these are the types of questions Christians need to be equipped to answer.

Watch and listen here

And a hat tip to the blogger who edited these videos!

"In the Next Galaxy" by Ruth Stone

At the end of every year The New York Times Magazine comes out with an issue called "The Lives They Lived". It's sort of an anthology of remembrances of notables -- some famous some not so famous -- who've died in the past year. One of the lives remembered in the 2011 edition is that of poet Ruth Stone (1915 - 2011). Along with an eloquent tribute by U.S. poet laureate Philip Levine is reprinted this deceptively simple little gem.

Things will be different.

No one will lose their sight,

their hearing, their gallbladder.

It will be all Catskills with brand

new wrap-around verandas.

The idea of Hitler will not

have vibrated yet.

While back here,

they are still cleaning out

pockets of wrinkled

Nazis hiding in Argentina.

But in the next galaxy,

certain planets will have true

blue skies and drinking water.

Amen to that.