Thursday, November 25, 2010

Orthodoxy, Chesterton, and Hyperbole

I've just finished rereading Gilbert Keith Chesterton's justly famous Orthodoxy in time for our book club. Again, what a wonderful experience! Chesterton's enthusiasms and "extraordinary" writing style make this little exercise in apologetics an experience one can't forget. The image I get from the book is the good knight Sir Gilbert, mounted on his steed, looking for dragons to slay, and when he thinks he's found one, it's a hoop and a holler, a big belly laugh and on to the battle. Chesterton loves the thrust and parry of debate and it shows by the grandiose language and nothing left half-said approach that he uses.

For the most part I am sympathetic to his larger agenda which is to speak for a world which is congruent with the claims of Christian doctrine. This world is created, flawed, in need of salvation and offers clues to the reality of transcendence, clues which in turn give witness to God. The "modern" alternatives such as evolution, scientific rationalism, progress, and pragmatism, are dead ends, unable to deliver what they claim: individual free will, rational thought, salvation, and freedom. For Chesterton, it is only the Christianity which delivers all that humanity desires and needs and more besides. (Note the idea of "joy" which echoed throughout C.S. Lewis' account of his own turn to Christian faith in Surprised by Joy.

And yet there the places where I take great exception to Chesterton's tone. For example, Chesterton's unbridled appreciation of Christendom and his enthusiasm for Empire wear a little thin in the light of subsequent historical analysis. He is patronizing, arrogant, somewhat racist (in that imperial British superior way), and sometimes cruel, especially to proponents of alternative points of view. But he is always cheerful! When I read sublime passages like the one which concludes the book, I am ready to forgive (almost) all.

"Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian. And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on his open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet he concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that he hid from all men when he went up the mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometime fancied that it was His mirth."
                                                                                                     G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Reflections on cross-culturalism in film: "Cooking with Stella" directed by Dilip Mehta

Having recently seen the movie "Water" written and directed by the Indo-Canadian director Deepa Mehta, I looked forward to seeing "Cooking with Stella" this time co-written by Deepa along with her brother Dilip who also directed it. Set in New Delhi, the movie's premise is the clash of cultures which begins when a young couple from Canada flies in to New Delhi's Canadian embassy to begin a new diplomatic posting and moves into the Canadian government housing where Stella happens to be employed as their new cook and housekeeper. I was not very impressed by the story or by the acting but I came away from the movie asking a number of questions. For example, why do movies or books tend to trade in stereotypes even when the audience should and usually does know better? Are the new and developing relationships between countries of differing economic development always predicated on what one or the other can get away with? Do the new relationships between developed and developing countries necessarily involve a clash of ethics? Put differently, is stealing always stealing, or lying always lying? And just because people can afford to lose money or possessions, is stealing them then justified? The director Dilip Mehta describes this film as being "very iron fist in a velvet glove." I just found it tedious and driven by stereotypes. I also felt sorry for Maury Chaykin, a wonderful character actor, who recently passed away. I hope this was not his last film.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Atonement Theology in the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective

The first impression I get from reading Article 8 is that none of the atonement models is given primacy of place. The Christ-as-Victor model describes the victory of Christ over the powers and forces of evil and death which have enslaved humanity. The Substitutionary model describes the debt owed by humanity now paid for by Christ’s sacrificial death on our behalf. The Moral-Influence model suggest the example of Jesus as inspiring humanity to receive and live out the love and grace of God in the new life opened for them. Each of these three types is given a positive role to play in describing the dimensions of Christ’s atonement for humanity. While each by itself is insufficient to describe the immensity of atonement, together they form a fully-orbed description of what Christ achieved on the cross. Thus the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (CFMP) attempts to steer a middle course between the Scylla of doctrinaire conservative fundamentalism and the Charybdis of sentimental liberalism, preserving the Anabaptist notion of the Atonement as having both objective and subjective aspects. This all-inclusive quality results in what Robert Friedman described as the effect of not just declaring us righteous but also, through the new birth, making us righteous. Not only is our salvation achieved by Christ’s “alien” work, it is made effective by the “creative” work of the Spirit transforming the inner person.

A second impression is that the Spirit’s work of transformation corresponds quite closely to the more traditional doctrine of sanctification which both Luther and Calvin articulated in their theological writings. For both Luther and Calvin though the difference was that the effects of atoning work of Christ could be separated into distinct aspects conceptually even if not existentially into justification and sanctification. For the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition, however, the two aspects were inseparable from the outset. To be justified meant to be made righteous. In Anabaptist/Mennonite theology, to separate the two could lead to indifference in the life of the believer and, more seriously, to a reliance on the “objective” work of Christ on the cross to the neglect of discipline and discipleship in one’s response to follow the call of Jesus.

The third impression I have regarding this Article 8 is that the omission of the penal substitutionary model of the atonement is deliberate. There is no mention of the wrath of God which needs to be appeased or some quid pro quo arrangement of a perfect sacrifice to be made in exchange for humanity to escape the finality of death and everlasting punishment of hell. The biblical texts which have been used to describe this view are nowhere in sight. In fact, there is no mention of hell at all. The atonement frees humanity from sin, death and the powers of evil, but not from hell.