Tag Archives: Willimon

Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins [Review]

olkholm book

“What happens when we listen to premoderns who did not know they were doing theology and psychology at the same time?” 

What can ancient Christian ascetics teach us today? According to Dennis Okholm, an Anglican priest and professor of theology, a great deal indeed.  In his new book Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins: Learning from the Psychology of Ancient Monks, Olkholm builds a compelling case that much of the wisdom of Christian monastic discipline is quite compatible with contemporary psychological perspectives.

Olkholm proceeds by way of an exploration of the Seven Deadly Sins (originally eight “bad thoughts” in the Eastern tradition).  In most chapters, his approach is a combination of examining classic Christian teachings on a given topic (lust, greed, vainglory, gluttony, etc.), putting that into conversation with contemporary psychology, and then exploring through both lenses how to cure the soul from the particular passion in question.  This passage from the chapter on anger is representative of Olkholm’s fascinating approach throughout:

“Nonetheless, we have seen that in the case of anger management modern secular psychology has not progressed beyond the insights of these ancient Christian psychologists and that the moderns have in a few cases reversed their theories only to ‘arrive’ at the conclusions reached by ascetic theologians 1,500 years ago.” (115)

While his insights, culled from both ancient and modern sources, are quite interesting, there are a few critical points worth noting.  Olkholm uses many of the same Fathers repeatedly; in some places, it almost feels as if one is reading a treatise on Evagrius and Cassian on the Seven Deadly Sins (other common interlocutors include Benedict and Aquinas).  Thus, it would have been nice to see a bit more variety from early Christian teaching.  Additionally, there is probably a bit more contemporary psychology in Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins than one would expect from reading the front and back covers.  Moreover, other than a couple of blurbs on the back from folks with psychological credentials, it is hard to see where Olkholm’s expertise in mental illness and psychological disorders originates.  A forward from someone with such credentials would have provided a bit more confidence in the author’s psychological conclusions. (As an aside, I cannot wait to share this book with friends who have more psychotherapy training than I – which is to see any at all.)

On the whole, however, Dennis Olkholm has contributed a great deal in this new volume to our understanding of ancient Christian wisdom and how it might inform and even bolster contemporary psychological findings.  Students of spirituality, ancient Christianity, and counseling will all benefit from this work.  For preachers, I would also recommend this as a resource for a study or sermon series on the Seven Deadly Sins (it would pair quite nicely with, for instance, Will Willimon’s book Sinning Like a Christian).  The question at the top of this review, which the author asks in the introduction (p. 7), is a significant one.  I, for one, hope that others develop the important connections that Dennis Olkholm has made even further, for the benefit not just of the therapist’s couch but for the church as a whole.

Following Jesus Alone is Impossible

More like your own personal idol.
More like your own personal idol.

In all quarters, we hear from folks who seem to have outgrown the need for religious community.  There is talk of scandals, such as Ted Haggard and the Archdiocese of Boston.  Significant figures famously deconvert, like Tony Campolo’s son.  And we all have personal accounts of being mistreated or insufficiently cared for by churches, pastors, and supposedly Christian friends.  Combine all that with a culture of radical individualism, a disease present even when masked by the superficialities of social media, and you have a recipe for the abandonment of Christian community.

Will Willimon reflects,

Living a religious life would be an easy task were it not for the troublesome presence of other people. The woman who says that she feels more religious when she stays at home on Sunday morning watching Oral Roberts on television, the man who claims to have a more uplifting experience on the golf course than in church, the young person who receives “better vibrations” in twenty minutes of transcendental meditation than in sixty minutes of morning worship are all simply stating what is true: It is easier to feel “religious” in such individual, solitary, comfortable circumstances.  Whether it is possible to be Christian in such circumstances is another matter. (78)

I can’t speak to other faiths, to atheism (though the rejection of religion seems to have itself become a religion), or to the searching spiritualists of no particular faith heritage.   But both the whole canon of Scripture and the story of God’s people – Israel and the Church – point to the impossibility of knowing and serving the One God alone.  Even the most extreme solitaries of the Christian tradition, the desert monks of Egypt, had a larger purpose to their isolation and would receive guests to teach or would emerge occasionally to give counsel.  We may like Jesus much more than his Body, the Church, but we are not allowed to choose between them.  Willimon goes on to say,

The church is, above all, a group of people, a more human than a divine institution – that is its glory. It was no accident that Jesus called a group of disciples, not isolated individuals, nor was it by chance that immediately following the death of resurrection of Jesus we find a group of people gathered together in the name of Jesus.  The Christian life is not an easy one, the world being what it is and we being what we are. We need others. Strong people are nose who are strong enough to admit that they need other people.  The rugged individualist is a spiritual adolescent. (84)

I have no idea how much community matters in other faiths.  But of this much I am confident: it is impossible to follow Jesus as Jesus intended by oneself.  If you truly love someone, you love their people, you love who they love.  How does that apply to Christian discipleship?

You can’t love Jesus well if you ignore his Bride.  He never intended that to be an option.

An oldie but a goodie.
An oldie but a goodie.

[Source: Will Willimon, The Gospel for the Person Who Has Everything, (Valley Forge: Judson Press 1987).]

Preaching and Theology: Let the Twain Meet

Unite the pair so long disjoined,
Knowledge and vital piety:”

-Charles Wesley

Are you a preacher? Are you a Christian? You should read this.

Today I was privileged to spend the day listening to Bishop Will Willimon lecture on Barth & preaching.  He reminded us that Barth’s own preaching was gloriously naive in technique, and unapologetically theological in content.  Too often, preaching is considered a pragmatic task and theology as an academic or purely intellectual pursuit.  True theology, however,  is always wedded to proclamation, because it is concerned with speaking truthfully about the God revealed in Christ Jesus. As the Orthodox say, “The one who prays is a theologian, and the theologian is the one who prays.”

Similarly, preaching that is not theological will descend into mere sentimentality or utility (sermons that are either aimed at making people “feel good” or being “useful”).  We have far too many theologians who have lost their vocation as teachers of the church and proclaimers of the Word made flesh, and certainly a plethora of preachers who have forgotten that the center of their preaching is a crucified Jew from Nazareth who came neither to make us feel good nor to give us useful ideas about life.

My teacher Michael Pasquarello* has a beautifully rich vision of preaching, of which I was reminded today.  In his excellent Christian Preaching, he argues for a rediscovery of preaching as a theological task of the Church which is centered on the Triune God, exclusive of all other homiletic foci:

“Christian preaching, then, is theological rhetoric, a gift of the Spirit in which Christ, the incarnate Word spoken by the Father, condescended to indwell Scripture and the church, himself speaking the restoration and fulfillment of creation by confessing the praise of the Creator.” (p. 56)

Like the best preaching, that definition is beautiful, wonderfully deep, and thoroughly Trinitarian.  The wall between preaching and theology has been, in many places, been erected for too long.  Tear down this wall.  Let the twain meet.

 

 

*By a happy accident, I was able to take preaching with Pasquarello even though I was at Duke and he teaches at Asbury.  It’s a story that is longer than it is interesting, but suffice it to say he is an excellent teacher and a preacher-theologian I greatly respect.

Tenure and Preachers’ Unions with Chris Christie

From tough-talking Governor Christie’s RNC speech tonight:

“We believe that the majority of teachers in America know our system must be reformed to put students first so that America can compete.

Teachers don’t teach to become rich or famous. They teach because they love children.

We believe that we should honor and reward the good ones while doing what’s best for our nation’s future – demanding accountability, higher standards and the best teacher in every classroom.”

I’ve been thinking a great deal about tenure these days.  Christie, of course, has been in the news for pushing education reform in his own state.  Not one to shy away from controversial issues – love him or hate him, he isn’t a political coward – Christy knows that “sacred cows make gourmet burgers.”

I also watched the controversial documentary Waiting for “Superman” recently, which advocates for educational reform through more choice in education (especially in the form of charter schools) and against the purported stranglehold that teachers’ unions have on education.  Among the more alarming statistics given in the film is the shockingly low number of teachers relieved of their jobs in any given year as compared to, say, doctors or lawyers.  To be fair, many pro-union voices have come out against the film and questioned its contents.  Still, the anecdotes  we hear on a regular basis are enough to inspire big questions about tenure.  Whose interests does tenure serve, that of the students/community/nation or the teachers and the union leaders themselves?Moreover, the differences between tenure at the university level and tenure at the secondary and under level are important.  University tenure could take a decade or more, and some professors will never get it anywhere.  Tenure in an elementary setting, for instance, can come after only three or four years of teaching and lasts for life.

In the United Methodist Church, ordination and “full connection” as a clergy member of one’s Annual Conference functions as tenure does in a non-university setting.  Ending the so-called “guaranteed appointment” (and yes, there is a mountain of meaning in the phrase “so-called”) was a major plank of the reformers at General Conference this year (also, curiously, in Tampa).

You know the arguments.  You’ve heard them already.  Those who emphasize fairness and security for teachers argue that the GA (guarantee of appointment) is important to maintain freedom in the pulpit, to prevent discrimination based on age/race/gender/theological school/favorite basketball team, and to discourage a vindictive executive from abusing their power by not appointing, under-appointing, or poorly appointing a pastor who is otherwise in good standing.  The focus for all of these arguments is on the good of the employee.

Those who emphasize excellence in ministry and effectiveness (and yes, these are notoriously hard to quantify or judge) point out that a de-facto tenure system does not encourage either of these.  To use the language of economics, tenure does not incentivize hard work or quality work and can, instead, incentivize laziness and substandard work.  Those who question the good of the GA are generally more concerned with the well-being of the church and the mission of Christ in the world.

Of course, it would be a cheap shot to call defenders of tenure (and/or the GA) selfish and narrow-minded.  I’m not really even attempting here to make a comment about education because that is far out of my wheelhouse, but I do think the argument about tenure bears heavily on our discussion of the guarantee of appointment.

Christianity Today recently asked a number of random churchy people, “Should Pastors Be Guaranteed Job Security?” and the results were interesting.  While some of the respondents didn’t seem to grasp what the question was getting at, Bishop Willimon can always be counted on to provide a worthwhile soundbite:

“Pastors have to be willing to lead a precarious existence. When we no longer are of service to a particular congregation and its mission, or to a living, demanding God, then we must seek ministry elsewhere. Tenure and contracts are out of place.”

Here is an excellent interview in which Willimon elaborates on his views of the GA.

To close with the good Governor, what are we in this for?  Is it about making a living, putting food on the table, or is it about Christ and his Church?  Will we expect the best from our clergy, rewarding excellence when we find it but demanding accountability when it is lacking, or must we perennially protect everyone’s job barring egregious misconduct such as a sexual or fiscal scandal?

All of this is very much on my mind as I look forward to my annual review this week.  If the work we do is important – be it in education, or law enforcement, or medicine, or in the church – then surely it is worthy of our best efforts.  In holding us to that standard, God and God’s people do us a great favor.

Translation or Catechesis?

Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry

I’ve been working my way through UMC Bishop Will Willimon’s excellent Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, and came across a very interesting passage, and one that I think I agree with:

Just as it is impossible to learn French by reading French novel in an English translation, so it is also impossible, as Lindbeck notes, truly to learn Christianity by encountering it through the translation of existentialism, or feminism, or the language of self-esteem.  One must learn the vocabulary, inculcate the moves and gestures of this faith, in order to know the faith. (Pastor, 209)

The occasion for this quote is a discussion of George Lindbeck’s excellent but (very!) dense The Nature of Doctrine.  Willimon is part of that postliberal school that went from Yale to Duke, a school I am largely comfortable with as an alternative to either fundamentalist or liberal theologies.  The above quote is explained, to my knowledge, best by William Placher here:

Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation

 

The argument goes something like this: in an increasingly post-Christian society (the West), how do we make disciples?  Some favor “translation” and others favor “catechesis” (my term).  The former would be those who use catch-words like “relevant,” “contemporary,” and “seeker-friendly” when discussing evangelical tactics.  The latter favor a more tradition Catholic/Orthodox model, where people are made Christians by learning Christian doctrine through constant exposure to the liturgy and sacraments, through learning the Scripture (and not The Message), and through (and this is the crux) learning to self-identify as “Christians.”  The latter crowd is not composed of people who want to open a coffee shop that talks about Jesus and call it church.

I am largely sympathetic to the postliberal school and its orthodox/Barthian leanings.  But I have concerns as well, that are exemplified in Willimon’s quote above.  It seems to assume that there is some “pure Christianity” that we can somehow identify and get back to.  Moreover, many in Willimon’s camp would affirm the above but still favor reading Christianity through the lens of, say, Aquinas (Hauerwas and MacIntyre), who was himself heavily influenced by Aristotle.  And of course, he was reading Augustine who was heavily Platonist.    Have these individuals “translated” Christianity through Aristotle or Plato, and thus bastardized it, or used the tools of high culture to better understand God’s revelation in Jesus Christ?  Surely it is the latter.  But how is this different from reading Christianity through the lens of existentialism, feminism, etc.?  Perhaps it is merely less popular.

But it seems a fine line.  I firmly believe in catechesis; and while the term “relevant” has many problems (as does the magazine of the same name), it points out something important: our teaching and enculturing must be accessible to people here and now.  The theology of the cross must be balanced out by the theology of the incarnation.  Our teaching must have flesh that can be recognized by our fellow Americans/Southerners/young people/Democrats/etc.  But we must not let this “incarnational” principle be used to justify wishy-washy theology.  It is a fine line, indeed.

Thoughts?