Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Word on the Street: What if God wasn't one of us?

God is not...Word on the Street is Gower Street's book review department

A review of God Is Not: Religious, Nice, One of Us, an American, a Capitalist , ed. by D. Brent Laytham. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press. 2004. 152 pp. 14.99 paper.

It is sometimes remarked that sacred cows make good hamburgers. In this slim volume, six authors set out to show that the same is true of golden calves.

There is a long tradition in the church of apophatic theology, a kind of negative theology which cautions that any purely univocal speaking of God tends to verge into idolatry. This is a natural implication of the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo and the Judeo-Christian insistence that God radically transcends and is other than that creation (and hence, ultimately unable to be represented in human images). This sort of theology tends to be iconoclastic, questioning what might seem to be settled or comfortable notions of who God is.

This volume, in six chapters, sets out to do just such a theology for the church today. The first five chapters of the book take on five of what the authors think are “golden calves”, subjecting these notions to withering analysis. The final chapter puts forward a more constructive account on the grounds that, for Christians, negative theology ought to be balanced by positive (analogical) affirmation of who God is.

The first chapter features Rodney Clapp with his usual keen insight on popular culture. He cautions Christians to be actively discerning in their engagement with popular culture, not because it is evil or to be rejected (“Following what might be called the logic of the incarnation…the Christian can marvel at and praise specific, actual culture of many sorts, including the most common or ordinary” P.26), but because it is neither perfect nor infallible. Put plainly, some is good, some bad. Given this mixed nature he counsels a case-by-case engagement with the elements of popular culture.

In another stark, bracing chapter, Steve Long challenges the idea that God is "nice", locating this aberration in the spread of a culture of therapy, promoted by a clericalism that he characterizes as “a monstrous hybrid of the Grand Inquisitor and Mickey Mouse.” (43) Against this he paints the triune God of Christian tradition, who is not nice, but who is kind and loving.

Michael Baxter, a professor at Notre Dame, takes on the idea that God is an American in his chapter, whose subtitle is “Why Christians Should not Pledge Allegiance to ‘One Nation Under God’”. He particularly focuses his critique on an editorial by written Richard John Neuhaus in First Things, entitled “In a Time of War”, which paints the war against terror as an unambiguous war against evil, in which the duties of Americans and Christians converge. Baxter levels several serious criticisms at this portrayal, and calls into question the notion that America is a “Christian nation” in any relevant sense. He concludes "In a time of war, therefore, the challenge of Christians, scattered among the nations of the world, is to live as the one body of Christ and to pledge their allegiance not to one nation under God, but to one church under God." (75)

In the next chapter, Michael Budde takes on the idea that God is a capitalist – which seems absurd, until one realizes that if God is not a capitalist, then God’s church should not be, either. Budde sifts through the writings of people such as Laurie Beth Jones, who wrote the bestselling – bestselling! – book Jesus CEO: Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership, which in turn spawned other similar “spiritreneurs”, which would make me laugh derisively if I could stop crying long enough. Budde then turns to Michael Novak, a more serious proponent of capitalism as a divine means of spreading wealth and blessing throughout the world, and thoroughly critiques this view. One especially helpful part of this chapter was Budde’s re-reading of the Parable of the Talents, usually a favorite of the pro-capitalist camp. Quoting Steve Long, Budde writes "a fundamental difference between the Christian God and capitalism is that God presumes plenitude and abundance, and capitalism presumes -- and creates -- scarcity." (92)

The penultimate chapter features William Cavanaugh making short work of the idea that God is “religious” – and the related idea that we should be. He offers extended treatment of the historical problems behind the idea of “religion”, and concludes that “religion” is unacceptable to Christians, as it attempts to carve out two realms, one sacred and one secular. For the Christian there is no peculiarly secular realm. Or as Cavanaugh writes, “The Church should carve out spaces of political truth-telling and economic sharing that resist the twin idolatries of state and market.”

In contrast to the featureless, history-less idol so often offered in place of God, D. Brent Laytham in the final chapter offers a more positive account of God. He looks at the way that language has traditionally been seen to refer to God in the Christian tradition, and then examines in some detail the commandments about idolatry in the Decalogue. He closes by proposing that the God the embodied church discloses is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.

This is a provocative and exhilarating volume, sure to prompt thought, discussion, maybe even argument. At times the rhetoric can seem a tad overheated, but it is never shrill or tiresome, and always based on careful thought and exposition. The authors no doubt would claim that topic matter – idolatry – warrants the strong language. It is clearly written and not needlessly technical: nearly anyone with sufficient interest and passing familiarity with basic theological terms would be able to tackle the book with profit. On the whole, it is a very rewarding read, and highly recommended.

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Blogger Thunder Jones said...

I thought that Cavanaugh's "God is not religious" was far and away the best of the essays in the book. If you liked Budde's essay, check out his Christianity Incorporated. It's a flippin' sweet book. He does a lot more with the culture that allows a book like Jesus CEO to be a bestseller. He also takes on the idea of chaplaincy and the Pope's Centesimus Annus.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005 3:36:00 PM  

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