Tuesday, July 15, 2008

a review of one of Driscoll's newer books caught my eye

http://blog.christianitytoday.com/outofur/archives/2008/07/new_christians.html

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I found one book insignificant and the other inflated.


Let’s start with the insignificant. I admire Mark Driscoll for doing significant stuff. He’s planted a thriving church in a place where it’s tough to do ministry and helps lead one of the more successful church planting networks around (Acts 29). I cracked open Vintage Jesus anticipating something important. Based on the title, I expected Driscoll to pop the cork on an enduring theology that over time increases in flavor and potency. But the book was more flat Coke than fine wine.


I did not find Driscoll’s book very interesting. About a third of the way through the book, my mind traveled back a decade to my first week of seminary. As a preaching newbie in need of guidance, I checked out an old, small book on preaching that started by saying something like, “If your sermons are not interesting, you’re missing something because God is infinitely interesting.” The notion that conversations about God should be interesting resurfaced as I read Vintage Jesus and caught myself muttering, “Yeah, yeah, yeah… so what?”


I did not expect some new theology from Driscoll, since that is certainly the opposite of his well known position. But I did expect him to show that God was interesting and revolutionary. I think guys like Erwin McManus and John Burke tend to deliver better on what I expected from Vintage Jesus: how ageless truth is renewed within each generation.

Driscoll wrote boldly when it came to things that don’t really matter, such as his choice of over-the-top colorful language in retelling some biblical narratives. But he held back on the truly important matters, such as how radically life-altering is our faith. Except for a few confessional moments that really stood out, he played it safe in Vintage Jesus. Maybe he didn’t want to be mistaken for one of those emergent kooks who deny the basics of faith he finds important: beliefs such as hell and substitutionary atonement. Whatever the reason Driscoll chose to play small in this book, I was disappointed. I think he could have done better.



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This would fit the impression I had about the sermon series from a few years ago, good but not ground-breaking, certainly not ground-breaking in terms of tilling the soil and pulling up things that need to be brought into the light, to labor a metaphor. While the Christ on the Cross sermon series included some highly doubtful theology that pitted the Father and Son's wills against each other in a propitiation sermon there was also an example of Driscoll at his best, when he integrated christus exemplar into a broader context of atonement theories. So in a way Vintage Jesus as a sermon series was a watered down version of the Christ on the Cross series. It was in some sense the weaker for that. Despite some not entirely implausible complaining in blog-land I thought that was one of his finest sermon sets. When he went out on a limb to talk about an atonement theory beloved historically more by theological liberals in the United States but anchoring it in the cross and with other atonement explanations besides the rather staid but crucial penal substitionary model he was looking like he would be going in an important direction. There are not that many pastors who not only take time to explain all the different theories of atonement there are also not that many who share with a congregation that they are ALL important. An unbalanced presentation on propitiation is not cool ... but I don't expect any theologian to adequately or fairly represent every aspect of the atonement. I had gotten used to the idea that the majority of pastors would tend to emphasize one aspect of the atonement and sacrifice the others as not only not useful but even to treat them as not within the pale of orthodoxy. It was a possibly rare case in which a pastor went out of his way to see the biblical foundation in a set of atonement explanations that are often not even discussed in evangelicalism, or even known about! It was, overall, an only occasionally flawed and generally important thing for a Protestant pastor at a huge church to be tackling. I was there for almost the whole thing and it was one of the most beneficial sets of sermons I think I've ever had a chance to hear. The christus exemplar sermon, particularly, was good and I was optimistic when he said he might go through Luke.

Or not. He revisited 1 Corinthians because he felt he blundered his way through the first time. TO be fair he did fine in the first 1 Corinthians sermon series even though no one will be able to find it in the Mars Hill media library. That's sort of too bad because it was only his sermons on spiritual gifts from years ago that were actually terrible. He had a more cessationist position back then that he has since abandoned with gusto. Fine by me. But the earlier series wasn't as terrible as all that. It was understandable to want to revisit 1 Corinthians because it is an amazing epistle.

Still, I have to admit to having been disappointed. I was really hoping that when he name dropped Luke we might hear him go through Luke. If his christus exemplar sermon was any indication that was where the iron was white hot and it seemed like he could have struck the iron really hard. It could have been amazing. Oh well ... maybe he'll feel up to tackling Luke later. Meanwhile, a guy can wait. If he's nervous about not doing justice to the text a person could only suggest that being motivated by fear (not like I'm one to talk, really) isn't helpful. Sometimes making a hash of a book isn't as bad as not tackling the biblical book and seeing where God leads you. Besides, it seems we're on a recycling binge from the stuff I'm hearing and I thought Driscoll wouldn't recycle. That might be why the spark is something the reviewer missed. There's nothing new under the sun but some things feel newer than others. We never get tired of drinking water because without water we'd die but sometimes we need an advocate to remind us that drinking water is better than drinking soda or beer or wine not because those things are bad but because it all comes down to water in the end.

There is a sense in which, at his best, Driscoll is simply not an innovator but someone who can consilidate and translate more important works for laymen. People who aren't aware of how deep and rich Christian intellectual traditions are and, frankly, aren't all that bright, may get the impression that Dricoll is a theological heavyweight. He gets the heavyweights but is not himself a heavyweight. He's not a Piper, and he's certainly not an N. T. Wright or John Stott or Bonhoeffer. But he can translate the insights of these sturdier theologians into terms that make them more accessible to people who would never dream of picking up those authors and reading them. Whether or not he's read any C. S. Lewis by now I can't even guess at but I know that years ago he once confessed to having never finished a Lewis book and finding the author boring. Since Lewis as both a theologian and a communicator is more up Driscoll's ally than some of the theologians he's plugged for I think that EVENTUALLY it would be good if he read some Lewis.




In saying that Driscoll translates the works of better theologians for laity I'm not putting him down. I think he knows where he is in the theological hierarchy and I think he endeavors to encourage people to move beyond his pop books to sturdier stuff. I think it's unfair to dismiss him as an intellectual lightweight because he can read and clearly understand very difficult stuff. I also don't think he should be overpraised for being able to read the heavy stuff, either.



If Driscoll has played small it may be because while he gets all the key points about how to translate the Gospel he doesn't always bring it home in application. Sometimes I wonder if this is because he sees the way application of the Gospel becomes politicized and attempts to avoid that. That's a valid concern, but avoiding the culture warrior mentality can have the side effect of not going out on the limb Jesus would have us go walking on.



The review is an interesting read because the reviewer would have preferred Driscoll said something significant, something important. Vintage Jesus was co-written with Breshears, which is different from Driscoll's two earlier entries Radical Reformission and Confessions of a Reformission Rev.



Driscoll is an entertainer and to some degree attempting to field serious theological questions is not as easy for him to pull off in print as it would be in person or from the podium. And Driscoll's approach to humor may not always help him. A reader could be forgiven for sometimes wondering if what Driscoll contextualizes is really Jesus and Scripture alone or if he contextualizes himself. As John the Baptist put it, "He must become greater and greater and I must become less and less." It's hard to detect that in Driscoll's writing. It's not as though he intends to be as prominent as Jesus, that's OBVIOUSLY not the intent, but if there's a situation in which the medium and the message should not be conflated it's the Gospel and sometimes Driscoll presents us with a Jesus who is rhetorically refashioned in Driscoll's image or, more to the point, a Jesus whose image is polemically refashioned by Driscoll into what he DOES NOT see Jesus as being. There's a time and place to debunk misconceptions about Jesus but, again, there's virtually nothing Driscoll has done that hasn't been done by sturdier scholars whom Driscoll generally name-drops when appropriate.



Yet it can be easy to be dismissive of writing books regular people can understand just as it can be easy to dismiss the importance of books that are by any standard tough to read. There's a sense in which it might be safe to say that Driscoll writes books for baby Christians or Christians who have room to grow in their walk with the Lord in terms of grappling with the meaning of biblical texts. Once you get to a point where you know why the "seed of Chucky" dismissal of the ancient interpretation of Genesis 6 is just that, dismissive, then you begin to realize that Driscoll does have a penchant for passing off his own interpretation of the text as though it were the plain, unalterable meaning of the text. This is less a cause for concern now that he's dropped ideas he had years ago that lack biblical and exegetical warrant, like a somewhat cessationist view about the spiritual gifts, but that doesn't mean that a sometimes reductive approach to the text isn't still a risk for him.



There is an interesting paradox at work in Driscoll's interpretation of Song of Songs. He has said that all of Scripture can point to Christ yet he explicitly rejects interpreting Song of Songs as an allegory of Christ's love for the church even though Christians for millenia have taken this approach. I don't think the allegory can work without acknowledging the symbolic framework from which the allegory would be said to exist; but it also seems as though when Paul says that he speaks of Christ and the Church that it wouldn't be difficult for him to appropriate Song of Songs by way of allusion since God describes Himself as a husband to Israel in more passages than I could possibly rattle off from memory. Yet Driscoll has sternly rejected the idea of Song of Songs as an allegory about God's love ... while also affirming that all of Scripture, read properly, will be seen to point to Christ.



This introduces a paradox that perhaps Driscoll will be able to address soon, since I'm hearing he will be revisiting Song of Songs. If all of Scripture points to Christ yet Song of Songs isn't even possibly an allegory about Christ's love for the Church then how exactly does Song of Songs point to Christ? Has Driscoll set up an exception to his own measure of what Scripture will always point to? If Song of Songs isn't even POSSIBLY an allegory about Christ's love for the Church then is it "only" a book about sexual love? If so, why did it get canonized?

I imagine someone else might have this question, too, and suppose it will get addressed at some point. If not, well, it's not like I care so much that I feel obliged to ask in a setting where Driscoll would ever read the question. I suspect it would not particularly interest him, or perhaps it might and it is in the Lord's hands to see whether or not the question reaches him. The question is simply this--if Scripture is all about Jesus and points to Christ and you reject an allegorical interpretaion of Song of Songs how can Scripture be pointing to Christ if the groom/bride metaphor is used in Hosea and Ezekiel in Scripture yet can't be allowed to apply to the Song of Songs? Doesn't that potentially reduce a book of the Bible to being little more than sanctified porn? Given Driscoll's history of reductio ad absurdum I don't think this is a disrespectful way of posing the question since he's been known to take that approach with others and turnabout IS fair play. I honestly do think the question can actually be answered anyway.

It is this sort of paradox that may be partly why some of Driscoll's writing is great and some of it is just all right. I think he's a remarkably gifted speaker who has a lot of great qualities as a pastor but who sometimes could buckle down and be a bit more generous to perspectives he doesn't agree with. If he shoots down Song of Songs as an allegory of Christ's love for the church he can make the case on historical and textual grounds but the trouble in this particular case is that by gunning down that perspective he has to explain why he's gunning down an interpretation of Song of Songs that sees Christ in the book, albeit allegorically. Is this the one paradoxical case in which Driscoll would have to insist for the consistency of his own interpretation of Scripture that Song of Songs is actually NOT primarily about Jesus? If it is about Christ in some way, how?

Wouldn't that paradoxically compell Driscoll to acknowledge that given the use of the groom/bride metaphor elsewhere in Scripture that perhaps Ezekiel and Hosea knew of that through the Solomonic writings and that perhaps that gave their parables more bite? I seriously doubt Driscoll would rely on the tradition which claims that SOng of Songs was appropriated from Egyptian love poetry because he'd prefer not to say a book of the Bible was indebted to a pagan literary tradition, let alone make a serious case that it was merely attributed to Solomon and wasn't written by him.

Not that Song of Songs as a narative about marriage, sex, and romance isn't interesting, just that since I hear Driscoll is revisiting this book I can't help but wonder if there are themes and concepts he wants to revisit because he felt he handled them poorly the first time around. Rethinking his rejection of Song of Songs as an allegory about CHrist and not just about marriage and sex is the only thing I can think of. I mean, it's not as though this year is some kind of homiletic sweeps week and there's any need to revisit his "greatest hits" is there? Scratch that, consider it a rhetorical question.

1 comment:

CHARLAX said...

one man is not an island
he can make a poem good one
he can make a poem bad one
he can be on fire one day
and cold as ice the next
thats a man
an android on the other hand
is always sublime
a robot is just stooopid
all the time