Friday, December 21, 2018

Middling 2.3: You're Not as Irreligious as You Think You Are

Maybe I’m just tired, but I’m reading especially slowly lately. It’s taking me forever, for example, to slog through The Habit of Being, a collection of letters written by Flannery O’Connor to friends, fans, and people in publishing. In fairness, the book is loooong and DENSE. She was a novelist of great acclaim in the mid-twentieth century; I’ve read some of her stuff and a biography of her interwoven with other great American Catholic writers of the time, and for whatever reason I feel some affinity with her. She has a southern wryness (“I distrust pious phrases, particularly when they issue from my mouth”) and a stark eye for the intersection of God and human life. In some of her correspondence she shares about being called a “hillbilly nihilist,” but she prefers to think of herself as a “hillbilly Thomist,” a reference to the great theologian of the Middle Ages. Her correspondence is well worth reading, but it’s a big ole slog, I don’t mind telling you.

So I’m trying to tuck in other books here and there. One is by a (relative) contemporary of hers: Jesus and the Disinherited, by Howard Thurman. His task was to consider how the gospel speaks into the lives of those with their “backs against the wall,” and in fact how the gospel might be judged according to what “good news” it offers such people. As such, it’s a kind of proto-text for liberation theologies of the later twentieth century. It’s a quick read, mercifully, and his basic argument is compelling. But I found his good news a little remedial—the gospel for Thurman is not so much liberating as it is undergirding for those who are systematically marginalized and oppressed. Nevertheless, Jesus and the Disinherited was formative for Martin Luther King and is maybe best thought of as the grandfather of liberation as a theological thought. We might not be wrestling today with what the gospel demands for oppressed people if Thurman hadn’t written this first. So I’m very glad he wrote it, and very glad I read it.

Just a quick note on some work-related stuff. First, a shout out to Greg Paul, founding pastor of Sanctuary in Toronto. I haven’t met Greg face-to-face yet, but over the course of a couple of years I’ve come to admire him. Sanctuary is stubbornly multicultural, and not in a superficial, look-how-we’ll-we-get-along way. The regular encounter of rich and poor, ethnic majority and ethnic minority, powerful and marginalized has enriched the community’s understanding of the gospel and led to a hard-fought mutuality that has proven good for the city of Toronto. What Greg has learned there is on display in his book Resurrecting Religion, a wonderfully written, powerful argument that you’re not as irreligious as you think you are, and that religion is better than you think it is.

I’ll be honest: The premise for this book seemed a little tired when I first heard it, but a good writer with real struggle credentials can revive a tired topic if it’s true enough, and that’s what Greg has done here. Try it, you’ll love it. You’ll also love Brian Walsh’s review of it, which may introduce you to Brian Walsh as well, if you’ve never had the pleasure.

Finally, for seventeen years I worked in relatively close proximity to the great James W. Sire, who died a few days ago as I write this. Jim is known in the main for two things: his book on Christian worldview, The Universe Next Door, and his editorial stewardship of the late Francis Schaeffer, one of the stewards of intellectual evangelicalism before anti-intellectualism became a thing. Jim was also the editorial director of InterVarsity Press for many years before I came, and a regular lecturer at many InterVarsity campus chapter events throughout the country. Jim was an entirely unique character, with a wit and a charm that we often forget tends to characterize the best thinkers. He was wry and punchy, sharp and savvy, high-minded and down-to-earthy. It was Jim who told me that a PhD is a hoop you jump through so you can say, “I jumped through that hoop.”

I have two favorite Jim Sire stories, one I know second-hand and one I lived through myself:

1. Jim and his nearly perfect wife Marj were hosting and driving around some visitor of the fundamentalist variety. Such encounters are inevitable when you ply your trade in evangelical circles, but extending hospitality and service to such hard noses demonstrates an extra measure of grace. Anyway, they’re driving around, and Jim was indulging his guest in some high-minded theological conversation. Marj interjected with her own insight, one that happened to contradict one of Jim’s assertions. The guest spoke up: “I don’t think it’s right for a wife to speak in opposition to her husband like that. The Bible tells us that wives should submit to their husbands.” Jim turned to Marj and said, Marj, I order you to disagree with me!”

2. Jim was walking another guest through the halls of InterVarsity Press when I bumped into them. He introduced me and said some very nice things about me—Jim was very generous—and ended the introduction with, “Basically, he’s the low man on the totem pole.” Jim was very candid, and very accurate.

I have missed Jim and his nearly perfect wife, Marj, since each of them retired and I saw them less, since I moved to Colorado and haven’t seen them since. I’m sad to think that Jim is no longer out there, mixing it up and holding out hope for an intellectually robust evangelicalism. He was emblematic of a great generation of faithful, thoughtful Christians, and he has now left that work to us.

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This is an excerpt from the Spring 2018 issue of my occasional e-newsletter, Middling. It focuses on books, music, and life in middle age. Let me know if you'd like to be on the distribution list.

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