Tuesday, 28 September 2021

Jesus, Providence, and Ideological Colonization

I thought I’d do some reading today; this is what I’ve just read:

When its content is not specifically defined in relationship to the incarnation of the Jewish human being Jesus of Nazareth, the doctrine of providence becomes vulnerable to ideological colonization. Reflection on providence, therefore, must proceed in light of the fact that there is only ever one divine Subject of the doctrine: the particular God revealed in the covenant with Israel and the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Providence is not primarily about abstract concepts like omnipotence, sovereignty, or causality, but about how the God who brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt, became a Jewish human being, and was crucified and resurrected continues to be in an active relationship to creation. Contemporary reflection on the doctrine of providence begins by affirming that God never acts otherwise than God has acted in Israel and Jesus. Theological accounts of providence must fix their vision on the concrete particularity of Jesus Christ.

Matt R. Jantzen, God, Race, and History: Liberating Providence (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2021), pp. 145–146

I agree with everything in this quotation one hundred per cent!

Matt Jantzen’s book is very good. I’ve almost finished it and am due to review it for International Journal of Systematic Theology. Jantzen explores how racialization shapes the doctrine of providence and how the latter informs the former. He looks at G.W.F. Hegel, Karl Barth, and James Cone to do so. The book is on the expensive side – praise the Lord for review copies! – but is definitely worth reading if you can track down a copy. Hopefully a paperback will be out sooner rather than later.

Monday, 27 September 2021

On Reading Every Single Word


Confession is good for the soul, but it’s possibly not so good for advancing an academic career, even an academic career-lite such as mine.

I’ve advised on study skills for a while now. Sometimes I do so as part of a specially designed study skills course, but more often than not I aim to instruct via essay feedback. The wisdom I impart makes sense to me (naturally) but does appear genuinely to help students in my charge, though those accustomed to a referencing system such as APA often find the perceived eccentricities of the Chicago/Turabian style near-unfathomable (the least said about the MHRA style the better). My proofreading experience shapes how I dispense my guidance: I don’t have automatic knowledge or retention of each and every point of detail within each and every academic style guide, but I do have more than a basic idea of what the main ones require and how the guides should be deployed in a student essay or dissertation. In short, I’m well placed to advise on study skills, and I do it reasonably well and, on good days, competently.

But what do I advise? Nothing more than the standards of the day, really. I tell access-level students and undergraduates to keep their introductions and conclusions simple: open by saying what you’re going to argue and how you’re going to argue it, and close by summarising what you’ve argued and how you argued it, perhaps ending with a sentence pointing to how the subject under discussion impacts or includes other topics and themes. It’s important, I say, to ensure the argument is focused on what the essay title requires as well as having a natural flow in both content and structure. Students need to engage with secondary literature and – certainly from level 5 upwards – wrestle with the primary texts of the people or ideas under discussion. And because time is short and texts often aren’t, I suggest various kinds of targeted reading: know the sort of information you need for your essay and locate it as quickly but as accurately as you can; take note of abstracts; read the introduction and conclusion to each chapter; practise a mixture of skim-reading and focused reading; and so on. These are the sorts of things I advise.

But although these are the sorts of things I advise, these are not the sorts of things I practise myself – at least, they’re not the sorts of things I practise when it comes to my own reading of texts. I just cannot bring myself to adopt targeted reading. Actually, that’s not strictly true. It’s not that I can’t bring myself to adopt targeted reading; it’s that I can’t live with the guilt generated by my adopting targeted reading. When I did my doctoral studies in the noughties, I believed, rightly or wrongly, that if I hurried through a few paragraphs here or skipped a chapter or two there, my internal and external examiners in the viva would lean forwards, fix their eyes on mine, and say something like:

Terry, in chapter three, you claim that Calvin says x in the Institutes, and that’s true. But later in the Institutes, Calvin also says y, which would back up what you say – though arguably this contradicts what Calvin said in his Commentary on Romans, and you haven’t looked at what Muller and Helm say about this, or even Zachman, and frankly it is quite clear to me, to us, to the world, that you haven’t read every single thing that has ever been written about this particular topic and thus have proven yourself to be [clears throat] a Very Bad Person Indeed!

This anxiety remains embedded in me to this day. It makes me a slow reader. It means the piles of books scattered – well, not scattered, for scattered books are a sin – the piles of books lovingly erected (no sniggering, please) around my flat seldom reduce in height. And it means – and this is the killer blow, surely – I fail even to get past the foreword, let alone the first chapter. My eyes are larger than my literary stomach, though no doubt everything here is compounded by my proofreading job, which has habituated me to read every. single. word. slowly.

And so I have two sets of questions to ask my fellow academics, especially the ‘proper’ ones who teach actual (or, these days, virtual) classes in universities:

How do you read? Do you read every single word? Do you skim-read some sections and focus on others? Do you read chapter introductions and conclusions carefully but ignore the rest, only taking notice of subsection headings or similar? Et cetera, et cetera.

And if you don’t read every single word, do you ever feel guilty about this? Are you worried that someone else will come along and say, ‘Well, you didn’t read my book properly, or you didn’t read all of my book, because I make that very point in Chapter 9, note 443’? (I admit I tend to adopt this stance when I encounter dismissive reviews of my published work – O, hypocrisy, thou art my lover!) And if you’re not worried about these kinds of comments, how would you, or how do you, explain your reading methods and approaches to others?

I’m genuinely interested to know if I am the only person who worries about this sort of thing. But while I’m waiting for answers, I’d better finish reading every single word from one of the (many) books I’ve yet to review.

Friday, 24 September 2021

Doubt, by Andrea Russell (Grove Doctrine D7)

Andrea Russell, Doubt: Exploring Richard Hooker, Assurance and Salvation. Grove Doctrine D7 (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2021)

As I’m on the editorial group for Grove Doctrine, I plan to promote (but not review) each of the books released in the series as and when they’re published.

Is doubt a sign of weak faith, perhaps even of no faith? While what we believe is important, there will undoubtedly (!) be times when we question some or all of the central tenets of Christian belief and our faith appears a sham. In this Grove Book, Andrea Russell looks at how issues of doubt and certainty manifested during the sixteenth century and how clergy during this time sought to alleviate the anxiety these issues produced for many in their congregations. Russell explores Richard Hooker’s sermon, A Learned and Comfortable Sermon of the Certaintie and Perpetuitie of Faith in the Elect, noting that while ‘assurance and peace are available as Christians, . . . certainty is not’ (p. 13). Towards the end of Doubt, Russell writes,

The aim of learning [theology and doctrine, for Hooker,] is not to arrive at certainty; our experience of God is not one that will lead to certainty. Our knowledge . . . is to lead us further into glimpsing who God is, this God who saves us. Those glimpses will sometimes be like blinding lights but at times they may well lead us to doubt and darkness. Both paths can lead us deeper into God, revealing to us more of God’s goodness and more of the God who takes hold of us in salvation. Belief and doubt can lead us into an honest faith that allows us to believe in God with integrity. (p. 22)

Russell’s book concludes with an appendix on how to read Hooker.

Doubt is available for £3.95 from the Grove Books website (in both print and electronic formats), as well as through Christian bookshops.