Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Four Mini-Reviews: Stanley Hauerwas, Catherine Pickstock, Robert Hoch, and Michael Welker

Many aspects of Hauerwas's new book, Approaching the End, will be familiar to his readers. The ordering of the chapters is arbitrary, because Hauerwas first wrote them as essays, and then assembled them into book form. But arbitrary ordering does not signify a lack of systematic purpose. The essays are inter-related. Hauerwas makes interesting assertions in one that may be fleshed out in another.

This is an example of why Hauerwas is so intensely rich. Hauerwas is often fully comprehensible and elusive at the same time.

Second, this book is developing an ecclesiology that Hauerwas has been at work on for some time, and it in some ways is a companion volume to an earlier book, The State of the University, except here he is working out the state (end) of the church.

The basic thesis of the book: Hauerwas is working out the significance of eschatology for understanding how Christians are to negotiate the world. The eschatological ecclesiology of Hauerwas is that the church doesn't have a social ethic, but IS a social ethic.

The strength of this approach is that Hauerwas can work out all kinds of novel and interesting ways of thinking about and presenting the church that might not occur to more traditional thinkers or ecclesiologists. Because he stands outside of the tradition that thinks intentionally about ecclesiology, he offers unique perspective (this is also true, for example, of his commentary in the Brazos commentary series on Matthew, where is work as an ethicist helps him interpret Matthew differently).

On the other hand, in practice it means Hauerwas always stands outside of (and to a certain degree never lands) with any concrete proposal for an eschatological ecclesiology. This has been witnessed in his own life, where (if I have read his memoir correctly) he has traveled over time from one communion to another, not always fully seeing himself situated in any particular tradition.

Hauerwas engages a range of contemporary authors in this book that are worth our attention. His "The End of Sacrifice" is a response to Peter Leithart's book on Constantine. His "Bearing Reality" considers J.M. Coetzee's important novel, Elizabeth Costello. As always, other formative theological influences play as well, especially Yoder, and Barth, and Wendell Berry.

Interestingly, to a certain degree, although the book is about the "end" of the church, it is just so more about our own end. Hauerwas is retiring, and increasingly he has been reflecting on death and how Christians learn to die. He believes that Christianity is training in being human (makes me wonder to what degree he reads Grundtvig), and so life in the church is the place for engaging those practices and that training.

If you have never read Hauerwas, this would be a wonderful place to start. If you are a long-time reader of Hauerwas, you will find things in here to surprise you, clarify your understanding of Hauerwas, and thrill your soul. You will also find plenty to argue with. And that's a good thing.


If you've never read Catherine Pickstock, don't miss out on reading her incomparable first book, After Writing: On the Liturgical Cosummation of Philosophy
  That first book was unique: a defense of the Mass, a reflection on first philosophy in liturgical perspective, a work that exhibited postmodern literary theory in the analysis of the text of the Mass, but by inverting meaning-making so that the liturgy itself is what means.

As a reader of that early book, a work I think back on regularly, I had been waiting a long time for something new from the pen of Pickstock. Her new book, though not nearly as ambitious as that first volume, does not disappoint. It is an analysis of repetition and identity as it plays out in writing and literature. 

What is most intriguing about Pickstock is her commitment to seeing theology as a literary event, or literature as theology. So in this book, part of a series of books that thinks about the role of literature in contemporary educational contexts, and looks at the wider implications of literary reading (and the need for its recovery) in the postmodern context.

Pickstock seems to take her cue especially from Kierkegaard on the topic of repetition, and of course he is a seminal philosopher/theologian who treats the theme in his own work. The book itself is quite programmatic. She works the reader very slowly through a big picture understanding of the nature of repetition, and illustrates it in discussions of various literary texts. This programmatic approach, though very systematic, is lively because of its engagement with the texts.

Pickstock being Pickstock, she then picks up on the theological opportunities latent in philosophical reflection on repetition. After having thoroughly analyzed the phenomenological distinctions between identical and non-identical repetition, she lays out a Kierkegaardian re-reading of recapitulation, and includes a final chapter that reflects on the Trinity and repetition in surprising and generative ways. The second to last chapter does this in an eschatological sense. The final chapter, on the "Repeated God," does it immanently in the Trinity itself. 

As indication of her influences, she offers a brief bibliographic note on her sources. Of course, Kierkegaard's work Repetition is listed first. She also points readers to Irenaeus (on recapitulation) but then also to Deleuze (who like K wrote a book on repetition), but also Sigmund Freud and Dinesen's Babette's Feast. 

If you are fascinated by these issues in theology or philosophy, or if you are intrigued by the ontological and identity issues in literature relative to repetition and recapitulation, this book is for you. Buy it as a companion piece to Pickstock's After Writing. Then give it some time. The two together will change how you read.


I love the way Hoch approaches his topic in this book. Hoch wants to propose church as exilic community, but avoids doing it theoretically. Instead, he travels to various communities he believes illustrate what it means to be church in exile, among exiles, and as antidote to exile, in various places around the country, and in his own hometown.

This way of framing his argument makes complete sense, because church as exile can't be a one-size fits all reproducible program. Instead, it arises out of the local need, the situation that creates exile.

His opening chapter on Postville illustrates how sometimes our national politics around immigrants create situations of exile. He then travels to the border itself, a ministry in Tucson, Arizona. He devotes considerable space to church among and with native peoples.

A particularly fascinating chapter describes the Cherith Brook community in Kansas City, Missouri. Affiliated with Catholic Worker movement, it is a tiny intentional Christian community. In this chapter, Hoch does a spectacular job describing exilic church without valorizing or idealizing it.

Many books on the church in exile are primarily laments for a declining church in North America. This is different. This is literally church at the margins, margins that existed even when the church was (supposedly) vital and growing.

Readers interested in how church can look very different and truly abide among those in exiles, this is a book for you.

Michael Welker's God the Spirit was one of those works of theology that blew open the way I think about God and pushed me in wild new directions, especially his reflections on "fields of force."

Welker has continued to publish regularly in German, and he is back now in English with a systematic look at Christology. It's really a remarkable approach. After an opening salvo engaging Bonhoeffer's question, "Who is Jesus Christ for us today?" he embarks on a survey of the first three quests for the historical Jesus, and outlines a fourth quest for the historical Jesus that, while taking account of the first three, allows for a more multivalent reading of Christ's life.

This first section of the book is already worth the price of admission, because in a very succinct and trenchant manner, he engages the the historical Jesus conversation, synthesizes it, and offers a very creative way forward.

Welker then proceeds to enter the fray section by section on the major arenas of Christological controversy. In the second section, he look at the historicity and scientific verifiability of the resurrection. Welker is a leader in the faith/science ecumenical conversation, and this plays a major role. Transcending traditional models of revivification, Welker argues for a liturgical type of "real presence."

In the third section, Welker approaches the theology of the cross. He starts with Luther (for obvious reasons) but then works his way through Hegel and Nietszche, in order to present a series of theses on what a synthetic theology of the cross might look like for us today. Like the preceding section on the resurrection, this one can be read as a handy primer in a theology of the cross. And it is highly readable.

After a transitional section on vicarious substitution and atonement, Welker moves on to the exalted Christ and his reign. Here is where Welker's previous work on the Holy Spirit comes into play. He proposes a Spirit-Christology, the coming reign of God as emergent reality and the power of free, creative self-withdrawal on behalf of others.

God in this Spirit is what humanity in it human-ness is conforming to... it is also public and eschatological.

In a final section, Welker meditates on the two natures (fully God, fully human) through a liturgical lens, first in baptism, then in communion. He first surveys the literature on the two natures, works his way through the sacramental material, and finally concludes with a fascinating inquiry into Christ's prophetic presence over against the governments and systems of the contemporary world.

If you have never, or seldom, read a work of Christology, this book would be a fantastic place to start. It surveys a lot of literature in a very clear and compelling manner. If you are a regular reader of systematic theology, this book is indispensable. Welker is at the forefront of contemporary theological reflection, and he synthesizes a vast swath of literature but in a generative and creative way. Highly recommended.

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