Friday, September 28, 2012

Wowed by an Unlikely Book

When you stand as close as we have to real life miracles, you will get roughed up. . .Splinters fall from the cross. They travel a long distance and they pierce the skin -- maybe even the heart. And wrapped in this risk and danger is God's embrace and promise to work all things (even evil ones) to the good of those who love him. . .[W]e are not to be Pollyanna about this. Many of the "things" we will face come with the razor edges of a fallen and broken world. You can't play poker with God's mercy -- if you want the sweet mercy then you must also swallow the bitter mercy. And what is the difference between sweet and bitter? Only this: your critical perspective, your worldview. One of God's greatest gifts is the ability to see points of view that exceed your personal experience. That is what it means to me to grow in Christ -- to exceed myself as I stretch to him.
-The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, pp. 124-125.
Rarely have I finished reading a book and thought, "I want to buy a stack of these to hand out to people." But The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, is on that short list. Since I can't buy it in bulk right now, I wanted to at least say something about it here. I first heard about the book through reviews (there's a good one here) and bought a copy directly from Crown & Covenant Publications. You can also get it from Amazon, and apparently there's now a Kindle edition.

The thing about this book is that there's probably something in it that will nettle or disturb virtually any reader. I'm not normally drawn to books like that; they're too exhausting. But the story of Rosaria's conversion is never provocative for its own sake -- it always points to Christ. So even though I wouldn't call it a leisurely read (I finished the book in two sittings because it was too hard to put it aside for long), it has a hard-edged beauty that will stick with you.

Rosaria was a tenured professor of nineteenth-century literature specializing in queer theory at Syracuse University. In the process of researching a book on the American religious right, she was welcomed into the home of a Presbyterian minister and his wife. Through many conversations with them and others, her whole world was upended as she came to accept the precise claims of Christianity that she had set out to critique. By the end of the book, Rosaria herself is a Presbyterian minister's wife with experience in Christian college teaching, church planting, classical homeschooling, and foster care. But, as you're probably guessing, there is a lot more to the story than that -- and it's the messiness amidst all those things that made the book especially beautiful to me.

I finished Secret Thoughts with unanswered questions and points of disagreement, and I'm sure that in subsequent readings, I would find more; but what the book emphatically did was make me think differently about the power of the gospel. Even if you're not sure you would like Rosaria's story, I'd encourage you to give yourself the opportunity to be surprised by it. I was. And if you do read it, I'd love to hear what you think.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

State of the Dissertation update

One of the purposes of this blog is to provide a glimpse of what an academic's life looks like. To be honest, I'm not sure that's a picture I'm eager to share with you right now (at least not of this academic's life!). But I can at least tell you what I'm working on these days.

In my program, after all coursework and exams have been completed, the third year is devoted to writing something I've heard variously referred to as the "programmatic essay," the "dissertation proposal," or the "dissertation prospectus." Our program has undergone so many changes in recent years that I'm not entirely certain which of those terms I'm "supposed" to use, but for now, we'll just call it the proposal.

The dissertation proposal is what it sounds like: a document (in this case, no more than 25 pages) that proposes my chosen topic to a committee of faculty, including a justification for that topic (demonstrating that the field needs my research), my tentative argument, and an outline of the means I will use to prove that argument. Of course, at this stage, many aspects of this will be tentative. However, I need to satisfy the committee that my project is really something I can write a 200-page dissertation about.

One of my worst nightmares about this program was that I would arrive in my third year not knowing what I wanted to write about. It would be way too dramatic for me to claim that nightmare has come true. At no point have I been completely lost. Still, it has taken much longer, more discouragement, and more revisions to arrive at a topic than I had hoped (about six months). My topic is not yet at a stage that I'm prepared to unveil it publicly, but hopefully soon. :-)

I think there are several reasons it's been disappointingly hard to narrow down my topic; I won't delve into them all here. One conclusion I've reached, though, is that my dissertation will not be my dream project (and likely shouldn't be). The goal of the dissertation is to prove that I can undertake independent scholarly research on a high level. So the topic should be 1.) achievable and 2.) something I am content working on for two or three years. I don't expect to be in love with it (and it's a little late for that)...but I do hope I can sustain a reasonable amount of interest in it, for obvious reasons.

So, to break it down less wordily, the coming year should look like this:
Now-December: Drafting dissertation proposal
Sometime early in 2013: Presenting and defending proposal to a small committee
The remainder of Spring semester 2013: Completing research and starting to write the dissertation in earnest.

As for the nuts and bolts of's really weird not being in classes anymore (with the exception of a seminar that meets Mondays to help us third-year students write our proposals). I think it takes a rare, exceptionally driven and disciplined student to manage the transition from coursework to dissertation gracefully. I can already tell you that is not me. I've had many more discouraged days than hopeful and productive ones, so far. But with God's grace I persevere. :-)

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Grace for Dirty Dishes (and other daunting obstacles)

When I was newly married, one of the biggest obstacles in my household was dirty dishes. I simply couldn't stay on top of the ever-accumulating pile in our tiny kitchen. No sooner would I triumph over one stack than the sink would fill up tauntingly, and I'd be faced with hours of washing once again. Filled with resentment and a mounting sense of defeat, I would procrastinate to the point that there was barely space in the kitchen to scrub effectively, much less cook meals. Things grew ugly. At some point, I virtually surrendered to the dirty dishes.

It sounds so ridiculous now. But it's hard to overstate how defeated I felt. Somehow, the dirty dishes were a metaphor for all my failures as a wife, my aimless non-student status, the ugly sin in my heart, everything. All of it coiled tightly in my chest and spilled out in tears whenever I summoned the nerve to tackle the dishes. I remember standing in the kitchen thinking about what our pastor had preached on Sunday. I knew that my domestic failures said nothing about my identity in Christ. The thought that my existence was defined more by my disastrous kitchen than by the beauty of Christ was an insidious lie. I agreed with that. It just didn't change what I saw before me -- or my sense of utter powerlessness in the face of it. Considering that I allowed a simple household task to become freighted with so much, it's little wonder that I gave up.

Nowadays, I can praise the Lord that He's brought me to the other side of much of that. It's taken the better part of four years, a relocation, consistent effort toward fresh starts in habit and attitude, and the aid of a beautiful dishwasher (!). What it hasn't been is automatic. In wrestling with the meaning of grace for my life, I've wondered if I've operated under wrong assumptions about how grace changes things.

For example, as I discussed with my husband recently, grace is not some sort of "positive-thinking alchemy" that instantaneously transforms my circumstances. Sometimes it does work in plainly miraculous ways. Other times, I've looked at apparently unchanged circumstances as evidence that I'm just not believing hard enough, or that I haven't sufficiently humbled my heart to "get it." Even if that were true, it's missing the point. It risks twisting grace into another form of works-righteousness, something that I muster up on my own behalf. Such "grace" would be no grace at all.

For another, grace is too big for my heart to receive all at once.
The truth about my soul's union with Christ may take awhile, may take a long time, to work itself out in forms that I can confidently perceive and put words to. There's much walking by faith, not by sight, and waiting on the Lord to work as He has promised to do. This can be painful and pretty messy in the in-between. That doesn't make His grace a bit less objectively real.

I can say that, even though I no longer struggle in the same way with chores like washing dishes, dirty dishes scenarios linger in my life. So how to confront them? I'm still struggling. One thing the Lord has been teaching me is that it's hard to let others be party to those scenarios, but that sometimes He calls us to do this, and with excellent reason. Not that we need to be transparent about them to whomever will listen. That's not necessarily God-glorifying or helpful. Yet opening up about the shameful things, to trusted brothers and sisters, can be a thing the Lord uses to make His grace powerfully seen and felt in daily life. Insurmountable situations begin to look survivable, and burdens more bearable, in the fresh light of such grace.

You'll likely find that you are loved and prayed for more than you'd guessed, and that you'll be received with more grace than you'd dared hope for. That's all Jesus. He knows the depth and cost of our sin better than we do, and He has already obtained an undiminishing supply of the grace we need. I'm preaching to myself here: we can trust Him to give it to us in the time and through the means He knows to be best for us, and for His glory.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Book Review: Delighting in the Trinity: Why Father, Son and Spirit Are Good News by Tim Chester

One of the most influential courses in my M.Div. program (and not just because I sat next to my now husband!) was a seminar titled Patristic Trinitarian Doctrine. Whenever I happened to mention the name of this class to a non-academic, or even to some seminarians, I often got a laughing response -- something like, "Better you than me," or "What's the point of that?" I remember feeling dismayed that just because it had a lot of syllables (or maybe included the word "doctrine"?), people assumed the subject matter was difficult, obscure, or not "useful."

Nowadays, I think there was likely self-righteousness in my response. No doubt I thought I would get my degree and promptly begin authoring books that set everyone straight about the importance of the Trinity! I have a better appreciation now for just what a difficult task that truly is. What's more, I was far from the first to notice a need for such books -- and there have been an increasing number of them, from the capable minds of teachers like Fred Sanders (The Deep Things of God), and now from U.K. pastor and church planter Tim Chester.

Delighting in the Trinity is Tim Chester's attempt to answer the question, "How is the doctrine of the Trinity good news?" The book emerged from Chester's conversations about the Christian faith with two Muslim friends. Their questions prompted him to consider how, rather than being a source of panic and embarrassment, queries about this doctrine should instead provide "a lovely opportunity to share the heart of our faith" (9). I appreciated this missional framing for the book.

This book is divided into three parts: "Biblical Foundations," "Historical Developments," and "Practical Implications." Part One outlines the scriptural basis for Trinitarian belief, paying closest attention to the events of Calvary. Especially helpful here are the common mistakes Chester identifies about what happened at the cross: that an unwilling Father was placated by the Son, and that an unwilling Son was victimized by the Father. He convincingly shows that we must make sense of the Cross in light of the Trinity: "The cross alone reveals the radical, gracious freedom of God...Only God is so gracious that He freely chooses to be God-forsaken to reconcile Himself with those who have rejected Him. Nothing demonstrates the 'godness' of God so much as the godlessness of the cross" (79).

As a doctoral student, I was most interested in Part Two. Chester devotes considerable space to summarizing how the doctrine of the Trinity was articulated in light of the biblical material and the concerns of the early church, tracing developments in Trinitarian theology through the medieval and early modern periods to the present day. He provides a quick, but by no means cursory, survey of the thought of Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, Calvin, and more recent theologians. I even learned some tidbits I'd been unaware of, such as that the sixteenth-century Anabaptist, Menno Simons, authored a work on the Trinity in which he tried to prove the doctrine through exegesis alone, without reference to earlier controversies and creedal formulations. While advanced students will find these chapters unavoidably simplified at points (such as that the Eastern patristic tradition focused on the threeness of God, the Western tradition on the unity of God), I appreciated that Chester devotes as much space as he does to historical theology. While many writers for laypeople might be tempted to minimize such details, Chester takes pains to show what was at stake for the church in earlier ages. The interested lay reader will find plenty of footnotes to encourage deeper reading of primary sources.

Language about the "practicality" of doctrine always makes me a little nervous, but Part Three of Chester's book might better be titled "The Trinity: a matter of life and death" (137). The survey of various "theories" of the atonement is quite good; my biggest takeaway from this section is Chester's strong argument that substitutionary atonement is "the truly trinitarian view" because only in this view is the atonement "a transaction between God and event within God" rather than something transacted between God and the devil ("dramatic" view) or between God and humanity ("exemplary") view. "Salvation starts with God, is achieved by God and is applied by God." (149) Later, he argues, "Once you abandon a trinitarian understanding of Christ, it is difficult to make sense of the cross except as an ideal to which we should aspire or an example of the transforming power of self-giving love." (152)

The book closes as it began, with further pastoral, missional, and apologetic applications of Trinitarian doctrine. I noticed some points that could have benefited from further elaboration; for example, Chester appears to favor a Free Church ecclesiology (168) but doesn't spend much time defending his claim that this view accords with robust Trinitarianism. I also would have liked to see an even more frequent and explicit emphasis on union with Christ. For example, I would have enjoyed hearing more about worship as participation in the Trinitarian life (13).

On the whole, though, I very much appreciate Delighting in the Trinity and would certainly recommend it to any Christian who wants to better understand the roots and critical importance of this doctrine. I am thrilled that books like this one are being written, and I hope to see Chester (and others) continue the trend of accessible theological writing.

The publisher provided me with a review copy of this book, and I was under no obligation to give a favorable review.

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