Reading Lectures to Elephants: Robert Capon on Junk Bonds, Grace and the End of Religion

A couple of characteristically vivid quotes from Robert Farrar Capon’s classic Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, […]

David Zahl / 9.20.11

A couple of characteristically vivid quotes from Robert Farrar Capon’s classic Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus:

The world is already drowning in its own efforts as life; it does not need lifeguards who swim to it carrying the barbells of their own moral and spiritual efforts. Preachers are to come honestly empty-handed to the world, because anyone who comes bearing more than the folly of… the word of the cross (1 Cor 1:21,18) has missed completely the foolishness of God that is wiser than men. The wise steward, therefore, is the one who knows that God has stood all known values on their heads – that, as Paul says in 1 Cor 1:26ff, he has not chosen the wise, or the mighty, or the socially adept, but rather that he has chosen what the world considers nonsense in order to shame the wise, and what the world considers weak in order to shame the strong. The clergy are worth their salt only if they understand that God deals out salvation solely through the klutzes and nobodies of the world – through, in short, the last, the least, the lost, the little, and the dead. If they think God is waiting for them to provide classier help, they should do everybody a favor and get out of the preaching business. Let them do less foolish work. Let them sell junk bonds. (pg 242)

What role have I left for religion? None. And I have left none because the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ leaves none. Christianity is not a religion; it is the announcement of the end of religion. Religion consists of all the things (believing, behaving, worshiping, sacrificing) the human race has ever thought it had to do to get right with God. About those things, Christianity has only two comments to make. The first is that none of them ever had the least chance of doing the trick: the blood of bulls and goats can never take away sins (see the Epistle to the Hebrews) and no effort of ours to keep the law of God can ever succeed (see the Epistle to the Romans). The second is that everything religion tried (and failed) to do has been perfectly done, once and for all, by Jesus in his death and resurrection. For Christians, therefore, the entire religion shop has been closed, boarded up, and forgotten. The church is not in the religion business. It never has been and it never will be, in spite of all the ecclesiastical turkeys through two thousand years who have acted as if religion was their stock in trade. The church, instead, is in the Gospel-proclaiming business. It is not here to bring the world the bad news that God will think kindly about us only after we have gone through certain creedal, liturgical and ethical wickets; it is here to bring the world the Good News that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.” It is here, in short, for no religious purpose at all, only to announce the Gospel of free grace.

The reason for not going out and sinning all you like is the same as the reason for not going out and putting your nose in a slicing machine: it’s dumb, stupid and no fun. Some individual sins may have pleasure still attached to them because of the residual goodness of the realities they are abusing: adultery can indeed be pleasant, and tying one on can amuse. But betrayal, jealously, love grown cold, and the gray dawn of the morning after are nobody’s idea of a good time.

On the other hand, there’s no use belaboring that point, because it never stopped anybody. And neither did religion. The notion that people won’t sin as long as you keep them well supplied with guilt and holy terror is a bit overblown. Giving the human race religious reasons for not sinning is about as useful as reading lectures to an elephant in rut. We have always, in the pinches, done what we damn pleased, and God has let us do it. His answer to sin is not to scream “Stop that!” but to shut up once and for all on the subject in Jesus’ death. (pg 252-253)


subscribe to the Mockingbird newsletter


4 responses to “Reading Lectures to Elephants: Robert Capon on Junk Bonds, Grace and the End of Religion”

  1. bls says:

    I love this one. I’ve always found this section of I Corinthians to be nothing more or less than a completely accurate statement about the world. Of course, nobody wants to hear it, but it’s so true: the great things of the world come crashing down, down, down, as the little, crazy, invisible, unexpected, and, yes, weak things, have their way with all of us. Power and strength come to nothing much at all, in the end (except brutality, often enough).

    Strange that this isn’t intuitive, isn’t it? So this is a really important insight, I’d say – maybe one of the most important ever.

    I would doubt, though, that most people today see religion as a way to trade for God’s favor. They definitely don’t in my neighborhood, anyway – and this is why I almost always prefer to let the facts of the world argue for themselves, in silence. (Religious rites and ceremonies – oh, well: the Anglo-Catholic thing, let’s say – seem an efficacious way to escape this world for another, mysterious and intriguing, one, and hopefully to allow some of these insights in bodily, perhaps against the conscious will. Those things are definitely OK with me.)

    It’s a great quote, though….

  2. Mich says:

    Capon is like a breath of fresh air–and so is MB!

  3. Jim McNeely says:

    Oh man, I love this guy! This is great stuff. I’m still asking everyone why they are itching to have the tax gatherer show up with the pharisee’s speech in his pocket! How exciting and wonderful to walk around thinking this is how God is toward us, this is how things are. It makes me smile from a very deep place.

  4. Jlew says:

    How good is this?! This is the message that the world needs to here, oh yeah, and the church too!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *