Reviews and interviews: A New Kind of Christianity … round-up

Faithful Reader reviews ANKoCy here.
Mike Clawson’s last installment of our interview is available here. I’ll reply to a follow-up question about Plato and Aristotle after the jump.
The Jazztheologian offers an interview about the book here, and here.
Bishop Alan Wilson from England reviews the book here.
Nic Paton from South Africa focuses on the issue of “the fall.”
More after the jump …

The comments to the Michael Clawson interview took me over to Nathan Gilmour’s interesting and worthwhile response to the book and the question of whether getting Plato and Aristotle right or not matters. Of course I agree with Nathan that getting them right matters.
And of course I would take exception to several of his or his commenters’ asides – such as a) suggesting that I’m pitting consultants against seminaries, and b( that I’m doing so to earn money as a consultant.
Just to clarify – b) any consulting I do is pro bono, informal, and incidental to being invited to speak various places. Consulting is an important skill I have benefitted greatly from as a client, but don’t see myself in that role as a provider. And a), when it comes to questions of academic theology, of course seminaries hold sway. But when it comes to organizational leadership, that’s a separate area of expertise some but not all seminary professors would have. I hope that it’s possible to respect each area of expertise without pitting one against the other.
In these and several other cases where Nathan and some of his commenters tend to assume the worst about my motives or the book’s meaning, I wish I could have better anticipated and clarified the concerns they raised in advance, so as to preclude the misunderstanding.
But putting those matters aside, let me offer these more specific replies.
1. I would encourage people who are critical of the chapter (4) dealing with Plato and Aristotle to be sure to read the lengthy endnotes for the chapter, especially notes 1, 2, 3, 5, 14, and 17, where I address some or maybe most of their concerns. I noticed how some of the criticism paraphrases exactly the kinds of provisos and qualifications I offer in notes 1 and 2, which made me think the commenters hadn’t seen those notes. Perhaps I should have included these provisos in the text itself. At any rate, in the notes (and at points in the text itself) I try to make it clear that I’m dealing with some of the popularized “isms” associated with these great philosophers, not with their rich and nuanced thinking itself, which I also acknowledge could never be reduced to a simple or formulaic summary. If someone is seeking a thorough understanding of these philosophers themselves, I imagine Nathan would be a good source of information. My purpose was to offer some explanation for how a certain narrative alien to Jesus and his gospel may have come to frame Jesus and his gospel. Whether my proposed explanation is valid or not, this narrative still arose from somewhere, and still deserves some attention, and, I think, questioning.
2. I didn’t include a detailed bibliography of the sources that formed my understanding (or misunderstanding) of Greek thought. I won’t try to do that here, but will mention a few resources that come to mind. Of course, I read the basics of Plato and Aristotle that were required in my undergraduate and graduate liberal arts/literature curriculum, especially as they informed English and American literature – from Plato, the Republic and the Dialogues, and from Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Poetics, and On Rhetoric. I haven’t kept up with contemporary scholarship on them, so if what I was taught in the 1970’s has been discredited, then I’m correspondingly out of date and would be happy to be re-educated. I also read Boethius (The Consolation of Philosophy) and was repeatedly made aware of the literary influence he and others like him had in embedding what my professors called “Platonism” or “Neoplatonism” in popular spirituality along with more formal theology.
Concerns about excessive Greco-Roman influence on early and medieval Christian theology certainly are not unique to me, often expressed in terms of the old “Athens versus Jerusalem” debate, which I don’t find very helpful. They’re widely expressed by scholars or teachers from a wide variety of backgrounds – Anabaptist (John Howard Yoder), Reformed, Mainline Protestant (Harvey Cox, whose most recent work I reference several times), and Roman Catholic (Richard Rohr).
And of course there are many scholars who lean in the opposite direction – that the fusion of Greek philosophy with the Hebrew Scriptures is a good and providential thing. (Read, for example, these endorsements for a recent book on the subject.)
Some of these latter lines of argument are being marshalled to defend the idea of Christendom and hope for its resurgence, sometimes playing into a “clash of civilizations” narrative against Islam. The strongest expression of the conflation of Western Civilization and Christian faith I’ve ever seen came from William F. Buckley. I remember reading – but can’t remember where – him saying something like this, in the early 1980’s, referring to Communists: What they don’t understand is that the gates of hell shall not prevail against Western Civilization. (If anyone can reference that quote for me, I’d be most grateful …) Obviously, this isn’t my vision for a new kind of Christianity.
I should add that a few years ago, as I read (or tried to read) some of the Radical Orthodoxy authors (Milbank, Pickstock, Ward), I could tell that their reading of Plato was very different from the readings I had been exposed to, although I wouldn’t claim to understand the differences. So I’m sure that in this field, as in many others, there is a range of approaches by highly dedicated scholars.
As for other formative texts, Chesterton’s biography of Aquinas impacted me many years ago, helping me see how Aquinas made use of Aristotle to rebalance the more neo-Platonistic temper of the church of his day (see Note 3). If Chesterton’s reading has been discredited, then my understanding would be correspondingly skewed. The same would go for Curtis Chang’s IVP book “Engaging Unbelief,” which looked at the rhetorical strategies of Augustine and Aquinas. I know that many criticize Thomas Cahill for a similar kind of popularization for which Nathan criticizes me, and I confess to have found his books helpful (How the Irish …, Gifts of the Jews…) , even though I remember differing on a couple of finer points. Where’s he’s considered dead wrong in his general understanding, I would probably be as well.
More recently and probably most importantly, I am especially indebted to Kwame Bediako’s Theology and Identity on this subject (referenced in note 12). Again, to the degree the work of these scholars is not respected, my work will be weakened for dependence on them.
3. I am suspicious about attempts to reframe Jesus in terms of the political structure that crucified him. But I am NOT saying Plato and Aristotle are bad, or that those who translated the faith into philosophical terms are “bad”! Consider this from note 3 (p. 264): “Their [the apologists’] instinct – to save and embrace the great philosophers rather than condemn and exclude them – was, I judge, a Christlike one.” I think I’m quite consistent in identifying the negative consequences of their engagement as “unintended,” and in my experience, almost everything we do has unintended negative consequences.
4. It’s important to remember that I’m writing for a general audience, not specialized scholars. I try to read and learn from the specialized scholars, but I certainly don’t consider myself qualified to teach them. But I should repeat that in my experience, specialized scholars often don’t agree with one another – and that the deeper you go into scholarship, often the more pronounced and vigorous the disagreements are between schools of interpretation. I imagine I’ve stumbled naively into some of these arguments at some turns, and Nathan and others have strong views as specialists in those fields. At any rate, when I read Nathan Gilmour’s comments, I’m eager to be taught in all areas where my thinking is deficient.
5. It’s not fair to put on Nathan the responsibility to summarize my views as accurately as I would. So I would hope that people who haven’t read the book would let the book speak for itself rather than expecting Nathan’s summaries to stand in for my own.
6. If in the end readers like Nathan decide the whole Greco-Roman argument is unhelpful, they could easily put it aside; the book in no way depends on it. They might look at note 7, where I mention an entirely different approach (drawing from the work of Jeffrey Bineham, Sally McFague, James Chesbro, and Walter Ong) to the underlying problem of what I call “excessive confidence” or the western “superiority complex” – which have fueled many good things, but a number of pretty horrific things as well.
If on the other hand, they don’t think there’s any problem of a western superiority complex or excessive confidence, or if (as some other reviewers have been happy to suggest), they actually like the Greco-Roman narrative, I wonder how they would respond – for example – to Jesus’ contrast between the ways of the “rulers of the Gentiles” and the ways of his disciples?
7. I hope that people won’t problematize this one issue in such a way as to miss the bigger questions raised by Chapter 4, and the book as a whole: are we allowed to question the standard Western pre-critical narrative through which the Bible is commonly read – whether it’s described in Greco-Roman terms or otherwise – based on a reading of the Bible itself aided by historical understanding of the first century setting? Or must fourth-century (or whatever) concerns forever determine the ways we can read the Bible itself? Another way to pose this question would be the way Mabiala Kenzo does in a book called A New Kind of Conversation. His chapter alone is well worth the price of the book.
A point by point response to Nathan’s questions would require something longer than my book itself, I imagine. I hope someday I can meet Nathan in person, benefit from his obvious intelligence and expertise, and talk this over further, as neighbors and – I would hope – friends. I’m sure I have a lot to learn from him, and might even be able to improve a future edition of the book with his help.