Christianity as Story, Game, Language, Culture
Publisher: IVP Academic
Reviewer: Discerning Reader Team
The chief end of books is to glorify God and to be enjoyed by man. Theology Remixed by Adam C. English is such a book, accomplishing these dual ends directly by virtue of the author’s approach and intent: to describe features of the Christian Faith by employing and exploring four elucidatory analogies. The super-intelligent English does so humbly, setting up his analogies by identifying similarities and dissimilarities. This book is a thought experiment designed to deepen faith, and 99.9% of it did just that for this reviewer.
Before we arrive at the faith-deepening aspects, however, we first must deal with the remaining 0.1%. English begins his book on a provocative note, if you happen to be a reader that possesses any sort of Reformed sympathies. Invoking the late Christopher Hitchens, whom English debated many years ago, English reports how the following ‘stereotype’ of Christianity ‘unnerves’ him:
For too many people, Christianity comes off as this absurd idea that God killed his Son to pay for some violation against God’s honor perpetrated by humans who were, for the most part, unaware of their trespasses. God demands that we accept this blood-letting as the only true path to eternal happiness. If we are sufficiently remorseful for our own unworthiness and confess, with ample groveling, our gratitude to God for killing his Son, then we will be rewarded with eternal glory and power. If we decline the offer, we will be made to suffer the cruelest torture forever in the afterlife.
Far be it from me to pay too much attention to a single word in a 208 page book, but on behalf of those with Reformed sympathies I take umbrage with English’s word choice of stereotype. Using the term stereotype faults a cross-section of Christians for holding to an allegedly “oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment” (thank you, Merriam-Webster Online) regarding God’s work of salvation and the Christian response to it. Rather than faulting actual Christians who appreciate the Father’s propitiatory decision to send his Son to die an ignominious death on our behalf, to which we respond with repentance and gratitude in the hopes of spending eternity with him, English would have been better advised to use the term caricature ‘ “exaggeration by means of often ludicrous distortion of parts or characteristics” (again, thank you to Merriam-Webster Online). Even so, English can write a few pages later, with no apparent sense of the irony, that his “book presents the foolishness of the gospel as something to be taken seriously.”
Personally, I am much more comfortable with the de-caricaturized version of Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice than I am confessing along with English the words of the ancient Byzantine hymn on page 20 calling Jesus’ mother “the holy Mother of God” and the “Ever-Virgin Mary.” English may think it doxological to put these words in the reader’s mouth (“With the ancient Byzantine hymn…we cry out”) but this reader thinks it slightly presumptuous. So much for the 0.1%. From then on the book settled down, in my opinion. I say “in my opinion” because some of my readers, and possibly English’s readers, will likely object to his overall approach. Before explaining why I’m not bothered by his approach, and even appreciate it, allow me to briefly outline the book.
The first section analogizes Christianity as story. Christianity as meta- or mega-narrative is widely accepted in Christian circles in our time, so English’s progression through six “acts” of Creation, Catastrophe, Covenant, Christ, Church, and Consummation is not new. But English’s erudition and articulate prose brings each of these “acts” to life. The second section, which analogizes Christianity as language, is similarly successful and compelling. Throughout both sections English holds to, and therefore defends, Christian orthodoxy, but two of his discussion points are worth special mention.
- We live in an age that questions God’s self-revelation as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is, in fact, more resistance to these identities among self-professed Christians than emanates from outside the Church. Although not an apologetics book, in this section English does address re-naming of the Holy Trinity and defends orthodox language in unadulterated and unapologetic fashion: “any renaming goes against God’s own self revelation.”
- In the section on Christianity as Game, English entitles his chapter on hermeneutics “Reading Rules.” After discussing the centrality of the Word and the necessity of Christological interpretation, English spends the remainder of the chapter making a case for the rediscovery of the fourfold method of interpretation. At first I was shocked, but I soon realized that his advocacy was fairly consistent with his advocacy of using the conventional extra-biblical term “Trinity” earlier in the book. Here I will not engage the discussion, except to make note of the following: in their respective books on interpretation, three erudite and respected Reformed writers advance three different opinions about the medieval quadriga. R.C. Sproul dismisses it as “such a bizarre method of interpretation.” Dan McCartney allows that the medieval method was subject to abuses but celebrates the method’s most notable proponents for their normally responsible interpretations. Peter Leithart demonstrates that although the Reformers “emphasized the immediate personal application of the text,” Luther’s and Calvin’s own hermeneutical methods owed a fair bit to the quadriga.
Finally, in the shortest section of the book, “Christianity as Culture,” English advances familiar arguments to anyone who has done any reading on the intersection of Christianity and culture, but also takes pains to carefully define some of the terms that such literature throws around so casually. Case in point: the term culture itself.
Some readers will invariably object to English’s approach on the basis of his “failure” to present a systematic theology. But this was never English’s aim, and it should be remembered that presenting theologically sysematically is a not a biblically prescribed approach. Indeed, the Bible is anything but systematic in its approach. Unified, yes; systematized, no. We ought therefore to give English ample room in which to present his “remix” of theology, which is what I would call a thought project or thought experiment. The validity of English’s analogical approach is actually much older than the convention of theological systemization. Since the apostolic era preachers have used illustrations taken from culture, agriculture, economics, and the natural world. In more recent times, C.S. Lewis famously embarked upon his Chronicles of Narnia by starting with a hypothetical premise along the lines of “What if a doorway through an old wardrobe led to a snowy world with a lamp-post in the middle of a forest?” Some may also accuse English of postmodernist deconstructionism, which would demonstrate nothing except the reader’s misreading of English’s book and an attendant failure to apprehend what postmodernism and deconstructionism truly are. Rendering theology in different categories does not qualify as deconstruction. Not even invoking Jacques Derrida positively, which English does, qualifies as deconstruction.
That said, I did wonder what to make of Tony Jones’ endorsement of the book. I concluded that the self-proclaimed “proctologist for the church” could learn a thing or two about bedside manner from Professor English. Another Emergence reference had me in smiles as English related a report of a talk by pastor Tim Condor after which Condor received a “blistering critique” from a graduate student for using phrases such as “define [your life] by Jesus’ story” and “seek the face of God.” I smiled because this terminology would not be unwelcome in either circle I tend to travel in: the Young, Restless and Reformed movement and the older liturgical tradition (think Thomas Cranmer).
English ends his book with
the rationale and an apologetic for the book’s approach: “The case has been made in this book not for new truths, but for new vehicles for the truth. I suggested that Christianity bears many similarities to a story, a language, a game and a culture. Hopefully, these analogies help to fill a need, some lack in our understanding. Hopefully, they communicated truth. But they were never the truth. They were vehicles for the truth. Vehicles come and go.” I commend this book to you on the basis of English’s refreshing humility and his intriguing thought experiment in analogizing our common Faith. If you can make it past the second page (where stereotype appears) without throwing the book down in disgust, you may just enjoy the book immensely.