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Reflections on Todd Billings’ new book, Rejoicing in Lament

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Todd Billings’ other writings are already well recognized as the works of a thoughtful, intelligent, pastorally-sensitive, and orthodox theologian. Both his Union with Christ and Calvin, Participation, and the Gift are award winners and his book, The Word of God for the People of God, is my personal favorite introduction to our shared interest in the theological interpretation of Scripture.

So another book from Todd is always welcome. But Rejoicing in Lament is not just another book. It is a theological memoir that chronicles his journey over the last couple of years in his battle with an incurable bone cancer. I call it a “theological memoir” because it is deeply personal and brutally honest about his struggles, fears, and insights gained, while also providing a rich theological exploration of lament and the problem of evil. On the memoir side I learned about Todd as a man and Christian brother; on the theological side I learned much from what is one of the best treatments of theodicy and lament that I’ve ever read. (Eleonore Stump’s Wandering in the Darkness is up there too.)

Rather than providing a detailed, chapter-by-chapter review of the book, here are some highlights and points of insight that particularly struck me as I read the book:

 

  • The pervasive use of the Psalms as the Christian’s prayer book

I have become increasingly aware in recent years of how central the psalter has always been for Christians. Those of us involved in studying the history of interpretation, especially pre-modern, find the Psalms as the constant companion of the believer. Todd’s whole book shows how in the midst of suffering and joy he stands in line with this great tradition and habit.

  • Related, the Psalms and the permission to lament

Over the last five years as I have gotten more connected to the suffering and loss and grief in my own life I have learned how essential it is to lament. I was given permission to do so by a dear mentor and friend as part of my therapeutic journey. When turning to the Psalms we find that lament is not only permitted there, but in reality proves to be the major theme of the psalter. This is not something that has been overcome or superseded by the Gospel or the New Covenant. Rather, the Christian is the one who above all people in the world knows suffering and should be longing for God to come and put and end to the grief and pain of the world (“Happy are those who mourn…”). After all, the great and guiding Christian prayer has at its core the desire for God to restore his just reign upon the earth, vanquishing all evil and suffering (“Your name be honored, your kingdom come, your will be done – on earth as they already are in heaven”).

Todd’s book thoughtfully explores the significance of lamenting in the Christian journey. He rightly laments the loss of lamenting in the modern Christian community; as a result our life of Christian discipleship is often stunted and disconnected from our full human experience.

If you want to understand the beauty and power of lament in the Christian journey then you’ll definitely want to pick up this book.

  • The Bible and the Problem of Evil

The single greatest theological problem of the Bible is certainly the POE,

simply stated as the dilemma of how God can be both fully good and fully sovereign while there is still evil in the world. That is the ontological version of it. The ethical or practical version of the POE concerns how God can be both fully good and fully sovereign and yet evil things still happen for which he is not culpable.

Refreshingly, Todd offers no trite answers here and avoids the Scylla and Charybdis of open theism on the one hand or a “suck it up, God is sovereign” view on the other. He humbly but boldly asserts what is certainly true – the Bible doesn’t really give any ultimate answer to the POE. “The Bible has addressed the question, and God’s response – as in the book of Job – is that humans don’t have an answer to the problem of evil, and we shouldn’t claim that we have one.” (21) We can rightly believe that in Christ God is renewing the whole creation but the speculative theodicy question – why our loving and powerful God would permit tragedies – is ultimately unanswerable in this life for only God himself can answer this. (22)

In this Todd is not being flippant or apathetically resigned – no one who is facing the suffering and loss that he is can be written off in these ways – but rather, he is modeling what the Scriptures themselves model in the Psalms and Job: learning to sit in the ashes while still hoping in God through tears.

  • The Biblical Mystery of Concursus

As part of Todd’s varied discussion of the POE he introduces a very helpful classical doctrinal formulation called “concursus,” defined as “the simultaneity of divine and human agency in specific actions and events.” Contra deism, fatalism, or open theism, the classical Christian doctrine of concursus is willing to allow the mystery of both God’s sovereign actions and human’s responsible contingent acts. Who really sent Joseph into Egypt in slavery? Concursus enables us to say fully that both God and Joseph’s brothers were responsible actors. “A creaturely action can have the providential power of God as a primary cause, yet the creature still has agency that moves freely.” (68)

Todd’s clear and straightforward discussion of this idea is very satisfying and beneficial.

  • Lament as Protest and Resistance

The idea that I think will most stick with me from the book is that of lament as protest and resistance. Those who give themselves to serve others and help to eliminate some bits of the great suffering in the world know all too well that the task is overwhelming and will sooner or later cause even the heartiest, most compassionate soul to burn out. When one considers the pervasiveness and suffering of sex trafficking or homelessness or violent religious persecution in the Middle East it is very difficult to avoid becoming hopeless. Those among us who are especially deep-feeling sorts, such as our artists, often struggle to believe in the God of the Bible in light of this.

Todd recommends that rather than giving up or throwing our hands up and rejecting the biblical God, we need to embrace our laments as right and powerful forms of protest that this is not the way things should be. The Christian of all people should join the resistance against the evil in the world. Through our God-directed lamenting and compassionate acts we serve as witnesses to the coming kingdom. This is beautiful and powerful and life-giving.

On a personal note, my wife and I found great courage from this hither-to-never-considered way of approaching the reality of suffering in the world.

  • Divine Impassibility

Finally, I am thankful for Todd’s excellent discussion of the doctrine of divine impassibility in chapter 9. I realized to my embarrassment that once again I had only a sophomoric understanding of this classic doctrine and its importance. Indeed, from my limited understanding I have recently been wondering about this doctrine because I mistakenly understood it to mean that God is emotional-less, something Holy Scripture does not seem to allow. But Todd points out that classically, God’s impassibility means he lacks “passions,” understood in this context not as emotions in general but as “disordered affections that could make his loving being and action ebb and flow.” (159)

We would be mistaken (as I was) to think of this doctrine as depicting God as apathetic and unresponsive. The biblical witness belies this understanding. Instead, the point is that God can and does fully enter our suffering (and joy), but does so in a way that is always perfectly commensurate with his perfect and whole being. God has all the affections/emotions that we do but does so analogically because his perfection of being is not like the shifting shadows of our fickle existence.

The point of this doctrine in the context of suffering is that God does know and sympathize with our weaknesses and suffering; he is not distant and apathetic nor surprised at what we encounter, even in our darkest night of the soul. Jesus’ himself cried out with the greatest despair, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?”

Once again, I am thankful to have Todd’s thoughtful and theologically sophisticated wisdom as a guide to help me understand our God faithfully.

 

Overall, obviously I am glad to recommend this book. It is probably too theologically thick and long for the average lay Christian struggling with cancer (it’s not a “gift book” nor is it intended to be). But is a very good length and level for the more zealous congregant and certainly pastors. I can also imagine this book being read in a chapter-by-chapter format in a small group setting if the leader has some theological training that would enable good facilitation.

It would be terribly trite and insensitive to suggest that somehow Todd’s and his family’s suffering is any way explained or justified by it resulting in the production of this book for others. I am not suggesting that. But, along with Todd, by faith I can proclaim that in a mystery beyond our understanding, we can simultaneously protest against his suffering and also express our trust and praise in God for doing all things well. This book is a gift to me as I am sure it will be to many others. Lord, hear our prayer…

 

The site dedicated to Todd’s book, including reviews by many others can be found here.

My Vision for PhD Studies at SBTS

Each semester I run a weekly meeting for all of our PhD students which is called the 1892 Club. (This date honors the year Southern started its doctoral program.) I bring in a different scholar each week for a brief presentation and then dialogue. The Spring 2015 schedule can be seen here. It has become one of the greatest highlights of my week and a significant part of the trans-disciplinary, dialogical culture I am seeking to develop among our PhD students.

Most semesters I kick off our season with a vision talk. For the first time on Feb 4 we recorded this.

Although it is too painful for me to personally watch, many have suggested it would be beneficial to post this for a broader audience. So here you go! My vision for PhD Studies at SBTS.

The outline of my talk is as follows:

Introduction — The Year 1892

Four Words of Vision (“words” meaning statements or ideas):

  1. Paideia
  2. Community
  3. Centrifugal Force
  4. Doctor of Philosophy

Conclusion

Brief Notes on My Book Club Reading for 2014

IMG_0001       My colleague and best friend in the world Dr. Eric Johnson and I have been having a lively 5-year ongoing  dialogue about all things theological, spiritual, psychological, hermeneutical, philosophical, epistemological, and biblical. We affectionately refer to it as The Conversation (my title with happy allusion to the early years of Lestat de Lioncourt and Nicolas de Lenfent).

        Back in May 2014 we decided to invite a few select friends along to join in The Conversation with a systematic reading and discussion of books, chosen by Eric and myself in turn. For the most part the books are ones that Eric or I have not read before and want to read together as we continue to stumble in our journey of understanding life, the universe, and everything, or something close to it. Our 2/3 Book Club meets to read and discuss about 200 pages every three weeks or so. It has been one of the most rewarding and stimulating experiences of my intellectual life.

Continue reading

How Luke 1-2 relate to Beauty and the Beast (revised)

[BLOGPOLOGY: In the original version of this post I made a snide side comment about many churches’ practice of not preaching the Advent texts during this season. I did not direct it at anyone in particular and no one said anything to me about it, but my conscience was nagging me. So the next morning I removed that unnecessary part of the post. This morning I was still bothered so I wanted to write this brief apology. While I do think the practice of not using the Advent texts during this season is unfortunate, my comment was snide and not needed. Such comments are never beneficial to hearers nor productive in effecting change. My apologies to anyone I might have offended!]

At this time of year it is good and right that most churches read and preach from the two portions of Scripture that botticelli annunciationdescribe and reflect on the birth of Jesus Christ and the many events surrounding it (Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2).

Whenever I teach from these passages in my Gospels classes I like to help students see that these two opening portions of the Gospel biographies are very important and are neither to be neglected as merely Christmas-y stories nor are they to be treated at Christmas as merely historical accounts unrelated to the rest of the books they are in.

Rather, both Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 in their own distinct ways serve as prologues and overtures to the rest of these two massive Gospel accounts that bookend the Synoptic witness. They are the stories with which the First and Third Evangelists chose to introduce their accounts.

In the case of Luke 1-2 it is especially interesting to consider how the highly structured, deeply reflective, and theologically rich introduction to the largest Gospel functions like the overture to a great musical. Indeed, Luke 1-2 is a musical itself, structured around interwoven events that are peppered through with the characters breaking into songs that explain and advance the storyline; one cannot help but think of these opening chapters as a sort of Jerusalem-Side Story or Les Shepherdables. (And I suppose Matthew 2’s Herod would The Lyin’ King.)

To consider how Luke 1-2 serves as an overture to Luke’s Gospel it will be helpful to reflect for a few moments on how musical overtures function overall. And it is difficult to find a better example than the brilliant and creative opening scene to the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast.

Some readers may desire to skip the clip given here, and one could skip to the bottom for the immediate cash value of what I’m arguing, but I would encourage all to take the few moments to watch and soak in (multiple times if you can) the gift of human creativity at work in this piece:

Beauty and the Beast Overture (Belle’s Song)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mx1MmY1Bb50

If you watched the clip let me ask this question: How does this overture serve to introduce and foreshadow the great story that is about to unfold?

B&B

I will suggest a few ways:

  • Notice the two halves/movements of this piece — Introducing Belle (the Beauty) and then Introducing Gaston (the Beast?). The song concludes with their two stories beginning to intertwine (and Belle’s reaction to this in her reprise).
  • Notice how Belle’s complex character is depicted in a multi-layered way
    • Sweet, beautiful, dreamy, bookish, “far off look,” romantic
    • Dissatisfied and even looking down on this boring old poor provincial, for which she is different and made for something greater and “more”
  • At the same time, the other main character (so it seems) Gaston is depicted as thin and lacking depth, arrogant, self-confident, insensitive and self-consumed. “Here in town there’s only she who is as beautiful as me.”
  • Most importantly, there are many details of the overture that only make sense once one reflects back on the whole story from the end.
    • For example, when Belle is in the bookstore she proclaims that the book she is now borrowing for the third time is her favorite. Why? Because it has “far off places, daring sword fights, magic spells, a prince in disguise.” The bookkeeper then responds: “If you like it so much, it’s yours!”

Looking back from the perspective of the whole story we can see that this is exactly what happens in the story – far off places, sword fights, magic spells, and a prince in disguise – and that this story does become Belle’s story despite how far off and unbelievable it seems from this opening.

  • And in the most beautiful part musically, in the bridge (starting at 2:16) Belle sings these prophetic words that mean more than she could know: “Isn’t this amazing! It’s my favorite part because you’ll see. Here’s where she meets Prince Charming, but she won’t discover that it’s him till chapter 3.”

Again, the meaning of this only becomes clear and significant once you understand how the whole story plays out.

There are many other ways in which this overture sets up the rest of the story – more that I see every time I listen to the music and lyrics and watch the images. But the point is sufficiently made for now. Overtures serve to introduce, frame, and foreshadow the story.

Let’s return then briefly to Luke 1-2 and consider how beautifully and crucially this is as well for Luke’s whole Gospel.

A few observations:

  • The births of the two main characters in this prologue (John the Baptizer and Jesus the Christ) were both miraculous and prophetic
  • The Holy Spirit and angels were at work in preparing and effecting these events
  • The women in these stories are particularly depicted as godly, wise, and faithful (and especially note the contrast between Mary and Zechariah, both of whom encounter Gabriel)
  • The Christ is coming to fulfill promises to Israel, and he comes as the heir of David
  • And finally, the content of the songs (1:46-56; 1:67-79) is very important and teaches much about God’s saving work through the Child. One might even say that these songs give a robust definition of what the gospel is:
    • God loves and lifts up the humble
    • God’s salvation will satisfy the needy
    • God will deliver his people from their enemies
    • God is returning to remember and bless his chosen people
    • God is bring peace and light to those in darkness (see also 2:29-32)

Again, there is much more of value to observe about how Luke 1-2 introduce, frame, and foreshadow the whole message of the Gospel.

My point for now is simply to encourage my readers during this beautiful Advent season to re-read Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 with a new set of lenses – for how they provide a crucial interpretive perspective on what the message of the whole gospel is.

Merry Advent!

Leclercq on Medieval Reading of Scripture

With a few other PhD students I have been reading through Jean Leclercq’s The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture. The book provides a helpful exposure to the monastic approach to God and Holy Scripture. The broad thesis in part is that to understand medieval theology and Christianity we must examine not only the scholastic tradition but also the meditative monastic traditions. The latter, with its focus on the journey to heaLeclercq Coverven and love for God, has a theology motivating it just as much as the more obvious scholastic theology.

I just finished Chapter 5 on “Sacred Learning.” It provides the best short introduction I’ve yet read on the basic approach of medieval exegesis, especially within the monastic tradition. Highlights include the discussion of why the Canticle of Canticles was the most commented upon book throughout the Middle Ages, the use of imagination, how the Old Testament was read as Christian Scripture, and the use of natural histories and medieval science books.

But most fascinating and revealing is his discussion of the monastic habit of meditative, prayerful, memory-driven exegesis (pp. 72-77). In short, Leclercq points out that the custom of recited, prayerful meditation on Holy Scripture (a spiritual mastication) resulted in the memorization of Scripture and the constant seeing of connections between words and phrases throughout the canon of Scripture. As a result, the reading of one verse leads by way of link-words to another passage and then to another, etc. in a rich tapestry of intra-canonical reading.

This observation does much to explain how and why medieval exegesis and commentary appears from our modern perspective to be haphazard and jumping all over the place. It is because of the very close attention to and meditation on the text, combined with a great reverence for God’s Words that medieval exegesis is so richly polyvalent but not apparently logical in its argumentation (especially monastic even more than medieval scholastic). This habitus or mode of meditative reading is a kind of “Exegesis by Concordance,” the concordance being stored in the mind and heart of the meditative, Scripture-memorizing reader.medieval reading

This connects with and confirms the importance of imaginative memory and memory storage techniques of the medieval readers that I have discussed in a previous post.

I am also reminded of Eugene Peterson’s excellent volume Eat this Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, which uses this idea of rumination as foundational. I’m fairly certain Peterson has read Leclercq because I’ve seen several striking similarities!

I am also struck by this thought — If this is true of medieval readers of Scripture, is it not remarkably similar to the Jewish custom and practice of memorizing, masticating, reciting, and meditating on Scripture, the very habit which we find occurring within Scripture itself? That is, does not this meditative, link-word habit do much to explain how the Old Testament authors refer to early parts of the Jewish Scriptures and how the New Testament authors employ the Old? I think it obviously does.

Tolle lege Leclercq!

A Question about Scholia for Any NT Textual Critics Out There…

medieval scholia ms of Aristotle

In this age of the necessity of narrow expertise, I am naturally inclined to think (and feel) more broadly and laterally. This is part personality, part intentionality to break out of the silo-intellectualism of Modernity.

One area in which I have a mere sophomoric level of training is textual criticism, but I do love it! I taught a PhD seminar on this last year which helped my understanding, but I’m aware of how little I know.

SO, I have a question for any readers out there who might know more about this area. Continue reading

My Recent Sojourn Sermons

I love to preach and am thankful for the honor to get to speak on a regular basis at my church, Sojourn East.

Per request, I thought it might be helpful to post here the links to the sermons I’ve delivered in the last few months:

Aaron Copland and Hermeneutics — Three Kinds of Listening/Reading

The great American composer Aaron Copland (1900-1990) was famous for his musical compositions that express the sense and style of America in the 20th century. The two most famous examples are his Fanfare for the Common Man and Appalachian Spring, great pieces of Americana. (Though for some reason my very musical mother never liked Copland; unsure why.)

Copland, the “dean of American music,” was also well-known for his reflections on the nature and pleasure of listening to music, gathered up in his well-regarded book, What to Listen for in Music (1939).

In this book Continue reading

A few thoughts on Hillel’s kelal uferat and the Structure of the Sermon on the Mount

The ancient Jewish teacher Hillel (active ca. 30BCE to 10CE)  famously preserved seven principles or hermeneutical rules for teachers of Torah to help them  make systematic inferences based on the ancient text. Hillel did not make up these rules, of course, but his codification of them proved important and influential.

Rabbi Ishmael, a third-generation mishnaic teacher (ca. 100-170CE), expanded this list to 13 rules by taking Hillel’s fifth rule (the kelal uferat) and subdividing it into eight different groups.

It is this fifth rule, the kelal uferat — which means “from the general to the particular” — upon which I want to make a preliminary comment. I say “preliminary” because I hope to do more detailed research into this idea to make sure I am understanding it correctly.

From what I do understand I will simply observe Continue reading

Books

Reading the Gospels WiselyFor the past ten years I have been working on the hermeneutical issues of what the Gospels are and how we are to read them. I'm thrilled to be finally done with this book!

www.readingwisely.com

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Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of MatthewThe theme of heaven and earth is a much-overlooked aspect of the Gospel of Matthew. In this work, rising scholar Jonathan Pennington articulates a fresh perspective on this key interpretive issue, challenging both the scholarly and popular understandings of the meaning of Matthew's phrase, "kingdom of heaven." Pennington argues that rather than being a reverent way of referring to God as is typically assumed, "heaven" in Matthew is part of a highly developed discourse of heaven and earth language.

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