Saturday, May 08, 2010

Robert Farrar Capon Is a Genius, Part Three

I'm fast approaching the age of tenure--that point slightly past middle age where my station in life is nearly insurmountable but likewise nearly unimpeachable. I will either be or not be among the power elite; I will either be or not be among the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. "I am what I am," Popeye the sailor man said on what I can only imagine to be the occasion of his fortieth birthday, "and that's all that I am."

I know, I know, I'm being fatalistic. But there are benefits to fatalism; "It's no good," Jesus told the apostle Paul, "to kick against the goads"--meaning that attacking others in order to justify oneself is tantamount to courting madness. Jesus offers Paul this insight, Paul tells us in Acts 26, as advice to stop being such a Pharisee about everything, to stop wonkishly banging the fledgling Christian movement over the head with his Torah, and to start noticing the strange warming and pulse-quickening taking place in his heart every time he stumbled over some evidence that Jesus is Lord.

Paul, it turns out, was kicking those Christian goads out of a futile desire to maintain a system that needn't be maintained; this was not his faith-system's enemy but its fulfillment that he was railing against. Jesus wanted him to stop stubbing his toe and start dancing, for Messiah had come and all things were being made new.

Paul, to his credit, stopped kicking and started dancing. Many of us--some of us intermittently and too many of us persistently--prefer to kick. That is Robert Farrar Capon's chief complaint, as I understand it, in his three-volume series on the parables of Jesus, compiled in the Eerdmans book Kingdom, Grace, Judgment. I've been loving this book for 515 pages; I blew a lot of ink underlining and starring stuff. I'll be chewing on some of his insights for a long time coming, but one of them isn't so much a chin-stroker as it is, in my mind, a no-brainer.

As a publishing professional in the Christian book industry, I'm awash in a sea of nitpicking. In fact, nitpicking is my particular field: I edit people's books, which contrary to far too many of even my friends' opinion is far more than glorified spell-checking and comma-fascism. No, I nit-pick people's ideas, back-seat-driving the Ford Festivas of their faith. "Turn here," I wheeze; "I wish you had taken the tollway," I sneer; "Just let me off here," I pout, "this car isn't going anywhere." That's how I make my living: kicking other people in the goads.

I justify my vocation by a simple acknowledgment: better to get your goads kicked in private than to have them punted and pelted in public. Editing in this respect is a pre-emptive strike, since the one thing we can count on in Christendom, as in the marketplace of all ideas, is the axiom branded on my friend Dan's blog: "Whatever you do [or, in this case, type], there will be critics."

I won't go into the psychology behind the pervasive impulse to tear down other people's constructs. Suffice to say that people predictably attack one another's ideas, and only a precious few recognize their capacity to do so and make efforts to constrain themselves. But one big dividing line between those who critique and those who suffer their critique is the line of entrenched institutionalism. And "suffer" is the right word for the impact when the critique comes from those with tenure: well-intended thinkers and doers are marginalized and even demonized for daring to meander away from the status quo or the orthodox opinion; they're excommunicated or worse for tipping sacred cows, or even for pointing out their spilt milk or--if I may be permitted to take an analogy slightly too far--the stench of their manure.

Capon addresses this power-driven impulse toward character assassination in a passing comment; he doesn't dwell on it, so I'm doing so on his behalf:

Powers that be are always expert sniffers of the wind and testers of the waters. They can spot a threat to their system a mile off: all they need is half a sentence from a professor or the odd gesture from a political figure and their heresy alarm goes off. (p. 349)


I confess I have a few people in mind as I read, type and post this. Capon wrote this two decades ago; for all I know, he may be on the side of the wind-sniffers and water-testers in the controversies I'm thinking of. But what such prescience on his part tells me is that

*No age is safe from those who protect power by kicking those who operate outside of it.

*None of us is immune to the impulse to protect our own power by any means necessary.

Given that Capon sees Jesus as working through leastness, lostness, littleness and lifelessness, and given our predilection to acquire and protect power, it's possible that our only hope for keeping in step with Christ as Lord is to actively and perpetually marginalize and excommunicate ourselves, and only then to raise concerns about the orthodoxy of others. Maybe--just maybe--anything else is of the devil.

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