A Totally Biased Review of Robert Farrar Capon’s Between Noon and Three

There are precious few books that elicit tears; even fewer books of theology. Walker Percy […]

Will McDavid / 9.10.13

There are precious few books that elicit tears; even fewer books of theology. Walker Percy echoed T.S. Eliot’s “dissociation of sensibility” in saying that the modern person “cannot think and feel at the same time.” Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace, named for the period of darkness just before Christ’s death, comes as close as any contemporary book I’ve read to proving Percy wrong. Robert Farrar Capon, that masterful connoisseur of grace, weaves together thinking and feeling, storytelling and theology, in what he described as “a watershed experience… the most important piece of writing I have ever done.” At the same time, and with characteristic humility, Capon said that “if you can stand the switching back and forth [between story and theology], it makes for a diverting experience.” The contrast in these quotes is perfect; the book itself oscillates between flippant playfulness and unapologetic passion, and Capon never takes himself too seriously, but is utterly devoted to the love of God to which he pays tribute.


The plot is zany, to be sure: an already-adulterous English teacher (‘Paul’) starts a new affair, with a woman who loves him totally and is fully committed to him. There is no immediate repercussion in his life, none of the moral fallout we usually demand in our stories. It’s good, right, and for Paul, almost salvific. If this move seems strange, even subversive, for a Christian author to make, then you’re not alone. In Dr. Capon’s words: “It took 10 years, 25 rejections and 7 revisions before it got published.”

Here we must pause and appreciate Father Capon’s biblical talent. His interpretation is distinctly modern, and that in a distinctly pastoral way. He does not merely gloss the text, because he knows that it is impossible to read a text without preconceptions, emotional biases, and misconceptions getting in the way. For Capon, that means that he must not only interpret theology, but he must simultaneously strip the reader of her/his biases. That is, he knows that whenever we read the Bible, it is first and foremost the Old Adam doing all the exegetical heavy-lifting. Legalism isn’t some problem in this denomination or that one, but instead lies at the core of our inveterate identity as sinners, and it’s the (dour) lens most natural to us as readers. So his work is an ongoing dialogue with a reader who, he correctly assumes, will tend toward legalism in apprehension. That is, they will hear conditionality (and the corresponding sense of “ought”) in the word of grace. To see the Bible, or theology, or listen to a sermon, without the old biases toward law is a struggle, a process, and something never fully accomplished. Concerning sermons:

As I said, when I preach something [purely grace-focused], I get two reactions. At the end of the sermon, I see smiles. I see faces light up – faces which, in spite of a lifetime’s exposure to the doctrine of grace, seem for the first time to dare to hope that maybe there isn’t a catch to it after all, that even out of the midst of their worst shipwrecks they are still going home free for the pure and simple reason that Jesus calls them. I see barely restrained hilarity at the sudden perception that he really meant it when he said his yoke is easy and his burden light.

But after the sermon, in the time it takes to get downstairs to coffee hour, the smiles have been replaced by frowns. Their fear of the catch has caught up with them again, and they surround the messenger of hope and accuse me of making the world unsafe for morality. 

I propose, therefore, that you and I stop our progress at this point and do justice to the frowning, coffee-hour mood that my parable of grace has put you in.


Capon’s book is conversational–thesis, our reaction against it, his response, etc. In Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People”, the main character takes off her glasses at the end–it’s the only hope O’Connor will allow for, under the sun at least. Capon wants to take off our glasses and stomp them underfoot, which is why his book (as with many honest looks at grace) has generated such pushback over the years. But he can’t address a problem of seeing with theology–as if our resistance to grace comes from some intellectual defect!–but instead he wants to speak at several different levels, speak to the full person of the reader. And so this book vacillates among short fiction, literary analysis, poetry quotes, commentary on Augustine, and theology. It’s dialectical in the best sense, twisting and turning back on itself, addressing the heart and then the head and then the imagination, as it builds, slowly, from human experience all the way up to the Atonement and the Resurrection and eschatology.

All this means that Between Noon and Three is difficult to review; reading it is less a theology manual or reference book than it is a slow, tortuous, and ultimately ec-static midwifing into the unthinkable economy of grace. A book to be experienced as much as comprehended. It is, like the best of Christian theology, an act not of knowledge or ideas but of vision–and a beautiful vision at that. Seeing is an act first of seeing our selves, and second (simultaneously) of seeing God. First, ourselves:

We are dead and our lives are hid with Christ in God. Dead. Out of the causal nexus for good. Dead. Not on trial. Dead. Out of the judicial process altogether. Not indicted, not prosecuted, not bound over, not found guilty. Just dead. And the lovely thing of it is that we were dead even before they came to get us. We have beaten the system. In Christ, we have cheated the cosmos and slipped the bonds of every necessity the Old Party will ever wave in front of us. There is therefore now no condemnation. It doesn’t matter what the universe thinks. It doesn’t matter what the universe thinks. It doesn’t even matter what God think, because he has said he isn’t going to think about it anymore. All he thinks now is Jesus, Jesus, Jesus; and Jesus now is all your life. You are, therefore, free…

Again, despite the beauty of his language here, it’s impossible to recapitulate the back-and-forth, the wit and humor and at times abruptness, of the book. But the resurrection.. what about that? For Capon, “You can’t redress an imbalance without putting more weight on the light side, at least for the time being. And that’s all I propose to ask my reader to do…”

41HAsqWz2RLSo is Capon just writing about grace because we live in a legalistic time or Church or society, similar to the way some theologians are (temporarily) calling God exclusively feminine pronouns to purge us of our over-identification with God as male? Well, no. Because the scale will always be tipped toward legalism and control and self-justification, weighted as it is by our perpetual burdensome self-absorption, the Old Adam resurging time and again, urging self-sufficiency and extending the illusory shadow of control over all circumstances–even spiritual–in his life. So Capon is sitting, absurdly, on the light side of the scale. The side which, since sin is self-justification, catapults him up like a kid trying in vain to balance the see-saw, alone and ridiculous-looking, to many Christians at least.

What of Resurrection then? In the world of Between Noon and Three, me being “saved” makes little sense, because that’s assuming there’s a me that can “be” anything. His interpretation of “hidden in Christ” (Col) is so high that it’s doubtful if we can lay claim to anything in ourselves, much less salvation. But we share in Christ’s salvation, less a something given to us than a condition perpetually, yet still irrevocably, received.

And so the Resurrection is a reality, but death is the fact of life, the most empirically observable things about human (and, yes, ‘Christian’) existence. I’m reminded of Gerhard Forde’s insistence that Christ wasn’t playing some theological game with the Father when he died, with a calculation of Anselmian atonement and knowledge he was taking a three-day hiatus; it was death, plain and simple. The same is true for us: Christian Wiman once said that Christianity is about the eradication of the self. Dr. Capon would say that it’s an assent to the fact that we have no self, except perhaps the Adamic one, to begin with.

Are we going to heaven? Can we be certain? A recognizably human question, a recognizably Christian one, but not recognizably Capon, at least not straightforwardly–the emphasis, and especially the tense, are off. It is in our acknowledgement of the death of our ethics, our Christian ‘progress’, our ‘spiritual maturity’–there (and there alone) is the touchstone of grace, as it was for Christ on the cross. This touchstone of our lived experience of grace is a good place to close:

If we are now in Christ, we are now in that new creation. Unless what we believe is a lie, it is just that simple, and the proof is as easy as the yoke of Christ. For if we are now dead with him, we are also now risen with him; and if we are now judged by him, we are also reconciled in him. And therefore if heaven is the fullness of that reconciliation, it is that now, and we’re in it already. The only important sense in which we are not in it is the least important sense of all; and the only catch to it turns out to be not a catch but the ultimate liberation: our apprehension of heaven face-to-face waits only for the easiest, most inevitable thing of all – our literal, physical death. That alone has yet to become true; everything else is true already. Therefore, we are as good as home now. Q.E.D.

Given his high views on atonement and reconciliation, the Christian life is not about becoming virtuous, or doing some thing or another, or learning theology but about apprehending, as much as we’re given to, these things which are true now, the New Order against which we still struggle with every fiber in us. This apprehension could be called variously vision, contemplation, faith – even though “now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we shall see face-to-face.” Polishing the mirror, patiently and stubbornly and ever so slightly, is Capon’s gift to those led by him into “the grace that takes the world between noon and three.”

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8 responses to “A Totally Biased Review of Robert Farrar Capon’s Between Noon and Three

  1. Kory says:

    Will, could you comment on Capon’s apparent universalism (though he doesn’t like that word)?

    • Will McDavid says:

      In Father Capon’s words:

      “I am and I am not a universalist. I am one if you are talking about what God in Christ has done to save the world. The Lamb of God has not taken away the sins of some – of only the good, or the cooperative, or the select few who can manage to get their act together and die as perfect peaches. He has taken away the sins of the world – of every last being in it – and he has dropped them down the black hole of Jesus’ death. On the cross, he has shut up forever on the subject of guilt: ‘There is therefore now no condemnation…’ All human beings, at all times and places, are home free whether they know it or not, feel it or not, believe it or not.

      But I am not a universalist if you are talking about what people may do about accepting that happy-go-lucky gift of God’s grace. I take with utter seriousness everything that Jesus had to say about hell, including the eternal torment that such a foolish non-acceptance of his already-given acceptance must entail. All theologians who hold Scripture to be the Word of God must inevitably include in their work a tractate on hell. But I will not – because Jesus did not – locate hell outside the realm of grace. Grace is forever sovereign, even in Jesus’ parables of judgment. No one is ever kicked out at the end of those parables who wasn’t included at the beginning.”
      -from The Romance of the Word

      That’s his most direct answer, but Between Noon and Three does a good bit more development on the issue. I don’t think he’d want to pigeonholed necessarily into “soft” or “Barthian” or “von Balthasarian” universalism, empty-hell theories, or anything like that. His theology is almost always employed in service to his pastoral concerns, and he wasn’t a systematic theologian.

      We can certainly sympathize with one of the roots of the way he talks about hell, which is his concern that Christians naturally over-obsess about dividing people into camps. Just like anything else, our talk about hell is always tinged with self-justification, regardless of where we come down on that question systematically. Agree or disagree with where he ends up, I’d recommend all of Between Noon and Three, absolutely whole-heartedly.

  2. Charles Howard says:

    I believe what I find most captivating about the various works of Capon I have had the privilege to read is his seemingly overarching view of God’s relationship with the world which is nearly the opposite of what we are naturally attracted to. To me, he consistently takes a fascinating position where Hell is the thing we choose. This is antithetical to the view that we can choose to obey the Law.

    The idea implicit in this is that ‘I, when I be lifted up from the Earth will raise all people to myself’ is categorically true. We aren’t party to what He has already done, but we theoretically can refuse it though; we are not held captive as mere puppets.

    In this view, Hell is not so much a place that you are sent to but rather a place you actually choose to remove yourself to by refusing to accept what He has already done for you in the redemption of the world. Sure, you are cast into the outer darkness, but this is has more to do with your unflinching refusal than His desire for some sort of punishment or vengeance.

    This idea is ridiculous. It is utterly contradictory to human nature’s desire to ‘do.’ It is offensive even because all the while we want to do, He says “done!”

    It is easy to see this as universalist, but the more I have been exposed to this idea, the more I have come to understand it as anything but. Hell is right there waiting if you really want it; if you really can’t give up clutching onto life and control and refusing to give up. But of course who can do that anyway? Is your human nature different than mine?

    But for the Grace of God, I know myself to think: “No, I don’t like your way. I have a shot at this. Kindly step aside, thank you.”

    I’m not sure that is the most enlightened or advanced view of his thinking but it’s where I seem to be at the moment. It is a fascinating thought experiment in the least which takes quite a while to begin to wrap your head around.

    I loved Between Noon and Three. It is ridiculous and offensive with Capon’s usual humor and absolutely absurd contrasts that help to make ideas understandable.

    I’m glad you reviewed it!

    • Kory says:

      The current problem I’m trying to work through with the idea of hell is this tension: of course we’re not puppets, and can refuse our acceptance if we really want to, but then where is Good News for those who, for whatever reason, are legitimately not able to accept their acceptance, or are predisposed to unflinching refusal, and can’t help it? Since none of us can fully, ideally accept grace in this life, where is assurance that we WILL come to fully accept it in the life to come? The tension is that I recognize that our freedom to refuse is probably necessary, but at the same time, that can cause some disturbing thoughts in more sensitive consciences, such as “What if I don’t accept it enough?”

      Maybe I’m just going through a weird phase, but this is what I’ve been thinking about lately.

  3. William McDavid says:

    It’s a really difficult question – for the more universalist end of things, I’d recommend Karl Barth’s Humanity of God or Christ and Adam (both pretty small) or (much more burdensome) his Dogmatics Book IV, as well as Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Dare We Hope. For the other side of things, Lewis’s Great Divorce, along with with Dante’s Inferno/Purgatorio (read sympathetically) do, to my mind, bring out a certain logic to the doctrine of hell that escapes much of the providence/fairness/love/etc conundrum. Of course, neither side comes too close to solving the problem altogether.

    But the debates can be a little wearisome – there’s an old (and really nerdy joke) that once you get into the doctrine of hell… you don’t get out (ha).

  4. Callie Skokos says:

    Maybe I’m not sophisticated enough or mature enough in my theology, but this book actually disgusted me. I was cringing as I turned each page. It felt bi-polar and ingenuous – like the author was trying to convince himself that even he doesn’t understand grace. I usually respect most all the writing from Mockingbird – but this article simply felt like it was pandering to the author.

  5. […] been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live but Christ lives in me.” Robert Farrar Capon, in Between Noon and Three, explains it this […]

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