A Few of My Favorite Things: 2022 Edition

The last couple of years I have compiled a list of my favorite book, album, and movie from those years. Here are my 2020 and 2021 picks. It’s a fun way to chronicle what I was especially moved by in a given year. My pick for the book is not necessarily time-bound. In other words, I pick from the books I read this year, not necessarily books that were published this year. But for the album and movie, I try to pick one that was actually released during the year.

Favorite Book

Biblical Reasoning: Christological and Trinitarian Rules for Exegesis by R. B. Jamieson and Tyler R. Wittman

What is the proper relationship between Scripture and Doctrine? How are we to conceive of the precise relationship between biblical exegesis and Christian dogmatics? For several decades, theologians and biblical scholars alike have explored what it would mean to reintegrate these crucial disciplines. But attempts at a reunion have sometimes been characterized by a lack of cohesion, rigor, and concrete specificity. From a certain perspective, Biblical Reasoning serves as a kind of remedy to these deficiencies. Exploring seven “principles” and ten “rules” for exegesis, the book shows how the relationship between exegetical reasoning and dogmatic reasoning is reciprocal and reinforcing, even if asymmetrical. Drawing on the seminal work of the late John Webster (but also ranging widely in the fathers, the medieval doctors, the Reformers, the post-Reformation scholastics, and modern scholarship as well), Biblical Reasoning has rightly been called a “book of generational significance” and “a master class in how to read the Bible directly and accurately.”  I hope this book gets a wide and serious reading.

Honorable Mention: Jesus and the God of Classical Theism by Steve Duby

Favorite Movie

Everything Everywhere All at Once, written and directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert

A trippy and bizarre multiverse fantasy sets the stage for a moving dramedy about an immigrant family. It made me laugh and cry…in the theater. It skirted right up to the line of nihilism and backed off, rediscovering family as our primal meaning-maker as human beings.

Honorable Mention: Top Gun: Maverick

Favorite Album

American Heartbreak by Zach Bryan

Zach Bryan has been building a cult following for years, with homemade Youtube videos he made moonlighting from his former day job in the United States Navy. He’s one of those rare singers that punches you in the gut from the first listen. So by the time Bryan released his first major record label album this summer it felt a bit like letting a bucking bronco out of the shoot. The production is clean but doesn’t overwhelm the rawness and authenticity of Bryan’s voice. It’s a sprawling and epic production (34 tracks long!) that mixes Red Dirt country with a good dose of folk songwriting reminiscent of Bryan’s fellow-Oklahoman Woody Guthrie. Having moved to Oklahoma this summer, I’ve seen the skies that inspired a track like “Something in the Orange.” This album is an opus from the cutting edge of the authentic country music revival we have been witnessing in recent years.

Honorable mention: Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You by Big Thief

Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI (1927-2022)

The world lost a theological and spiritual giant today. It’s not too much to say that with the passing of Queen Elizabeth II and Pope Benedict XVI this year, the West lost something of itself. The West has lost a living connection to another world, the world of its Christian patrimony.

I have an obituary and reflection on Benedict’s life that will be published over at Mere Orthodoxy, I believe on Monday. In the meantime, I want to point you to a fascinating conversation between then Cardinal Ratzinger and the late Johann Christoph Arnold, elder of the Bruderhof Communities. The conversation launches from a discussion of Anabaptist martyrs who died at the hands of Catholic authorities. Ratzinger’s comments on the danger of relying on worldly power to do the Lord’s work seem especially relevant in our day:

What is truly moving in these stories is the depth of faith [of these men], their being deeply anchored in our Lord Jesus Christ, and their joy in this fact, a joy that is stronger than death. We are distressed, of course, by the fact that the church was so closely linked with the powers of the world that she was able to deliver other Christians to be executed because of their beliefs. This should be a deep challenge to us, how much we all need to repent again and again, and how much the church must renounce worldly principles and standards in order to accept the truth as the only standard, to look to Christ, not to torture others but to go the way of witnessing ourselves, a way that the world will always oppose, a way that will always lead to some form of martyrdom. I believe it is very important for us not to adopt worldly standards but to be ready to take upon ourselves the opposition of the world and to learn that his truth is expressed above all in love and forgiveness, and that this is truth’s most trustworthy sign. I believe this is the point at which we all have to learn anew, the only point through which he can truly lead us together.

A joy that is stronger than death. Truth expressed in love. Looking to Christ. These are some of the lessons the whole church learned from the late pope.

Christmas in Darkness

Rembrandt, The Stoning of Saint Stephen (1625)

Today, December 26, is the Feast of Saint Stephen the Protomartyr. It is always striking to me that the liturgical calendar follows up the Feast of Nativity with commemorations of St Stephen, who was stoned for his witness to the Risen Christ (December 26), of St John the Evangelist, who died in exile (December 27), and of the Holy Innocents, who were slaughtered by King Herod (December 28). The First Advent leans forward to the Second.

For all of its joy and mirth and light, Christmas doesn’t actually bring an end to our darkness. No one needs to tell us this. We know it experientially. We wake up on December 26 (or on January 6, when Christmastide gives way to Epiphany) with all of the same problems. The diagnosis doesn’t miraculously change. The devilish temptations don’t magically disappear. The dead remain painfully cold in their graves.

Christmas signals the end of the old order of sin, suffering, and death. But, taken in isolation, it doesn’t actually bring it to pass. The mystery of Christ’s nativity is connected like a chain to the subsequent mysteries of his suffering, crucifixion, and death. Christ’s birth sets him on a journey that will end in the cruel death of the cross. The death of the Holy Innocents (and then, later in the gospel, the beheading of John the Baptist) foreshadows this.

But even the crucifixion, taken in isolation, doesn’t shatter the darkness. It too, is tethered to the further mysteries of Christ’s descent, resurrection, and ascent to the Father’s right hand. But, painfully, even these glorious mysteries, as we well know, have not brought an end to our suffering. Eastertide bears its own burdens as well.

And so we come to St Stephen, the Spirit-filled deacon (Acts 6:5), wonderworker (Acts 6:8) and exegete of redemptive history (Acts 7). Even he, on this side of Christ’s ascension, is not spared martyrdom.

Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

And herein we see the light breaking through the darkness that even the ascension does not remove from our experience: the Risen Lord Jesus, the divine-human Son of Man, temporarily suspends his session–his having sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high–and stands in honor of his first martyr. Daniel’s promise of the Son of Man coming in the clouds is given a kind of preview, at least in its first moment, at the protomartyr’s death.

Soon, this same Jesus will stand once again from his throne and return to earth to make all things new. And so, the chain will be complete: the whole mystery of Christ–his incarnation, life, death, burial, descent, resurrection, ascension, session–will be brought to a climactic conclusion in his Second Advent to judge the quick and the dead, to defeat all his and our enemies, and to usher in a new creation. And the denouement: a world of perpetual light (Revelation 22:5).

A Divine Person Has Been Born

Artwork by Mackenzie Kissell

This Advent, I have been reading a book on the Christology of the great medieval Franciscan theologian, St. Bonaventure. The Seraphic Doctor summarizes the mystery of the incarnation—which results in the union of two natures in the one hypostasis, or person, of the Son—like this: The hypostatic union “consists in nothing other than the fact that a divine person who, from eternity, has been a hypostasis of the divine nature becomes the hypostasis of a human nature in time.”

It is astounding to consider: a divine person, the Second Person of the Godhead, the eternally begotten Son of the Father, is the very same person who was born to a poor, Jewish virgin two-thousand years ago. He has made himself accessible to us; indeed, he has made himself one of us. The One who was from the beginning has made himself hearable, visible, and touchable (1 John 1:1). Whatever else we may be going through this year, our lives have been definitely qualified by this fundamental fact in the history of the cosmos: God has come near. Though it strains credulity, a divine person has been born.

May this truth cheer you this holiday season.

Advent and the End of Racial Division

Racism is persistent. It comes in a variety of forms, some more veiled and incipient, others more explicit and fully formed. Many seem to espouse a myth of progress that envisions a gradual waning of all racialized ideologies. But recent years (and months and days) have given the lie to that myth. The truth is that only the redeeming work of the incarnate Christ can finally “bid our sad divisions cease.”

The breaking down of the dividing wall of hostility is one of the central messages of Advent, indeed of the entirety of the “Winter Pascha,” to use Alexander Schmemann’s memorable phrase to describe the liturgical cycle of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. In Advent, we long for the appearing of the Prince of Peace. In Christmastide, we celebrate his nativity, which is good news of great joy for all peoples. And in Epiphany, we herald his manifestation as King of the nations, signaled by the visit of the magi, bearing gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.

This last mystery, the visit of the magi, has been received by the church with a special connection to Christ’s universal work. As Joseph Ratzinger has noted, the Christian tradition developed the notion that the magi are kings hailing from all three known continents: Africa, Asia, and Europe. So, says Ratzinger, “the black king is part and parcel of this: in the kingdom of Jesus Christ there are no distinctions of race and origin. In him and through him, humanity is united, yet without losing any of the richness of variety.”

In this way, Christ as the Last Adam is simply restoring the inherent unity of the human race that is obscured and undermined by human sin. In another place, Ratzinger reflects on the unity of man in Adam, the man from the dust:

Thus the unity of the whole human race becomes immediately apparent: We are all from only one earth. There are not different kinds of “blood and soil,” to use a Nazi slogan. There are not fundamentally different kinds of human beings, as the myths of numerous religions used to say and as some worldviews of our own day also assert. There are not different categories and races in which human beings are valued differently. We are all one humanity, formed from God’s one earth. It is precisely this thought that is at the very heart of the creation account and of the whole Bible. In the face of all human division and human arrogance, whereby one person sets himself or herself over and against another, humanity is declared to be one creation of God from his one earth. What is said at the beginning is then repeated after the Flood: in the great genealogy of Genesis 10 the same thought reappears — namely, that there is only one humanity in the many human beings. The Bible says a decisive “No” to all racism and to every human division.

“Blood and soil” ideologies seem to be on the rise again in some quarters. But the church of the universal Savior–the people whose identity is definitively marked by Advent, the Nativity, and the Epiphany–of all people should not be deceived by them. The church is the sign of a coming kingdom of peace in which the Desire of the nations will “bind in one the hearts of all mankind.”

The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity: A Summary

In a recently published collection of essays on the Trinity, Scott Swain discusses B.B. Warfield’s treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity, with particular attention to Warfield’s rejection of the language of “eternal generation.” That’s a hugely interesting and important topic, but it’s not the subject of this post per se. Instead, I want to focus on the broader point that Swain makes about Warfield’s approach, namely, that it’s a bit too pared down, that part of the reason why Warfield is ambivalent about eternal generation is that his summary of the Trinity does not include adequate reflection on what makes the divine persons distinct from another.

Warfield summarizes the biblical teaching on the Trinity in a kind of three-step process. Swain explains:

Warfield summarizes the main lines of biblical teaching on the Trinity in three points: (1) “there is but one God,” (2) “the Father and the Son and the Spirit is each God,” and (3) “the Father and the Son and the Spirit is each a distinct person.” “When we have said these three things,” [Warfield] insists, “we have enunciated the doctrine of the Trinity in its completeness.” (p. 33).

As Swain points out, this is a fairly standard way of summarizing the Bible’s teaching on the Trinity among evangelicals. It’s even given pictorial representation in the widely used image above. But it leaves unexplained just what makes the Father, Son, and Spirit “each a distinct person.” It’s not that the summary is unhelpful or untrue, but it’s claim to “completeness” is suspect.

So, what would it look like to supplement Warfield’s approach with a bit fuller summary, but one that can still justifiably be considered a summary and not an attempt to be exhaustive? How would you summarize the biblical teaching on the doctrine of the Trinity? For what it’s worth, here’s my shot (notice that the first three points track with Warfield’s):

  1. God is one. The New Testament (Mark 12:29; 1 Cor. 8:4, 6; 1 Tim. 2:5), no less than the Old Testament (Deut. 6:4; Exod. 20:1-2; Isa. 45:6), affirms that there is only one God. While there may be other spiritual beings (angels, demons, and human souls), there is—and can only be—one transcendent and immanent Creator and Lord of heaven and earth.
  2. Each of the persons is divine. Once the first person, the Father, is distinguished in the New Testament, his deity is assumed throughout. The deity of the Son is demonstrated by the fact that the attributes, actions, names, titles, and worship of God are ascribed to him. Similarly, the Holy Spirit is named as a distinct person alongside the Father and Son (e.g., Matt. 28:18-20; 2 Cor. 13:14) and his deity is shown by his divine attributes and actions.
  3. The persons are really distinct from one another. The three are not simply successive manifestations or modes of revelation to humanity. They are simultaneously existing persons with real relations to one another (think of Jesus’ baptism, Matt. 3:13-17). And these distinctions are not merely ad hoc arrangements in redemptive history but mark out real distinctions in eternity. These distinctions are made evident by the personal names given to each of the three in Scripture: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father is eternally the Father of the Son; the Son is eternally the Son of the Father; and the Holy Spirit is eternally the one “spirated,” or breathed out, by the Father and Son. The three relate to one another and love one another in the eternal glory of God’s own life (John 17:5)
  4. Because God is one, he acts as one. The three divine persons act as one in redemptive history.  All of the actions of God in the world—creation, providence, redemption, and judgment—are attributed to each. They are not three separate beings doing three separate but harmonious things. They each act in the others’ actions. The Holy Trinity acts in an inseparable and indivisible manner. To pick just one example, consider the act of creation. The Father creates through his Word (John 1:1-3; cf. Gen. 1:3) and Spirit (Gen. 1:2).
  5. Some divine attributes or actions are appropriated to particular divine persons, but not in such a way as to exclude the others. So, for example, we might say that the Father is our creator, the Son is our redeemer, and the Spirit is our sanctifier. But because of the previous point (that God acts in an indivisible way in all of his actions), this appropriation is only a manner of speaking. All three persons are the creator, redeemer, and sanctifier. The appropriation of certain attributes to certain divine persons only serves to highlight their unique personal identity. For example, the Son is referred to as the Word or Wisdom of God in Scripture, not because he alone possesses the divine attribute of wisdom, but because this name highlights his unique personal property of being from the Father, as a word proceeds from a mind.
  6. Still, each person participates in the indivisible action of God in a manner that is appropriate to his personal identity. In any act of the Triune God in the world, there is only one action. But there are three modes of action corresponding to the three persons active within, so to speak, that one action. Simply put, the Father acts as Father in the inseparable action of the Trinity, the Son as Son, and the Spirit as Spirit. The early church Fathers, following the New Testament pattern, often spoke of these modes of action by means of distinct prepositions: the action of God comes from the Father, through the Son, and by the Spirit (see, for example, 1 Cor. 8:6). And, of course, because the Son alone became incarnate as a human, the actions that he carries out humanly are exclusive of the Father and Son. The point here is that everything that God does divinely, he does as Father, Son, and Spirit—in essentially indivisible but personally differentiated action.

A Prayer for New Year’s Day

Image from the cover of The Diary of James Hinton, edited by Michael A. G. Haykin and Chance Faulkner

Here’s a prayer for New Year’s Day from James Hinton, an eighteenth-century Baptist minister who compiled one of the few prayer books in Baptist history (Thanks to Michael Haykin for sharing this work with me).

Oh thou who inhabitest eternity! By thee was infant time created, and every rolling year speaks of thy goodness. Help us to regard this new year as a new creation, and ourselves as not less indebted to thee for life continued, than for life begun. To thee we commend ourselves for this new period of our being, and for all the time that we may yet be spared. However seemingly firm, in thee alone we live, and move, and have our being. Though surrounded with affectionate and zealous friends, they can do little for us, unless directed by thee who art the Friend of all. However richly furnished in other respects, without thy blessing our stores are nothing. Even our goodness, unsupported by thee, will prove like the morning cloud and the early dew. Our principal hopes, if thou dost not maintain and prosper them, will not only fail, but pierce us through with many sorrows. Forsake us not, O thou, our only effectual helper, our only sure confidence. In thy perpetual presence, in thine unchanging favour, may this year be as those which are past, and more abundant in good. May it more abound with the noblest improvement, be more fruitful of the highest Christian excellence, more full of thankful rejoicing in God. Enable us to commit ourselves to thee, without anxiety with respect to the darkness, in which the events of the year, and our interest in them, are involved . Thou seest its whole progress, and thou wilt provide. Before its close, our days may be past, and our purposes broken off, even the thoughts of our hearts; yet let not this solemn event, harass our thoughts or prevent our enjoying thy numerous favours. If for any of us the decree is issued, – this year thou shalt die ; – though we hear it not, let the execution of the order find us in some measure prepared. May our end, whenever it comes, be safe; and our last days not only calm, but joyful and blessed.

James Hinton, The New Guide to Prayer, or Complete Order of Family Devotion, 1824

The Best of 2021

Last year, I started a tradition of compiling a few of my favorite things from the year ending. Books, music, and film have been my constant companions for as long as I can remember. So here are my superlatives from 2021.

Favorite Book

The Incarnate Lord: A Thomistic Study in Christology, by Thomas Joseph White

I am a slow and deliberate and fairly selective reader. I rarely read books that are hot off the presses. There are so many great books that I haven’t read that I usually wait to see which books stand up to the scrutiny of time before making the commitment to read them. I try to prioritize the classics I haven’t read, or haven’t read in too long (for example, this year I did some remedial work in Pseudo-Dionysius, Bernard of Clarivaux, and Bonaventure). So I almost never read enough books published in the current year to have a favorite. This year was no different. My favorite book from 2021 was actually published in 2017. Thomas Joseph White, a Dominican Thomistic scholar of the first rank, has written a truly magisterial treatment of this central Christian doctrine (I noticed it made Brandon’s best of list too). White’s book covers a remarkably wide range of issues on the person and work of Christ: everything from dyothelitism and the satisfaction theory of the atonement to the descent into hell and the nature of the resurrection body. I don’t quite agree on every point (his critique of the Calvinist doctrine of penal substitution distorts some things) but White’s treatment is consistently erudite and fair. Almost he persuadest me to believe Thomas’s view on the knowledge of the human nature of Christ (that Christ possessed the beatific vision and perfect knowledge in his higher soul). Overall, this book is a remarkable achievement in defense of classic Christology and an ontological understanding of Christ as true God and true man.

Honorable Mention: Dracula, by Bram Stoker, a classic in the horror genre I only recently read for the first time.

Favorite Movie

Minari, written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung

I believe this was officially a 2020 film but only had wide release in early 2021. It tells the story of a Korean immigrant family trying to build a farm and adjust to life in 1980s rural Arkansas. Beautifully shot and brilliantly acted, Minari is small story with massive implications for the human predicament. Some of the turns are wrenching, but the resolution is positively feel-good . Don’t miss the religious overtones: the religious fanatic, the exorcisms, the idol of money, the importance of church/community, the inclusion of the other, the costs of love, the gifts of grace (the minari plant that gives the film its title grows without effort). Also, the main character is named Jacob and he builds a well! Another subtext: the emotional strains of manhood in bleak economic circumstances, a theme that is noticeably muted in much popular art. (As I write this, there are a couple movies I have yet to see that are much anticipated: P. T. Anderson’s Licorice Pizza and Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley).

Honorable mention: Dune: Part One, directed by Denis Villeneuve

Favorite Album

Pressure Machine, by The Killers

I have always enjoyed The Killers (and lead singer Brandon Flowers’ solo work as well) but this album marks a decisive step forward for the band, in my estimation. The polished pop rock anthems are traded in for mostly subtle and somber acoustic reflections on the depths of human pain. I don’t want to share too much because the album needs to be experienced not over-analyzed, but suffice it to say the album is about life in rural Utah (where Flowers lived for a period as a child) and especially the aftermath of the opioid epidemic (overdoses, suicide, and the shattered dreams of youth). Musically, it has echoes of R.E.M. and fairly obvious homages to Bruce Springsteen. The latter comparison is most apt because Flowers is able to accomplish for his native West what the Boss did for the working class in his native New Jersey. Religious themes are threaded throughout. So this isn’t just an album about pain; it’s also about wrestling through doubt and despair to find meaning and hope, symbolized in the opening track’s “West Hills” (a theme pregnant with biblical allusions).

Honorable Mention: I Don’t Live Here Anymore, by The War on Drugs

Pseudo-Dionysius on the Beatific Vision

But in time to come, when we are incorruptible and immortal, when we have come at last to the blessed inheritance of being like Christ, then, as scripture says, ‘we shall always be with the Lord.’ In most holy contemplation we shall be ever filled with the sight of God shining gloriously around us as once it shone for the disciples at the divine transfiguration. And there we shall be, our minds away from passion and from earth, and we shall have a conceptual gift of light from him and, somehow, in a way we cannot know, we shall be united with him and, our understanding carried away, blessedly happy, we shall be struck by his blazing light. Marvelously, our minds will be like those in the heavens above. We shall be ‘equal to angels and sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.’ That is what the truth of Scripture affirms.

-Pseudo-Dionysius, The Divine Names

Camp Meetings, Collards, and Christology

Large crowds once gathered at camp meetings in early Alabama – Alabama  Pioneers

Theology writing can sometimes be boring, conformist, and placeless. What would theology sound like if we let our distinct “accents” come through, even if ever so slightly?

I heard an interview with Jens Kruger on the radio the other day. Kruger is a Swiss-born banjoist who was talking about the years he spent with Bill Monroe, the Father of American bluegrass. Monroe cautioned Kruger against simply mimicking other bluegrass players. He said “You’re not from Kentucky. You’re from Europe. You have your own influences. I want to hear that.” It got me thinking. What would my writing look like if I didn’t just try to ape the style of theologians from another place (or seemingly no place in particular) but wrote theology in an Alabama accent, so to speak. Even if it’s slight.

Shouldn’t a philosopher from Kentucky be shaped just a little by the rolling bluegrass of his native state? Or won’t an ethicist from East Tennessee have at least a tinge of the hills and hollers come through? Or shouldn’t the camp meetings and collards of Alabama be detectable just a little in my own writings, at least to those who have an ear for it?

Style in theology writing, as a friend recently remarked to me, is especially tricky. The subject matter requires a certain reverence and circumspection and is often best served by directness and clarity. Still, academic theology, like all human discourse, must be indigenized somewhere, addressing a particular people and a particular set of needs and emerging, of course, from a particular writer. I honestly can’t think of many clear exemplars of what I have in mind, where a uniquely emplaced style comes through. Maybe Stanley Hauerwas? Maybe minority and female theologians are our best examples? I certainly don’t have it figured out in my own writings. It’s mostly a wish and an aspiration.

What do you think? Who is doing this well?