Must radical theology be Christian?

I remember hearing a sermon once in which the preacher assured us that God has no ‘plan B’, because God’s ‘plan A’ always works out. Homely as this wisdom is, it suggests something importantly true: God is never dead as long as providence lives. That in turn leads me to offer some hesitant thoughts about debates on the definition of radical theology.

Recently on this site, Jeremy made an appeal that we should be more precise when using the term ‘radical theology’. Too often, he argued, the term is invoked when what is being advocated is really a variant of liberal theology. If radical theology is going to have any distinctive meaning, it should be reserved for those ways of thinking which explicitly position themselves in the wake of the death of God.

I agree with Jeremy, and would align myself with radical theology in his sense of the term. However, this raises another issue, also familiar to followers of this site: to what extent is radical theology intrinsically defined by Christianity (even as it negates or transforms orthodox Christian doctrines)?

If we were to trace a lineage of death of God theology, it would go, not only through Nietzsche, but also through a kind of inverted Barthian view of the otherness of God as it is paradoxically identified with the world. Hegel’s ‘speculative Good Friday’ and Luther’s ‘crucified God’ would be in there too. And the whole story could be retraced to themes of God’s self-emptying in Christ. On this reading, however heterodox it might appear, the death of God names a necessarily Christian possibility. Indeed, it could be seen as the fulfilment of Christianity’s hidden essence.

The problem here is the risk of Christian triumphalism and supercessionism reasserting itself in the form of the supremacy of the Christian West. It is as if only Christian Europe could have produced the liberating effect of the death of God, and the critical and emancipatory ideas and practices which emerge from it. Don Cupitt – whom I consider a friend and mentor – strays too close to this, in my view. In books like The Meaning of the West, God dies, but is resurrected as secular Western civilisation, always defined against the murky background of the unreformed Islamic ‘other’.

I take the point that we can’t just ignore Christianity, which via the contingent historical exigencies of Western imperialism and capitalism, continues to shape our ways of conceiving religion and politics. Better to name and reckon with this than to be its dupe. I also want to affirm the emancipatory and truly subversive reality of radical theology as a way of occupying Christian discourse precisely to proclaim the death of the transcendent God.

However, that potential needs to be decoupled from any lingering notion of providence. The death of God is not the trope to end all tropes, the inevitable end towards which the historical narrative tends. There is no plan A.

What would happen if we were to turn our attention from the death of God to the death of providence (which is not the same as the liberal capitalist providential fantasy of the ‘end of history’)? Perhaps one result would be a stronger genuine philosophical interest in polytheism, animism, syncretism and magic, not as romanticised, exotic or innocent others, but as difficult and contingent materials with which we should think and work. In any case, I don’t see a necessary contradiction here with radical theology, but a way of taking seriously the way it unlocks a thinking of divinity apart from the unity of being or narrative, a thinking in which Christianity truly becomes one among many.

“I’m not here to tell you about Jesus”: Don Draper and the Death of God

In the first-season episode “The Hobo Code,” which in many ways is the most important of the series, Don Draper is selling Peggy’s copy to a reluctant client. He goes on the offensive, asking them to leave if they aren’t serious about changing their strategy, and along the way he makes an enigmatic statement: “Listen, I’m not here to tell you about Jesus. You already know about Jesus, either he lives in your heart or he doesn’t.” The pitch proves effective, and when Ken Cosgrove mentions how great “the Jesus thing” was (perhaps implicitly asking what it means), Don explains that “sometimes force is actually being requested.” I am probably not alone in finding this explanation, such as it is, less than helpful.

So what does the quote mean? Or better: What role does it play in the episode and the season? Read the rest of this entry »

‘His Dark Materials’ and Radical Theology

The A. V. Club‘s Noah Cruickshank responded to their “AVQ&A” feature, this week asking what popular culture artifacts pull a bait-and-switch on their audiences, answering with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.  I’ve been meaning to go back and re-read these books this summer, so I’ve been thinking a little bit about the books’ connections to Milton and others.  Here’s what Cruickshank wrote:

I don’t think anyone who finished The Golden Compass thought that the next two books in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy were going to lead to the death of God (or The Authority, as he’s called in the series). The first book is a beautifully written, classic piece of fantasy, with witches, talking polar bears, and a hefty dose of world-building. But what began as a story about a young girl in a single magical world became an epic story about destroying the corrupt power of a single deity over all worlds (including our own). It’s heavy stuff, but Pullman wasn’t interested in just telling a story for young readers; he had a theological point to make. Pullman is a noted atheist, and His Dark Materials isn’t a religious work, but a humanist one. Plenty of fantasy series have religious overtones (The Chronicles Of Narnia is my favorite example, but Twilight is chock full of allusions to Mormonism), but usually they’re pretty obvious from the get-go, not themes that dawn on the reader halfway through. The three books work beautifully in tandem, and His Dark Materials is one of my favorite series in any genre. But I do feel like I got hoodwinked. I don’t mind that the books are a kind of counter-allegory to Paradise Lost, but it seems to me Pullman was a little coy about his intentions.

One of the things I really appreciated about His Dark Materials is its quite the opposite, that it was pretty clear that the book was moving in somewhat Nietzschean directions from the outset with its critique of the church, and that these directions made the meshing together of Milton, with elements of Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell and The Everlasting Gospel in the final book even more stunning.  Read the rest of this entry »

Open thread: Subverting the Norm II reactions

I just got home from Subverting the Norm II in Springfield, MO.  I had to leave a little early to be back in time to preach on Sunday morning, so I missed the later sessions.  Jeff Robbins said this morning, and I agree, that the big shift that we have seen between the first Subverting the Norm conference and this one is that there seems to be a whole lot more people talking about radical theology, folks are more comfortable with the vocabulary, and there didn’t seem to be as big of a rift between the academics and the pastors present.  To the last point, I think there were fewer pastors in the audience, but more clergy involved in presentations and breakout sessions.  I really enjoyed the Homebrewed Christianity event with Tripp Fuller and others; the Caputo and Cobb beers were very good.  The whole conference was a lot to take in, compressed in a very short time and it seemed like there were really interesting things going on against each other all day–I heard that the schedule got modified a bit at the end to accomodate this.

I finished reading Brewin’s Mutiny on the flight to the conference, and then heard him speak about this and his new book, After Magic.  AUFS commenter Robert Saler asked an excellent question regarding the violence of piracy which exposes Brewin’s Mutiny book a little bit Read the rest of this entry »

Lent 5 sermon: “The Resurrectionist”

I struggled with this week’s Revised Common Lectionary this week, and decided to expand it to be on the raising of Lazarus, which is actually a subject I have never preached on before.  The lections are Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 11:1-27, 38-44, 54-57; and 12:1-11.

I’ve been reading a book titled The Italian Boy by Sarah Wise, which is a book about the public exposure of the dark side of urban expansion in London in the early 1830s, namely, the business that emerged for body snatching.  Body snatchers were thieves who stole corpses from graves.  The population of London exploded in the first three decades of the 19th century, and these years also saw an expansion of interest in the medical sciences and a new demand for medical workers.

To go back in time a little, fifty years prior, the English Parliament declared in the Murder Act of 1751 that the practice of “gibbeting” was expanded to allow judges to not only order an execution as punishment for murder, but that the executed corpse would be placed on display in a very public place, usually along a highway or at a busy crossroads.  The idea was to deter the growing problem of murders in London by treating the bodies of murderers in the same way the royalty would treat the bodies of those who commit treason against the King—traitors—and pirates.

The very next year, another Murder Act was passed by Parliament, the Murder Act of 1752.  The Murder Act of 1752 was designed again to further deter murder crimes by making clear that those who commit murder will not be buried after execution, and that their remains must be either displayed by gibbeting, with the body publicly hanging in chains, or—and this is the innovation—the body will be turned over to scientists for “public dissection.”  As a result, murder convicts’ bodies could be turned over to medical colleges for use in teaching.

With the expansion of medical education and research, however, there were not enough felons whose bodies ended up on the dissection tables.  As a result, a somewhat lucrative black market emerged for fresh bodies to be sold in secret to medical colleges.  Body snatchers or corpse thieves became known as “resurrectionists,” who would dig out fresh graves from the ground.  Read the rest of this entry »

CFP: Subverting the Norm II

Phil Snider is hosting a second Subverting the Norm conference at Drury University.  Confirmed speakers so far include Peter Rollins, John Caputo, Namsoon Kang, Katharine Moody, Christena Cleveland, Barry Taylor, Kester Brewin, Micki Pulleyking, Clayton Crockett, Jeffrey Robbins, Phil, and myself.

And you, too, if you respond to the following call for papers… Deadline is the end of the month… Read the rest of this entry »

Easter Sunday Sermon: “Bad Easter Sermon!”

This Easter Sunday I am modifying the lectionary a little bit, preaching on Mark 4:1-20, 14:22-31, 16:1-8, and Acts 10:34-43.   I got the idea for the sermon from a commentary that I read a few weeks ago (Unbinding the Gospel of Mark) that connected some of the Lenten lectionary readings to the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from a question posed by the great folks at the Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary, and currently reading and teaching Peter Rollins’ book, Insurrection.  This is a first draft, I’d love to hear your suggestions.  Thanks.

Jesus tells the parable of the sower and the seed, a story we’ve surely heard before, telling of the gardener who planted seeds on a pathway, and on rocks, and on rich soil.  As one might expect, the seeds on the pathway were eaten by the birds, and the seeds on the rocks sprouted up quickly, but, as Jesus says, because they “had no depth of soil,” the plants withered away when the sun scorched down upon them.  The other seeds on good soil sprouted and brought forth grain, increasing thirty, and sixty, and one hundredfold.

Jesus then explains that the seeds on the path had a good thing going but they spoiled it by not nurturing the presence of God and the burgeoning life within them.  The seeds on the rocks and thorns respond to the word of God with joy, but the joy did not endure and they quickly withered away, Jesus teaches that they hear the Good News, but are drawn instead to the things of this world, they desire the saccharine joy of faith but choke on the sweet candy of feel-good religion.  And, of course, those with good contexts around them bear good fruit and prosper.

Now, on Easter morning we then hear the story of the missing body of Jesus in the tomb, the man in white instructs the women to find the disciples, and the man in white singles out that they should find Peter in particular.  I would like to ask:  Why is Peter so central to the story of the resurrection? Read the rest of this entry »

RIP: William Hamilton

Word going around the internets is that radical theologian William Hamilton is dead.  Here’s an obituary.

A couple of friends attempted to contact him for a project a few years ago and he was difficult to locate, though, as the obituary stated, he did an interview a few years ago that eventually found its way into USA Today, of all places. Read the rest of this entry »

Sunday’s sermon: “Where’s the Death Certificate?”

The following is my draft for this Sunday’s sermon for Zion “Goshert’s” UCC, where I am Pastor.  We are a week behind in the lectionary because Easter 2 has been for the last few years a Love Feast, or an unscripted service of testimony and song.  Plus the discussion of OBL seemed to strike the Doubting Thomas story for me.  The Bible readings for the Sunday are Psalm 16:5-11, 1 Peter 1:3-9, and John 20:19-31.

I was sitting in a hospital waiting room with one of our church members one afternoon this past week, while another of our church members was in surgery, and on the flat-screen television set in the waiting room was the unending discussion and reporting of every single detail of Osama bin Laden’s death.  While it is clear that we should be asking about the legality of what happened and about our allegiances with Pakistan at this point, so much of the public curiosity since bin Laden’s death has been centered around photographs taken of his body.  And this is because apparently many Americans don’t believe that he is dead.

And I shouldn’t be surprised, since one of my own family members immediately informed me that he didn’t believe that Osama was dead, either.  Read the rest of this entry »

Easter Sunday Sermon: “Too Good to Be True!”

The following is my draft of my sermon for this coming Easter Sunday, which will be delivered at Zion “Goshert’s” United Church of Christ, where I am Pastor.  There’s a lot going on here, perhaps too much, although it’s still not terribly long, and I’d love to hear your feedback.  I am preaching from the lectionary, although modified a little, primarily upon Colossians 3:1-4 and Matthew 27:45-28:15.  I will be incorporating the children’s book, Bear Wants More by Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman, into the children’s message and into the following sermon.  Thanks for reading. 

UPDATE:  Revision posted 4/22, noon (EST)

When was the last time something happened to you that was just too good to be true?  Like finding out that the one you had a crush on also has a crush on you?  Or that after searching for a long time, you finally got a job that you like?  Or after years of waiting, your prayers are answered?

But we also live in a world where sometimes what could be believed to be too good to be true doesn’t happen and we are just faced with a long line of bad luck.

And we can also conceive of the fact that when things do go our way, and when our prayers are answered, that we are rarely, if ever, satisfied when the things that we believe to be too good to be true actually happen.  They might be “good” but we can always think of something better.  Read the rest of this entry »


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