Friday, October 10, 2014

New publications on Bultmann, Barth, and Jüngel

In the past few months I have had three journal articles and a book chapter published. The topics include: Bultmann's hermeneutics in relation to the church, the origins of Barth's dialectical theology, the question of Barth's universalism, and Eberhard Jüngel's pneumatocentrism. Hopefully there is a little bit for everyone—at least everyone interested in modern German theology. 

Rather than summarize the arguments of each essay, I am just going to post a teaser from each. Those interested in learning more about them can contact me or track down the publication.

1. “Kerygma and Community: A Response to R. W. L. Moberly’s Revisiting of Bultmann.” Journal of Theological Interpretation 8, no. 1 (2014): 1–21.
It is not so much the church that is included within the event of Jesus Christ, but rather Christ himself who is present within the event of the church. This is, in fact, the very point Bultmann goes on to make in his 1960 address on the historical Jesus. “Faith in the church as the bearer of the kerygma” means that “Jesus Christ is present in the kerygma.” This statement “presupposes that the kerygma is itself an eschatological occurrence; and it means that Jesus is actually present in the kerygma, that it is his word which meets the hearer in the kerygma.” . . . It is for this reason that, in 1929, Bultmann says that the communication of the church “belongs itself to what is communicated,” since it is not a “mere conveying” of facts but rather a word that addresses each person. While it may come as a surprise to some, Bultmann affirms that the church’s teaching “has the character of tradition, which belongs to the history that it narrates. The tradition belongs to the event itself.” The fact that ecclesial tradition is internal to the kerygmatic event of Christ’s proclamation explains why the church can seem absent from Bultmann’s theology. His theology is thoroughly kerygmatic and christological, but precisely because it is so focused on Christ it is also at the same time focused on the ecclesial community as the bearer of God’s word and the medium through which Christ speaks to us today.

2. “Dialectical Theology as Theology of Mission: Investigating the Origins of Karl Barth’s Break with Liberalism.” International Journal of Systematic Theology 16, no. 4 (2014): 390–413.
Barth perceived the capitulation of liberal theologians to German war fever, along with the confusion of God’s will with the culture’s will for colonialist power, as a missionary problem. To be sure, it was not only a missionary problem, but mission was indeed at the heart of the issue. Dialectical theology, as a response to this problem, can be understood as a way of addressing the dispute between the pseudomission of Germany (or any other nation) and the genuine mission of God. . . . Though a full interpretation of his theology as a theology of mission is beyond the scope of the present article, we will simply suggest here that Barth’s career can and should be understood as the consistent attempt (a) to critically oppose the church’s capitulation to a culturally-captive Christianity and (b) to construct a positive alternative account of knowing and following God that is not liable to such captivity and is, for that reason, a theology of mission. Put another way, a theology is genuinely missionary if it makes the crosscultural movement of the gospel internal to its message and logic – that is, if it funds the freedom of the gospel for new situations. Seen from that perspective, Barth is a profound theologian of mission from the beginning.

3. “Apokatastasis and Apostolicity: A Response to Oliver Crisp on the Question of Barth’s Universalism.” Scottish Journal of Theology 67, no. 4 (2014): 464–480.
Oliver Crisp raises a number of important questions in his discussion of universalism in Barth’s theology. As an analytic theologian, he correctly discerns the universalistic logic of Barth’s soteriological claims. However, it is this same analytic rigor that leads him to miss Barth’s understanding of the existential and missionary nature of theological speech. The result is that Crisp can only see incoherence where Barth sees a necessary respect for the concrete historical location of faithful human witness. Barth affirms vocational, pastoral, and doxological aims more basic than analytic philosophy’s prioritization of logical consistency and propositional clarity. That is not to say there are not times when Barth simply contradicts himself. But it also means that not every appearance of incoherence is an actual instance. In the case of universalism, he insists that we cannot speak in advance and in the abstract about the historicity of each person’s subjective participation in the election of Jesus Christ. It is not enough to say that Jesus is victor if we do not also say that the event of his victory is one in which we are called to participate as a faithful witness.

4. “The Spirit of Freedom: Eberhard Jüngel’s Theology of the Third Article,” in Indicative of Grace – Imperative of Freedom: Essays in Honour of Eberhard Jüngel in his 80th Year, edited by R. David Nelson, 13–27. London: T & T Clark, 2014.
Toward the end of his career, Barth reflected on the possibility of a “theology of the third article,” that is, a theology of the Holy Spirit. He first proposed this idea in a 1952 letter to Bultmann as the condition under which he could understand his old friend and adversary. He returned to the notion repeatedly in the years following. In 1957 he applied the notion to nineteenth-century theology in general, in October 1962 he discussed the idea with the editors of Evangelische Theologie, and in 1968 he suggested it as a way to interpret Schleiermacher. Despite these suggestions, we find the following remark in his Table Talk: “I personally think that a theology of the Spirit might be all right after A.D. 2000, but now we are still too close to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is still too difficult to distinguish between God’s Spirit and man’s spirit!” Jüngel did not wait until 2000 to supply a theology of the third article. Over the last thirty years, he has published three sets of theses on the Spirit that reinterpret soteriology from the perspective of pneumatology.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

On being a contemporary of Christ, or, why dialectical theology matters


“If we rightly understand ourselves, our problems are the problems of Paul; and if we be enlightened by the brightness of his answers, those answers must be ours.”
—Karl Barth, preface to the first edition of Der Römerbrief

“How energetically Calvin, having first established what stands in the text, sets himself to re-think the whole material and to wrestle with it, till the walls which separate the sixteenth century from the first become transparent! Paul speaks, and the man of the sixteenth century hears. The conversation between the original record and the reader moves round the subject-matter, until a distinction between yesterday and today becomes impossible.”
—Karl Barth, preface to the second edition of Der Römerbrief

“Intelligent comment means that I am driven on till I stand with nothing before me but the enigma of the matter; till the document seems hardly to exist as a document; till I have almost forgotten that I am not its author; till I know the author so well that I allow him to speak in my name and am even able to speak in his name myself.”
—Karl Barth, preface to the second edition of Der Römerbrief


A friend and colleague whom I respect has made a public break with apocalyptic theology, for reasons that are apparently based on his own personal experience. I appreciate these posts not because I agree with them—they articulate a position that I find deeply flawed, though I will not go into all the reasons here—but because they make explicit a matter that cuts to the heart of Christian identity and theology. They force the reader to make a decision, and in that sense they contribute to the clarification and understanding of the Christian faith.

While it is highly dubious whether what is under consideration is justifiably called “apocalyptic theology”—there is little clarity about what is actually being rejected, since it is variously identified as apocalyptic theology, critical theory, and Marxism, but ostensibly it is some kind of theology that sees itself in alliance with the revolutionary views of Jacob Taubes and Slavoj Žižek, among others—the position being rejected is fairly clear: it is a theological position that interprets the Christian kerygma in light of the prophetic-apocalyptic context of Second Temple Judaism and seeks to make this eschatological kerygma the norm for an emancipatory mode of faithful Christian existence today. In short, it is a position that bases contemporary theopolitics on the eschatological message of the early Christian community. The rejection of this position comes to expression most forcefully in the following line: “I am not St Paul and Australia is not the Roman Empire – much as we might all wish otherwise.” The quotes above already indicate that I place myself in sharp opposition to this view, but I want to explain how and why I arrive at that position.

Theological history is often cyclical. Positions once thought dead often return in new forms, sometimes with new virulence. One of the major pendulum-swinging issues throughout the history of theology is the question of the relative nearness or distance between Jesus and the present-day community of faith. The primitive Christian community was an apocalyptic community defined by the expectation of the imminent advent of the glorified Christ. They were conscious of the eschatological nearness of Christ, and thus of themselves as the eschatological community. When this advent did not occur as expected, the exigencies of the apocalypse gave way to the needs of being an established part of the world. We see the seeds of this transition already in Ephesians and Colossians, and it becomes further entrenched by the time we reach 1 Timothy, 2 Peter, and the Johannine epistles. Christianity left apocalyptic behind and became the (small-c) catholic church. From this point on, we see an ongoing dialectic between nearness and distance—a distance demanded by the delay of the parousia and a nearness demanded by the experience of Easter faith.

Throughout the ancient and medieval church (i.e., early and late catholicism), there was distance  in that they no longer shared the eschatological consciousness of the early community. The “apostolic” period of the church was left behind, with all its apocalyptic-pentecostal trappings. The Christian community was no longer defined by an imminent expectation that relativized their worldly existence. They were instead defined by doctrinal and liturgical boundaries—by ways of thinking and doing that they zealously guarded—which differentiated their community from other communities in the world, with which they now had to compete. At the same time the nearness of the catholic community with Jesus now consisted in a set of orthodox beliefs and orthoprax actions (doctrines and practices) that were supposed to guarantee the continuity between Jesus and the present-day church. The central belief was thus the apostolic succession of ecclesial authority, and the central practice was the mystical-sacramental communion with Christ in the eucharist.

Having stayed more or less the same for centuries, things began to change dramatically with the Reformation. While the reformers did not abandon the doctrinal mode of nearness, they did abandon the liturgical mode, replacing sacramental mediation with personal faith. The doctrinal nearness came under scrutiny in the Enlightenment. Modernity saw the rise of historical consciousness, that is, the awareness that everything is situated within a historical context, shaped by causal forces that we both influence and are influenced by. The result of this consciousness was the awareness of the massive cultural-historical distance between ourselves and the first century, a distance that no amount of doctrinal control could overcome. The so-called liberal theology of the nineteenth century—the kind descended especially from Schleiermacher and Hegel—abandoned the attempt to bridge this gap through the repristination of traditional doctrine and instead embraced their historical situation as the unavoidable context for theological thinking.

But of course these theologians could not abandon all continuity/nearness between Jesus and their own time; they simply relocated it. They primarily did so via sociological and psychological means. Schleiermacher did so through his concept of Gefühl, a “feeling of absolute dependence” prior to both knowing and doing. Albrecht Ritschl did so through his more social conception of the kingdom as a spiritual family joined through kinship bonds with Jesus and each other. Wilhelm Herrmann appealed to faith’s communion with the inner life of Jesus. These forms of nearness allowed them to maintain continuity in the midst of what was otherwise a vast chasm between the original community and themselves. The chasm became especially pronounced with the (re)discovery of apocalyptic in the work of Johannes Weiss, which nullified Ritschl’s attempt at finding nearness to Jesus via his sociohistorical conception of the kingdom. If it hadn’t already, liberal theologians eventually made peace with the fact that whatever nearness they could muster with the original apostolic community, it was a highly attenuated nearness nested within an unbridgeable gap that fundamentally divided the modern church from the original eschatological community. The dialectic of nearness and distance became weighted severely on the side of distance.

But coming to peace with this divide meant simultaneously coming to peace with the world—coming to peace with the given cultural and political context as the presupposition for being a Christian in contemporary society. The extreme distance from the kingdom proclaimed by Jesus coincided with an extreme nearness to the kingdoms proclaimed in the present. In the 1870s, this meant that German church leaders were writing tracts calling for Germany to catch up with the rest of Europe in the colonization of Africa and Asia. In 1914, this meant that German theologians and missiologists signed manifestos in support of Germany’s position in the Great War as the fulfillment of the Great Commission. In 1933, this meant that the German Christian Faith Movement arose to give religious support to the Nazi movement, and that German theologians at Erlangen wrote articles in support of the Aryan Paragraph. I will come back to this, but we have to understand this large political context when we look at the rise of apocalyptic theology.

The work of Weiss and Albert Schweitzer rediscovered apocalyptic in a strictly historical sense. Their work, as brilliant as it was, associated the concept of apocalyptic with belief in the imminent parousia, and since this expectation was shattered by the progress of history, it was assumed that apocalyptic, along with NT eschatology in general, was defunct. The concepts of eschatology and apocalyptic were used synonymously by Weiss. It was the genius of Karl Barth to differentiate between these two notions. In the second edition of Der Römerbrief, he declared: “Christianity that is not completely and utterly eschatology has completely and utterly nothing to do with Christ.” This axiom announced the start of a new theological paradigm, a new understanding of the nearness-distance dialectic. On the one hand, Barth rejected the mythical apocalyptic thought analyzed by Weiss and Schweitzer. In a 1916 sermon he denies that Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom has anything to do with “a pallid apocalyptic miracle-message,” and in the Römerbrief he dismisses what he calls “enthusiastic-apocalyptic illusions.” In this sense he (and Bultmann, more famously later) affirmed the historical distance between the mythical world-picture of the early church and the world-picture of the contemporary Christian. On the other hand, Barth recovered a genuine nearness to Jesus and the apostles through a creative recovery and reconstruction of NT eschatology, understood now by means of a time-eternity dialectic whereby the eschaton lies on a vertical, rather than horizontal, axis. The eschaton does not lie ahead in the chronological future but rather comes to us from above in the theological future, which is always inbreaking into the present moment. Barth would abandon this paradigm for one that accomplished the same ends by different (i.e., protological) means, while Bultmann remained faithful to it, in his own unique way, until the end. (I do not have space here to defend the thesis that this eschatological theology is a true form of apocalyptic theology, but I have done so elsewhere already and will do so again.)

At the heart of dialectical theology is therefore a deep existential sense of the immediate presence of Christ, of the contemporaneity of the present moment with Christ himself. As the opening epigraphs document, this allowed Barth to make some astounding claims. He could go so far as to say that “a distinction between yesterday and today becomes impossible.” Past and present fuse into a single horizon in the moment of faith—that is, in the moment where the eschatological reality of Christ confronts and disrupts the individual. It would be, however, the height of ignorance and misunderstanding to assume that claims such as these evince a gnostic disregard for history or a tragic failure of responsibility. On the contrary, they display a genuinely courageous responsibility for history that was all too rare at the time.

I would like to illustrate the nature of this responsibility by recounting the story of Bultmann’s stand against the Erlangen school over the Aryan Paragraph. (I discuss this episode in my recent article in the Journal of Theological Interpretation, “Kerygma and Community: A Response to R. W. L. Moberly’s Revisiting of Bultmann,” as well as in my forthcoming monograph with Fortress, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology.) I tell this particular story because it is remarkably relevant to the present situation. The Erlangen school, led by Werner Elert and Paul Althaus, defended the Aryan Paragraph on the grounds that the NT rejection of distinctions within the church based on race only applied in the context of a missionary church, a community shaped by the eschatological demand to proclaim the gospel before the advent of Christ. But times are very different today, they argued, and instead of a missionary church we live in the context of a national church (Volkskirche). Our responsibility to this historical situation means that the question of race is back on the table. In other words, Elert and Althaus are saying: We are not the apostles and Germany is not the Roman Empire. They certainly don’t say, “much as we might all wish otherwise”—which is the key, morally significant difference between the two situations—but the similarity between them is undeniable and telling.

Bultmann’s response to this argument is worth quoting in full and demands careful attention:

The fact is that the New Testament knows not a single word requiring the binding of the ecclesiastical office to a certain ethnicity. The Erlangen report says, however, that the New Testament only draws this conclusion for a missionary church. Where a missionary church has become a national church, there the issue of ethnicity must be required for the ecclesiastical office. If this thesis is meant to be taken as a basic principle, then it is to be absolutely rejected. When compared to the nation [Volk] as a worldly-historical entity whose dimensions are constituted by biological factors, the church is always a missionary church. It never becomes a piece of the world, but rather always maintains its transcendent, eschatological dimension. The preaching of the gospel always rings out to the nation, never from the nation.

Notice that Bultmann appeals to the eschatological nature of the church—to the eschatological contemporaneity of the Christian with Christ—as the basis for his opposition to the Erlangen school. The nearness to early Christian apocalyptic is the basis for a critical distance from present sociopolitical institutions and structures. The contemporaneity with Christ prevents one from becoming overly comfortable with the world.

By dismissing this contemporaneity, and by making the progress of world history the normative starting-point for thinking about Christian responsibility today, the position articulated in the posts mentioned at the start of this piece end up repristinating the logic of liberal theology, all claims about a transcendent order of justice notwithstanding. Indeed, despite the talk in the most recent post about the “perfect eschatological society,” there is a conspicuous absence of any language about new creation. The “eschatological society” is merely the infinite perfection (via eminentiae) of the old creation. We have here the political version of natural theology as the projection of the ideal human person upon the being of God. It is clear that when we read about an “eschatology adapted to the capacities of human nature,” we are dealing with an eschatology that has nothing to do with the New Testament and, as Bultmann would say, “is to be absolutely rejected.”

Over against this position, dialectical theology—which for me just is apocalyptic theology—recovers the apocalyptic-eschatological consciousness of the apostles within the conditions and context of modernity. To be a contemporary of Christ, for Barth and Bultmann, means relating to the world dialectically: while I exist within a specific historical situation, I am simultaneously “deworldlized” (Bultmann), so that I see the world eschatologically. I come to see our problems as the problems of Paul and Jesus, so that their answers become my own. Australia (or the United States or Germany) is indeed the Roman Empire, and I, in the moment of faith, stand with Paul, with Christ himself, in the expectation of God’s imminent inbreaking—if no longer in the course of world history, at least now in the course of my existence.

Insofar as my sociopolitical action corresponds to and follows from this expectation, it is genuinely Christian action, which fulfills its responsibility to history precisely by seeing this history in an entirely new way. For the one who exists eschatologically, history is not primarily the linear progression of world events but rather the sphere in which Christ exercises his reign through the word of the gospel. Fidelity to Christ does not, therefore, entail fidelity to the social institutions derived from or related to what Christians have done throughout history; it can only entail fidelity to the gospel that, as Bultmann would say, always rings out to these institutions, never from these institutions.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

In defense of modernity: a response to Matthew Rose

Matthew Rose has charged Karl Barth with a great failure. The story Rose tells goes like this:
  1. There was once a classical consensus about the powers of human reason to attain knowledge of God.
  2. Modern philosophy denied these powers.
  3. Liberal theology reconstructed Christianity to abide peacefully within the constraints of modern philosophy.
  4. Karl Barth rejected the liberal reconstruction but provided a new one in its place.
  5. Barth is, thus, in fact a modern theologian.
Reading this story, one might be forgiven for a little head-scratching. Is that really news to anyone? Apparently, it was to Rose. His piece sounds like it should have been written twenty years ago, back when this might have been an interesting claim within Barth studies (and then, only within Anglophone Barth studies).

Indeed, it is highly telling that the only Barth scholar he cites to support his contention that Barth is understood as “an opponent of modern thought” is John Webster. Here is Rose: “According to British theologian John Webster, Barth is ‘a central figure in the break up of the modern tradition,’ a theologian whose ‘vigorous critique’ of modernity exposed ‘its fatal weaknesses.’ Barth achieved no such thing.” These lines are taken from Webster’s essay, “Introducing Barth,” from the Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth that he edited in 2000. (The whole section is repeated almost verbatim in Webster’s 2000 volume, Barth, in the “Outstanding Christian Thinkers” series. It’s clear that Rose was using the Cambridge version based on the lack of a hyphen in “break up.” And using some simple text-critical skills, it seems clear that this is the earlier version, since the Continuum book expands certain sentences with additional clauses and paragraph breaks.)

This is ironic on a number of levels, not the least of which is the fact that Webster would probably agree with Rose today. But things are more interesting when we look at the context of these lines. Rose conveniently does not quote the entire passage. Here is what Webster actually says: “Barth is certainly a central figure in the break up of the modern tradition in its theological expression” (emphasis mine). Notice that Webster is specifically highlighting the theological version of modernism, not the modern tradition as such. Indeed, Webster goes on to say: “What is less often discerned is that Barth was also in important respects heir to that tradition, and that even when he argued vociferously against it, it sometimes continued to set the terms of the debate.” If it was “less often” noticed in the late 1990s, it is a commonly recognized fact by this point. Rose is putting forward a charge that, to the community of Barth scholars, must elicit little more than a yawn. But perhaps the notion is still a surprise to readers of FT. Hard to say.

There are a number of problems with Rose’s presentation of Barth, but I only want to focus on one aspect. Rose claims on several occasions that Barth essentially surrendered to modernity on the issue of reason’s limitations. As he says, “Barth yielded to modernity’s most pernicious idea, which took aim not at belief in the supernatural but at our rational capacity for knowledge of it.” This is false, not because Barth did not deny such rational capacity, but because he did so on his own theological terms. There was no “yielding” to modernity, as if Barth simply conceded to what is made out to be a pernicious, self-defeating idea. On Rose’s reading, it becomes very hard to sustain the opening line that Barth is “the greatest theologian since the Reformation.” Unless that is meant as an instance of damning with faint praise: there has been nothing remotely good since the Reformation, and so Barth is the best almost by default!

Here is my thesis: Barth’s rejection of natural theology is grounded in the theological conviction of the justification of the sinner by grace alone. This is not an especially novel claim, and I have made it elsewhere, but it is worth repeating. Barth is a Protestant, and as a Protestant he is convinced that God is the sovereign saving agent of the world. God justifies the ungodly and gives life to the dead sinner. Barth’s dialectical theology is based on the conviction that what holds for soteriology also necessarily holds for epistemology (and, later, for ontology). Why does he think that? The short answer is that he finds strong biblical support for the notion that to know God is to be in a right relationship with God; to know God is to be known by God (Gal 4.9). We can say more about that another time. If we apply this reformational soteriology to epistemology, we find that just as salvation is by grace alone, so too knowledge of God is by grace alone, by revelation alone, by God’s word alone. And this means that natural theology is denied from the outset on the grounds that it compromises the very nature of God.

Now this claim has some interesting implications, the most controversial of which would be that modernity is actually more faithful to the gospel than not. And indeed, that is precisely the claim I, along with others, want to make. Here I am drawing especially on the work of Gerhard Ebeling. I think there are two main ways in which modernity is itself theologically grounded. First, though, we need greater clarity about what modernity actually means, intellectually speaking. Rose defines it as the idea that human reason does not have speculative power to reach knowledge of God. But this is only a part of the picture.

Modernity can be defined more accurately as the rise of historical consciousness. The rise of historical consciousness names the replacement of the old metaphysical and teleological interpretation of the world—what Hilary Putnam calls a “ready-made world”—and our existence in it with a historical interpretation. Whereas a metaphysical interpretation understands God, the world, and human existence in terms of an eternally fixed and unchangeable cosmic order, a historical interpretation understands them in terms of a historically situated and ever-changing nexus of forces. Whereas a metaphysical interpretation posits timeless essences underneath the contingencies and complexities on the surface of history, a historical interpretation denies that there is anything behind or beneath the historical that could stabilize and secure human existence in advance. The rise of historical consciousness thus coincided with the rise of hermeneutics. Hermeneutics presupposes that truth is elusive, but truth is only elusive when our existence is subject to myriad interpretations and possibilities. Modernity is the age in which the safe and stable explanation of life was called irrevocably into question. It is no accident that the Vatican and Protestant scholastics both sought to find ways of securing authority, with doctrines of papal infallibility and biblical inerrancy becoming central in this period in a way they had not been before.

The question before us is why this historical consciousness is a genuinely theological event that the church should welcome. There are two reasons.

1. First, according to Ebeling, Christianity “stands or falls with the tie that binds it to its unique historical origin.” Christianity identifies a particular historical event as revelation, as God’s unique self-disclosure to humankind. In a certain basic sense, therefore, the contingencies and complexities of history are internal to Christian faith, since they are internal to the very identity of God. This is the antidocetic essence of Christianity. While Christianity betrayed this essence in numerous ways throughout its history, it remains the bedrock to which we can and must always return.

2. Second, as I have already indicated, the doctrine of justification requires that we radically rethink revelation. Here I quote Ebeling at length:
The sola fide of the Reformation is directed not only against justification by works and thereby against a legalistic exposition of scripture, not only against mysticism and against multiplication of the revealing reality in the form of saints and against materialization of the revealing reality in the form of sacred objects. But the sola fide has undoubtedly also an anti-sacramental and an anti-clerical point. To the sola fide there corresponds solus Christus. Revelation and the present are separated from each other in such a way that only one bridge remains: the Word alone—and indeed, lest any misunderstanding should arise, the Word interpreted as salvation sola gratia, sola fide. All other bridges have been broken up. The whole system of Catholicism has thereby collapsed. There is no such thing as a simple, matter-of-fact presence of revelation. (Word and Faith, 35–36)
The sola fide rejects every means of controlling our access to revelation—whether rational, sacramental, or institutional. The only available means is entirely outside of our control, namely, an encounter with God’s word within our historicity. We are radically dependent upon God in all things, including knowledge.

Put plainly: modernity is Protestant, so to reject modernity is to reject Protestantism. Perhaps that is the underlying message of Rose’s article. Barth finally fails, because he remains, at the end of the day, a theologian of the Reformation.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Bigger Than Bultmann?

The April issue of CT features a panegyric to N. T. Wright by Jason Byassee (“Surprised by N. T. Wright”) that is full of hyperbolic statements (or quotes) like: “people … quickly run out of superlatives”; “when Wright speaks, preaches, or writes, folks say they see Jesus”; “he sounds like the voice of God”; “if he were to issue an altar call, folks would come.” While I certainly appreciate Wright’s work, such language in a CT article serves to give the evangelical imprimatur upon Wright’s theology. In this sense, CT is indicating to readers that it is not going to toe the conservative Baptist/Reformed line, represented by the likes of John Piper and D. A. Carson. We can be grateful for that much, at least.

But we have to ask: why this investiture of Wright with evangelical authority? It certainly cannot be because his works have received universal acclaim and acceptance. Book sales alone do not an evangelical doctor of the church make. Nor can it be explained simply as an attempt by CT or the author to thumb their noses at Piper & co. The answer can be found in a running theme throughout the article: Wright is a bona fide academic. By making Wright one of “our own,” evangelicals gain significant academic credibility.

Nowhere is this theme more pronounced than in the section titled, “Bigger Than Bultmann.” Commenting on the way university religion courses “taught students to sneer at Scripture,” Byassee asks:
How could one overturn this status quo? What scholar could dethrone, say, theologian Rudolf Bultmann? Not so much in the weeds of Bultmann's thought—he's hardly read that carefully any more, and two generations of theologians and biblical scholars have critiqued and overturned him. But more for Bultmann's position of eminence—the way he turned subsequent scholars into modernist questioners. Wright mentions Bultmann like an upstart prizefighter speaks of the reigning champ, as if he were saying, "Let me at him." For Bultmann, Scripture is true only in our souls, and always wrong in its claims about history, miracles, and politics. Who could overturn him?
There is so much wrong here it is hard to know where to begin. This paragraph is chock full of erroneous statements—not to mention a tone of smug disdain. So let’s start by getting our facts straight about Bultmann. We’ll go in reverse order.

“For Bultmann, Scripture is true only in our souls, and always wrong in its claims about history, miracles, and politics.” First of all, politics? What exactly is Byassee talking about here? If the suggestion is that the Bible provides a political worldview, then I think many people would beg to differ. Or at least we have to ask, which one, given that both right-wing libertarians and left-wing Marxists claim the Bible for their side, not to mention the vast range of positions in between. Do we really want to bestow divine blessing upon a single political system? If, however, he is suggesting that Bultmann denies that the Bible has any political relevance, then he is simply wrong. To be sure, others have made this accusation in the past (Moltmann, Sölle, etc.), but it is a highly misleading one. Bultmann was not opposed to seeing the political significance of the gospel, but he was opposed to the politicization of the gospel, as he explained in his article for the Christian Century, “Theology for Freedom and Responsibility.”

As for history and miracles, all of his begs certain questions. Bultmann does not deny divine action in the world, and he even speaks of the “miracle” of faith. But he denies divine action that is empirically observable like other worldly occurrences (and thus competitive with the forces of nature), and he rejects this on strictly theological grounds. His position is based on a rigorous adherence to the transcendence of God as revealed in God’s justification of the ungodly. It has nothing to do with a dismissal of scripture; it is a position rooted in a deep Christian faith. As for history, Bultmann is hardly unique in questioning scripture’s historical accuracy in all matters. But Bultmann nowhere comes close to saying that scripture “always wrong in its claims about history.” That is an irresponsible statement. Though Bultmann is certainly a radical historical critic, he is nevertheless confident that we can say quite a bit about the historical Jesus, as his 1926 work, Jesus, indicates. I suppose by “always wrong” Byassee actually just means the resurrection. But again that begs the question as to whether the resurrection is actually an occurrence within empirical “history” as opposed to being a genuinely divine act, and thus accessible to faith alone.

As for the bit about being true “only in our souls,” we already know that’s bogus, since Byassee is wrong about the rest of the sentence. But I find it fascinating how frequently people accuse Bultmann of retreating into the interiority of the soul, given that such language is utterly foreign to his theology. Indeed, as Bultmann said in a 1931 sermon about the incarnation, “The coming of the Lord, which the Christian community anticipates in Advent and celebrates at Christmas, is not at all primarily his coming to the individual, his entering into the soul, but rather his coming to the world.” Evangelicals seem incapable of understanding existential theology, as if this means a retreat from the world. The truth is that the existential nature of faith is realized, for Bultmann, in our being in the world, in our concrete acts of love for others. The love of God is that which “determines me in my being-with-others,” Bultmann wrote in 1930. Eberhard Jüngel thus says regarding Bultmann’s doctrine of faith as self-understanding: “the understanding-of-oneself that faith implies is the exact opposite of a dwelling-on-oneself.”

“. . . he turned subsequent scholars into modernist questioners.” Bultmann did that? Surely one could argue that this was done long before him, at least a century or two earlier. If anything, Bultmann, like Barth, found a way to preserve and promote a robust Christian within modernity. To be sure, Bultmann did not oppose modernity; he did not try to escape from it, as so many evangelicals seem to think is necessary these days. Do we really want to say that one cannot be Christian and modern? If so, we better consign a lot of profound theology to the dustbin of history. But this would be a tragic mistake, one rooted in a thoroughly problematic notion that some cultural contexts are beyond redemption. To reject the possibility of a modern Christianity is to reject Lamin Sanneh’s missionary principle that “all cultural forms . . . are in principle worthy of bearing the truth of Christianity.” We need to tread very carefully here.

“. . . two generations of theologians and biblical scholars have critiqued and overturned him.” This statement betrays a basic ignorance of the current Bultmann renaissance taking place both in Europe and in North America. Among English works, one thinks of James Kay’s Christus Praesens, Christophe Chalamet’s Dialectical Theologians, and Tim Labron’s Bultmann Unlocked. The 2009 biography by Konrad Hammann corrected many false pictures about Bultmann. And in time I hope my own work will see publication soon, where I present a thorough reinterpretation of demythologizing as a missionary/intercultural hermeneutic. I have a forthcoming article in the Journal of Theological Interpretation that will set the record straight on some issues (see “Kerygma and Community” in JTI 8, no. 1).

“. . . he's hardly read that carefully any more.” Well, Byassee is right about at least one thing!

There is more in the article. Here are other statements that inspire a sad shaking of the head:
  • To overturn Bultmann, a scholar would have to “pass through the challenge of historical criticism (which scissors out Scripture that doesn't fit modern beliefs about historical reliability) and come out the other side.” The notion that historical criticism is a matter of “scissoring out” scripture is about as informed as saying that evolutionary biology has to be wrong because otherwise we would see monkeys turn into human beings today.
  • “And he or she would have to exalt Jesus as Lord.” The pious self-righteousness in this statement is appalling. As if a historical critic cannot “exalt Jesus.” Please.
  • “Except that it's now been done. I asked Richard Hays . . . Hays believes his friend has surpassed Bultmann. Wright has published more, in more areas, with more influence, than the one who had so impressed the professors who taught my family members.” Wright has “more influence” than Bultmann? I beg to differ. Given that Wright’s work is largely a response to Bultmann, one has to conclude that Bultmann’s influence remains far larger.
  • “Of course, genius does not make one faithful, as Bultmann, Borg, and other great Bible scholars have shown.” So Bultmann is now to be ranked alongside Borg as an “unfaithful” biblical scholar? It’s one thing to dismiss his scholarship; it’s another thing to impugn his fidelity to Jesus Christ.
It is pretty clear what’s going on here. In order to cement the evangelical embrace of N. T. Wright, it is necessary for Byassee to hammer home the point that Wright is not one of them, not one of those unfaithful, non-Jesus-exalting, scripture-rejecting, modernist liberals. It doesn’t matter whether any of that is true. Truth is now a means to an end. Bultmann has become collateral damage in the evangelical turf wars.

Everyone wants to be the true heir of the Reformation, the genuine preacher of the gospel, the academically respectable theologian who is still accepted as an evangelical. But in order to reach the mountaintop, we might have to step on the faces and reputations of those who came before us.

So you tell me, is that really faithfulness?

I am reminded of the words of Ernst Käsemann, one of Bultmann’s students and one of his fiercest critics: “The principal virtue of the historian . . . is the cultivation of the listening faculty, which . . . does not think that violence is the basic form of engagement.”

Author's note: I bear no ill will toward Jason. I don’t know him. So I feel a little bad about having to render such a harsh verdict on this article. And honestly, these views about Bultmann could have been written by almost anyone. They are not unique to him by any means. My guess is that Jason, like almost every other Christian I’ve ever met, has not actually studied Bultmann with any real seriousness. He and others simply repeat what they’ve heard. My hope is that, in the future, some will think twice about disparaging the great Marburger. He deserves better.

Friday, January 03, 2014

The Top 50 Albums of 2013

Another great year of music. As always, there were many albums I missed. Some of the most important ones I missed because they were not available on Spotify (e.g., Bill Callahan, Florian Hecker, and Four Tet), which has become my source for music these days. Some very good albums did not make the cut, including Youth Lagoon’s Wondrous Bughouse, James Blake’s Overgrown, Grouper’s The Man Who Died in His Boat, and Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience. My most disappointing album has to be Kanye West’s Yeezus, which I found almost wholly unenjoyable—a sharp contrast to his last solo album, which remains an unqualified masterpiece.

In what follows I have also provided mini-reviews of the top 25 albums. Now onto the list.


1. David Lang, Death Speaks. Technically, David Lang is the composer, while the performers are Bryce Dessner (The National, but also a talented composer himself, see #10) on guitar, Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) on vocals, Owen Pallett (formerly as Final Fantasy, works with Arcade Fire) on violin, and Nico Muhly (himself a well-known contemporary classical composer) on piano. Lang is one of the most compelling living composers, and this is surely one of his masterpieces. The project, commissioned by Carnegie Hall and Stanford Lively Arts, was inspired by the songs of Franz Schubert, specifically by the various ways in which Schubert personifies Death. Lang gathered together the various instances in which the dead (or Death) address the living, using pieces of 32 songs altogether. The other aspect of the project is the use of indie rock stars. As Lang states in his program notes, “I started thinking that many of the most interesting musicians in that scene made the same journey themselves, beginning as classical musicians and drifting over to indie rock when they bumped up against the limits of where classical music was most comfortable. What would it be like to put together an ensemble of successful indie composer-performers and invite them back into classical music, the world from which they sprang?” The result is something of a revelation. Worden’s embodiment of Death is both haunting and electrifying, cutting through the noise to pierce soul and marrow. The album closes with “Depart,” an 18-minute piece by cellist Maya Beiser, which was commissioned by a group of doctors in a French hospital with the help of the Fondation de France. According to Lang, it is a “meditation on death” inspired by the way in which “the doctors felt morally compelled to try everything in their powers to ease the suffering around them.” While oriented around death, the result is a work that brims with life. To borrow from Eberhard Jüngel, Death Speaks musically embodies the unity of life and death in favor of life.


2. Arcade Fire, Reflektor. What else is there to say about this remarkable double-album by the Radiohead of my generation? Any number of reviewers have compared Reflektor to Kid A—or, more accurately, to U2’s Achtung Baby. The comparisons are appropriate. This is a divisive and demanding album that pushes Arcade Fire into new territory. Some of the sounds on the first disc are ones we have never heard from them before, and that can be an unsettling experience for those of us who were enraptured with the opening strings of “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels).” The second disc settles into the sounds that were first intimated in The Suburbs, especially in “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).” The second disc as a whole stands as some of their greatest work, climaxing in the emotionally gripping single, “Afterlife.” Some have argued that Reflektor is simply an album to be enjoyed. That is true in part—this is certainly one that demands to be played loud. But it is also much more than that. Many have already commented at length about the Kierkegaardian underpinning of Reflektor, and it enhances (rather than detracts from) the album to keep this in mind. According to Win Butler, the inspiration behind the album comes from Kierkegaard’s 1846 work, The Present Age, where we read that “the present age is an age of advertisement, or an age of publicity: nothing happens, but there is instant publicity about it.” Ours is a “passionless, reflective age,” in which people “only desire money, and money is an abstraction, a form of reflection.” And the driving agent of this “reflective age” is “the Media,” which “creates that abstraction.” And then we also find perhaps the most powerful line: “No person wishes to abandon Christian terminology, but they can secretly change it so that it doesn’t require decision or action.” The contrast to a media-controlled, reflective age of abstraction is passion, decision, and action. Writing as if he were alive today, Kierkegaard states: “A revolt in the present age is the most unthinkable act of all; such a display of strength would confuse the calculating cleverness of the times.” Indeed, is that not precisely our situation, in which the masses have been pacified by the love of money and consumable goods? What is needed is a revolt. Arcade Fire have not issued a manifesto, but they have given us the soundtrack to rouse us from our slumber.


3. Janelle Monáe, The Electric Lady. If there was a better pop album this year, I did not hear it. Janelle Monáe is a massively intelligent songwriter. For the last several years, she has been developing an intricate narrative around her alter ego, Cindi Mayweather, a time-traveling android who is on a mission to rescue the people from the dystopian society of Metropolis. The first suite appeared in her 2007 EP, Metropolis; her critically-acclaimed 2010 album, The ArchAndroid comprised suites 2 and 3. Now, in The Electric Lady, we have suites 4 and 5. Monáe uses her fictional narrative to raise profound questions about race, gender, sex, inequality, and many other issues. In “Q.U.E.E.N.,” we hear her ask: “Hey sister am I good enough for your heaven? / Say will your God accept me in my black and white? / Will he approve the way I'm made? / Or should I reprogram the program and get down?” She goes on in her closing rap to declare, complete with a Philip K. Dick reference: “March to the streets ‘cause I’m willing and I’m able / Categorize me, I defy every label / And while you’re selling dope, we’re gonna keep selling hope / We rising up now, you gotta deal you gotta cope / Will you be electric sheep? / Electric ladies, will you sleep? / Or will you preach?” According to Monáe, the acronym stands for those who are marginalized and ostracized, the queer, untouchables, emigrants, the excommunicated, and those labeled negroid. If Arcade Fire criticized the present age in favor of action, Janelle Monáe has provided us with the soundtrack of the coming revolution. Of course, one does not need to know the storyline to appreciate the songs. This is pure pop gold—virtually every song is single-worthy. And the complete album compels one to echo the title of her closing track, “What an Experience”! I, for one, cannot wait for the final installment.


4. Thundercat, Apocalypse. Thundercat (AKA Stephen Bruner) first achieved recognition for his session work as a bass player, particularly with fellow Brainfeeder artist, Flying Lotus. He began his solo career in 2011 with the impressive debut, The Golden Age of Apocalypse. His new album reveals his maturation as an artist. The most noticeable and welcome development is the prominence of his voice, which features powerfully in many of the tracks, most of all in “Heartbreaks + Setbacks.” Unlike in his debut, this album has a real “apocalypse” at its center, namely, the death of former collaborator and Brainfeeder artist, Austin Peralta. In a way, the entire album is for him, concluding with the elegiac track, “A Message for Austin / Praise the Lord / Enter the Void.” But perhaps the emotional center is the closing line from “Evangelion” (Greek for “gospel”): “Heaven and earth are one in [sic] the same.”


5. The Haxan Cloak, Excavation. Clearly, death has emerged as a common theme. And few explored that theme more thoroughly in 2013 than the Haxan Cloak (AKA Bobby Krlic). In the doom-drone of Excavation, his second album, Krlic takes listeners on a Dantean tour of the underworld. But whereas Dante embarks on the Inferno at a safe remove from the horrors of hell—guided by Virgil in the knowledge that he is merely an observer who is destined for paradise—Krlic has created an epic sonic journey that elicits in the listener the existential terror of death. It is a dark and unsettling journey indeed, and no one is safe. But just as the listener is led to the brink of despair, Krlic cracks a shaft of light. In the 13-minute finale, “The Drop,” Krlic sounds a note of hope in the midst of death’s grasp. But even this is ambiguous, as the closing minutes preclude any easy resolution. For an experimental effort in noise electronica, Excavation is one of the most compelling musical narratives released this year. (NB: Be sure to listen to this with stereo equipment that will properly highlight the bass. This is music that rattles the bones. You should both hear and feel the excavation.)


6. Majical Cloudz, Impersonator. Majical Cloudz—Devon Walsh on vocals and Matthew Otto on the synthesizer—plays synth pop, but it is utterly unlike anything else out there. This is synth pop distilled into its pure minimalist essence. And in this case, thanks to the singular virtuoso performance of Walsh, that essence is a piercing, forthright, emotionally honest encounter. Every word is a direct confrontation that strikes at the heart of each person. There are no wasted words, no wasted sounds, no wasted silences. A perfectly executed album.


7. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories. Arguably the most anticipated release of the year (if anything, possibly behind the new Arcade Fire), Daft Punk’s return to the studio is a resounding success. Indeed, few albums compelled me from the very first listen. Everyone has heard the single, “Get Lucky,” but that is one of the least interesting tracks. The real highlights are the two longest tracks, “Giorgio by Moroder,” featuring Giovanni Giorgio Moroder, and “Touch,” featuring Paul Williams. Daft Punk have already made the music of the future. Here they resource the past in order to reveal the music that we need to hear right now in the present.


8. Chvrches, The Bones of What You Believe. The Scottish electro-pop group Chvrches (or CHVRCHES) make addictive music of the highest order, the kind of melodies that worm their way into your subconscious and make you a happier person. They sound like a cross between Passion Pit and Charli XCX, or perhaps between The Postal Service and Ellie Goulding. Either way, it makes for an album that demands to be replayed. Highlights include: “The Mother We Share,” “We Sink,” and “Recover.”


9. Dawn of Midi, Dysnomia. The Brooklyn-based Dawn of Midi are a free jazz trio composed of piano, bass, and drums. Like Majical Cloudz with respect to pop, this is jazz distilled into its minimalist essence, resulting in something that is virtually impossible to categorize. Their sound evokes the looped techno music of the DJ underground, except it is played on real instruments. In a way, it is as if Philip Glass or Steve Reich were transposed into a jazz idiom. The album should be heard and enjoyed as a complete whole.


10. Bryce Dessner with Kronos Quartet, Aheym. We have already encountered Dessner above in our #1 album of the year, as one of the performers on David Lang’s new work. But Dessner is a composer in his own right, and his latest, the four-track Aheym, is a post-minimalist marvel. The opening title track was commissioned for a performance by the Kronos Quartet in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, and its nervous, wild energy is just the opposite of the subdued sound of The National. Violins and cellos crash against each other in sharp staccatos and abrasive harmonies. The word “Aheym” means “homeward” in Yiddish, and Dessner wrote the work with his father’s family (Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia) in mind. The 15-minute “Tenebre” reverses the standard Good Friday tenebrae service, moving from darkness into light. The climax comes in the closing “Tour Eiffel,” featuring the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, which replaces the agitated violence of the earlier tracks with a poetic choral orchestration that is both mournful and stirring. A great album from one of the most talented musicians in the indie rock world.


11. Disclosure, Settle. The best dance album of the year. Period.


12. Fuck Buttons, Slow Focus. This is what I listened to when I needed to get pumped up. It still invigorates anew with every listen.


13. Jon Hopkins, Immunity. Not as good as his earlier albums, but still one of the very best electronic albums of the year. Hopkins is one of those underappreciated artists that anyone interested in electronic music should follow closely.


14. Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City. Widely regarded as album of the year, and for good reason. Vampire Weekend is remarkably consistent—maybe a little too consistent for my taste—and this is their greatest work yet.


15. The Field, Cupid’s Head. Swedish DJ and producer, Axel Willner, has quietly established himself as one of the premier electronic artists in the world. His atmospheric minimalist techno is a sound he has made all his own. His previous efforts have all been impressive, and this may be his best. It is certainly the most complex and layered thus far.


16. Moonface, Julia With Blue Jeans On. Moonface is the latest stage name of Spencer Krug, famous for his previous work with Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown, Frog Eyes, and Swan Lake. In contrast to those projects, Moonface is all Krug, and that freedom has allowed him to experiment with new sounds and new songwriting possibilities. Last year, he teamed up with Helsinki-based group, Siinai, for one of the best albums of 2012, With Siinai: Heartbreaking Bravery. And this year’s album, Julia With Blue Jeans On, is his best so far as Moonface. Once again we have an artist perfecting a minimalist approach. In this case, the minimalism is instrumental: it is just Spencer Krug crooning over solo piano, in which he is classically trained. The result is an effect very similar to that of Majical Cloudz: a refreshing honesty and an often unsettling directness.


17. Tim Hecker, Virgins. Tim Hecker is a rock star in the world of ambient/noise electronic music, and justifiably so. He is also the intellectual star of this world, completing his PhD in urban noise music at McGill University in 2013. As he describes it, his thesis is “a history of loud sound at the turn of the 20th century.” He explored his trademark sound most successfully in Harmony in Ultraviolet (2006) and Ravedeath, 1972 (2011), but his new album, Virgins, ranks up there with his best work. Here he explores themes of mortality and death—there’s our leitmotif again—in songs that have an uncanny ability to evoke a situation or space. Hecker is one of the most cinematic musicians working today.


18. Rhye, Woman. The two musicians who make up Rhye, Canadian electronic musician and singer Michael Milosh and Danish instrumentalist Robin Hannibal, both put out albums in 2013 in other projects—a new solo album for Milosh and an album with the Danish group Quadron for Hannibal—but each does his most compelling work with the other on Woman, their debut album as Rhye. This is an expertly crafted R&B album, and it suggests Milosh and Hannibal have a bright future ahead.


19. The-Drum, Contact. The-Drum (AKA Jeremiah Chrome and Brandon Boom) have emerged as leaders in the underground electronic music scene in Chicago. Their debut album, Contact, is an exercise in sonic time travel, thrusting the listener into a strange but not-so-distant future.


20. Ólafur Arnalds, For Now I Am Winter. Why does so much great music come from Iceland? Whatever the reason, we can just be thankful. The latest is the stunningly gorgeous album by Ólafur Arnalds, a former drummer for various hardcore/metal bands. His solo work, by sharp contrast, is an experiment in neoclassical ambient electronica, complete with rich orchestration, looping beats, and ethereal vocals.


21. Marnie Stern, The Chronicles of Marnia. With her distinctive tapping guitar style and her unique voice, Marnie Stern is a bit of an acquired taste, but she’s also one of the most purely enjoyable indie rockers out there. Her latest is her best album since the 2008, This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That.


22. Colin Stetson, New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light. Colin Stetson is a wind instrument genius who tours with the likes of Arcade Fire and Bon Iver. The latter provides some guest vocals on his latest effort, which again finds Stetson doing things on reed instruments, especially the saxophone, that seem impossible and otherworldly.


23. Julianna Barwick, Nepenthe. Julianna Barwick makes experimental ambient music that transports listeners into mythical locations. It is entirely fitting that she recorded music in 2012 at the Sigur Ros studio in Iceland.


24. These New Puritans, Field of Reeds. In their third studio album, the London-based These New Puritans continue further down the road toward neoclassical indie rock that they hinted at in their 2010 Hidden. This is their most demanding work yet, but for those who put in the effort, also their most rewarding.


25. My Bloody Valentine, m b v. Twenty-two years after their flawless and legendary 1991 album, Loveless, My Bloody Valentine pick up right where they left off. It was worth the wait.


26. Daniel Avery, Drone Logic


27. Forest Swords, Engravings


28. Mutual Benefit, Love’s Crushing Diamond


29. Julia Holter, Loud City Song



30. Phosphorescent, Muchacho


31. Braids, Flourish // Perish


32. Burial, Rival Dealer


33. Darkside, Psychic


34. Autre Ne Veut, Anxiety


35. Boards of Canada, Tomorrow’s Harvest


36. DJ Koze, Amygdala


37. Gold Panda, Half of Where You Live


38. Zomby, With Love


39. Glasser, Interiors


40. The Necks, Open


41. Charli XCX, True Romance


42. Mala Rodríguez, Bruja


43. Roedelius Schneider, Tiden


44. Oneohtrix Point Never, R Plus Seven

45. William Tyler, Impossible Truth


46. Sky Ferreira, Night Time, My Time


47. Laura Mvula, Sing to the Moon


48. A Hawk and a Hacksaw, You Have Already Gone to the Other World


49. Washed Out, Paracosm


50. Lucius, Wildewoman