I love to read spiritual or theological memoirs. This type of literature has been around almost since the beginning of Christianity (although found in some other faiths, too). One of the great classics is St. Augustine’s Confessions which also includes his theological concept of time. Others include St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul, The Life of St. Teresa of Avila by Herself, John Woolman’s Journal, George Fox’s Journal, and so many others. The Baptist tinkerer-turned-preacher, John Bunyan, wrote two, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners and the allegorical Pilgrim’s Progress.
I got hooked on spiritual/theological memoirs in college. I was attending a conservative evangelical college (now university) in South Florida and I didn’t really fit in–my style of faith and spirituality (not to mention my politics) went against the stream of the cookie-cutter conservatism that was the official ideology. (I really should have transferred to another college.) The major target was “liberalism.” I was a political liberal, but not a theological one. One day I came across Harry Emerson Fosdick’s The Living of These Days. I loved it. Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t just adopt Fosdick’s theology as my own. That’s not the value of spiritual or theological memoirs. They help you get past the stereotypes and see the other’s struggles and God’s presence in the person’s life. You get to wrestle with their questions and your own and find your own answers. So, I have found help in theological memoirs from many places in the theological spectrum, including those far more conservative and far more liberal than I am. Here are a few of the contemporary spiritual/theological memoirs that I have found especially fascinating. Please, tell me your list.
- Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Living of These Days. Harper, 1967.
- F. F. Bruce, In Retrospect: Remembrance of Things Past. (Posthumous Edition). Baker Book House, 1980, 1993. I read the posthumous edition right after finishing my dissertation–as a break. Wow. Bruce is so chock full of pastoral wisdom that I wish was more widely shared by his fellow evangelicals.
- Ray S. Anderson, Soul of God: A Memoir. Wipf and Stock, 2004.
- Frederick Beuchner, The Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days. Harper, 1991.
- Frederick Beuchner, Telling Secrets: A Memoir. Harper, 1992.
- Frederick Beuchner, Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation. Harper, 1993.
- James H. Cone, My Soul Looks Back. Abingdon Press, 1982.
- Lesslie Newbingin, Unfinished Agenda: An Updated Autobiography. Wipf and Stock, 2009. This Anglican missionary bishop has had one of the largest impacts on the shape of Christian missions and interfaith dialogue. A truly amazing life.
- Carter Heyward, A Priest Forever: One Woman’s Controversial Ordination in the Episcopal Church. Pilgrim Press, 1999. Originally published in 1976, two years after the ordination, with a new forward by Heyward, now an out lesbian and a famous theologian, and an afterward by one of the other 11 women ordained that day in 1974.
- Lewis B. Smedes, My God and I: A Spiritual Memoir. Eerdmans, 2003.
- Samuel D. Proctor, My Moral Odyssey Judson Press, 1989. A major memoir from one of the most important African-American pastors and educators in post-WWII America, a one time president of the Peace Corps, president of two historic black colleges, and of Rutgers University. I have ordered his second volume, finished just before his untimely death, The Substance of Things Hoped For: A Memoir of African-American Faith (Judson Press, 1999).
- Hans Kung, My Struggle for Freedom: Memoirs. Eerdmans, 2003. Just finished this. Very powerful.
- Hans Kung, Disputed Truth: Memoirs II. Eerdmans, 2005. Looking forward to this, which is on order.
- Jurgen Moltmann, A Broad Place: An Autobiography. Fortress Press, 2009. Halfway done. One of my biggest theological influences.
- Cornel West, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud: A Memoir. Smiley Books, 2009. On order. Cornel West is one of my favorite Christian public philosophers.
- William Stringfellow, A Simplicity of Faith: My Experience in Mourning. Wipf and Stock, 2005. In some ways all of Stringfellow’s writings were autobiographical, but this is expressly a memoir from this brilliant lawyer and Episcopal lay theologian who was a guide for many in the ’60s and ’70s.
- Henlee H. Barnette, A Pilgrimage of Faith: My Story. Mercer University Press, 2006. Yes, Barnette was my teacher, but this incredibly moving memoir would touch many others who never knew this gentle saint who died only weeks before its publication. One of the best saints Southern Baptists ever produced–and the kind of life the current SBC CANNOT produce without changing what the SBC has become.
- Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness. Harper & Row, 1970. Repr. HarperOne, 1996. The deeply honest story of the conversion of the founder of the Catholic Worker movement.
- John M. Perkins, Let Justice Roll Down. 1976. Repr., Wipf and Stock, 2006. The memoir of one of the most amazing African-American Christians. His brother shot down in his arms by a racist white sheriff in the Civil Rights era, Rev. Perkins never stopped believing in the humanity of white people and the triumph of gospel grace. Founder of Voice of Calvary ministries in Mississippi, which combines evangelism with community development–a pioneer in faith-based (no government aid) anti-poverty efforts.
- Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, Speech, Silence, Action: The Cycle of Faith. Abingdon Press, 1980.
Of course, many important Christian leaders are far too shy or modest to write personal memoirs or autobiographies. Sometimes outside biographers have shed important light or have created a classic that is almost as helpful as the author’s own writings–a major example is Peter Brown’s biography on St. Augustine, which is a major companion to Augustine’s own Confessions. Another is Roland Bainton’s unforgettable biography of Martin Luther, Here I Stand! The kind of biographer that is especially helpful to people of faith is sympathetic with the object of the biography (one doubts seriously that Brown could have written so helpful a biography of Augustine’s nemesis, Pelagius!), but has enough critical distance to show the warts and feet of clay. Hagiography, uncritical “lives of the saints,” that make the subject seem like plastic statues, are really not helpful, but nor are vicious attacks. Here are a few theological biographies I have found especially helpful:
- Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts. Eerdmans, 1975. Repr. Wipf and Stock, 2005.
- Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography. Eerdmans, 1970. Revised and Supplemented, Fortress Press, 2000.
- David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2004.
- William D. Miller, Dorothy Day: A Biography. Harper & Row, 1982.
- Mark Theissen Nation, John Howard Yoder: Mennonite Patience, Evangelical Witness, Catholic Convictions. Cascadia, 2000. A revision of the author’s dissertation at Fuller Theological Seminary, the opening chapter is the most complete biography available to date of JHY, whose writings are still being published posthumously.
- John Allen, Desmond Tutu: Rabble-Rouser for Peace: The Authorized Biography. The Free Press, 2006. Authorized biographies can be “tame,” but they also usually have greater access to private sources. This is the best biography we have to date of Tutu.
- Christopher Evans, The Kingdom is Always but Coming: A Life of Walter Rauschenbusch. Eerdmans, 2004. This is a great supplement to the earlier work by Paul M. Minus, Walter Rauschenbusch: American Reformer. Macmillan, 1988.
- Daniel P. Fuller, Give the Winds a Mighty Voice: The Story of Charles E. Fuller. Fuller Seminary Press, 2004. Reprint of an earlier edition by Eerdmans. This is an intimate but fair biography of the radio evangelist who founded Fuller Theological Seminary by his son, Daniel–who changed its original shape and reshaped it to the “progressive evangelical seminary” it has become.
- R. Alan Culpepper, Eternity as Sunrise: The Life of Hugo H. Culpepper. Mercer University Press, 2002. In similar fashion, New Testament scholar (and founding dean of Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology), Alan Culpepper has written a sympathetic-but-fair biography of the amazing life of his father, Hugo. Hugo Culpepper, NT scholar and missionary to the Philippines, captured by the Japanese during WWII and held for 4 years, and later professor of Greek and Missiology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
- Geoffrey Wainwright, Lesslie Newbingin: A Theological Life. Eerdmans, 2000. An excellent complement to Newbingin’s own memoir.
Please, Gentle Readers, share your favorite spiritual memoirs and theological biographies.
This is a long overdue contribution to my series on Dialogue-Partners in Theology. I first wrote a post on My Favorite Liberal Theologians outlining those theologians in the liberal/modernist tradition that I find to be indispensible conversation partners in my theological reflection. I then did the same for Conservative Evangelicals and for Jewish theologians and philosophers. But I had promised to list my conversation partners in the wider use of the term “evangelical,” (gospel centered) where the term “conservative” might not apply. I have neglected this now for too long. Part of the neglect was because it is impossible to define the term “evangelical” in a way that invites consensus–and the term has different connotations in the U.S. than outside it.
So, I here refer to those theologians (and theological ethicists) and biblical scholars who are rooted deeply in the Protestant Reformation (both Magisterial and Radical Reformations), Puritanism, Pietism/Wesleyanism, and/or 19th C. Revivalism (and/or the way any and all of these movements have made encounters in Asia, Africa, indigenous cultures in the Americas, etc). They are “gospel centered” in their approach to theology, rather than deliberately beginning with human experience as with liberals. (This is not to say that experience plays no role: the experiences of conversion and/or later “baptisms” or “fillings” with the Holy Spirit play major roles.) The centrality of Scripture for the life of the church is assumed–whether or not a term like “inerrancy” (by whatever definition) is used. There may be correspondences between such theologians and persons in Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox traditions, but there are also differences in both style and substance.
Now, since I have already described my major dialogue partners among “Conservative Evangelicals,” who are within shouting distance of Protestant fundamentalism–at least at times, I am here not including them. Rather these individuals either moved away from conservative evangelicalism or (as in the case of many “post-liberals”) began with another tradition and moved in a more evangelical direction–or simply always had a more mainstream, or ecumenical, or “catholic” perspective on “the evangel,” the Good News of Jesus Christ for the beautiful but sad world. What follows is not an exhaustive list of such persons, but merely the ones who are the dominant conversation partners in my own theological reflection: MY favorite non-conservative evangelicals, if you will. Lack of inclusion should not be seen as a judgment on merit–but no one can seriously engage ALL the important thinkers in any adequate fashion.
For the sake of limiting the size of this post, I will omit all thinkers before the late 19th C. when liberal and evangelical theologians began to diverge sharply in methodology, at the least. (This means I’ll need another post on Voices from the Reformation to the late 19th C. Sigh.) I will include some (not all) of those otherwise classified as “Neo-Orthodox” or “Post-Liberal.” I no longer find either term especially useful.
I. “Non-Conservative” Evangelical Dialogue Partners No Longer Living.
- Karl Barth (1886-1968). Arguably the most important theologian since the Reformation and EASILY the most important theologian of the 20th C. Raised in the household of a conservative Swiss Reformed pastor, Barth studied with the great 19th C. German liberals and initially was one of them–but rejected their entire program when he saw almost every professor he knew sign a statement in support of the Kaiser’s war aims at the beginning of WWI. This crisis in faith led him to rediscover the Reformers (especially Calvin), the Church Fathers, and the “strange new world within the Bible.” Barth was almost the first theologian I read when I started trying to read serious theology. (I think I first encountered him through the essays in The Word of God and the Word of Man and then in Evangelical Theology.) Eventually, in seminary, I would study with David L. Mueller, a brilliant Barth scholar who published much less than I wish he had. I took his Barth seminar and we read most of The Church Dogmatics–Barth’s unfinished masterpiece which is sprawling and not without its faults, but attempts to think through everything from the standpoint of God’s freedom to love the world and humanity through Christ. I have not remained everywhere a Barthian–I especially find his reworked divine command ethics to be greatly wanting–but my view of Scripture remains thoroughly Barthian and my Christology at least largely so. I thought Barth should have taken the plunge to embrace pacifism (he hovered at the edge), but appreciate his caution on universal salvation. Like Barth, I WANT to be a universalist, but I have a real sense of God’s judgment on an unjust world. See further The Karl Barth Society of North America and the Center for Barth Studies.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) unites life, faith, and theology in a way that convinces me over and over again of the reality of God in Jesus Christ. A German pastor from a secular university family, who himself encountered Barth in his studies, Bonhoeffer was a major figure in the church struggle against Naziism as well as one of the plots against Hitler–despite having described himself as a pacifist. Nachfolge -badly translated as The Cost of Discipleship–(See Discipleship in the new Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Works, English Edition, for a much better translation.) laid the basis for my first sermon at 19, “Are You Prepared to Live or Die for the One Who Died for You.” (Bonhoeffer is great. I can’t vouch for my teenaged sermon all these years later!) He began my lifelong wrestling with the Sermon on the Mount in a world of war, street violence, injustice, domestic violence, economic violence, and terrorism. Bonhoeffer’s Creation and Fall allowed me to read Genesis theologically–without needing stupidities such as “creation science” or “intelligent design.” His Christ the Center continues to orient my Christology and his Life Together ended the individualism of my ecclesiology. I wrestle with many great concepts in the unfinished Ethics, but find the result (perhaps because it was never finished) to be unsatisfying in several places, but Letters and Papers from Prison continues to serve me as a better devotional guide than most books on “spirituality.” As a pacifist, I disagree with Bonhoeffer’s participation in an attempt to assassinate Hitler, though Bonhoeffer himself didn’t know one end of a gun from another–but even more do I dislike the way many war-loving Christians (and violence prone Christians) have used Bonhoeffer as an excuse–never wrestling with his assertions that there were no exceptions to the ban on killing and that those involved in the plot would have to deal with both God’s judgment and mercy. Here, Bonhoeffer was more honest than Barth–not seeking some general Grenzfall or emergency escape clause from the call to nonviolence–honestly seeing the desperate plot against Hitler not as a “lesser evil,” much less a real good, but as a failure to find another way that was more faithful to Christ. See further, the International Bonhoeffer Society.
- Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918), the greatest theologian of the Social Gospel, certainly had one foot in liberalism–especially having been influenced by Albrecht Ritschl. But he remained an evangelical and is still a prophet of Christian work for social justice.
- Dale Moody (1915-1992) the Texas Baptist giant. Moody was raised in a fundamentalist setting (combining elements of dispensationalism, free-will Arminianism, and semi-pentecostalism) that could not contain him. A genius I.Q. had this dirt poor farm boy memorizing the Greek New Testament as he plowed the field. Educated at Baylor University, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Union Theological Seminary, and Regent’s Park College, Oxford, Moody became the second Protestant and first Baptist to lecture at the Gregorian University in Rome. An eclectic thinker who once spent a sabbatical living with Emil Brunner in Zurich while commuting daily to Basel to hear Barth lecture, Moody came even more under the influence of Oscar Cullmann and the “Biblical Theology Movement.” Moody’s systematic, The Word of Truth, was an attempt to do biblical theology AS systematic theology. It doesn’t entirely work–but where it breaks down, it usually gives hints at the way forward. Moody’s major influence on me was to reinforce my view that Baptist biblicism could be completely united with critical scholarship and ecumenical concerns.
- Letty Russell (1916-2007) was one of the first women ordained in the United Presbyterian Church, ancester body to today’s Presbyterian Church, USA. She served for years as one of the pastors of East Harlem Protestant Parish, and taught theology at Yale University Divinity School. She was a major voice in ecumenical studies and in connecting first world movements for social justice to those in the Third World. A product of the encounter of Barth and Moltmann with feminism and liberation movements, Russell was a pioneer in feminist biblical studies and feminist theology. I encountered Russell’s work thanks to my own feminist theology mentor, Molly Marshall (now President of Central Baptist Theological Seminary).
- John Howard Yoder (1927-1997). The most important Anabaptist theologian since Menno Simons, it is not true that Yoder’s writings convinced me of gospel nonviolence/Christian pacifism. But his The Politics of Jesus (1972, rev. 1997) was the first theological reflection I read after becoming a pacifist and leaving the U.S. army as a conscientious objector. Yoder CEMENTED my Christian pacifism (c. 1983). I have written deeply on his influence elsewhere. As I predicted at John’s funeral, many secondary studies of Yoder have begun to emerge. Most have serious flaws. I do recommend two secondary studies as showing particular insight, however: Mark Theissen Nation, John Howard Yoder: Mennonite Patience, Evangelical Witness, Catholic Convictions. Eerdmans, 2005 (which is the long awaited publication of Mark’s Ph.D. dissertation done at Fuller Theological Seminary) and Earl Zimmerman, Practicing the Politics of Jesus: The Origin and Significance of John Howard Yoder’s Social Ethics. Cascadia, 2007. I also recommend both these Festschriften or books of celebratory essays, Stanley Hauerwas, Chris K. Huebner, Harry J. Huebner, and Mark Theissen Nation, eds., The Wisdom of the Cross: Essays in Honor of John Howard Yoder. Eerdmans, 1999 and Ben Ollenburger and Gayle Gerber Koontz, eds., A Mind Patient and Untamed: Assessing John Howard Yoder’s Contributions to Theology, Ethics, and Peacemaking. Cascadia Publishing House, 2004.
II. Living Dialogue Partners in Wider Evangelicalism
- Juergan Moltmann (1926-). A German Reformed theologian who has been in major dialogue with Mennonite scholars, Latin American liberation theologians, feminist and Black Liberation theologies, Moltmann has greatly modified my Barthianism. During my first semester of seminary, I read Moltmann’s The Crucified God (1972, ET, 1974)–and would never be the same. For one thing, although I have always believed in the Trinity (because the alternatives, tri-theism or modalism, were so bad), I never gave it much thought. But in The Crucified God, Moltmann shows that only the Trinity can adequately deal with Jesus’ crucifixion–and so it has been central to my theology ever since. Second, Moltmann made me a profoundly eschatological thinker because he showed me that eschatology was not escape from social action. Third, despite his Reformed viewpoint, in The Church in the Power of the Spirit, Moltmann reinforced by Free Church (baptist) ecclesiology–and made me a “near Pentecostal.” Most importantly, Moltmann made me a liberation theologian. I had already read Gustavo Gutierrez and recognized the importance of liberation theology–but Moltmann showed me that I could be a liberation theologian in a First World context. Moltmann had been drafted into the German army in 1944, and surrendered to the first British soldier he saw 6 months later, and spent time in a prison in England, not repatriated until 1948. I have never known whether this former prisoner of war completely embraced pacifism (his statements seem ambiguous), but he reinforced my own commitment to gospel nonviolence. He also showed me how to be an ecological theologian without embracing some “New Age” nonsense like Matthew Fox.
- Stanley Hauerwas (1940-) is the greatest living theologian in the U.S. He grew up in a blue-collar evangelical United Methodist home in Texas and went to Yale Divinity School (and is still angry about Yale). At Yale, James Gustafson mal-formed Hauerwas’ view of the work of H. Richard Niebuhr. Despite Yale, Hauerwas somehow came under the influence of Karl Barth, interested in work on the virtues (which led to dialogue with Catholics for the rest of his career), and narrative theology. Teaching at Notre Dame, he encountered John Howard Yoder and, against his will, almost, became converted to Christian pacifism. He has spent most of his life teaching at Duke University Divinity School weaving these various influences together–and leading a one-person charge against Enlightenment modernism, against democratic liberalism (thinking wrongly that Yoder iss completely on his side there) and insisting that the church become, once more, a counter-cultural community (he’s right about that part). I have a love-hate relationship with Hauerwas. When he’s wrong, he’s very wrong, but when he’s right, he’s excellent. Because he writes “combat theology”–with passion and fury–he’s often sloppy and makes what I consider to be large mistakes. But he gets more right by accident than most do on purpose. Siblings often fight more than strangers.
- Walter Brueggeman (no dates found) is a retired Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary (Decatur, GA), and a minister in the United Church of Christ, having previously taught at Eden Theological Seminary. Educated in the “Christian realism” of Reinhold Niebuhr, Brueggemann has been brought into a counter-cultural evangelicalism by Scripture itself. He is the most fascinating and provocative OT scholar living. The Word comes alive with Brueggemann and he sees all of it as relevant for re-shaping the church in a profoundly pagan, post-Christian world. Influenced both by Karl Barth and by German critical scholarship, Brueggemann is good at making people uncomfortable with the Word. My teacher, John D. W. Watts, a brilliant Old Testament scholar in his own right, assigned me Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination and I’ve never been the same–and a good deal of disposable income has gone toward purchasing many of Brueggemann’s books.
- J. Deotis Roberts( 1927-) is often overshadowed among Black Liberation theologians by James H. Cone, the other pioneer in the field, but in my humble opinion (as a white dude), Roberts is by far the better theologian. He combines traditional (evangelical) Black Church theology with classic philosophical training and a very wide ranging ecumenical and multi-cultural engagement. His contention that liberation and reconciliation must be worked on together has made many think him “less radical” than Cone, but it seems to me that it simply makes him more thoroughly gospel-centered.
- Desmond Tutu (1931-) retired Anglican Archbishop of Capetown, South Africa and former Primate of the Province of Southern Africa (now called the Anglican Church of South Africa), the Most Rev. Tutu came to prominence during the struggle against apartheid as a leader in the nonviolent church struggle against white oppression. Since the end of apartheid, Tutu has led the South African Commission on Truth and Reconciliation and continued to be a global worker for justice and peace. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. I have found his theological works, particularly Hope and Suffering and No Future without Forgiveness to be deeply moving.
- N. T. Wright (1948-). Nicholas Thomas (“Tom”) Wright, Anglican Bishop of Durham, is one of the finest New Testament scholars living. Since I had already encountered the “new perspective on Paul” through others and not found it controversial, I have most been influenced by Wright as a Jesus scholar. I have said more about this here. I’d also like to recommend the online N. T. Wright page.
- Elizabeth Moltmann-Wendel (1926-) was the second woman (the first single woman) to receive a doctorate in theology from the University of Gottingen–a year before her fellow student and soon husband, Jurgen Moltmann. She has been a pioneer in feminist theology. I have especially enjoyed I Am My Body (a theological anthropology) and Rediscovering Friendship as well as The Women Around Jesus.
- Nancey Murphy( no dates found) is Professor of Christian Philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary and an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren. Raised Catholic, she has a B.A. in physics from Creighton University and a Ph.D. in Philosophy of Science from the University of California at Berkeley. She has a Th.D. in Modern Theology from the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley where she met her late husband, James McClendon (see above). She has become a major voice in the dialogue between science and theology, and is a feminist pacifist theologian. She has been a devastating critic of the “Intelligent Design” movement and a major voice in showing how different fields require different canons of reason. She has tried to rework Yoder’s thought into an overall ontology–something Yoder himself resisted.
- Willard Swartley (no dates found) is Professor Emeritus of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and also a former dean of the school. He is a brilliant NT professor whose work has encompassed hermeneutics, interaction with the anthropology of Rene Girard, editing a dialogue between Mennonites and Juergan Moltmann, and a huge amount on the theme of peace within Scripture. He also has written on homosexuality and hermeneutics, where I find him less helpful.
- J. Denny Weaver (no dates found) is Professor of Religion Emeritus at Bluffton College, a Mennonite liberal arts college in Bluffton, OH. He is probably the most important Mennonite theologian since John Howard Yoder. He advances Yoder and the Anabaptists into the post-modern context. Especially helpful to me is Weaver’s The Nonviolent Atonement which argues for a narrative reworking of Christus Victor as an atonement theology which is not at odds with the commitment to nonviolence of the NT. Weaver objects to those theologies which, while claiming that Christians must commit to nonviolence, ultimately have a violent view of God.
- Paul Fiddes (1947-) is a British Baptist theologian, formerly Principal of Regent’s Park College and a Professor of Systematic Theology, Oxford University. In conversation with Moltmann and with liberation theologies, Fiddes has written some profound works that explicate the heart of the gospel, including: Past Event and Present Salvation; The Creative Suffering of God; Participating in God: A Pastoral Theology of the Trinity; Tracks and Traces: Baptist Identity in Church and Theology; Reflections on the Water; and Under the Rule of Christ: Dimensions of Baptist Spirituality.
- Walter Wink (1935-) is a United Methodist theologian and Professor Emeritus at Auburn Theological Seminary in NY. A New Testament theologian and committed pacifist, Wink has one foot in the liberal tradition (including membership in the Jesus Seminar), but was profoundly influenced by the biblical witness of the Episcopal lay theologian William Stringfellow–and through Stringfellow, Jacques Ellul, Karl Barth, and John Howard Yoder. Wink is most famous for his work on the Powers in NT theology and their implications for contemporary church life–in which he proposes not simply capitulation or resistance, but engagement, holding out hope even for the redemption of the Powers. Wink has also been a strong voice for full GLBT inclusion in the church.
- Thomas Oden (1931-) is a United Methodist theologian who, during the 1960s and 1970s, poured himself wholeheartedly into every new theologically liberal fad that came along. Burned out by that experience, he reclaimed his faith from the brink of extinction by rediscovery of the the ancient church theologians, the Fathers (and Mothers) of the Church from the post-apostolic era to Chalcedon. Thus, Oden proposed a return to orthodoxy, but not “neo-orthodoxy,” but paleo-orthodoxy–including a recapture of pre-critical exegesis and an immersion in the consensus theology of the early Church before the split into East and West. He has been also rediscovering Wesley and classic, pre-Freud resources for pastoral care. There is much in Oden’s work I like, including the dismissal of inerrancy as a modern doctrine (it is) and immersion in the work of the Church Fathers (and Mothers). But Oden is a dialogue partner and not a mentor because he seems to see theology as an ivory tower existence–in overreaction to his earlier faddish social activism. Let me put if provocatively: Stanley Hauerwas has often been accused of having a “separationist” or “withdrawal from culture” ethic or ecclesiology. While I think this is a misreading of Hauerwas (a fairer charge would be that those with a tendency toward withdrawal ethics take too much comfort from overly quick readings of Hauerwas’ work), it strikes me as right on the money concerning Oden–which seems odd in an heir of John Wesley whose passion against slavery and against oppression of the poor are a matter of record. Then, too, paleo-orthodoxy strikes me as “fossilized theology.” Like it or not, each age, each cultural context, brings new questions to the tasks of theology that cannot be ignored–although they need not be capitulated to and certainly one might want to address those questions with voices from the far past and not just the recent past. Immersion in Christian classics is never a bad thing–but I don’t see enough in Oden of turning from that immersion back to the world.
- Justo Gonzalez (no dates found) is one of the best church historians and historical theologians living. In his work, I find exactly what I am missing with Oden, the relation of all that went before, and a global awareness of the multicultural church, to today’s questions. (Interestingly, I saw a panel once on “post-modern theologies” which agreed that Gonzalez and Yoder, who were both present, were not post-modern precisely because they had never bought into Enlightenment modernity. Thus, they were not in wholehearted rejection of the Enlightenment,either. )
- Richard B. Hays (no dates found) is a United Methodist theologian and a New Testament scholar at Duke University Divinity School, previously having taught at his alma mater, Yale. Hays began as primarily a Pauline scholar, especially engaging the wok of E. P. Sanders and James D. G. Dunn. But his fame (and infamy) came with the publication of his The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Cross, Community, New Creation a contemporary work in New Testament ethics. In scope it is the most powerful work of its kind currently in print. I loved his defense of Christian pacifism and of sharing possessions, the equality of the sexes, and much else. My disagreement with Hays over same-sex matters (excellent exegesis, but hermeneutics that are inconsistent with his principles and practice throughout the rest of the book) has been well aired on this blog in the series on GLBT inclusion in the church. (It was painful. I like Hays’ work and I didn’t want to be that critical publicly.)
- Miroslav Volf(1956-) is a Croatian by birth and ordained in the Evangelical Church of Croatia, though now a member of the Episcopal Church, USA. He is a professor of theology at Yale Divinity School. A former doctoral student of Juergan Moltmann and a former professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. Volf is immensely helpful in theological reflection on the pain and tragedy of the world. His Exclusion and Embrace written in Los Angeles in the wake of the riots after the aquittal of the police who beat Rodney King, and written while the massacres in the former Yugoslavia were still happening, argues profoundly for Christians as peacemakers in this world–but disturbingly does so by projecting vengeance onto God. (Volf’s views are the kind that disturb Denny Weaver.) He has moved further in his reflections on nonviolence since 9/11 and the declaration of a “global war on terrorism.”
I could add others to this list, including Gabriel Fackre, the late Hans Frei, the late Jaroslav Pelikan, the late Orlando Costas, but these are my major dialogue partners in “wider evangelical circles” except for my personal teachers, but I have spoken elsewhere of the influence of my teachers Glen Stassen, Molly T. Marshall, Dan R. Stiver, and –in my posting on conservative evangelicals, of Craig Blomberg and George R. Beasley-Murray. I think the next installment in this series will focus on Catholic dialogue partners, both ancient and contemporary.
Warning: The following is more of a “rant” than a structured argument for economic justice or any particular policies.
I originally wrote the following before the current recession (and other economic crises) which has led to far more populist class consciousness than previously. I thought reprinting it now might lead to more discussions about how, as we recover from the recession, we can make sure that the economy is also more just. I don’t want just a recovery for the wealthy or upper middle class, but a recovery for everyone: an end to homelessness; quality public education available to ALL; universal healthcare as a fundamental right; a stronger labor movement; a reversal of the widening gap between the ultra-rich and everyone else. This autobiographical segment shows why this is not a new concern for me–and shapes the way I read the Bible on economics.
The great historian, Howard Zinn, has an essay somewhere called “Growing Up Class Conscious.” Boy, do I relate. I grew up in a working class home and when my parents divorced, we slipped to the working poor as my mother worked two jobs trying to keep us from losing the house. I remember my sister, Dottie (there were 6 of us kids before I turned 18), and I trying to figure out creative ways to make dinner when the bills outstripped the paychecks. True, in a few years Mom remarried and, with my adoptive father’s help, we worked our way back into the lower middle class. By the time I left for the military (17), my parents were even enrolled in evening classes at the local junior college.
But growing up as I did meant that I was singled out in grade school because we had free school lunches. We needed them, and I am grateful for this government program, but I resent the teachers that called attention to our poverty by placing us “free lunchers” at the front of the line. It meant that I had no idea growing up what a “vacation” was. It meant that everyone other than myself (the oldest) wore hand-me down clothes and mine were bought second hand. (This finally paid off when the “faded jeans” look became chic in the ’70s because every pair of jeans I owned was faded.) My mother and adoptive father wore their shoes until they were too old to patch–we kids grew too fast for that. I watched my family count out change on the kitchen table as they decided which bills to pay on time, which to put off, which to send partial payments–robbing Peter to pay Paul, they called it. In addition to work outside the family, mom sewed as many of the girls’ clothes as she could and they tried to be proud of her (quite wonderful) work, but were teased because they had no designer labels–not even from K-Mart.
It meant that every kid in the family got a job as soon as they could to help with the family income: By the time I was 15, I had a job in a local vetinarian’s office, plus a paper route, plus 5 families for whom I mowed lawns once a week. All my sisters started babysitting at 13 and got other part-time jobs. Those jobs paid for uniforms for sports teams, too. I started my homework at 10 pm most nights after work and family chores. Usually I finished my homework around 1 a.m. and then could go to sleep. I started drinking coffee at age 10 to stay awake in school. I couldn’t afford to date and most nights I had to stay home to take care of my siblings while my parents went to 2nd, evening jobs. The good thing was that for most of my childhood we had no TV to distract us and so we finished homework and read many, many books–including classics not assigned by any school curriculum.
I was proud of my parents for all they did for us, but society told us they were bad. We were “latch-key kids” who had no parent waiting for us at home after school and supposedly we were what was wrong with the country according to pundits and TV preachers. They ran down my mother for working outside the home (especially the Religious Right did this constantly), but constantly wanted to cut welfare programs used by “lazy welfare queens.” Notice the catch-22: If Mom accepted aid and stayed home, she was a “welfare queen,” but if she worked, she was bad for making us “latch-key kids.”
Most of the time we accepted no government aid in terms of food stamps or housing assistance, but I sure took advantage of the CETA program (I forgot what it stood for) to get a better job as a teen. It was one of many programs cut out during the Reagan years. Can’t be giving handouts to poor people, because then where would we have the money to give in corporate welfare to companies, right?
(Years later, I saw the movie Caddy Shack. There is a scene where the teen hero comes into his family home after caddying for rich golfers and puts money into a jar marked “college fund.” The audience laughed, knowing that college funds are supposed to be investment portfolios. I saw nothing funny in that scene.)
It meant that I never believed the American myths:
- Anyone can be rich who just works hard. I knew plenty of lazy rich people and plenty of hard-working poor people.
- There is no need for government assistance or wealth re-distribution because everyone starts off equal and those who get ahead deserve it. I cannot print my response to that one on a family-friendly blog. I knew the special treatment and “welfare for the rich” programs that gave the upper classes enormous advantages all too well.
I was good in school, but I joined the army at 17 partly out of family tradition, but partly for the college money. There were scholarships I would have qualified for, but I didn’t know them and had no idea how to fill out a scholarship application. I graduated near the top of my class, but had no idea that one was to apply for universities in one’s senior year. No one in my family had been to university, so they didn’t know to advise me. When I became a conscientious objector before my military term was over, I didn’t feel proud of standing up for my beliefs, I felt like a failure–because I had just left the only route out of poverty I had ever been shown. (The military isn’t a cure-all for poverty, either, but I didn’t know that, then.)
Growing up class conscious meant that I could never buy the argument, popular on some blogs I read, that concentrations of wealth translate into concentrations of power only through government and that if we just adopted libertarian economics with minimal government and regulation, the huge and growing income gap in this country would be completely benign. Right. What have ya’ll been smoking?
Further, since my career as an academic theologian failed, I have been returned to the working class. My wife, Kate, and I have worked a minimum of 3 and sometimes 5 jobs between us since 2000–and we still lost a home and a car and became very close to bankruptcy. I say this not to poor-mouth. We made some mistakes and also had a string of bad luck. But the process destroyed an American myth I had believed: that a university education was an automatic ticket to economic security. I have a Ph.D. and my wife has 2 masters degrees–and we struggle every month to keep from slipping into poverty (something that has baffled my parents and grandparents). While our particular circumstances are unique, we are not alone. The “free trade” policies that shipped good paying manufacturing jobs overseas in the ’90s are now shipping hi-tech jobs elsewhere, too. As universities and colleges struggle with their own financial crises, they have created an “academic underclass” of highly educated professionals who teach part-time because schools are shrinking the number of full-time academic positions available.
When our first daughter was born in ’95, I was reminded of much of this. We had a false alarm that we believed was a medical emergency. We immediately jumped into the car and drove to Kosair Children’s Hospital. Molly was fine, but the next day as I took the bus across town to teach, I met a man for whom riding the bus wasn’t an option. He had just dropped his wife and kids off at the hospital emergency room (taking twobuses) and couldn’t stay with them. He was trying to get to work on time or risk being fired. He had to transfer twice and wondered if he’d make it. They had no health insurance and so had not taken the baby to the doctor when first ill, but waited until it was an emergency–but not because they had no “family values.”
And draconic drug laws have made the prison system the fastest growing industry in the U.S., thanks to “privatized prisons.” The system is now fast-tracking young Latinos and African-Americans directly to prison– a new slavery.
It is a middle class and upper class luxury to believe in libertarianism, to believe that de-regulation is good and that companies will “voluntarily” curb their pollution, voluntarily provide safe working conditions, and voluntarily NOT rip off the public or their workers. The view from the working classes shows a different picture.
No one had to explain to me the need for universal healthcare, publicly financed campaigns, unions and strong labor laws, regulated marketplaces, progressive taxation, trial lawyers suing companies to get them to do right (vs. “tort reform” that strips away the ability of harmed persons to hold companies accountable), or strong public schools. I didn’t learn these things from liberal university or seminary professors. I learned them growing up class conscious. While never having been a pure Marxist (I can find the real flaws in Marx faster than capitalists can), I understood point about the worker’s alienation from his or her labor the first time I read it. I had already lived it.
The Right does not intimidate me when it labels every move for worker justice (higher wages, a more progressive tax structure, stronger labor laws, etc.) as “class warfare.” The wealthy declared war on the poor and the working class long ago and have been waging an undeclared war on the Middle Class since 1980. As a Christian pacifist, I am committed to nonviolent struggle, but I have no illusions that the wealthy in this country are on the same “side” as the rest of us. The sooner we wake up to the fact that we are already in a class war and every class except the wealthy are losing, the sooner we can forge winning coalitions between the desperately poor, the working class, and the middle class.
The Katrina disaster exposed the poverty and racism of 21st C. America–although media attention was notoriously brief. And the slow pace of reconstruction shows that “compassionate conservatism” still has other priorities. But the nation is, I think, at last waking up. The various Rightwing ideologies (Libertarianism, “compassionate conservatism”, neo-conservatism) all took a hit in the Nov. 2006 elections (although too many Democrats are still playing defense). Conditions are right to put these failed nightmares out of commission for good in the years to come. It’s about time.
This I Believe (For NPR Radio Series)
Jonathan Marlowe reminds me that I had let the series on GLBT persons in the church slide for 18 long months. I truly apologize, Gentle Readers. I stopped blogging altogether because of depression for awhile and got sidetracked to other things. Also, I found that I had loaned out my copy of Hays’ book and could not give my reply to him entirely from memory. I hope to finish the biblical exegesis today and give final arguments this weekend.
In the meantime, I have decided to turn some of these series into separate pages of posts–reorganizing this blog some. And, for your early a.m. reading pleasure, let me remind you that over a year ago (June ’07) I participated in a “meme” known as “Out of the Closet: Theological Confessions.” The series was revealing and funny. You can find the entire list at Australian theologian Ben Myers’ great blog, Faith and Theology. My contribution is repeated below and if new people participate, send the link and I’ll keep track and let Ben know–because it was great fun and a break of the super-serious discussions.
As started here, there is now a theological confessions meme. I confess that I hesitated to play because, just as some of the others have phrased their “confessions” in ways that might make some folk angry, so my own contribution is likely to ruffle feathers–and I do that enough anyway. But, here goes anyway.
I confess that Dispensationalists in general, and “Christian Zionists” in particular, get on my LAST nerve! In the interests of fraternal correction and Middle East peacemaking, I should strive gently to show disciples of Hagee & Co. where they have misunderstood the Election of Israel in God’s economy. Instead, what I want to do is throw something at them–and I have to restrain myself with great exertion! [I wrote this before the current election year–not knowing that Sen. John McCain would seek and win Hagee’s endorsement for his presidential campaign, nor that they would later mutually repudiate each other. Everything I wrote is still true.]
I confess, despite the above, that I believe the “parting of the ways” (James D. G. Dunn’s phrase) between synagogue and church was the greatest tragedy in church history, dwarfing even the Constantinian warping of the church into the chaplain of imperial power. Any theology, and any ecclesiology, which fails to reckon thoroughly with God’s continued covenant loyalty to the Jewish people is deeply, deeply, flawed.
I confess, though I have learned many things from the late Hans Frei (1922-1988), I find him to have one of the most turgid writing styles in late modern theology. He constantly puts me to sleep.
I confess that before last year, I never heard of John Piper, Rick Warren, or Max Lucado. Now that I have, I don’t think I was missing anything.
I confess that if double predestination turns out to be true, and some people have been “elected to damnation” from eternity, I will be very, very angry with God.
I confess that I often prefer to read science fiction and detective novels when I should be reading biblical studies, ethics, and theology.
I confess I think my aesthetic sensitivities are underdeveloped (my eyes glaze over when someone mentions “theology and the arts”) and this is one of the reasons I find it difficult to grasp people like Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988).
I confess that, after wrestling with the issues and my own homophobia for over a decade and a half, I stand with the revisionists on the church’s sexual theology, vis-a-vis sexual minorities. Although I am still strongly committed to an ethic of either celibacy or monogamy, I now(for several years, actually) support monogamous marriages for same-sex couples, too. Lifelong celibacy is a spiritual gift and I see no evidence that it is automatically granted to all gay or lesbian Christians and LESS evidence that sexual orientation can be “cured.” If this leads to charges of “depravity” charges of defection from biblical authority, and if it leads (as I have evidence it already has) to lost job opportunities in church-related posts–so be it. My gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered sisters and brothers have to endure far more just to be given permission to live without hiding.
I confess to being extremely tired of hearing Christian theologians (usually male; often, but not always, evangelical) dismiss all feminist theology by flippantly referring to the post-Christian Mary Daly or the radical Catholic Rosemary Radford Reuther (and I have learned from the latter), without ever seriously wrestling with or even reading the likes of Letty Russell, Elizabeth A. Johnson, Sarah Coakely, Elizabeth Moltmann-Wendel, Phyllis Trible, Mercy Amba Odoyuye, Elsa Tamez, etc. No one of either gender is beyond critique, but the major currents of feminist (womanist, mujerista, etc.) theologies should be important dialogue partners to all serious theologians, today.
I confess that I find it very disheartening that so many theological bloggers, often with excellent theological educations, are so dismissive of, or even ignorant of, the thought of major liberation theologians–from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and from marginalized populations in Europe and North America.
I confess that although I know that correcting heresy is an important task of theology, I fear authoritarian heretic hunters far more than I fear liberals and heretics.
I confess that I have weak electronic skills. I never owned a computer until it was time to write my Ph.D. dissertation (making do on an electric typewriter before then) and used it only as a glorified wordprocessor until the dissertation was finished. I have never owned a cell phone, blackberry, video game, etc. I don’t know what a “podcast” is. But the new i-phone looks so cool, it may awaken the long-buried techno-geek within.
Many of the people I love and trust the most from my church are enamored of communal living on a subsistence farm. People I admire like Wendell Berry, Dorothy Day, and Clarence Jordan, shared this utopian dream of small farms as ideal church communities. I confess that this sounds like hell to me. I am a confirmed urbanite.[NOTE: This is not to disrespect either farmers or my friends with dreams of communal farming. I worked my grandparents’ farm in summers. I have great respect for farmers–I just don’t want to BE one. I do think that peak oil and global warming will spell the end of SUBURBS–and good riddance.]
I confess that despite my love for the liturgical richness of Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican worship, my abhorrence for authoritarian heirarchies would keep from ever joining those communions even if I did not feel the commitment I do toward Free Church ecclesiology.
I confess that although I agree with Barth in preferring Mozart to Bach, I love jazz, blues, and Southern rock even more. The Kingdom of God had better have some place to get funky.
I confess that one reason I am so very adamant in insisting on a BODILY resurrection (for both Christ and believers) is that I find it quite impossible to believe in disembodied souls. The Christian Hope is not for “spiritual afterlife” or “heaven when we die,” but for Resurrection, for the New/Renewed heavens and earth in the fullness of God’s Revolution. One reason I simply cannot get behind “spiritual resurrection” views (Bultmann’s or Willie Marxen’s, Crossan’s or Borg’s, etc.) is that I find that HARDER to believe than bodily resurrection (though the latter is also a difficult conviction to sustain in a world where “what’s dead stays that way”). If all I were offered was a spiritual resurrection, I couldn’t be a Christian at all.
I confess that I am a personalist and existentialist (but preferring Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, and Camus to Sartre or Heidegger or Tillich). If there is any major heresy to which I am constantly tempted, it is humanism. (I do try to resist.)
I confess I find Cornel West more helpful than John Milbank, Jeff Stout more helpful (at least at times) than Stanley Hauerwas, Paul Ricoeur more helpful than Hans Frei or George Lindbeck, Seyla Benhabib, Iris Marion Young, and Michael Walzer, more helpful than John Rawls on the one hand or Mary Ann Glendon (who became U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican under Bush–one of his better picks) or Jean Bethke Elshtain on the other.
I confess I hope the universalists are right and eventually all are saved and all is redeemed. (See here for the best defense by a theology blogger.) But I cannot bring myself to actually commit to such a view because my sense of impending JUDGMENT is so real. Thomas Jefferson once remarked (thinking of slavery–including his own inability to free his own slaves) that he trembled for his nation when he remembered that God is just. I feel that way not only about my nation, but about the Church, especially the evangelical churches of the U.S.–many of whom are still cheerleading war and torture, have rejected the Sermon on the Mount, could care less about the poor, neglect God’s good Creation, foster hatred for Muslims, etc. I think on these things and I hear God saying in the voice of Amos, “the Day of the Lord will be for you darkness and not light.”
I confess that I have heard Carl F. H. Henry preach twice and both times I was “underwhelmed.”
I confess to being clueless as to what the “Emerging Church” movement is about. Every time I read an explanation, it seems fuzzier than before. I fear that it is “rootless,” but I don’t want to pass judgment without understanding. But the “Friends of Emerging” take the prize for vague descriptions.
I confess I am sometimes envious of the success of other theologians when my own “career” has only resulted in a few small publications and the loss of teaching posts. This envy is sinful, but I would be lying if I said it didn’t exist.
I confess that I think far too many people read John Howard Yoder through the lenses provided by Stanley Hauerwas and I believe this to be a mistake. Hauerwas is important, but he differs with Yoder on many points and, at each of those points, I think Yoder was right and Hauerwas is wrong.
I confess that, despite my commitment to pacifism, I love martial arts movies and the James Bond films–despite their thorough participation in the “myth of redemptive violence.”
Well, this could go on forever, so I’ll stop now.
Chris Tilling recommends the first volume of Hans Küng’s memoirs and alerts us that the German edition of volume two will be out this year. I look forward to these and am glad of Chris’ recommendations for a few reasons: 1) I love theological memoirs. I find that such personal accounts help me to understand a theologian’s work as a whole and appreciate said thinker better. Maybe its my Baptist tradition of personal testimony, I don’t know. But I have read such memoirs from very conservative theologians, very liberal ones and every point in between and found them extremely helpful.
2) Küng ranked #5 on my list of Top Ten Favorite Liberal Theologians. From his early work on Barth to his attempt, from within Catholic tradition, to show the falsehood of papal infallibility, to his careful apologetics (which, unlike most conservative Protestant apologetics, took the skeptics seriously), I have found Küng to embody the promise of Vatican II for Catholic theology (not quite as well as liberation theologians embody that promise, but still significantly).
3) Küng’s works on Judaism and Islam are so much superior to what usually passes for “interfaith dialogue.” Here is a serious Christian theologian who attempts to see two other faiths “from inside” (as much as an outsider can) and interpret them to the outside world. He has been successful enough that his volume on Judaism has drawn great praise from Jewish scholars and his one on Islam the same for Islamic scholars. If we are to avoid new rounds of destructive “wars of religion” in this scary 21st Century, we need to hope that this kind of cross-cultural, interfaith understanding becomes far more common. (Note: This is NOT an endorsement of a Paul Knitter-style soteriological pluralism!)
4) There are many aspects of Küng’s work which I do not yet fully grasp. As I said, theological memoirs usually aid me in such understanding.
So, thanks for recommendations, Chris. This bibliophile’s wish list just keeps growing–even with a severely strained book budget. (This is why, even though the i-phone threatens to reawaken a long-buried techno-geek, I will NOT be purchasing one. I’ve done without cellphone, blackberry, pager, wii, x-box, and more–I can do without i-phone, too. Send books for Christmas, family! What’s that? Oh, my long suffering wife reminds me that all of us need new clothes, my daughters are growing, etc. Would I please blog less and write more for money? Yes, dear.)