Another Week Ends

1. Very much still reeling from this morning’s news about our hero Robert Farrar Capon, […]

David Zahl / 9.6.13

1. Very much still reeling from this morning’s news about our hero Robert Farrar Capon, may he rest in peace. In tribute, Justin Holcomb compiled a wonderful list of quotes over on his superb new site. Of course, if anyone should be counted among Father Capon’s spiritual progeny, it is our dear friend Tullian Tchividjian, who posted some of his favorite Caponisms as well. I have it on good authority that Tullian’s forthcoming One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World features Capon’s voice quite prominently–almost as prominently, in fact, as that other Episcopal grace guru of whom we are so fond. An article-length distillation of OWL appeared in Christianity Today under the name “God’s Word in Two Words”, and I can only imagine that it would make Capon smile:

chickenwisdomChristians who talk a lot about grace are thought to have a low view of God’s law. Correspondingly, those with a high view of the law are thought to be legalists. But the late Presbyterian theologian J. Gresham Machen says this gets the matter backwards: “A low view of the law always produces legalism; a high view of the law makes a person a seeker after grace.” This is because a low view of the law encourages us to conclude that we can keep it—the bar is low enough for us to jump over. A low view of the law makes us think that its standards are attainable, its goals reachable, its demands doable.

A high view of the law, however, demolishes all such confidence. It leaves us no room for supposing that God supplies helpful tips for practical living… We’ll always be suspicious of unconditional grace as long as we think our own moral efforts are sufficient. Only an inflexible picture of what God demands reveals the depth of our ongoing need for the gospel.

A separate section of the book appeared on Tullian’s personal blog this week, in which he expounds on one of our all-time favorite illustrations of self-justification, that of John Fitzgerald Page, AKA “the worst person in the world.” The passage where Tullian spells out what personal identity looks like in light of God’s grace and forgiveness is particularly Capon-esque:

Achievements, reputations, strengths, weaknesses, family backgrounds, education, looks, and so on—these things still exist, of course, but only for their own sake. They are divested of the weight they were never meant to bear in the first place, and as such, they can be enjoyed or appreciated without being worshiped. In fact, Paul counts them as loss, which is perhaps a little ironic, since most of the things we tend to define ourselves by are things we’re going to lose anyway, if not through aging (beauty, strength, smarts, etc.), then through death (name, wealth, regard).

An identity based in the one-way love of God does not take into account public opinion or, thankfully, even personal opinion. It is a gift from Someone who is not you.


2. While we’re on the subject of “Those Lutheran Sounding Anglicans” (ha!) Strange Herring ran a fairly flattering piece last week looking at Paul Zahl’s Grace in Practice. The line about China is worth the price of admission alone, i.e. “While Anglicans certainly have their low-church wing, if Zahl were any lower, he’d be preaching in China.” As for the label, well, it may not necessarily be the one that ‘we’ would use, but these things are beyond one’s control and, like ecclesiology itself, perhaps not worth losing too much sleep over. Still, it’s as good an opportunity as any to repeat the response my father gave years ago when he was interviewed about that very book by a legitimately Lutheran radio talk show. The host asked him about being Lutheran and he said, “I am not a Lutheran, but my theology is similar. It is Augustinian and Cranmerian.” Labels schmabels!

3. On the polar opposite side of the theological spectrum–functionally at least–Pacific Standard reported this week that “The Protestant Work Ethic Is Very Real.” A recent study out of the Netherlands concluded that:

The connection between work and happiness is much more intense in Protestant countries than in others. Protestants suffer intense hardship from unemployment; the “psychic harm from unemployment is about 40 percent worse for Protestants than for the general population,” according to the authors. This also holds true for non-Protestants living in Protestant countries, where they suffer more from unemployment than their global neighbors…

In other words, Protestantism may not make you rich, but it sure makes you unhappy when you’re not rich. The old Calvinist doctrine of a livelihood as the source of one’s value, and a sign of God’s favor, wreaks great havoc on people’s lives when that livelihood is gone. What’s more, this is true even when people practice other religions (or none at all) in largely Protestant countries. They experience the same impulses. What this really indicates is just how important Protestantism is to our concept of work—all of our concepts of work.

They may be mistakenly conflating Calvin’s cultural impact with his actual ideas, but we do live in a legacy of livelihood as having religious value, regardless of who said it first. Depending on how deeply the article’s findings resonate with your personal experience (and heart-rate), you may find Dan Siedell’s “It’s Never Enough” on Liberate to be balm for what ails you. It is both incisive and deeply comforting.


4. An intriguing and well-written review of Kate Bowler’s new Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel appeared in The Wilson Quarterly this week, and I for one was unaware that Reinhold Niebuhr himself decried the movement as having “nothing to do with biblical faith” and even as a “soporific for tired businessmen”~! The concluding paragraph of the review is pretty rich too:

In a superb conclusion, Bowler asks about the “Americaness” of the prosperity gospel, which, she observes, deified and ritualized the American dream. A Gatsbian hope runs rich in American soil, whether sacred or profane. To borrow from Fitzgerald, prosperity preachers bank on “the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.”

5. Also in the (almost-)nothing-t0-do-with-biblical-faith department, the new issue of Modern Reformation contains our very own Will McDavid’s soon-to-be definitive take on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Catch it while it’s hot:

A Song of Ice and Fire is an experiment in viewing the world with a robust acknowledgement of sinfulness but little possibility of redemption. Without any unifying, restorative purpose, human ambitions vie with each other in what the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes described as a “war of all against all,” which is always rending afresh the fabric of Martin’s world…

So if Martin’s work is merely a world of unfettered libido dominandi, why read it? …it’s the story’s emotional resonances that make it worthwhile and first rate. The blindness of those preoccupied with themselves is both pitiable and reprehensible, and we feel revulsion and deep empathy with the curved-in-on-itself political landscape of Westeros. And perhaps we feel a laudable quickening of the pulse with the advent of magic in the book—as T. S. Eliot says, a “trilling wire in the blood”—that feels judgment at the exposure of our ambitions as murky and petty, but also elation at the idea of a destiny or providence that holds all things together.

The ever-calcifying world of human ambition is constantly being broken open by surprise, by magic, things beyond the control of armies and intrigues.

6. Speaking of not terribly theistic views of the world, Ross Douthat’s thoughtful rejoinder in The NY Times to Sam Harris’ recent public challenge to anyone who might refute his claims about science being a more than sufficient basis for determining human values (…) is a must-read.

7. For anyone interested in the intersection of judgment and control (and parental over-identification) and love, I’m not sure how this can possibly be a good development. From a human nature/laugh-or-you’ll-cry point of view, the quotes from the administrators are pricelessly funny.

8. A couple of fantastic blogs that have recently come to our attention would be The Gospel Side and Confessions of a Funeral Director. And there’s a charmingly illustrated and compassion-inducing riff about internal persecution and law when it comes to exercise over at The Oatmeal.

9. Humor-wise, McSweeney’s “Excerpts from The Texter By Albert Camus” had my inner nerd guffawing gloriously, ht KW. And The Onion’s “Average Person Becomes Unhinged Psychotic When Alone in Own House” has to be one of their all-time best. Favorite paragraph might be:

“We discovered that the private mannerisms of most people, if seen in public, would be considered nearly identical to the those of a person with a severe case of schizophrenia,” Gibbon stated. “For example, if you were to witness someone on a subway car obsessively pulling their elbow skin to check its elasticity or see an individual randomly say to themselves, ‘Okay, okay, I’ll call her’ to no one in particular, your immediate reaction would be to think, ‘This person is insane and needs professional help.’”

Lastly, it turns out Win made a glaring omission when he compiled the “songs of the summer” a few weeks ago:

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4 responses to “Another Week Ends: One Way Love, Lutheran Sounding Anglicans, Hard Working Protestants, Prosperity Soporifics, Game of Thrones, Scientism, Camus Texts, and The Blerch”

  1. DBab says:

    Another great Another Week Ends…thanks Dave!

  2. Matt Marino says:

    Hello Mockingbird. Thanks for the shout-out.


  3. Rev. Luke Seamon says:

    On “Lutheran sounding Anglicans”. As a long time Lutheran admirer of Mbird I have to admit that after reading Strange Herrings’ critique of Zahl’s Grace in Practice I have become much less of an admirer. I admit to not having read Zahl’s book, but since you referenced it here I assume that it is an accurate portrayal of Zahl’s theology.

    What I find simply troubling, even disturbing, is this idea of Christ’s “real absence” in the Sacraments. (What a hideous phrase that is.) I’m simply baffled by this idea. I’m baffled that someone who has so fully embraced a Lutheran understanding of justification, and the Lutheran distinction between Law and Gospel would not realize how central Christ’s real sacramental presence is to the whole theology of justification by faith. Indeed, can there be anything more anti-Gospel, anti-promise, and law-driven than the teaching that Christ is not where he has promised to be – in the Sacraments?! But is instead in my love? Is this Mbird’s theology as well, or simply, as the reviewer puts it, “Zahlism”?

    Would you be willing to make a post addressing this issue? Perhaps I’m missing an important piece here.

  4. John Zahl says:

    Dear Rev. Seamon, I really appreciate your thoughtful and heart-felt response. In a very simple sense, the answer to the question you raise is: Paul Zahl speaks only for Paul Zahl, and Mockingbird has many contributors (of whom he is one) who believe many different things about the Eucharist. At the same time, his position is not really his own invention, and there is precedent in the Protestant tradition for an huge spectrum of belief about the sacraments in the history of the Church. The English Reformers were arguably far more convinced by the Calvinist camp about sacramental matters than they were on other theological issues, so to find an Episcopalian advocating an non-Lutheran position in a non-confessional church while still strongly maintaining an emphasis upon justification by faith as the cornerstone of the Christian faith is not at all novel. There are also confessional Lutherans who contribute to Mbird and who would whole-heartedly embrace a “real presence” teaching. I hope you will acknowledge that those who do not personally side with either Rome of Luther on the issue of the sacraments still do believe that the bread and wine is the body and blood of Christ for those who have faith. On the more scholarly tip, I think it’s fair to say that Cranmer’s own leanings landed somewhere between those of Calvin and Zwingli (i.e., Bullinger). Surely those teachings have informed some of the thinking of some of the members of M’bird, but that’s all that can be extrapolated fairly from the piece about Zahl that worries you. Hope that’s helpful. John Zahl

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