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A Postcard from Q

[Alas, today will be my final post here at The Twelve.  I've been honored to be part of the team that has launched this conversation, but need to consolidate my energies and so regretfully have to say a virtual farewell, but will continue to be an interested reader.  For those who are interested, I'll continue to blog at Fors Clavigera and you can follow me on Twitter @james_ka_smith.]

Washington, DC. -- From my window here in The Willard hotel I can see the morning light beginning to illumine the Lincoln Memorial.  I'm in DC for the 5th annual Q, a conference that has brought together over 700 practitioners and leaders from an array of cultural "channels"--entrepreneurs and artists alongside pastors and academics for a kind of Christian TED.  While TED is about "ideas worth spreading," Q is about "ideas for the common good."  

To give you a bit of an idea of how this looks, consider just a small sampling from my day yesterday: I began by interviewing David Brooks, NY Times columnist, for the Q website and then listened to his talk on humility. We heard from Andy Crouch speaking about his forthcoming book on power and Jonathan Merritt speaking from his brand new book, A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars.  Sherry Turkle from MIT talked about the impact of social media on relationships and Chidi Achara, brand manager for a New York fashion house, unpacked the grammar and influence of fashion while Gideon Strauss made the Christian case for principled pluralism in the public square.  Amy Julia Becker gave a moving talk on limits and dependence and the need to protect those with Down Syndrome, and we learned of Jill's House, a respite community for children with intellectual disabilities (and their families).  We received a video greeting from President Obama while later in the day Pastor Joel Hunter explained why "Government is Not the Enemy."  I enjoyed a charming chat with Ross Douthat of the New York Times before Michael Cromartie interviewed him about his new book, Bad Religion, which I picked up from the portable incarnation of Byron Borger's Hearts & Minds Bookstore here at the conference.  We enjoyed an after-party on the deck at Google's DC headquarters where I got to meet to CRC church planters who gave me hope.  After that conversations spilled into the hotel bar; we turned in around 1:30am.  

And that was just a sampling of the day.

Q is the brainchild of Gabe Lyons, and the vision behind it is well-articulated in his book The Next Christians.  In many ways, the animus of Q will feel very familiar to Reformed folks.  Indeed, there's indirect influence: Gabe captured a vision of a holistic, culture-making, world-restoring Gospel through Chuck Colson's How Now Shall We Live?, which was itself a kind of evangelical translation of Abraham Kuyper (copies of the new Kuyper read, Wisdom and Wonder were in all of the participant swag bags).  In many ways, Q (and is fostering what Nicholas Wolterstorff calls "world-formative Christianity."  

We (i.e., we who count ourselves the heirs of Kuyper and the sort of denominational 'owners' of this vision) can respond in a couple of ways: We could be snooty and retort, "Been there, done that." Except we haven't.  Yes, perhaps the theological vision is something we have embraced for over a century.  But what it has tended to produce is enclaves and what James Davison Hunter calls "parallel institutions."  Those are all good and great and I've invested myself in them.  But the folks at Q are not interested in transforming Grand Rapids, MI or Orange City, IA.  They are at work as entrepreneurs and players in Manhattan and DC, the Bay Area and Seattle.  They're not building parallel institutions, they're inhabiting elite institutions and founding new ventures.  And it is just this energy that I find so enriching about this conversation.

So I think the alternative response is to resource this emerging conversation from the deep wells of Reformed and Kuyperian reflection.  Sure, maybe we've been thinking about this stuff for a century: well then, let's see this development as an answer to prayer, an opportunity for us to break out of our midwest parochial bubbles.  Let's join this conversation as theoretical servants and intellectual deacons, willing to come alonside and help while also learning from a new generation who knows not Dooyeweerd.  The common good is at stake.


Editors’ Note
With this post, Jamie Smith concludes his run with The Twelve. We thank Jamie for his contributions in these early months of the blog. Watch for his upcoming book Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, a sequel to Desiring the Kingdom, due out from Baker Academic in November.

The Twelve is also pleased to announce our newest member, Jennifer Holberg, an English professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and a contributing editor to Perspectives. Welcome, Jennifer! Watch for her first post in two weeks.


Kings, Creeds, and the Canon: Musing on N.T. Wright

I'm something of a Tom Wright enthusiast.  As someone who is convinced that Christian scholars across the disciplines should be responsible and informed biblical interpreters, I have been a student of N.T. Wright for a while now.  His "five-act-drama" approach to the biblical narrative is both accessible and illuminating, and his account of Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel's vocation gives me all sorts of new ways to re-appreciate the central Reformed theme of "covenant."  This is just to scratch the surface of some of my debts to his scholarship.  (Keep this in mind when you get to the end of this post, OK?  Promise?)

Which is why it's odd to find myself rather frustrated with some of his most recent work, particularly as articulated in How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels.  (If you've not yet read the book, you might watch Wright's presentation of the core argument of the book in his "January Series" lecture at Calvin College this past January.)

Actually, let me rephrase that: it's not the substance of the argument itself that frustrates me, it's the attendant tone and asides by which Wright frames his project.  The thesis of the book, to simplify in extremis, is that the core message of the Gospel is "political" in the sense that the Gospel announces the kingship of God over all of creation--that the proclamation "Jesus is Lord" is both the culmination of Israel's expectation AND a direct affront to the gospel of the empire ("Caesar is Lord").  This means that the Gospel is not the announcement of an escape pod from the world to a disembodied heaven but rather the reassertion of God's authority over heaven AND earth--the announcement that God is reclaiming the whole of his creation.  Jesus, we might say, comes to "occupy" creation.  

So far so good.  Indeed, I think this quickly and easily resonates with those of us in the Kuyperian stream of the Reformed tradition because, in some ways, this holistic, "kingdom-oriented" reading of Scripture is sort of old hat.  Granted, it didn't come with all of the backstory of Second Temple Judaism and such; nonetheless, with the resources of the canon and a theological frame for interpretation, the Reformed tradition of my teachers was sort of "Wrightian" before Wright.  When I hear Wright explain the Gospel as the announcement of "how God became king," I'm immediately reminded of everything I learned from Rich Mouw's When the Kings Come Marching In.  

This probably explains my frustration with how Wright pitches his argument and interpretation.  For example, notice the subtitle: Wright is offering us the "forgotten story of the Gospels."  This may be a publishers' ploy, but having heard Wright talk about this argument in several different contexts, he clearly affirms the claim: for hundreds and hundreds of years, we have not been able to properly read the Gospels.  And now Tom Wright has come along to give us what we lacked: the backstory of Second Temple Judaism, the historian's read of Israel's expectations, the secret keys we need to finally read the Gospels.  (This reminds me way too much of Brian McLaren's title, The Secret Message of Jesus--wherein the "secret" was that Jesus cared about poverty and oppression and injustice, which was only a "secret" if you were an a-political pietist or a right-wing fundamentalist.)  

There's another layer here that adds to my frustration: Wright regularly faults the catholic creedal tradition as the villain that tempted us to miss this "forgotten story."  Nicea and Chalcedon are blinders and screens that prevent us from seeing what Wright, "the historian," has uncovered.  The creedal tradition, on Wright's account, was fixated on ontological questions about divinity and humanity and thus missed the backstory of Israel's covenant which really makes sense of the Gospels.  And so when he frames his argument, even if he doesn't reject "Nicene Christianity," he certainly dismisses it and sees little if any value in it.  For those of us who have been struggling to get evangelical and Reformed folk to remember they are catholic, it is disconcerting to have yet another teacher come along and promise a new "secret key" to unlock the Bible.  Indeed, there is an odd kind of primitivism at work in Wright's framing of this account.  

This leads to one last layer of my frustration: Wright's dismissal of "canonical" readings of Scripture.  There is much more that needs to be said here, and I hope to unpack this further elsewhere, but let me just note: Wright is very dismissive of discussions about the "theological interpretation of Scripture" or "canonical" readings of Scripture or invocations of "the rule of faith" (per, say, Todd Billing's marvelous book, The Word of God for the People of God--or as I've tried to suggest in the new chapters of the new, revised edition of my book, The Fall of Interpretation).  This is because Wright has already functionally dismissed "the tradition" as more of an obfuscating "blinder" than illuminating light; more specifically, Wright's account hinges on the supposed illuminations of "history" as finally providing the extra-canonical resources we needed to be able to read the Gospels aright.  (This latter stance is fraught with issues; for a taste, consider Richard Hays' engaging contribution to a recent collection devoted to Wright's thought.)

But do we need this extra-canonical resource (a canon without the canon) to be able to read the Gospel as the announcement of God's kingship?  I don't think so.  Indeed, I think there's a Reformed tradition of biblical interpretation that found the resources for just such a reading right within the canon itself--and in concert with Nicene faith.  I'm not persuaded that the fruits of historical science have suddenly put us in a position superior to pre-modern interpreters.  Indeed, Reformed bliblical interpreters such as Vos and Ridderbos--though certainly with limitations--seemed to already be onto this sort of reading of the canon, without hooking it to extra-canonical evidences.  Rich Mouw taught me to read the sweep of the biblical narrative as the announcement of Christ's kingship with little more than an attuned theological sensibility that broke open the overarching narrative of the Bible.  That's not to say that many haven't "missed" it; but it does mean that the "secret" has perhaps been there within the canon all along.  


Don't Burn the Wooden Shoes Just Yet

I'm not entirely sure I've caught the gist of David Zwart's article, "Burning the Wooden Shoes--Again!," a response (of sorts) to my earlier article, "A Peculiar People."  

Zwart and I can certainly agree that disentangling ethnicity from theology "is never simple."  Indeed.  As for the rest: I'm not quite sure if Zwart is agreeing with me, or calling me to task.  It could go either way.  Never one to miss the opportunity for a fight, I'll assume he's trying to disagree!

When I suggest we "need a different paradigm" that refuses "the tendency to reduce Reformed identity to mere Dutch heritage," Zwart notes that I am "working against a very long and deep tradition of equating the two."  Yep, I'm aware.  That was kind of the point.  Moreover, my point is that both those who defend the equation and those who decry it are working with an inadequate model.  It's those who accept the elision of ethnicity and identity who are out to burn wooden shoes--either out of some weird self-loathing or out of a well-intentioned pursuit of "diversity."

I'd be the last one to advoate burning the wooden shoes!  While I am arguing that we need to "sift" Dutch identity from Reformed theology, that doesn't entail any sort of rejection or critique of this Dutch heritage.  To the contrary, I think we need to recognize that, in the providence of God, these faithful people from the lowlands were "carriers" of a theological tradition and heritage that is much bigger than their ethnic enclave.  The point isn't to rewrite history and pretend the "Dutch" and "Reformed" were not bound together; rather, the point is to continue writing the history in a way that is grateful and forward-looking.  And Zwart's suggestion for telling new stories is exactly right.  

In fact, that's what I'm trying to do: as a "Gentile," I'm grateful for the Dutch heritage of the institutions that buoy my Reformed faith.  Let's make it a light to the nations.


"Finding God in...X"

Basically just a shout-out from me today: I commend to you Jason Lief's article in the new issue of Perspectives, "Leave Metallica Alone!" Jason rightly worries about certain trends in Christian cultural engagement which, in the name of "common grace" and a desire to be "relevant," seek to affirm the goodness of pop culture by, say, "taking Metallica to church"--or Coldplay, or Glee, or Downton Abbey, or what have you.  Jason's caution is instructive:

I have to admit, I wonder about the notion of God speaking through Metallica—or any other genre of popular music, for that matter. The power—and, I would argue, the beauty—of Metallica's music, and of heavy metal music in general, is that it represents a human response to a specific historical experience. Study the history of metal and you find that it developed in the economically depressed industrial areas of England during the late 1960s and early '70s. Look at any group of metal heads and you'll find young people pushing back against what they perceive to be a lack of control, a lack of freedom in the way they want to live their lives. What heavy metal does through the music and theatrics is rupture the cultural space, poking a finger in the panoptic eye, carving out a tiny spot these kids can call their own. I'm not sure this is God speaking through Metallica so much as it is Ulrich and Hetfield (Metallica's cofounders) speaking to the human condition. The last thing the church needs to do is try to take them to church.

Indeed.  A truly Reformed engagement with culture--and the arts--is not synonymous with evangelical strategies that, trying to overcome their past fundamentalism, eagerly baptize popular culture by "finding God" in every album and sitcom.  Elsewhere, in an essay on the poetry of Charles Wright, I echoed Jason's critique of such co-option and "theological instrumentalism."  Since it chimes in with Jason's argument, let me cite the beginning of it here:

Of late, a stream of Christian cultural criticism has encouraged conservative evangelicals to "look for God" in contemporary culture. Exhorting us to overcome a rather Manichean dissection of the world into holy and profane, this mode of cultural engagement encourages us to "find God" in contemporary music, Hollywood movies, and various forms of popular culture.

I'm not convinced this is the best hermeneutic frame for appreciating the arts. It still tends to instrumentalize the arts as a conduit for a Gospel "message" or "theistic" propositions. The result is too often a fixation on God-language in cultural artifacts or—worse—belaboured allegorical readings which see "Christ figures" everywhere.

We should expect art to be more oblique. And instead of asking artists to show us God, we should want them to reveal the world—to expand the world, to make worlds that expand creation with their gifts of co- and sub-creative power. The calling of painters and poets, sculptors and songwriters is not always and only to hymn the Creator but to also and often be at play in the fields of the Lord, mired and mucking about in the gifted immanence that is creation. With that rich creational mandate, a Christian affirmation of the arts refuses the instrumentalist justification that we "find God" in our plays and poetry. In a way that is provocatively close to the aestheticism of Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, such a creational framing of the arts grants license for art to be quite "useless" —to (almost) be art for its own sake, for the sake of delight and play, for the sheer wonder and mystery of creating. Some of our best artists show us corners of creation we wouldn't have seen otherwise—and often because they've just given birth to a possibility hitherto only latent in the womb of creation.

Unhooking the arts from a "theological" instrumentalism also grants space for the arts to reveal the brokenness of creation without being supervised by a banal moralism. A painting or a poem reveals the world with a harrowing attention that will sometimes bring us face-to-face with what we've managed to willfully ignore up to that point.

In sum, the arts can be a means of what we might call "horizontal" revelation without necessarily being connected to "vertical" revelation. Like the book of Esther, God might never show up. Nonetheless, the Creator might best be honoured when we face up to the puzzling, mysterious nuances of his creation.

Jason's article brings this point home in a missional way.  Be sure to read it.   


The Burden of Freedom

I used to think I knew how to read Dostoyevsky.  More specifically, back when we used to talk about "existentialism," I used to be confident about what was going on in the fable of the Grand Inquisitor--that dastardly villain who was all too happy to relieve the stunted and benighted of their freedom.  The fable gives the reader a sense of being in on the secret: the secret that those who submit to authority lack the courage or will to be free.  And by letting us, the readers, in on the secret, we are thereby inoculated and go away congratulating ourselves on our "authenticity" and individuality.  "God I thank you that I am not like other people, those weaklings who forfeit their freedom for bread, circuses, and authority."  

I'm less confident in this reading now.  I hope it's not a sign of the creeping fascism that comes with middle age, but I wonder more and more whether the Grand Inquisitor might not be gracious.  [That I'm entertaining such thoughts could be chalked up to the fact that I'm reading Augustine alongside Jonathan Edwards right now!]  And it seems to me I'm not alone in this regard.  Indeed, I think one could read Jonathan Franzen's Freedom as its own ambivalent commmentary on whether "freedom" is all it's cracked up to be.  

But more immediately, I've been looping a Fleet Foxes song, "Helplessness Blues," which opens with these words (listen along with the video below):

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see.
And now after some thinking, I'd say I'd rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.

I see a generation of young people for whom this could be something of an anthem.  And those of us who are working out our reactionary, liberatarian relationship to authority will have a hard time understanding the yearning to be bound, this longing to be "a functioning cog in some great machinery."  (Though note it's not just any old "machinery," but a system that serves "something beyond me.")  We're apt to read this as a ploy of the villainous Grand Inquisitor who would rob them of their freedom.  But what if they find quite a different freedom in being bound?  What if liberation looks like submission?  Can we imagine how authority can be a gift?