On Hermeneutics and Ethics

As part of my preparations to teach an Apologetics course this Fall, I recently read Rachel Held Evans’ essay An Evangelical’s Response to Homosexuality, in which she shares her personal turmoil over the nature of homosexuality and the church’s treatment of homosexuals. As she wrestles with William Webb’s distinctions between ‘cultural’ and ‘trans-cultural’ statements in scripture, she states:

I think I’d have a lot more clarity on this issue if I knew what Jesus had to say about it. But unfortunately, if he did address the issue, we have no record of it.

Ouch. This is a problematic response, but is symptomatic of an all-too-common hermeneutic— a hermeneutic that limits the words of Jesus to those sometimes writ in red.

John begins his Gospel this way:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

This is an exposition of who Jesus Christ is. He is eternally God. Son of God. Member of the Trinity. Word, integral to all creation’s existence. Co-eternal with the Father and the Spirit. Source of life and light for men. Is Christ’s incarnation a new grace to the world? Yes. His incarnation, his presence on earth, not to mention his work completed on earth, is unquestionably pivotal in redemptive history. However, Christ is not the new Word of God. Christ incarnate is not the first proclamation of the Word of God. Christ is the eternal Word of God, now incarnate. John 1:14 says, “And the Word became flesh.” Jesus says of himself that all the prophets and writings of scripture speak of him. Not only does this mean that Christ’s coming has been prophesied through the ages, but this means it is him, as Word, his truth, that has been proclaimed through all of scripture. This is why the Gospel was proclaimed first to the Jews, even. Because Jesus was the Christ they had been promised centuries ago. Because the incarnation is not God doing something new and novel, but bringing to further completion that plan which he began before time.

To suggest that the only words of Jesus we have are those transcribed in quotes in the Gospels is to deny him the very identity which he claimed for himself and which the rest of scripture ascribed to him. And if he isn’t who he said he is, he should be of no interest to us.

Poem 5/20

I remember the darkened home as we entered,
Audrey, Cookie Monster, and a butterfly.
That night felt like re-telling college—
times we’d all had and regretted.

I remember you looking at me, up, then down,
and I thought you seemed young.
Your idealism,  your goodness, smacked naive,

But your confident eyes made me smile
and want to dance.

Poem 5/26

I drank of a cup, filled from waterless clouds,
and it killed what was already dry.
What had hope left was left now for dead, feeling worse
than betrayed by a knee-deep desire.

This beast without burden went, useless, along,
passing feigned grace to sunk eyes.
To these, paired, peering through hills, I cried “liar!”
but wind ate my warning, despised.

[After reading 2 Peter 2]

 

Book Review: Culture Care

I recently read Makoto Fujimura’s latest book, Culture Care. His is one of the most profound, succinct definitions of beauty I’ve ever read:

Beauty is the quality connected with those things that are in themselves appealing and desirable. Beautiful things are a delight to the senses, a pleasure to the mind, and a refreshment for the spirit. Beauty invites us in, capturing our attention and making us want to linger. Beautiful things are worth our scrutiny, rewarding to contemplate, deserving of pursuit. They inspire— or even demand— a response, weather sharing them in community or acting to extend their beauty into other spheres.

Beauty may not be embodied in an enduring form— a given bouquet of flowers will soon wilt, though a painting or poem can last for generations— but it is something we want to remember and something we would not want to change. Beauty is thus connected with satisfaction— which may point to the way beauty feeds the soul.

Beauty touches on some combination of qualities, difficult to quantify, of pattern, design, form, shape, color, sound, light, integrity, and relationship. It appeals to us at multiple levels, speaking to our intellect and our logical capacities as well as our emotions and spirit.

Truly great. His phrasing that “beautiful things are worth our scrutiny” is something I’ve spent a hundred pages trying to articulate. I am thankful for this definition.

A motivation of his work, Fujimura shares, is to end the idea of the “Christian artist.” He seeks to break Christian identity out of the adjectival box. What is the alternative to which he seeks to lead such artists, though? This is unclear.

Other aspects of this work were troubling. First, a theme of the book is that artists are by nature maercstapas, or “border-stalkers.” Fujimura elevates anecdotal themes to a necessary characteristic of an artist. He confuses what has become a cultural stereotype—the tortured, distant, unsettled artist— with the truly diverse nature of a people group. To be a “border-stalker” is to live on the outskirts of your own society, in isolating communication with other societies; it is to never feel at home in your own culture, to be a perpetual outcast. His hope seems to be to redeem these outcasts to their own society as valued, contributing members. But in effect, he limits in his mind who is an artist. What of artists who are at home in their own culture? Can they not aptly comment on their own society, while still calling it home? While functioning healthily in it? It is a silly line to draw, and one that perpetuates a destructive stereotype which has arguably drawn the very wedge between the church and the artist which Fujimura claims to seek to bridge.

Second, in his examples of Emily Dickinson and Vincent van Gogh, Fujimura bemoans the church’s handling of such great artists. The split between these artists and the church is read to be the result of the church neglecting to listen to these maercstapas who, by being such, have a better view of the world and what might be best for it. While Dickinson and van Gogh are both phenomenal artists, the idea that their issues with the church (each distinct, but substantial) should result in the church being deferential to their views simply because they are artists, is troubling. Nowhere in scripture does God tell us the artist ought to inform the ministers of the church in such a way. Scripture is quite clear that to the pastors and elders of the church is given the role of prophecy and discipline. That being said, has the church mishandled their treatment of orthodox artistic members? Yes. However, Dickinson and van Gogh are poor examples, and the remedy is not that an artist ought to be elevated in authority as an informant to the pastor simply by virtue of being artistic.

I share Fujimura’s befuddled unrest at the church’s relationship to art. I share his hope of artists thriving in the church as valued, contributing members of the body, comfortable and thriving. I do not think the pastors deferring to them in matters of what the church needs is the way to this particular vision. Namely, because to the church is given the role of proclaiming, interpreting, and applying the Word of God to the people of God. This is the role of pastors and elders: to be ministers of the Word. This role comes, by the grace of God, with supernatural help to achieve its end.

Artists and pastors can certainly have a mutually beneficial relationship within the body of Christ. Together, they can work toward the goal of “culture care.” To the pastor belongs the role of prophet, expounding and applying the Word of God to his people. Fujimura seems to want to elevate the role of artist to a another office of the church, and this is troubling. We must not need to add to scripture to validate what scripture has deemed good. Artists can do what is good— perpetuating what is beautiful, blessing society with the truth, cultivating the common good, for the glory of God. But artists, truly all the people of God, ought to be subject to the ministry of the Word in the church, submitting themselves to the teaching and discipline which God has promised to fuel and preserve (for his glory and our good!). Artists do not need to be elevated in this system to be validated. The church need not submit to artists to value and support them.

Poem 5/26

God is righteous, judge of all;
God is shepherd, seeks the lost;
God who set the sun shines forth
from beauty– at peace with his people.
God is he who speaks to call,
and weary, evil, repent, all.
His silence, his relent, would doom;
yet he comes nigh to save.
Now those who hear and see fall, joyful;
offer thankful lives.
Their chaos broken, now nearby;
salvation fills their eyes.

Poem 5/25

Does the bronzing of leaves or
the brief bloom of spring
reek of sin or keep pace in resistance?
Would the unchanging God
make a shadow of truth
in a form not his own and yet lovely?
Does all change need death; or
is all death of evil?
Would we know of the sun
that our God is eternal?

De Ordine, Part 1

“Some cauterize the wound of disordered opinion inflicted on them in day-to-day life by retreating into solitude. Others do the same by cultivating the liberal arts.”
-St. Augustine, De Ordine

In one of his earliest works, Augustine debates the accident of order with a few students and his mother. The questions which fuel their pursuit of understanding are that of unity. How can we reconcile that “on the one hand, God takes care of human affairs, on the other these same affairs are shot through with so much evil,” that God is good, that he is omnipotent, that nothing occurs outside God’s order, and yet that evil occurs? If evil contradicts the nature of God’s order, we cannot then hold that it occurs within it, but neither can we say evil is powerful to overcome God’s order and thus act outside of it, for then God is not omnipotent. If God causes evil, he is its author, and thus cannot be called good. So mankind observes in his world orderliness: that it does occur, that it seems good, and that it appeals to the wise as worthy of imitation and perpetuation, and he is haunted by the persistence of disunity. If this “clashing of contraries gives body to the overall beauty of the universe,” then is evil necessary for beauty? Is it necessary for the occurrence of order? If all was good, would all be order, or would order not exist? Then, what of God’s justice?

The work of Christian philosophy is discerning the eternal from the midst of a broken yet hope-filled world.