Third Wave Theopoetics: Guiding Principles

30 October 2011

My practice of theopoetics is relatively new — I’ve only been doing this for a few years (and even less time under this term) — and so I couldn’t possibly list all the principles that go into it yet.  However, some of them, and in particular some of the principles that differentiate my present stance toward world-life-Scripture from the posture I was trained to take, are pretty near the surface and easy for me to talk about, because I’ve had to become conscious of them in order to make sense of where God has led me.  Below are a few of those.  I offer this discussion partly as an apologetic for what I do, partly as a recruiting pitch, and partly out of an obligation to honor my fathers, which in this case means explaining to the community that trained me why I have suddenly become such a weirdo.  (Believe it or not, guys, it’s because you did such a great job teaching me to take the Scriptures seriously, obey thoroughly, and where necessary, repent instantly, with no shilly-shallying about.  But more below.)

So with no further ado, some of the guiding principles of third wave theopoetics (twelve of them, for you numerological types):

Charitable Hermeneutics.  Love Yahweh first, then interpret His Word.  This cuts through a lot of the baloney in discussions of hermeneutical method.  It issues in a good-faith submission and desire to obey what we find written in the Word, with no hermeneutical monkey business about beating the text into a shape that better accommodates our sins.  Or our theology.

Divine Authorship.  Yahweh wrote the Word and the World.  The Word gives us an authoritative interpretation of the World; it’s the manual that goes with it.  The motifs, symbols and themes in the Word carry over their interpretive significance into the World.

Story-Centered.  Because we must read the Bible with love for the Author/authors, and because we recognize that the same Yahweh wrote both Word and World, theopoetics must be story-centered.  He is the author of the One Story in the Bible, and He continues to write that Story today.  Every human being, no matter how distant he might think to be from God, is part of that Story.  Our stories only make sense when embedded within the Story.

Obedient Rhetoric.  God’s speech is not just content to be parsed and then communicated how we will; it’s also a model for communication.  We have been given outstanding examples to follow, and we should be obedient to God in this, striving to live up to the rhetoric of Word and World. In simple terms, we are the image of God in the world, and we should speak as God speaks, not just in any way we decide to.  This means we don’t always play nice: there’s a lot of rough speech in the Scriptures.  It also means that we don’t simply cut everything up into topics, because even the NT authors give most of their theological and ethical instruction by situating their readers into the Story.

Trinitarian Metaphor.  The fundamental is/is not relationship that drives metaphor is a reflection of the Trinity in the world.  “If you have seen Me,” Jesus says, “You have seen the Father.”  And yet, Jesus is not the Father; He is the icon of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.  Biblical interpreters often talk about symbols, motifs, or types in the Bible; these are sub-categories of metaphor, all of them absolutely pervasive throughout both Word and World.  If you understand Word and World as Story rather than as raw material for a Systematic Theology laboratory, this makes a lot of sense; otherwise it’s going to cause you trouble.  But the biblical authors, especially in the New Testament, make metaphorical connections all over the place.  We can ignore them because they don’t fit our guiding principles, or we can submit to them, learn from them, and get to work.

Poetic Precision. Once the far-reaching implications of metaphor are understood, most conservative evangelical folks get very nervous, and start asking, “Where are the brakes on this thing?”  That’s a fair question, but to be honest it’s mostly born of inexperience.  Just because the hermeneutical controls aren’t the ones you’re used to doesn’t mean there aren’t any.  As I’ve grown in my grasp of biblical metaphor, it has become very plain that the connections are precise, and that you can’t just prove anything with it.  But it is the precision of a well-constructed poem or symphony, not the precision of a logical syllogism, and folks find that unnerving.

Imaging God.  Our primary mandate is to be God’s image, not His chief theorist. “Thinking God’s thoughts after Him” is all well and good, but being God’s image is what we’re actually called to.  The thinking is a portion of that, but it’s not the whole thing.  One of the chief implications of this is that sometimes God leads us to do something before we’ve worked out all the theological theory.  In such a case, obedience is called for–we walk by faith, not by sight–and the action forms our character and matures our theopoetic being in the world.

Hunger for Righteousness.  “Blessed are they that hunger and thirst for righteousness,” Jesus said, “for they shall be filled.”  We too often get so tangled up in our pursuit of freedom (even “freedom in Christ”) that we no longer want to hear how we ought to do something.  God loves us and accepts us because of Christ; no amount of commandment-keeping could earn that for us, and nothing whatsoever can separate us from it.  Precisely because that is the case, we ought to hunger for His instruction in how to live well.  “I opened my mouth and panted,” wrote the psalmist, “for I long for Your commandments.”  Amen.

Loving Scholarship.  Scholarship at its God-honoring best is loving enough to Get It Right.  This has been the subject of a post already, so I won’t repeat all that here.

Mystical Union.  There is no substitute for actually walking with God, in fellowship with Him and guided by His hand.  If we’re not doing that, we have no business talking about God.  This has been the subject of a whole series of posts already, so I’ll be brief about it here.  I know portions of my community are still uneasy with the “mystical” term, but I can’t really apologize for it.  If you don’t believe in mystical union with Christ in the sense I’ve talked about it here (with or without assenting to my choice of terms), you don’t believe in the Holy Spirit, the unity of Christ’s Body, or the genuine possibility of real fellowship with a personal God (as over against Christian-life-as-thought-experiment).  If that is the case, then you need to repent.

Living Tradition.  Honoring our fathers means attending to the voices of the saints, past and present.  We are part of a living tradition spanning millennia, whether we know it or not, whether we’re willing to admit it or not.  The Tradition is our broadest fellowship, and like all fellowship it guides and guards us if we love the people in it.  I understand this sounds a bit nebulous, and I look forward to clarifying it in a future discussion.

And last but not least, Growing in Grace, or to put it a little more bluntly, Failing Well.  God calls us to grow in grace, and this means that today’s effort isn’t going to be perfect.  As Chesterton said, “Anything worth doing, is worth doing badly.”  My own practice of the discipline of theopoetics is still young.  I expect to make some mistakes, repent of them as soon as the Lord makes me aware of my errors, and profit from the experience.  I know of no other way to proceed, and I certainly won’t improve by burying my one talent in the backyard, waiting for that perfect, risk-free investment opportunity.  So take the risk of doing the work, out loud and in public, and when I need to repent, I’ll do that out loud and in public too.  It’s how the Body works, and I’m honored to be a part of it.

Theopoetics: The Case for Scholarship

23 October 2011

Once upon a time, someone asked Jesus which commandment was the greatest.  He said that the greatest command is to love God with everything you’ve got, and the second greatest is to love your neighbor as yourself.  Those two commands, Jesus said, undergird all the Law and the Prophets — which is to say, the whole Bible at the time He was speaking.  Paul made a similar comment when he said that love fulfills the whole Law.

I teach in a seminary.  I regularly require scholarly papers, complete with footnotes and all the appurtenances of academic geekdom.  When I have such a requirement, I expect the bibliographic citations to conform to Turabian and the Chicago Manual of Style.  How do I reconcile Jesus’ commands on love — plus all I’ve said on theopoetics in the two prior posts — with my pedagogical “rigidity” in an academic institution?  Or put another way, how does scholarship meet theopoetics?

At its best, scholarship is the opposite of laziness and sloppiness; it is precision with purpose.  Scholarship is about loving enough to Get It Right, and that  is a truly great idea.  You don’t want to hear the words “Well, I think that’ll fix it good enough” from your brain surgeon…or even from your barber, for that matter.  No, you want them to know what they’re doing, be skilled enough to get the job done, and care about you enough to be sure they get it right.

In the theo- disciplines, this means loving God enough to make sure you understand His Word (or His world) correctly.  Loving your neighbor enough to be sure you explain your idea well, and clearly.  Loving those who’ve gone before you enough to give them credit where it’s due, rather than letting your readers or listeners think you just came up with it all on your own.  Loving your fellow scholars enough to pay your dues into the guild, listen to those who’ve gone before you, gain the wisdom they have to offer, and demonstrate to them that you have something to offer which can benefit them.

However, when “academic standards” and the folkways of the guild become an end in themselves (which they often have), then they have become Dagon, and Dagon must fall in the presence of Yahweh.  When the pursuit of theory and minutia and theological castles-in-the-sky impedes our obedience to the two Greatest Commandments, then our “pursuit of truth” has become, in fact, a 72-straight-hour-long game of Dungeons and Dragons, a fantasy that distracts us from reality — our relationship with the Living God.  When we are willing to sacrifice the integrity of our relationships with the brothers and sisters God gave us  in order to maintain the integrity of our thought experiment, we love neither our brothers nor our God.  At this point one can no longer talk about how some people enjoy fellowship and other people enjoy old books, as though it were a simple matter of Christian liberty.  Where there is no love, there is no liberty; addicts always think their addiction sets them free, and they’re always wrong.  Even if it’s an addiction to theology books, or a particular theological system of thought.

Good scholarship is first, last and always about love.  This is not simply a different-parts-of-the-body kind of argument.  If the whole body were loving, then where would be the…what?  Is there a body part or function that fits in that sentence?  No.  If I understand all mysteries and all knowledge, but have not love, then I am nothing.  An unloving scholar, a man whose “pursuit of truth” causes division and sows discord among brethren, does not serve our Lord Christ, but his own belly.  He is nothing.  Let him repent and be restored, to the greater glory of God.  If he will not, then let his days be few, and let another take his office.

Good poetry touches the real world; it makes us see something we never saw before, or see something as if we’ve never seen it before.  To do that, and do it well, we must observe the world as it really is.  In our contemplation of divinity, this means careful observation and interpretation of God’s Word, Christ’s Body, the Spirit’s work in the world, and so on.  The best sort of scholarship — the love that draws us to Get It Right — is not only helpful to good theopoetic work, it’s absolutely indispensable.

But this is a scholarship that serves, a scholarship unashamed to wash feet, not a ruler-of-the-Gentiles scholarship that aspires to personal empire-building.  It is a scholarship that serves Yahweh, not just the standards of the guild, and therefore it must be a scholarship that aspires to communicate in the way that God models for us.  It may never write a paper with footnotes and a bibliography; it is enough to love well, and in loving well, get it right.  Imperfectly, to be sure, but right enough for this application, right now.  If there is a paper with footnotes, the guild may be satisfied, but the Christian scholar must not be.  That paper must be only an intermediate step; there is no biblical precedent for that as the end product God wishes us to produce.  A scholarly paper on chronological teaching as a tool for evangelistic Bible study must become an actual evangelistic Bible study, or what’s the point?

Theopoetic Reflection: The Body in the World

9 October 2011

Before someone else does the requisite Google search: yes, I’m aware that “theopoetics” is a pre-existing term, and as a field of endeavor has operated almost exclusively in ways that aren’t particularly amenable to conservatives.  I just discovered that fact this morning, after independently coining the term to describe a conversation I was having.  I mean it maybe a bit differently from the way it’s been meant up to this point, and I’m comfortable with that.  What, exactly, I mean may be the subject for a future post.  For now, the reflection itself, with many thanks to Jim and Michele for their part in shaping it.

The wicked devour God’s people as men eat bread.

From Jeremiah, we learn that God’s word is not just something that we should listen to and obey; it’s also something we should eat, and that gives us joy.

From John, we learn that Jesus is the Word made flesh.  He gathers great crowds, miraculously feeds them bread, and then tells them the next day that unless they eat His flesh and drink His blood, they have no part with Him.  Many follow Him no more, and the ones that do continue to follow Him don’t really understand it either.

Later, He gathers those faithful few to the Table and gives them bread and wine: “This is My body which is given for you….This is the new covenant in My blood which is poured out for you.”  We who eat Christ’s body are what we eat: Christ’s Body.

The world hates us, because it hated Him, and as the world devoured our Savior, nailing Him to a cross, so the world will devour us as men eat bread.  In this way, the world will once again play into God’s hands and be saved in spite of itself, because those who sow in tears will reap in joy, because the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church, because in God’s plan, death is the precursor to glorious resurrection — for the one who dies, and often for the one’s he’s dying for as well.

In a lesser way, this plays out in the life of the Church itself, every time you forgive someone, every time you lay down your life for someone.  We die for them, that they might live, and in dying, we are (re)born to yet more abundant eternal life.  The more life we have, the more we can lay down, and the more we can lay down, the greater the resurrection, in an ever-growing upward spiral of eternal life.  Or in the language of Aslan: “Further up, and further in!”