Thursday, May 30, 2013

How the unsettling presence of newcomers can save the church

Jessicah Krey Duckworth has written the "practice of Christian ministry" book of the summer! I can't praise it enough. If you've been pondering what it means for the church to truly welcome newcomers and be transformed by the encounter while simultaneously offering space for discipleship for newcomers and current members.... then learn from her. I hope to have our entire catechumenate leadership team read the book this summer. It's that important.

A provocative thesis: "The church is rightly church when newcomers are present." "The church does not seek permanence with established membership as the solid foundation, but fluidity and movement of newcomers and established members together. Thus, the life of the church depends upon a newcomer's presence within the body of Christ. Newcomers may be an unsettling presence, but they are saving the church."

This book functions well on a number of levels.

1)For congregational leaders re-thinking how they welcome, educate, equip, and disciple newcomers, this book offers extensive food for thought.

2) For those looking for a brief and accessible introduction to the catechumenate, this is the book. Middle chapters describe the way the catechumenate is practiced in a variety of congregations around the country, focusing especially on ELCA congregations reinvigorating the practice.

3) For those seeking a theological rationale for ministry not simply to assimilate newcomers, but to actually walk in the way of discipleship with them, this book is without peer. She fleshes out what an "ecclesia crucis" can look like in actual practice.
"For those tired of approaches to church that function with a bounded set understanding, where there are outsiders and insiders, this book offers a centered set approach, where the focus is on mutual engagement with the questions newcomers have, and a shared journey together. She writes, "Lest we imagine there is no distinguishing factor between Christian and non-Christian practices, it is important to clarify what a boundary looks like in a postmodern understanding of culture. The 'distinctiveness of a Christian way of life is not so much formed by the boundary as 'at it.'" When established members recognize their Christian way of life is distinct from other cultural, religious, and congregational ways of life, newcomers' questions are inevitably expected and anticipated... newcomers and established members construct a distinctive Christian identity with one another through the task of looking for one." (29)

Whatever you do, go out and buy this book right away... buy the print version, because you're going to want to underline a lot of great sentences, and make notes for yourself on "cruciform catechesis."

Particularly of interest to readers of a more academic bent will be middle chapters on the phenomenology of liminality, disestablishmentarianism, and social learning theory. I found these sections nuanced and helpful in evaluating the subtle aspects of the catechumenate that make it a rich way to weave together traditional congregational patterns in fruitful and faithful ways.

"Newcomers and old comers recognize their discipleship on the way as shaped by their mutual commitment to the task of figuring it out. At the same time, the ecclesia cruces becomes the locus--the space--in which communities of practice arise by designing opportunities for learning through a cruciform catechesis. A catechesis that is shared mutually among all participants, in which everyone's (catechists, sponsors, catechumens, pastors) knowledge is partial and incomplete, and that values the competence of the other as equal to and sometimes even more important than the competence of those who are already is present is cruciform catechesis" (75).

Perhaps the most intriguing chapter is fourth, on designing disestablishment. Churches that welcome newcomers often run into tensions between new incoming members and the existing membership. Duckworth offers an incredibly rich description of how congregations can address this challenge, which she sees as an opportunity for actually forming communities around the cross. Her exploration of the phenomenon of ongoing peripheral participation is particularly fascinating.

If I have one quibble with the book, it is that the ethnographic research she conducted as part of writing the book could itself have been a bit more scientifically rigorous, and represented more transparently in the book itself... not just stories, but data. But perhaps that is for another book. The strength of this one is its brevity, and the power of its interwoven narratives and analysis.

I'm especially taken by her concluding summary of how ELCA congregations practicing the catechumenate respond to newcomers and inquirers of the faith.

- We have a way to welcome you.
- We have a way to encourage and explore your questions about Jesus and the Christian faith.
- We have a way to facilitate your participation and belonging in this church and your baptismal vocation in the world.

Duckworth's book is an invitation to learn this way and deepen comprehension of and commitment to it. Then, the first step in designing a newcomer-welcoming process is to welcome the questions of the very next newcomer who crosses the threshold of your congregation. Bring Duckworth's book along as your companion and field guide in that great adventure.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Church Marketing Sucks

I did not make up the title of this blog post. It's the name of a web site designed to frustrate, educate and motivate the church to communicate well.

Today I visited Sam's Club in Bentonville, Arkansas. I was treated to lunch by an incredibly kind employee of Sam's Club who also worships at our congregation often.

On the way out, I stood in the foyer of the Sam's Club Corporate Headquarters, and looked around. You can see the photos below and to the right.

People often chastise churches for hosting unattractive web sites. And it is true, a lot of church web sites are ugly. 

However, seeing the entryway to Sam's Club reminded me that we could do much more to make our own church facilities, hallways, narthexes, and offices look more like an excellent church web site.

So, two ideas to encourage you in your summer planning.

1) Have you printed really big pictures of the ministries you care about and graced your church walls with them? If not, why not? It communicates who you are.

2) If you have a mission statement, values statement, and strategic plan, are they displayed prominently in your church facility? Are you making plans to get them up there? If not, why not? It will tell your visitors who you are, and remind your congregation weekly of its core values and vision.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Did the new pope just say even atheists are saved?

This week Pope Francis's Wednesday homily made the headlines. Since the press, most Protestants, and lots of other people are prone to mis-hearing and misunderstanding Roman Catholics, it is no surprise that his topic caused a stir.

Here are the touching points:

1) Everyone is redeemed through Jesus, including atheists.
2) Everyone can do good, even non-Catholics or non-Christians
3) Pursuing that which is good is a a place of encounter... do good and we will meet each other there.

Here are two key quotes from the homily:

“They complain,” the Pope said in his homily, because they say, “If he is not one of us, he cannot do good. If he is not of our party, he cannot do good.” And Jesus corrects them: “Do not hinder him, he says, let him do good.” The disciples, Pope Francis explains, “were a little intolerant,” closed off by the idea of ​​possessing the truth, convinced that “those who do not have the truth, cannot do good.” “This was wrong . . . Jesus broadens the horizon.” Pope Francis said, “The root of this possibility of doing good – that we all have – is in creation” 
"The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can... "The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!".. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

So let me come out in full agreement with the general line of his thinking. I'll illustrate why I agree with him in what follows. Then I'll also try to illustrate why so many people will persist in misunderstanding his and my theological approach.

Caricatures Hurt, Listening Heals

Here's the rub. The reason why the pope's sermon is big news has mostly to do with outsiders to Roman Catholicism failing to listen to the subtlety and distinctions of Roman Catholic thought, and instead doggedly persisting in caricatures of Roman Catholicism.

The first misunderstanding tends to be this one: "Now the pope is saying you can be saved by good works rather than saved by Christ. It's the Reformation problem all over again. Here we stand. We can do no other. Draw our line in the sand. By faith alone!"

Except that is patently not what the pope is saying. Justification/salvation/redemption is still accomplished "through" or "in" Christ, both for people of faith and for those who lack faith in Christ. The pope is not saying good works save. He is saying those who do good works, even those outside the Catholic faith, are saved through Christ. We would need to enlist Thomas Aquinas to flesh all of this out in detail, but essentially, the good we do is itself already participation in the good that is Christ, so in the Roman Catholic theological system there is simply not a conflict between salvation through good works and salvation through faith in Christ. It's all "in Christ."

Now, this presents its own kind of problem I will come to in a bit, but for the time-being, let's consider it. What the pope is arguing is in alignment with a concept popularized by the Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, that of "anonymous Christians." This is to say, some people (atheists, for example) in doing good are living life in Christ even though they do not (yet) know this. In this sense they are still anonymous Christians. There remains the possibility that at some time they might become overt Christians, but it is not required.

Protestant theologians have often argued something similar. Karl Barth is the premier example. For Barth, there is a difference between our cognizance of being saved, and our salvation. You can be saved without knowing it. The truth of your salvation is, in this sense, not dependent on your awareness of it. For Protestants of a Barthian stripe, then, the proclamation of the gospel is still an imperative, because it is a great gift to bring people to awareness of the salvation already accomplished for them in Christ. But their salvation is not dependent on their finally coming to awareness of their salvation in Christ.

So, returning to the Pope's sermon, it is fairly clear he is operating with the "anonymous Christian" concept in his sermon. As I mentioned, this does present one problem. What if the atheist he said is being redeemed by Christ doesn't desire to be redeemed? What if the atheist responds, "No thank you, I don't want to be a part of your eschatology." The model the pope is espousing is in this sense at least mildly presumptive. It assumes that his vision of the ends of humanity is wider or more true than the atheist vision. We'd need another blog post to cover this territory, but I raise it here just to note that not all peoples of the world are going to be reassured by the pope's sermon that ALL are redeemed.

But what else is the pope (or any Christian, for that matter) to do? If we believe Christ is the salvation of the world, it's rather hard for us to not at least hope that salvation in Christ is extended not just to believers but the whole of humanity, even the whole of creation.

But returning to the Christian perspective, I offer two additional insights that I hope will help readers understand more fully why this matters so much to us as preachers of the gospel, why Lutherans and Protestants can faithfully embrace the pope's viewpoint, and why it does require some creative thinking.

Extra ecclesiam nulla salus

So there's this really old Latin phrase, "outside the church there is no salvation." The most recent Roman Catholic catechism interprets it to mean, "All salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body."

So, you could, if you wanted to, interpret the phrase to mean that you are only saved if you are in the church. But again, this is a failure of imagination. What the phrase really says is that salvation comes through the church, which is the body of Christ. In other words, the church is an instrument of salvation, perhaps the preeminent one, essential to the economy through which God is redeeming the whole world in Christ. Nevertheless, the church is for the sake of the world, not a bounded set all the insiders of which are guaranteed salvation.

So many people seem to interpret it in this second sense, and in so doing lack grace, and imagination.

Faith in Christ, Faith of Christ

In this last part, please bear with me as we get a little technical with some Greek grammar. Protestants have tended to put a lot of emphasis on salvation through our faith in Christ. The emphasis here is on our belief. You have to believe.

However, in the New Testament, the phrase often translated as faith in Christ can be with equal integrity translated as the faith of Jesus Christ.

For those who want all the fancy terminology, here's the opening paragraphs of a great blog post on the topic...

The interpretation of Iesou Christou as an objective genitive (faith in Jesus Christ) in Galatians 2.16 and 3.22 (cf. Php 3.9) is the overwhelmingly pervasive reading of that construction. Fairly recently, however, scholarship has had to come to terms with the work of many scholars such as Richard B. Hays, who argues most strenuously that our modern fixation on the freedom of the individual conscience distorts Paul’s concerns. In his article, “Jesus’ Faith and Ours” (Theological Students Fellowship Bulletin, 7 No. 1 [S-O 1983], 2-6), Hays argued that nowhere in Galatians 3 does Paul place any emphasis on the salvific efficacy of “believing,” and nor does he speak of Jesus Christ as the object of human faith. Paul insists that we are redeemed/justified by Jesus Christ’s faithfulness (pistis Iesou Christou) on our behalf, not by our believing.

The case for the subjective genitive interpretation (faith/faithfulness of Christ Jesus) is grammatically the most obvious. BAGD notes that translating the genitive as “in” is possible with reference to pistis, but acknowledges that pistis is usually found without an object. Moreover, translating the genitive as “of” is most commonly preferable with most other words. Noteworthy among the arguments for the subjective genitive view is that when pistis takes a personal genitive it is almost never an objective genitive (cf. Matt 9:2, 22, 29Mark 2:5; 5:34; 10:52;Luke 5:20; 7:50; 8:25, 48; 17:19; 18:42; 22:32; Rom 1:8; 12; 3:3; 4:5, 12, 16; 1 Cor 2:5; 15:14, 17; 2 Cor 10:15Phil 2:17Col 1:4; 2:5; 1 Thess 1:8; 3:2, 5, 10;2 Thess 1:3Titus 1:1; Phlm 6; 1 Pet 1:9, 212 Pet 1:5). Douglas Campbell, an advocate of the subjective usage, has been accused of being too dogmatic or dramatic by Brian Dodd, who has sympathies with the subjective camp, because Campbell makes the statement that how we take Paul’s usage of pistis Christou Iesoumight “open up the possibility of a major reevaluation of Paul’s . . . theology as a whole.” However, Hays in both the article mentioned above and his dissertation,The Faith of Jesus Christ, highlights the significance of this alternative translation when he makes the statement that in Galatians, Paul insists we are justified by Christ’s faith/faithfulness, not our believing.

Steve Douglas concludes in his blog post, "The case is, then, rather strong for the belief that the faith that we stand upon is not our own, but that of Jesus, upon whose merit alone we may hope to be justified."

In other words, perhaps it is the Protestant tradition that has been in error all of this time, placing such strong emphasis on a misinterpretation and failed translation of a key concept in Paul. If we are indeed saved by the faithfulness of Christ rather than our faith in Christ per se, this frees us up for all kinds of things, including...

Do Good and We Will Meet One Another There

I love this line of the pope's sermon. He is seeking common ground between people's of various religious commitments. In the strict theological universe that sees stark lines between Catholic and Protestant thought, the job of the faithful is to draw lines in the sand, illustrating why the pope is so wrong, so troubling. But if indeed Christ's faithfulness is our salvation, then we are set free to go meet the other in the common ground we share in creation, in Christ.

Jesus broadens the horizons. Indeed. Jesus broadens the horizons to such a degree that we can no longer even see them. There is, in the famous lines of U2, No Line on the Horizon. The expansiveness of Christ's grace is so immense, it leaves us reeling and unsettled, until we stumble into our neighbor, whoever they are, and then we meet each other there.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Best quote ever anticipating Trinity Sunday

The phenomenology of the transition from primary reflection to secondary reflection can be a very helpful model for properly locating trinitarian doctrine in relation to Christian faith as a whole. Within the dialectic of primary and secondary reflection, the development of trinitarian doctrine cannot be simply another item of primary reflection, as if people decided at some point to add to the list of Christian beliefs the odd notion that God is both three and one. Rather, it represents a secondary reflection that was motivated by the necessity of reconceiving the entirety of Christian faith in light of certain breaks in the flow of Christian experience. The very formulation of trinitarian doctrine has nevertheless objectified it, making it simply another item in the list of Christian beliefs. Thus instead of appropriating trinitarian doctrine as a unification of Christian experience, we are stuck on asking how to conceptualize the objective referent to which that item of faith refers. What we need is a reinvolvement in the secondary reflection that brought about the formulation of trinitarian doctrine. We need to reexperience the disruptive breaks that led to the development of trinitarian doctrine as secondary reflection in order to "make strange," and thus rediscover, the holistic meaning of trinitarian doctrine. Therein lies the particular and indispensable virtue of engagement with the process of the development of doctrine.

Excerpted from Retrieving Nicaea by Khaled Anatolios, p. 35

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

From my bishop after the tornadoes in Oklahoma


Late this morning, I was part of a teleconference with Oklahoma VOAD (Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters) to discuss needs and the coordination of resources for the disasters in Carney, Little Axe, Shawnee, Newcastle and Moore.  They affirmed several things that I put in my letter this morning in terms of our immediate response to the disaster. 

1. Our best immediate response is to hold up everyone involved -- both victims and first responders -- in prayer.

2. Making monetary donations are best.  To address immediate needs, please direct donations to the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma or the Central and Western Oklahoma Region Red Cross.  To address long-term needs, please send donations to the Arkansas-Oklahoma Synod Office. Online donations can be made through the Synod Website. 

3. Individuals with specific training (i.e. licensed mental health professionals) should contact the Red Cross before heading to OKC. 

Some things are not needed right now:

1. In-kind donations.  The infrastructure for receiving, storing and distributing in-kind donations is not in place yet.  Also, those who have lost their homes do not have anyplace to store in-kind support either.  In-kind donations will be needed down the road. We'll let you know what is needed and when.

2. Individual or group volunteers.  Again, the infrastructure for coordinating work groups and individuals who want to help is simply not in place yet.  At this stage, volunteers can actually get in the way and slow down the work of first responders and trained search and rescue personnel.  You can start to plan for these groups and we will let you know when they are needed.

This recovery will take a long time.  Groups and donations will be needed for some time to come.  While we all want to help immediately, patience is required.  Thank-you all for your care, your compassion and your concern for the people of Oklahoma.

Bishop Mike

Monday, May 20, 2013

The New Digital Age

Start reading this book, and the breathless descriptions of what will happen in the future will catch you off guard. This book sounds like two men describing the new digital age as utopia, everything better and brighter and more beautiful. At first, it's almost relentless. I caught myself saying over and over, "Yeah, right... like all of this is every going to come true, or be as wonderful as the authors seems to be arguing it will be."

But then you keep reading. And you realize this isn't wish fulfillment per se (although in a certain sense all futuristic prognostications are wish fulfillment), but rather an amazing brainstorming session describing what the future in all likelihood really will look like, envisioned by two authors who know more about the impact of digital media on geopolitics and culture than almost anyone else.

I'm reminded of that notorious quote by an aide of Karl Rove's. The aide said that guys like [the reporter interviewing him] were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore." He continued "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

Well, if anyone is an empire, Google is an empire. It's a benevolent empire. Their motto is, "Don't be evil," after all. But they are an empire.

So if you want to catch up with reality as it is being created, you need to read this book.

If you keep reading, you'll also discover that this is not utopia Schmidt and Cohen are describing. Different economies, different nations, different cultures, are going to embrace and relate to new digital media in different ways. But in each case, again, the authors are fairly convinced the kinds of technologies they are stewarding into being will have the net effect of improving and even perfecting reality.

In this sense, the subtitle has a double meaning. First, it is simply true that digital media is reshaping the future of people, nations and businesses. But it is also true, for better or worse, that Schmidt's and Cohen's peculiar approach to digital media is itself steadily reshaping the future.

These two are in the business of creating the future they imagine. That they have actually taken the time to write down on some scraps of paper the visions they are currently enacting is remarkable.

Disbelieve it if you will. Argue with it you must. But what you can't do is discount that Google is doing its level best to make what is described in this book not as an alternative future but a future-present reality.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

An Ecclesiology that "Starts with the Spirit"

Last weekend at synod assembly you were discussing the decline of Protestantism in America. On Facebook your theology-nerd friend was proclaiming, once again, the Barthian notion that the church is a Word-Event. Meanwhile, your child moves home from college with a book on communio-ecclesiology, and says the source and norm of church is the Eucharist.

Then Brian McLaren comes and knocks on your door and wants to talk about emergent Christianity. That night, you go to an art exhibit and Alan Hirsch is there discussing the missional church. Some Pentecostals walk in and start singing in tongues.

Okay, so this never happened in reality. But if you are paying attention to reflections on ecclesiology (theologies of 'the church') then in all likelihood you've had at least some exposure to almost every single one of these streams.

So which is it? Is the church a word-event, or communion, or missional, or emergent, in decline, or what?

Here's where Cheryl M. Peterson's recent work, Who Is the Church?: An Ecclesiology for the Twenty-first Century, gets to work. In four laconic chapters, Peterson walks the reader through Protestant decline, neo-orthodox Word-Event ecclesiology, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox inflected communio-ecclesiology, and missional/emergent theologies of the 21st century.

Many readers will not find anything especially new hear, but the one thing that will be new is itself worth the time. Peterson ably lays each of these ecclesiologies side-by-side in lucid detail. The early part of her book is analysis, after all, rather than innovation.

So first, Peterson wants us to stop dreaming Christendom dreams. Many if not most people are no longer looking to the church for the kinds of volunteer and community resources they did in the last century. There are many contexts to volunteer and build community in the 21st century. The church is just one. To stop dreaming such dreams, the church needs to discover once again what it is for, and who it is.

One faithful push in this direction is an approach to church as Word-Event. Informed by theologies of Barth and Forde, this ecclesiology sees the church as in a sense "created" by the proclamation of the gospel. This places emphasis on the God who acts, and centers the church in the Word. Peterson's primary concern with this model (a model she views primarily positively, it should be added) is that it focuses on the Spirit's work of gathering the church rather than sending the church.

Vatican II, especially in the work of Yves Congar, centered much of the global conversation on ecclesiology in communion ecclesiology. Here there is a quest for the unity of the church, grounded in God's communion as Trinity, and our communion with God in the Eucharist. Engaging the work of Robert Jenson and Phil Butin (my neighbor here in Fayetteville!), Peterson notes how communio-ecclesiology both centers and de-centers the church. "The gracious privilege of participating in the koinonia of God's trinitarian life cannot be possessed or kept by the church" (Phil Butin, 76).

Which leads us to the missional/emergent tradition currently shaping much of present-day ecclesiological conversation in North America. Engaging especially the work of Craig van Gelder and Darrel Guder, Peterson argues that Van Gelder's Spirit-led ecclesiology offers sufficient critique to the Guder emphasis on the missio Dei in that it notes that the missio Dei begins with the Spirit.


In the last two chapters, Peterson offers her constructive argument. Drawing on "Pentecostal" insights, Peterson begins with a narrative method, allowing the story in Acts and the creeds itself to narrate  a pneumatologically informed ecclesiology.

Building off of George Lindbeck's Israel-like ecclesiology, and taking this "interfaith" and ecumenical approach with full sincerity, Peterson proposes that the church "receives its particular identity and purpose through the Holy Spirit, which in the Acts narrative is promised by Jesus after his resurrection and received at Pentecost" (105).

From Acts, Peterson takes her cue, and proposes three roles for the Holy Spirit in relation to the church:

1) The Spirit is mission director, guiding and directing the church's witness by giving prophetic speech to various leaders in the church, who are described as being 'filled with the Spirit' in order to witness to Jesus.
2) The Spirit as 'verifying cause' by which certain groups are incorporated into God's eschatological people.
3) The Spirit as supervisor and sustainer of those in Christian community or koinonia.

After a brief chapter illustrating how the ecumenical creeds teach us to develop our ecclesiology "starting with the Spirit," Peterson offers an epilogue, a vision for revival. This is quite different from a "plan for survival" (another type of ecclesiology Peterson warns readers away from in her first chapter).  For Peterson, a Spirit-breathed church will reflect the experience of new life that the Holy Spirit brings in and through us.

Peterson's book is a great starter book on a pneumatologically-informed ecclesiology. I look forward to her next book, which I hope will be an even more in-depth constructive theology of the church that starts in the Spirit.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Great Summer Reads 2013

I know, I know. Not everyone goes around creating summer syllabi. And most of us
are completely able on our own to select books to read while chilling at the coffee shop or lounging in a canoe.

Nevertheless, I can't help myself. So here are five-ish recommendations, great books to read this summer that won't leave you disappointed, may change your life, and at the very least will give your head some elevation if you packed your tent but forgot your pillow.

First, consider reading a straight up work of ecclesiology. Friend and colleague Cheryl Peterson has a new work out about which I'm totally excited. Periodically we need to be invited to re-think what we mean by "church." Cheryl's book "starts with the Spirit" as it considers what the church is for, what the church is.

Second, Rich Melheim's offers a compelling case for energizing simple faith formation rituals in the home. He not only encourages us, but offers us a path for making it happen. We are going to try and get Rich to come to Northwest Arkansas this fall. He's fun and full of energy and you will love this book.

Third, a book quite like Melheim's by Bruce Feiler, New York Times best-selling author, is also about helping families flourish. My wife and I are reading it this year and going out for meals and conversation around it.

Fourth, I don't think you'll be disappointed if you read The New Digital Age. Since Google has such an incredible influence on all of us, it isn't bad to know a little bit about the approach to our era their leading thinkers and leaders are considering.

Finally, I'm going to recommend two serious works of theology. This won't be for everyone, but if you've never read or seldom read theology, you might try it out. Retrieving Nicea is the more difficult read of the two, but helps offer historical context for Nicene Trinitarian theology. The other From Pentecost to the Triune God is a work by a Pentecostal on Trinitarian theology. It's very, very readable, and helps readers think about the Trinity starting from the Spirit.

As a kind of "sixth," let me recommend a book you can download for free, and that will free you and your community to "How Much Is Enough: A Deeper Look at Stewardship In Age of Abundance" to live in God's abundance. I'm recommending to all of my parishioners who lead our stewardship ministries or who hope to encourage us to greater faithfulness in this area to read this set of essays some time during the summer.
This is the bonus section. Other books I'm recommending or plan to read, in various genres:

A book on writing: Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

My main sci-fi read this summer: The Human Division

A book on improv: Bossypants

I most definitely and especially welcome readers' recommendations in the comments. Happy reading this summer!

And if you've read this far, two more books, forthcoming in the summer or early fall, that need to go in your purchase queue:

Monday, May 06, 2013

Tolkien, Elves, and Resurrection

Excerpted from Tolkien's:


But the 'consolation' of fairy-stories has another as­pect than the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires. Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending. I almost would venture to assert that all com­plete fairy-stories must have it. At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite. I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous 'turn' (for there is no true ·end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essen­tially 'escapist', nor 'fugitive'. In its fairy-tale - or otherworld - setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never· to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and·in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

It is the mark of a good fairy-story; of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the 'turn' comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.

Even modern fairy-stories can produce this effect sometimes. It is not an easy thing to do; it depends on the whole story which is the setting of the turn, and yet it reflects a glory backwards. A tale that in any measure succeeds in· this point has not wholly failed, whatever flaws it may possess; and whatever mixture or confusion of purpose.

This 'joy' which I have selected as the mark of the true fairy-story (or romance), or as the seal upon it, merits more consideration.

Probably every writer making a secondary world; in fantasy, every sub - creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it. If he indeed achieves a quality that can fairly be described by the dictionary definition: 'inner consistency of reality'' it is difficult to conceive how this can be, if the work does not in some way partake of reality. The peculiar quality of the 'joy' in successful Fantasy can thus be explained :as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a 'consolation' for the sorrow of this world,· but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, 'Is it true?'

The answer to this question that I gave at first was (quite rightly): 'If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world.' That is enough for the artist (or the artist part of the artist). But in the 'eucatastrophe' we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater - it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world. The use of this word gives a hint of my epilogue. It is a serious and dangerous matter. It is presumptuous of me to touch upon such a theme; but if by grace what I say has in any respect any validity, it is, of course, only one facet of a truth incalculably rich: finite only because the capacity of Man for whom this was done· is finite.

I would venture to say that approaching the Chris­ tian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the cor­ rupt making; creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels - peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: 'mythical' in their perfect, self-contained sig­nificance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe: But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man's ·history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the 'inner consistency of reality'. There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.

It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be 'primarily' true, its narra­ tive to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had pos­ sessed. It is not difficult, for one is not called upon to try and conceive anything of a quality unknown. The joy would·have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree (The Art is ·here in the story itself rather than in the telling; for the Author of the story was not the evangelists); as the joy which the 'turn' in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth. (Otherwise its name would not be joy.) It looks forward (or backward: the direction in this regard is unimport­ant) to the Great Eucatastrophe. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is pre-eminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. Because this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men - and of elves.

Legend and History have met and fused. But in God's kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the 'happy ending'. The Christian has­ still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be rede­emed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.

Want to hear more? Listen to these podcasts, lectures by Professor Gregory Walter of St. Olaf College on "what a fairy story is.

Part One:

Part Two: