This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Two Good Books

I just finished two books of note: Being Consumed, by William T. Cavanaugh, and What Would Jesus Deconstruct? by John D. Caputo.  They have in common the connection to the theological movement called Radical Orthodoxy.  Both are short, to the point, and highly recommended.  
The Caputo book has the added feature of being endorsed by Brian McLaren and Tony Jones, two leaders of Emergent Village.  I think this connection between Radical Orthodoxy and Emergent could be very fruitful.  Emergent will benefit from a more systematic — though certainly diverse and loose — post-evangelical/post-liberal theological framework.  RO could desperately use input from people doing actual church work with actual people.  
“Being Consumed” is brief, to the point, and way more easily readable than most RO material.  It is an analysis of Capitalism from the Christian perspective and points out that, basically, Christianity and Capitalism-as-we-know-it are incompatible.
“The key question in every transaction is whether or not the transaction contributes to the flourishing of each person involved, and this question can only be judged, from a theological point of view, according to the end of human life, which is participation in the life of God”  (p viii).  The focus on the basic question of life’s chief end ties the book together.  It is also a common theme in Radical Orthodoxy generally.  
In Daniel Bell’s excellent book, Liberation Theology After the End of History, he juxtaposes the assumptions of Capitalism, as framed by Francis Fukuyama in The End of History and the Last Man, against those of Christianity.  In the former, the highest and deepest desires of humanity are summarized in material prosperity and consumption, while in the latter it is affirmed that the “joy of human desiring” is Jesus Christ.  It is this rigorously and unapologetically Christian theological reasoning that characterizes the Radical Orthodox approach, both undercutting and exposing the real agenda of Capitalism.
Once we have redefined the true end of human life as “participation in the life of God,” and that this is our truest and best desire, everything else falls into place.  The Capitalism ideology is exposed as godless set of artificial desires imposed on people and fed like an addiction.  

Cavanaugh defines freedom, not as freedom from interference from others (primarily government) but as freedom to move towards fulfillment of our chief end.  In this he lifts up St. Augustine (a favorite of RO thinking), who famously prayed “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee,” expressing the principle desire of humanity from a Christian perspective; and he critiques the opposite understanding as articulated by Milton Friedman.
Some of this is very timely as we see all around us the failure of Capitalism as we enter what is at least the most severe recession in 60 years.  
In the end, Cavanaugh juxtaposes Capitalism’s manufacture of a sense of scarcity and always needing more, newer, and better, with the Christian view expressed in the eucharist of there always being more than enough, an abundance of good things, in Jesus Christ.  It is isolated individualism vs. community.  It is individuals at war with each other to acquire, control, and consume limited resources, or the development of creative communities of mutual benefit and interaction.
In What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, John D. Caputo delivers an extended riff on the WWJD? question, using rarefied tools of post-modern philosophy.  The book’s value is found in point out again the importance of deconstruction in Christian theology.  Caputo brings the insights of Derrida, Foucault, Levinas, and others, into theology, and he does it here in an extremely accessible, immediate, and informal way.  (Much of the book reads like it was dictated off-the-cuff at a bar somewhere.)
This intersection of deconstruction with theology is not that new.  Thomas J. J. Altizer has been exploring this since at least the early 1980's.  There has always been a certain deconstructive element in Christianity, found in reform movements throughout Christian history.  The iconoclasm of the Reformation is one example.  But all attempts to shed cultural baggage that obscures the gospel can be seen as deconstructive movements, as Caputo points out.
“The good news deconstruction bears to the church is to provide the hermeneutics of the Kingdom of God.  The deconstruction of Christianity is not an attack on the church but a critique of the idols to which it is vulnerable — the literalism and authoritarianism, sexism and racism, the militarism and imperialism, and the love of unrestrained capitalism with which the church in its various forms has today and for far too long been entangled, any one of which is toxic to the Kingdom of God” (p. 137).
In other words, Caputo would say that deconstruction is the hermeneutic in which Christians continually and vigilantly seek out and destroy the idolatries that attack it.  And the criteria/standard for this is the text of the gospels.  Jesus’ message, especially the Sermon on the Mount, is a relentless critique of these idolatries.  His words must not be domesticated or disregarded, but always allowed to shape and reshape his community, and through it the world.


Doug said...

Paul: These book reviews made an interesting article especially in comparison to a NY Times article today about the economic troubles and evangelical churches. One pastor quoted actually said that we (the true church) have the best "product" meaning the gospel. Rather than seeing God as our greatest desire and discusing idolatry as your article does, these pastors spoke about the gospel in marketing terms. Their language would suggest that the values of secular economics have already taken over their "product." I must admit that I have found myself carelessly using marketing terms -- or not confronting others who used them-- in the past 20 years. When we speak of ministry, evangelism, or mission, if we use marketing terms rather than biblical-theological language we have lost the heart of The Message.

M. Granzen said...

Thank you for your critical review of two important books. I think you should send it in to Theology Today or a similar journal. One question: is de-construction to be equated with the the gospel? What is the difference between tearing down idols and believing in the gospel?

Paul Rack said...

I would probably not equate deconstruction with the gospel in any facile way. However, deconstruction reminds me of apocalyptic in the sense that there is a wiping away of what is false and corrupted in order to reveal the goodness and truth within. Almost like the way I have to keep cleaning my windshield in the wintertime into order to see clearly. If I don't I will come to mistake the dismal muck in my vision for reality. Maybe deconstruction is a kind of necessary tool which enable us to experience the gospel.

(Theology Today doesn't take submissions; they call you to write something. I have sent stuff to them in the past.)