Punk Jesus: Hesert’s Christ and the End of Meaning


[H]appy is the man who does not lose faith in me.”  -Matthew 11.6

The shock of death lies in that life ends before meaning is fulfilled.

– Paul Hesert

I found Paul Hesert’s book challenging. Often I could not tell if the concepts themselves were disorientating or if Hesert was overstating his case with a kind of Kierkegaardian starkness. There is something that calls to me here, but I’m not always sure how to put that in language. What follows is my attempt to make sense (am I already implicated?) of this text. The image that came to mind (Hesert doesn’t use it) was of an iconoclastic Jesus (in punk-rock garb, of course), or as a surreal artist deliberately challenging the sensibilities and securities of the comfortable world.

What if the message of Jesus was more destructive of the status quo than we realize? What if the kingdom really was the in-breaking of a completely different world, not a fulfillment of this one? These are themes in Hesert’s nearly forgotten work, Christ and the End of Meaning. He thinks our Jesus is too tame. We need a Punk Jesus. Let’s start with some basic concepts.

(1) Rationality, which includes our myths and images, is employed to “make sense” of life. Something is deemed meaningful if it produces a particular outcome or goal.

(2) Meaning, therefore, is always orientated toward the future, toward both power and possibility.

(3) Christ crucified is a hammer to all forms of cultural accepted meaning rather than a validation of them. Validation takes two basic forms:

(3a) ‘signs and miracles’: the attempt to make God serve our purposes or looking for historical change

(3b) ‘wisdom’: grasping God in the realm of ideas, making God an ideal.

When we claim that Christianity is meaningful to the culture, what we often find is that we have allowed the message of Jesus to reinforce our cultural givens. Our theology ends up supporting our tribal beliefs or perhaps, more dangerously, the things that even most tribes seem to agree upon. The God that confronts us, however, is more than just a projection of culture, more dangerous and wild.


Hesert ranges over several doctrines but let’s take the doctrine of the idea of the sinfulness of humankind in the Christian tradition as a case study. Hesert says that ‘sin’ is a faith category, not a moral one. Understanding sin as a moral word makes God the guarantor of of the innocent/guilty distinction. This is a God who asks us to lose our life. Losing your life (meaning) is refusing to put yourself in terms of meaning. “Faith is not a resource to make one’s life in the meaningful world easier, more efficient, or even happier…to follow Jesus is to lose that world and base one’s life on the Gospel.

“Because life is meaningful when the guilty are identified and receive what is coming to them, … the most poignant challenge to meaning is the suffering of the innocent. The corollary of this is that within the structure of meaning, suffering is the greatest challenge to innocence … We are relieved to learn an allegedly innocent sufferer is really not so innocent after all.”

In the Garden myth the culture doesn’t hear the conditions of life but an “angry parent” and it creates the conviction that other people are why we can’t have nice things. We must determine guilt so that the rest of us are free of blame and safe from harm. Even common ideas of mercy can participate in this false view of sin. Mercy becomes either unseen factors mitigating guilt (so-called extenuating circumstances), the opportunity for another chance since you had your heart in the right place, or some type of universal tolerance (we are all not so bad). In all these, the truth of universal guilt is obscured. Sin is simply what the culture determines as wrong rather than the infinite debt owed to God that breaks the ledger. Sin, culturally defined,

 “…reinforces the sense of the present as deficient and even polluted. Extending far beyond specific instances, it creates an inexplicable ambiance of unease and a pervasive though vague sense of responsibility.”

The alternative is to lose our sense of righteousness altogether in repentance, which is a surrender of our systems of innocence and guilt. “One repents not so much of “sins” in the sense of those acts society condemns, but of sin as the cultural orientation to meaning. In place of meaning found by condemnation, there is forgiveness.” Sin is the whole structure of law, guilt, and condemnation in relation to the righteousness of God. Sin’s power, according to Paul, is the law as a system of meaning whereas Christ reveals a righteousness apart from the law. We begin anew with a recognition of our solidarity in baptism, or else we harden our heart.

I’m reminded here of one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letters where he says that he had written The Cost of Discipleship at a different stage in his life and how he had now learned to stop trying to make something out of himself, whether sinner or saint. Making something of yourself leads to the creation of an order where you and everyone else believe that they know where they stand.

Coveting is a crucial form of sin because it is the key to the quest for power and meaning … the driving concern for status, for self-significance … to reject that quality of human worth comes only through faith … Paul’s general premise is that the righteousness of God finds definitive expression not in the law and judgment (that is, the structure of meaning), but in Passion, the undergoing or enduring of Christ.

Thus the death of Christ, and our crucifixion with him in baptism, is to be present to and willingly identify with the guilty. Our part in the whole, according to Hesert, is not as fraction but as representative.















Theology as Grammar

During the past month I’ve been reading through books and articles published in a syllabus for a “Philosophy for Theology” course at the University of Dayton taught by Brad Kallenberg. Kallenberg was a student of Nancey Murphy and has made some unique contributions to the study of Aquinas and Wittgenstein. Much of his work focuses on Wittgenstein in relation to Aristotle’s/Aquinas’ understanding of the close relationship between ethics and practical reasoning. You know, the stuff your parents taught you, like learning any skill requires time and commitment, and only later does it become second nature with practice.

I get the idea that reading Thomas’ interpreters can, in fact, be just like listening to your parents sometimes, except, in this case, you have to know some medieval Latin. Reading discussions of terminology that doesn’t have the same meaning in contemporary English looking for tidbits of common sense isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Changing the metaphor, Ben Myers, says, “[I] reckon reading a good work of Wittgensteinian Thomism is like taking a bath: you emerge clean, fresh and invigorated – even if it’s hard to see exactly what you’ve taken away from the experience.” 

Nonetheless, I persisted. As I read three of these thinkers, Fergus Kerr, David Burrell, and Herbert McCabe, I began to appreciate three things: focus on methodology and definition, rootedness and development within tradition, and close readings of texts. This theological tradition does these best. Wittgenstein is a dialogue partner for these Thomists because his overall approach regarding language draws out a number of latent ideas in Aquinas. Of course, there are other thinkers that have been made to serve the same function, notably Immanuel Kant.  The interpreters influenced by Wittgenstein, as a rule, don’t pretend to be Thomistic originalists. Denys Turner, commenting first on McCabe’s methods and interests, states, “He’d been deeply influenced by Thomas Aquinas. Somehow or other Wittgenstein came into the mix as well; though quite when it was Wittgenstein, when it was Thomas Aquinas, and when it was Herbert, was an entire mystery to me, and it didn’t seem to matter.

I want to look at three examples of writing under the category “Wittgensteinian Thomism”. The first is chapter 7 of Fergus Kerr’s Theology After Wittgenstein. The second David Burrell’s Aquinas: God and Action, particularly chapter 6 “An Objection: Process Theology”.  The third is Herbert McCabe’s essay “Eucharist as Language” (Modern Theology 15:2 April 1999).


Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.

For Fergus Kerr the key to the relationship between Wittgenstein and Aquinas is Wittgenstein’s phrase in the Philosophical Investigations, “theology as grammar” which he  apparently borrowed from Luther.

Grammar tells us what kind of object anything is. (Theology as grammar).”

Wittgenstein reflects that we want to know what kind of language is being used, how the language is taken by its speakers, and the rules of the conversation.  We cannot get straight to the “thing itself” without going through words. Applying this to theology, we must realize that faith is embedded in human life and stop viewing it as some inward and invisible mental-spiritual state. It follows, then, that one cannot take words out of their original religio-cultural context without altering their meaning.

“Whether I mean the same thing by saying ‘I believe in God’ as other people do when they say the same thing will come out a various places in our lives: our practices, aspirations, hopes, virtues, and so on. It will show in the rest of what we do whether we have faith in God. It will not be settled by our finding that we make the same correlation between our words and some item of metaphysical reality…Faith, in appropriate circumstances, is visible in one’s behavior; it is not some undetectable inner object.” — Fergus Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein.

The fact that religious belief is intwined with our history means that we are also not going to be able to criticize belief from some neutral, scientific perspective. Here Kerr gives an account of Wittgenstein’s reading of Frazer’s The Golden Bough. It reminded me of Girard’s views on myth in comparison with Joseph Campbell’s in our day.

“In effect, Frazer’s theorizing conceals our kingship with his savages by assuming that their customs can be made intelligible to modern civilized men round Cambridge college dinner table only by dispassionate observation – as if these tables were not occupied by beings at least as sinister as any dancing savage. By resorting to scientific objectivity we have a method of disowning biological and historical continuity with our ancestors…We prefer a certain interpretation of other people’s behavior to understanding what is deep and sinister in ourselves…That considering the execution of an innocent man is a more promising starting point for sustaining Christian theology than proving that God exists might be one unsurprising conclusion.” — Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein.

This leads me to another Wittgensteinian Thomist, David Burrell. What is the nature of this God we believe in? In recent years, the classical paradigm has been challenged by process thought that claims a new and better metaphysic. Are the classical concepts hopelessly contaminated with substantialist metaphysics? Is Thomas’ concept of God static? David Burrell responds to the objections of process theology with an explanation of Aquinas intentions. In short, Burrell shows, onc again, the usefulness of the idea of “theology as grammar”. He believes that Hartshorne and others are not attentive enough to the specific context and grammar of Aquinas’ system:

“...the fault lies no so much with Aquinas as with those who neglect his warning signals and mistake his inquiry into what God is not for a treatment of the divine nature. More specifically, the crucial oversight consists in failing to appreciate the philosophic virtue of the ‘linguistic turn’.” (Burrell, 91)

Aquinas had two central concerns when speaking of God.  Th first was that he didn’t want Christians to think of God as one more thing in the world. The second was that he didn’t want them to think of God as having anything we might describe as lack (i.e. needing something in order to be complete). These two concerns function as limiters to speech, not positive statements.

Nothing is learned directly about God by insisting that he must be good, limitless, unchangeable, and one. Rather, Aquinas shows how these predicates are equivalent to the key predicate simple, which in turn serves as a systematic reminder that nothing can be said of God. Many have overlooked the explicitly grammatical cast of these question, of course, and confused such predicates with divine attributes like loving, merciful, just, and faithful…If ‘unchangeable’, for example, is taken as a descriptive term rather than a proscription, we can only regard it as characterizing a situation. And ‘static’ means ‘zero motion’. Aquinas, however, derives unchangeableness from simpleness. As we have already noted, he makes that derivation precisely to remind us that God is beyond the very category of motion (with its contraries of movement and rest). — David Burrell, Aquinas: God and Action.

Of course, we still have a need for direct statements (what we should say about God). According to Burrell, each limiter (Burrell calls them prescriptive rubrics) is followed by a related observation on a different level of discourse:

After remarking on God’s simpleness, Aquinas affirms his perfection; after showing good to be equivalent to being, he can speak of God’s goodness. Having derived limitlessness from simpleness, he speaks of God’s existence in things, and after showing how unchangeableness follows from limitlessness, Aquinas talks about the eternity of God. Unity carries two dimensions within itself: on the one hand, whatever is one; on the other hand, oneness suggests wholeness. — Burrell, Aquinas: God and Action.

Aquinas does get around to using traditional religious language, but he wants to make it clear that we are dealing with analogous language at this level. The guiding paradigm for Aquinas are living things. Goodness, for example, is seen as bounty. God is like an agent in an action (actus), possibly more like a verb than a noun. This is hard to communicate using our language with its subject/predicate structure. If there is no distinguishing between being and activity, Aquinas says, then God more like a process, not a passive having these qualities.

Here is another example. In our ordinary language we naturally (it’s a temptation for each of us according to Kerr) think of God as a person who happens to be a father. In normal discourse about God this will occur, but this is to speak, in a different register, of the relationship and process of “fathering”. This is what we mean by “the Father”.

Aquinas’ esse (which I haven’t mentioned) is not static in the sense of being a motionless substance. For Aquinas, esse=being/existence, not unmoving, but as in “an ocean of being” derived from John of Damascus, who in medieval thought was seen as bearer of the theology of the ancient church. Juxtaposing being and becoming as dialectical opposites is the wrong move in seeking to understand Aquinas.

One final thought before we leave David Burrell’s work: in response to an objection by process theologians that classical  theism is somehow still too remote or apophatic, particularly in light of the anthropomorphic language of scriptural revelation, Burrell counters that “the God they [process theologians] propose, while inspired by the Gospels, would not need to have been the agent of such a revelation. Appearing more Christian in spirit, this God of process theology could also dispense with his self-revelation in Jesus.

Finally, what can “theology as grammar” tell us about the central rite of the Christian church – the Eucharist? To answer that question I looked at Herbert McCabe’s essay “Eucharist as Language”. McCabe, a Roman Catholic, uses the language of transubstantiation when speaking of the Eucharist. This is language that he knows is easily caricatured as a thinly veiled miracle made possible by misleading appearances hiding a chemical process by both supporters and detractors alike. McCabe assures us that this is not what Aquinas meant. In brief, we might define it as “the real presence of Christ shown by means of a sign on two levels–one present and one future.” Yet, the important fact is that, whatever language we use to describe it, whether using Aristotelian substance and accident, or a more contemporary term such as meaning, the language will not, in this particular case, be adequate. Or perhaps we could say that our language is even less adequate than is normally the case. The difference between this and other human activities is that the initiative, the ‘deeming so’, comes from God. Whatever is deemed so by God, according to McCabe, is actualized, i.e. comes into existence ex nihilo, like creation.

[T]he Eucharist is the Word of God and not the word of man. We make, as well as being made by our human language, but we do not make the meaning of the Eucharist; if it is anything of interest it is the Word of God and thus a word of power: the creative word that says “light be”—and there was light. The re-creative word says “this is my body and my blood”—and so it is. What the bread and wine have become is clearly not an icon, picture, reminder of Christ but Christ himself, and him crucified, the only one who can reconcile the opposites, who can bring life out of death. –Herbert McCabe, “Eucharist as Language”


Something happens in the Eucharist that relates to a system of meanings that is only partially present in our world – the Kingdom of God understood as the complete presence of Christ. In this world, this reality can only be manifest through signs. The sign of the elements becomes the language God speaks to us in. Using the paradoxical language of Orthodox writer, John Zizioulas, it is ‘the memory of the future’.

If I understand McCabe correctly, it might be helpful to think of the Eucharist as taking place in three tenses: past, present, and future. It participates in, has a part to play in the meaning of, a future event that is also a present reality for the church. It is also, of course, an historical memory. Accordingly, if “meaning can only be understood in terms of the larger notion of structure“, the ultimate structure of which the Eucharist has a role is the full presence of Christ/the Kingdom and the eternal love of the Trinity– that point when God will become “all in all” (as Moltmann never tires of saying).  When we use language more precisely, or better, fully, we actually don’t whittle it down to dictionary definitions, or flatten it out into a single level, but instead speak as broadly as possible. This often involves metaphor and poetry, by which we stretch our language. The medievals therefore spoke of three different levels regarding the Eucharist in order to do that:

  1. sign (sacramentum tantrum) — in this case, the visible meal.
  2. what is signified in this world (res et sacramentum) — our human word of friendship and reconciliation (the real presence of Christ).
  3. what is signified at the deepest level (res tantum) — the ultimate mystery, the agape of the Godhead.

McCabe’s point again, isn’t that we must use the language of transubstantiation, but that it is a useful (Trent would say ‘appropriate’) way of talking about such matters.

David Jones: Microcosm and Sacrament

I came across this explanation of Jones’ sacramental aesthetic recently:

[U]nlike [Gerald Manley] Hopkins, in Jones’s case the Catholic mistrust of the disembodied concept finds its expression, not in a criticism of Plato, but in a mistrust of rationalism and the ‘fact man’ who applies abstract formula onto a diverse reality and thereby crushes multiplicity. Embodiment is a sign of a real totality, in which the parts are integrated and significant, in contact through the body with that which is external to it. Without a body there is no such contact. Importantly, and ironically, in the modern epoch the body is disregarded precisely because of an immanentist reduction of reality to the entirely material, which separates matter from spirit and so condemns the ‘concept’ and the ‘universal’ to the disembodied realm of transcendentals. This again parallels Lynch’s assessment of the revolutionary as someone so possessed by ideological abstractions that he attempts to impose them onto reality without concern for the details of the situation he is entering – thereby destroying difference. When the role of the body is undermined, so too are locality and the particular – and hence diversity (for these are the concrete manifestations of the universals). Similarly, when history, locality, and diversity are undermined, this represents an attack on the role of the body. Ultimately, the incarnate Word reveals the inadequacy of purely transcendental systems, showing the reality of the universal by mediating it through a particular form in a particular time and place.

“Containing What Cannot Be Contained: David Jones”, The Enclosure of an Open Mystery. Stephen McInerney (2012), p.116

The Chapel in the Park 1932 by David Jones 1895-1974

The Chapel in the Park 1932 David Jones, watercolor.

Reinhold Niebuhr Speaks to the Trump Age

I think Reinhold did anticipate Donald Trump, but not in a way of despair, by any means, although I know it’s easy to feel that way. Reinhold died slowly, unfortunately. He and Ursula were out in Stockbridge, living in their home there. He occupied a bed in the back and he went through two or three years of very gradually dying from all these strokes. But he did overlap with the presidency of Nixon. There was a time near the very end. The TV was on in the bedroom, and Nixon came on the TV. Reinhold raised himself up on his elbows, which was not easy at that time, and he looked at the TV and he said, “That…bastard!”

—story told by Gustav Niebuhr

Is a Niebuhr revival coming? Has it already begun? Was he ever really forgotten? Jimmy Carter seems to have been a fan. Barack Obama, before he became president, identified him as an influential person for his political philosophy, surprising journalist David Brooks with his quick and ready summary of the usefulness of Niebuhr’s ideas during an interview.

I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. (Obama, 2007)

Brooks recounts that he went on to give a perfect, twenty minute, summation of Niebuhr’s book, The Irony of American History.

Recently, I learned that former FBI directory James Comey had written his undergraduate thesis on Reinhold Niebuhr and that his reading of Moral Man and Immoral Society was a catalyst to public service. Some have rightly noticed the irony in this, given the fact that the FBI under Hoover had been looking for ways to tag Niebuhr as a communist for decades, especially after his criticisms of the Vietnam war.t1larg.reinhold.union

A new documentary film was released this year for PBS on the life and thought of Reinhold Niebuhr. Commentators on the film, and on Reinhold in general, have all made attempts to answer the question of how he might think about the Trump phenomenon if he were with us. Scott Paeth recently noted that Louis Brandeis, associate justice on the Supreme Court, wrote a letter to a despondent Niebuhr shortly after the election of Eisenhower. By nearly everyone’s standards, Paeth points out, Eisenhower wasn’t a terrible president. One can only imagine him flipping out over what we have now.

It’s a shame that some other characters have taken their place on the stage today but Reinhold’s role has not been filled. Jerry Falwell, Jr. is playing a grotesque caricature of Billy Graham. Trump is playing a version of Nixon. There is no ‘Niebuhr’ around. Some years ago, Stanley Hauerwas was christened “America’s best theologian”, yet Hauerwas’ project of silently creating alternative communities (i.e. churches), and his well-known pacifism, put him at odds with the gritty “Christian Realism” of Niebuhr. Perhaps a Niebuhr cannot exist in today’s world. For one thing, the world where public theologians (even ones re-descriptive and imaginative, not merely proclaimers) are listened to in any measure has vanished. So we are left to speculate with the ideas and metaphors he used in his own time. What would Niebuhr say about Christians who voted for him, and those who opposed him?

To the evangelical enablers who voted for him in overwhelming numbers (80% of white evangelicals by most polls), I think that his criticism of “personal Jesus” religiosity contained in his 1969 article “The King’s Chapel and the King’s Court”  is just as pertinent now as it was then.

The Nixon-Graham doctrine assumes that a religious change of heart, such as occurs in an individual conversion, would cure men of all sin. Billy Graham has a favorite text: “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature.” Graham applies this Pauline hope about conversion to the race problem and assures us that “If you live in Christ you become color blind.” The defect in this confidence in individual conversion is that it obscures the dual and social character of human selves and the individual and social character of their virtues and vices.

But before those of us who voted for Hillary or Bernie congratulate ourselves, there is another side to Niebuhr that reminds us of how we are always implicated, even if only by degrees, in what we criticize. I think that if Niebuhr were with us, he would also agree that we live in our bubbles of identity politics – bubbles where we can live free from sin, where anything we say about our opponents is justified. In his own time, in the height of the Cold War, he saw democracy itself as one such bubble, but one can easily substitute of number of ideologies.

Democracy may be challenged from without by the force of barbarism and the creed of cynicism. But its internal peril lies in the conflict of various schools and classes of idealists, who profess different ideals but exhibit a common conviction that their own ideals are perfect.  — The Children of Light, Children of Darkness, p.152

This duality explains why Reinhold has been claimed by opposing figures such as Michael Novak and Arthur Schlesinger (Jr.). He will continue to be a counterweight to the effusive, and frequently simplistic, optimism that often characterizes the American spirit whether in conservative or liberal form. He reminds us that the acknowledgement of sin calls for humility and modesty because even our righteousness is like a filthy rag.

The Art of Surpassing Civilization: Heschel and the Sabbath

A pious man once took a stroll in his vineyard on the Sabbath. He saw a breach in the fence, and then determined to mend it when the Sabbath would be over. At the expiration of the Sabbath he decided: since the thought of repairing the fence occurred to me on the Sabbath I shall never repair it. –Abraham Joshua Heschel

I grew up in a Christian tradition where such a story would be offered as Exhibit A of something called “Jewish legalism”. The interpretation was partly due to the debates Jesus had with the Pharisees of his time as recorded in the New Testament, but the particular coloring given to these exchanges was probably more influenced by Luther’s quarrel with the medieval Roman Catholic church than anything else. In it’s most extreme forms, Jesus comes across as calling the Jews to a “personal relationship” with himself, and Paul is made out to be the first Protestant Reformer. Paul, incidentally, continued to call himself a Pharisee (Acts 23.6) long after his conversion.


Since modern Judaism is a descendant of the Pharisaic tradition (with some major shifts, of course), it is probably important for both Christian theological identity and interfaith dialogue to have an accurate picture of Jesus, Paul, and their Second Temple Jewish context. Various alternatives have been suggested in recent memory beginning with E.P. Sander’s book Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977). But another route we can take is to leave the discussions about the first century to the biblical scholars and focus on contemporary Jewish thinkers for how they might inform our theology. The context in which someone is speaking has as much bearing on the truth as the actual words spoken. Here are some selections from the same chapter in Heschel’s book The Sabbath:

The faith of the Jew is not a way out of this world; not to reject but to surpass civilization. The Sabbath is the day on which we learn the art of surpassing civilization.

To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow men and the forces of nature – is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for man’s progress than the Sabbath?

In the tempestuous ocean of time and toil there are islands of stillness where man may enter a harbor and reclaim his dignity.  (Heschel, pp. 27-32)

Now go back and read the initial quote. The pious man who refuses to repair a fence has been transformed from a legalist to a revolutionary.

The Multitude by Hannah Notess [Review]

51kNzl4ZLDL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_The Multitude is a collection of accessible free-verse poems. It is the third published work of the author who has connections to Image Journal and Seattle Pacific’s Response. She has worked primarily as an editor. The influence of the multitude of memories on the present loosely form the theme of the collection as a whole. Throughout, the haunting of the present with the past is frequently achieved by juxtaposing images from different time periods. In “The Virgin in the City”, Mary shows up in a variety of urban settings from a bus, to a shipping dock, to a classroom.  In another poem, the poet notices a leggy girl playing Mario Kart, sitting in the Botticelli room of the Uffizi Art Gallery. She is completely absorbed and seemingly unaware of where she is – like most of us. At times the poet is more daring with the imagery, revealing, and even reveling in, some of her boyish interests. There are repeated references, for example, to early video games.  Saint Augustine, wanders around in a giant Pac-Man maze, pursued by “heresies and ghosts of heresies.” In “Endor (Disambiguation)” the Stars Wars planet sits next to references to Tolkien’s Middle Earth and the ancient Canaanite town, all known by the same name. Drawing inspiration from the repetition of the name in all three places, nerdy details comingle with the profound. “Maybe our universe has a finite number of times you can summon the dead so we’ve begun to repeat ourselves.”

Being a student of chess, one of my favorite poems from the collection is a relatively simple poem entitled “Chess By Mail”, occasioned by entering the library of an older friend or family member who has passed. The old chess set sitting high on a book shelf brings recalls aerograms and index cards, a life now gone. The queen becomes a metaphor for possibilities that aren’t open to us. “I am not the queen, I do not move any direction, but West, but forward in time”, recalling Kierkegaard’s dictum that life “can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward.” In a clever turn at the end of the poem, the one living makes a move. “Pawn to queen four”.  Pawns are notorious for their lack of ability to move backward. Solidarity with the past is also encapsulated in her choice to use the older descriptive, rather than algebraic, notation for the move.

If I am reading her correctly, Hannah Notess appears to no longer live in the same evangelical/fundamentalist Protestant world she grew up in, but like many of us, she continues to feel its impact. Early formation in a subculture often continues to frame our responses even when we feel furthest from their control. In a previous collection of essays,  Jesus Girls: Growing Up Evangelical, she specifically took issue with the “lost-then-saved” paradigm. What happens when your life and the lives of others don’t fit into a before-and-after, when circumstances have changed your vision to the point that you are wondering what you still believe? References in this collection to “souls I was supposed to save”,  and “the gawky white giant in the photograph of smiling brown orphans” make a brief appearance and continue that argument with her background.

In particular, the Evangelical tendency to want to save the world is tempered by the fact that the world thoroughly resists comprehension. Often those most convinced of the need for salvation become part of the problem creating a model of the world too easily divided into two halves, light and darkness. In the poem “To the Church Across the Bridge Who is Claiming the City for God”, the theme is the split between humanity that is occasioned by that kind of theological outlook. References to “tracts” and “the gulf between Man and God” recall particular oversimplifications of the gospel as the author was growing up. But the poet finds this incommensurable with her own broadened sympathies for the sorrows of humankind. She confides, “So, when your judgment day unspools like ticker tape from downtown windows, and all the screens go blank, I won’t show up to cheer.”

Another problem with saving the world is our own feeble and shallow tendency to notice only certain things that seem important to us at the moment, not unlike the girl playing a handheld video game in a famous art gallery. The author turns the table on herself in the poem “To My Former Self in Art Class”. Preoccupied with a piece of art that at the moment seemed to signify a loss of faith (“but look, there you are, sitting in church five years in the future”) she misses all the signs of the silent boy painting an apple gold and grey next to her who will become a suicide.  Such a limited, single-point, perspective cannot be overcome.

There are a number of repeated sub-themes. One of these is the randomness of events.  Notess is a Christian writer sensitive to the tragic tenor of life. A number of seminary buildings burn to the ground.  A girl who received complaints by the poet dies in a moment of misjudgment while flying a small plane a few months later. She emphasizes the connections we have to those who have died and we how we often feel like we’ve somehow cheated. “To the stupid angel of death, I want to say, you missed me again. Watch me disappear into the train depot, into the past…” These straightforwardly tragic events are only part of the story being told in the poetry.  Many of the poems could be read as exploring other aspects of tragedy such as guilt, boredom, meaninglessness, finitude. Notess sees no special protection or grand redemption from any of this on the horizon. In the poem “The Rain Falls on the Just and the Unjust” we meet a catalog of places where the rain falls, essentially everywhere. “On the city where everyone tells you it always rains and on the city where it never rains, ever, except for right now.” If redemption exists, it permeates the everyday by “sounding out syllables with jittery students” rather than triumphantly overcoming the darkness.

One could criticize Notess as offering an “awakening” paradigm in the place of the perspectives she has withdrawn from, but this doesn’t seem to be her purpose, and besides, these are real ghosts that haunt a good many people of faith today.  Instead, I found her musings sensitive to our time and earth-bound existence. Her poetry eschews sentimentalism but not hope and thankfulness. In many ways her preoccupation with the questions her upbringing didn’t answer satisfactorily invites you to wonder with her about how to put a life together in light of the places and people that have formed our souls. “Parts of them are still waiting for you.”


A version of this review was originally published by the Englewood Review of Books in June 2016.

Webster’s Neo-Barthian View of Scripture

According to historic Christianity, Scripture is one of the ways God reveals God’s-self. But precisely how that occurs has been the subject of a good deal of discussion. There are many fundamental questions to be answered. Which doctrine does scripture belong under? Ecclesiology or Trinity? Is Scripture best seen (from a Christian viewpoint) as a continual dialogue81ozvta3drl akin to Jewish Midrash or does it communicate timeless truths? Is all Scripture equally inspired? Is there a canon within the canon?

The late John Webster presupposed a neo-Barthian picture of Holy Scripture. Like Barth, he asserted that only Jesus is the total self-revelation of God, i.e. the “Word of God” proper. Scripture is, or becomes, the Word of God as it points to Jesus, the Word made flesh. For Webster, Scripture is a part of the created order, and, as such, has need to be sanctified like all of creation. According to him, “it has to be asserted that no divine nature or properties are to be predicated of Scripture.”

Webster argues that if we say that the Bible belongs under ecclesiology, then it only says what the church says. It cannot address the church or call the church in any meaningful way. However, it does not follow that it speaks to us from above as the direct and unmediated voice of God. Webster’s dogmatic innovation is the use of the term ‘sanctification’ to describe the relationship. He also utilizes the terminology “means of grace” and  “testimony’ to the same effect:

“The very genre of ‘testimony’ – as language which attests a reality other than itself – is especially fitting for depicting how a creaturely entity may undertake a function in the divine economy, without resort to concepts which threaten to divinize the text, since – like prophecy or apostolic witness – testimony is not about itself but is a reference beyond itself.”

The church, as a result, has to listen, revere, and submit, but this view also qualifies scripture as an appointed servant and witness, a creature which cannot, ultimately, be divinized. It is God’s voice as it has been heard and repeated by people, not a mediation or repetition of God’s voice.

God continues to sanctify the Bible through the reading and discussion of the text within the Church. In this way, Webster connects sanctification to the process of dialogue. At least this is how I understand him.

“In sum: the biblical text is Scripture; its being is defined, not simply by its membership of the class of texts, but by the fact that it is this text – sanctified, that is, Spirit-generated and preserved – in this field of action – the communicative economy of God’s merciful friendship with his lost creatures.

Sanctification is not to be restricted to the text as finished product; it may legitimately be extended to the larger field of agents and actions of which the text is part.”   – Holy Scripture: A dogmatic sketch p.29